The Evolution of Sexual Violence Terms In the United States

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The Evolution of Sexual Violence Terms In the United States

Key Takeaways

  • In 2011, new federal laws expanded on the concept of consent by defining that sexual assault "includes instances in which the victim is unable to give consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity".
  • Tarana Burke has been designated as the person to coin the now ubiquitous phrase "Me Too" and thus creating foundations for the movement.
  • Amanda Nguyen is the founder of Rise, "an advocacy organization that provides global support for survivors of sexual violence".


Discussions about rape and sexual violence have shifted rapidly in the past several decades, with the introduction and increase in use of the phrases date rape, marital rape, and reproductive coercion, expanded conversations around sexual consent, as well as the redefinition of rape and sexual violence to extend to all genders and sexual orientations.
Thought leaders and influencers who have discussed the topics of sexual violence, rape, and sexual harassment include Tarana Burke, Alyssa Milano, Amanda Nguyen, Jackson Katz, Nicola Smith, Gabriel Union, and Moira Donegan. More details on how discussions that are related to sexual violence, rape, and sexual harassment have evolved and changed in the United States in the past several decades as well as details on these thought leaders can be found below.

Date & Acquaintance Rape

  • The phrase date rape was first introduced in the 1980s to address the myth that most rapes occurred from contact with strangers, and expand the definition of the term to include any non consensual sexual contact between parties.
  • Whereas prior to this, rape was largely considered to occur as a result of attacks by predatory strangers, date rape was used to identify how common rape also occurred when the victim and offender have a social or personal relationship.
  • The discussion around date rape, also referred to as "acquaintance rape", began to gain more widespread use as rape prevention advocates began to "promote awareness that all sexual activity requires explicit consent from both parties" and that rape doesn't have to involve physical force.
  • The use of the phrase date rape supported an expansion in how victims in the US were able to prosecute, by illuminating the idea that dating and ongoing relationships don't give one the "right to sexual contact", and that rape could occur with a partner.
  • The definition of sexual consent has had an ongoing evolution, with new sexual laws in 2011 designating that assault "includes instances in which the victim is unable to give consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity".

Marital Rape

  • Similarly, the identification of marital rape only began in the 1980s, as advocates began to identify sexual abuse within the family and US states began to outlaw rape within marriage.
  • Prior to the 1980s, rape was only identified as occurring outside of marriage, as previous laws had honored 'coverture', the idea that a husband had authority over his wife's person, which rendered the idea that a woman could withhold sex from their husbands obsolete.
  • However, even by the 1990s, while marital rape was identified, the majority of US states still differentiated between the way marital and non-marital rape were perceived and prosecuted.
  • By 2005, only 20 states had removed exemptions from rape prosecution granted to husbands.
  • In 2021, marital rape is technically illegal in all 50 US states, however there are still loopholes in some states, which categorize consent differently for married and unmarried victims, or decriminalize sex with an incapacitated partner when it occurs within a marriage.

Sexual Consent

  • As a whole, the conversation around what constitutes sexual consent has changed dramatically.
  • Specifically, federal law in 2011 redefined rape to include sexual contact that did not involve force, but where the victim was rendered incapable of conscious consent.
  • The previous law had been created in 1927, and thus was outdated, including only "forcible male penile penetration of a female vagina" whereas the new law stated rape as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
  • The change in legal definition expanded the conversation around what constituted consent, through the inclusion of drug-facilitated sexual assaults, sexual assaults of unconscious victims, and the assault of those otherwise mentally or physically incapacitated.
  • The new definition included "instances in which the victim is unable to give consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity" which could be extended to coercion, as well as being incapable of consent due to age, and negated the previous concept that physical resistance was required to show lack of consent.
  • It was updated alongside a related conversation around 'date rape drugs', and how ability to give sexual consent was considered in relationship to substances.
  • In recent years, this conversation has extended even further, to include concepts like enthusiastic consent, "a newer model for understanding consent that focuses on a positive expression of consent", that encourages "looking for the presence of a 'yes' rather than the absence of a 'no' before sexual contact".
  • The concept of the "abuse of power" also gained discussion as an aspect of sexual consent during the #Metoo movement.

