Tag Archives: metaphors

The Language of Sexual Violence

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Women’s March leaders address a rally against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in front of the court building on September 24.
 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The language we use to describe something can provide insights into how we think about it. For example, we all reserve words for close family members (“Mama” or “Papa”) that have special meaning and these words are often constrained by culture. And as elements of culture, there are times when the linguistic conventions can tell us something very deep about how our society think about events.

Current Events

This week (late September 2018) has been a traumatic and dramatic one. A Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh was accused of an attempted rape 35 years ago. Both he and the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford were interviewed at a Senate hearing. And much has been written and observed about they ways they spoke and communicated during this hearing. At the same time, many women took to social media to describe their own experiences with sexual violence. I have neither academic expertise nor personal experience with sexual violence. But like many, I’ve followed these events with shock and with heartbreak.

Survivors

I’ve noticed something this week about how women who have been victims of sexual violence talk about themselves and the persons who carried out the assault. First of all, many women identify as survivors and not victims. A victim is someone who had something happen to them. A survivor is someone who has been able to overcome (or is working to overcome) those bad things. I don’t know if this is a conscious decision or not, though it could be. It is an effective way for a woman who had been a victim to show that they are a survivor. I think that many women use this term intentionally to show that they have survived something.

Part of The Self

But there is another linguistic construction that is even more interesting. I’ve noticed, especially in the news and on social media, that women say or write  my rapist” or “my abuser”,  or “my assailant”.  I don’t believe this is intentional or affected. I think this is part of the language because it’s part of how the person thinks about the event. Or maybe part of how society thinks about the event. The language suggests that women have internalized the identity of the perpetrator and that the event and the abuser has also become part of who they are as women.  It’s deep and consequential in ways that few other events are.

Of course a sexual assault would be expected to be traumatic and even life changing, but I’m struck by how this is expressed in the idioms and linguistic conventions women use to describe the event. Their language suggests some personal ownership. It’s more than a memory for an event or an episode. It’s a memory for person, a traumatic personal event, and also knowledge of the self. Autonoetic memory is deeply ingrained. It is “Indelible in the hippocampus

All of us talk this way sometimes, of course. If you say “this cat” it’s different from saying “my cat”. The former is an abstraction or general conceptual knowledge. The latter is your pet. It’s part of your identity. “My mother”, “my car”, “my smartphone” are more personal but still somewhat general. But “my heart”,  my child ‘, “my body” , and “my breath” are deeply personal and these things are just part of who we are.

Women don’t use this construction when talking about non sexual violence. They might say “the person who cut me off” or “the guy who robbed me” . Similarly, men who have been assaulted don’t use this language . They say “the man who assaulted me. “ or “the guy who punched me”, or even “the priest who abused me” . And men do not use this language to refer to people that have assaulted (e.g. “my victim“). You might occasional hear or read men refer to “my enemy or “my rival” which, I think, has the same deeper, more profound meaning as the terms used by women for sexual violence but not as traumatic. So by and large this seems to be something that women say about sexual violence specifically.

Deep and Personal Memory

So when a woman, says “my rapist“ it suggests a deep and personal knowledge.  Knowledge that has and will stay with them, affect their lives, and affect how they think about the event and themselves. Eyewitness memory is unreliable. Memory for facts and events—even personal ones—are malleable. But you don’t forget who someone is. You don’t forget the sound of your sibling’s voice. You don’t forget sight of your children. You don’t forget your address. You don’t forget your enemy…and you would not forget your abuser or your rapist.

The fluidity of thought

Knowing something about the basic functional architecture of the brain is helpful in understanding the organization of the mind and in understanding how we think and behave. But when we talk about the brain, it’s nearly impossible to do so without using conceptual metaphors (when we talk about most things, it’s impossible to do so without metaphors). 

Conceptual metaphor theory is a broad theory of language and thinking from the extraordinary linguist George Lakoff. One of the basic ideas is that we think about things and organize the world into concepts in ways that correspond to how we talk about them. It’s not just that language directs thought (that’s Whorf’s idea), but that these two things are linked and our language also provides a window into how we think about things. 

Probably the most common metaphor for the brain is the “brain is a computer” metaphor, but there are other, older ideas.

The hydraulic brain

One interesting metaphor for brain and mind is the hydraulic metaphor. This probably goes back at least to Descartes (and probably earlier), who advocated a model of neural function whereby basic functions were governed by a series of tubes carrying “spirits” or vital fluids. In Descartes model, higher order thinking was handled by a separate mind that was not quite in the body. You might laugh at the ideas of brain tubes, but this idea seems quite reasonable as a theory from an era when bodily fluids were the most obvious indicators of health, sickness, and simply being alive: blood, discharge, urine, pus, bile, and other fluids are all indicators of things either working well or not working well. And when they stop, you stop. In Descartes time, these were the primary ways to understand the human body. So in the absence of other information about how thoughts and cognition occur it makes sense that early philosophers and physiologists would make an initial guess that thoughts in the brain are also a function of fluids.

Metaphors for thinking

This idea, no longer endorsed, lives on in our language in the conceptual metaphors we use to talk about the brain and mind. We often talk about cognition and thinking as information “flowing” as in the same way that fluid might flow. We have common expressions in English like the “stream of consciousness” or “waves of anxiety”, “deep thinking”, “shallow thinking”, ideas that “come to the surface”, and memories that come “flooding back” when you encounter an old friend. These all have their roots (“roots” is another conceptual metaphor of a different kind!) in the older idea that thinking and brain function are controlled by the flow of fluids through the tubes in the brain.

In the modern era, it sis still common to discuss neural activation as a “flow of information”. We might say that information “flows downstream”, or that there is a “cascade” of neural activity. Of course we don’t really mean that neural activation and cognition are flowing like water, but like so many metaphors it’s just impossible to describe things without using these expressions and in doing so, activating the common, conceptual metaphor that thinking is a fluid process.

There are other metaphors as well (like the electricity metaphor, behaviours being “hard wired”, getting “wires crossed”, an idea that “lights up”) but I think the hydraulic metaphor is my favourite because it captures the idea that cognition is fluid. We can dip our toes in the stream or hold back floods. And as you can seen from earlier posts, I have something of a soft spot for river metaphors.