Opinion: Let’s change the way we talk about rape

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Beth Wiley

Some studies suggest that about 70 percent of all rape victims know their attackers. For victims college age and younger, that number increases to between 80 and 90 percent, depending on the study.

However, there’s something wrong with what I just wrote.

Most research, writing and conversations focus on the rape victim instead of the rapist. By writing those sentences to convey that rape victims know their attackers, there could be a subtle message that the victims are somehow responsible. I believe we need to make a concerted effort to change the way we talk about rape.

This isn’t a new argument. It’s been around pretty much since the beginning of movements to end sexual assault and domestic violence. But it bears repeating because the language doesn’t seem to change.

Yes, it’s difficult to reword and reimagine ideas when we don’t have a clear picture of how many rapists exist. Still, it’s important for us to try our hardest to catch ourselves when we might be removing the rapist from our language.

With the focus on the rapists instead of on the rape victims, might it help us change the way we think about rape?

Rape is still one of the most underreported crimes in the country (for women and men). While there are multiple reasons victims choose not to report, one of the most insidious reasons is that victims feel like the rape was their fault.

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The way we talk about rape perpetuates that myth. Our language often completely ignores the rapist, subtly implying that rape happens because victims let it. It’s time to change that.

If we can remind ourselves that rape happens because rapists choose to rape, we might eventually encourage and foster a culture where rape victims don’t feel responsible. Where rape victims feel like they can come forward, report the rape and receive the support they need.

Changing our language isn’t natural. It takes time, and you have to think harder about the way you say or write things. But changing the way we talk about rape could help create a culture where rape is a thing of the past.

So, let’s try those first couple of sentences again: Some studies suggest that about 70 percent of rapists know their victims. If the rapist’s victim was college age or younger, then that number increases to between 80 and 90 percent, depending on the study.

Let’s do our part to change the culture.

Beth Wiley is the educator and communication coordinator for Domestic and Sexual Violence Services in Red Lodge. If you or someone you know has experienced a sexual assault and you want help, please call this agency’s 24-7 Helpline, 406-425-2222. It serves serve Carbon and Stillwater counties in Montana. If you’re outside that service area, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-4673.

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