The Rescued Women in Cleveland Were Not ‘Sex Slaves’—They Were Raped

I’d like to take a moment to state the obvious: The words “rape” and “sex” are not interchangeable. On this I hope we can all agree. While the word “rape” has jurisdictional definitions that vary, it generally refers to forcing someone to engage in sexual contact or penetration through physical force, by duress, or otherwise without consent. There is precious little agreement worldwide as to how to define the word “sex,” but I would argue that the participants’ consent to the activity is implied.

It was with this understanding in mind that I found myself listening to the Cleveland Police Department’s press conference in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight from years of captivity. One reporter asked if the three women had been held as “sex slaves.” Later, a New York Times article covering the story also used “sex slave,” but it appears to have been quickly updated or edited to remove the phrase (though there was no correction about that in the piece). In fact, a Google search reveals countless online references to these three women as “sex slaves.” Many of those references are from articles that were published after the women’s allegations of being raped repeatedly came out. The “sex slave” references also come after it was reported that suspect Ariel Castro is the father of Amanda Berry’s six-year-old child and after Michelle Knight’s statement that Castro impregnated her multiple times and forced her to miscarry through brutal physical abuse (which may lead to aggravated murder charges).

A search of the New York Post website demonstrates the publication’s preference for the phrase “sex slave” in articles and headlines (66 hits); the publication used it as recently as May 11 when covering the Cleveland story. The paper also used the phrase in reference to Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted at 11 years old and held for 18 years, during which time she was repeatedly raped and abused. The article, from the Associated Press, is headlined on the Post‘s site as “18 yrs. as sex slave nets $20M.” (Who knew victimhood could be so lucrative?)

The use of the phrase “sex slave” to describe someone’s rape experience poses many concerns, not only for survivors themselves but for society as a whole. It says something troubling about how we view perpetrators of sexual violence and how we view sex.

You don’t need to be an expert on Ohio law to know that victims of kidnapping cannot give meaningful consent to sexual activity. And while I acknowledge the word “slave” communicates force, I remain unconvinced that using it as a qualifier of the word “sex” makes for an accurate description of what these women allegedly experienced, which is rape. Calling them “sex slaves” conjures up images of 25-cent pulp fiction novels and bad pornography. “Sex slave” feels salacious, and a little bit dirty. It feels qualitatively different than labeling someone a “rape survivor” or “crime victim,” labels which evoke sadness, empathy, anger, and other appropriate emotions. And I strongly suspect it feels different for these three women, and for the people who love them. Consider how it would feel as a parent of a missing child to have that child referred to as a “sex slave,” as opposed to a “crime victim.” As a society, we should strive to do all that we can to avoid shaming survivors of sexual violence, in part by thoughtfully choosing the words we use to describe them and their experiences.

Another problem with this use of the phrase “sex slave” is that it the perpetrators of violence are let off the hook in some ways. It significantly minimizes the severity of their violation of societal norms and the law by putting uncomfortably little distance between what Ariel Castro is accused of doing (rape) and what most well-adjusted people engage in at some point in their lives (sex). This lack of distance makes it easier for people to dismiss a perpetrators’ behavior because it seems more like something they are capable of doing themselves. Naming the crime conveys more accurately the nature of the behavior being described, and appropriately transfers the shame and stigma from the victim to the perpetrator.

Conflating the word “rape” with “sex” demeans sex for all of us, but most especially for survivors of sexual violence. Elizabeth Smart, a survivor of similar horrors, recently spoke out about the damage done to rape survivors when we treat sex as something that ruins people. We do a similar disservice to rape survivors and to everyone who values sex when we refer to rape as a type of sex.

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  • sibongile

    The term “Sex slave or sexual slavery” is used through the anti-human trafficking movement as well. It’s used for sensationalism-to get a reaction yet diminishes the actual act of repeatedly being raped

    • colleen2

      I’ve always been annoyed with the ‘trafficked’ designation also. They are being used as slaves by the men who profit from them and they’re being used as slaves by the men who pay to rape them and this is happening all over this country.

  • dratman

    I see your point that “sex slave” is a lurid description. But what is the preferred terminology? It is necessary to have more than just the term “rape victim” to refer to someone who has been held for a period of time, incommunicado, by force or threats.

    If the dimensions of sexual exploitation of the victim are such as to be associated with an actual prostitution business, how about something like, “victim of kidnapping, rape and forced prostitution” — or would it be better simply to use a term like “repeated rape over a period of time” rather than mentioning prostitution?

  • Kim

    Personally, I have read a significant amount of literature regarding sexual trafficking, where the word term ‘sex slave’ is used ubiquitously. The word, to me, denotes rape (repeated rape), often brutal, including other forms of violence namely physical and psychological, and emotional. It also denotes a person (women/child) being held for a prolonged period without chance of escape or freedom. There is nothing salacious about it, in my opinion.

