பாலியல் + சம்பவம் ≠ rape

A short exploration of the terminology used in Hindi, Tamil and English newspapers

Journalists cannot help readers make sense of the world without using the right vocabulary themselves. Photo: Andrea Kirkby/Flickr

Pranati Narayan Visweswaran and Ankita Mathur

The term ‘sexual violence’ covers a spectrum of acts — including but not limited to rape, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence — that are perpetrated without explicit consent. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work”.

However, different types of acts of sexual violence may have differing impacts on victims and be punishable by different provisions of the law, depending also on factors such as the age of consent. When it comes to media reporting on sexual violence, accuracy and clarity in the use of terminology is also important in fostering an understanding of this complex issue, and shaping the discourse around it. For example, in the West, there has been an ongoing debate about the media’s questionable use of “passive” terms such as “nonconsenual sex” or “forcible vaginal sex” instead of “rape”, and of referring to child abuse perpetrated on boys by attractive teachers as “sex scandals”.

In the Indian context too, ambiguous language continues to characterise news reports on sexual violence. For example, last year queer activist Bindhumadhav Khire told NewsTracker that one of his biggest issues with the Indian media is that “journalists do not seem to make enough of an effort to understand these terms… they use them interchangeably”, and thus perpetuate “stereotypes and misconceptions”. NewsTracker’s Saumya Agrawal also studied two weeks of coverage in the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar and found that the terms used were often “euphemistic” or “minimised the incident” and tended to use “Hindi transliterations of English words [for rape]… perhaps as a device to distance from the severity of the crime”.

To explore this phenomenon further and with a wider regional and linguistic lens, we looked at a small sample of news reportage from three publications in three different languages — Dainik Jagran (Hindi), Dina Malar (Tamil) and Times of India (English). We selected four articles from each newspaper to analyse their use of terminology in cases of sexual violence.

‘Dirty deeds’

The first article that we studied of the Dainik Jagran reported on an incident that took place in May, 2019 and was headlined, “अंकल’ ने तीन साल की मासूम से किया ‘गंदा काम’, फिर गला घोंट कुएं में फेंका (Uncle Does Dirty Deed With Three-Year-Old Innocent, Strangles Her And Throws Her In A Well)” . This article used the phrases “गंदा काम” (dirty work), “हवस में” (in lust), “दुष्कर्म” (misdeed), and “घटना” (incident) to refer to the act. The words for rape or sexual assault were not used.

The second article, from November, 2019, was headlined “गाजीपुर में बालिका संग दुष्कर्म, आरोपी फरार (Misdeed Done With Girl Child In Ghazipur, Suspects Absconding)”. The lede uses the words “दुष्कर्म” (misdeed) and “‘मामला” (matter). The idiomatic phrase “आरोपी ने उसके साथ मुंह काला किया” also appeared, which essentially means that the suspect and the victim “disgraced each other”.

The third article, from April 2019, was headlined “शादी का झांसा देकर महिला से 12 साल तक दुष्कर्म (Man Rapes Woman For 12 Years By Tricking Her Into Believing They Were Married)”. Here again the word “दुष्कर्म” (misdeed) is used, as is “घटना” (incident) and “मामला” (matter).

The last article studied, from February 2019, was about a gang-rape and was headlined “कोर्ट के आदेश पर सामूहिक दुष्कर्म का मुकदमा दर्ज (Case Of Group Misdeed Registered Upon Court’s Order)”. Again, the word “दुष्कर्म” (misdeed) was used repeatedly.

The Hindi term for rape (बलात्कार) did not make an appearance and the fact that these crimes were sexual was alluded to in the language, but never explicitly stated. This is very much in line with Saumya Agrawal’s findings in her analysis of Dainik Bhaskar in NewsTracker. Various acts of sexual violence are all clubbed into the vague category of a “misdeed”.

Interchangeable terms

The four articles we looked at in Dina Malar were all from October 2019. The first story, “சிறுமி மீது பாலியல் வன்முறை 10 ஆண்டு சிறை தண்டனை உறுதி (10-Year Prison Sentence For Committing Sexual Acts On Girl)”, used the word (sexual) in conjunction with “வன்முறை” (violence), “கொடுமை” (harassment), and “செயலுக்கு” (act), making the exact nature of the crime unclear. There are also references to “physical relationships” in connection with statements about POSCO laws.

