The Sexist

Verbal Assault: The Abuse and Debasement of “Rape”

Monday, Sept. 28, was a good day for the sexual assault euphemism.

Discussing the Roman Polanski case with the ladies of The View, Whoopi Goldberg mitigated accusations that Polanski drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl by insisting that the crime wasn’t “rape-rape.” In a statement to the United Nations that same day, Vatican rep Archbishop Silvano Tomasi spun the public outcry over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church by clarifying that the priests “involved in the abuses” are not pedophiles but “ebophiles,” a “sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17.”

Both Goldberg and Tomasi were criticized for employing wordplay that minimized sexual assault. “Look, sex with underage boys is an area where you don’t want to be displaying your connoisseurship and nitpicking about aesthetic distinctions,” the Economist chided Tomasi. The blog Jezebel called Goldberg’s repetition a product of the actor’s “fantastical moral universe.” In that universe, anything less terrifying than the most barbaric form of rape doesn’t deserve to live under the same terminological roof.

How did we get to a place where “rape” needed to be repeated to mean anything?

In ancient law, rape was seen as an affront to female chastity as opposed to a violation of the human body. Raping a married woman robbed her husband of his property; raping an unmarried virgin robbed the woman’s family of her future value in marriage. Rape inside marriage was impossible, as a man could not rob what was already his. Similarly, a woman’s premarital sexual activity in effect nullified the crime of rape—women who chose to have sex outside of marriage had already devalued themselves and had no chastity left to steal.

Modern models of sexual assault have evolved to view rape as a crime against a victim as opposed to a victim’s male relatives. But these outmoded conceptions still invade our thinking about sexual assault. Spousal rape has been illegal throughout the United States since 1993, but many states still view the crime as a lesser offense than rape by a stranger. In many jurisdictions, only vaginal penetration by a penis is considered “rape” because of the potential of the act to produce offspring—and a cuckolded husband. The FBI manages to ignore an entire class of rape victims: men. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, “Forcible rape…is the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” In the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), a mechanism the Justice Department employs to track crime rates, males can be considered victims of rape, but same-sex assaults are entirely obscured: “at least one offender must be of a different sex than the victim for the event to be classified as a forcible rape.”

Part of the trouble over the modern definition of “rape” originates from the term “statutory rape,” used to describe sex between an adult and a minor deemed too young to consent to the activity. Initially, the motivation behind statutory rape law was indistinguishable from that of ancient rape law: guard the chastity of the unmarried women. Defenders of “age of consent” laws have since adopted a more compelling rationale for the legislation: protect young people from sexual coercion and abuse. According to a Guttmacher Institute study, women “who become sexually active at an early age are especially likely to have experienced coercive sex: Seventy-four percent of women who had intercourse before age 14 and 60 percent of those who had sex before age 15 report having had a forced sexual experience.”

Because a lack of consent is so difficult to prove in rape cases, modern statutory rape law arose to address the frequency of sexual abuse against minors by turning lack of consent into an irrefutable
fact. But while “statutory rape” persists to protect youth against rape, it also punishes autonomous teens who are told that, just like in the olden times, young women aren’t allowed to choose sex. The
term’s conflation of sex partner and rape victim has resulted in some troubling cultural perceptions—from Goldberg’s assertion that statutory rapes are necessarily not “real” rapes, to the idea that
women who choose to have sex before turning 18 are necessarily victims.

These highly restrictive and often arbitrary legal definitions of rape have also failed victims struggling to effectively describe their own experiences. In the 1980s, the term “date rape” arose in order to
address rapes committed by friends, partners, or acquaintances of the victim. The term gave voice to victims who had been told that pursuing relationships outside of marriage qualified as a compromise of that ancient chastity requirement. Today, “date rape” scenarios constitute 90 percent of rape cases. The vast majority of the time, rape is date rape. But there remains a reluctance to drop the “date” qualifier from the equation. By emphasizing the circumstances surrounding the sexual assault—circumstances that the victim helped create by agreeing to the date, making friends, or having sex—the term can still imply that a “date rape” is somehow less than a “real” rape.

In 2005, Pulitzer Prize–winning sex writer Laura Sessions Stepp heard the term “gray rape” for the first time. She was teaching a journalism class at George Washington University when a group of students told her that they used the term to describe sexual experiences marked by drunkenness, memory loss, and questionable consent. “I remember coming home to my husband after that class and saying, ‘Oh my God—you’ll never believe what they’re calling this,’” says Stepp.

While the term helped Stepp’s students to discuss an underreported experience on college campuses, it also carved out a convenient space for self-blaming. Victims who are traditionally ignored and devalued by the legal system—intoxicated, promiscuous, or male victims—may latch on to the term “gray rape” in order to describe their experiences without faulting their assailants. In 2005, the GW Hatchet entered “gray rape” into the public record for the first time this decade. In the story, GW student James Daley says he “woke up one morning naked and drunk in an unfamiliar apartment with condoms strewn about the room,” and later deduced that a girl had bought him “a lot of drinks”and led Daley to her room. Daley told the Hatchet “he felt taken advantage of and would not have hooked up with her if he had not been so drunk,” feelings that might prompt a sexual assault investigation—if “gray rape” weren’t there to imply this kind of thing happens to everyone.

In 2008, D.C.-area writer Latoya Peterson coined the term “not-rape” to describe experiences that fell outside the limited legal and cultural definitions of sexual assault. “The language surrounding rape is so strict, any experience which does not reach this very high level of scrutiny is completely disregarded,” says Peterson. To Peterson, “not-rape” is an attempt to give a voice to assaults that are
self-repressed, unreported, or silenced. “In our culture, the word can have even more power than the action,” she says. “We’re so invested in not accusing someone of rape, we completely lose sight of all these terrible things that happen to women and girls.”

