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The Invisible R Word

February 10, 2011
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Stephanie Gilmore has a new article up at On The Issues Magazine about the media’s stubborn resistance to using the word “rape” even when it’s clearly called for.  This is certainly not the first piece on the media’s resistance to saying rape when they’re talking about rape, but it is a very worthwhile read.  Gilmore says:

We’ve allowed the media to sanitize coverage of victims (who are now often referred to as “accusers”) and the sexual crimes they have endured, and to forestall any public discourse about rape and what it means.

     *     *     *

We cringe at the statistics – according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), one in six women and one in 33 men is sexually assaulted, and every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Almost three-fourths of victims know their attackers, which may explain, in part, why 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

But another reason that links to low reporting is that we do not have public conversation about what rape actually is – forcible, coercive, or nonconsensual sex. It is not “had sex with,” as if consent were present, even if pleasure were not. It is a crime in every state of the United States and countries around the world, and we need to elevate the realities of rape first by calling it such when it happens.

The media’s treatment places rape in a linguistic quarantine:  everyone seems to agree that “rape” is awful, even the most ardent rape apologists — just like holocaust deniers agree that genocide is awful.  But the word is treated as an untouchable abstraction, not attached to any acts or even allegations that exist in the real world.  The result is that Whoopi Goldberg can address allegations that a grown man used force and fear to penetrate a thirteen year old who he had drugged and physically isolated — she was underage, she was coercively intoxicated and she said no — and say it isn’t “rape-rape.”  The media’s refusal to name the act permits this cultural disjunction, where rape is wrong but nothing is ever rape, to flourish.

There must be folks working on this, right? Maybe there are and I just don’t know about it.  Is there a group out there sitting down with editorial boards to challenge their resistance to saying that what is alleged is rape?   If not, that’s probably the thing that needs to happen.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephanie Gilmore permalink
    February 10, 2011 11:48 am

    Thomas, thanks for posting and commenting on my article. I agree wholeheartedly with the suggestion that there should be a group out there (perhaps starting right here?) sitting down with editorial boards to challenge this resistance, if one is not doing so already. We could certainly draft an open letter to news editors.

  2. February 10, 2011 5:18 pm

    I couldn’t believe when Whoopie Goldberg referred to the rape of a child who is incapable of giving consent as not being “rape-rape”. When someone is raped, they are raped. There should be no qualifiers. Having sex with someone without their consent is rape. Period. End of story.

    The media should be careful in how it uses words. It should neither shy away from the word if the word is applicable nor should it jump to use the word until they know it is applicable.

  3. Spiffy McBang permalink
    February 11, 2011 2:04 am

    Thomas, is there an e-mail address where I can send you something? I realize you don’t know me from a hole in the ground, and you’re obviously welcome to ignore this or say no, but it’s related to your post and the linked article, and I don’t want to openly comment about it.

    • February 11, 2011 8:12 am

      Sure, Spiffy. You can send to me at t525881 at verizon dot net.

  4. Sarah permalink
    February 12, 2011 3:35 pm

    Great post, and one that not only points out examples of things that the media (wrongly) gets away with justifying as ‘not rape-rape’ but also defines rape for what it is and encourages the media to use the word. Posts like this are also really great for the people out there who struggle to name their own experience as rape amidst the insistence of the media (and others) that it someone was something less than that.

  5. February 13, 2011 10:05 am

    And then they misuse the word rape in stories about the economy, etc. How come I, as a poor unemployed woman, can be said to rape a wallet but real rape isn’t called out as it ought to be? Mad, mad, mad.

  6. February 13, 2011 4:10 pm

    That’s a good point, Dena – while journalists seem increasingly unwilling to use the word “rape” where it’s clearly called for, there is a commensurate increase in people using the word to describe more and more trivial matters – being beaten in a computer game, being called out on something, etc.


  1. Calling it like it is. « Everything I Learned
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