How Not to Confuse “Rape” With a Fun Slang Word

*TRIGGER WARNING—talk of sexual assault in terms of fact patterns*

Over the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of misuses of the word “rape,” from everyone from teenage boys trying to sound cool as they navigate their identities in our dysfunctional sexual culture to hysterical, possibly well-meaning anti-sex types using the word in a way that conflates the introduction of any impurity with rape.

As a writer, I can appreciate that language is ever-evolving; however, as both a writer and advocate, I also insist that we not water down or bastardize key words in ways that undercut their meaning or significance when we really need them. Words like “literally” and “unique” have taken on new, antithetical meanings that are all but eviscerating their real meanings. This is likely to upset only the geekiest grammarians (myself included) among us.

Unfortunately, in our culture today, this is also happening with the word rape. Unfortunately, in our culture today, we still quite often need the strength of the literal meaning of the word “rape” as we try to use the right word for what has happened to us, a family member, or friend. We need the discomfort and shock this word bring makes us to convey how awful, how evil, how condemnable the real act of rape is. Yet we are beginning to use it in silly ways that water down its significance, reducing the power of this word to convey its awful reality. 

Certainly women, of which I am one, and survivors, of which I am also one, have bigger fish to fry. As an activist who grew up working-class (and a survivor of very real CSA), I generally focus on those more pressing, tangible issues, rather than what some might dismiss as theoretical, first-world, or semantics. But this seemingly theoretical issue has real-world implications.

I will spare you an abstract lecture on how words have power. Let’s just assume, arguendo, that a society’s use of words do both reflect what’s going on and continue to affect what goes on in that society.

Let’s talk, instead, about what rape really means, so that we can understand what’s so horribly wrong when we misappropriate its meaning. Generally, rapists inflict rape on others out of some mix of indifference toward another person’s suffering and an active interest in dominating, humiliating, and dehumanizing another human being.

When we use this word to signal the positives of these traits of domination, humiliation, and dehumanization, we water down the word while glorifying much of what it represents. Overuse of this deservedly dark word threatens to water it down until the word rape is no longer shocking—no longer associated with the unsettling evil and uncomfortable realities it represents.

Plus, lest the non-grammar geeks among us forget, dictionary definitions are, quite democratically, updated based on popular usage. If we continue to misuse this word in a variety of settings, we may end up with two very uncomfortable dictionary definitions side by side; one describing this terrible, somehow common crime we claim to disown—a crime that disregards another’s humanity–the other, a way to prove at the expense of someone/something that you’re cool and dominant.

What would that say about our sexual culture or our level of sincerity in condemning rape as a violation of our laws and norms? Does the spectre of these definitions side by side prove Robert Jensen right that rape is both nominally condemned and perfectly normal within our sexual culture?

Clearly, we need to talk about how we are using (and misusing) this word.

So, to help us mind our p’s and q’s, I have compiled a short do’s and don’ts usage list for the word “rape.”

Things the Word “Rape” Really Means: Or, Accurate Uses of the Word “Rape:”

The (outdated) dictionary definition offers this: “Rape, v. To force (someone) to have sex with you by using violence or the threat of violence.” Modern legal definitions vary slightly, but most require having sexual intercourse with a person who does not or cannot consent to having sexual intercourse with you.

In practice, rape may involve a rapist holding a victim down as he or she cries and begs the rapist to stop, beating him/her into silence, getting him/her too drunk or drugged to remember anything but traumatic fragments, violating his or her trust, relying on his or her frozen panic, or by persuading him or her as a small child that this is what adults and children do.

There are many more ways, too, but you get the picture. Rape involves really profoundly, awfully hurting someone through sex they don’t actually want to be having. Rape cases involve facts so sad that we would rather pretend it does not happen; when confronted with cases showing that it does, we often find ways to distance ourselves from the victim’s humanity, or our own susceptibility or complicity, through victim-blaming and other means of desperate psychological self-deception.

Popular definitions and feelings about the word generally reflect the real gravity of rape, occasional rape jokes and Tosh.O hate speech defenders aside. But alas, popular usage is slipping, allowing new uses that debase this word and reduce its power to convey what rape really, literally involves. At best, these debasements desensitize us to hearing the word and recalling its true, awful meaning, taking away the horror it should convey; over time, this may make us maybe care just a little less, be shocked just a little less, when we hear about this idea of this “rape” thing really happening. At its worst, this gradual debasement just explicitly reinforces many rapists’ beliefs, and certain supportive social messages, that rape is a cool thing you do when you’re a cool guy.

So, what’s a man or woman to do?

To help you out, here are some examples of permissible usage:

1 in 6 women and at least 1 in 33 men are survivors of rape or attempted rape.

Rape victims commonly experience post-traumatic stress disorder that robs them of things others take for granted in their everyday lives.

Many survivors of child or adult rape will contemplate, attempt, or commit suicide.

Rapists typically rape repeatedly throughout their sad, worthless lives.

Many colleges have failed to take on-campus rapes seriously and have instead tried to make victims go away.

Things the Word “Rape” Does Not Mean: Or, How to Avoid Sounding Like an Insensitive Ass in a Few Easy Steps

Here are some examples of what rape does not mean. Where you just can’t find a good alternative to using the word rape, try a thesaurus, or consult a therapist to help you address your deeply ingrained ideas about dominance and aggression over others being desirable goals.

