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This Is Where The Law Messes Up When Talking About Sexual Violence

There's no one-size-fits-all term for a person who's encountered trauma.

“Something bad happened to me.”

That’s the way Eric Stiles was able to wrap his mind around it all in the beginning — it was “something bad," an amorphous problem that didn’t have a name.

When he was a child, his older brother molested him. Years later, when he was 16 and the police officers came to investigate, the words he heard for the charges against his brother were “deviant sexual behavior." This came from an unsympathetic police officer, who told him not to "ruin his brother's life," and even threatened to charge Stiles the same way.

Those words were stuck in Stiles' head for a long time — long after the investigation yielded no results, after his brother was not charged, and long after he left home to pursue a career in the military.

The three words let him continue to blame himself for what happened to him, he said. They made it seem like he was part of the crime, rather than the victim. And, paired with the societal stigma surrounding male rape victims/survivors, they caused him even more grief.

“Back then, rape was something that happened to women, not to men — and still, in a lot of places, it’s [seen] like that,” Stiles said. “After I tried getting some help and seeking some support later in life, and I was told it was ‘child molestation,’ it didn’t make sense.”

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Because in those years, with all the words thrown around by the police and all the emotional turmoil, he said there were just two truths he desperately needed to hear and have confirmed: “It was a crime. And it wasn’t my fault.” But no one ever told him that.

What's the word?

Now, years later, Stiles works as the Rural Projects Specialist at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). While he said there have been improvements in some areas --- such as in the way victims/survivors are treated and the legal definitions of these crimes --- the problems still persist.

“It’s the connotations that go along with those terms that can become very problematic for individuals,” Stiles said.

That's why it's important to pay attention to the language you're using, Laura Palumbo, the Prevention Campaign Specialist at NSVRC told MTV News in a recent interview.

Starting with the way we refer to people who have experienced sexual violence, there's a certain amount of care that needs to be taken:

"We have individuals who may not be ready to identify with the experience yet," Palumbo said, because they may still be working on re-framing or starting to understand what they went through. "We find that it’s going to be a different perspective from every victim and survivor. [When referring to them,] we’ll use 'victim' or 'survivor,' or use the terms together."

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Not every individual identifies their experience in the same way, and it's important to keep that idea straight: There's no one-size-fits-all term for a person who's encountered trauma.

And, for many of those individuals, the legal terms — meant to describe that trauma in a way the courts can make sense of — also fail.

"I would have to say that the names don’t fit, and it bothers them," Stiles said. "Even though this is what the law statute says, we know it’s a crime of sexual violence and it's not [clear in the language.] That is kind of the easiest way for the criminal justice system to be sorting the crime and experience into these categories, and these terms are oftentimes very ambiguous. I think [it's] one of the harder parts of legal terminology; it varies in every state."

What The Laws (Don't) Say

In "Missoula," Jon Krakauer's latest book chronicling sexual assaults in a college football town, Krakauer gives several examples of times where "sexual intercourse without consent" is "the legal term for rape in Montana."

Stiles said that he's sure the state's lawmakers were trying to create these terms with the best of intentions, but the failures of the legal language show a need for education on the subject and collaboration with victim/survivor's advocates.

"They may have been trying to describe [the crimes]," Stiles said. "But, they’re a little bit removed."

He said that while it's clear they tried to bring in the idea of consent, and demonstrate that a sexual act without consent is a crime, there's still something unsettlingly sanitized and innocuous about the use of the word "intercourse."

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There are a lot of problems with using the word 'intercourse,' Palumbo said. First: It's also not inclusive enough to encompass the kinds of violation that do not necessarily involve intercourse. And, it's misleading: it conjures the images of sex — something consensual, probably between heterosexuals —  which takes a lot of the emotion and diversity out of the crime.

“They are all patchwork terms made in the legal system that are shifting and evolving into a different way of talking about sexual violence," he said.

That evolution, as Claire Gordon at Al Jazeera America reported in 2014, is a kind of "rebranding."

Brett Sokolow, the CEO of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a consulting and law firm, told Al Jazeera that he originated the terms "nonconsensual sexual intercourse" and "nonconsensual sexual contact" as a way of bypassing many universities' inability to believe that their students could be guilty of rape.

"It was a word that meant rape but without rape’s stigma," Gordon wrote. It was a nicer way of getting officials to talk about an ugly truth.

Sokolow later told Al Jazeera that “In an ideal world, we should call [rape] what it is.” Sokolow explained, “To water down the language a little bit, to get more hearing panels to hold these guys accountable, I think it’s worth the trade-off.”

In 2006, a judge in Nebraska ruled that the words "rape," "sexual assault," "victim," "assailant," and "sexual assault kit" couldn't be used in the trial of Pamir Safi, who was accused of raping Tory Bowen in October of 2004, according to Slate.

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Instead, Bowen was required to describe her assault using the word "sex." And, to many advocates, that kind of "water[ing] down" is extremely dangerous.

But, what does it mean when the word "rape" is seen as a word too horrible to apply to even the most horrible of crimes?

Palumbo says it fails everyone.

"When the language isn’t clear and representative, it discounts the experience for an individual and it kind of confirms something for people who are desensitized to the needs of victims and survivors of sexual violence," Palumbo said.

She adds that it helps create conditions in our society that allow for 1 in 5 women and 1 in 17 men to be the victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes, where victims do not report their assaults for fear of being blamed by the public or doubted by the police.

"When our terminology fails to convey the gravity of sexual violence and its impact on an individual's life," Palumbo said, "it really re-enforces all those misconceptions and all of these myths around what sexual assault looks like and what it means to be a person who causes sexual harm."