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Respecting the word “rape”

By Ali Mailen Perrotto, Contract Liaison at PCAR

What we say about sexual violence matters. There have been many examples recently of public figures using the word “rape” to describe something that is not rape. This is problematic as there is plenty of evidence that many people are confused about what rape is, and that it is often not taken seriously. We must use this word only with its actual meaning if we are to make progress in ending sexual violence.

In a recent opinion piece on Penn Live, Nancy Eshelman decried high cigarette taxes. She likened these taxes to “the rape of smokers.” A few weeks ago, Donald Trump compared foreign policy issues to rape.

Taxes and foreign policy and games are something completely different from rape. When we use terms like “rape” to describe something non-violent, especially in a sarcastic, exaggerated way, it discounts the actual experiences of rape and sexual violence many Pennsylvanians have survived.

Rape is when a person uses force, threat, coercion or manipulation to make another person engage in sexual intercourse. For most people, the experience of rape will have significant and long-lasting social and emotional impacts. Sexual violence can be neurologically traumatic. Healing can last a lifetime.

There are a lot of folks across the state that do the work of ending sexual violence and responding to people impacted by it every day. We know that many people use terms like “rape” or “stalk” to describe something not quite so violent. I’ve even done it in the past. We understand it as a symptom of rape culture. We can all do our best to cut these harmful metaphors out.

Saying the word, and naming the crime, carries profound impact and healing potential for the people who survive rape. We all have an obligation to respect the power of the words and associations we use. We have a responsibility to create the kinds of social commentary that build up survivors of sexual violence and their experiences, instead of tearing them down.

It is critical that we have strong and accurate reporting on sexual violence issues to assure we have well-informed jury pools, voters and public at large. When public figures and media outlets are mindful of the gravity of this issue and of the experience of sexual violence and healing, they are a welcome part of the solution.