There’s No Such Thing as “Non-Consensual Sex”

We must abolish the use of passive words to describe violent acts.

In an article in my local paper today, it was reported that a 20-year-old assistant wrestling coach had “non-consensual sexual intercourse in the spring of 2016 with a girl who was 15 or 16 at the time.”

This kind of language needs to stop.

Year after year, assault after assault, we allow the perpetuation of rape culture through the use of passive words to describe violent acts. There is no grey area when it comes to consent. Rape is not non-consensual sex, it’s assault, and an act of violence.

Why do media outlets choose to use phrases like “unwanted sexual activity,” or “aggressive sexual encounter?” Allegations of assault are described as “sex scandals” rather than “rape scandals,” and newspaper articles and TV News captions still profess that someone was accused of “sex with children.” Children can’t have sex. There’s no such thing as “sex with children,” that’s child sexual abuse.

Is this language some function of journalists trying to avoid printing the word rape repeatedly?

Perhaps as a society, we could decide that a better way to reduce the word ‘rape’ in the news would be to stop enabling and supporting rape culture.

Maybe these phrases are some kind of misguided attempt at political correctness. I suppose it’s some mixture of that and the reality that we are still living in a patriarchal, misogynistic society that values men’s right to feel less bad about what they’ve done, over women’s right to say no.

“Non-consensual sex” is the language used by rapists to try and save face. Rapists should not be the ones who choose the words used to describe the things they have done. Why do we continue to give them the privilege of sugar-coating their actions? No other criminals are given the benefit of the doubt or the advantage of framing their actions in a way that makes their victims sound like participants.

When we allow the re-naming of sexual assault to “non-consensual sex,” we allow the perpetrators to change the narrative, and imply that their victim was somehow a participant in the criminal act. This advantage seems particularly ironic when you consider that in almost every other crime, our society’s attitude usually tilts heavily towards presumed guilt.

When we talk about sex, we are generally talking about an activity between people who are all participating. Sex is something that happens when two (or more) people get together and decide that they all consent to intimate contact. It’s about sharing an experience together, whether that experience is based in love, friendship, or straight up pleasure.

You don’t “have non-consensual sex” with someone. Without consent, you are taking from someone — their choice, their agency, and their autonomy. You are perpetuating an act of violence. Using the word “have” implies that the thing you had was up for grabs.

Consent is also not all that goes into sex. As Kelly Oliver stated in the New York Times, “nonconsensual sex suggests that one party engages in sexual activity while the other party gives or withholds consent. In most cases, this means that men engage in sexual activity while women merely consent, and not vice versa.” While rape is a very one-sided incident, sex is a multi-dimensional interaction.

Rape isn’t just sex without consent.

Stealing isn’t simply borrowing something without consent. No, it’s stealing. Murder isn’t simply taking a life without consent. No, it’s murder. Assault isn’t simply hurting someone without consent. No, it’s assault. When someone vandalizes someone else’s property, we don’t say they were breaking things or spray painting without consent. No, we call it vandalism. Even though each of these crimes involves lack of consent from the victim, we understand that consent isn’t the primary problem. The crime is.

-Shannon Dingle

The words we use matter.

The language we use has real effects on the people who hear it. It matters to the person who has just been assaulted when you use words that show you believe them, and that their experience is valid. Rape culture is very real, and something as small as understanding what our words are really saying, the meaning they hold, is a relatively easy step to take in ending it.

The last thing someone needs when they have had their power taken away from them is for that power to be handed once again to the person who took it in the first place. We need to stand up and insist that appropriate language be used. It’s time to stop allowing criminals to make what they have done sound less offensive.

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