Pulling the Plug on Rape Culture One Word at a Time — Cara’s WAM Presentation

by Cara on March 31, 2009

in events and excursions, feminism, rape and sexual assault, violence against women and girls

wam logoOn Sunday, as many of you know — and a few of you were actually there! — I moderated and participated in a session at WAM called Pulling the Plug on Rape Culture One Word at a Time with three absolutely amazing and fabulous co-presenters, Marcella Chester of Abyss2Hope, Ashley Burczak of the SAFER blog, and Ashwini Hardikar, also from the SAFER organization.

The session was packed, and though I was nervous as hell, I thought that it went really, really well.  WAM filmed the whole thing, so once the video is available online I will also post it, despite how uneager I am to see myself on camera.

I plan to post a session recap/overview in a couple of days.  (In the meantime, my Feministe co-blogger Jill liveblogged the session — after she finished taking pictures of me like a mother at a school play.)  But while we’re waiting on me to get up off my ass and do that, I thought I’d post my actual portion of the presentation given at the event, for those who were not able to attend and might be interested.

I didn’t read off of this verbatim, adding in some ad libs and clarifications and omitting a few things as well, but it’s pretty true to what I actually said while presenting.  I’ve also added in the slides that I showed at the session, or at any rate the ones that are important to your comprehension while reading, as links — click it, and it will take you to a jpeg file.  They are basically just the news stories that I highlight in the discussion.

Also, I know it’s not the same as a live Q&A session, but I would be happy to take any questions you may have in the comments.

The presentation is below the jump!

Words mean something, and that’s a big part of what this sessions is about – what words we use to talk about rape and other sexual violence, how and when we use them, and what attitudes towards sexual violence they convey, reinforce and help to create.

Reporting on rape – and domestic violence, too – often heavily involves the misuse of words. One of those words you see most commonly misused is “sex.”  And though there are many examples that could be chosen, this is one of the word choices I personally believe to be most harmful and pervasive, and will therefore dominate my portion of the session.

On the surface, “sex” refers merely to a physical act – an act that not all of us share the same definition of, but a physical act all the same.  But again, words mean something. And all words have connotations in addition to their dictionary definitions.  The dictionary definition of sex may refer to a physical act, but the connotation is one that we all understand to imply consent.

Why? Well, because most of us have consensual sex at one point or another, and it’s a word we use to describe the experience that, while varied, is still shared.  And because we already have a word for sex that is not consensual. It’s “rape.”

But time and time again, we see rape referred to as “sex,” often no matter how “clear-cut” the rape is.

Here’s one story from the NY Times, which describes a man as attempting to purchase sex with a girl of merely 5 years old – a girl who therefore could not have possibly consented under any circumstances whatsoever, and with whom any “sex” by its very nature would have to have been rape.

But at least this perpetrator is rightfully called a pedophile in the headline.  In this next example, a man who was convicted of sexually assaulting a two-year-old and a six-year-old gets his crime contradictorily referred to as a “toddler sex case” in the headline.

Now, I use these cases specifically because they’re so horrific. But while you may be thinking out there that it doesn’t matter what words are used, because everyone will intuitively understand that there is no such thing as consensual sex between adults and children, and certainly never any excuse for such a rape, think again.

Here’s one example where a judge ruled that a 10-year-old gang rape victim, quote, “probably agreed” to have sex. The prosecutor in the case also referred to the rape as, quote, “childish experimentation.”  This is only one case of many where children have been portrayed as to blame for their own rapes by the public and the courts – if we had the time here today, I could easily show you dozens.

And so it begs a question. If this is how we treat sexually abused children – a group that our society purports to adamantly defend, and constantly portrays as innocent and certainly not to ever blame for any wrong-doing committed against them, at least until it actually occurs – how exactly are we going to treat adults?  Adults who actually are capable of consenting to sex under many circumstances? Adults who actually do consent to sex under many circumstances? Adults who do horribly unforgivable things like drink, wear revealing clothing, and make decisions that might not be the wisest? If we treat rape as really just “sex” even when it comes to children, how is rape going to be treated for the adolescent and adult women who are the victims of rape far too often?

The short answer is: very, very poorly. Rape victims, and rape cases, are all around treated without nearly the amount of respect that they deserve.  The fact is that for reasons we don’t have time to delve into fully here, the public tends to be instantly skeptical towards rape claims.  The public also tends to not view most rapes – the ones that are not particularly brutal, committed through use of a weapon and by a stranger – as real crimes.

And biased reporting on rape that uses minimizing words like sex only exacerbates the problem.

What incorrectly using the word “sex” in cases of rape does is cast a shadow of doubt over the accusation.  The phrase “the defendant had sex with the woman” does indeed assume innocence for the defendant, but does not afford the alleged victim the same courtesy.  Her version of the events is entirely erased – and it also presents the “sex” as an objective fact, though the victim certainly might not view it as such. As far too many people don’t get, rape is not merely sex, but an act of violence – and this wording erases that as well.

