Tag Archives: language

The “R” Word: An Opinion(ated) Piece on the Language of Rape

There is no gentle way to say it. I’ve been trying to find one for years. When I first started dealing with this issue in therapy, I would use any euphemism, any word besides that word. Attack. Assault. Trauma. Incident. If pushed, I might go so far as to use the phrase, “the ‘R’ word.”


For the longest time, rape was “the ‘R’ word.”  Trying to speak it in its entirety caused me visceral pain, like I was literally, physically choking on the word. Even now, years later, that I am as comfortable as a former victim can possibly be with saying and hearing the word rape, I haven’t found a way to speak it delicately. To me, it always comes out harsh and brutal. It doesn’t matter who says it, or how tender and sensitive they mean to be. You can’t say “rape” or “raped” softly. Especially “raped.” Somehow that last letter, a sharp t sound (rayp-t) makes it worse. There’s not even the comfort of a softened d to cushion the blow: She was raped. You were raped. I was raped.

I prefer to say it that way. I really hate to hear “she got raped,” as if the woman ordered rape in a catalog and it just arrived in the mail. “Got” implies that something was requested. However, “was” has a passive tone. I didn’t “get” raped– rape happened to me. I didn’t ask for it. I did nothing to cause it, and certainly nothing to deserve it. It still happened. The choice of whether or not to be raped was made for me. But the choice of how I was going to deal with it, live with it– that decision was mine.

So I spent twelve years in therapy. Parts of this time were spent in inpatient treatment, which was invaluable. (I don’t want those who haven’t yet sought counseling to be scared off at that number; I didn’t spend twelve years just dealing with the sexual assaults. I had many other problems too, including eating, mood, and dissociative disorders.) Because I had such a difficult time speaking aloud about the incestuous rape (and later, about the stranger rape) a good deal of my communication came in written form. Whenever I had a new memory or nightmare or story my therapists needed to hear, I wrote a poem about it. I still have a great deal of those poems. I spoke too, of course, but the poetry was a way for me to convey the worst of it without having to say it. It was a starting point. When I was an inpatient, I was given an assignment. I had to write my definition of “the ‘R’ word”– and I had to type “rape.” I didn’t have to write it by hand– that was something I tackled later, letter by letter– this was horrifying enough. But after balking for a few weeks, this is what I eventually wrote:

“Rape” is an interesting word. For me, the first thing I feel throughout my entire body is a sense of utter devastation, so much so that it literally makes me week-kneed. I have a hard time connecting the word to the act, and the word and the act as a crime to myself. I have a part that comes up to say, “So he put his penis in your vagina. So what? It’s just one body part in another. Just anatomy. Why is this a crime? Just because he didn’t ask?” In other words, this part believes, just like any perpetrator would, that my body is literally up for grabs. I have no voice, and beyond that, no right to a voice. But if that internalized persecutor so dispassionately and coldly perceives rape as a simple physical act, then why so I still feel the devastation? Because clearly, though I don’t go near it often, it is not the only part there. There is a also a part that holds all of the shock and the danger and panic and helplessness and over-stimulation that comes with being assaulted in such an intimately violent way. In the midst of that part is where the pain lies: the horror, rage, terror, humiliation, wishing to die, praying to live, asking God why in the fuck this is happening to you. And the feelings stay like that, frozen in the present tense, which is why I suppose remembering what it feels like to be 5, 6, or 16 isn’t so difficult.

It’s strange to read that now; I wrote that over five years ago. It feels like a lifetime. The girl who wrote that, who felt that way and believed those things, was still so terrorized and powerless. She was terrorized just by a word. I think, however, that this assignment was the first time she began to take some power away from that word. And the woman I am today is proud of her. The woman I am today is grateful that she was brave enough to take those first steps, because if she hadn’t then I wouldn’t exist.

If it seems strange that I am speaking about myself as if I’m two separate people, I think former victims will understand it. If it seems strange that I refer to myself as a “former victim” as opposed to a “survivor,” well, maybe it is. But that’s how I feel. I think the “survivor” thing has gotten overused to the point where it’s virtually meaningless, trite, and could describe anything from a cancer patient to a TV show. There’s a ribbon for every cause under the sun, and you hear people say things like, oh yes, I’m a survivor of smoking. Or, I’m a irritable bowel syndrome survivor. Seriously? (Yes, I’m kind of trashing the term– but if it truly helps you to say “survivor,” then by all means do.) Personally, I stick with former victim, because it describes what I am: someone who was once a victim but no longer is.

I’m not just arguing semantics here– these distinctions matter to people who have been raped. It’s important to be able to say the word, to use it properly. With a word as loaded with meaning as rape is, there needs to be a balance where it’s common enough that victims are not afraid or ashamed to say it, but it’s not so common that it loses its teeth and people stop listening. The power of a word like rape is that people are made uncomfortable by it. And when victims are less afraid than the public is uncomfortable, that’s when their voices begin to make a difference. Rape is more than a word, it’s a violent crime that is under-reported and under-prosecuted– in part, because victims feel they can’t speak up and name exactly what happened to them. Taking some power away from “the ‘R’ word,” is as simple as saying it– and the more intelligent dialogue that’s out there, hopefully, the safer victims will feel coming forward.

© Sarah Henderson 2010