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.”


How CAASE Empowers Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation

By Caleb Probst, CAASE Education Outreach Associate

I was asked to come into a high school in Chicago to work with their 9th grade boys. The school indicated that they were troubled by the behavior exhibited in the halls by some of the boys toward some of the girls, and thought the boys would benefit from going through our program. At the start of the first day, I asked the boys to write down words they would use to describe “a prostitute.” The majority of the responses were words like, “slut,” “hoe,” “THOT” (That Hoe Out There), “easy,” “nasty,” “dirty,” and “worthless.” Many of these words were the same words that the administration reported hearing directed at the girls in the school. At the end of the 4-session program, the boys had a new perspective. They really understood how different the realities of prostitution were from the myths they were accustomed to hearing and how many prostituted people endure violence, poverty, and trauma. They also learned about about how society frequently shames and isolates people in prostitution.

As these young men went through our 4-session program, they had an opportunity to examine what they know about “being a man” and think critically about how those shared perceptions influence their own decision making. They also had a chance to consider how their behavior, and the behavior of their peers, can impact their community. One student wrote, “I’ve learned that men treat women like crap, they use them as an object… I know that this puts girls in danger of becoming a prostitute.” He and his classmates began to see that objectifying women and degrading them with words like “slut” can have serious consequences. When asked how girls end up in prostitution, many responded with “they had a traumatized life,” “they had a rough childhood,” or “[society says] they have less power.”

Now, not every girl who is objectified and degraded will end up being commercially sexually exploited, and these young men acknowledged that. But as one student said, “we [never] know her story.” At the end of the final session, I asked the young men if there was anything that they would do differently now, based on what they had learned during the program. The two most common responses were “I will stop saying words like ‘thot’” and “I am going to respect women more.”

School is out for the summer now, but there's hope yet for these young men who have just begun their journey to better understanding and respect for their female peers.

Language Matters: A 9 year old does not have a "career" in prostitution

By Katie Feifer

Language matters when we speak about sexual violence. Using language of consent to describe crimes of violence is one of the ways we do a disservice to rape victims and continue to reinforce damaging messages about rape. One example: a child victim of Jerry Sandusky was commonly referred to in press accounts as “having sex with” Sandusky when in fact, the victim was forced to orally copulate the older man.

We continue to focus on language because until we talk about sexual violence in a truthful, accurate way, we as a society will not think about and accept sexual violence in a truthful, accurate way.

Today’s case study centers on the language we use to talk about prostitution and prostituted and trafficked girls and women. Many consider prostitution a victimless crime, a choice that women make, and certainly not a form of exploitation or abuse or violence. The reality is far different. (It’s a much bigger issue than we’re tackling in this post but you can read more about it here.)

The AP filed a story by Ramit Plushink-Masti about Houston’s efforts to rehabilitate people in prostitution. And in their opening paragraph, they referred to a 9 year old prostituted girl as someone who “had a full-fledged career in prostitution...” And the article went on to use more damaging language to refer to prostituted women and girls as "street walkers" and "hookers."

First, almost no 9 year olds have “careers”. But a 9 year old who has been trafficked and exploited by her mother and others, raped and abused by men who buy sex from her????? We continue to minimize and to soften the horror of the crime and the trauma its victims are subjected to when we use language like this, when our words make legitimate and commonplace what is ugly and awful.

As the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation says in its blog post,  This is a giant failure by the Associated Press and Plushnick-Masti to recognize that Tricia Chambers is a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Instead, they continue to stigmatize her and others who are in a program trying to exit prostitution, by calling them “hookers” and “streetwalkers.” This is incredibly offensive and harmful, and reinforces the cultural norm that people in prostitution are to blame, when many are actually crime victims.”

We are joining CAASE in asking you to Tweet @RamitMastiAP and @AP and tell them they got it wrong. A child in prostitution is a victim of a heinous crime. They must do better in deepening reporters’ understanding of these issues and work to not re-victimize survivors of sexual assault and trafficking. They must edit this story and show that they will do more to educate reporters about the realities of sex trafficking.”

Language matters.

Hiding Perpetrators of Sexual Violence with Our Language

By Katie Feifer

We are passionate about ending “victim blaming” for sexual violence. We are insistent that we focus on the perpetrators when we talk about rape and hold them accountable for the crimes they commit, emphasizing their actions rather than the victims’.

Yet we continue to do ourselves a disservice when we absent the perpetrators from the way we describe rape. We set our efforts back every time we refer to sexual violence like we do “acts of God” that we can’t control or prevent. 

