Is "rape" the new "gay"?

One writer says the word is becoming way too common as a casual slang term.

Published April 30, 2009 1:25PM (EDT)

We at Broadsheet have written extensively about the many ways in which the word "gay" has been misused to describe everything from a crappy-looking shirt to kids who don't seem to fit in with cultural norms, with sometimes tragic results. But this week, Alternet's Mikki Halpin asks if the same thing is happening to the word "rape."

"I was raped should horrify," she writes, "but our culture has stripped the word of its power." She digs up examples from pop culture (a video on the New York Times Web site in which “Friday Night Lights” actor Taylor Kitsch likened a failed audition to “being raped”; the use of the world by blog commenters to describe Jim Cramer’s appearance on “The Daily Show”) and claims that people are increasingly using the term to casually describe a "sports loss, a poor score on a video game, or being on the losing end of a business deal. Doing badly on an audition sucks," she writes, of the first example, "but it does not suck as much as sexual assault, something that happens every two minutes in America." The word "rape," she writes, should be used exclusively to refer what she says her dictionary defines as: "The unlawful compelling of a woman through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse," or, the second definition, the same act committed on a man.  She quotes Angela Rose, founder and executive director of Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, who worries about what she calls "the bystander effect" -- "as rape is used casually, and actual rapes begin to seem less serious, the less the citizenry will realize they have a stake in ending sexual assault." And Thomas E. Ford, a professor of psychology at Western University who recently studied male college students' reaction to sexist humor, says, "The acceptance of sexist humor leads men to believe that sexist behavior falls within the bounds of social acceptability."

Actually, if you want to get technical, the world rape -- like the world gay -- does have multiple historical meanings. The first definition of the verb "to rape" in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary is "to seize or take away by force," but my desktop edition (Webster's Fourth, if you care) leads with sexual assault (we really don't care about the seed that produces the oil renamed as canola).

But it's pretty safe to say that the people who are saying they were "raped" when describing, say,  a particularly gruesome defeat in football are saying they were shamed and humiliated in a way that, hey, just happened to call to mind sexual assault. And if you think about it much, that's just disturbing. I love a colorful curse word, but no teenager has ever uttered "gay" around me without getting a lecture in return. And one of the most egregious displays of workplace harassment I've encountered happened when a foreign executive excoriated a room full of ad sales people -- men and women, I might add -- for "acting like women" and trying to "seduce" their clients. "You need to act like men," he said and proceeded to mime the act of bending said client over the boardroom table. Did we call HR on that guy? You'd better fucking believe it.


UPDATE: In my original post, I misrepresented Jon Stewart’s use of the term “rape.” The term was not used by him to describe Jim Cramer’s appearance on his show, but by others who were critiquing the episode. The piece has been corrected and you are free to continue to love Stewart unabashedly.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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