Watch Your Language!

By Katie Feifer

I've written about this before, but the subject is worth talking about a lot, especially when there are new perspectives on the subject of how the language we use when we talk about rape gives power and protection to those who rape, shames victims, and perpetuates rape culture.  One example comes from the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault which recently published a message that calls the culture to task for labeling sex as "consensual sex."

“Consensual sex” is just sex. To say that implies that there is such a thing as “non consensual sex”, which there isn’t. That’s rape. That is what it needs to be called. There is only sex or rape. Do not teach people that rape is just another type of sex. They are two very separate events. You wouldn’t say “breathing swimming” and “non breathing swimming”, you say swimming and drowning.

On the heels of MECASA's message comes another brilliant article by Soraya Chemaly, illuminating many of the ways our use of language around rape perpetuates rape culture and even makes us complicit in the perpetuation. In addition to making excellent points, with many examples, Chemaly's article contains a wealth of links to more information, insight,  and wisdom. Well worth reading and following the links.

What are we talking about? Phrases like "classic rapist" that perpetuate the myth that "real rape" ( or "rape rape" pace Whoppi Goldberg) is perpetrated by strangers jumping out from the bushes rather than the "nice young men" who "simply couldn't control their natural urges." How many times have we read or even talked about "a hook-up gone wrong," "drunk sex," or "grey rape." What about all the reporting in the media about a child who "performed oral sex" on an adult man, instead of calling it what it is: a man forced a child to fellate him.

In fact, we are particularly loathe as a society to label rape and sexual assault perpetrated against children as what it actually is. I get it - it's very difficult to think about, let alone talk about. But there's danger in not calling  it what it is, whether the victims are children or adults. Case in point: Josh Duggar, of 19 Kids and Counting fame, who is said in the media to have "fondled the breasts and genitalia of young girls (his sisters) while they were sleeping." I have not seen any articles - outside feminist press - calling it what it is: sexual assault and rape of his sisters. Incest. "Molestation" is as far as most outlets go. And Josh himself said only "I acted inexcusably." Which God, his parents, and many other people apparently forgive. Would we be so forgiving if we said "Josh Dugger sexually assaulted his sisters?" If Josh had come clean and confessed "I raped  my younger sisters?"

What's the danger? Soraya Chemaly says,

Every time you hear or say these types of expressions, the question should be “Who benefits from not saying ‘rape?’” Who is helped when we refuse to be accurate about rape?

Because it’s certainly not rape victims....

As long as we live in global culture where shame is assigned to the raped and not the rapists, the only people allowed to use euphemisms should be survivors.

Writing last year, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Jacob Lief, and Sohaila Abdulali explained, “Rape is utterly commonplace in all our cultures. It is part of the fabric of everyday life, yet we all act as if it’s something shocking and extraordinary whenever it hits the headlines. We remain silent, and so we condone it.”