Things that are not like rape *Trigger warning*

// 5 October 2011

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A photograph of a traffic STOP sign, which has been subvertised with a sticker of the word 'rape' underneath it. It also has two other stickers on it, and is above a traffic 'all-way' sign.

Trigger warning: this post talks about the language and reality of rape. All of the links do the same. Please progress carefully.

This morning, Johnny Depp is reported to have said, when talking about being in a photo shoot,

“Well, you just feel like you’re being raped somehow. Raped … It feels like a kind of weird — just weird, man. But whenever you have a photo shoot or something like that, it’s like — you just feel dumb. It’s just so stupid.”

In doing this, he portrays an increasing cultural acceptability of comparing rape to things that are not at all like rape.

For instance, a few months ago, Netflix in the US increased their prices, and BuzzFeed collated some of the ‘most outrageous netflix price increase reactions’: 7 of the 24 accuse Netflix of raping them. Similarly, a writer having their words stolen does not constitute rape. Countering this misuse of the word, Angela B says,

If your copyright is infringed…

…you may not even know it happened; once you know, not much changes for you.

…there are clear legal remedies and an enforcement arm that is usually willing to do its job.

…people believe you.

…no bruises, pregnancy, STDs or other physical repercussions.

…nobody takes the side of the infringer.

…nobody asks what your article was wearing.

Cara at Feministe and Sady Doyle have written about a man describing the development of a TV show as being like rape; podcasts talk of ear rape; there is a type font available called date rape; there is a different kind of font rape; instant messenger rape; AIM rape (different from IM rape, apparently); instructions on how to facebook rape your friends, and a website with examples; and on and on and on. You get the idea.

There are two main issues with using the word rape to describe things that are not rape. The first is that it devalues the word and desensitises us to what it means. If someone has just been facebook raped, it might not mean that much to them if their friend is actually raped*. Not if, over time, rape is consistently used to mean price rises, annoying pranks, loud noises and blog posts reprinted without permission. It takes the impact out of the word, when the crime of rape can have an unbelievably significant impact on a person’s life. Angela Rose, from PAVE, said,

The more we dilute this word, the more we play down the power of sexual violence. It actually adds to the silence surrounding this issue because it diverts attention.”

Mikki Halpin goes on to say that

“This demoralizes victims, whose traumatic experience is now ranked along with a poor performance review or a hefty cell phone bill.”

The other danger is that of triggering rape survivors. Not only can we see our experience being demeaned by the misuse of this word, but the way it is casually thrown about can trigger flashbacks, nightmares and trauma. Many rape survivors have the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A PTSD trigger can be many things, including a sound, a smell, a memory, a word… This website talks specifically about PTSD in rape survivors. lists ‘Forty-nine things that are not rape and one that is’. Number 50: Rape is rape.

Edited to add: I appreciate that I might not have worded that particular sentence as well as I might have, to convey the meaning I intended. I was talking about the verbal impact of the word, and I was thinking about it from the point of view of the person who has been raped. As I may have expressed it badly, I will present an alternative now: If you have been raped and you want to tell somebody, and they then tell you they have just been facebook raped, it may well put you off because it might lead you to believe that they did not have an understanding of what being raped actually meant, if they were happy to use the word in that way. I apologise that that was not clearer.

[The image is a photograph of a traffic STOP sign, which has been subvertised with a sticker of the word ‘rape’ underneath it. It also has two other stickers on it, and is above a traffic ‘all-way’ sign. It was taken by Nigsby and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

Jass // Posted 5 October 2011 at 12:13 pm

I have to completely agree with this. I am absolutely disgusted when people I know use the word Rape in such a flippant manner, it is completely insensitive and makes me so angry. The only way I have found to stop people using it in that manner is just, as soon as it happens,to confront and inform them on the real information about rape and why they should stop using the word rape to describe things that are not rape. Most of the time it does work. Or at least they stop saying it in front of me.

Francesca Da Rimini // Posted 5 October 2011 at 12:19 pm

“If someone has just been facebook raped, it might not mean that much to them if their friend is actually raped.”

This is about the daftest thing I’ve heard all week. I find it highly unlikely that someone would fail to differentiate between the casual linguistic use of the word rape and rape as an action and crime. Are you seriously suggesting someone might confuse having their status changed to “really needs to get that rash seen to” with sexual violence?

I understand where you’re coming from on this but you’ve singled out rape as being something linguistically sacred. Why should it be? People routinely say things like “oh my god, my boss is going to kill me” but would you claim this dilutes the word ‘kill’, demeans the crime or desensitises us to murder?

I agree that people need to think a little bit before trotting out these kinds of hyperbolic analogies, if only for the sake of credibility. Johnny Depp is a prime example but see also NS’s Laurie Penny who once describe eating a hotdog as being “like an unwelcome intimate encounter.” Bad writing? Yes. Culturally perilous? No.

LUVM // Posted 5 October 2011 at 1:15 pm

I’m surprised Johnny Depp would say that, he seems a lot smarter.

Luke Jostins // Posted 5 October 2011 at 2:47 pm

It is a very strange feature of language that terms that mean horrible things come to mean very trivial things; this is by no means restricted to rape. Some of these are pretty irrelevant (c.f. decimate), but some of them must have the potential to be devastating if used thoughtlessly. Imagine the impact of saying “Arsenal massacred us on Saturday” to someone who was at Srebrenica.

Not that I have any solutions to that. Certainly nothing makes people dismiss you as a “PC lefty” (or other nonsense term) than suggesting they be more sensitive when they say “my feet are killing me”.

Katherine // Posted 5 October 2011 at 4:47 pm

I was most struck, while reading the above article, by the phrase “diluting the word.” I think it truly was the best description of what is going on by over-use and misuse of the word rape. Nothing, absolutely NOTHING is rape-but rape.

Jennifer McMahon // Posted 6 October 2011 at 10:15 am

@Francesca Da Rimini

The thing that makes the casual linguistic use of the word rape more problematic than using ones like kill or murder is that not many people have survived being murdered. According to the annual crime statistics Crime in England and Wales 2009/10 there were 615 homicides that year and 54,509 sexual offences.

When we use the word rape in flippant comparison or tell a rape joke we never know who around you will have been a victim of rape or sexual assault. And we also live in a culture that doesn’t take the crime of rape very seriously. Rape victims are disbelieved, mocked and blamed very often.

Perhaps if sexual assault and rape weren’t so prevalent the words wouldn’t have so much power. However, we don’t live in that world and so using the word rape in causal comparison only helps to depict rape as a non-serious act.

Francesca Da Rimini // Posted 7 October 2011 at 2:40 pm

@Jennifer McMahon

“Rape victims are disbelieved, mocked and blamed very often.” – Yes, this is a very good point and you’re right, it’s a distinction worth making.

As I said I completely understand and appreciate where you’re coming from on this. It offends and disgusts me to hear people use the language or images of rape flippantly and/or in inappropriate circumstances.

I suppose I think that, like all hyperbole, there are levels. I don’t think it is wrong per se to play with language. I also think there’s a very wide gap between lazy/thoughtless speech and cultural desensitisation. I think the sociological significance is more nuanced than that.

Anyway, my main objection was to the Facebook comment but I raised this and see Philippa has added a footnote now.

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