Words matter when dealing with violence

You wouldn't call a bank heist a "financial transaction." Words matter. And the words used to describe violent crimes like rape can have a profound impact on victims, says one B.

You wouldn’t call a bank heist a “financial transaction.”

Words matter. And the words used to describe violent crimes like rape can have a profound impact on victims, says one B.C. researcher.

For decades, Dr. Allan Wade and his colleagues at B.C.‘s Centre for Response-Based Practice have been studying society’s response to violence and how that response can impact people involved in the justice system.

“We’re not just talking about being accurate to kind of make someone feel a bit better,” he said.

“We know that inaccurate representations that deny the victim’s experience or absolve the offender of responsibility or fundamentally distort the crime are associated with higher levels of victim distress.”

It’s important that people involved with victims of violence, include those in the justice system, understand the power that they have, he said.

Wade will be in Whitehorse on March 19 and 20 to put on two free half-day seminars. They’re targeted at lawyers and judges but will be open to the public.

When it comes to rape, the crime of sexual assault, or sexualized crimes against a child, sex has nothing to do with it, Wade said.

But courts often use phrases like “domestic dispute” or “sexual intercourse” and transform a crime from a unilateral action – one person attacking another – to a mutual action, he said.

Wade remembers reading one case in B.C. where a judge was talking about “sexual intercourse” or “anal intercourse” with a two-year-old.

He calls that “so obviously distorted it’s really quite astonishing.”

In another case, a woman was reporting being sexually assaulted and the justice of the peace asked “is that the first time you had sex,” Wade said.

“She’s clearly reporting being raped and it’s being interpreted by the JP as sex, which is very problematic coming from a powerful member of the state.”

When friends, family or the justice system take a violent act and use words to make both sides appear mutually responsible, it can have a profound affect on the victim, he said.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are as connected to the original violent act as they are to the way society responds to it, he said.

“It’s horrible to be beaten up by your partner, violence is traumatic, and then you phone up your parents and you say, ‘My partner beat me up,’ and they say, ‘Honey, you made your bed you got to lie in it.’ For many people, that kind of abandonment, so to speak, is as grievous and as painful as the original injury itself,” he said.

One of Wade’s colleagues compared the language used in various assault cases by defense and the language used by Crown.

When it comes to defense lawyers “you would expect, for example in a sexual assault case, to try and present the events as mutual, to try and present their client in the best light,” he said.

“That’s not misrepresentation, that’s good legal representation. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

As for the Crown, “they shouldn’t be talking about kissing, they should be talking about forced oral contact, they shouldn’t be talking about sex, they should be talking about forced vaginal penetration, for example.”

What the researchers found was that “in a lot of respects the prosecution uses mutualizing language that benefits the case for the defense,” Wade said.

Some of that may come down to the language that is built right into the Canadian Criminal Code.

For example, one crime against children is called invitation to sexual touching.

“It’s not an invitation, it’s violence and exploitation. And it’s not sexual touching at all, because children cannot consent to sex. Therefore it cannot be sexual and it’s not touching, it’s groping and grabbing.”

“You begin to see that the minimizing of the violence, the mutualizing of the violence is built right into the criminal code.”

Wade doesn’t believe people are deliberately misrepresenting these events to harm victims and protect perpetrators.

“The vast majority of people who get into this field of work really want to make a difference in the world, but I think the quality of training that professionals receive is dismal at best.”

New RCMP officers get less than a day’s training on domestic violence at the training depot, he said.

“Lawyers, they don’t get training of how to interview traumatized people. They get training on how to interview accused, but they don’t get training on how to interview traumatized people.”

There are signs that this is changing. Wade and a colleague will be teaching a course at the University of Ottawa law school. He said he’s also increasingly being asked to speak with lawyers.

It can sometimes take people a while to wrap their heads around the idea that the term “sexual intercourse” is not a neutral description. “They don’t see that that’s a characterizing of the event,” he said.

“If you say to them well no, what you’re talking about is vaginal penetration, whether or not it’s sexual or whether or not it’s violent is up to the court to decide,” he said.

“A good physical description is as objective and as neutral as you can get.

If you’re already characterizing an assault as sex, that’s not neutral, that’s already interpreting it in a very particular kind of way.”

Wade is being brought north by the Yukon Women’s Coalition through the Community Development Fund.

“Everyone benefits when the dignity of victims of interpersonal violence is preserved,” said coordinator Collyn Lovelace. “When we don’t work to preserve a victim’s dignity, the deliberateness of violence is lost and contempt for the victim forms.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at