A feature of many polite discussions about rape is the odd refusal to talk about ‘rape’. We can talk about ‘taking advantage’ of someone, we can discuss their ‘inappropriate behaviour’. We can even describe the incident as ‘having sex’. How does this polite language affect people’s ideas about what has happened?
‘Having sex’ legitimises what the rapist has done. The two were just having sex, and that suggests a mutual desire. It’s not just ‘having sex’. It’s rape. But the euphemism re-frames the discussion. It makes it a discussion about a legitimate honest act that has gone a wee bit wrong. It makes it nice and clean and about a disagreement in bed rather than the ugly, dirty truth of rape.
‘Inappropriate behaviour’ insinuates that it’s not a big thing, it’s something that can be dealt with in-house. The sort of thing that doesn’t even really need to go upstairs to HR. ‘Inappropriate behaviour’ also has connotations of childishness. Children are often reprimanded for inappropriate behaviour at school, for doing things that may be vaguely sexual, but that are more an issue for the parents to resolve. The overall impression given is that it’s not a big deal, it’s not important, and not worth any real fuss, but the truth is that rape is a huge things for both parties, it’s important, and it should be dealt with at the highest level possible. You don’t tell school-age rapist’s school to deal with the discipline of the rapist or the difficulties that the victims will have. You send it straight up to the cops.
‘Taking advantage’ of someone is my least favourite of these euphemisms. It’s such a bland phrase, so innocent. It’s something you do with the stock market, with the price of pineapple, with a nice day. It has so many applications that when you get around to its sex-crime application, it’s just boring. It normalises rape, it makes it just a person using a window of opportunity to have sex with someone else. That’s insulting. Rape is not bland. It’s destructive and powerful and shouldn’t be wiped away with a mild little phrase.
By using language like this, we take the sting out of the idea of rape. Rape should have a sting, though. It should stir up a visceral anger at an abhorrent crime. It’s not polite, but these little phrases need to go, to be replaced with what they’re really talking about: rape. Language has so much power, and victims are often vulnerable to the language people use to discuss either themselves or other victims. Minimising rape by using polite language hurts the victims all over again. It can feel like you’re supporting the person that raped you, or it can make them feel like maybe they weren’t really raped. Re-victimising the already vulnerable with your words is cruel.
We need to stop softening our language when we talk about rape. We need to be honest with ourselves and stop trying to obscure the ugly dirtiness of rape.