By contrast, the phrase “the defendant is accused of raping the woman” assumes innocence for the defendant while correctly outlining the allegations of the victim and giving her side of the story equal credence.  It seems that by any objective standard, this is therefore the truly neutral language – and yet, we see the first example used time and time again under the name of neutrality and fairness.  Even though I never see the similarly, supposedly “neutral language” “the defendant obtained possession of the car” to describe an alleged robbery.

Here’s another example, where the word “sex” is used in the context of a victim who was unconscious. Of course, an unconscious individual is incapable of giving consent – but interestingly, this is one situation where I most commonly see the word incorrectly used.

And here is another, where the victim was admittedly drugged — and killed as a result of the drugging. Again, the victim could not possibly have consented if drugged, therefore making any excuse for the use of the word wholly invalid, but still we see not only the word sex used, but the phrase “date rape” put in scare quotes.

Though I could go on and on in this way, what I want to do is make the point that that this kind of language, and the attitudes it conveys and upholds, has consequences.  Most importantly, the language we use to discuss rape sways public opinion about who to believe in a rape case.  That, likewise, has a serious effect on whether or not a victim receives support from her friends and her community, and whether or not her perpetrator is properly prosecuted when charges are filed.  For one particularly sickening example, as you can see, the perpetrator in the case up on the screen now was sentenced to a mere 5 years in jail.

For another example, here’s a case where a judge ruled that the word “rape” could not be used in a rape trial, for fear that it would sway the jury, as though using the word “sex” in its place, even by the victim, would not sway the jury, not to mention be inaccurate.  Further, the jury was not told that the word was banned, and therefore left to think that the victim was choosing to use the word “sex” herself.  This decision was supposedly made in the interest of neutrality. The case resulted in two mistrials, and then was dropped.

And, unsurprisingly, these language choices and their consequences have an especially profound impact on those who are up against multiple oppressions.  A white, middle-class rape victim is already, as countless cases show, extremely unlikely to be believed as is.  But when we’re talking about a victim who, say, is poor, a woman of color, or has a disability, the denialism and excuses get even more far-fetched, and language matters even more.

This is what I call the status of being “unrapeable.”

“Unrapeable” is a word I use to describe a certain rape apologist mindset where a person is construed as incapable of being raped, because they exist in a permanent state of consent.  This can be based many things, including what they were wearing, what they were doing, etc. at the time of assault.  Though of course not a single person in this world is actually unrapeable, public opinion can make virtually anyone appear unrapeable.  And thanks to prejudice going beyond and overlapping with misogyny, some people are perceived as closer to being unrapeable already.

One example of this dynamic playing out is in an infamous case where Philadelphia’s Judge Deni ruled that a woman who was gang-raped at gun point could not actually have the case tried as a rape case. Instead, Judge Deni ruled that the woman’s horrific experience was a “theft of services.”

Why? Because the woman in question was a sex worker.  Because she was paid for sex – and because she initially consented to the man who orchestrated the rape – the judge ruled her, for all intents and purposes, unrapeable. The rape became mere sex, the crime not the violence and gross violation of bodily autonomy, but the lack of monetary compensation. And this was based on who she was, and stereotypes about what it means to be a sex worker.

Going back to the story of the 10-year-old girl whose gang rape was referred to as “childish experimentation” gives another example of overlapping oppression.  It bears strong noting that the girl in question was Aboriginal, a group that is highly oppressed both economically and socially in Australia, that she had been in and out of foster care prior to the rape, and is believed to have suffered sexual abuse before.  Her position as a girl of color with a low economic status and a history of sexual abuse is all quite inextricable from the fact that the judge in this case ruled her, even as a mere child, to be unrapeable. In fact, such a position would have only acted as encouragement.

Again, these are just a few examples of how the misuse of language in reporting and discussing sexual violence has an impact on the real world.  If there weren’t three more amazing presenters here today, I could easily show and discuss many more, including examples where language has been used to discredit victims based on gender identity, disability, immigration status, and more.

One final note I’d like to touch on, though, which is very heavily related to the way that rape is misconstrued as only sex, is the fairly recent phenomenon of “gray rape.” The term was created by virginity crusader Laura Sessions Stepp, and popularized by her article “A New Kind of Date Rape” in Cosmopolitan magazine.

Gray rape is defined as: “sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial and is even more confusing than date rape because often both parties are unsure of who wanted what.”  But after reading the descriptions in the article – in which the women upheld as victims of gray rape didn’t only all fail to say yes, but also all actually say no – it becomes clear that she’s just talking about rape – like all rape, no gray about it.

What Sessions-Stepp does is take the self-blame that rape victims often feel, because they’re told they should, and decides that yes, they kind of are to blame, and that makes the rape “gray.”  As Lisa Jervis argues in her in her essay in Yes Means Yes, the new feminist anthology on sexual violence, it’s really just date rape in new clothing.  The point of calling it gray rape is to argue falsely both that it’s no big deal, and that consent is confusing anyway. By making rape “gray” we make it into what all rape apologists see it as, anyhow – just bad or regretted sex.  We take away the actions and decisions made by the perpetrator, and we blame victims for the actions that supposedly got them raped.

