Over spring break, I met with my former classmates from a coalition of 17 international high schools around the world, schools built on the basis of a global education movement to unite people, nations and cultures for world peace. Our school breeds feminists and social justice advocates who engage in leadership for positive change. I presumed this diverse, socially aware group would hold a constructive discussion about the tricky topic of sexual violence. But I was egregiously disappointed when I was the only one — in a subgroup of five individuals — who expressed a dissenting opinion regarding the statement “rape is still sex.”

If we are truly — and not just fashionably — dedicated to combating rape culture and victim blaming, we have to stop manipulating language to equate rape with sex. In 2017, a New York Times letter emphasized the necessity to stop connecting rape and sex in order to prevent the perpetrators from framing the dialogue in this way. So it’s crucial for all of us to sort out the terminology and devise a productive lexicon to talk about rape and sexual assault.

First, we need to dispense the myopic mentality that cites simplistic biological notions to conclude rape is sex. In the biological definition, sexual intercourse, also called coitus or copulation, (but not “sex”), is a reproductive act in which "the male reproductive organ … enters the female reproductive tract." This definition itself is derived from a heteronormative understanding, and is specific only to heterosexual, reproductive aspects in animals and humans. It precludes the social and psychological implications of all sexual relationships and is insufficient to envelop all the acts we consider sex and all the acts criminalized as rape by law.

In reality, when we use the word “sex” in our social circles, we don’t mean mindless penetration or only penetration. We associate sex with sexual pleasure and intimacy — commonly between two individuals regardless of gender. Famous memes on mainstream media today, stating: “Yeah sex is cool but …” reflect a general consensus in society that sex is an act that is supposed to feel good for all parties involved. While the Shakespearean era was greatly influenced by it, today’s hookup culture sells sex as a need-based commodity that fulfills sexual desires of all participants. And rape and sexual assault are not relatable to the universal meaning of sex because they do not include all participants’ sexual needs but rather involve one abuser and victim.

So to those who say rape is “still sex,” your vocabulary must be so inadequate that the term “sex” serves two polarizing sentiments: sexual gratification and violation of a human being. The physical and emotional violence, in addition to the lack of consent, renders the act an entirely different, negative concept called rape. But this does not mean “rape is non-consensual sex,” and thus sex. That short-sighted perception posits an act without consent and an act with enthusiastic consent to mean the same thing — obfuscating the necessary lines marked by legal systems to distinguish the treachery that endangers individuals.

When people have “consensual sex,” they don’t narrate, “Yesterday, I had some consensual sex.” We say “I had sex with someone,” because implicit in “having” sex is consent, so the term non-consensual sex itself is an oxymoron. We have been highlighting the importance of consent because it is a part of sex, not an outlier. The fact of the matter is that without consent, including victim incapacitation and coercion, it’s not “non-consensual sex,” “bad sex” or “sex” of any kind. It is rape and sexual assault — abusive behavior penalized by jurisdictions.

The U.S. legal definition was reformed by the Department of Justice in 2012 to include victims and perpetrators of all genders, not just women being raped by men. It now states: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Though the law does not explicitly mention the act of “sex,” I argue that by highlighting lack of consent in the definition, the law presumes the presence of consent in having sex — which is a legal act. Without consent, the law criminalizes the act as rape and our society must not counter-productively distort this understanding.  

Yet, my multinational peers in London argued that my legal argument “only applies to the United States.” So let’s look at legislation in the United Kingdom. It states: “Rape: A person (A) commits an offence if he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis; B does not consent to the penetration …” The law assumes there is consent when the act is legal, thereby demonstrating the innate difference between sex and the crime of rape. So this argument “rape is not sex” is not specific to a nation and does not stem from right or left politics.

This is about common sense. When a thief steals someone’s jewelry, people don’t say they borrowed it without permission. If you argue rape is “non-consensual sex” and “still sex,” you should logically say robbing a bank is “non-consensual loan, so still a loan.” This statement sounds like you’re trying to explain the criminal’s skewed point of view. So we must recognize that while rape may be received as sex to a perpetrator, it is not. To a victim, it is a gross breach of their bodily autonomy and personal agency, which is why sexual violence is considered a human rights violation that should never be confused with sex.

The University of Michigan's Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center has emphasized the dangers of this misguided path, stating “By framing sexualized violence as about sex and not about violence we focus on the perpetrator’s narrative and not the survivor’s. Focusing on the perpetrator’s narrative leads society to blame the victim and to not hold the perpetrator accountable for their actions.” In other words, associating rape with sex silences the victims’ traumatic experience with empathy for the perpetrator, which is as far from “listening to survivors” as a response possibly can be. Survivors get to choose the terminology to talk about their horror, and a society does not get to sugarcoat the allegations against their perpetrators with the troubling oxymoron of “non-consensual sex.”

So in the future, reporting on disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein should stop recycling the words of the accused, such as his attorney stating that he: “…has maintained that he has never engaged in non-consensual sex with anyone.” It should clearly state that he: “…denied allegations of rape and sexual assault,” because those are the claims under investigation and trial. Public safety advisory emails should not report rape as “forced her to engage in non-consensual sex.” How can one “engage” in something they haven’t even consented to? This crude participatory language is counterintuitive and negates the perversity of rapists. It fuels the persisting problem: When it comes to sexual violence, society inherently listens to perpetrators, not victims.  

It is urgent to judiciously frame our advocacy on victim blaming around the victim’s narrative. Many survivors don’t report their atrocities and when they do, they still bear the blame. How can we expect it to change when individuals who receive the most eye-opening education continue to say rape is still sex? From now on, I hope to never hear that preposterous statement, especially from young intellectuals who have the privilege of using their knowledge to implement productive dialogue. Words always matter, so choose them wisely.

Ramisa Rob can be reached at rfrob@umich.edu.

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