Whatever you do, please kindly refrain from misusing it in the following situations:

v. To be cooler than someone or something. For example, as overheard from a teenage boy, “Man, I totally raped that video game.”

No. No, you didn’t. Unless you violently put your penis inside it, which raises a whole other set of issues outside the scope of this little article (if so, see the recommendations on therapy, above). Let’s not start confusing rape with non-rape attempts to be cooler than someone or something. Because rape victims end up seriously hurting as a result of something that is decidedly not cool at all. They are more likely to feel compelled to do sucky things like drop out of school, commit suicide, cry and flash back during later consensual sex, or remain unable to trust other people.

People who cause these problems for others have not proven they are cooler than anyone; in fact, they have proven quite the opposite. On the whole, we know that rapists are pretty lame excuses for human beings. Though they look and publicly act like everyone else, rapists are in fact sad, twisted, rather uncool losers whom you can’t trust around your friends, your sister, your wife, your kid, or possibly your video games. They have chosen to blend in while secretly remaining losers who would rather disregard or hurt other people than have real, consensual sex with other adults (which is actually a much, much cooler thing to do).

In short: people who actually rape do things like serve prison time (albeit not nearly often enough), register as sex offenders who can’t be trusted to live near virtually anyone, appear in court to defend their illegal, disgusting actions, and generally think they are entitled to get what they want regardless of other people’s rights. Rapists generally do their best to ruin another person’s life.

Really, does any of this sound cool at all?

Rape victims, on the other hand, tend to receive the sympathy they deserve and can gradually rebuild their lives to be even stronger than they were before a loser hurt them. So in the long run, they are much cooler than the sad sacks who rape.

v. To dominate or “show” something that deserves it. For example, “Man, you really raped that stupid thing!”

This misuse of the word is simply silly, since really, no one ever deserves to be raped.

Plus, by definition, rape doesn’t happen to things; it happens to living, breathing people who will be forced to suffer its consequences for years to come. Using it when someone is successfully dominating a thing just waters down its power to describe something horrifying, something we should reject, possibly reinforcing our culture’s messages that rape is about finding affirmation through dominating an inferior thing, rather than unjustifiably hurting a real person. Like the usage above, this also appears to confuse rape with something that cool guys do to be cool and powerful. In reality, when actually cool guys have sex, it’s consensual—so, not involving rape. Remember, rapists are never cool, so using the word this way just makes you and your friend sound like selfish losers whom no one likes or can trust, instead of really cool guys.

v. To make something uncomfortable or impure. For example, as seen on a recent, purportedly progressive page: “Images of sexualized adults everywhere are raping our children’s minds!”

You know what truly rapes our children’s minds? The adults who rape their bodies. 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 20 boys, are raped in this country before they reach age 18. Many more here and around the world will be sold for sex, which amounts to serial rapes. The trauma rape inflicts on a child (or adult’s) body and mind is gut-wrenching, and goes far beyond being made uncomfortable. To confuse it with being made impure only worsens the stigma around victims of rape (who already feel impure enough, thank you).

By all means, address underlying and arguably related problems of our culture of sexual objectification, but please do so without overusing and watering down its most heinous, severe, traumatic manifestation.

v. To dominate or destroy an object that does not deserve it, but cannot literally suffer from it. For example, “We are raping the earth!” or, as a female friend of mine recently posted, “Facebook’s uploader rapes high-quality pictures.”

Probably not the worst offender on this list, since at least it connotes something bad, something that violates another thing’s sovereignty or existence—almost sounds like we’re using rape to describe things analogous to actual rape, right?

Ultimately, though, misusing this word this way still reinforces the idea that to rape is to successfully dominate, and dominate a thing—and here, seemingly, in a way that is actually quite useful and perhaps a natural/inevitable part of a relationship (at least to most of any non-ecofeminist audience). This is probably not a good message for humanizing or defending your object, but it is a reliable way to help dehumanize real victims and devalue their real suffering.

Overusing “rape” weakens the capacity of this heavy, carefully used word to remind us of the gravity of sexual violence against real live people, which should never be but increasingly is used as a joke.

Plus, inflammatory language like this detracts from your otherwise legitimate points. First off, overusing this word almost cavalierly may make survivors in your audience feel sick (and possibly flash back to the real thing they or someone they care about endured); this distracts your audience and makes them associate your argument with places they don’t want to go. Plus, this hyperbolic comparison that is bound to make the thing to which you are comparing rape look silly and ultimately not so bad in comparison. Like comparing everything with which you disagree to Nazism, or comparing some trivial wrong to a much worse trauma like the real horrors of American slavery, this is just a bad way to make your argument. In fact, “rape” is really out of place in any argument that has to do with anything but, well, rape. Because in reality, rape sucks, and hurts, and when you water it down to meaning nothing, you undermine your cause and mine.

So please, let’s think before we misuse rape. Expand your vocabulary and take “rape” out of the words you wantonly throw around without thinking. You, as well as your friends, your Facebook or Twitter followers, any younger boys who look up to or overhear you, and whoever else your audience may include, will be better for it.

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