Stop using 'rape' as a metaphor

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2010

Editor's note: The subject of the following commentary is on a subject of sexual nature. Readers are encouraged to use their own discretion when reading.

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is Thursday and, as this day approaches, I have a challenge for men and women alike. Before we forget what it really means, let's take back the word "rape" from the pundits and others who have thoughtlessly co-opted it and are distorting its meaning with inappropriate metaphors.

I've heard talk-show hosts say society will be "gang-raped" by a political party, our government is "raping the pocketbooks of the rich to give to the poor" and that "the poor have effectively been raped by American capitalism." Others have used rape to describe environmental pollution. I even read about a man saying a tough gym workout "raped" him.

Webster's New World Dictionary minces no words, defining rape as "the crime of engaging in sexual acts, esp. involving penetration of the vagina or anus, usually forcibly, with a person who has not consented." This crime affects victims in ways that most of us cannot begin to imagine. It inflicts immense psychological, emotional, physical, social and sexual damage.

That's why equating rape with paying higher taxes or being bested on the basketball court is ridiculous and offensive.

Using the word "rape" as a metaphor does a disservice to victims and to those striving to help them because it dilutes the meaning of a word that already makes most of us so uncomfortable we can't talk about it openly.

According to the FBI, which defines rape as "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will," there were 88,097 rapes reported in this country last year.

But the number doesn't tell the whole story.

For one thing, it doesn't include statutory rape, sodomy or assault with an object. Nor does it include the rapes of men, which are classified as aggravated assaults or sex crimes.

Rape remains one of the most underreported crimes in our country. Experts estimate that only 15 to 20 percent of victims ever report the crime. Most are too ashamed, embarrassed or afraid to speak up.

Ashley Lind, chief program officer for the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center, has worked with sexual assault victims for two decades. She says that only by talking openly about rape can we begin to remove the stigma and shame for survivors and get a true handle on this crime.

I'll go further and say only by keeping the definition of "rape" intact will we transform our society from one that largely sees it as an act of sex to one that recognizes it as a crime of power and violence.

Only then will we be able to use the word without making jokes about it or invoking it in poorly conceived metaphors.

And only then will we have a decent chance to help the survivors overcome this particular violence.

• Beatriz Terrazas is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at

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