Embracing ‘Rape’

The White House is stepping up the fight to combat rape — so much depends on how we talk about it and whether we talk about it at all.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
See more stories about...
Lucia Graves
April 30, 2014, 1:04 a.m.

“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.

MOST READ
What We're Following See More »
FIRST WOMAN NOMINATED BY MAJOR PARTY
Hillary Clinton Accepts the Democratic Nomination for President
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"It is with humility, determination, and boundless confidence in America’s promise that I accept your nomination for president," said Hillary Clinton in becoming the first woman to accept a nomination for president from a major party. Clinton gave a wide-ranging address, both criticizing Donald Trump and speaking of what she has done in the past and hopes to do in the future. "He's taken the Republican party a long way, from morning in America to midnight in America," Clinton said of Trump. However, most of her speech focused instead on the work she has done and the work she hopes to do as president. "I will be a president of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. For the struggling, the striving, the successful," she said. "For those who vote for me and for those who don't. For all Americans together."

COUNTER-CHANTS AT THE READY
Protesters Make Good on Threat to Disrupt Speech
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Supporters of Bernie Sanders promised to walk out, turn their backs, or disrupt Hillary Clinton's speech tonight, and they made good immediately, with an outburst almost as soon as Clinton began her speech. But her supporters, armed with a handy counter-chant cheat sheet distributed by the campaign, immediately began drowning them out with chants of "Hillary, Hillary!"

SUFFOLK POLL
New Survey Shows Clinton Up 9 in Pennsylvania
13 hours ago
THE LATEST

If a new poll is to be believed, Hillary Clinton has a big lead in the all-important swing state of Pennsylvania. A new Suffolk University survey shows her ahead of Donald Trump, 50%-41%. In a four-way race, she maintains her nine-point lead, 46%-37%. "Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections, going back to Bill Clinton’s first win in 1992. Yet it is a rust belt state that could be in play, as indicated by recent general-election polling showing a close race."

Source:
THREE NIGHTS RUNNING
Democrats Beat Republicans in Convention Ratings So Far
14 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Wednesday was the third night in a row that the Democratic convention enjoyed a ratings win over the Republican convention last week. Which might have prompted a fundraising email from Donald Trump exhorting supporters not to watch. "Unless you want to be lied to, belittled, and attacked for your beliefs, don't watch Hillary's DNC speech tonight," the email read. "Instead, help Donald Trump hold her accountable, call out her lies and fight back against her nasty attacks."

Source:
SHIFT FROM ROMNEY’S NUMBERS
Catholics, Highly Educated Moving Toward Dems
17 hours ago
THE LATEST

Catholics who attend mass at least weekly have increased their support of the Democratic nominee by 22 points, relative to 2012, when devout Catholics backed Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, a Morning Consult poll shows that those voters with advanced degrees prefer Hillary Clinton, 51%-34%. Which, we suppose, makes the ideal Clinton voter a Catholic with a PhD in divinity.

×