January
12th 2011
Rape: a crime too terrible to be named.

Posted under: American history, bad language, Gender, students, unhappy endings, wankers, women's history

This morning, we have more evidence of the widespread refusal in our culture to name a rape a rape:

Former University of Colorado linebacker Michael Sipili was arrested Tuesday morning on suspicion of sexually assaulting a 22-year-old woman last month at an off-campus apartment, according to Boulder police.

.       .       .       .      .       .      

Witnesses told police that Sipili went into a room at the apartment with one woman. He then entered a room in which his friend and the other woman were engaged in consensual sex.

That woman told detectives that the next thing she knew, Sipili began having sex with her. She said she told him to stop and said “this hurts” numerous times.

She said Sipili had sex with her for about five to 10 minutes before leaving.

When the woman got up to leave, the affidavit said, she noticed blood on the sheets and said Sipili’s friend tried to cover it up.

A rape examination later revealed she had suffered multiple tears to her vagina, according to the affidavit.

What???  A “rape examination?”  The story said merely that the alleged perpetrator “had sex with her. 

How would it feel to live in a world in which reporters and newspapers actually used the verb “to rape” or “to commit sexual assault” when describing an arrest for rape or sexual assault?  I’m totally cool with the nouns “alleged rape” and “alleged rapist,” since of course no one has yet been convicted. 

Let’s give credit where credit is due:  neither the Denver Post nor the Boulder Daily Camera article on which it was based use the term “accuser,” as though a lone woman were accusing the perpetrator of sexual assault and bringing him up on charges and not the Boulder County District Attorney’s office.  (The Daily Camerastory actually uses the old-fashioned, unmodified term “victim” once, which is appropriate since the DA’s office has in fact determined that a crime was committed.)

26 Comments »

26 Responses to “Rape: a crime too terrible to be named.”

  1. Dr. Crazy on 12 Jan 2011 at 8:25 am #

    I know you’ve written about this before, but your excerpts here struck me. It seems to me that the difficulty is in finding “neutral” language, which of course, is sort of impossible, as “having sex with” isn’t actually neutral in its connotation – it implies consent, in its common usage. Perhaps the only way around the problem is to be incredibly technical: instead of, he began having sex with,” then, “he began penetrating her with his penis”?

    Of course, that’s perhaps not euphemistic enough for the daily newspaper.

    This is sort of a tangent, but I heard something on NPR not too long ago where they were talking about the dangers of construing reporting as “objective” and the way that “objectivity” gets in the way of transparency. The story was primarily about political reporting, but I think it has relevance here, too. http://www.npr.org/2010/11/16/131361367/should-objectivity-still-be-the-standard-in-news

  2. Historiann on 12 Jan 2011 at 8:35 am #

    This is why I always say that clarity of thought & purpose necessarily leads to clear writing, and that opacity of writing indicates a desire to mislead or obfuscate. I always point to the First and Second Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as my examples. Look at all of the trouble bad writing has caused us!

    “Rape” is a good word: easy to read, easy to pronounce, only 4 letters and one syllable, and most people get a picture in their minds when it’s used. I don’t understand why writers collaborate with rape culture. (And like I said, “alleged rape” and “alleged rapist” are just fine with me.)

  3. rustonite on 12 Jan 2011 at 9:31 am #

    I suspect it’s because ‘rape’ brings up an image of a scary darkish man grabbing a woman in an alley. This was in a bedroom, after she had gone to the apartment voluntarily, with a Hawaiian football player.

    The legal definition, and your and my definition, of rape is “nonconsensual sex.” However, many people’s definition (whether they realize it or not) is “nonconsensual sex with a stranger in a strange place.”

    It is very common for people to fix the definition of a word to the context in which they first hear it used. My father insists that trees are not plants, because as a kid he heard “trees” and “plants” contrasted, and no amount of arguing will change his mind. Small children often freak out the first they meet someone with the same name as someone they already know. And for most people, the first time they hear “rape” it’s associated with a stranger in an alley, and the definition gets stuck there.

