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.

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2 comments on “On rape, non-consensual sex, and the uses of language

  1. Ruth Hartling says:

    Non-consensual sex is legally rape. Period. And rightfully so. Someone can be inebriated and still consent to sex, but if an individual is too drunk or drugged to know what’s going on and someone else takes advantage, it’s still rape.

    The term once applied only to situations involving coercion, but I think the recent broadening of the definition has come in tandem with a social shift in which we are less prone to blame the victim. To my mind, using the term “non-consensual sex” shifts responsibility away from the perpetrator, and I think using this language at colleges and universities is sending the wrong message to young men.

    • andrewdcole says:

      Right, and I’m not trying to argue that we should never use the term “rape,” or that some forms of non-consensual sex somehow aren’t rape. My point is that, quite apart from its legal (or moral) definition, in so many people’s minds the term “rape” is so loaded with certain imagery and associations that sometimes it shuts down discussions that need to be kept open. And those discussions, those ears and mouths and minds and hearts, need to be kept open so that administrators, actual and potential victims, and actual and potential perpetrators can identify patterns that need to be changed, recognize that some things they themselves have done are in fact wrong, or admit and accept things that have been done to them so they can seek healing.

      For some people, “rape” is exactly the right term to use, because it impresses upon them the horror and gravity of the situation and makes them take the issue seriously. But for others, “rape” is so repugnant or threatening a term that, if it is invoked too early, they disengage from the conversation–which is the opposite of what needs to happen–whereas a less loaded term like “non-consensual sex” might make them more willing to speak and listen. That’s why I ended the post by saying we shouldn’t take either term off the table.

      Articles like Dvorak’s leave me with the impression that some well-meaning advocates are trying to attack the problem of rape mainly by expanding people’s understanding of what constitutes “rape” (by which I mean that they’re pointing out other things that really are rape, not that they’re inappropriately subsuming other things under that label) and then framing the discussion entirely in terms of “rape,” without considering whether that’s always the most helpful thing to do. We all want rape–in all its forms–to stop happening, and correcting misconceptions about what constitutes rape is an important step and often a good early step, but I’m not convinced it must always and everywhere be the first one taken; sometimes it should, but sometimes just getting people engaged with the issue has to happen first, and sometimes something else. When it comes to addressing issues like rape, we humans are generally much too quick to make the approaches or restrictions we favor, even those with considerable merit, one-size-fits-all, when in fact one size hardly ever fits all.

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