The language of rape

Trigger warning. This post contains discussions about rape.

I have two experiences I want to share. They are difficult experiences, obviously. It makes me feel faint with fury and physically sick to think about them, to write about them, and I am only a peripheral figure. They reinforce the fact that the language we use around rape contributes to our culture of victim-blaming, and diminishes the crime being committed.

This is not a new discussion. When I was researching this post, I read some very good  articles about the much-discussed Lisak and Miller study, which surveyed 1882 college students about rape. Only, they didn’t call it rape – and the results were terrifying.

“If a survey asks men, for example, if they ever “had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances,” some of them will say yes, as long as the questions don’t use the “R” word.”

This is from a post on Yes Means Yes, which covers the key points of Lisak and Miller’s work, aligns them with other studies, and primarily explores the fact that rapists are overwhelmingly: known to the victim, and: undetected.


Here are my experiences. 

1. I had a friend tell me, with a kind of half-shrug and a deliberately light tone, that they were “date-raped” while drunk at a party. The way they said it, they seemed to think that the addition of “date” softened the experience somehow. More than that, it characterised it as partly their fault. The implications were: that “date-rape” is a common experience and therefore “not so bad,” and that the victim plays a role in it because they knew the perpetrator, and because they were drunk.

As we already know, in the majority of cases, victims know their rapists. In addition, in the majority of cases rapists don’t use violence to perpetrate their crime.

“Finally, in an entirely unsurprising finding, rapists who admitted assaulting strangers – ever – were less than a quarter of the rapist population. More than 90% targeted acquaintances some of the time, and about 75% said they only targeted acquaintances. Only 7% of all the self-reported rapists reported targeting only strangers. And, in fact, there was zero overlap between the men who said they targeted strangers, and those who used only force.” 

Yes Means Yes, quoting figures from Stephanie McWhorter’s study, Reports of Rape Reperpetration by Newly Enlisted Male Navy Personnel by Stephanie K. McWhorter, et al., published in Violence and Victims, Vol, 24, No. 2, 2009 (McWhorter 2009).

Therefore: the men who admit to raping their friends, say they didn’t use force to do it.

Of the men who used only force against their victims, none reported raping a stranger; all the men knew their victims… [T]he stereotypical rape incident characterized by a man violently attacking a stranger was not reported by any of the respondents. Instead, respondents who used only force against their victims reported raping only women they knew. Men who targeted strangers exclusively reported they used substances only in the rape incident.

– Stephanie McWhorter (2009)

2. A few days ago, I was thinking about an old friend of mine, someone I haven’t seen for years. When we were 16, I dated a boy who broke up with me because I wouldn’t have sex with him. She  arrived on my doorstep a week later, to tell me tearfully that they had had sex.

She told me that she had been drunk, and that she hadn’t actually wanted to have sex with him, but he had pushed himself on her.

These words, all these years later, came to me while I was standing alone in my room and I doubled over in shock. I remembered with revulsion my reaction to her telling me this. I “forgave” her. She had come to ask for that. And I gave it to her, and I felt proud of myself for being forgiving, and we  never spoke about it again.

You know what should have happened? She should have been able to say “I was raped.” And I should have been able to say: “What would you like to do next? How can I support you?”

But because we had been taught this language – this language around it being our fault if we are drunk, about it not being rape unless it was a violent crime committed by a terrifying stranger – we didn’t know how. We didn’t even know we could.

If your experience doesn’t fit the one that matches rape in the mainstream lexicon – a violent attack from a stranger – then it’s not rape, is it?

“Here’s what we need to do. We need to spot the rapists, and we need to shut down the social structures that give them a license to operate. They are in the population, among us. They have an average of six victims, women that they know, and therefore likely some women you know. They use force sometimes, but mostly they use intoxicants. They don’t accidentally end up in a room with a woman too drunk or high to consent or resist; they plan on getting there and that’s where they end up.”

– from Yes Means Yes (Meet the Predators)

Pretty terrifying, huh?

One of the “social structures” that gives rapists “a licence to operate” is language. Language like “date-rape” which seems to attempt to qualify the experience of rape – as though there could be any lesser form of rape. Rape is rape. If you do not consent to sex, then it is rape. There is no qualification required.

I’ll finish with some words from a friend of mine.

“Rape occurs most in communities where there are fewer sanctions. this doesn’t just mean legal sanctions, but social ones. Every time we minimise rape, every time we blame a victim, every time we make excuses for a perpetrator, we are contributing to a society that tells perpetrators exactly what they can get away with.

Yes, it is rape. And no, it’s not okay.”



Original Lisak and Miller paper on rapists –

Rapists who don’t think they are rapists (discussion on the Lisak and Miller study) –

Meet the predators (Yes Means Yes blog analysis on Lisak and Miller) –

One Reply to “The language of rape”

  1. Pingback: Yes All Women (part 2) | Writehanded