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.

A pointed example of such blurring occurred earlier this year in the debate surrounding informed consent legislation proposed in my state of Virginia. The legislation could have required, in some cases, intravaginal sonograms for women seeking an abortion. Among an array of reasonable objections to such legislation arose the cry of "rape." In this case, the line between metaphorical and literal rape was understandably blurred somewhat, given that half of the metaphor involved a literal half of the rape equation. But some opponents to the proposed legislation got lost in the metaphorical woods and insisted that requiring an intravaginal ultrasound as part of a medical procedure was not metaphorical rape, but real rape. Yet, inexplicably, the insertion into the same part of the body, as part of the same procedure, a different instrument—the suction wand that would effect the abortion—was not deemed rape of any kind, literal or metaphorical.

Orwell's prediction about the slovenliness of language leading to foolish thoughts is no better illustrated than by all of these wayward rape metaphors.

And when I hear the word "rape" tossed around so freely, I find myself thinking about others, ones who can barely utter the word.

I think of a former student of mine who, after graduating from college, moved to a big city to make her way, and went on a job interview that ended in a nightmare. It took her almost a year of dropping hints in texts and emails, slowly revealing more details about what happened on that job interview, before she could say to me—and more importantly to herself—the truth, plain and clear: "He raped me."

I think of a young woman who stopped coming to the English class I was teaching when we began to discuss the assigned novel, Tess of D'Urbervilles, in which the heroine's tragic downward spiral begins when she is raped. When I called the student in to my office to discuss her failure to attend class, she told me that she'd been raped—and she could not bear to hear the word spoken in so cavalier a context as literary discussion.

I think of another student—a smart, handsome young man—who broke down in my office one day as he described being sexually assaulted—as a young boy—violently—by a beloved male relative—over and over again—in his own home: raped.

Let us learn from those who know what the word "rape" means to utter it less wantonly. For in losing the power which language gives us to name it, we lose some of our power over the act that word names.