What’s in a name? The rhetoric of rape
By— September 7, 2012
Campaigners in Egypt have recently drawn attention to the increasingly widespread sexual harassment, assault, and rape suffered by women in public spaces. The severity of the situation there is well documented and longstanding, with women suffering “violations of their human rights” in the form of intrusive virginity tests, “assault and torture,” and even “being dragged naked on the ground,” according to a 2011 press release from the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.
Yet while the center’s chair, Nehad Aboul Komsanthe, described the graphic images of women being stripped and physically dragged across the ground as “a photo that summed [up] the grim reality that the Egyptian women live in,” suggesting that even such extreme assault is becoming a common experience, there has been a noticeable disconnect between the severity of the situation and the language used to describe it in the media.
The titles of many articles focusing on the Egyptian situation have used the words “sexual harassment” while the articles themselves frequently focus on behavior that is much more severe: grabbing, groping, stripping, touching and penetrating—acts that are more accurately described as “sexual assault” or “rape.” One BBC News article described “a recent case of mass harassment in which women at a park were groped by a gang of boys.” According to UK legislation, however, this kind of sexualized touching against a victim’s will is actually considered sexual assault. Article 268 of the Egyptian Penal Code on sexual assault also seems to support this definition: “any person who violates another with the use of force or threat, or attempts to do so, shall be punished with imprisonment.” Another article uses the phrase “sexual harassment” in the title even though the very first subhead describes “shocking sexual attacks.”
Why downplay the situation? This isn’t speculation. Report after report after report has proved beyond a doubt that women are being sexually assaulted and raped in Cairo on a terrifyingly frequent basis.
This devaluing and euphemizing of crimes against women is part of a much wider trend across the media and society alike. In India, the term “Eve teasing” is popularly used to describe the public harassment, assault, or molestation of women. The term has gained global familiarity, spreading to other countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal and being used by the international media. But its implications are hugely damaging and hamper efforts to combat a problem that is already almost impossible to tackle.
Both words are provocative and highly suggestive, with “Eve” immediately casting suspicion on the woman in question, with its connotations of duplicity, betrayal, weakness, lies, and corruption. The word “teasing” inordinately belittles the crime, suggesting that it is “just a bit of fun,” that it isn’t serious or threatening, and that the perpetrators mean no harm—all while simultaneously suggesting that a woman who objects is overreacting or doesn’t know how to take a joke. But when the problem is so severe that it has caused at least14 women to commit suicide in Bangladesh, that young men have been murdered in Mumbai for trying to protect their female friends, that a 17-year-old Indian girl has acid thrown in her face for daring to resist it, it doesn’t seem particularly funny.
But while we use euphemisms and understatements to describe the negative experiences women suffer, the words we use for assertive or successful women are invariably exaggerated and negative: “ballbreaker,” battle-axe,” “harridan,” “witch,” “fury,” “shrew.” Then there are the feminine words used as insults, as if the very sex itself is somehow defective or shameful: “cunt,” “bitch,” “pussy,” “twat,” or even just “woman.” And it is impossible to deny the connotations and implications of the language we use to describe women when you realize the overwhelming prevalence of animalistic words we use to suggest that women are base, servile, submissive, dumb, or inferior: “bitch,” “dog,” “chick,” “bird,” “cow,” “pussy,” “hen,” “vixen,” “cougar,” “catty,” “sow,” “lamb,” “whale,” “heifer,” “filly,” “biddy,” “fox.”
So does it really matter? Is it important whether an article uses the words “sexual harassment” or “sexual assault” or “rape”?
Well, yes, actually. It matters because there are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice. It matters because these headlines affect the way we think about and understand the stories being told. It matters because the inferences of words like these have a huge impact on the way society views the crimes being described and, hence, how we react if we then experience or witness a similar incident. It tells us how seriously we should take it and whether we should intervene, or report such treatment ourselves. It influences the way female victims see themselves and the way they are treated by society. It might even affect how seriously a juror would see such an assault in a court of law.
When a major news outlet describes a high-profile case of convicted rape and sexual assault as a “sex scandal,” that blurs the boundaries between the public perception of rape and sex and both glamorizes and sensationalizes the serious crime being described. When an internationally renowned paper describes a Ugandan rape survivor as “beautiful, sitting there with her scarred cinnamon brown skin,” or tells how “her lips shine with a natural gloss” and her legs look “polished,” it confuses sexuality and sexual assault, and encourages readers to objectify and sexualize her as a survivor of rape.
In a world where male politicians are able to discuss loudly, publically, and confidently what sort of rape they would label as “legitimate,” the words we use to label female experience are vital. For as long as so many women’s experiences continue to be those of suffering, sexualized violence, and subjugation, the language we use to describe them will remain a subtle but fundamental part of the fight.