Friday 30 April 2010

Why 'Rapist' Is A Dirty Word

I thank my lucky stars that I have never been raped. I have been assaulted by an ex partner though. Even as I lay there, taking his blows, trying not to breathe, a half-thought passed through my mind. It wasn't fully formed, it was barely conscious, but it was definitely there. 'I hope he doesn't rape me' I almost thought, 'I'd rather be killed'. My heart goes out to everyone who survives rape, and who lives to tell (or not tell) the tale. My heart goes out to all the families, lovers and friends of those who don't survive. I want to honour all those people, but I am not quite sure how.

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.


  1. I hear some of what you are saying here, however I'd suggest deferring to survivors in this.

    Any person who has raped me has, absolutely, been my rapist.

    They may have also been my neighbor, my friend, even my partner or may be someone else's husband, teacher, pastor, what have you, but if they have raped, they have also been a rapist. And if they have raped me, that is something they have been, to me. Calling them such is not automatically othering, and in some cases, may be about needing to make clear that no, someone is NOT my friend, because they have raped me; someone is NOT my partner, because they have raped me. It's often very hard, and not easy at all, to call someone who has raped a rapist, far harder than calling someone who has mugged us a mugger, for instance, and in part that's because WE are not dehumanizing them, but THEY have dehumanized us. For those of us who have survived rape, more times than not we know full well rapist isn't all someone who has raped us is: healing would be a lot easier otherwise, you know?

    I think it might be worthwhile to consider that the way a non-survivor uses this term or conceptualizes it can be very different than how a survivor does. To me, this is not a dirty word: it is one way we are able to break silence and hold people accountable for what they have chosen, intentionally, to do to us.

  2. Thank you very much for taking the time to add your comments to my post. It has given me some food for thought.

    I should probably change how I have worded this as I would never wish to undermine the accounts of survivors or their ability to put a name to what happens to them.

    The places I have seen the term 'rapist' have tended to be in the media, not in survivors own accounts.

    Thanks again.

  3. The paper below by Helen Mofett called 'Stemming the tide: countering public narratives of sexual violence' is very relevant to this discussion.

    It doesn't reject the term rapist but it does problematise it and discusses how rapists are presented as monsters/psychopaths.

  4. I think I get what you mean....'Rapist' is pure evil, a monster rather than the guy everyone knows, likes & is friends with, so when someone who could very well be a rapist is referred to as such people around them close ranks & blame the victim because they can't comprehend who or what a rapist is other than the 'monster' concept. So using such a strong word around people who cannot comprehend their friends or loved ones could possibly be a rapist closes down any discussion.

  5. I think it can do, but I accept Heather's comments above, that victims of rape need words to describe what happens to them and need to feel free to name the atrocious nature of the crime of rape. So I am happy to say that 'rapist' is a problematic term but maybe not one that should be dismissed entirely. The article by Helen Moffet on rape discourses in the link I posted above is very good.

  6. I came here via a link on Feminazery.

    I have to disagree with the premise that "rapist" is not a useful word. I do see what you were saying but I think it is important that we have words like rapist and racist and sexist (etc.) to define actions.

    No, it is not very nice to be called a racist but it is much worse to be the person affected by that racism. Being called a rapist may be horrible - but the act of rape a rapist committed was ten times as horrific. I feel that when we try to make people feel "okay" despite having raped (or saying something racist or spewing homophobic slurs or whatever else) then we are centering the conversation around them and not their victims.

    I also believe that a refusal to call a rapist a rapist or racist a racist actually minimises what they did. These words should have negative associations - they are not words that "other" people but descriptors of their actions. If we remove our descriptors then we remove the seriousness the actions.

    I understand your point about wanting to work to reform and not to "other" people but I don't think reform can occur without being able to name reprehensible behaviour. "Rapist" or "homophobe" or "racist" are not slurs but descriptors that allow us to put a word to a certain type of behaviour.

  7. Hi Jennifer
    Thanks so much for commenting on this blogpost.
    I have also been discussing the issue on the
    F-word feminist blog (UK). I have had some really good comments from other feminists, many saying the same as you. I am re-thinking my position as I would never advocate reducing survivors' ability to speak about being raped.

  8. Hi Elly!

    I went over to The F Word and read the comments there. Pity they are closed now! I actually commented on that article myself, but very early on and I missed all the stuff that was written over the weekend. It was an interesting discussion.

    I just wanted to say that I don't think using words like rapist is just about survivors needing the ability to speak out. I think those who are not rape vicitms need to be able to use it too in order to be ally's.

    I hope you don't mind if I add your blog to my google reader!

  9. That's fine to add my blog to your google thingy!

    Yes I can see how you want the term to be available to allies of survivors too. I am still thinking about it as I believe the term 'rapist' is used in ways which don't help survivors or their allies as well. So I guess I believe it is
    a very problematic term. I need to do more thinking/reading on the subject.

    The link I posted earlier in the comments here is a website with some really good articles on it. I will try and write a review of them later.