When perpetrators are invisible in our descriptions and only the victim is present, we are at worst inadvertently placing responsibility for rape on the victim, or at best not holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. And when we speak of sexual violence as we do earthquakes and floods – events that simply happen without agency – we are again letting perpetrators off the hook.

Consider the differences between the following pairs of statements:

“A woman was raped at knife-point while she was hitchhiking.” vs “A man raped a woman at knife-point after he picked her up in his car.”

“A rape occurred last night in a wooded area behind the high school.” vs “An unknown assailant raped a woman in a wooded area behind the high school.”

“I was raped over 20 years ago.” vs “Steven Kaczmarek raped me over 20 years ago.”

It can sound and feel awkward at first when we shift our language to make a perpetrator the subject of a sentence rather than the victim, and when we speak of rape as a deliberate act rather than as something that just happens. The awkwardness some feel may reflect the discomfort we have with accurately describing sexual violence. It is necessary, I believe, to get over that awkwardness if we’re to make a difference in how our culture thinks about sexual violence.

Thanks to Claudie Bayliff, CounterQuo member and Project Attorney for theNational Judicial Education Program at Legal Momentum for raising consciousness about how the language we use can help us hid perpetrators from accountability for sexual violence.

The House Tries to Redefine Rape: Act Now to Protest

By Katie Feifer

H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion" Act currently before the House with 173 co-sponsors, is a horror for women and children and for all those who care about them. We urge you to learn more about this bill, and to share your concern and outrage with friends, family and your elected officials.  We strongly believe this bill must not become law. You can read more in columns in Mother Jones and Salon. But here is a brief outline of what the bill seeks to do, and why we believe it is so harmful.

 Under current law, federal funding for abortion is unavailable except for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The proposed law denies federal funding unless the pregnancy results from "forcible rape" or in the case of a minor, incest. The horrors of this bill are both practical and symbolic.

First the practical. The only federal standard for "forcible rape" exists in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. That definition is considered by many, including many states’ law enforcement, as very narrow. It does not reflect what most state laws include in their definitions of rape. Since the 1970s, states have (rightly) defined rape around the issue of consent, rather than whether force was used in the crime. States have different definitions of “forcible rape”, and some have no definition. How is one to define "forcible rape?" Let alone who is to define "forcible rape."  Passage of this bill would mean that "every rape survivor who finds herself in need of abortion funding will have to submit her rape for government approval." (Sady Doyle, Salon)

Children who are raped by someone not their father or grandfather would have no support under the proposed legislation unless the rape was "forcible." So the 13 year old girl raped and impregnated by her father's friend who attacked her while she was sleeping? No funding to help her terminate her pregnancy.

Studies have shown that most rapes do not utilize what the FBI's Uniform Crime Report defines as "force."  Rapists coerce, threaten, prime with alcohol and drug their victims. They rape women and girls who are sleeping. They take advantage of women and girls who are mentally, physically or developmentally disabled. Roughly three quarters of rapes would not qualify as "forcible," based on research.

And which women and girls would be most harmed in practical terms? Those who are most vulnerable already. The poor, many of whom rely on Medicaid for health care. Native women, whose health care is often covered by a federal agency - Indian Health Service. The wealthy among us would have more options, like privately funded abortions.

And what of the harm itself? Quoting from a statement issued by the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, "Every area of a victim’s life is affected by sexual violence whether it is a child sexually abused by a family member, a teenager coerced into sex by an older man, a college student drugged and assaulted at a party, or an adult raped by a stranger or by her ex-husband. Advocates at 1300 rape crisis centers across the United States bear witness to the trauma of sexual violence every day and see the torment caused by the loss of power and control over one’s body—one’s most intimate self—that is at the heart of sexual violence.

We know that at least 1-5% of sexual assaults results in pregnancy. In 2008, the Supreme Court of California upheld that pregnancy resulting from rape constitutes great bodily injury. Most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to face that pain."

Symbolically – but with very real ramifications,  the proposed legislation is a heartbreaking move to un-do women's hard-won rights not to have to demonstrate "utmost resistance" in order to be considered a "real" rape victim. Either inadvertently with careless use of language, or very deliberately, the bill's sponsors are attempting to re-define "real rape" back to standards that existed in the 1600's, which we presumed we'd ridded ourselves of 40 years ago.  Although the language appears in a bill about abortion funding, its impact will be widespread. What the law now defines as "rape" - and what we know as survivors, advocates and caring people -  would, with casual ease, mostly be erased.

We cannot allow this to happen. What can you do? Educate yourself, call your legislators, share blogs and articles, and sign a petition. One of several we like was drafted by MoveOn.org. Please act now.