Why Are Women Reluctant to Use the Word Rape?

Rape is rape, but many women are hesitant to use the term. Alexandra Molotkow explores why the words we choose matter

rape definition

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“I have been recently referring to it as my ‘not-rape,’” says Claire*, a travel consultant in her mid-30s. When she was 16, she fell asleep on a couch at a house party. A guy she knew from school came over and she says, “started kissing my neck and giving me a lot of hickeys. And then—the party is going on all around—[he] started touching my breasts and went inside me with his hands. I essentially played dead. I guess I didn’t want the confrontation of getting up in the middle of that.” She woke up in a bed. The experience was “deeply unpleasant and embarrassing,” but she didn’t really call it anything at the time. The guys she knew sometimes did this sort of thing. “If I had fought, if it was a stranger…I think I had a [more specific] definition of what rape was in my teenage brain than I do now.”

The past year saw long overdue challenges to the way our culture deals with sexual assault. The myriad allegations against Bill Cosby finally started to resonate, while the accusations brought forward against Jian Ghomeshi raised issues not only around the abuse of power but also consent itself, which has to be given and can be withdrawn at any time. Cultural narratives tend to present rape as a sudden, violent act initiated by a stranger hiding in the bushes, but that’s not how it usually happens—the most commonly cited statistics indicate that 80 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Sometimes we think of these violations as just a nasty consequence of being female, but that doesn’t make them different in kind. Maybe the encounter started consensually, then turned; maybe you didn’t want to, but you were scared or drunk and didn’t resist; maybe you said no many times, but he didn’t care, and you stopped resisting. In Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham describes a terrible experience with a college acquaintance named Barry, which, having been intoxicated, she remembers only in pieces. When a friend called it rape, Dunham burst out laughing; only years later did she begin to process it as assault. Amy Schumer has referred to this phenomenon as “grape,” explaining in a 2014 interview: “It’s not whether or not something is rape. Rape is rape. It’s the grey area of how to handle it.”

Related: Will Consent Education Finally Stop the Rape Epidemic?

It’s hard to discuss an experience you’re not sure what to call. For this article, I asked women to talk to me about instances in which their consent had been violated but they didn’t necessarily refer to as rape. Some women defined the experience as “assault” or by their own terms. Some did use “rape” at times, but not always. The reasons varied, but for each person, the word represented a cluster of associations that didn’t necessarily reflect what they’d been through. “[The word ‘rape’] has such affect and effect,” one woman said. “It does a lot. It feels like it can silence an entire room.”

“We think of rape as being this really aberrant event,” says Dusty Johnstone, a women’s studies professor at the University of Windsor. “It’s deviant, it doesn’t happen that often, and it’s a big deal when it does. When you compare your own experience to what you think rape is or what you think it looks like, and your own experience is actually not that uncommon, it’s hard to make the match.” When Johnstone was deciding on her Ph.D. dissertation in 2009 (her findings will be published in the next year), she came across a term that resonated with her: “unacknowl- edged rape.” Until the 1980s, she explains, methods for quantifying sexual assault rates were “worse than useless, almost.” So feminist researchers decided to interview women about non-consensual experiences without assigning labels. They asked women if they’d ever experienced penetration by force, out of fear or while they were unconscious or too intoxicated to resist. At the end of these interviews, the researchers asked the women if they’d ever been raped. “What they found,” she says, “was a huge disconnect.” Johnstone decided to focus on talking to women and girls about experiences they hadn’t labelled as assault. “Ethically, it’s a challenging area to work in, because you’re labelling an experience for someone that can be very traumatic, in a way that they don’t label it.” At the same time, she says, “even though they don’t call it [assault], they still have the psychological outcomes and the physiological consequences of being assaulted”—the effects are comparable to those who do label—“but they’re not [as] likely to get help.”

Johnstone identified four common threads across detailed interviews with 10 women: 1) They often dismissed their experience, as though it hadn’t been a big deal or could have been worse. 2) There was also a tendency to normalize (“this kind of thing happens in my friend group all the time”). 3) A prevailing factor in not referring to an incident as assault was self-blame. 4) Finally, there was avoidance, a decision not to think of it as rape, typically because of what it might mean for the woman or her relationship with the guy. The women I talked to described having gone through similar thought processes: feeling as though they had invited the assault; a general sense of confusion about what had happened, exactly (made worse, sometimes, by the guy’s insistence that it was nothing). All of them knew to say it wasn’t their fault, but that didn’t necessarily change the way they felt. None of them had considered pressing charges. Sometimes it seemed too painful and too hopeless an option: according to research by University of Ottawa professor Holly Johnson, only 0.3 percent of reported sexual assaults result in conviction.

