Words are powerful. Words evoke emotion. They take you to a time or place, they jog your memory, they bring back sights, smells, tastes. What if a word that brought back a bad memory, a traumatic experience, was tossed around casually? What if nearly everywhere you went, you heard this word? And you just couldn’t escape it. The word I am referring to is rape. The word “rape” is misused in our society, de-sensitized. The effects of this word being casually thrown around has an effect on rape victims and survivors, and I hope that by the time you look up from your computer screen, you will never say the word rape casually again.
Words have a weight that extends far beyond a single conversation.
Maybe you think that the word and the action of rape aren’t so closely related. What difference does it make if we say one thing and mean another? You aren’t actually trying to offend or hurt someone, it’s just a figure of speech, right? Actually, wrong. Intent is important, but what you say is important too, even if — especially if — you don’t say exactly what you mean…
No one rapes your internet connection, or rapes you in a debate. No one rapes your email inbox with spam, or your Facebook with notifications. A guy or girl at a club doesn’t rape you with their eyes. You are not raped when someone gives you a hug. No one rapes you when you lose a basketball game, and you are certainly not raped by the competition when you lose the school talent show. Despite this, the word is said everyday. “Bro that final totally ass-raped me!” “Do you see them dancing? He is totally raping her.” “Someone buy me a drink, I just raped that job interview!” You are probably in denial that people really talk like this, but take a minute to think about how often you hear stuff like this in your day to day life. Think about how often you say sentences just like that.
And maybe you use the word like that, in a casual sense, and don’t understand why that’s bad. You could say rape, nigger, faggot, retard — you don’t mean anything bad by it, you’re not trying to personally attack an individual. Art, music, law, language – they all evolve. You think that saying rape casually does not legitimize, condone, or trivialize the word. The word has simply changed to become a synonym of the gamer term “own.” And if someone told you they were a rape survivor, you wouldn’t say it around them anymore.
But all of that only hinders and harms the situation. If rape is used as a positive term, such as “I just raped that test!” it will become natural for you to think of rape in a positive way. Think this is silly? Refer to cognitive dissonance, something discovered by psychologist Leon Festinger. According to Festinger, cognitive dissonance is where your words and your actions contradict what you are thinking, and so your attitudes and thinking change to match your actions. Even if you originally think rape is bad, because you are using it to mean a good thing, your attitudes will change, if only slightly. Using the word casually also contributes to the culture of oppression, causing rape victims to be marginalized even more than they already are.
Obviously, no one would make rape jokes to an individual who they knew was raped on purpose: but so many rape victims do not talk about what happened to them publicly, and people tend to underestimate the likelihood that they know someone who has been raped. The truth is however – according to the United States Department of Justice – that one in four college women are rape survivors, and only five percent of rapes are ever reported, making rape the most underreported crime in the United States. Victims of rape are your friends, your family, your co-workers, your neighbors.
A victim of rape is talking to you, now.
This past fall, I was the victim of sexual assault. Before this incident, hearing the word rape used out of context never phased me. No, I never said it myself, but hearing it said by others didn’t impact me emotionally. However since my experience, hearing the word said casually evokes sadness, anxiety and brings back memories I’d rather forget. I can be with friends, and one of them will slip and say the word – I know they aren’t be purposeful or trying to hurt me – but that doesn’t change what is said. I suppressed the memory and pushed it aside, figuring that it would be done and over with. When I would hear the word relatively soon after it happened, I just brushed it off and went on with my day. Now however, months after the assault, the issue has resurfaced for me. I’ve yet to speak with a psychiatrist face to face, but it is believed that I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder and a mild form of depression which leads me to self-inflict pain and and self-induce vomiting. I am on the road to recovery, no need to worry – or else I wouldn’t be standing here discussing this with you today, however I can honestly say that there are still nights where the urge to cut myself or stick a toothbrush down my throat is very strong. Hearing the word out of context, and so often triggers anxiety and these urges. Each time I hear it said, flashbacks spin through my brain. Images of waking up in my clothes from the night before, spending all day bouncing between hospitals and clinics getting tests, having to repeat everything I remembered a dozen times to a dozen different professionals, having to call my parents and tell them what happened, throwing up for three days afterwards I was such a mess. All of this and more… it all rushes to me when I hear you say “I just raped that test.”
The word rape itself originates from the Latin verb rapere: to seize or take away. When you say the word, you are taking away a victims ability to put the past behind them, to move on. There are 787,000 people raped annually in America, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey – 787,000 people fighting to move on. Don’t be the reason that even a single person out of all the victims out there is being tormented by the ghosts of their past. Be the voice instead that tells a passerby to not say rape in a casual manner, and watch a rape survivor breathe a sigh of relief and smile.
— Teagan Laurel Alexander