All Nonconsensual Sex is Sexual Assault: How We Categorize and Minimize Rape

[Content note: sexual assault, statutory rape]

People, as it turns out, really love to categorize sexual assault.

They like to speculate about which ones are worse or more traumatic. They like to refer to certain sexual assaults with sanitized language that either glamorizes or minimizes what happened. If at all possible, they like to leave words like “rape” and “assault” out of it.

Here are two recent examples of these tendencies.

1. Richard Dawkins has previously claimed that sexual abuse of children by priests does less “lasting damage” than “the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” Recently, he ignited controversy again by stating that he cannot condemn sexual abuse of children by teachers–which he himself went through–because standards were different back then and he doubts that “he did any of us any lasting damage.” Dawkins also made this type of move during the Elevatorgate incident, in which he mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort with being propositioned in an elevator in the middle of the night because Women In The Middle East Have It Worse™.

2. Last week, a video posted on Instagram showed a frosh week event at Saint Mary’s University in which students chanted, “Y is for your sister [...] U is for underage, N is for no consent [...] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.” So, they were chanting about rape. However, many news articles covering the story only referred to the chant as promoting “nonconsensual sex” or “underage sex” rather than statutory rape or sexual assault.

Nonconsensual sex. Underage sex*. That old standby, sex scandal. The lengths to which writers and editors will go to avoid using the words “rape” or “assault” are impressive. It’s interesting because usually journalists make an effort to choose language that grabs as much attention as possible (at least, that’s what was impressed upon me repeatedly during my year in journalism school).

“Sex scandal” sounds like something you’d find in a tabloid and forget by tomorrow, when yesterday’s papers are today’s subway litter. “Underage sex” sounds like “underage drinking.” “Nonconsensual sex” sounds like a bad idea fueled by apathy or impatience, like having sex without a condom. It makes it sound like consent is just an added bonus, in case you really want to cover all your bases.

All of these common journalistic tropes insist on using the word “sex,” but all sex without consent is by definition assault or rape.

This doesn’t mean that all sexual assaults are identical. They can be perpetrated by strangers or friends or acquaintances or partners or family members or authority figures. They can involve physical force, or they can not. They might leave the person in need of medical attention, or they may not. They may be nonconsensual because the survivor is a minor or because they were intoxicated or because they simply didn’t give consent. They may be motivated by a desire to punish or to “turn” a queer person straight or to take what one feels owed or to alleviate boredom. They may or may not lead to pregnancy or STI transmission. They may be perpetrated by someone of any gender upon someone of any gender. They might take place in the survivor’s home or in the assaulter’s home or in someone else’s home or at a bar or club or outside or in a school or in a medical facility or at a prison. The survivor may not have consented to any sexual activity with the person who assaulted them, or they may have consented to some of it. They may have had consensual sexual encounters with that person in the past, or they may not have.

These distinctions are relevant in some contexts. They are relevant for researchers studying the causes and effects of sexual assault, and for those who want some descriptive statistics. They are relevant for activists and educators who may want to target particular situations in their prevention work. They are relevant for survivors who might want to get support from others with similar experiences.

They are not relevant in deciding whose sexual assault was “worse,” because the same event could affect different people differently. They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “legitimate” and which are not.

They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “really” sexual assaults, which ones we’re going to refer to as “assault” and which ones we’ll just call some form of “sex.”

Sexual assault is the only crime to which the reaction is frequently some version of “Well, maybe it’s not that bad.” “Maybe she was mature for her age.” “Maybe he deserves it; he’s in prison after all.” “Maybe they actually wanted it.” “Maybe it wasn’t even that traumatizing.”

Or maybe we keep trying to minimize sexual assault, both with our words and with our actions, because treating it with the gravity it deserves is harder–harder emotionally, harder strategically. It requires eradicating the disdain with which many people view assault victims.

A good place to start is resisting this dilution and weakening of our language. Call sexual assault what it is, every time. Poynter has some great guidelines:

Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less….[S]ometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.

And stop it with the masturbatory thought exercises about which assaults are “worse” than others.


*Originally, when I posted it on Twitter, this headline at least included the word “non-consensual.” Then it inexplicably disappeared.

On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism

[Update 10/22/13: If you've found this post through a racist hate forum, don't bother commenting. Your comment's going straight to the trash and nobody will ever read it. :)]

Richard Dawkins, whose Twitter feed never fails to amuse, has lately been discussing racism–specifically, against white people:

[Here's the link in case you can't see this]


Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light. Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.

It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people. If you define racism this way, then it is true that the person who dismissed Dawkins’ opinion at the beginning was being racist. If you define racism this way, then it is true that a white person who is treated rudely by a Black person is a victim of racism, and it is true that, strictly speaking, affirmative action is racist.

But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power. When you’re not white, it does. Because then it’s not just a random asshole who doesn’t like your skin color.

I have had a person of color express prejudice towards me because I’m white exactly once in my life. Once. (And for what it’s worth, it was a stranger on the train who apparently just felt like yelling at people that day.) I have never been denied a job because I’m white. I have never been followed around or stopped and frisked by the police because I’m white. I’ve never been told I’m ugly because I’m white. I have never been told I’m stupid because I’m white, and I’ve never been told that I’m unusually intelligent for a white person.

Disliking someone based on their skin color is not enough for it to be racism. In fact, it’s not even a necessary condition. You can like people of color a lot while still maintaining that they’re just different from white people or that they need protection or that they’re perhaps better suited by nature for servile roles (this was an attitude commonly expressed during slavery). Likewise, you can just loooooove women while still supporting patriarchal laws and cultural norms, which is why I have to laugh when someone’s all like “But how can I be sexist? I LOOOOVE women! ;)”

As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals. Basically, tons of substances are chemicals, including water. Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.” You see products being advertised as “chemical-free,” a laughable concept, and people talking about how “chemicals” are bad for you.

So yes, it’s important to recognize that many people use the word “chemical” in a particular way that conflicts with the definition used by chemists. But that doesn’t suddenly mean that this lay definition becomes the “real” definition and the chemists are suddenly “wrong.” And if you want to rant about the dangers of chemicals with your friends (I’d advise you not to, but whatever), it doesn’t matter if you use the lay definition.

But the way the lay public uses the word “chemical” is essentially meaningless, because they basically use it to mean “substances that may or may not be dangerous but we don’t really know we just know that we can’t pronounce them.” It doesn’t even necessarily refer to synthetic substances, because most people would probably say that cyanide is a chemical, it’s naturally occurring (in fact, it’s produced in certain fruit seeds). So if you want to discuss chemicals with a chemist, you’d better use the actual definition, because the terms used by chemists are more precise and useful.

Of course, when it comes to race it’s not quite as benign as people taking chemistry terms and using them haphazardly. It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists. It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism this way. It’s painful and guilt-inducing to acknowledge that you (as a white person) have benefited from unearned privileges at the expense of people of color. It’s awkward to admit that affirmative action is not “bias in favor of people of color”; it’s an attempt to correct for the fact that college admissions and hiring practices are actually prejudiced in favor of whites, and this has been shown by controlled studies over and over again.

What’s significantly more comfortable is claiming that “everyone can be racist” and “Blacks can be racist too” and “some Blacks are even more racist toward whites than whites are toward them.” That is a definition of racism that white folks can deal with. But that doesn’t make it useful for actually talking about the things that matter.