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Jennifer Lawrence attends the Christian Dior show as part of Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France. (Dominique Charriau--WireImage)
Dominique Charriau—WireImage

Words are important, and lots of harsh ones have been thrown around after hackers stole nude and semi-nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence from various personal accounts and published them online. Specifically, some commenters are saying that anyone who views the stolen pictures is guilty of sexual assault.

What happened to Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and others is horrible. It’s also a crime and should be prosecuted as such. But some outraged online commentators are calling the photo-hacking incident a sexual assault, and that’s a bandwagon I just can’t get on.

While the theft and humiliating distribution of these photos is an enormous violation of personal privacy and sexual autonomy, it is not the same thing as a physical sexual assault. It is is not the same as being raped, or forced to perform oral sex, or molested as a child, or beaten. It’s not a question of “more or less awful,” because both scenarios are horrific examples of how women are treated in our society. But they’re different, and it’s especially important to be precise when we’re talking about violence.

“It’s a bad act, but I don’t know that it would meet a legal definition of sexual assault,” said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN.) Is it possible for a sexual assault to be completely non-physical? “Sexual assault is a very general and vague term to begin with, each state defines it a little differently, it’s sort of a catch-all category that can include harassment and verbal abuse.” he said. “The idea is that it’s usually based on some physical interaction.”

When fighting to end sexual assault on college campuses, we like to say “rape is rape”-– this means that rape is not “nonconsensual sex,” it’s not a “misunderstanding,” it’s rape. If we insist on linguistic clarity when defining rape, then we should do the same for sexual assault. Cat-calling isn’t sexual assault. Viewing leaked photos online isn’t sexual assault. Even the horrific sexist comments made by online trolls don’t count as sexual assaults. Only sexual assault, which the Department of Justice describes as “forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape,” is sexual assault.

What happened to Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, Kate Upton, and Aubrey Plaza was an enormous transgression, one that should be taken seriously as a criminal offense. And incidents like these remind us that we’re still experiencing a widespread degradation of women, and that helps enable sexual violence. But we should call things by their correct names, and this incident is most similar to revenge porn, which is when someone (often a former partner) distributes explicit photos without the subject’s consent. Revenge porn is now a felony in Arizona and against the law in nine other states, and 27 states currently have legislation in process.

When we are angry about something, especially something that happens to women, we tend to elevate it to the level of an atrocity. This is partly because of a widespread callousness towards issues affecting women– it’s hard to get people to pay attention to anything that isn’t a horrific rape. But when we dilute the specific meanings of our words, we leave them up to interpretation, and that is very dangerous for a movement working to fight the dangerous “he-said-she-said” narrative of sexual attacks. When we expand the definition of sexual assault to include every nasty thing that could happen to woman, we risk making the term meaningless. If everything is sexual assault, then nothing really is.

Instead of painting the photo-hacking incident as sexual assault, let’s use it to have a real discussion about how we can stop this from happening again. And let’s start by getting that revenge porn legislation through in those 27 states.


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