To Call It 'Rape' Is to Debauch the Language

By Parris, Matthew | The Spectator, August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

To Call It 'Rape' Is to Debauch the Language


Parris, Matthew, The Spectator


In Manchester, a friend at university there tells me, a new word has entered smart parlance among the young. The word is 'raped'.

The expression is moderately strong, and casual. It is a way of saying that one has in some way been done over, done for, or done in. 'I was completely raped,' a cool young Mancunian might remark, emerging from an examination in which the questions had proved impossible; or on discovering that something he had just bought was on sale much more cheaply elsewhere.

My friend added that some women were complaining that to use a word like this so lightly was offensive, as if rape could ever be equated with everyday problems or setbacks.

I see their point. My friend and I were talking about this not long after the newspapers had reported that in England and Wales alone, between 61,000 and 89,000 women a year are raped, according to a Home Office crime survey. One in 20 women - some three quarters of a million - said they had been raped at least once since they were 16. The survey had found that current partners were responsible for 45 per cent of rapes. Strangers accounted for 8 per cent. Women were most at risk from their partners, former partners, men they are dating and acquaintances.

At this point the reader pauses worriedly. In the old-fashioned (you could call it 'classical') idea of rape, the assailant is unknown, or almost unknown, to her victim. This, I suppose, is the image of a stranger assaulting you in the dark: one of the most frightening images of all. But of the offences included in the Home Office survey's tally, 92 per cent were not of this kind. Nearly half (45 per cent) involved current partners. These people had been raped by, but had not afterwards left, their partners.

One's unease here is provoked not by any wish to condone what these women are putting up with, but the language chosen to condemn it. If what they are choosing to overlook is rape, what word shall we use to describe the kind of assault which nobody could overlook? 'Rape' is losing its meaning. It has been violated by campaigners, desirous of taking for themselves and their cause the capacity which that word had to shock. Language is being, if not raped, debauched.

These campaigners' campaign itself is just. They want to persuade us of what is true: that rape is more common than reported figures suggest. They also want to make the point that compulsion in sex is wrong, and to din it into the heads of the obtuse or unobservant that submission is not the same as consent. But to grab our attention they have cheated. They have taken one of the most powerful words in the English language, 'rape', and drawn and stretched it like a net, too wide, around too much. They have tapped in to the shudder this word always causes, so that we will shudder at other, sometimes different kinds of misdeed.

All of the wrongs which those three quarters of a million women reported were wrongs, many of them very serious: please accept that it is not my intention to question this. But within that global figure will have been a tremendously wide range of wrongdoing: wide in the surrounding circumstances, and wide in the comparative gravity of the different offences. …

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