The Power of Words

It’s easy to take words for granted. After all, words are just words, right?

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language puts a whole other spin on it. You can’t understand what people are saying, and they can’t always understand you. Sure, I’ve been picking up bits of Tetun, the most widely spoken language in Timor-Leste, as I go. I took lessons. I’ve been trying.

But Tetun is not a standardised language. There are many, many dialects. Due to the colonisation and invasion, many Timorese people also speak Bahasa and/or Portuguese. Words that are understood consistently can sometimes be hard to come by here. The power of communication becomes more distinct.

A portion of my PhD research is the use of Behaviour Change Communication in sanitation development programs; with one program in particular that places an emphasis on the use of language. More specifically, this approach – known as Community-Led Total Sanitation – requires the use of the crude, local terminology for faeces. Shit. Poo. Whatever it is that invokes a reaction.

Words are powerful. More powerful than we realise.

Today, I logged on to Facebook to see a status relating to lunch (because, as we all know, the rules of social media dictate that you must discuss or post a photo of at least one meal per day…). This status, however, used rape as an analogy for eating.

Accompanying the apparently requisite photo of the meal was this: “I’m so hungry I’m going to rape this bowl of pasta”.

This person is certainly not alone in their use of the word “rape” to describe something. It’s used to get psyched up about something, like eating lunch, or to describe a rough day at work. And every time I hear or read it used in these ways, I’m stunned.

I’m stunned because of the casual manner in which the word is tossed about these days.

I’m stunned because using the word “rape” seems to have crept in to our casual lexicon to describe trivial matters.

I’m stunned because, regardless of intention, the use of the word “rape” in such a casual way lessens its impact. It takes away the seriousness and diminishes the true meaning.

I’m stunned because, intentionally or not, it reinforces the notion that sexual assault is not a serious crime. A crime that inflicts untold trauma on victims.

I’m stunned because sexual assault remains one of the world’s most underreported crimes. It impacts an incredibly large portion of the world’s population, mostly women.

The Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey, conducted in 2002/3, found that 57% of women had experienced at least one incident of sexual violence over their lifetime. Just 1 in 7 women who experienced violence from an intimate partner and 1 in 6 who experienced it from someone else reported it to the police (source:

The most common reason for not reporting the incident was because the women felt the incident was too minor. Other reasons were shame and embarrassment.

Too minor. Shame. Embarrassment.

How do we, as a global society, begin to change attitudes when we can casually throw around the word rape to describe things that aren’t even remotely synonymous with interpersonal violence?

How do we even begin to address the seriousness and severity of sexual assault, when attitudes such as those encountered by my friends Annie and Andrea are so pervasive?

How do we begin to change the taboos and discourse around rape when we can casually use the word “rape” in such a blithe manner? Using it in such a way sends a message – a message that rape is somehow inconsequential, even acceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to monitor language usage, or censor personal expression. I will, however, maintain the right judge how others use language, and to call them out on it.

And to use a word, that used correctly describes something so traumatic, so brutal and so potentially destroying, in any other context is worthy of judgement and reproach.

Words aren’t just words.

They have meaning. They have impacts. They have power.


One thought on “The Power of Words

  1. Pingback: “A global health problem of epidemic proportions” – where is the coverage and outrage? | It's the people and places.

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