We Are Not Really Decent People: How We Pretend to Hate Rape

We like to pretend that we hate rape. The word is a repository for a powerful sense of collective horror. It evokes a uniquely awful violation; one buttressed by a long history of fictional rape victims who believed suicide was the only honourable response to their assault. Decent people signal their decency with a proper aversion to it. To be named as a rapist is almost, for those of us lucky or privileged enough to be able to keep its reality at a distance, worse than being a victim of rape.

This horror, however, distracts us from acknowledging the everyday ways in which we trivialise, deny and normalise sexual violence. Even as we say — and probably believe — that we hate rape, we overlook how we have made the word virtually unusable. Most rape victims — that is, rape victims in the legally defined sense of the word — don’t use the word to describe their experiences. Journalists shrink from using it in even the least ambiguous of cases. Even many rapists will admit to forcing someone to have sex with them, but not to rape.

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