Content note: This piece discusses rape, rape culture, child sexual abuse, colonialism, violence against sex workers, and transmisogyny.
In honour of Sexual Assault Awareness Month here at UBC, this week’s Social Justice Synonyms will be dedicated to phrases which trivialize sexual violence, such as “I raped that midterm” or “that midterm raped me.”
Casual use of the word “rape” is common in a culture that continuously condones sexualized violence against women, against genders that don’t conform to colonial gender binaries, and against men, often used as an attempt to emasculate or feminize them. Whether or not you believe we live in a rape culture, you would still most likely understand that people shouldn’t rape, that getting raped is a horrific violation of autonomy and privacy. Whether or not you have an understanding of rape as a tool of war and colonization, you may still find rape to be a devastating crime, or encroachment upon deeply sacred codes of human conduct.
In other words, you don’t have to be a feminist or anti-violence activist to know that rape should not be taken lightly.
If rape is so common and horrid, as well as so commonly reviled (even if not in a structural or survivor-centred sense), why should it be okay under any circumstances to use the term “rape” casually, in contexts other than acts of sexual violence themselves?
Being the first time I am writing a “Social Justice Synonym,” I find myself asking the following basic question about this series as a concept, as a tool to end oppression, and as a way of thinking about language:
What is it about a word and its meanings that make it unacceptable to use in a certain way?
In the case of “I raped that midterm” or “that midterm raped me,” this question can be taken up in several ways. One is the normative claim that rape as an act of violence should not be trivialized, and therefore the word “rape” should not be used out of context. Simply put, misuse of the word “rape” is offensive, connoting profound disrespect of rape survivors as well as social orders that take seriously each person’s bodily and sexual autonomy (i.e. a consent culture). Barring readers who think the principles behind The Talon’s SJS series wage “a war on humour,” most readers can probably swallow this argument.
But another approach is to explore this question further, by examining the structures underlying our world, the way our world conceives of sexual violence, and the limits of language to adequately describe that violence in the first place. In other words, here I want to explore some disconnects between the world of sexual violence and the language we use to describe it.
The Language of Sexual Violence
Truth be told, the word “rape” and its meanings haunt me, both as a writer and a racialized woman, just as sexual violence haunts me as a form of violence. The way it haunts me can be attributed to the ways in which rape is commonly spoken about: as something shameful we are not to speak about in polite company, as a capital crime that should be met with the rapist’s immediate execution/eternal imprisonment, as something that happens so infrequently that most survivors’ testimonies are not believed…unless their rape is reported to the police, taken up and tried in supreme courts, or exposed in highly public ways.
Indeed, the ways in which sexual violence is first introduced to a person (often: young girl) as a concept is never through this word directly, but through gestures, warnings against talking to strangers (i.e. men), and silences. Certainly these silences precede my initial encounter with the word “rape,” which didn’t happen until I came to Canada and learned English.
Having spent my pre-teens and teen years consuming North American media, what introduced me to the world and language of rape are songs like Sublime’s “Date Rape,” Nirvana’s “Rape me,” news stories depicting individual incidents, as well as episodes of Dr. Phil and Oprah speaking of sexual violence in highly sensationalized ways. In the case of Sublime’s “Date Rape,” the natural fate of rapists is depicted as rape in prison. Meanwhile, gang-rape had been primarily depicted as a phenomenon of primarily poor, “sketchy” neighbourhoods, as well as distant colonies of India and Africa, creating a false sense of security for the well-policed modern city in the Global North. All these depictions limit what a person can imagine rape as being.
Meanwhile, I was still a preteen when I read about Michael Jackson being charged with “child molestation.” Had the newspaper used the language of rape, I would have understood immediately what these cases were about. Instead, as a new speaker to English I was left to guess what Michael Jackson had done. After all the word “molestation” has four syllables; “rape” only one.
On this note, it’s important to remember that for many, their first encounter with the world of sexual violence is through first-hand experience: as in, through child sexual abuse. In these cases the word “rape” and related words describing this profound abuse of power and violation of trust is often nowhere near the table. Adults (or other children) who violate children in this way would use language to conceal the violence they inflict by using the language of sexuality, of seduction, of children and young people’s so-called hypersexuality. When the statutory rape of young girls by adult men is colloquially deemed “the Lolita effect,” so popularized by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, you know our culture actively aestheticizes and normalizes such violence.
