14 September 2010

"Rape-Talk" on the Rise?

If you're reading this blog, chances are you're not someone who thinks "rape" makes a good punchline, or that it's a term that should be thrown around to describe mundane events. But is our culture at-large more comfortable with the casual use of that word than it should be? In a recent piece for The Guardian, columnist Kira Cochrane says yes, noting recent examples of public figures utilizing rape as a metaphor for other "traumatic" experiences -- devaluing the horror of actual acts of violence against women in the process.

As Cochrane points out, rape is fast becoming the ubiquitous term for expressing some sense of violation. Boxing's world heavyweight champion just caused a stir for suggesting that his upcoming fight was going to be as "one-sided as a gang rape" (and refusing to apologize for his choice of words); actress Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, equated being followed by paparazzi to being raped; a Facebook page called "Thanks wind, you have totally raped my hair" now has more than a million followers; and the reliably repugnant Rush Limbaugh told his listeners to "get ready to get gang-raped again" during this year's healthcare debates.

But it's not just public figures who are playing fast and loose with the word. Everyday people have apparently picked up the message that rape isn't all that special, and have taken to using the term to describe their everyday lives. Cochrane shares a personal anecdote to illustrate the phenomenon:
Coming out of an exercise class recently, a guy turned to one of my friends, sweating and breathless, and heaved a sigh of satisfied exhaustion. "Wow, that was just like being raped, wasn't it?" he said. My friend stood motionless, blinking back at him.
Stunning? Yes. All that uncommon these days? Unfortunately not. And should we be all that surprised? With a media culture that regularly reinforces and capitalizes on the idea of rape as some great joke (see Cochrane's references to the work of comedian Ricky Gervais, actor Seth Rogan and director Richard Curtis), is it any wonder that much of the taboo of using the word has been stripped away?

The problem, of course, is that rape is not any kind of joke -- nor is it a rare occurrence. Worldwide, 1 in 3 women is likely to experience sexual violence in her lifetime. Not to mention the ubiquitous and systemic use of rape as a weapon to terrorize and overpower in conflicts and war zones worldwide.

How is a young woman -- or man -- supposed to feel when this personal, traumatic experience is reduced to a punchline in a joke? What kind of lesson do young people learn when acts of sexual violence get demoted to linguistic fodder? And what does this "twisting" of language do to our understanding of just how traumatic and depraved rape actually is?

There should never be anything casual about the use of the word rape, plain and simple. Media makers need to take a strong stand against the cheapening of sexually violent acts, and the public should refuse to support films, performers and other media products that treat rape nonchalantly. Moreover, each of us needs to be willing to challenge the people in our own lives who mistakenly assume that rape is a just another cool metaphor for bad things that happen. Because it's not. Whatever the movies, movie stars and other talking heads may tell you, there's nothing cool about it.

Learn more about how the Ms. Foundation is working to end sexual violence in communities across America.

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