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The Semantic Power of 'Rape'

New evidence that terminology is reshaping campus culture in crucial ways.
Dartmouth College. (Photo: Josue Mendivil/Flickr)

Dartmouth College. (Photo: Josue Mendivil/Flickr)

Rape is, by nature, deaf to language—deaf to “take me home,” deaf to “please,” deaf above all to the word “no.” The rapist in turn uses the breakdown of language to defend himself, to define the act as something else: rough sex, something consensual but regretted, etc. Rape culture thrives on obfuscation and silence.

Progress is when a culture acknowledges the shame of once-acceptable behavior, when the culture takes a proper inventory of silent social assumptions and tacitly encouraged injustice.

But language is also a key to preventing rape, and the most powerful tool may be the word itself. New research, and a look at statistical patterns of rape-reporting, suggest that the more we talk about rape, the less it happens.

Since last January, when the Obama administration announced it would be investigating campus rape at nearly 100 public and private universities across the country, a happy brigade of aging, white, male newspaper columnists have snorted at the left's alleged obsession with rape. When will they stop talking about this cherished myth of rape culture? Columnist and bow-tie repository George Will blanches at the word rape, preferring the phrase “micro-aggression.” The National Coalition for Men makes a hobby of posting the names and photographs of women whose accusations the organization considers fraudulent. Libertarian rhetorical-questioner Glenn Harlan Reynolds echoed the denialist refrain last month in USA Today:

So why is this non-crisis getting so much press?

It's getting press because it suits the interests of those pushing the story. For [Kirsten] Gillibrand and [Claire] McCaskill, it's a woman-related story that helps boost their status as female senators. It ties in with the "war on women" theme that Democrats have been boosting since 2012, and will presumably roll out once again in 2016 in support of Hillary Clinton, or perhaps Elizabeth Warren.

This kind of hysteria may be ugly, but for campus activists and bureaucrats it's a source of power: If there's a "campus rape crisis," that means that we need new rules, bigger budgets, and expanded power and self-importance for all involved, with the added advantage of letting you call your political opponents (or anyone who threatens funding) "pro rape." If we focus on the truth, however — rapidly declining rape rates already, without any particular "crisis" programs in place — then voters, taxpayers, and university trustees will probably decide to invest resources elsewhere.

“Non-crisis” has the same agonized disdain as Will's “micro-aggression”—tortured word-conglomerates insisting that nothing is going on behind the curtain. As for the objection that Gillibrand and McCaskill are “boost[ing] their status as female senators,” the reader is right to be confused. Does Reynolds mean they're trying to remind us that they're women? That they're playing the “woman card”? Or is he merely observing that two female senators are focusing on issues of public safety for women? Reactionaries on this issue are quick to diagnose megalomania in female administrators and especially Title IX compliance officers (see “source of power,” above). Speaking with me two months ago, Harry Crouch, president of the National Coalition for Men, expressed similar sentiments: “This so-called rape crisis situation does not exist,” he said, blaming the mythology of campus rape on radical feminists' territorial control of the American university system. “Indoctrination is how they get their power,” Crouch warned me, as though imparting the secret of witchcraft.

On the other hand, if we want to talk about real power, we need to recognize that it lies in words—in how we talk about sexual assault. For all the complaints that liberals can't stop talking about college rape, it is precisely that insistence on speech that is helping curb outmoded norms.

Based on a study of 86 men, an article in the December issue of Violence and Gender emphasizes the importance of behavioral labels vs. behavioral descriptions in assessing men's attitudes toward rape. The results of the study—“Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders” (PDF)—are pretty stark. Around 32 percent of the men acknowledged they would have “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if ‘‘nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.’’ That number dropped to 13.6 percent when the question was re-framed to include the word “rape.” In her introduction, lead researcher Sarah R. Edwards, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Dakota, explains (and gently anticipates the reactionary response):

Some men will endorse items asking whether they have used force to obtain intercourse, but will deny having raped a woman. There has been little research on differences between individuals to endorse a behaviorally descriptive item versus a labeling item. The present study uses discriminant function analysis to separate men who do not report intentions to be sexually coercive, those who endorse behaviorally descriptive intentions but deny it when the word rape is used, and those who endorse intentions to rape outright.

Commentators have suggested that rape only occurs if a woman labels it as such, while experiencing an unwanted sexual experience under the influence does not constitute rape. This perspective demonstrates stereotypical assumptions many people still hold about rape, considering it to be an act of extreme violence perpetrated by an unknown assailant upon an unsuspecting woman who is willing to defend her sexual purity with her life. Such sentiments contribute to a culture that continues to put at least partial responsibility for sexual assault on the victim and normalizes sexual aggression as part of the male gender role.

Newsweek expands:

The researchers asked the study participants whether they endorsed forced sex and whether they endorsed rape, as well as a number of questions meant to gauge their levels of hostility and sexual callousness toward women. They found that those men willing to admit to intentions to rape harbored hostility—such as the belief that women are manipulative or deceitful—and had “angry and unfriendly” attitudes toward women.

Meanwhile, the men who admitted to an intention to rape only if it’s described as an “intention to use force” tended to have callous sexual attitudes, described in the study as viewpoints that “objectify women and expect men to exhibit sexual dominance.”

Here, Edwards gets at one of the more pernicious arguments against rape activism: Why are we talking about rape so much when statistics actually show that rape is becoming less common? The problem with that question is its arrangement. Rape is becoming less common precisely because we now refer to it as what it is: rape.

Progress isn't simple, and it doesn't simply mean that people stop doing bad things. Progress is when a culture acknowledges the shame of once-acceptable behavior, when the culture takes a proper inventory of silent social assumptions and tacitly encouraged injustice. It is scary that a third of the study's respondents said they would participate in forcible intercourse. But it's scarier that we have educated, vocal people trying to shut down the discussion, when the discussion—and the words we use when we have it—correlates so directly with prevention.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.