Related: The Campus Rape Prevention Program That Actually Works

As an undergrad, Lisa, now 29, volunteered at a sexual assault crisis line. Years later, she began dating after ending a long-term relationship. One night, she met a man at a bar who was direct and complimentary. They exchanged numbers and talked for three days straight. “It was just trying to get to know [each other]…he never really gave me a reason to mistrust him.”

Late one night, the conversation turned sexual. It felt warm and candid, like “something we were really connecting about,” Lisa says. Early in the morning, he invited her over, saying let’s talk further. “It was so exciting, and we were caught up in the moment.” When she arrived at his apartment, the mood seemed different and she had some doubts, but he started kissing her, and it felt good. She’d told him earlier that she wanted to take it slow, but things progressed, and he took off her dress. “He sort of grabbed me really hard all of a sudden and flipped me over,” Lisa says. “I didn’t really know what was happening. I thought he was going to give me a back massage. He tore my panties off, and he proceeded to start having sex with me anally. No warning, no consent, no discussion prior.”

When she told him to stop, he held her down. “He didn’t finish. He flipped me over and tried to commence vaginal intercourse. And I freaked out,” she says, but he brushed it off, implying that what he’d done was normal and that she was overreacting. “Because I felt that I had somehow invited it, or I was being a prude, I stayed with him, and we had vaginal intercourse afterwards. And I don’t even really remember it, because it felt like I wasn’t even in my own body.” A week later, she was still badly hurt, so she told a gay male friend about the act. “He kind of laughed it off, like I’d had my cherry popped, or I was being dramatic. I guess I didn’t really express how violated I was or how non-consensual it was. But because he was so dismissive, I just didn’t feel like I could tell the complete truth.” She didn’t mention the experience to anyone after that.

“It felt like such a grey area,” Lisa tells me, two years later. “I mean, I feel assaulted, but I don’t want to call it rape, because I don’t feel like I was [raped]—not in any kind of traditional way of thinking about it.” If someone had told her the same story while she was working at the crisis line, she would have told them it wasn’t their fault, “because it wasn’t.” She knows she did nothing wrong, but that doesn’t repair the cognitive dissonance. “When I think about even wanting to talk about it to other people, I can already hear their questions: Why did you stay? Why did you let him do it afterwards? Why did you even go over there?” Like Lisa, some of the women I spoke to declined the label because they associated “rape” with more traditional definitions or didn’t identify as a “rape victim”; others said they felt wrong equating their experiences with those of friends who’d been through more overtly violent ordeals. They stressed that this didn’t make their own violations less wrong; the term just felt too loaded, too specific. And it should be said that the decision not to use the term “rape” is often just that—a decision. Sexual violence takes a multitude of forms, and it’s up to the individual to decide what to call their own experience. Claire, for one, says it bothers her how, in fiction, rape is “often the thing that is thought to destroy a woman’s life,” as if our essence stems from our sexual integrity. At the same time, she doesn’t want to downplay the violation that happened at that party. “We have to tell that range of stories,” she says. “Because someone might have had a really clear-cut rape that had a really definitive, negative impact on their life. But it doesn’t make something else not rape.”

It can also be incredibly hard to label the experience when the guy involved insists he did nothing wrong—and this denial is abetted by the myth that assault is often a matter of poor communication or the fact that gender roles, as laid out in popular culture, allow for such behaviour. Guys will go after sex by any means necessary; women have to protect themselves. Sixteen Candles ends with a lighthearted implication of date rape, as if booze is the loophole through which nerds can get laid; and without belabouring the feminist fury around “Blurred Lines,” the song does reflect a deranged and common view of consent, which says if it exists in the guy’s head, that’s good enough.

Related: Here’s How to Make Consent Sexy For Everyone Involved

Amanda, a 31-year-old account executive, had been out with friends one night when an acquaintance suggested they take the bus home together. She’d known him since junior high school and had always thought of him as a big-brother type. She didn’t think much of it when he invited her over. When they got to his apartment, she says, he became “a little more predatory.”