And sadly, the phenomenon is catching on.  It didn’t take long to see a woman who reported rape to show up in the mainstream media referring to what was done to her as “gray rape” and explaining that she heard of the concept in Cosmo.

Again: language, especially that spread and legitimized through media, has consequences.  And sadly, these are only a few of many.

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{ 11 comments }

1 Therese March 31, 2009 at 4:32 pm

How disappointing that rape apologists still exist. What rape is seems to be very clear cut to me… I really admire your work and efforts with this issue.

2 Jill April 1, 2009 at 9:06 am

Ha, I felt like a mother at a school play! I was so proud of you!

Your panel was really, really awesome. And I know you worked extremely hard putting it together — it showed. Hopefully Deanna will post the pics I took very soon!

3 frau sally benz April 1, 2009 at 10:14 am

I’m definitely bookmarking this post so I can go back to it for references later on. I think the panel was great and all the elements came together very well. Your hard work definitely paid off!

4 Elena Perez April 2, 2009 at 6:28 pm

This is fantastic analysis. I just linked to it in a piece on the CA NOW blog: http://www.canow.org/canoworg/2009/04/sexual-assault-prevention-prosecution.html

5 Liz April 3, 2009 at 11:56 pm

The time I was nearly on a jury for a rape trial it became very clear that believing that there *weren’t* unrapeable women was enough to get you kicked off the jury. It was completely horrifying. It was also clear that most of the rest of the prospective jurors thought there were plenty of reasons why you couldn’t be raped. Reason number one was being a sex worker or having been one at any time. Scary stuff.

6 FilthyGrandeur April 4, 2009 at 10:48 am

it’s so frustrating that we even need to have this sort of conversation–i mean it all seems so basic, and yet here we are discussing how language is powerful, and only reinforces our rape culture. thank you for posting this.

7 Rebecca_J April 4, 2009 at 11:19 am

Wonderful article. The use of the word sex where rape would be more accurate, always pisses me off.
Once I sent a letter to a local reporter upbraiding him for his use of the word “sex” to describe a man raping young children. He agreed with me that it was wrong but said that he had no choice, and I should take it up with the editor. Here is the editor’s response: “I understand your point, but I don’t think anyone who reads our story, with the terms that are used, would confuse what [the rapist] did with consensual sex. Rape is no longer used in the legal lexicon in Canada…I see little point in debating terms when it is perfectly clear what this man did.”
It was annoying – he totally missed the point of my letter, which was that using the term sex makes it seem less important & less traumatizing, whether the reader understands “what the man did” or not. As for rape being not part of the legal lexicon, he could have at the least used “sexual assault.” I lacked a full understanding of how to respond to his rebuttal but I think I understand the issue better after having read your article.

8 Natasha April 5, 2009 at 9:58 pm

It took me well over ten years after I walked out on an abusive man to understand that the word “rape” applied to most of the “sex” “we” “had.” The “gray rape” situation is that he threatened to throw me out if I said no (after the first time). So I never said it– but I always tried-hard to physically fight him off. My blood runs cold as I remember my lover ( I did love him) explaining to me that “I wouldn’t have to hurt you (when we have sex) if you wouldn’t fight me.” This is a man who would consider himself gentle as a lamb.

9 N.M. January 28, 2010 at 12:23 am

Great post and congrats on the panel. You make some great observations on language, and I feel it’s this way because everyone is just scared to come to terms with rape and take it as seriously as it needs to me. Makes me so mad to think about it. Thanks for posting.

10 Acey February 1, 2010 at 7:19 pm

“Wife” is sometimes also another word for an unrapeable woman in a rape culture, unfortunately.

11 Alexandra Signorile-Cote March 30, 2010 at 5:09 pm

THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU!!! For that part on “gray rape.” I remember reading an article that discussed it once and said that there are some cases where she said it was rape and he said it was sex and they are both right. Yet, in the examples I read, it was pretty clear to me that they were all rape. In the example I remember, and I’m paraphrasing:

A young man states he and his friend got drunk at a party and had sex. “We both woke up and regretted it, so we didn’t talk about it.” And he was surprised and hurt to learn that later, she had told a friend that he had torn her clothes and raped her.

Later, he states, “There might be a “no” and there might be a “please,” but it’s not the same. It’s not rape.”

So regardless of whether he had torn her clothes or not, he admits that she “might” have said “no” or “please.” Sounds like rape to me. And since she was pretty clear in what she said, and he can’t seem to be, I’m inclined more to believe her side of story, including the torn clothing.

In another example, “a woman might be found curled up on the lawn one morning and say that she was raped, but it might not be entirely the case.” Oh? And how did she get there? Did they have sex on the lawn and then he got up and left? And he didn’t think it was strange that she remained on the lawn? He just…left her there? That doesn’t make a lot of sense and doesn’t seem very “gray” to me either. It sounds like he raped her and left her.

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