Sexuality, Reproduction, and The Etymology of Abuse

By an Anonymous Historian

I love looking up archaic uses of words and uncovering their etymologies. Researching the origins of the word ‘abuse’, I was struck by how the meaning of abuse has journeyed alongside sexuality and reproduction for centuries.

ab – uti

The Vulgar Latin abuti meant use up or consume as well as misapply or outrage. Here’s the derivation:

ab- meaning off or away from


uti meaning use


In the 14th century this made its way into Old French where abuser came to mean misuse or, interestingly, deceive. In Middle English, Abusion was used to mean wicked practice, shameful thing or a violation of decency. By the early 15th century, abuse had English meanings including misuse of money or power.

It was around this time that the term became associated with homosexuality, prostitution, masturbation, and incest. By the 1550s abuse became linked with sexual misuse or ravishing. This meant that by 1611 it made sense for the King James Version of the Bible to report the harrowing story of the gang rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 v 25: “And abused her all the night until the morning”.

The sexual sense draws together two meanings: the wrong wielding of power and the unacceptable expression of sexuality. The modern use, meaning subject (someone) to unwanted sexual activity is likely to have been coined afresh towards the end of the 20th century, and may have been linked to the concept “drug abuse” which became popular in the 1960s.

I like the Latin meaning ‘to outrage’

Outrage is certainly what I felt after my reproductive care and fertility treatment – outraged at all the glossy mythologies that I had been sold. The power that professionals held over me, both socially and biotechnologically, had been misapplied.

Obviously in terms of the modern late 20th century meaning there is no ‘sexual abuse’ or ‘drug abuse’ in IVF clinics. But there might be a lot of outrage caused, and patients are often depleted or consumed. Treatment can use up patients because they buy into the stories sold by company websites. These websites are glossy and bright and optimistic and often do not fully or faithfully represent patient experiences. I feel this is dishonest and disrespectful to patients.

But is it abuse? Perhaps that’s a question of usage. All I know is I felt deceived, used up, and outraged by supposedly great men. I was treated like a source of shame – like the failure was my fault – but my doctors let themselves down too, failing to conduct themselves in a way befitting of their talent and showing no sympathy afterwards. Perhaps Brutus is right in Julius Caesar:

The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power


The anonymous historian is a patient-activist and will be facilitating at a one -day workshop Defining Abuse in Assisted Reproductive Technology at Guys Campus on 3rd June 2019. Register here.

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