The media has to stop using ‘rape’ and ‘sex’ as interchangeable words.
(Trigger warning: graphic mentions of sexual assault and sex slaves)
Good morning, afternoon and evening. Wherever you are in the world, whatever time it is, I hope you are having a lovely time and that you are not as tired as I am.
I am tired of reading news reports and watching TV programmes that use the words ‘rape’ and ‘sex’ as interchangeable. I am tired of watching journalists and editors alike churn out news about sexual assault and sexual abuse without giving a second thought to the words they are using.
I have a BA in Journalism Studies and it’s shocking to me that so many journalists don’t think about the impacts of their words. If I learned anything in journalism school is that words matter and that journalists can pick and choose how and when words matter. Journalists, editors and sub-editors are powerful in this way even if they don’t realise it.
Today I woke up to yet another piece of writing that used the words ‘sex’ and ‘rape’ interchangeably and I am honestly sick of it. This is undeniably part of rape culture and a gross mistake on the part of the journalists and editors involved in the production of the story. Not only is using these words interchangeably filled with misogyny and the dismissal of sexual assault victims, it conflates sexual assault with consensual sexual activity. This is a dangerous conflation: if even journalists use the words ‘sex’ and ‘rape’ interchangeably, what’s to stop rapists from calling rape a type of consensual sex?
Any rape apologist would tell me that sometimes, the line between ‘rape’ and ‘sex’ is a grey area. The definitions of consent in a patriarchal society are hazy, this is why victim blaming and slut shaming are so ubiquitous in any rape case. I won’t waste my time defining consent to people who feel rape is a grey area issue. For this, I recommend Laci Green’s Consent 101 video.
My problem with how these two words are being used interchangeably by the media is when sexual abuse and assault are either obvious in the story or clearly alleged by the victim. I’ll give you an example that had me seething with rage this morning.
I think we can all agree that Daesh are absolute dickheads, the worst people on earth, they just plain suck. But journalists who call the rape of female slaves ‘sex’? They’re doing a disservice to these women who are being force into sexual activity. ‘Sex’ is consensual, if you are being forced to have sex, it’s rape. Call it what it is. By using the two terms interchangeably, you are effectively contributing to rape culture. You are irresponsibly classing ‘rape’ as a type of sex. You are making sure that there’s a grey area where rape apologists and rapists themselves can call forced, coerced and manipulative sex just ‘sex.’
This is a conflation that has been present for centuries: it’s what allows Japanese officials to say ‘comfort women’ were willing participants in providing ‘sex’ to Japanese soldiers. It’s what allowed the systemic rape of black women in the United States during slavery times to be called ‘sex.’ It’s what allows rapists to claim the sexual activity they engaged in was consensual and call it ‘sex’ instead of ‘rape.’
Sex is consensual. Rape is not consensual. Somehow, defining these words for a very experienced media publication is necessary.
A fear of the word ‘rape’ and all its variations
In October of this year, the BBC aired a documentary called ‘Is This Rape? Sex on Trial.’ The intentions of the programme were perhaps good: the producers wanted to find out if teenagers could identify what rape looks like. It would have been a good opportunity to educate teenagers about consent as well, but it was just a shit show of victim-blaming and the shocking avoidance of the word ‘rapist.’
This is how it went: they showed teenagers some footage of a staged sexual assault where the rapist shoved his penis into the sleeping victim’s mouth. The footage was so horrific that I had to skip it, but the commentary that followed was even worse: while some teenagers immediately identified the scene as rape, others said it was not sexual assault because a) the victim was drunk; b) the victim and the rapist had previous sexual history; c) the victim had been nice to the rapist before the assault (???) and d) the sleeping, drunk victim did not fight back which somehow implies consent (no.).
But the most incredible thing of all was that, even after it was an established fact (luckily for the victim, he texted his friend saying she hadn’t been very into it, so he definitely knew what he was doing) that the man in question was a rapist, all of the teenagers were extremely reluctant to call him a rapist because “he seems like a nice guy” and “rapist is a strong word.”
Except that he is a rapist. He raped someone, therefore he is a rapist.
And it’s not just the public that is afraid of the word ‘rape’ and its variations: the title of the programme itself is an example of how we use the words interchangeably, of how the victim’s credibility is just as much on trial as the perpetrator’s. The title of the documentary, ‘Is This Rape? Sex on Trial,’ implies that rape is sex gone wrong, it implies that rape is sex on trial.
But rape is not sex.
Rape is not sex.
Rape is not sex.
A person who rapes is a rapist.
Sex with slaves is not sex. It’s rape and continuous sexual abuse.
Call it what it is and do your fucking job like a responsible professional.