    If pushed, I think most people would admit that this was rape, but their subconscious feeling will be to reject that definition- they’ll experience the same sensation as when you hear someone conjugate a verb incorrectly.

    Which sucks, but it’s how the mind works sometimes.

  4. Historiann on 12 Jan 2011 at 9:34 am #

    Nothing will change if writers refuse to write clearly, precisely, and with the greatest economy of words.

  5. LadyProf on 12 Jan 2011 at 9:51 am #

    Normally I would agree with this criticism but “rape” isn’t as ideal as “easy to read, easy to pronounce,” etc. would imply. State penal codes avoid using the term as the name of a crime because it is imprecise. For example, I think most people would agree that coerced fellatio = rape, but not everyone would, and the “picture in [our] minds” when we read the word rape might vary from what is alleged.

    You are absolutely right about the need to say “victim” instead of “accuser” (unless we start referencing accusers who complain of car theft, embezzlement, elder abuse etc.) and getting rid of “have sex” in a narrative when the state is prosecuting someone for a crime called something like sexual assault. I think Dr. Crazy’s substitution is the only way to go–and I bet rape defenders wouldn’t like it.

  6. Grad Student on 12 Jan 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    Part of the reason reporters often don’t use the word “rape” to describe situations like this is because of how sexual assault laws are written in different states. Many states (including Colorado) don’t actually have anything called “rape” in their penal codes so it would be legally inaccurate for media outlets to report that an individual was allegedly raped or accused of an alleged rape.

  7. Historiann on 12 Jan 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    As I said in the post, “sexual assault” is good, too. “Having sex with” is not an acceptable description of sexual assault or rape.

    If it’s indeed a fact that rape appears nowhere in Colorado’s criminal code, that’s something that would appear to bolster my main point about rape being something so horrible it never, ever happens.

  8. Grad Student on 12 Jan 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    I agree that using the term “sexual assault” (alleged or substantiated) would be preferable to “having sex with” from a social or cultural perspective. We *should* use these terms to describe this behavior. We *should* normalize these terms and not be afraid to call these actions what they are. You and I and other commenters can call this man’s actions “rape” and we would be right to do so, but the media outlets legally cannot. Even using “sexual assault” may be dicey because of the legal implications of citing specific statutes. It’s safer for them to say “have sex with” than to risk citing the wrong criminal charge. (Plus, in the context of the article, it appears that the victim herself may have described the actions as “having sex with” in her original report, in which case this is just good reporting.)

    I disagree that omitting “rape” from the Colorado criminal code is an indication that rape is seen as “something so horrible it never, ever happens” or something we shouldn’t talk about. It’s actually an indication that criminal codes are more effective when written in clear and specific language and that “sexual assault” provides DAs with more control over how they charge alleged perpetrators.

  9. thefrogprincess on 12 Jan 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    I hear what you all are saying about the legal vagaries involved, but I’m with Historiann here: if coerced and forced vaginal penetration resulting in tearing can’t easily be termed rape, then something has gone horridly wrong.

  10. mandor on 12 Jan 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    It’s messed up if words like “rape” and “sexual assault” can’t be used. To me that doesn’t mean that “had sex with” is a suitable replacement. The story is not about how X person “had sex” with Y person. The story is about how X forcibly had sex with Y against Y’s will. I agree with thefrogprincess that words like “coerced” and “forced” matter. I find this especially distressing to read in news reports about sexually assaulted children. What 10 year old “has sex”?

  11. Historiann on 12 Jan 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    Who precisely would put the media in legal jeopardy if they used the terms “rape” or “sexual assault?” (Especially if that’s what the guy is charged wtih, according to the Denver Post story.) On what authority do you write this, Grad Student? Is the person fighting the rape charges going to sue the local papers? I’d think that he’d have enough on his plate to worry about, what with having been charged with sexual assault. (And does this ever happen? I’ve never seen or heard of it.)