Even the phrases “child sexual abuse” and “child molestation” suggest some difference from rape, though child sexual abuse is just another form of rape. To understand these acts of violation through language that does not acknowledge rape, then, hides just how prevalent rape is in our world.
In 1983 when a slew of important changes were made to Canadian laws pertaining sexualized violence, the word “rape” was replaced with “sexual assault,” connoting a crime that violates any person’s sexual integrity, rather than a property crime that only men do to women outside marriage. In some ways, this shift in language suggests a disavowal of (though not necessarily a genuine commitment to ending) the incredibly patriarchal ways that “rape” has been conceived throughout history. But it also acknowledges that “rape” is not the same as a wider range of violations more accurately conceived, by Canadian law, as sexual assault. A question I want to raise is: why is this distinction necessary in the first place? And why do some organizations, such as RAINN, use the term “completed rape”?
On the one hand, why does the media so frequently perpetuate rape culture by avoiding the word “rape” in their discussions of sexual violence, by resorting to calling it “non-consensual sex” or similarly victim-blaming language? On the other hand, what ideological differences are being connoted by differences in how feminist support/crisis centres name their organizations? What are these rhetorical effects?
Rape, reputation, and hyperbole
To take up the first question is to appeal to the principle that I hope even readers who are skeptical of SJS can get behind: that rape is so serious that we ought to never misuse the word.
Take for instance the fact that Canada’s media and criminal (in)justice system take the greatest pains not to call a spade a spade and name rape when it happens. While they do this out of a failure to highlight the systematic nature of rape culture, their reluctance to employ the language of rape also reveals the social attitude that rape is so vile and shameful that it would be devastating to falsely accuse someone of rape.
To label someone a rapist is to cast them into the outskirts of society, to ruin their reputation forever. Several months after Sauder frosh’s rape chants became widely known and circulated in the media, I found myself roped into a conversation with a business student from another Canadian university, in which they gloated about how no such chants exist (though they could have said “were discovered”) at their institution. Furthermore, this person had heard through the grapevine that Sauder students actually blame the person who tweeted out the rape chants that got them into trouble in the first place. It’s as if the only reason the rape chants are so condemnable is because students got caught. It’s as though people’s main incentive to avoid such language is to save face, especially at an institutional level where reputation has financial implications.
In a social environment where institutional and personal reputation seem to matter more than safety and autonomy, UBC students who care about the former should still avoid using “I raped that midterm,” or “that midterm raped me.” When you say that a midterm raped you, you are bulldozing over survivors’ experiences (as accounted in this piece The Talon published), and contributing to a world that could not care less about survivors’ safety. When you say that you raped a midterm, you are comparing yourself to a rapist. As I suggested earlier, who would want to be compared to a rapist?
According to Lucia Lorenzi’s account of David Choe’s “joke-making” in the name of art, apparently not even rapists themselves.
Not satisfied? Consider then another question: What is it about the word “rape” and its meaning, for instance, that make people want to use it inappropriately?
When a UBC student says that a midterm raped them, what they intend to say is that they feel as though they’ve failed. They might also mean to say that they feel that an exam has conquered them, that they feel dominated by it in a significant way. Conversely, when a UBC student says they just raped a midterm, they mean they feel like they’ve conquered its questions, that they’ve aced the test. They are using the word “rape” as a literary device, as a hyperbole to describe subjective experiences: i.e. merely a feeling. That means when they misuse this word, they are implicitly acknowledging that rape is a horrific experience. Their error is to assume there’s no social repercussions to that misuse, and no damage done by using rape as hyperbole.
Ending rape culture ultimately means not pretending what’s at stake is merely rapists’ reputations. It also means that we use the language of rape to describe the action itself: the act of violence, the active refusal to honour someone’s affirmative consent, to hear their “no.”
Misuse of “rape” for ideological reasons
I want to turn here to the ideological differences connoted by feminist uses of the word “rape.” Given that Vancouver has several centres which support survivors of sexual violence, and that their respective politics around supporting survivors vary, often quite dramatically, this question has broader implications for feminists’ struggle to end rape culture.
