Academic journal article Hecate

The Right Language for Rape

Academic journal article Hecate

The Right Language for Rape

Article excerpt

The sphere of language has become a privileged domain in which to interrogate the causes and effects of social injustice.1

What is the right language to resist rape? Why is the language women use during rape frequently considered to be the wrong language? Such questions have a particular urgency in the context of women who have been raped by a man that they know. Why is their language the subject of particular scrutiny when they come before the law? How is it that the things these women say during rape can be used to turn violence into consensual sex? What relation between rape and language subtends the possibility of this transformation?

Sharon Marcus, in the most influential reflection on the relation between rape and language, characterises feminist engagements with this question in the following manner:

Whose words count in a rape trial? Whose 'no' can ever mean 'no'? How do rape trials condone men's misinterpretations of women's words? How do rape trials consolidate men's subjective accounts in objective 'norms of truth' and deprive women's subject accounts of cognitive value? Feminists have also insisted on the importance of naming rape as violence and of collectively narrating stories of rape.2

This passage offers the central coordinates of the conventional feminist understanding of language in the context of rape. In particular, the primary coordinate here is words: words in general, which can count or not count, specific words like 'no' and category words which have the power to name. On this view, the problem with language in the context of rape is a problem of words, which are deprived of their power to designate the world according to women's experience. Australian criminologist Patricia Easteal articulates this position as she reflects on the relation between rape and language. After attending a meeting with other legal officers, she remarks that:

[E]verytime ... anyone present mentioned a judge or a lawyer, the pronouns 'he' and 'him' were used. I would contend that the use of masculine language accurately reflects the reality that men continue to hold most of these positions in the criminal justice system. It goes deeper though. It mirrors the power that males have and use to maintain a stranglehold on the institutions and structures of Australian culture. And, the masculine language in turn affects or even directs how we see the rest of our reality, including sexual assault and the law.3

In this passage the problem of language is presented through a problem with words: words as a general category and specific grammatical categories like pronouns4 which accumulate into the broad concept of "masculine language". Here, language is understood as an aggregate of words (lexical items) which contain a self-evident signifying power. That is, words (connoting a masculine reality) emit and effect their meanings, in a manner shorn of grammar, genre or context.5 In other words, language is presented here in a theological formation: that is, in terms of its powers of naming. One of those things that language names (from a masculine view) is sexual assault, and this act of masculine naming will have a determining effect. Strategies for contesting this effect of words are not offered here, but would presumably include the use of non-gender specific pronouns and words that would reflect realities distinct to those inscribed by male power.6

Dale Spender offers a famous solution to this linguistic-political problem when she argues that: 'Women need a word which renames male violence and misogyny and which asserts their blameless nature, a word which places the responsibility for rape where it belongs - on the dominant group'.7 Spender's conclusion here implies that words can function as the symbols of political arguments: in this instance, new words about rape, invented by women, could (through condensation) denote already completed argumentative positions that clearly designate responsibility for sexual violence. …

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