  • naadirasahra

    You’re glossing over the “slave” part of the phrase “sex slave.” I like this terminology because it’s most often used to describe women and girls who are sold into sexual slavery and this is a form of slavery of the worst kind. Slavery of any kind is totally unacceptable to thinking people and the word carries very ugly connotations. These women were slaves. Forced work is slavery. Work is not a bad thing, forcing people to do it is a bad thing. Sex isn’t a bad thing unless you’re forced to do it.
    58 minutes ago · Like

  • Sarah Sadie Pleasant

    A rape slave. But it hurts me to denegrate the value of a human’s existence by LABELING her a slave. Yes, the perpetrator, or more befitting, the monster who was involved in this heinous series of crimes did treat them as slaves, but why would we, their cheerleaders revictimize these Pretty Princesses by calling them slaves!? Maybe the best way to describe these courageous, young women, is to call them survivors of the Cleveland, Ohio bust. And the media MUST choose their words wisely, because ‘sex’ as the word, gives a saucy connotation, and ‘slave’ denegrates the human described.

    • colleen2

      but why would we, their cheerleaders revictimize these Pretty Princesses by calling them slaves!?

      I fail to see how using a word properly “revictimizes” anyone. They aren’t ‘Pretty Princesses’, they’re victims of a serious crime. Describing that crime does not “revictimize”.

      • Sarah Sadie Pleasant

        Colleen, overall every woman is a Pretty Princess in the eyes of God and calling them less than that such as ‘slave’ cuts like a knife. As a survivor of a multi-assailant rape in which I was also brutally beaten by my father and at the mercy of my mother’s rage hours after the rape, I understand more than ever that we must choose our words wisely. Because words cut like knives.

        • colleen2

          You know, a lot of religious right trolls try to change the subject and derail threads by expressing what they believer to be liberal PC arguments. Your argument places you firmly in that camp.

  • Guest

    I disagree. Sex slave better communicates the repeated/constant sexual abuse

  • carolrhill814

    This man stole these women and forced them to have sex with him and he should be hung by his b—s until they bleed and all of this should be done in the towns square for everyone to see and that is a fact.

  • carolrhill814

    We shouldn’t even speaking about this piece of dirt because there aren’t words to express the way most people feel about this animal and that is a fact.

  • sholroyd

    Thank you for articulating the real meaning behind a phrase that has always bothered me. I may not be active in the BDSM culture, but I am interested in it, so whenever I hear or read the phrase ‘sex slave’ a very different association happens for me. The submissives in BDSM make the choice to become a slave to another person and it is generally associated with giving full permission toward various sex acts- so becoming a slave is not seen as a negative within that culture. They are not victims, nor are their whole beings subverted to a criminal.

    So seeing ‘sex slave’ used in the particular connotation with Castro and those women is absolutely horrifying- those women *had no choice* as to what happened and it not only vilifies BDSM culture but implies (through the use of the word ‘sex’ rather than ‘rape’) that what happened was something they wanted. The thought is sickening and so many layers of wrong that I can’t help but think Castro told himself that to excuse his behavior.

    After all, they didn’t try to escape- not really, so they *must* have wanted to stay and be treated like living toys.

    Ugh. I feel dirty just typing that. Personally, I think Castro ought to be treated like a rabid animal and removed from the gene pool for what he forced upon those women.

  • canaduck

    “Calling them “sex slaves” conjures up images of 25-cent pulp fiction novels and bad pornography. “Sex slave” feels salacious, and a little bit dirty. It feels qualitatively different than labeling someone a “rape survivor” or “crime victim,” labels which evoke sadness, empathy, anger, and other appropriate emotions.”

    Perfectly said.

  • Jeff Schmidt

    What a pedantic argument. “Sexual slavery” is synonymous with “sexual coercion” which is synonymous with “rape”. They literally mean the same thing. You a bsolutely cannot define rape without the use of the word sex or a synonym. There’s nothing about the word slave or slavery that implies consent. So, I utterly fail to see how your assertion that the word “sex” implies consent, and somehow, what, “sexual slavery” then also implies consent? That’s utterly ridiculous and stupid.

    Yes, rape is an absolutely horrible crime against another human being and utterly immoral. Don’t think I’m some “rape apologist”. I just hate these stupid pedantic arguments.

    ” I remain unconvinced that using it as a qualifier of the word “sex”
    makes for an accurate description of what these women allegedly
    experienced, which is rape.”

    Sex slave, in my understanding, depicts a situation in which a victim is raped repeatedly, without any ability to leave their situation. Seems accurate enough. A rape victim is typically a person who has been raped once. When someone is forced into a life of being raped every day, that becomes a whole new level of mistreatment, for which “sexual slavery” seems an appropriate descriptor. Slavery is about an enduring situation from which one has little hope of escape, for years, and that is exactly what those unfortunate women experienced, is it not?

    • Arekushieru

      While I agree that these terms can be synonymous, considering that it is women who are, in the main, the rape victims, I think it would behoove anyone who is a cisman to refrain from telling women what is and isn’t pedantic?