Yale’s decision to re-conceptualize “rape” as “non-consensual sex” (See: Jezebel article below) weakens the perceived criminality of sexual violence, and in effect, permits a diminished social and institutional response to such incidents—a shoulder shrug, rather than an expulsion; an “it happens,” rather than a “we will never allow this to happen on our campus again.”
An exceptional university and research institution, such as Yale, should understand how the terms we employ set the course and quality of our subsequent work. Le mot juste (I’ve been waiting forever to use this phrase) is utilized by both artists and scientists, for lyrical or technical purposes, in order to achieve the most sublime, precise encapsulation of their “truth.” Quite simply, the right word matters.
In response to backlash over the seeming euphemism of “non-consensual sex,” university officials assured that they hoped the new term would “refer to a range of behavior that would not meet the legal criteria for rape” (Shelton, 2013).
According to the National Institute for Justice (NIJ), rape, a felony, is most consistently defined as:
nonconsensual oral, anal, or vaginal penetration of the victim by body parts or objects using force, threats of bodily harm, or by taking advantage of a victim who is incapacitated or otherwise incapable of giving consent (NIJ, 2010).
The definition of rape implies that sex = penetration. Building a definition of “sex” is a task for another day. The point is, the NIJ also provides a definition for the equally prosecutable behaviors that fall outside of rape: sexual assault. These actions are nonconsensual, can be attempted or fully executed, actual or intimidated (NIJ, 2010). Most importantly, the term sexual assault signals that these behaviors are violent (criminal) acts, not merely unlucky happenstances.
Rape is non-consensual sex is rape, but the terms mean different things for perpetrators, survivors, and bystanders. In rape, there is a criminal (another no-no word for university stakeholders) agency on part of an individual (e.g. He/she raped him/her.) It denotes dominance, aggression, personal violation, and a transgression against legal, social, and ethical codes of acceptable sexual behavior. In the subject-verb-object structure, when someone rapes someone you know who is doing what to whom, and therefore, who must be held accountable and who must be supported.
Conversely, “non-consensual sex” is framed as a shared experience, implying mutualism (e.g. He/she had non-consensual sex with him/her.) This scenario doesn’t reek criminal. The re-structuring of rape into non-consensual sex opaques the rapist’s agency in committing the act of sexual violence, and thereby coddles the rapist with impunity and diffuses responsibility for the crime to the survivor.
This is the function of sexual violence: to blur, obstruct, obliterate, shadow, cast doubt, disassociate, and deny. Our words should not serve this purpose. Universities owe it to their community members to speak truth to sexual violence, and that starts by calling the thing by its name- to call rape, “rape.” This straight talk is essential to sustaining effective policies that prosecute rapists, and to replacing rape culture with a culture of healthy, inter-personal intimacy.