The Language of Rape


Language is a funny thing. So utterly vital to our lives, but also so fragile. In the aftermath of my experience with sexual violence I’ve come to realize how key language is our perceptions of events, and how the emotions that follow.

I was sexually assaulted. I was raped. Two sentences with very different connotations. Beyond the legal differences (apologies, but occasionally the lawyer in me peeps her head out), there are very real emotional disparities between saying sexual assault or rape.

Sexual assault is a distant phrase. Safer and more polite, it can be used in public or with the family. To be sexually assaulted does not suggest you were violated, just perhaps roughed up a bit. It should be easy to recover from sexual assault. Bruises fade and dangers become distant. Sexual assault is a bit of a deal, but it’s not like it’s a BIG deal, right?

Rape on the other hand is visceral. The word is shocking and sharp on the tongue. Rape. Poking out of a sentence it is startling, it turns heads and makes listeners uncomfortable. It turns stomachs and makes us squirm. Rape isn’t something you want to think or hear about. It’s big and bad and forever changes your perception of the survivor. It’s the vagina of sexual violence crimes. I am eagerly awaiting the day we embark on a campaign to normalize the word rape, though hopefully without normalizing the crime itself.

There are phases to recovering from sexual violence, particularly for those with experiences on the more intense end of the spectrum. It took months for me to say out loud that I was a rape survivor. In certain company I still cannot utter the word rape, instead sticking with the more palatable (though legally incorrect) term of sexual assault.

I considered the word in other languages, though sadly languages are not my strong suit. In French the word for rape is viol, evoking the image of violation without the sinking pit in one’s stomach. The Spanish similarly use violación, a bit more intense but not so terribly frightening to scare one off. My search continued, brushing off my stale Arabic (اغتصاب), venturing as far as translations into Swahili (ubakaji), German (vergewaltigen) and Khmer (ករណីរំលោភសេពសន្ថវៈ). I look at the lines of unfamiliar scripts, searching for something in the swoops and swirls that I cannot quite identify, until it hits me. I am looking for a word that will make me feel better about what happened to me. Something descriptive but sterile. Something clinical. Something that won’t make it hard to look at myself in the mirror or worry about being touched.

To think of oneself as being a rape survivor is to embrace the scariness of what has happened. It is a label imposed not desired and the reaction to shy away from such a label is natural, even understandable. It does not change what happened however.

I am taking a deep breathe and standing up straight. Staring straight into the mirror and saying one of the scariest phrases of my life: ‘I am a rape survivor.’ Another deep breathe and I say it again and again and again. It gets easier.

Megan Nobert is a Canadian-born international criminal and human lawyer, academic, humanitarian and sexual violence activist. She is currently serving as Project Director for Report the Abuse, which is hosted by the International Women’s Rights Project. Follow her work on Twitter and through Report the Abuse’s Facebook page.

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