Rape Is Rape: Moving Rape Culture Out of Conversations About Sexual Assault


“Rape is rape”: Activists say this because it remains a radical act to acknowledge sexual assault for what it is, rather than with language and assumptions that can blame, minimize, and sexualize victims while erasing blame for perpetrators. This language is often found in media reports about rape cases. But in reality, we could all use help changing the language we use to talk about sexual assault.

A 2011 New York Times article about a gang rape of a child is a particularly egregious example of how journalists are often clueless in reporting about rape. “[H]ow could their young men have been drawn into such an act?” the piece asks. The piece goes on to quote a resident saying that “[t]hese boys have to live with this the rest of their lives” and to note that the victim “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s”—sympathy with the perpetrators and fear for the impact the crimes may have on their lives. This type of news coverage is all too common.

On a simple level, the solution to ending victim blaming is to stop blaming victims. In particular, journalists should be held responsible for biased coverage that minimizes sexual assault. (In the case of the article referenced above, there was a justifiable outcry to its portrayal of the 11-year-old rape victim.)

But let’s be real: Journalists aren’t the only people who talk about rape, and most people aren’t journalists. We all have a role to play in changing the conversation. It’s not so easy when the language we draw upon is rigged to support rape culture. But there are some things we can all do to help change the conversation, literally, around sexual assault.

Don’t victim blame.

Do you know someone who was raped? Don’t speculate about what she wore, what he drank, where she went, how late he was out, or whether she knew the perpetrator was “sketchy.” These facts are not relevant to the crime he or she experienced. A rape victim is not responsible for rape. Period.

Worry about the victim, not the perpetrator.

The way it’s often positioned in the media, you’d think rape is a practice of women victimizing men who rape them, rather than victims experiencing a violation of their human rights. Never forget that rape is the crime in a rape case. An allegation of rape is not a crime committed against an alleged rapist—it is a step toward seeking justice for the victim.

Talk about “victims,” not “accusers.”

It’s time to remove the words “accuser” and “accusation” from our language describing rape. These words carry connotations that plant doubt about whether a crime occurred, a practice that goes far beyond “innocent until proven guilty” for individuals on trial. Further, referring to an “accuser” rather than a “victim” shifts the sympathy away from the victim to the perpetrator or alleged perpetrator, and also strips away the imprimatur of legal rights conferred by victim status.

Stop using the language of consensual sex to describe rape.

Using the language of consensual sex, such as “the child performed oral sex on the teacher” or “she and the rapist had sex,” to describe rape creates an emotional charge associated with intimacy and implies consent where there is none. Instead, use direct language that makes clear what happened and who is responsible, such as “the teacher put his penis in the child’s mouth” or “after she said she didn’t want to have sex, he shoved his finger in her vagina against her will.”

Make sure rapists aren’t left out of conversations about rape.

Rape doesn’t happen without a rapist. Passive phrases like “she was raped” or “a rape occurred” don’t convey that a rapist has committed a deliberate and criminal act. For example, “he assaulted and raped her” makes clear who did what to whom.

Language plays an important role in defining experiences. In the case of rape, we can all play a role in helping to move rape culture out of language frequently used about sexual assault. While using new language can be difficult, the first step is simply to think before you speak. That’s something everyone can do, and somewhere everyone can start.

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