Trigger warnings. Also, I’m going to use a lot of ‘I’ statements in this blog, not all of them are true of me, this is about the language, not personal experience.
How we use language informs how we see our own experiences, how other people use language shapes how we understand them. We may not be consciously analyzing each other’s words, but nuances affect us anyway. It is a method that is used to manipulate people. Cultural habits of speech can entrench values – and not always good or healthy values. How we frame things can prop up power imbalance, abuse of power, disempowering of sets of people and so forth. I think one of my jobs as a bard is to get people thinking about how the words they hear and the words they use change and shape their relationship with reality.
Let’s consider this more specifically.
“I was raped.”
This phrase casts rape as an event that happened to the speaker. It has a similar ring to “a tree branch hit me on the head” or “I had a cold.” The phrasing disappears a number of things. It disappears the rapist as an active player in the events, someone who had a choice, and autonomy, not at all like a falling tree branch. It seems passive, perhaps unavoidable, like the tree branch and the cold. These things just happen.
“A man raped me” is a very different statement, foregrounding the deliberate action of an individual. Something done to the victim, not an accident, not a falling tree.
We use all the same terms of phrase for other acts of violence and sexual assault. I was assaulted, not someone assaulted me. I was mugged, not someone mugged me. I was a victim of child abuse, not pointing at the adult who abused your child self.
One of the other things this language disappears, is the likelihood of the victim knowing the aggressor. Most assaults are not undertaken by strangers, although these are the ones we are taught to guard against. You are most likely to be killed, assaulted or sexually abused by someone you know. “I was raped” has no known person in it as perpetrator. It implies stranger danger. “I was raped by my boyfriend” has a very different impact. “I was abused as a child by my stepbrother” foregrounds a lot of things that need to be visible. Of course for many of us it isn’t safe to name the aggressor, and we have legal systems that mean you have to be careful about your accusations, but we should all be able to get as far as ‘I was assaulted by someone I trusted’.
The word ‘rapist’ suggests something other, that is not a person. A rapist is something we can imagine as separate, not one of us. It allows us to wriggle out of thinking about it. Or we can picture them like some kind of stage villain, self announcing and distinct. Rapists are here. They are us. They are next to us on the train. We work with them, hang out with them, are related to them. We need to re-identify their presence, their personhood. So many women are raped, it is reasonable to assume that men who rape are present and numerous and not self announcing. A man raped me, not ‘a rapist’.
We lose the men when we say ‘I was raped’. We lose the clarity that, often what we’re talking about is something a man has done to a woman. Yes, I know it doesn’t always work that way, but mostly it does. Rape is a crime with a distinct gender bias. This is another reason it would be helpful if we could start foregrounding the rapist when we talk about this stuff. It might help us not get bogged down in ‘not all men’ conversations if we started by being a bit clearer about who had done the things in the first place. Saying ‘I was raped, I was assaulted’ lets people decline to hear who was doing it.
How we talk about things informs how we feel about them and think about them. We need to move away from victim blaming, and one way we can push towards that is to change how we phrase things so that the perpetrator remains firmly in view.