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The Passive Voice Has No Place In Conversations About Rape

(Volkan Olmez/Unsplash)
(Volkan Olmez/Unsplash)

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It took me decades to admit to anyone other than my husband and a few very close friends that I am the survivor of sexual assault. Then, last September, in the midst Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings — and prompted by Christine Blasey Ford's courage (and the fact that my children are grown) — I disclosed my experience in an interview about what sexual assault survivors might be experiencing during the hearings.

I explained to the reporter, a man, that my assault had happened while on a date in college, four decades earlier. He replied, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” I knew his remark was sincere and well-intended, but I also knew it was wrong.

Sexual assault didn’t just “happen” to me. It doesn’t just “happen” to anyone. Sexual assault is something somebody does to somebody else.

But the way we talk about sexual assault, even now, in the age of #MeToo, does not reflect that reality. When we say, “I am a survivor,” or, “That happened to me too,” or even, “I was raped,” the person responsible for perpetrating the assault conveniently disappears from the narrative.

In the extreme, our laws didn’t even recognize the existence of rape within marriage.

In the 1970s, during my college days, the term “date rape” was not part of the lexicon. We didn’t acknowledge that sex between people who were involved socially could even be considered rape or assault. For generations, it had been considered normal for a man to pressure a woman into sexual contact — as much as she would allow, and then some. When a man was able to complete his sexual conquest, the fault fell to the woman for not protecting her virtue. Madonna or whore, it was all on her.

In the extreme, our laws didn’t even recognize the existence of rape within marriage. The 1962 U.S. Model Penal Code, stated that a man was guilty of rape only when found to engage in sexual intercourse with a female who was not his wife, and only when he used threat of death or serious bodily harm, or impaired her ability to consent, acted while she was unconscious or acted against a child under the age of 10. State laws were based on this model, and some remained on the books until 1993. (In a number of states marital rape continues to be treated differently than other rape.)

Psychologist Mary Koss whose research focuses on violence and violence against women, helped to uncover a fuller picture of sexual aggression and victimization in the 1980s. In surveys of over 6,000 college students nationwide, nearly three times as many young women reported unwanted sexual intercourse as a result of continual argument and pressure, as from the use of physical force.

Women also processed those experiences differently. When the perpetrators of unwanted intercourse were men they knew, rather than strangers, women were only half as likely to tell anyone about it, or even label their experience as rape.

In 1984, news reports began referring to “date rape” for the first time, marking a seismic shift in the framing of sexual assault. It is almost hard to imagine how remarkable that was since we now understand date rape as far from unusual. According to recent data from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 80 percent of adult rapes are committed by persons known to their victims; for children and teens, it’s over 90 percent.

As a 21-year-old college student, there was no way for me to process what my boyfriend had done to me without the vocabulary to fit my experience. I struggled to understand “what happened,” focusing on how I had allowed myself to be treated in such a degrading and dehumanizing manner.

As a 21-year-old college student, there was no way for me to process what my boyfriend had done to me without the vocabulary to fit my experience.

We know words matter. Social psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer probed people’s memories of a car accident they’d viewed on film. It was a test of the information we imbue to the language we use. People who were asked how fast cars were going when they “smashed” into each other estimated they were going about 25 percent faster than those who were asked to rate the speed when cars “hit” each other. The car accidents, of course, were the same for everyone. But when the terms used to describe their contact changed, so did people’s thoughts about them.

When cognitive psychologist Nancy Henley and her colleagues asked people to respond to mock news reports of violence against women written in either the passive or active voice, men attributed more responsibility to the perpetrator and harm to the victim in response to reports that used active voice. Women’s attributions did not differ, suggesting that the language of sexual violence matters more to those who identify less with the victim to begin with. The implications are especially important given the gender composition of the halls of power.

In speaking truth to power, we need to speak the whole truth.

I didn’t have the words at the time of my assault, but I do now. If you think of me as a survivor, you must also think of him as a perpetrator. And when I say, “He raped me,” instead of, “I was raped,” I help you form that more complete narrative.

Let’s resolve to tell our stories with more effective and appropriate language. We have gone from victims to survivors, and from silence to #MeToo. It is now time for everyday discourse to tell the whole story.

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Doreen Arcus Cognoscenti contributor
Doreen Arcus is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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