Language Matters


“Hey, how was it…what do you think?”

“I don’t know man, all I can say is that sucked…I totally got raped.”

And so it begins.  Enter any middle or high school hallway, and you’re bound to hear conversations such as this.  Take a walk around any college campus or spend time at any public meeting place, and overhearing comments like this is inevitable.  What allows for an individual, or group of individuals, to believe that using a term such as “rape” in such a cavalier manner is acceptable?  Do we, as human beings, not have the obligation to consider the larger and often times, strong impact our words may have on those around us?  We live in a world where basic acceptance of the fact that sexual assault is not okay is now the norm.  However, to use the phraseology of sexual assault and rape in a flippant manner serves only to act as a promotion of sexual violence, not a condemnation.

Let’s dissect the problem and begin to look at it this way:  when a rape victim hears the word “rape,” they are not correlating the term with an experience of mere disappointment or frustration, like not doing well on an exam or paying too much for a certain product.  No, they are instead thinking of the traumatizing violation they endured.  They correlate the term “rape” with an experience that has significantly impacted their life.  To misuse the word rape and ignore the true definition and the gravity which comes along with it serves only to further victimize those who have survived an assault.

As of late, we have heard new terms applied to rape.  We are all now familiar with terminology such as “legitimate rape” and “forcible rape.”  We’ve heard proclamations about God’s intent related to rape, etc. etc.  Anne Seymour and Dean Kilpatrick, Ph.D., put it best when they said,      Don’t parse the definition of “rape.”  When you insist that only some rapes are “forcible,” you infer that other rapes are what?  Voluntary?  That’s just uninformed and insensitive. Face it: rape is rape, regardless of however else you may want to characterize it.

Don’t compare rape to bad weather or making lemonade out of lemons, or any other comment that only demonstrates your ignorance about the violent crime of rape.  That’s just stupid, and it makes you look stupid.

Don’t proclaim that anyone’s God has any “intent” related to rape or its distressing consequences.  That may be your opinion, but please know, convincingly and clearly, that your words risk further hurting victims whose spirituality doesn’t include a Higher Being who sanctions rape or its catastrophic and personal impact on them.

 Don’t say your words were “taken out of context” or “misunderstood.”  It’s not your words that were twisted, but your attitude. We get you.  We understand you. What we don’t get or understand is your ignorance, and your lack of initiative to learn about rape.”

Our language is used to shape cultural norms, create attitudes, and instill beliefs.  When we are so cavalier in our usage of the term “rape” or we begin to attempt to qualify rape, we have a real problem.  The prevention of rape and sexual assaults begins with each of us; we each need to hold ourselves accountable and take inventory of the attitudes we possess, the beliefs we hold and the language we use.

But it is not only the word rape that creates and breeds a dangerous environment in which sexual violence is viewed as being more acceptable or less horrific.  There are some other terms and words that might be offensive or hurtful for others to hear and that promote sexual violence.  Terms such as “bitch,” slut,” and “whore.”  Phrases like “bros before hos;” the list goes on.  We must note these terms and phrases, while highly disrespectful and derogatory, are very often used in lighter context as well; amongst friends, as if they were terms of endearment.

Through being a society that accepts the usage of this kind of language, we send the message that we are accepting of any or all terms and phrases which are disrespectful and derogatory.  Where will we draw the line?  How are we supposed to know what’s acceptable and what’s not?  Because of the ambiguous social context in which these terms are often used, we usually find ourselves reverting to a practice in which these terms, attitudes, and phrases are used without censor.

What we must realize, however, is that many of these terms are specifically aimed toward putting women down.    And when women are put down, disrespected, and demeaned, it is easier to see them as not being important or equal.  And when one population is able to be viewed as less than another, it is that much easier to abuse, harm, and encourage the mistreatment of them.  We need to choose language that respects all people; including women.  We must hold ourselves accountable and challenge ourselves to use respectful language and we must share our feelings about this language with those around us when it comes up, so as to put an end to the trend.  Through explaining the importance of healthy communication and positive terminology we can begin to create a community of trust and positive interaction, which can begin to negate the root causes of sexual violence.  But it’s going to take each of us; ready and willing to take a stand and make changes in our own lives and we must challenge those around us to do the same.