What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

Rape means rape. Rape means putting a penis or other object inside a person against their will. This is not sex, it is rape, and it is the furthest thing from the meaning of sex. Calling rape "sex" is like saying that the boa constrictor gave the rat an unwanted hug. Or that a punch is a forced facial caress. Or that burglary is "forced giving". It makes no sense and it is damaging.

Last year I started saving newspaper articles which described rape but didn't call it rape. In one newspaper, a man who raped his (underage) daughter was described as having "had sex with" her, implying it was a consensual incestuous relationship, rather than rape. "When she went upstairs feeling drunk, he followed her, undressed her and had sex with her". This is untrue; he went upstairs, he undressed her, and he raped her. Nothing was done "with" her. He went to jail because he raped her.

A 57 year old former firefighter was convicted of "having sex with" a 16 year old girl. Again, he repeatedly raped her. Another article told us that an assistant teacher was jailed for "having sex with" a 14-year-old pupil. The article called the interaction "oral and full sex", rather than "oral and vaginal rape". It is impossible by law to "have sex with" a 14 year old. To describe the repeat offense the author wrote: "again full sex took place, and she (the victim) said he was much rougher than the first time". An accurate report would be to tell us that the victim was raped twice. "Full sex" is unnecessary, and also inaccurate. "Rape" is just fine. We all understand rape. It's short, clear, and to the point. So why don't we use it?

Maybe because we don't actually understand it. If we did, why would we feel the need to create the following common euphemisms for rape?

"Forced sex"

"Forced himself on her/him"

"Unwanted sex"

"Sexual assault"

"Indecent assault"


"Had his way with her/him"

"Took liberties"

"Took advantage"

and my ultimate pet peeve and winner of the reality dodging rape avoiding award of the year: "Non-consensual sex".

"Wikileaks" founder Julian Assange was described by George Galloway not as having raped, but of having had "bad sexual etiquette". We call pedophilia involving famous people "child sex scandals". Reporting rape as something more digestible, relatable and controllable is not limited to the media. Judges have been known throughout the world to enable this normalisation and non-criming of rape by calling rape "sex" as well, using words like "grooming" and "seduction" in cases involving a teenage student and her teacher, making comments that reassert the myth that rape happens when a man loses control over his desire for sex.

We live in a world which doesn't want to believe that these crimes are really crimes. Ireland is a country boasting an embarrassing 6% conviction rate, the UK boasts 5.7%, and the US a mere 2% conviction rate. The victims struggle to accept what happened to them as a crime, the perpetrators don't want to think they are committing a crime, and society at large doesn't want to acknowledge that men rape, why and how men rape, the impacts of rape, and that we might know and care for those men. We so do not want to think about it that we cannot even give it its rightful name. Similarly, we call child rape and child sexual assault "child abuse" as an umbrella term that allows us to look at a blurry outline rather than the detailed picture. We live in a world which uses the word "rape" as a witty metaphor when talking about a football game, but doesn't seem to be able to use it in cases of actual rape.

The consequences of using other terms to describe rape are layered. "Having sex with" someone is enthusiastic, mutual, and consensual sexual intercourse. It does not mean rape. Rape means rape. Rape means putting a penis or other object inside a person against their will. This is not sex, it is rape, and it is the furthest thing from the meaning of sex. Calling rape "sex" is like saying that the boa constrictor gave the rat an unwanted hug. Or that a punch is a forced facial caress. Or that burglary is "forced giving". It makes no sense and it is damaging.

Portraying rape as a form of sex casts an unconscious doubt into our minds on the seriousness and gravity of the crime. Maybe it was a communication problem within the relationship, a misunderstanding, a "grey area" rape. When rape is by a friend or partner, this kind of language allows us to think of sex that went too far, that it wasn't "rape-rape", instead of the crime that it was. A crime of passion, sure, but a crime-crime? Maybe not. Calling rape non-consensual sex, or forced sex, or unwanted sex, communicates that although the victim was not an enthusiastic participant, it wasn't a knife in a bush scenario, it can't be deemed "proper rape", and wasn't as bad, and is it really worth getting all upset over what could be put down to being an understandable mistake, miscommunication, or an "anger management" issue? Smoothing down our language into the relatable makes it more fathomable. We meld rape with sex to force the nonsensical into sense and the incontrollable into order. We make the illogical align with a form of logic that we can sit easy with, that we can tolerate being in our society and in our world. Terminology other than the term "rape" to describe rape allows us to justify, accommodate, and most crucially, avoid the reality.

Another problem with non-criming terminology is that it introduces the idea of there being grades of rape, when there exists only one. Even intelligent people all over the world think that it's clear; that a man dragging a woman down an alley to rape her at knifepoint is more traumatic than a man raping his partner in their sleep. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. The reality is that it is completely subjective; what is traumatic for me may be less or more traumatic for you. One witness in the Steubenville gang rape case of 2012 said he didn't intervene because it wasn't 'violent" or 'forced' as the victim was passed out. Children are learning from our non-criming terminology and it is having real life rape enabling consequences. They are growing into men who don't think rape by any other name is rape.

The victim takes all the messages in from the world around them, and doubts themselves. Withdraws their statement. Backtracks. Stop trusting themselves and others. We as a society also absorb all these messages and perpetuate them, enable them and reassert them. The cycle continues and the only person contentedly watching it is the rapist. The losers are the victims and future victims. We can help break the cycle by, at the very least, using our language to reflect the reality.

Not calling rape by its own name keeps us from feeling awkward and sustains our comfort and ability to continue polite conversation without upsetting anyone's sensibilities. We are not confronted with the horror of reality so long as we are calling it "taking advantage of". Rape victims do not get the opportunity to soften and non-crime rape. They live with it, and they live with the added insult and demeaning of our sidestepping, smoothed down language, language that sweeps past the point and minimises the crime. It tells them that we would prefer our conversation pretty and calm, rather than acknowledging the ugliness and trauma in their rape story. It tells them that we'd prefer to look through the rapists' conveniently foggy she said, he said lens than see their reality. It's telling them that we are not really on their side.

In our reportage, in our conversations, in our disclosures; let's give rape the gravity and seriousness that it deserves, that it warrants, that it needs, and call it what it is. Let's step onto the side of survivor, instead of enabling falsehoods and myths and tolerating language that only serve one category of person: the rapist.

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