One of the most persistent problems anti-rape and anti-domestic violence activists face is the inability of people to see these crimes as crimes. In theory, yes, we all understand that abusing someone is wrong and criminal, but all too often it becomes easy in individual cases to write off the incidents, which usually happen between people who know each other, as less a matter of criminal justice and more just interpersonal squabbling, instead of as a systemic problem that affects all of us. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding is perpetuated by institutions that would rather see these problems as personal problems than cultural problems in order to protect their reputation. Universities are often some of the worst offenders.
Here’s a list of some of the euphemisms and coded terms colleges and universities have used that minimize or even trivialize the problem of violence against women on campus.
1) “Personal injury” or “domestic dispute.” The University of Southern California publishes, as schools are expected to do under federal law, an annual security report. Students are accusing the school of trying to minimize the incidence of crime on campus by calling rape by names like “personal injury,” “domestic dispute,” or even “injury response.” This sort of thing manages to do double damage, both by under-representing the actual interpersonal crime problem on campus while inadvertently making it seem like there’s more stranger-on-stranger crime than there actually is.
It also has the effect of encouraging school officials to insult, degrade or minimize the experiences of rape victims. One rape victim had the campus police, always eager to find ways to classify rape as not-rape, tell her that her “injury” couldn’t be registered as rape because her assailant didn’t orgasm. Another victim found that the school was incredibly concerned that they not appear to be punishing the assailant and instead merely subject him to an “educative” process. If they called it rape instead of using these various euphemisms, maybe it would be easier for them to see why punishment is, in fact, an appropriate response.
2) “Sexual activity that is later regretted or deemed to have lacked consent.” Amanda Hess dug up this horrible euphemism for rape written into a safety manual for the University of Virginia in 2010. This is offensive on a couple of levels, and not just because it’s an avoidance of talking about men who actively make the choice to force sex on people, instead casting that choice as something that just happens. It also reinforces a major, ongoing lie about rape: That it’s a matter of women consenting in the moment and changing their minds later. This simply isn’t what rape is; rape is determined by lack of consent in the moment. The claim that women have consensual sex and later cry rape is a widespread myth that, if you start to dig around, has a shocking lack of evidence for its existence.
3) “Rape is like football.” When Annie E. Clark, a student at the University of North Carolina, tried to report her rape, the administrator reportedly said to her, “Well … rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback, Annie … is there anything you would have done differently?” This kind of attitude not only minimizes rape, but generally reinforces the notion that rape is just a normal expression of male sexuality and not a crime. This statement implies that sex is something that men take and women withhold and that any man out there is going to rape if he gets ahead in the “game.” This is completely untrue. Research shows only 5-6 percent of men are rapists, and most sexual penetration is not a game the woman lost but a collaborative effort between consenting partners.
4) “Nonconsensual sex.” Yale’s most recent report on how it’s handling sexual assault and rape on campus was disappointing. The school has an ugly habit of slapping rapists on the wrist and otherwise not letting their propensity to forcibly penetrate unwilling women interfere with their academic careers, so it’s not surprising the report was heavy with euphemism. The report authors insisted on using the term “nonconsensual sex,” even though the word “rape” is shorter, equally accurate and more to the point. This bit of euphemism makes it easier for the school to basically treat rape as a non-crime. Of the six rapists caught by the school, five were allowed back into the student body population, where they are likely to encounter their victims. Sadly, for victims, calling it “nonconsensual sex” doesn’t make it feel any less like rape. This kind of euphemism undermines decades of feminist work explicating the difference between sex and rape. Feminists have long argued that in order to earn the name “sex,” the behavior must be consensual — it takes two (or more) to tango. By using the word “rape” this distinction is easier to uphold.
5) “Educational sanctions.” Occidental College is under fire for responding to rapes on campus by treating the rapist as if he simply misunderstood that you aren’t supposed to violently sexually assault someone. One rapist was allowed to come back after writing a five-page book report. For the victim, this meant having to be on campus with the man who raped her with nothing more than the assurance he’d been “sanctioned” by little more than having to say he was very sorry.
These sort of “educational sanctions” create the impression that rape is a matter of lack of knowledge that rape is wrong, or misunderstanding what rape is. There is no reason to believe that rapists are unaware what they’re doing is wrong. On the contrary, much of what makes rape fun and pleasurable for rapists is the feeling of transgression, the jolt of power they get from being able to misuse someone against her will. Allowing the rapist to pretend it was just a matter of not being educated just gives him a cover story to minimize his crime.
6) “Non-consensual sexual intercourse.” Again a university uses a lot of words to avoid saying “rape,” but this time it wasn’t in a safety manual but in an actual ruling that found one student guilty of raping another. The University of Colorado in Boulder tiptoed around the actual transgression of rape, despite the fact that its investigation led it to conclude that a rape did happen. The victim of the crime deemed “non-consensual sexual intercourse” soon found out that the school wasn’t just downplaying the crime in its language but in the punishment: The rapist was permitted to re-enroll eight months later. I guess it’s easier to let a non-consensual sexual intercourser on campus than to allow a rapist to join the student population.
7) “Might just be a bad hookup.” Angie Epifano of Amherst College reported in the school paper that her attempt to report her rape to the sexual assault counselor was met with a seriously minimizing response: “Are you SURE it was rape? It might have just been a bad hookup … You should forgive and forget.” The assumption that women routinely decide to react to bad sex with a false rape accusation is absolutely nutty if you think about it. Luckily, Amherst is taking this problem seriously and overhauling its sexual assault policy.
The worst part about this use of euphemism, bad metaphor and blame-shifting is that all of this behavior, as Amherst learned, is utterly counterproductive. If you want to give the impression that your school is a safe place for women, running around and trying to minimize the rapes that do occur is not the way to do it. The better way is to be seen as a place that reacts to rape complaints swiftly, takes victims seriously, and treats the rapists like sexual predators instead of boys who just made mistakes.