Charlize Theron became the latest Hollywood actress to throw around the term “rape” when talking about the daily press intrusion she faces simply for being a celebrity with a multi-million dollar net worth. In this particular case, Theron equated the personal information she might find while Googling herself to the severe form of sexual violence, but she isn’t the only star to do so.
Kristen Stewart also infamously described the overly-aggressive paparazzi’s attempts to snap photos as an act of rape during an interview with Elle Magazine in 2010. Conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh similarly compared filibustering to rape during his radio show last November.
Needless to say, Theron’s most recent comments sparked backlash on Twitter, where actual victims of sexual assault accused her of trivializing the horrors of rape.
While this was likely not Theron’s intent, her statement should strike a chord, and not just because her analogy is entirely insensitive and inaccurate.
This particular instance at least provides us with the time to reflect on why it’s typically only the sexual assault survivors who are so incensed by these crass comments. The general public is clearly largely apathetic about the flippant use of the word “rape” — otherwise, we wouldn’t have at least three recent examples of this occurring with presumably well-educated public figures.
It’s troubling that our culture is seemingly so OK with turning sexual violence into a metaphor for something else.
And that’s probably because it’s easy — we’ve all come to connote “rape” with something horrible, so it’s a convenient comparative phrase when trying to prove a (often-exaggerated) point.
But in making the word “rape” a part of our normal, everyday lexicon, we detract from how abnormal the act — the crime — is.
Rape, and any form of sexual assault, is a devastating violation of a person’s (usually a woman’s) right to personal autonomy. For anyone who has heard the personal stories of rape victims or seen the photos that follow in instances of domestic violence and sexual abuse, they know that its impact is difficult to describe in words.
And the way that we talk about rape — using rape for inappropriate comparisons, or to make the always-in-poor-taste rape jokes — is largely because the United States still unfortunately promotes a “rape culture” that diminishes how horrible this type of sexual assault really is.
“Rape culture” is already a controversial delineation that many disagree with, citing that cultural factors can’t account for the perverse, violent, consciously-undertaken actions of a few sexual assaulters.
To say that we’re breeding future rapists as a byproduct of our cultural inclinations might sound a bit harsh. However, the fact remains that in our society, we’re quick to blame or “slut-shame” the victim and then make light of rape in future conversations through the use of analogies or jokes. Our culture does implicitly allow for a dismissive attitude towards the severity of rape.
As feminist Thomas MacAulay Miller wrote, “It takes one rapist to commit a rape, but it takes a village to create an environment where it happens over and over and over.”
That’s true for how we talk about rape, too. When the reactions of disgust at remarks that use rape for comparative or “funny” purposes are reserved for the unfortunately-growing community of individuals who have been directly impacted by rape or sexual assault (who are often told to "chill out" and not to be so easily upset over the use of a simple word), we’re creating an environment in which these insensitive and crude comments can keep happening over and over and over.
And by using the word “rape” in any context other than one that condemns the violent and non-consensual violation against a person’s body, we not only desensitize ourselves to the act, but we reinforce little by little, in a subtle way, that this is something that’s normal.
Because "rape" is never just a simple word nor a horrific deed, it's the total annihilation of a person's basic human right to feel safe and secure in her (or his) own skin, to have any say over her (or his) own body's actions.
Rape may be common in our society today — an estimated 78 women are raped in the United States every hour — but it doesn’t have to be. If we exhibit more outrage when the word is used improperly, then we can sharpen the stigma against it. Reinforcing this repulsion to rape, along with rehabilitating how our society, schools and court system view rape cases, can go a long way in reducing that number to zero.
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