Friday, September 10, 2010

Talking About Rape

People use the word "rape" in all sorts of conversations. Sometimes it's a metaphor, as in "Big business is raping the environment". Sometimes it's used as a threat, as in " The Bulldogs are going to gang-rape Florida this weekend." Sometimes it's used to describe the crime of rape, but when we use it is so many other contexts, it starts to make us take the actual experience a lot less seriously.

Don't believe us? Read this article by Kira Cochrane for the Guardian [warning for adult language]. She goes on for paragraphs listing many recent instances of rape being used as a metaphor, rape jokes told by comedians, and sexual assault scenes in movies used for comedic value, ending with the conclusion that people these days just don't take rape very seriously. I hope we don't need to convince you that it is serious.
As Sandy Brindley, national co-ordinator of Rape Crisis Scotland, says: "Rape is so particularly traumatic and so meaningful in so many ways, that there's something about using the word in other contexts that diminishes the reality of it, and the impact it has on women's lives. Rape is a powerful word, and it's powerful for a reason, because of that devastating impact."

Aside from suggesting rape isn't all that serious, these jokes also underplay its prevalence. Estimations of the number of women raped or sexually assaulted in the UK every year are necessarily imprecise, but they range from 47,000 to 100,000. It is thought that around one in four women are victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes. In telling rape jokes, or throwing the word casually into conversation, there is an assumption that the person you are talking to won't have experienced this – or that, if they have, you just don't care about the memories you might provoke, the anxiety you might trigger. "I think people don't necessarily realise how common rape is," says Brindley, "and that when they're speaking to an audience there will definitely be people there who are rape survivors. On that basis, I think you have to have some recognition about the impact of what you're saying."

In my view, rape jokes feed a culture in which jurors either disbelieve rape complainants, or just don't think rape is that significant: I spoke to a juror once who said he didn't feel comfortable convicting a defendant of rape because the woman had only been violated orally.
It may be hard to imagine that one joke or one metaphor can be directly linked to a juror acquitting a rapist, but it never is just one joke or one metaphor. We live in a culture that finds these jokes not just acceptable, but funny, and rape metaphors not just tolerable, but clever. When a rape survivor hears her traumas talked about glibly, or joked about, she gets the message that what happened to her isn't considered all that bad, regardless of how she feels about it. She is told that she is not important and that her experiences are not important. What is more important is making a clever threat, or having a good laugh.

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