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OPINION: sexual assault rather than rape – is wording sanitising the offence?

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Following a sexual assault in Stroud, writer and runner Nikki Owen delivers her personal opinion on recent events.

I run pretty much every day in Stroud, along the paths and roads, along the canal. But on Sunday, out running, a wave of emotion hit me from nowhere: deep sadness, upset, anger and fear, and for a second, I just couldn’t move. 

Because, during the week, there’d been a serious sexual assault on a woman nearby Sainbury’s on Dudbridge Road. During the day. Not at night, not walking back late, but in the daytime, while we were all getting on with what we do. And it wasn’t the first attack. In May in Stroud, there was another serious assault, with more assaults reported before and after, men grabbing women, men following school girls, and one woman raped in the centre of Stroud a few months back. 

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Nikki Owen

The more I read about it, the worse it seemed to get. Over in Cheltenham and Gloucester, more assaults by men on women and girls. Girls. I had to stop reading – it was just too much. And that’s why there, on my run that day, it all hit me in one go. I looked around and saw men running and walking, and I thought, they just get up and go. They just go for a run or walk, and that’s pretty much that, no fear, no worries. When I run in the morning, men stare at me from their cars. They probably think it’s nothing, but to me, to women, that stare feels like a threat. I have to be on guard. Are they going to follow me (that’s happened to me before), am I safe? That’s what goes through a woman’s head. And she’s just on a run. If I smile at a man when I run or walk, will it be seen as a come-on? Will they follow me? But if I don’t smile, I’m told to ‘cheer up, love, it might not happen.’ And that’s all before I even think about what I’m wearing. 

That’s why it hit me on Sunday. That’s why I felt so deeply sad and angry. For the woman assaulted, for all my fellow women (and girls) who men have hurt. And what are we told to do when these things happen? Stay indoors, watch where we walk, be on alert. Police aren’t telling men to stop assaulting women. Instead, the responsibility is all on women, on our actions, our movements. It’s a curtailment of our rights and part of a broader global tightening of women’s freedom. 

The more I looked into this, the worse it became. Take language. On everything about sexual assaults, the media and police use the passive tense. So, instead of the active sentence: ‘Man assaults woman’, it’s a passive description: ‘Woman assaulted’. The agent of the act, ie the man, is taken out of the headline. And we are so used to seeing this, aren’t we? So much so that we don’t even question it. While a passive sentence focuses on the act, it eliminates the perpetrator and instead highlights the woman. And then there are the words used. Sexual assault rather than rape. The police press office advises against using the word rape in case it prejudices any future court case.

Yet sexual assault is different from rape, a different crime, so are we sanitising the offence by not mentioning the word rape, or are we instead protecting both the victim and any future court outcome? 

The truth is, I don’t know the answer. And we need answers. What I do know is that this has affected me hugely. One of the things I get to do as a writer is process events, and that’s why I wrote this piece. I want to unpack the complexities with you and work out what needs to be changed. What can we do? What’s next, because, one thing’s for sure, this can’t go on.

Nikki Owen

A meeting will take place next week in connection with a sexual assault in Stroud. 

Rodborough Parish Council has arranged a public meeting with a police inspector and sergeant to provide an update and any available information following the incident in Dudbridge.

All members of the public are welcome to attend the meeting on Wednesday, August 3 at 6.30pm for a 6.45pm start.

It will be held at the Rodborough Community Hall, Butterrow West GL5 3TZ.

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