Over the past month, there's been a blizzard of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Or would it be an avalanche? Maybe a whirlwind? Since the New York Times published their first report about Weinstein, in which a number of women had allegations against him, there have been several others from Hollywood who have come forward with claims about the film producer. And Weinstein isn't the only Hollywood figure to recently be thrust into the spotlight. Over the past month, people have come forward with allegations against Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, director James Toback, and producer Brett Ratner. But when discussing these allegations, the word choice matters more than you may think. And it may be time to toss aside certain metaphors.
"I am very skeptical of using natural [disaster] metaphors — by that I mean metaphors of nature, things like avalanches, or blizzards, or floods — to describe the collective activities of people," says Doug Cloud, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Colorado State University. Cloud studies how marginalized people are represented in public discourse.
As for why this wording poses a problem, he explains, "Looking at words like 'avalanche,' 'epidemic,' 'whirlwind,' these are things that happen in nature... They happen and we don't blame people for them... Sexual assault is not an act of nature. That's a thing that an individual does and is responsible for."
In other words, Cloud explains that while these might be vivid descriptors, they can also make it seem like such actions — sexual assault, harassment, or misconduct — are inevitable. In reality, sexual harassment is "unlawful," per the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's website. The government site explains such behavior includes "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature." And, of course, sexual assault is a crime.
Metaphors like "avalanche" or "blizzard" aren't phrases that popped up out of nowhere, and they don't only appear across social media. They're being used in news stories as well. Here's an excerpt of a CNN piece published on Oct. 14:
"The Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault allegations have unleashed a dizzying, nine-day whirlwind through Hollywood, one that has seen a steady onslaught of new accusers and inflicted collateral damage on multiple parties."
On Oct. 10, the Chicago Tribute wrote, "An avalanche of allegations poured out Tuesday," and added that these allegations were "further intensifying the already explosive collapse of the disgraced movie mogul." An InStyle article dated Oct. 14 referred to an "overwhelming onslaught of sexual misconduct allegations." "Onslaught" is another phrase that seemingly lumps together the accusers and doesn't accurately convey the situation. And if taking the Merriam-Webster definition, the word means "an especially fierce attack."
In another article about Weinstein, U.K. publication The Telegraph reported on Oct. 13, "Days later, after the less celebrated had stuck their necks out, the condemnation bandwagon got rolling." And according to Cloud, "bandwagon" can be just as potentially worrisome. Considering the connotation and literal definition mean to joining a winning side, the phrase is often used in connection to sports teams.
"How is disclosing what may have been a humiliating and traumatizing experience akin to joining a winning side? That to me seems like a very strange word choice to describe a lot of people making an allegation against someone," Cloud says, before posing a rhetorical question. "What are they going to win exactly?"
As it turns out, the women (and men) who come forward with sexual assault and harassment allegations actually have plenty to lose; they risk not getting a specific role or ruining their Hollywood careers, often when just starting out. That exact reasoning is why stars ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow to Ashley Judd claim they stayed silent about Weinstein for so long. Paltrow told theTimes, "I was a kid, I was signed up, I was petrified." She also reportedly feared she would get fired if she spoke up further. (While Weinstein initially released a statement apologizing to those he hurt, his spokesperson later told The New Yorker, "Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances.")
And it's not an unfounded fear, when you consider Rose McGowan's claim, per the Guardian, "I was blacklisted after I was raped, because I got raped, because I said something." According to the Times, McGowan received a settlement from Weinstein after an alleged hotel room incident. However, court documents obtained by the Times explained the settlement was "not to be construed as an admission."
With so many allegations pouring in, one way people make sense of a situation, especially one that's "really difficult and horrible," is through public discourse, according to Cloud. "When you see something over and over and over, we can internalize some pretty implicit attitudes that are conveyed by those word choices," he explains. Phrases like "bandwagon" can unfairly make it seem like these women are speaking out, simply because it's trendy.
If anything, it's less of a bandwagon and more of a support system being created, where others feel more comfortable coming forward because others bravely paved the way. Just look at the #MeToo movement that recently spread across social media, where individuals who have experienced sexual harassment or assault voiced solidarity about just how frequently it occurs.
"There's a tendency when you look closely at word choice for people to react negatively to that kind of scrutiny, to say, 'oh that's political correctness,' 'oh, you're nitpicking,'" Cloud says. But as for why it matters, he adds, "When we're dealing with an issue that's this important and has this much consequence for society, it is warranted to look this closely at word choice and language choice."
And it's true — even if you can't predict the outcome of these word choices, that doesn't mean they don't matter. "We don't know how much harm they're going to cause, but they're not going to help if our goal is a culture in which allegations of sexual assault are taken seriously," Cloud adds. When it comes to certain phrasing, "They're like little pinpricks over time and a lot of them, after a while kind of hurt."
So, once you throw away the metaphors and the lumping, what's the best way to discuss these situations? It may be difficult to pinpoint, but per Cloud's suggestion, he thinks using a "straightforward description" is best; one conveying the number of people who have come forward. For instance, according to Entertainment Weekly, more than 50 women have voiced allegations against Weinstein to date. Even if that number may change later, it's a reflection of the news at that point in time.
The only potential downside of this wording technique is lumping the women together too much. "They're individuals who are telling us about individual experiences," Cloud says. And it's true; each story holds its own weight, and it shouldn't take dozens of women coming forward for one person's account to be taken seriously.
Talking about these accusations is much better than brushing them under the rug. But keep in mind, each of the accused is responsible for their own behavior. Unlike a tornado or hurricane, allegations of sexual misconduct can't — and shouldn't — be dismissed as some inexplicable act of nature.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.