Choose Your Words Wisely

“The Colts got raped by the Steelers last night! What a disappointment.” When I hear someone use the term “rape” in a nonchalant manner, it is often so jarring to me that I am unable to listen to the rest of the statement. Not everyone feels and reacts as I do, but the abuse of the word has reached a point where it is actually used to describe enjoyable events. For example, “That dodgeball tournament wasn’t even fair. We absolutely raped every team.”

This is not the first example of a word being repurposed to apply outside its original context. Indeed, this lexical phenomenon of extracting secondary meaning from words is the basis of figurative speech in our language. The power of metaphor is an amazing human ability, but this is one instance in which we must draw the line. Sexual assault is a terrifyingly pervasive crime in our society; according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, “one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.” To use words which victimize survivors of sexual assault is thoughtless and hurtful.

Some might say that my argument is a slippery slope, and the same reasoning could be applied to slang use of the word “killed” (e.g. “The Ratatat show last night was amazing; they totally killed it!”). The difference here is in specificity. People are killed every day by myriad circumstances: cancer, guns, car accidents, and so on. And as tragic as these events are, use of the word “killed” does not paint a mental picture in the listener’s mind of the slow advancement of a cancerous tumor on a terminally ill friend or relative. In contrast, “rape” is a very precise word to use; it refers to the heinous act of forcing another human to engage in sexual contact against his or her will. And now it is being used to describe a cheerful victory in a video game. Can you imagine what it would be like as a survivor of sexual assult to hear people, even friends, laughing about “totally raping” the other team? I doubt that I have ever experienced that level of grief—to feel as if the most horrible experience of my life were being treated as a joke.

In addition to the unnecessary pain relived by survivors, casual use trivializes what ought to be a powerful word. “Rape” should be a hard word to hear. It is used to describe one of the worst crimes imaginable. Using it casually allows us to forget that it is a very serious problem that needs solutions. If most of the time it is used in a way that indicates a positive event, then we as human beings begin to associate the word with positivity. The human brain is very adept at recognizing patterns, and this is no exception.

Another aspect to consider is the impact this slang has on rapists themselves. I will not pretend to understand what goes on in the minds of rapists, but clearly they have found ways to justify their actions to themselves in ways I cannot understand. One thing is clear, however: when a rapist hears someone use the word “rape” positively, it is reinforcing. He or she hears “rape” in a comical context and learns that it is both funny and good. Obviously this is a catastrophic consequence in that it validates the behavior, possibly to the extent of encouraging further offenses.

I must shamefully admit that I came by this lesson the hard way. I learned after a survivor brought it up to me. She told me that it was hurtful when I used the word casually. It didn’t take any convincing; at once, I understood how utterly thoughtless I had been. I wanted to bury my head in the ground. She accepted my apology, but it still haunts me to imagine the pain I caused. So the best I can do to make up for it is to try to help someone else understand.

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