Language Matters: Framing Rape

There’s some terminology surrounding rape which I think is worth some brief discussion and exploration. The language we use to talk about any issue is important, for a lot of reasons, and in the case of rape, the language that we choose to use can either reinforce or tear down problematic ideas about rape and rapists. Since we are living in a society where rape culture runs rampant, it behooves us to choose our language with care to ensure that we are not reinforcing rape culture in the way we talk about rape.

First, let’s briefly define what rape is, so that we are all studying from the same page. The laws which surround rape generally criminalise it, and also define it a little bit differently, depending on the jurisdiction; I’m talking about the general social definition of rape here, rather than the legal one. Rape is forced sexual intercourse. Sexual assault, which is somewhat more broad, includes unwanted sexual contact, not just sexual intercourse. Someone who forces genital contact on another person is committing sexual assault. Someone who forcibly penetrates someone else is committing rape and sexual assault. Rape can involve physical force or psychological coercion.

Yet, when we talk about rape, we often use qualifying terms. A person who takes another person on a date and then forces that person to have sex is committing ‘date rape.’ A ‘friend’ who rapes someone is committing ‘acquaintance rape.’  Whoopi Goldberg helpfully distinguishes between ‘rape’ and ‘rape-rape.’

And sometimes we don’t say ‘rape’ at all. We say ‘had sex with,’ as in ’24 year old is accused of having sex with 12 year old.’

In all of these cases, the crime which is being committed is rape.

When we say ‘date rape’ or ‘acquaintance rape,’ the qualifiers suggest that the crime is unusual. Peculiar enough that we need to draw attention to it. In fact, the majority of rapes are committed by people known to the victim. This includes friends and intimate partners. People don’t say ‘stranger rape’ because it is presumed that most rapes are committed by strangers, and thus that no qualifier is needed for people to understand. This little trick of language reinforces a common misconception: That rapes are mostly committed by strangers. The ‘stranger jumping out of the bushes’ myth is alive and well and qualifying rapes committed by people known to the victim reinforces it.

Furthermore, ‘date rape,’ to me, trivialises the crime. It honestly strikes me as almost a little bit cutesy. They were on a date! It also neatly sets up an opportunity for some victim blaming. The presumption is that they were on a date, so the person who was raped must have wanted/expected it. Maybe the person who was raped even liked the sex at the time and changed ou mind about it later because of shame. You weren’t ‘really’ raped if it was ‘date rape,’ you know. Yes, people really think this.

There are some cases in which such qualifiers are important. For example, in marital or spousal rape. We use a qualifier here because there is a widespread belief that spousal rape does not exist. Thus, it’s important to qualify the term to underscore that, yes, this does happen. And, unfortunately, in some areas, it is perfectly legal. Laws specifically exclude spousal rape from criminal definitions of rape. There is a widespread social belief that it’s not possible for spouses to rape each other, that marriage itself is consent to sex and thus that there is no further need to negotiate consent.

As far as ‘had sex with’ goes, well. Hoyden About Town has an ongoing series highlighting instances where the media uses ‘had sex with’ instead of ‘rape.’ It’s a serious problem not just in the media, but also in society in general. The media seems especially fond of reporting horrific rapes as ‘had sex with.’ When you ‘have sex with’ someone who does not or cannot consent, it is rape. Period. End of discussion.

It’s also worth plunging briefly into another little trick of semantics; ‘someone got raped.’ This particular turn of phrase makes rape either sound like a prize (‘ou got a pony for ou birthday!’) or like something which is the victim’s fault. If the victim/survivor hadn’t [fill in the blank], then the rape would not have happened. People don’t ‘get’ raped. They are raped.

Speaking of victim/survivor, I briefly touched upon this in an earlier post, but I thought I would expand upon it a little more here. I use this somewhat cumbersome term because some people who have been raped as victims, and some people identify as survivors. Using either term exclusively erases the self-identification of victims/survivors, and thus makes me uncomfortable. I cannot say that I am thrilled with this particular workaround, but it makes me feel more comfortable than using one term or the other, which carries a subtle suggestion that people should identify with whichever term I use.

Finally, a brief note about statutory rape, a legal term which crops up in discussions about rape now and then. Under the eyes of the law, people below the age of majority lack the legal capacity for consent. As a result, when someone below the age of majority has sexual intercourse, consensually or not, it is termed statutory rape, because the law does not recognize the underage capacity for consent and thus all sexual intercourse involving minors is, legally speaking, rape. That’s why they call it ‘statutory,’ meaning ‘by law.’

There are some cases of statutory rape which are indisputably rapes in the social sense of the word. There are others which are more legally nebulous. People under the age of majority are legally denied autonomy and consent, but it doesn’t mean that they are incapable of exercising autonomy and consent, which means that not all cases of statutory rape involve sexual assault. There’s a much larger discussion to be had about the denial of autonomy to people below the age of majority, but that is a discussion for an entirely different post.