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  • Wed, 27, Mar, 2019 - 5:00:AM

The problem with how we describe rape

Woman in car / Pham Trung Kien /

As the conversation around sexual assault gains worldwide traction, I’ve discovered a disturbing rhetoric in how we perceive sexual assault.

A Twitter thread described rape as taking $5 out of a person’s purse without their consent. “It doesn’t matter if they gave you $5 in the past, or gave $5 to someone else, no-one is entitled to someone’s money unless they get given the green light.” I agreed at the time – like, how hard is it to understand consent? – until I realised something about the metaphor didn’t sit right with me.

It’s the same thing that doesn’t sit right with me about the other ways that rape apologists and victim-blamers shift responsibility to sexual assault survivors.

“Would you leave your purse unattended and be surprised if a thief stole your money?”

“If you left the doors to a bank open, it’s kind of your fault if you’re robbed.”

“Don’t leave a fancy car unlocked in a bad neighbourhood. It’s just common sense.”

Well, KeyboardWarrior198, your idea of common sense is my idea of puritan paranoia. It usually means never being out after sunset, never travelling alone, covering up, carrying weapons, learning self-defense and remaining sober at all times. And it’s funny because in the same breath that they ask women to repress themselves, these ostensibly liberated men will declare how New Zealand is so superior to other countries where women are oppressed.

But too many women are raped at home. By people they know. Before they have graduated intermediate school. “Common sense” is not helpful where there is no common decency, and this idea that rape can be prevented by a would-be victim’s diligence is simply untrue.

So where did it come from?

Largely, from how we equate rape to the theft of an object. We advise women to hide their valuables and lock up their doors without questioning why they have to guard themselves in the first place. In repeating these metaphors, we teach women that they’re equivalent to purses, banks or cars. We are placed on the same level as passive valuables, at the mercy of active takers unless we are willing to sacrifice all the adventure and excitement in our lives.

Objectifying women in this rhetoric normalises rape. It reinforces the idea that we were born with something covetous that some men think they’re entitled to and, if given the opportunity, would forcible take. Because we’ve internalised the idea that rape is a constant threat women must guard against, the response has become “so you musn’t give anyone the opportunity,” instead of saying to men, “you mustn’t take the opportunity.” We use flawed biological excuses – “boys will be boys” – and provocation to excuse the savagery of male rapists.

That we and our loved ones would be traumatised by sexual violence should be enough reason to not be raped. That attackers have enough restraint and compassion – should they choose to use it – to keep their unwanted hands off others should be enough reason to not rape.

We’re all human.

Can we start acting like it?


  • Sexual Assault /
  • Rape /
  • Violence /
  • Victim-Blaming /
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