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Terminological Bullshit

September 10, 2010

My house was burgled! (It wasn’t, actually.) Nobody says that. They say, “my house was robbed!” But it often wasn’t, not if you use the legal definition, which requires force or threat of force. If someone broke into your house and stole all your shit while none of the occupants were home, in most places and for many reporting purposes, you got burgled. But you’ll say you got robbed, because that’s what people say. And if you say, “I got robbed,” if you actually got burgled, nobody will call you a liar. Because you’re not lying. You’re just using the word in its ordinary nontechnical sense.

Nobody says, “he was manslaughtered.” People say “murdered” all the time, but whether that’s how the charge will read depends on state laws with different definitions. We don’t cross-examine a man who says, “my son was murdered,” in case his son was actually manslaughtered. That would be not only silly but inhuman. The word has an ordinary meaning.

But as soon as you say “rape”, some asshole shows up arguing that you need the right legal definition, a conviction, a note from your doctor and a notarized affidavit from the county clerk.

It’s bullshit, and fuck that noise, and that’s all I have to say about it.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. marissa permalink
    September 10, 2010 2:58 pm

    I ❤ you too 🙂

  2. September 11, 2010 5:59 pm

    I wrote about this phenomenon recently. People often invoke “official” definitions of words in order to obscure threats to their privilege. And more often than not, those “official” definitions they cite were created to do just that.

  3. September 12, 2010 10:08 am


  4. September 12, 2010 2:02 pm

    You said it. I know a certain unlucky young women who, when reporting her rape to the police, was told she couldn’t use the word rape. The officer refused to take her report unless she called it “unwanted sexual contact”. It was like he was there to police her grammar and even her ability to conceive of being raped instead of to police the rapist and his behavior.

    • September 13, 2010 4:49 pm

      Police have to deal with people with all kinds of issues and ability to express themselves, with people in pain, hospitalized, on drugs … obviously he simply wanted to deter her and put roadblocks in her way. And that’s just the kind of bullshit I’m talking about. The minute a woman names her experience, and often before, she starts getting pushback from people who want to impose their (usually perpetrator-friendly) interpretation on what happened. And almost without exception, they were not there when it happened, so they necessarily have less access to information than the person whose account they are trying to alter.

      • Jim permalink
        September 14, 2010 4:16 pm

        “The minute a woman names her experience, and often before, she starts getting pushback from people who want to impose their (usually perpetrator-friendly) interpretation on what happened. ”

        That happens. But what also happens is that police take criminal complaints from all kinds of people in all kinds for all kinds of reasons. Scepticism is a basic element of the job. You can call it pushback if you like. It will cetrtainly feel like that to the complainant, who has not been taking complaints from the entire spectrum of people for that last ten years. After all, the police don’t know her or anyone lese making these compalints, and at a bare minimum they have to assess the complainant’s credibility.

        I agree that it’s not too much to ask that they do it in a respectful manner that doesn’t treat everyone who comes through the door like a liar.

  5. Jeff permalink
    September 12, 2010 2:29 pm


    To clarify, I was not stating that you needed the right legal definition. I was quoting from your post about the study, which used the IACP definition of assault.

    From this quote:

    “One important part of the paper is the definition they used for false reports. They didn’t make it up. They applied the guidelines issued by that notorious bastion of feminist indoctrination The International Association Of Chiefs of Police…”

    I’ve never heard of the IACP prior to reading your essay.

  6. Jim permalink
    September 13, 2010 12:10 pm

    “And more often than not, those “official” definitions they cite were created to do just that.”

    Just as often, and in the case of rape especially, they thwart privilege. Since rape more than most crimes is often a trigger for vigilante violence the US in particualr has a horribly bigoted history of this – it is important to avoid emotive terms.

    Rape accusations are very easy to use in our legal system as a weapon of institutional privilege, at the same time as it can be equally difficult for actual rape victims to get any kind of decent treatment and to have their accusations taken seriously – the two things are not mutually exclusive. A litle bit of precision is not too much to ask when you are handling a loaded weapon.

    This is a little more serious than trying to decide if an avocado or a squash are fruits or vegetables.

    • September 13, 2010 4:00 pm

      Yes, it is. And calling rape “unwanted sexual contact” minimizes what actually happened, as “unwanted sexual contact” describes a whole spectrum of behaviors, including having someone grab your breast or ass or merely fondle your genitals.

      I don’t think being allowed to call rape “Rape” is a bad thing in the least, nor imprecise.

      • Jim permalink
        September 14, 2010 4:10 pm

        You took the words right out of my mouth. I totally agree with both those points.

      • September 22, 2010 9:12 pm


  7. September 14, 2010 5:34 am


    Thank you so much for this. Now I am armed with a much-needed analogy for what I wasn’t able to express before!

  8. gregm91436 permalink
    January 23, 2014 7:41 pm

    I like ‘arson’ as a comparison better than burglary. You leave for work at 9 AM. You come home at 5 pm, and an arson (acquaintance arsonist?) drove by your house at noon with gas cans and set it on fire. Nobody asks ‘why’d you go to work?’ or why you bought your house in that particular location, or why you didn’t cover your entire house with some kind of giant asbestos box. They place the blame, properly, on the arsonist.

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