Terms like “date rape,” “gray rape,” and “not-rape” help reveal serious offenses that are nevertheless denied recognition as legitimate “rapes.” They also represent a challenge to a definition of
rape that is finely tuned to ignore the majority of victims, sensationalize the least likely offenses, and shame those who would call their experiences what they know them to be: rape.

Illustration by Bonnie Kennedy

  • recursiveparadox

    Wait... spousal rape was outlawed in 1993? Fuck my life. What is wrong with this goddamn country?

    I was 8 when spousal rape was still legal. Holy fucking ridiculous shit.

  • Former Staffer

    recursive...everything. did you see the nutjobs want to rewrite the bible because its too liberal? i thought they were convinced it was the DIRECT WORD OF GOD.

    yet being kind to your neighbor means keeping them from getting health care and coveting their wife...oh wait.

  • Simon

    Hard to place a date on when spousal rape was made illegal. It's a matter of state law and there are 50 states. I'd guess there's about a 30-year span between the first state to criminalize it and the last state. Then there's also the civil/criminal divide (in some states, to this day, it constitutes a crime but not actionable battery because of spousal immunity laws put in place to prevent insurance fraud).

  • piecesofstring

    Jesus, might want to put a trigger warning on that picture.

  • Mike Mitchell

    Here's what I read in a blog. Sounds possible. And possible means Beyond Reasonable Doubt. Maybe you don't have that concept over there in America?

    "The reason that Polanski was offered a plea of statutory rape was that the psychiatrists who examined Polanski thought Polanski wasn't capable of it, and those who examined the girl thought she might be embellishing the truth under the coaching of her mother and the prosecution. In any case, a much reduced plea was offered because those who had to prosecute the case didn't see much of a chance of winning it."

  • Toysoldier

    The reason there are different "versions" of rape is because the term has been whittled down to include anything from forcible assault to regretted sex, as long as the victim is female. All the existing language surrounding this issue is a direct result of certain politically-motivated groups pushing for an extremely broad definition, although again it is applicable only to female victims. That is why the bulk of the language excludes male victims, why the bulk language excludes female rapists, and why the language itself is so clouded. What counts as rape is arbitrarily decided by certain politically-motivated groups who generally have little genuine concern for victims.

    Changing that dynamic means one would have to start by challenging those who introduced the convoluted terms "date rape," "gray rape" and "not rape," although doing so would likely result in one being accused of promoting "rape culture" or being a "rape apologist."

  • Gretchen Paules

    The Let Go...Let Peace Come In Foundation is a newly formed nonprofit with a mission to help heal and support adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse worldwide. We are actively seeking adult survivors who would be willing to post a childhood photo and caption, their story, or their creative expressions to our website We need to "show" the world that we will no longer be silenced and that there are enough of us to make a difference. By uniting survivors from across the globe we can help provide a stronger and more powerful voice to those survivors who have not yet found the courage to speak out. Together we can; together we should; together we NEED to stand up and be counted. Please visit our site for more details on how you can send us your submissions.

    Thank you for everything you do!

    Gretchen Paules
    Administrative Director
    Let Go...Let Peace Come In Foundation
    111 Presidential Blvd., Suite 212
    Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

  • Pingback: Verbal Assault: The Abuse and Debasement of “Rape” « Torrent Magazine

  • Shiyuan

    Reminds of me of these conversations I used to have in college about whether language matters. (I went to a women's college, & there would always be male professors that liked to refer to students as "girls" and our college as "a girl's school,' thinking that it made no difference.

    How we obfuscate the problem of sexual violence with new words & qualifiers, and categories of injury, really gets under my skin.

    And now, with the student at Hofstra University recanting her rape accusations, it just encourages people who weren't sympathetic to the stories of rape survivors to begin with to down play the severity of sexual assault.

    Meanwhile, the responsibility of preventing sexual assault falls squarely on the woman's shoulders. It's her responsibility to watch her drink, not go out alone, not dress too slutty, act too suggestively, rather than the man's responsibility to not rape her.

    My thoughts on that here:

    Sexual violence & violence against women is, unfortunately, not a problem of a few bad apples – that is, a small minority of men commit all the crimes, & their actions, however abhorrent, do not reflect on society as a whole. Rather, it's a systemic problem – that more men cross the line than you think, that more women experience assault than you know, and that all of our silences contribute to an environment that’s hostile towards women & forgiving towards men.

  • ben

    i think the picture is very cool

  • Pingback: The Date Rape Drug Is An Urban Myth. Let’s Put It to Rest. - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • Pingback: Legal Consent, Morning-After Regret, and “Accidental” Rape - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • Pingback: Male Rape Victims And the Penetration Problem - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • ddrt

    I hate how family guy slips in an elongated spot specifically for a rape joke in the newest seasons. It's sickening. (ex. aquaman not being able to get out of the water(?wtf) to help a girl being raped on the beach and they even have her say "stop it, he's hurting me!" ) They do this quite often and it's very annoying, not funny or pushing boundaries, just inappropriate and annoying.

  • Bianca

    Ebophile? Did you mean Ephebophile?

  • Tyciol

    Goldberg and Tomasi were right though. I completely disagree with the idea that now is not a time to 'show off wordplay'.

    Using accurate terminology is INCREDIBLY important. It is NOT minimization. Rather, it is clarification. If anyone is guilty of skewing things, it is those who lack proper vocabulary and sensationalize things with words used in a way deviating from their proper definitions.