More Than Words: The Rape Metaphor

Last week, I wrote about the "pro-rape" Facebook group that was created by young men at the University of Sydney. The group, which was called "Define Statutory" and described itself as "anti-consent," was at the center of a controversy when its existence was discovered by the Sydney Morning Herald late last year. The Facebook group was controversial because, as it turns out, sexual assault and rape are not uncommon at the University of Sydney, especially in the residential college community of which the young men in question are members. In the days after the Herald reported on the group, dozens of women came forward to describe their experiences of being raped, sexually assaulted or sexually harassed while living on the campus of the University of Sydney and on other campuses around the country.

In their own defense, the young men who created the group insisted that they had used the word "rape" metaphorically, to describe the defeat of a rival football team by their own. And they were probably telling the truth; among Australian college students, "rape" is often used to describe particularly unpleasant experiences. Certainly, it is a part of the vernacular of St. Paul's, the residential college to which the young men in question belonged. The day after the article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, one member of the Facebook group expressed his feelings about it using his Facebook status: "Paul's was raped by the SMH."

It's not only in Australia that "rape" is used as a metaphor for an unpleasant experience. Here in the US, it is not uncommon to hear the word invoked to describe a particularly grueling exam or an especially hard day at work. Indeed, Media Matters has compiled a rather disturbing montage of clips of conservative media commentators, most notably Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, repeatedly using the word as a metaphor for anything and everything bad.

There's nothing wrong with metaphors, of course, and as I'm sure they'd be swift to point out, Limbaugh and Beck are well within their rights to use any words they please to express their feelings about taxation, bailouts and illegal immigration. But using the word to describe a garden variety bad experience trivializes the very real experience of rape victims. And the sad truth is that our culture already trivializes rape enough without the contributions of Fox news commentators or Australian frat boys.

In the United States, the rape kit backlog numbers in the hundreds of thousands. According to Human Rights Watch, last year in Los Angeles alone there were 12, 669 rape kits, containing evidence essential to arrest and conviction, that had never undergone forensic testing. That's 12,669 rape kits just sitting on storage shelves as the statute of limitations for rape trickles away. That's 12,669 women whose very real experiences of rape have gone ignored and unpunished.

Rape and sexual assault regularly appear on our screens as a form of entertainment. On police procedurals like Law and Order: SVU, rape is often depicted as a titillating sexual act rather than as the often brutal crime that it is. On the silver screen, as in last year's mall cop comedy Observe and Report, rape is a punch line, and was in fact the punch line of that film's trailer. In other words, rape was the hilarious selling point with which the studio was hoping to attract viewers.

Rape kits go untested, sexual assault is presented as a form of entertainment, and the young men who formed "Define Statutory" weren't named and shamed in the press. The failure to use forensic evidence to punish rapists and the tendency to use rape as an edgy or amusing plot twist are emblematic of our culture's failure to take rape seriously. Similarly, using "rape" as a metaphor for bad things that are not in any way comparable to the experience of being raped is a sign of how little priority our culture affords to rape prevention and to justice for rape survivors.

Perhaps the boys of St. Paul's really were just calling for the defeat of one sports team by another. Perhaps, offline, they condemn sexual violations in all its forms. I can't know for sure. What I do know is that, in the case of "rape," language is powerful. If we want to change the way our society thinks about and reacts to rape - if we want to ensure that rape kits get tested and that popular culture depicts rape and sexual assault in a just and accurate way - then we first need to change the way we talk about rape. We need to talk about it seriously, honestly and sensitively. We need to talk about it with a full sense of the gravity and scope of the problem. Rape is a crime, and it's also a tragedy. And there's nothing metaphorical about that.