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Friday, April 19, 2013

In Rape Tragedies, the Shame Is Ours | And Our Language Matters

The proof is everywhere these days that this old nursery rhyme is not only false but also dangerous: 
Sticks and stones will break my bones, But words will never harm me.
People who work with words for a living know how false that adage is ... or they should know. The words we write and say have power, undeniably. Editors and writers, especially, must do what we can to inform other people about the consequences of misusing and abusing words.

In this article, for example, Jessica Valenti writes for The Nation:

Women and girls are the ones expected to carry the shame of the sexual crimes perpetrated against them. And that shame is a tremendous load to bear, because once you're labeled a slut, empathy and compassion go out the window. The word is more than a slur—it’s a designation. ...
Calling a woman a slut sends a message that it’s open season: you can harass her, malign her, ruin her life. It’s the same kind of dehumanization that assumes women aren't people, but bodies there for men’s enjoyment—whether they consent or not. ...
[I]n reality, rape jokes are still considered funny, women are told that what they wear has some bearing on whether or not they'll be attacked, and the definition of rape is still not widely understood. That’s why we still hear qualifiers like “date,” “gray,” “forcible” and “legitimate”—because so many don't understand that all nonconsensual sex is rape.
Valenti's article ends with a personal story about a 15-year-old girl who killed herself after being raped. But here's the conclusion of this article for me, a statement that the language we hear or use or accept or allow about sex, women, rape, and violence doesn't just influence the victims of rape in tragic ways. It also helps encourage boys and men to become rapists ... violent criminals:
Society makes it very easy for rapists to get away with rape. For example, a rapist may target an intoxicated woman not only because she'll be easier to attack, but because he knows she'll be less likely to be believed. That’s why whenever we blame a woman for being attacked—when we speculate about what she was wearing, suggest she shouldn't have been drinking or that she stayed out too late— we're making the world safer for rapists.
And this is how it’s come to be that in our culture, it’s more shameful to be raped than to be a rapist.
I know women also rape, and same-sex rape happens as well. The causes and consequences of that violence are appalling and tragic. We must be equally sensitive in the language we hear, use, accept or allow about those crimes. 

I wrote a related commentary on this topic in April 1991 and updated it after 9/11: 
Words can and do break bones: on the misuse of language.
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