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