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.


What Fred Phelps’ death makes me think of

To anyone who’s been keeping track, yes, in keeping with my Lenten project, I was due to post yesterday. A combination of some disappointing news and the need that news created to have a beer with a buddy of mine scuttled the blogging plan. Not that I’ve been terribly rigorous with it in the first place, but hey.

(Also, if that’s you, I’m happy you’re reading my blog, but you might want to find a more worthy hobby than tracking the regularity of my posting. Might I suggest learning an instrument, taking a drawing class, or finally reading that book that’s been on your shelf for six years?)

Anyway, in the spirit of commenting on current events for a change, Fred Phelps, founder of the small but infamous Westboro Baptist Church and notorious spewer of anti-homosexual vitriol, died on Wednesday.

As many problems as I had with the guy’s message and his tactics, I can’t say his death makes me happy as such; he was a human being, after all, however little the rest of us might like to admit that fact. I can’t exactly say I’m crushed with grief, either, though; the world doesn’t really need anyone perpetuating a message of hate the way he and his followers did. (Incidentally, Phelps’ death doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the Westboro folks will get any quieter or more loving, so I’m not assuming we’ve heard the last of them.) If anything, I might hope and pray that, sometime before his death, Phelps repented of the hate and judgmentalism he had spent so many years spreading. Whether he actually did is, of course, between him and God now.

But there’s a point I want to make about the way Christians, especially American Protestants of a more conservative or evangelical bent, think about homosexuality. Certainly an awful lot of us reject the hate and judgment spewed by the Westboro crowd. Whatever any given Christian may think about same-sex attraction, same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, and same-sex marriages and unions–and there’s plenty of debate about these things, even among evangelicals, despite media portrayals to the contrary–most Christians agree that hating people runs contrary to the message of Jesus.

The refrain often heard among Christians opposed to homosexuality is that we are to “love the sinner but hate the sin.” That is, Christians are meant to oppose actions which are sinful, evil, morally wrong, and/or contrary to the precepts laid out in the Bible, but at the same time to welcome, embrace, serve, and care for the people who do those actions.

Whatever one may think of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” the distinction is often lost on outside observers. One reason, I suspect, is a legacy of the identity politics adopted in the 1980s and 1990s by some advocates for the LGBTQ community. Some folks identified so strongly with their sexual orientation or sexual preference that they effectively erased any distinction between what they do and who they are. What I do is so entwined with who I am, the logic goes, that if you hate what I do, you do hate me; loving me requires loving and accepting what I do. And the media attention given to people who spoke this way cemented the association, so that even today a great many Americans assume that loving (or hating) a person’s actions must be part and parcel of loving (or hating) the person.

But another reason, and for my purposes today a far more important reason, lies in the attitudes of Christians themselves–ourselves, I should say, since, although I’m trying to stop thinking this way, sometimes I still fail. The problem is that, when we look at a person whom we identify with a certain kind of sin (usually but not always one or another sexual sin), too often all we see is the sin. We tell ourselves that we love the person and it’s only the sin that we hate, but it’s awfully hard to love people whom you don’t see even when you’re looking right at them. And it’s also hard to convince people that you’re distinguishing between who a person is and what a person does when all you see, and consequently all you react to, is what the person does.

Now, as I say, there are Christians who fall along a whole spectrum of viewpoints about same-sex attraction, homosexual activity, same-sex unions, and other issues related to sex and sexuality. As though to illustrate precisely this point, a few years ago a group of Christians at a gay pride parade in Chicago took a very different approach from that of the nearby protesters by apologizing to the gay community for their harsh, judgmental treatment. And I’m not trying to settle the discussion today, or even stake out a position in it. What I’m trying to say is that, whatever you may think about issues of sexual attraction, sexual activity, or sexual identity–and, for that matter, whatever you may think about people who disagree with you on those issues–“Love thy neighbor” still applies. And loving thy neighbor requires seeing thy neighbor, even if thou must first train thyself to look.

It’s that sort of training that has allowed me to see, among other things, that no matter how objectionable, even evil, I may have found his actions, Fred Phelps was still a human being.