On rape, non-consensual sex, and the uses of language

In an April 28 column for the Washington Post, Petula Dvorak laments the use of the term “non-consensual sex” for acts that used to be called–or ought to be called–“rape.” The new label, she says, has “become part of the weaseling, whitewashing way we deal with sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape” and renders it “too easy to minimize the scope of the problem” and threatens to allow predators and perpetrators to elude justice.

On one hand, she’s got a point. As labels go, “non-consensual sex” does sound euphemistic and insufficiently severe, rather like calling a robbery a “non-consensual donation” or something. It certainly fails to communicate the sense of trauma, horror, and violation that “rape” does. Swapping out “rape” for “non-consensual sex” in all cases and contexts would certainly be a serious mistake.

At the same time, whether Dvorak likes it or not, for most people the word “rape” carries connotations not merely of sex without consent but of sex by force. That means that, when most people hear the word “rape,” some of the things she wants to call “rape” don’t spring to mind. And that, in turn, means that some of the incidents Dvorak wants to call “rape” (putatively consensual sex between drunk people, for example, even though drunkenness nullifies putative consent) won’t get reported as rape or sexual assault.

“Non-consensual sex,” however, encompasses all forms of rape, sexual assault, drunk sex, and other sexual activity without consent, forcible or not. Its breadth invites people to recognize–and identify as wrong–a larger variety of sexual evils than most would identify as “rape.”

And that means that a label like “non-consensual sex” may even bring more incidents and patterns of sexual wrongdoing to light than a label like “rape” would, precisely because “non-consensual sex” is both broader and less freighted with specific kinds of imagery than “rape.” Dvorak’s own second paragraph supports this point, as does the Al Jazeera article linked therein:

The “non-consensual sex” rebranding is courtesy of Brett Sokolow, a lawyer who has been advising colleges and universities about dealing with rape on their campuses for the past 15 years. He told Al Jazeera America that college administrations don’t want to say the word “rape” and don’t want to believe their students could be rapists. But once he changed the term to “non-consensual sex,” the conversations were much easier. Focus groups loved it. Rape lite.

Certainly institutions invite PR nightmares when they take any action that appears to admit the existence of rape on their campuses, but “sexual assault” carries a bit less stigma, and “non-consensual sex” less still, so administrators can use those labels on their prevention-and-response programs with fewer worries. By the same token, the horror and violation inherent in the concept of “rape” keep plenty of victims from coming forward and plenty of perpetrators from accepting responsibility, facing justice, or reforming their ways.

And therein lies the tradeoff. Changing the language may trivialize evil that shouldn’t be trivialized, but it may also loosen some tongues that badly need to be loosened.

Thing is, despite Dvorak’s indignation at the change in terms, sometimes there is value in calling it “rape” and sometimes there’s value in calling it “non-consensual sex.” There’s probably value in using other terms sometimes, too; much depends on what the community–the whole community, including victims, administrators, perpetrators, and everyone else as well–needs in a given situation.

Sometimes it’s in everyone’s best interest to use the stronger terms to emphasize the evil of the actions and the severity of the problem. But sometimes it’s in everyone’s best interest to use the less freighted terms so people who might not otherwise talk about the problem finally will. Determining which situations call for which kind of term may be challenging, but discarding terms of either kind would be a mistake.