Rape is possibly the most emotive issue that feminists tackle. It is an understatement to say that the subject of rape makes us angry and upset. In amongst our feelings of anger is a sense of despair. For, unlike many issues on which we campaign, such as the gender pay gap, abortion, gay and lesbian rights, the rights of people who identify as trans gender, we seem to be making no headway at all in our efforts to combat rape.
Feminists have long-since abandoned the slogan 'all men are rapists' (at least I hope they have). But many feminists hold onto the term 'rapists'. They use it to describe specific men such as Jack Tweed, who was recently cleared of rape in the courts, despite compelling evidence pointing to his guilt. They use it more generally, to describe abstract 'rapists', the ones contained in the depressing rape statistics, the rapists who attack their wives, girlfriends, dates, ex-partners on a daily basis. THEM. I am not happy about this use of the term 'rapist'. I will try and explain why.
I believe that all labels that are used as a shorthand to create a simplified, negative image of people are damaging. When we say 'rapist' we turn a verb into a noun, an action or a set of actions into the sole defining characteristic of a person. 'Addict', 'Paedophile', 'Racist', 'Psycho', 'Rapist'. These words all conjur up images of unsavoury characters, motivated by wholly negative impulses, to commit monstrous acts. These terms don't sound like they are describing people at all.
I mean, you wouldn't want to date a rapist would you? You wouldn't fall in love with a racist, a psycho, an addict. You'd cross the street and go inside and lock your door. But many, many, people do fall in love with, marry, care about, live with people who do use drugs, are dependent on alcohol, do hold views that are far from tolerant, do hurt their partner or child, or someone else's partner or child. We can't make this fact disappear simply by giving those people a name, by calling them 'OTHER'. They are you and me, they are your brother and my father, your husband and my brother. They are human.
Is this difficult to accept? Do I sound like I am defending people who commit rape? Does it seem as if I am underplaying the serious nature of the crime? I am not. I am as horrified and depressed as you are, to read about countries where rape is used as a state-approved instrument of torture. I cry when I think about the millions of rapes that go unreported in the world, or that get reported but do not lead to convictions.
But if we are to have any hope of turning things around, of changing the world in which we live, we have to change the way we perceive and talk about rape, and in particular the way we perceive and talk about people who commit rape at some point in their lives. The judicial system in the UK is supposed to enable rehabilitation and reform of the criminal individual. Aside from the paultry conviction rates, when it comes to rape I don't believe it even tries. This is in part because our shared understanding of the word 'rapist' as meaning 'monster', 'other', results in us treating 'rapists' as being unable to reform, as beyond help.
So, we find ourselves stuck in a paradoxical situation. On one hand rape is trivialised in our society, not taken seriously, and hardly punished. On the other hand, we conceptualise the 'rapist' as an evil character, that we do not recognise as being one of us, as a human being.
I thank my lucky stars that I have never been raped. I am sad and angry that I have to feel 'lucky'. It ought to be something I take for granted as part of my liberty, living as I do in a 'free country'. But I know I never will. Nor will I take for granted the language I use to talk about rape. Feminists know that language can be a powerful weapon or a tool of liberation. We should handle it with care.