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
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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.

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