Forgive me if I get a little serious for a moment, Dear Reader.
I wish more people read this blog. I especially wish more journalists read this blog. I want everybody, but especially journalists, to quit using the term sexual assault.
Any willful attempt or threat to inflict injury upon the person of another, when coupled with an apparent present ability so to do, and any intentional display of force such as would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm . . . .
Black’s Law Dictionary, 5th ed. (West Pub. Co., St. Paul, Minn., 1979).
Note that assault does not require actual contact. Battery, on the other hand, does. It has been called “the consummation of an unlawful assault.” In legal terms, it covers any intentional or negligent, unwanted touching that causes injury or offense. That might be anything from a tap on the shoulder to a severe beating, although the damages or penalty might differ considerably from one case to another.
Black’s doesn’t define sexual assault (at least, the fifth edition, which is all I have, doesn’t). Merriam-Webster’s On-line Dictionary gives the following definition of sexual assault:
illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent (as because of age or physical or mental incapacity) or who places the assailant (such as a doctor) in a position of trust or authority
From a legal standpoint, this definition seems to be wrong, in that assault per se does not require contact. This seems to me to be the definition of sexual battery.
The definition of sexual is utterly vague in this context:
1: of, relating to, or associated with sex or the sexes • sexual differentiation • sexual conflict
“2: having or involving sex • sexual reproduction
I haven’t looked at any statutes for a definition of sexual assault, because I’m concerned with general usage, not with prosecution. If there is a crime called “sexual assault”, it has presumably been defined with more precision.
At any rate, I say all this because I want people, and especially the press, to be more precise when they talk about what’s currently referred to as “sexual assault”. “Sexual battery”, while in many cases more correct, is equally vague. Either term at present would seem to cover anything from an unwelcome pat to a brutal rape.
Right now, the term “sexual assault” is frequently, but not exclusively, used as a euphemism for rape, and it almost always implies rape, or something approaching it, or at least a willingness, if not an intention, to commit it. It gives people who want such a thing a way of implying that a man is a rapist, without actually accusing him of rape (which would be actionable if not proved).
No matter how creepy a man (or the rare woman who is accused of “sexual assault”) may be, no matter how offensive his words or his pats or his gropes may be, nobody should accuse him of rape, even implicitly, unless he has committed a rape. We should not have a term that merely implies rape. If he has committed a rape, he should be accused and, upon proof, punished for it. If he has not committed a rape, he should not be accused of sexual assault. He should be accused of whatever he has done (according to the accuser), in clear and unambiguous terms, and he should suffer the just consequences of that act, but only of that act.