To be clear, I don’t believe that the language of rape is better or worse than the language of sexual assault. The language of “rape” has a specific history that needs to be highlighted, remembered, and honoured. Furthermore, the language of “rape” is especially powerful for understanding experiences with sexualized violence when the rest of the world uses victim-blaming language to invalidate survivors’ experiences. Meanwhile, the language of “sexual assault” is useful to engage with for legal reasons, as well as for acknowledging a broader ranges of violations that some survivors may not feel entirely comfortable calling “rape.”
However, I don’t think feminists are exempt when they also misuse the language of “rape.” To move forward as a movement such misuse needs to be examined and held into account.
One especially important example of this misuse occurs when trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) paint trans women as men’s rights activists who make cis women vulnerable to rape when they enter women’s bathrooms and community spaces. Not only is this claim horribly transmisogynistic, it also implies that rape can only be committed by “males” (of course, trans women are female, so this point is moot), that all men are necessarily rapists (warning: the following link contains grotesque transmisogynistic vitriol).
Furthermore, to think of sexual violence as merely men’s violence against women is to deny that sexual violence on these lands is rooted in ongoing colonialism and settler-colonialism, in gender violence against Indigenous peoples. If rape is a form of taking power away from its victims, men’s power against women is not the only form of taking power.
TERFs, and transmisogynists more broadly, thus use the language of “rape” against an entire marginalized population before any attempt to verify their presence as threats. Such fear-mongering ought to be resisted for our discourse around sexual violence to be respectful, because it forces an entire group to be responsible for acts they have not committed. In this way, not only do TERFs perpetuate violence against trans women by denying their linguistic self-determination, they also dilute the ways in which we talk about sexual violence, crying wolf about rape. Understanding rape as solely penis-in-vagina, they also replicate outdated conceptions of criminal law around rape that continue to uphold patriarchy.
Diluting the way we talk about rape means that we overgeneralize rape, as well as flatten and erase the complexities of people’s experiences with sexual violence. If survivors (or however someone wishes to self-identify) themselves do not call their experience rape, it would be further injustice to speak for their experiences.
One example of such overgeneralization occurs when abolitionist feminists (who are often but not always trans exclusionary radical feminists), who are not sex workers and who haven’t had a history with sex work themselves, use the language of rape to paint prostitution as nothing more than systematic rape that’s paid for. As argued in this article by Naomi Sayers and Sarah Hunt, the discourse that sees sex work as victimization is especially damaging to and infantilizing of Indigenous women who engage in sex work. Furthermore, the troubling discourse of seeing sex work as sexual slavery also fails to understand sexual slavery as a product of war, that occurs within a different set of conditions, as well as denies survivors of slavery and the slave trade their own assertions about these experiences.
In other words, how we use language around sexual violence, and violence in general, matters. The words we use shape how we understand that violence, even if the very nature of rape means that some experiences can never be adequately described through language.
Who has the power to determine how we use language? If we are committed to creating a juster world free of violence, only those marginalized by that violence themselves should determine how they describe their experience. As much as I disagree with abolitionist ideology, if women who have been in the sex trade see their experience as rape, their usage also needs to be respected. Beyond avoiding using phrases like “I raped that midterm,” a culture of consent would honour the language of those who experience violence, who resist ongoing sexualized violence and the profound culture of silence surrounding that violence.
Systematic ‘language fascism’ is certainly not “Social Justice Synonyms.” Rather, language fascism is Canada’s criminal (in)justice system insisting that a survivor of rape cannot use the term “rape” to describe their experiences. If a legal framework cannot equip survivors with justice, we must all at least seek justice where we can ourselves: in the words we use.
|I raped that midterm.||I feel like I excelled at that midterm. I aced that midterm.|
|That midterm raped me.||I feel like I did horribly on that midterm. I think I may have failed that midterm.|
|Those bullies raped my mind.||Those people emotionally and verbally abused me. I am traumatised by how they treated me. They manipulated me.|
|I raped that game!||I won that game. I beat the final boss and it was glorious.|
|I’m gonna go up the rape stairs now.||I’m going to take the shortcut across campus from Totem Park residence.|
|Rape jokes||Just don’t.|
Jane Shi edits at The Talon and The Garden Statuary. She also volunteers at Women Against Violence Against Women: Rape Crisis Centre, and studies literature. She would like to thank editors Kay, Alex, and Justin for their insightful feedback, as well as friends who encourage her to write about this issue in spite of endless perfectionism.