There Is No Such Thing as 'Verbal Rape' (or 'Facebook Rape' or 'Netflix Rape')

The more the word is used metaphorically, the more people lose touch with what it really means.


The rape metaphors are flying, of late, like Cabbage Patch dolls off shelves during a holiday stampede.

The latest inappropriate rape metaphor was volleyed on Monday by Elisabeth Hasselbeck on The View during a discussion of vile tweets Chris Brown lobbed at comedienne Jenny Johnson in an online spat. Hasselbeck called Brown's Twitter tantrum "verbal rape," while co-host Whoopi Goldberg disagreed, suggesting instead that both Johnson and Brown were guilty of "verbal assault."

I'm with Whoopi on this one. There are plenty of apt words for Chris Brown's obscene tweets—"disgusting," "juvenile," "pornographic,"" immoral," "stupid," "pathetic," and "unworthy of attention" immediately come to mind—but "rape"? Please.

Can we just call a ceasefire on the rape metaphors?

After all, all words are not created equal. And while language is ever evolving, and the connotations of words always shifting, "rape" is a word whose use and power ought to be respected and reserved for its true meaning. Not out of respect for what the word signifies, but out of respect for the power over the act that naming it offers us.

Unfortunately, however, "rape" is all too handy a term for those of impoverished imaginations and limited vocabularies, a group which seems to know no political or demographic bounds, as even a smattering of recent examples indicates:

  • A conservative blogger depicted President Obama's policies as the "rape" of American principles.
  • A Democratic congressman characterized Mitt Romney's history at Bain Capital as "raping companies."
  • It is common among gamers, I'm told, to use the term "rape" to describe a humiliating defeat in the world of electronic sports.
  • Twitter complaints about last year's rate hike by Netflix likened the price increases to rape.
  • Johnny Depp had said of his photo shoots: "you just feel like you're being raped somehow. Raped ... It feels like a kind of weird ..."
  • Pranking your Facebook friends is called "Facebook rape."
  • And in a twist stranger than fiction, the wife of Todd Akin (he of "legitimate rape" infamy) compared the GOP's abandonment of him in his failed bid for the Senate to the American colonists rising up against the rape of their daughters by the British imperialists.

In his landmark 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell cautioned that language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Considering that all language is a system of signs and, in that sense is metaphorical, the problem is that an intentional blurring between literal and metaphorical for political (as opposed to poetic) purposes can lead to an inability of words to distinguish between them at all.

If a resounding loss in a round of Halo is "rape," what do we call real rape? If we lose the words to differentiate between such vastly disparate situations, then we lose the ability to name rape for what it is.

Presented by

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.

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