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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
ANOTHER GOP MODERATE TO HER SIDE
John Warner to Endorse Clinton
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will score another high-powered Republican endorsement on Wednesday, according to a campaign aide: retired senator John Warner of Virginia, a popular GOP maverick with renowned military credentials."

Source:
AUTHORITY OF EPA IN QUESTION
Appeals Court Hears Clean Power Plant Case
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday "heard several hours of oral arguments" over the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan rules. The 10-judge panel "focused much of their questioning on whether the EPA had overstepped its legal authority by seeking to broadly compel this shift away from coal, a move the EPA calls the Best System of Emission Reduction, or BSER. The states and companies suing the EPA argue the agency doesn’t have the authority to regulate anything outside of a power plant itself."

Source:
$28 MILLION THIS WEEK
Here Come the Ad Buys
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Spending by super PACs tied to Donald Trump friends such as Ben Carson and banker Andy Beal will help make this week the general election's most expensive yet. Republicans and Democrats will spend almost $28 million on radio and television this week, according to advertising records, as Trump substantially increases his advertising buy for the final stretch. He's spending $6.4 million in nine states, part of what aides have said will be a $100 million television campaign through Election Day."

Source:
UNLIKELY TO GET A VOTE, LIKELY TO ANGER GOP SENATORS
Obama Nominates Ambassador to Cuba
9 hours ago
THE LATEST
GOP REFUSED VOTE ON FCC COMMISIONER
Reid Blocks Tech Bill Over “Broken Promise”
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Monday night's debate may have inspired some in Congress, as Senate Minority Leader has decided to take a stand of his own. Reid is declining to allow a vote on a "bipartisan bill that would bolster U.S. spectrum availability and the deployment of wireless broadband." Why? Because of a "broken promise" made a year ago by Republicans, who have refused to vote on confirmation for a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission to a second term. Harry Reid then took it a step further, invoking another confirmation vote still outstanding, that of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Source:
×