Sexual Violence & Gender

  • In the past several decades, the conversation around sexual violence and rape has also been expanded to include victims of both genders.
  • This conversation also was supported by the change in definition of rape in 2011, which had previously only considered rape to occur to women within a heterosexual dynamic, but now could include sexual violence against victims of all genders, and occurring beyond vaginal penetration.
  • Sexual violence against males, transgender individuals, and within the LBGTQ community as a whole has become a more widespread discussion in recent years.
  • The frequency of sexual violence against boys and men also began to be discussed more openly in the past several years, as did the existence of female perpetrators of sexual violence.

Reproductive Coercion

  • Another phrase related to sexual violence not used commonly until the 2000s is reproductive coercion.
  • Reproductive coercion is considered "behavior that interferes with the autonomous decision-making of a woman, with regards to reproductive health" and often occurs alongside sexual violence.
  • Types of reproductive coercion include "birth control sabotage (such as removing a condom, damaging a condom, removing a contraceptive patch, or throwing away oral contraceptives), coercion or pressure to get pregnant, or controlling the outcome of a pregnancy (such as pressure to continue a pregnancy or pressure to terminate a pregnancy)", and are generally related to removing autonomy over ones body through physical or emotional pressure.
  • While studies to determine the prevalence of reproductive coercion have just begun in the past several years, pop culture has begun to coin terms to discuss this form of abuse, such as 'stealthing' which involves the removal of or poking of holes in a condom, and 'rape adjacent' to describe actions where reproductive consent falls into a gray area.

Thought Leaders

Tarana Burke

  • Tarana Burke has been designated as the person to coin the now ubiquitous phrase "Me Too" and thus creating foundations for the movement
  • She first used the phrase in 2006 to draw attention to the high rates of sexual abuse within a non profit where she worked with yong women of color.
  • Her LinkedIn profile can be found here.
  • She also later gave a TED talk on sexual violence and was designated TIME Person of the Year for 2017 after actress Alyssa Milano helped the #MeToo movement go viral.

Alyssa Milano

  • Actress Alyssa Milano is often credited with the #MeToo movement, when she shared the hashtag on Twitter in 2017.
  • The actress wrote about her sexual assault in Vox to support other women in coming about sexual violence.
  • While there was not evidence of the actress having a LinkedIn, her Twitter account can be found here.

Amanda Nguyen

  • Amanda Nguyen is the founder of Rise, "an advocacy organization that provides global support for survivors of sexual violence".
  • Nguyen gained publicity when she challenges rape laws in her home state of Massachusetts in 2019.
  • Her LinkedIn can be found here.

Jackson Katz

  • Jackson Katz is a well known activist who speaks and writes on gender, race, and violence.
  • Katz co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) and attempts to prevent gender and sexual violence in his work with sports organizations and the military.
  • He presented a TED talk on the topic which can be found here.
  • His LinkedIn can be found here.

Nicola Smith

  • Dr Nicola Smith published the book Capitalism’s Sexual History in 2020.
  • She also led a community speech during Pride Month 2021, which highlighted how capitalism and societal power structures perpetuate sexual injustice.
  • Her LinkedIn profile can be found here.

Gabriel Union

  • Well known actress Gabriel Union became an advocate against sexual violence when she revealed in a 2018 Redbook article that she'd been raped at gunpoint in her 20's.
  • She later shared details of her related PTSD on her book tour, as well as in an essay for the Los Angeles Times.
  • While the actress doesn't appear to have a LinkedIN, her Twitter profile can be found here.

Moira Donegan

  • US Guardian columnist Moira Donegan is best known for her creation of a Google spreadsheet called “Shitty Media Men” that made national news.
  • The crowdsourced document was a step to support women in protecting themselves from sexual harassment and assault from men in powerful roles.
  • While the writer does not appear to have a LinkedIn account, her profile at the Guardian can be found here.

Research Strategy

For this research on the evolution of sexual violence terms In the United States, we leveraged the most reputable sources of information that were available in the public domain, including news sources, press releases, professional profiles, and government records. For several of the influencers, a search of LinkedIn revealed they were not on the platform, in which case we have included a comparable professional profile instead.

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