"We ask the wrong question," said Vice President Joe Biden of protecting college students from rape. "We continue to ask questions like, 'What were you wearing? What did you say, what did you do?' "
Those remarks came Tuesday afternoon as part of a larger White House push to combat rape on college campuses, with the administration releasing new guidelines for colleges and universities around the country.
Biden's comment is particularly apt because it emphasizes the role of word choice in how we think about college rape. What do authorities ask? How do victims relay their story? Do they tell their story at all? While rape is extremely common—one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college—just 12 percent of such attacks are ever reported. When they are, too many universities fail to take the appropriate actions.
The Obama administration hopes to jump-start the dialogue around those issues by, among other things, providing schools with a tool kit designed to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus; issuing guidelines to make sure students know there are on-campus counselors they can talk to in confidence; and rolling out a new website, www.NotAlone.gov, aimed at making enforcement data and legal resources publicly available.
It's an important step in making college rape a national focus, but in lowering barriers to the conversation, the White House and others risk softening language around the issue. That's not an accusation so much as a reminder that how—and not just whether—we talk about rape matters a great deal.
Brett Sokolow, a lawyer who has long advised colleges on how to deal with rape on their campuses, advocates the use of the term "non-consensual sex" on the grounds that college administrators don't want to say the word "rape" or believe the logical extension: that their students may be rapists. Using "non-consensual sex" makes conversations easier.
But as The Washington Post's Petula Devorak noted, rebranding rape makes accountability even harder to come by. "The newer, more palatable term at colleges across the country is 'non-consensual sex,'" she wrote Monday. "And it's become part of the weaseling, whitewashing way we deal with sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape." Rape, as any good feminist knows, isn't sex, it's an act of violence, and Feministing.com has been even more unequivocal on the issue, taking shots at the media in particular for using what Sokolow recommends.
The White House in its distributed materials doesn't say anything particular about a preference for using "rape" over other terms, employing the term "sexual assault" as a sort of catch-all, and in some more specific instances, "rape."
Authorities have often relied on broad terms like "sexual assault" and "sexual abuse" and "molestation" for sex crimes that don't involve penetration. But those words risk obscuring the truth in a euphemism.
"It's becoming popular to use terms like 'unwanted sex' to describe rape," said Charity Wilkinson, a clinical psychologist at Rutgers University who has worked with rape survivors for years. "And I think people believe they're doing it for good reasons, or are at least coming from a place of trying to help, but it tends to have detrimental effects."
She isn't the only one with advice. Amanda Hess, writing in Slate, notes the importance of putting the emphasis on rapists' behavior and not the actions of victims. Still others want to reclaim the term "rape" for the brutality it conveys.
Changing the language around rape—and, more specifically, embracing that word—won't change the past experiences of its victims, but specificity of language is the first step in understanding what happened and preventing such crimes. That's something the White House and any institution seeking to combat college rape should keep in mind.
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