“He would kiss me, and I’d push him away. It just kept getting worse. That went on for probably over an hour. I think we ended up having sex. But I said no a good five or six times—I’m very clear about that—and it was super awkward. I wasn’t responsive at all, and he was super responsive. I was honestly quite scared.”

Afterwards, he behaved like nothing was wrong. “I got dressed and didn’t say anything, and just ran. I didn’t know what to call it. I was angry, and I wanted to be like, ‘rape, rape, rape’—that was going through my mind. But I don’t feel like he saw it that way,” which made it harder to accept the label.

“It’s uncomfortable to say it—you hear my voice change— but that’s what it was,” she continues. “I said no, and it happened anyway.” But in the immediate aftermath, she partly blamed herself. It was hard to believe the person she knew could have done that. “I felt stupid for having been in the same space with him, and I felt like a total slut, even though I didn’t want to do it.”

Self-blame is “such a predictor of recovery,” says Johnstone, “[as is] whether or not people seek support, whether or not they get the resources they need to help them recover and adjust after. If women think, in any way—in any small way at all—they have contributed to this situation, it completely removes the culpability of the perpetrator.”

When Lisa later confronted the man who assaulted her, he denied he’d done anything wrong and became abusive—calling her a slut and saying “that he wasn’t sure, really, what I was expecting, coming to some random guy’s house at five in the morning. I guess because he was saying all the stuff I was saying to myself, I didn’t push him any further,” she says. “You don’t really have the choice of being angry at the person that did it to you. It’s so easy to turn around and turn that anger and that frustration and that fear back toward yourself.”

Lauren, a 37-year-old social worker, was assaulted by her boss when she was 18: she had passed out at a staff party and woke up to him pulling her pants off over her shoes. He performed oral sex on her and penetrated her with his fingers. When she confronted him later, he told her the encounter had been mutual. The experience, she says, “has given me some insight as to why it is that so many women experience sexual assault while so many men claim they have never sexually assaulted.”

“I don’t know if rape is committed by a ‘rapist’ all the time,” says Claire, meaning the archetypal villain. “I would bet a greater percentage of men fall into that [non-archetypal] category than are willing to admit it to themselves. Probably friends of mine. For sure, actually. Definitely.”

“We have this idea that rapists are sociopaths,” says Johnstone. “And [most are] not sociopaths. They’re assholes”—entitled, unempathetic and happy to benefit from the assumption that what happens behind closed doors is fair game; an illicit or unmentionable blur.

When Johnstone reviewed her interview transcripts, she noticed that no one she spoke to had used the word “rapist,” even when they felt they had been raped. Either because calling him a “rapist” would make him a monster, and it’s difficult to say that of someone you know; or because using the word could blow back on the woman herself, either within her community or, potentially, in a court of law.

“We’ve certainly seen situations where a woman has been threatened by her abuser that if she continues with the criminal case against him, he will sue her for slander or malicious prosecution,” says Pamela Cross, an Ontario-based lawyer who works in the field of violence against women. “Sadly, we have seen some cases where the abuser has carried out this threat.”

Whatever you call it, talking to a supportive friend or a therapist about a sexual violation can be hugely helpful. By the time Johnstone completed the interview component of her research, many of the women she spoke to had decided to label their expe- riences as assault. “It allowed them to let go of a lot of blame, I think, partly because they were in a [safe] environment,” she says. “The response you get when you disclose or label makes a big difference.” Lisa agrees—since we first spoke, she has con- fided in a few people she trusts about what happened and how it affected her. “That has helped me to finally describe what hap- pened to me as rape,” she says. “I think not being able to use the word allowed me to downplay the seriousness of what happened and dissociate myself. Deep down I didn’t want that label being applied to me. I didn’t want to feel like a victim.” These conversa- tions motivated her to seek professional help, which she strongly encourages women who have had similar experiences to do, when they’re ready.

Above all, Lisa would like them to know they’re not alone: “Despite the fact that I think most people, when it happens to them, feel very isolated, the ironic thing is that you can’t believe how many women have stories like mine.”

*Names have been changed throughout

This story is part of #Project97—a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.