Language changes, but the meaning of rape never does
Contrary to your mother’s “sticks and stones” argument, words can, in fact, hurt you.
Language plays a critical role in understanding the world, and words provide the tools to construct a complete explanation.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when faced with a complex issue, words are the first line of defense in defining the problem and finding a solution.
In addition to helping bring understanding to complex issues, words carry weight and emotion. What operates as a tool can also be employed as a weapon, and some words cause pain or discomfort.
One particularly uncomfortable word is “rape.”
At Augustana, the administration has been at work revising the sexual misconduct section of the student handbook since 2011. This year, they took out the word “rape.”
Here’s where the words start to hurt.
Taking the word “rape” out of the handbook leaves victims without an adequate description for their situation. It takes criminal activity and tries to explain it without identifying the crime.
For example, if someone steals a laptop, no one would say they’re “engaging in non-consensual sharing.” They’re stealing. It’s theft, plain and simple.
Similarly, if a person is subjected to non-consensual sex, that person was raped. The perpetrator is a rapist, not a “nonconsensual sexist.”
The language used to discuss rape should be representative of the action, so that when a classmate comes forward and describes criminal activity, he or she has the necessary tools to make sense of the complexities.
If the code of conduct can’t say “rape,” then it adds a layer of impropriety to the word. It implies that “rape” is not (and should not be) included in the conversation on sexual misconduct.
Taking the word “rape” out of the conversation won’t take away the stigma attached to victims when they report. It will only take away the language victims should be able to use in dealing with these crimes.
Society has nothing to gain by taking words that are painful or uncomfortable and substituting those that are easier.
It’s easier to tell a police officer about some “non-consensual sexual intercourse” between two peers at a house party.
It’s easier to quibble about whether “no means no” or “yes means yes” than it is to really analyze the underlying moral issues of a culture and society in which these sex crimes are so prevalent.
And it’s easier to use politically correct, neutral, “that-which-must-not-be-named” terms to describe painful, messy, confusing crimes against human dignity.
But rape by any other name hurts.