'I Was Raped' Should Horrify -- But Our Culture Has Stripped the Word of Its Power
In a video on the New York Times Web site, the young actor Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night â€¨Lights describes bombing an audition as "being â€¨raped."
"Raped in pilot season!" he says ruefully, almost nostalgically, while shaking his head and smiling at the camera. "It was so bad."
Clearly this was not a fun experience for Kitsch, and you feel for him. Doing badly â€¨on an audition sucks. But it does not suck as much as sexual assault, something that happens every two minutes in America.
The word "rape," which my dictionary defines as "The unlawful compelling of a woman through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse," is experiencing a dangerous shift in meaning.*
Increasingly, rape is used to describe experiences such as a sports loss, a poor score on a video game, or being on the losing end of a business deal.
Again, these are all unpleasant experiences, but none rise to the level of what rape truly means. Not since Alanis Morisette's Isn't It Ironic ruled the airwaves has a word been so drained of its original value and power.
"Rape is something specific," says Michelle J. Anderson, dean of the CUNY School of Law and a former member of the board of directors and policy chairwoman for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. "It is a deeply personal experience of humiliation and degradation. Using the term 'rape' for these experiences not only wildly misdescribes them but also removes personal violence from our understanding of rape."
The meaning of the word must maintain its integrity, Anderson argues, in order to preserve our appropriately horrified response to sexual assault. The casual use of terms like "rent rape" desensitizes us to a subject that women's rights and victims-advocates groups have fought for years to bring into the public consciousness.
"The more we dilute this word, the more we play down the power of sexual violence," says Angela Rose, founder and executive director of Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, a group devoted to education and action surrounding rape. "It actually adds to the silence surrounding this issue because it diverts attention."
Rose worries about what she calls "the bystander effect" -- as rape is used casually, and actual rapes begin to seem less serious, the less the citizenry will realize they have a stake in ending sexual assault. Women are already told to yell "fire" instead of "rape" when they are being attacked because of a lack of community interest in violence against women -- this can only add to the problem.
Ironically, it may be the attention-grabbing power of rape that lends itself to its new use as a descriptor of everyday events.
"People use the word 'rape' to hype an experience, such as Jon Stewart's political critique of Jim Cramer's financial predictions," says Anderson. "The hype may grab attention, but it belittles rape." This demoralizes victims, whose traumatic experience is now ranked along with a poor performance review or a hefty cell phone bill.
Rose agrees, saying, "The more we dilute this word, the more it will alienate and isolate the victims of sex crimes, who are often already additionally traumatized by sexualized reporting of rape in the media and a blame-the-victim attitude on the part of some members of law enforcement."
We in America are lucky: Sex-based crimes are declining in number. According the FBI, the estimated number of forcible-rape offenses in this country dropped 2.5 percent last year, part of a multiyear downward trend. Sexual assault is downnearly 80 percent.
But let's not pat ourselves on the back just yet. At the same time that we are merrily introducing rape to casual conversation, rape is being used in increasingly horrific ways worldwide.
In the Balkans, rape was an official war strategy and "rape camps" were set up as part of a program of ethnic cleansing. In the Congo, rapes are so brutal that many victims require surgery afterwards -- their organs have been literally torn apart. In Rwanda, women who have contracted HIV as a result of being raped during that country's genocide are still seeking justice. And along the border between Mexico and the United States, so-called rape trees, trees hung with bras and women's clothing, mark where members of drug cartels and other criminals have preyed on female border crossers.
The common response to objections regarding this new use of the word rape is to claim, "It was just a joke." The specters of humorless "feminazis" and the PC police are raised. The damn joke about feminists and the lightbulb hovers unsaid. One is expected to back off, earnest and uncool.
But sexist language is not benign. A recent study at Western Carolina University found that such phrasings allow men to become comfortable with prejudice and express it without fear of negative consequences. (The research project only studied male responses to sexist language.)
Thomas E. Ford, the professor of psychology at WCU who led the study, said, "The acceptance of sexist humor leads men to believe that sexist behavior falls within the bounds of social acceptability." A joke is not just a joke.
And rape means rape. When someone says, "I was raped," there should not be multiple competing interpretations to the statement.
Once more: "The unlawful compelling of a woman through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse."
This is not a word that should be â€¨diluted, diverted or disambiguated. It is a specific word to describe a specific, horrific act. â€¨Let's keep it that way, while working to reduce the need to use it at â€¨all.
*Men are victims of rape as well, of course. That is the second definition in my dictionary.