Disappearing the word “rape”

Disappearing the word “rape”

by Stephanie Gilmore

The Super Bowl is over, and although the Pittsburgh Steelers lost a record-setting seventh victory, star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still grabbing a lot of media space with little chance of disappearing.

While sportswriters debated his performance in the big game, that he got there at all was deemed to be “the road to redemption,” according to several sportswriters. Just before the season began, Roethlisberger was accused of raping a 20-year-old woman, an accusation that landed him on the sidelines for the first four (originally six) games of the season. Once branded a sexual predator, suspended, and dissed in public, Roethlisberger is now revered as a football hero who may soon become a Hall of Famer.

Sportswriter Charean Williams noted that although off-the-field escapades nearly derailed Roethlisberger’s season “winning cures a lot of things. A lot of sins are forgiven.”

Even when that sin is rape.

Mostly when you read about Roethlisberger, you read that he “had sex with” a woman who accused him. What is in real danger of disappearing is not the quarterback, but any discussion of the reality of rape.

The woman who accused Roethlisberger stated that, after partying with her and some of her sorority sisters in a college bar in Milledgeville, Georgia, Roethlisberger stalked her, exposed himself to her, and against repeated protests, raped her in a cramped bathroom stall. In redemption story after redemption story, Roethlisberger racked up victories over this season, so much so that people were able to forget about that pesky accusation of rape – indeed, according to sportswriter Dan Wetzel, “that drunken night in Milledgeville” was nothing more than one in a line of “poor and classless decisions” but one that “cost him a month of the season anyway, a pretty severe penalty.” (A lot of sins may be forgiven, but missing games is apparently not one of them.)

Disappearing rape – the word, the accusation, the criminal charge, the act – in the media seems to be a reoccurring sin. But when we avoid the words “rape,” “statutory rape,” and “sexual assault,” we dehumanize and silence victims.

A former football star, Lawrence Taylor, was originally charged with rape – charges that were disappeared when he recently plead guilty to one count of soliciting a prostitute and a second count of “sexual misconduct.” The woman involved was a 16-year-old girl. In the same week, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi found himself back in the spotlight for his sexual peccadilloes, this time for “involvement” with an underage Moroccan dancer.

Roethlisberger, Taylor and Berlusconi are painted as “players” who certainly have no problem engaging in paid or unsolicited and coercive sex with women. But they proclaim to be dupes when it comes to the sense that they did something wrong. Taylor and Berlusconi seem oblivious to the ages of the women involved. What’s missing in news reports on television, radio, and Internet stories is any hint of the crime that is rape.

Unusual to these cases? Absolutely not. We’ve allowed the media to sanitize coverage of victims (who are now often referred to as “accusers”) and the sexual crimes they have endured, and to forestall any public discourse about rape and what it means. Taylor and Berlusconi are now just a couple of bad boys who “had sex with” underage girls. Rothlisberger is once again — even in the shadow of defeat – a football stud (who allegedly raped a woman).

And it isn’t just notorious men who engage in these sexual exploits (quite literally). Michael Sipili, a former University of Colorado linebacker, was arrested last month for sexual assault. John Aguilar of the Denver Post wrote that the “woman told detectives that the next thing she knew, Sipili was having sex with her. She said she told him to stop and said ‘this hurts’ numerous times.” The same linguistic slippage is underway: he “had sex with” someone without her consent. In the story about Sipili, the woman (who, in the Denver Post story, is neither a victim nor an accuser) did undergo a “rape examination” – one that “revealed she had suffered multiple tears to her vagina.” That is, she did not submit to a “had sex with” examination, and the authorities did not use a “had sex with” kit.

We cringe at the statistics – according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), one in six women and one in 33 men is sexually assaulted, and every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Almost three-fourths of victims know their attackers, which may explain, in part, why 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

But another reason that links to low reporting is that we do not have public conversation about what rape actually is – forcible, coercive, or nonconsensual sex. It is not “had sex with,” as if consent were present, even if pleasure were not. It is a crime in every state of the United States and countries around the world, and we need to elevate the realities of rape first by calling it such when it happens.

To “disappear” something or someone is a deliberate act to foster silence and quell dissident voices. Disappearing rape in U.S. media has the same effect: it helps ensure silence, confusion and ignorance. But it doesn’t stop rape from happening. We need to return our attention to the disappeared and call the crime of rape what it is.

February 9, 2011

Stephanie Gilmore is a feminist activist and assistant professor and chair of women’s and gender studies at Dickinson College. She is the editor of Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives of Second-Wave Feminism in the United States and is currently completing Groundswell: Grassroots Activism in Postwar America.

Also see Lauren Zuniga — video

Also see Reality TV (Re)Rewrites Gender Roles by Jennifer L. Pozner in this edition of On The Issues Magazine