    It’s this deference to the rights of accused rapists that I’m writing about here. It’s only rape victims who are ever called “accusers.” (I’ve never seen the term “accuser” applied to a victim of theft or burglery, or to the victim of an attempted murder, for example.) Among all alleged criminals, it’s only accused rapists whose rights are so assiduously respected by the media.

    As we like to say around here: Gee, I wonder why?

  12. truffula on 12 Jan 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    No disrespect meant to anybody writing here but I’m sick to death of appeals to legal vagaries and discussions of the technical details around sexual assault and rape. I’m sure folks reading here are clear on the idea that delegitimization of sexual assaults as crimes makes it hard for women to recognize what happened to them as such. I think the stakes are a lot higher though. Ongoing sexual harassment can be just as devastating as rape and if we can’t manage to take the latter seriously, what hope is there for the former? The same questions (is this wrong? did I do something to deserve it?) apply.

  13. thefrogprincess on 12 Jan 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    and also, the legal issues can’t be too pressing since the reporter referred to a “rape examination.” Excuse me for thinking that one can’t write about “rape kits”/”rape examinations” without referring to alleged rapes or sexual assaults.

  14. Historiann on 12 Jan 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    Word.

    Although I won’t be surprised if we learn that rape kits/rape exams are soon to be called “had sex with” kits/exams.

    As the last decade illustrates pretty convincingly: just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does.

  15. Grad Student on 12 Jan 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    I am sorry if I have offended anyone with my comments, but I will stand by them. I specialize in the intersection of science and law and much of my research focuses on the legal and social implications of vague language in sex offense statutes.

    The newspapers cited in the post could be at very real risk of civil suits if they step into libelous territory (yes, this really happens, often after the criminal proceedings are complete), including using the wrong legal term to describe the alleged actions of the alleged perpetrator. This is, however, moot because both articles use “sexual assault” to describe his actions and the accusations levied against him. The only exceptions to this are the descriptors of “having sex with” (or variations thereof) which seem to be pulled from the original affidavits, and are thus likely the words of the victim and other witnesses. This is not a case of the newspaper inadvertently editorializing the coverage of this story.

    I am one of the last people who would buy into rape culture, apologize for rape, or defend the alleged actions of this young man. If these accusations are true, I sincerely hope he faces the maximum consequences allowed under the law and that the victim receives all the help and support she could ever need. I’d be happy to hop on board and say that it is appalling that accused rapists are held to different standards in news reports than are other accused criminals. It is even more appalling that rape victims are more heavily scrutinized than other crime victims. However, the fact is that the alleged perpetrator of any crime (yes, even rape and sexual assault) has legal rights and we should all be fighting to make sure those rights are upheld.

  16. Historiann on 12 Jan 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Grad Student–thanks for your further explanation.

    Do people accused of crimes other than rape or sexual assault sue newspapers or media organizations for the language they use in reporting on their cases? Does anyone ever have a successful lawsuit after conviction, or is it only after an acquittal?

    I’m just trying to get my mind around the huge, crayon-bright lines everyone draws around accused rapists versus other accused criminals.

  17. KC on 12 Jan 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    I’ve noticed this change in the way rapes are reported in the press. It seems to me that a decade ago papers used the word “rape” a lot more than they do now. Is that true or am I misremembering? Were newspapers successfully sued over this, as Grad Student alludes to above?

  18. Historiann on 12 Jan 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    As I’ve written here before, I date it to the Kobe Bryant arrest in 2003.

  19. Grad Student on 12 Jan 2011 at 2:51 pm #

    It happens far less often now because media outlets are much more careful about the language they use, but libel lawsuits stemming from incorrectly citing criminal charges still happen on occasion. For obvious reasons it more commonly occurs after an acquittal rather than a conviction, and for cases of rape or sexual assault, but has happened after people are convicted for lesser crimes than what they were reported to have committed and for crimes other than rape or sexual assault.

