Day 3. Calling it what it is: the language of rape

Rape is not sex.

Sexual assault isn’t sex, either. And neither is sexual abuse. Why is this so hard to understand?

Sex can be many things but one thing sex must always involve is the freely given consent of each participant. The inclusion of consent must always be a key consideration when we are employing the word sex. Without free and willing consent, sexual activity is no longer sex but a form of assault, a criminal act and a human rights abuse.

Rape is not sex because free and willing consent was not given, and, most likely, not sought either. Sexual assault isn’t sex because, once again, consent was either not sought, not obtained or not given freely. Sexual abuse is not sex because once again consent was either not sought, not obtained or not given freely.

This bears repeating. In fact, it requires repeating ad nauseam until it becomes an obvious, readily understood, self-evident distinction. Theft and borrowing are not the same thing. We all understand this. What is the difference? Both involve the possession of property being transferred from one person to another. The difference is that one act involves the consent of the owner of that property. The other act does not. The distinction between these two acts is obvious, readily understood and entirely self-evident. It is not contentious, it is not conflated. We don’t accidentally say borrow, when we meant stole. So why can’t we so readily maintain the same distinction when it comes to discussing rape?

A rape case before a court of law, is not a sex case. Child sexual abuse is not sex with a child. An adult cannot have sex with a child because a child can not give consent freely. An adult can only rape a child. It really is that simple. The same applies to people who have a cognitive impairment and to people who are asleep, unconscious or affected by alcohol or drugs. They cannot give free consent. This is the law.

The damage that is done when we choose to use the word sex, when what we actually mean is rape, is enormous. The conflation of sex and rape has incredibly dire consequences. It makes rape harder to police and harder to prosecute. It aids perpetrators to commit their crimes and to get away with them. It prevents victims from clearly understanding the crime that has been committed against them and discourages them from coming forward and reporting the crime to authorities.

It is all of our responsibility to be aware of the language we use and to make the right choice. Rape is not sex. If we think about it, for even a moment, we all know the difference. It’s not tricky. It’s not murky. It’s not hard to understand. We know to ask someone before we borrow their television from their house. We know that if we don’t ask, we have just committed a criminal act of theft. It’s the same principle. If you do not have the free and willing consent of your sexual partner when engaging in sexual activity, then you are not having sex but are in fact committing a serious criminal offence and a grave human rights abuse.

Don’t let your language support crime. Call rape, rape. Only use the word sex to describe activity that unequivocally, undoubtedly, uncontestedly involves the free and willing consent of each and every participant. Your words have real consequences. Make sure those consequences support the prevention of violence, not the occurrence of violence. The choice is yours.


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4 Responses to Day 3. Calling it what it is: the language of rape

  1. Mary Sunshine says:

    Yup. The word sex, as defined by males, means rape. Huge numbers of women hate sex, but know that it’s their duty.

    • Mary, thank you for your comment. I do believe that for most men sex means consensual sex with an equal partner. I don’t believe that for most men sex is rape. I think it is so very important that we find ways to distinguish between sex and rape. They may use the same physical actions in many regards but they are very different acts with very different intentions and very different consequences. We must all take care to not conflate sex and rape, to distinguish them and to be mindful of our language and the impacts it has, when we are discussing these issues.
      I think it also very important to say that SEX IS NO ONE’S DUTY. No one should ever feel compelled to have sex. It is never a requirement. It is never right to expect sex from another person. We all have the right to refuse sex to anyone at any time. We need to be clear about this.

  2. Robert says:

    I disagree with what you say, although I think I understand the problem you are addressing. However I think that restricting the meaning of “sex” so that it necessarily implies consent would damage our ability to think and talk clearly about sex and consent.

    Before I explain why I disagree with you I think I need to say that many years ago I was raped. I am a man and I was raped by a woman. It was my first sexual experience, and although it happened more than 20 years ago now, I haven’t had a sexual experience with another person since. So being raped is something that has had a profound and long lasting impact on my ability to function fully as a sexual being.

    You give a good example above when you talk about the verbs “to steal” and “to borrow”. By definition “to steal” necessarily involves a lack of the owners consent, and “to borrow” necessarily involves the owners freely given consent. However you do not mention a third verb: “to take”. The definition of “to take” does not involve consent at all, and so we can say “stealing is taking without consent”, and “borrowing is taking with consent”. So we have three verbs which mean basically the same except that for “to steal” and “to borrow” we introduce the idea of whether the owner of the object concerned freely gave consent or not. This is good because it allows us to describe and discuss the world and our knowledge about it quite precisely. If I see Tom take Harry’s lawnmower I can say: “Tom took Harry’s lawnmower, I don’t know whether he was stealing it or borrowing it.” And everyone knows what I saw happen and how much I know about it.

    Unfortunately, in English we don’t have this much flexibility when it comes to talking about sex. You claim above, and I’ve seen it claimed in many other places (this is also discussed in the NYT article you link to) that the verb “to have sex with” necessarily involves the idea of consent freely given. This has never been how I’ve understood the word. We all agree that the verb “to rape” necessarily involves a lack of consent. The way I understand the verbs “to have sex with” and “to rape” it is meaningful and correct to say “to rape someone is to have sex with them without their consent”. Here “to have sex with” is analogous to “to take” and “to rape” is analogous to “to steal”. Unfortunately, in English we don’t have a verb describing sex that is analogous to “to borrow”. The alternatives are either too colloquial (like “to shag” in British English), too narrow in their meaning (like “to make love with”), or too crude (for some of the cruder alternatives the stance on consent is unclear).