The second story, “பொள்ளாச்சி பாலியல் சம்பவம் சி.பி.ஜே.க்கு ஐ கோர்ட் உத்தரவு ( Directive given to CBI by High Court In Pollachi Sexual Assault case)” uses the word “பாலியல்” (sexual) in conjunction with “சம்பவம்” (incident) and “வன்முறை” (violence).

The third article, “குழந்தைகள் ஆபாக வீடியோ கேரளாவில் 12 பேர் கைது (12 Arrested In Kerala For Taking Video Of Children Being Harmed)” mentions “பாலியல் அத்து மீறல்” (sexual violation), which is the term used in reference to the section of the police that deals with such cases. There is also a description of the pictures posted as “pornographic”, which is a term that is increasingly being seen as inappropriate for images of child sexual abuse.

The last article, headlined ‘நிர்பயா’ வழக்கு குற்றவாளிகளுக்கு கடைசியாக கருணை மனு வாய்ப்பு (Last Mercy Petition For The Perpetrators In The ‘Nirbhaya’ Case)” does not include the word for “sexual” at all. Instead, phrases indicating a “violent incident” are used; this is also the only article where the word “பலாத்காரம்” (rape) appears.

We can see a trend in the way language is used in these articles. The word sexual is used in connection with broader terms such as “violence”, “harassment” and “incident”, but no specific terminology is used. In addition, words such as “sexual violence” and “sexual harassment” are sometimes interchangeably used for the same incident. The only exception is the Nirbhaya case, where the word for “rape” is used, perhaps because it is part of the wider discourse.

Finally, the word ‘rape’

The first article studied from the Times of India, from July 2018, was headlined “18 Acquitted In Paldi Gang-Rape Case”, and also referred to the alleged crime as “sexual exploitation”; mention was made of the victim’s father “molesting” her as well. The second article from December 2018, “Pune Girl’s Rape & Murder: Victim’s Uncle Held”, described the crime in these same terms consistently. The third article, reported in November 2019, had the headline “Faridkot: Protests Continue Over Sexual Harassment Case” was also consistent in its use of the term but did not define how this manifested. The last article, “Taken on joyride, 5-year-old raped by auto-rickshaw driver in Bihar’s Darbhanga: Police”, reported in December 2017 uses the terms “sexual assault”and “rape” to refer to the same incident. The phrase “sexual crimes’” is also used as a broader word to refer to the state government’s response to these issues.

Here, the subject of sexual assault is treated less gingerly and we see the use of specific terms such as “rape”, “gang-rape” and “sexual assault”, which are used fairly consistently. Only in one article are “rape” and “sexual assault” — which is a broader term that includes rape — used interchangeably. The term “sexual harassment” is used but without any specification of how it manifested in terms of specific actions from the accused.

Towards greater clarity

From the three publications that we studied, it was clear that the two regional-language newspapers — Dainik Jagran and Dina Malar — used ambiguous terminology when reporting on sexual violence.While Dina Malar uses the Tamil word for “sexual” in conjunction with other words such as “incident” or “violence”, it does generally get more specific than that. The Dainik Jagran does not use a word to denote the “sexual” nature of a crime, but this meaning is implied through context.

In contrast, the Times of India, uses the word “rape” for cases where this is established, sometimes interchangeably with “sexual assault”. There is some amount of differentiation in the terminology used for various acts of sexual violence, although it remains unclear what comes under the ambit of “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault”.

The greater accuracy in the English-language paper is possibly indicative that regional publications may have less exposure to on-the-job training and capacity-building in the context of reportage on sexual assault, and also cater to audiences that are believed to be squeamish about such matters.

As mentioned earlier, terminology matters for a multitude of reasons, legal and conceptual. “Sexual violence” is an area that is notorious for its shades of grey around the meaning of consent, coercion, and what is criminal and what is not. In this context, clarity in reportage becomes even more important. For laypersons who are unaware of the difference between these, the news media could then not only be informational, but also educational. Yet, reporters too seem to struggle with finding and using the right words.

Fortunately, there is an increasing number of resources for journalists who seek to be more accurate and sensitive in their reporting on sexual violence. In November 2019, UNESCO launched a very useful ‘handbook for journalists’ called ‘Reporting on Violence against Women and Girls, which can be accessed online, and which includes definitions of different types of offences as well as the kind of language that should be used. More specific to the Indian context is Feminism in India’s ‘Media Ethics Toolkit on Sensitive Reportage’, which is also packed with illustrative examples and helpful pointers; this too is available for free online. While such material continues to be sparse in regional languages, it is possible to make a start by simply doing our homework as reporters.


A conversation on the news coverage of rape and sexual…