    It all boils down to social stigma and future perceptions of the accused. If a paper erroneously reports that a person committed rape, that is worse than erroneously reporting they committed burglary because of how we “value” sex offenses. Similarly, it is worse for a paper to report that a person committed rape if the person ends up being convicted of a lesser sexual assault instead.

    The easy way to think of this in regards to those huge, crayon-bright lines is: what would you rather have your employer erroneously believe, that you are a rapist or a thief?

  20. truffula on 12 Jan 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    I don’t take exception to what you write, Grad Student and I’m pretty sure I understand where you are coming from. Care must be taken not only on libel grounds but also regarding the presumption of innocence.

    What I’m trying to write about is different though, its about a culture-wide attitude about the appropriate uses of words. It’s perfectly okay to make rape jokes and to talk about any and every usurpation of personal liberty as rape. What doesn’t seem to be okay is to use the word to mean a sexual assault. The point I wanted to make is that the failure to call rape what it is ripples out across the ocean of abuses women suffer in our culture.

  21. quixote on 12 Jan 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    I’m not sure the word is glossed over because the crime is too terrible. I get the sense they don’t use the word because they don’t believe there was necessarily a crime and they wouldn’t want to “prejudge” the situation. Rape just isn’t very important. What’s important is that no real people’s feelings should be hurt. It’s about the men, y’know.

  22. LadyProf on 12 Jan 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    Historiann, I said the same thing upthread about the sexist use of “accuser” — I just named different crimes from yours, examples of where the media wouldn’t dream of being so perp-protective. There are others, although I would underscore elder abuse and embezzlement as especially clear instances where we would never hear a reference to “the accuser.”

    Grad Student, I’ve never heard of a successful libel claim by an individual against a newspaper or other media defendant for using the word “rape” to describe the charges against him. Nor did I find one while taking a quick look online. Like a lot of other talk about the supposed lawsuit culture of the USA, this worry gets applied to the task of rationalizing bad behavior.

    But I still think that state legislatures were right to take the word “rape” out of their penal codes and substitute variations on “sexual assault.” Federal law uses “sexual abuse” and “abusive sexual contact,” which I think are good terms, though wordy.

  23. Mamie on 12 Jan 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    This may be a good time to remind everyone of this case, from three years ago: http://journalstar.com/news/local/article_172ad305-2315-58a0-8109-310661de8d1c.html

    I don’t know how to embed, unfortunately, but the link is to an article about a rape case in which the judge forbade the victim to use the words “rape,” “sexual assault,” “victim,” “assailant,” “sexual assault kit,” etc., etc., in giving her courtroom testimony.

    Prejudicial, he said.

  24. Trudy on 12 Jan 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    Sadly, I am afraid this reflects the underlying bias that when it comes to an accusation of rape, the woman is more likely to be lying than the male. And so, unconsciously or not, this is expressed in the so-called “neutral” language. Several of my students and acquaintances have told me stories of being date-raped and never having come forward, fearing that they would be faced with this bias–and so, having to prove they are being truthful in the face of doubt and assumptions of deceit on their part. I have often heard comments such as “maybe they are claiming to have been raped in order to get attention” and this will seem more logical to many, than the possibility that she was actually raped! Publications need to be called out on this every time it happens, and I am glad you are doing it. Things will never change otherwise.

  25. Profane on 13 Jan 2011 at 1:15 am #

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/01/12/florida.police.chief.arrested/?hpt=Sbin

    ['Rape' utilized in both headline and article - perhaps because of the age of the victim?]

  26. A Crime Too Terrible to Be Named | By Grace and Faith on 13 Jan 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    [...] Great Blog post on American culture and rape: http://www.historiann.com/2011/01/12/rape-a-crime-too-terrible-to-be-named/ [...]