    Up to this point, I think we agree. However you make the distinction that the verb “to have sex with” by definition necessarily involves the freely given consent of all parties involved. The problem that I see with this is that while it solves the problem I described in the previous paragraph, it does so at the cost of introducing the problem that we now have no verb describing sex which covers both the case with consent and the case without consent; we have no verb that is analogous to “to take”. I think this cost is too high, as it makes it harder to talk clearly about sex and consent, and the impact of rape.

    The first problem I see is that in ambiguous or doubtful situations we can’t neutrally describe what happened. The following case is all too common:
    1) A and B have sex,
    2) A claims B raped them,
    3) B claims the sex was consensual.
    If sex is necessarily consensual we can’t make statement (1) without taking B’s view of events. If we don’t want to prejudice our opinion we need to have access to words that neither imply consent nor the lack of consent. What language would you use to describe this situation? This matters immensely as these cases are going to be reported in newspapers, discussed by the public, and be the subject of legal proceedings. Neutral language is absolutely necessary if both A and B are to receive a fair hearing.

    The second problem I see is that it makes it harder to describe what rape is. I can easily say “rape is sex without consent”. There is a lot of meaning in both “sex” and “consent” to unpack from that statement, but it communicates the essence of meaning accurately and concisely. If sex is necessarily consensual, rape is … what, exactly? A bad thing, to be sure; certainly it is “a form of assault, a criminal act and a human rights abuse.” as you say. But how does this help? How does this help a person understand whether what’s happened to them, or what they’ve done is rape or not? When I was raped it was the only sexual experience I’d ever had with another person. It took me years to understand that it was rape, but once I came to that understanding I knew it was rape because what had happened was sexual, and it was completely different from being physically assaulted. The reason it took me so long to understand clearly that it was rape was not confusion about whether it was sex or rape, but an inability to understand that a man could be raped by a woman; this was the barrier that took so long to overcome.

    The third problem I see is that I think it makes it unclear why rape should have such a profound impact on a victim’s ability to function fully as a sexual being. If rape is not sex why has being raped so profoundly affected my ability to form sexual relationships with other people? I think that rape is such a terrible thing, and has such a profound effect on those who suffer it because it is a form of sex; an abusive, domineering form of sex certainly. But rape is sex.

    I think you make good points in your post. This is absolutely correct:
    “The conflation of sex and rape has incredibly dire consequences. It makes rape harder to police and harder to prosecute. It aids perpetrators to commit their crimes and to get away with them. It prevents victims from clearly understanding the crime that has been committed against them and discourages them from coming forward and reporting the crime to authorities.”

    You are right that *conflating* sex and rape has those consequences, but “to have sex with” and “to rape” have distinct meanings; the reason sex and rape are sometimes conflated is, I believe, the lack of a verb which necessarily implies consent. Your proposal is that the meaning of “to have sex with” be restricted so that it necessarily implies consent. If this is done, we will then lack a verb which is neutral with regard to consent, I think that as a result there will be similar confusions to those you describe, and as I argue above there will be considerable additional costs. The problem is that in English we have (essentially) two verbs when we need three (analogous to “to take”, “to borrow” and “to steal”). There is no easy solution to this; ideally we’d invent or requisition a verb to cover the missing meaning, but I have nothing to suggest for this just now.

  3. Robert, thank you for your thoughtful, detailed comment. You raise some really good points and have certainly left me with a lot to think about. I think you are certainly right that the language available to us around both sex and rape lacks the subtlety and precision required to adequately refer to the complexity of these actions. We need better language, I couldn’t agree more.
    I guess the point of my post was primarily to raise these issues, to point out that conflating sex and rape is very dangerous. It happens far too frequently and yet we rarely stop to discuss publicly what is at stake is this blurring of the lines.
    You are also right that the statement ‘rape is not sex’ is not as simple as it sounds. Rape makes use of sex as a weapon. Rape manipulates the actions of sex and disfigures an act of affection, of love or of human connection into one of hatred and cruelty.
    I still think ‘rape is not sex’ is something we need to say because too few people really understand this. I also think we need to stress the need for people to intimately link sex and consent – if we are considering sex, we must consider consent, too. This is a behavioural change we can all commit to, that we MUST all engage in.
    However, you are right, this is only the beginning and it is not enough. There is still so much more to rape and to sex that we need to understand, so much more sophistication we need to develop in our language and our culture in order to do these most vital issues and actions justice.
    What comes next, I’m not sure either. But I’m committed to finding out.
    Once again, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. This is exactly the conversation we need to be having. Thank you for your honesty and willingness to discuss them.
    I am horrified to hear what has happened to you and to hear the consequences it has had upon you. I hope you are getting the support you need, the support you deserve. I hope one day some of these impacts may lessen for you.

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