“Fordham CARES,” declares the screen outside of McGinley Center. It references the Campus Assault and Relationship Education program, which aims to teach about sexual assault and misconduct prevention and the resources available to those who have been victimized.
Fordham, along with several universities across the country, is trying to send the message that sexual assault is a serious issue.
At the University of Kansas, though, students feel that the administration is not taking the issue seriously enough. A group of students is demanding that the administration change the official term they use to describe the act from “non-consensual sex” to “rape.”
But are words just words? After all, “nonconsensual sex” is just a bare-bones definition of rape. Does it matter?
“The way we speak about rape is essential because we live in a society entrenched in rape culture,” says Tina McCain, FCRH ’18. It is true that language is an extremely powerful tool. The way in which we refer to things can shape our views on it. In this case, the omission of “rape” and the usage of “non-consensual sex” creates a reality in which rape on the college campus is different than rape off-campus. In fact, the protests at the University of Kansas were stirred when a student found guilty of non-consensual sex was merely put on probation and banned from university housing. The administration even deemed community service to be too severe a sentence.
Brett Sokolow, CEO of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, calls the use of the offending phrase “minimizing or negating language, because there is no such thing— “sex’ is consensual by definition. When you refer to it as ‘non-consensual sex,’ you diminish the behavior.”
While “non-consensual sex” is technically a correct term for the action, it carries less weight than “rape.” The word “rape” connotes a wrongdoing, a misdeed and, above all, a crime. On the other hand, the phrase “non-consensual sex” strips the act of its criminality by not using the word that is used in the legal context.
“‘Non-consensual sex’ seems to neutralize the actual malice of it,” says McCain. Additionally, “non-consensual sex” could cast the victim as a participant of the event instead of someone who was the victim of a heinous crime. This kind of terminology is conducive to victim shaming and victim blaming, because it does not make it clear that a violation was committed by one person to another person.
Victim blaming and shaming are problematic, because they cast a stigma on those who are attacked and support the idea that rape prevention is decided by potential victims.
Some universities may shy away from “rape” because the word could make some administrators who judge assault cases associate alleged perpetrator with dark alley and an evil plan. They might imagine an extremely violent situation, possibly leading them to treat cases where a perpetrator was a friend of the victim as less serious. This excuse is not only disrespectful to victims, but also is illustrative of an institutionalized issue.
The idea that universities need to use a less-offensive phrase so that school officials judging rape cases will not minimize the severity of a sexual assault that occurred under slightly less violent circumstances suggests that the problem lies within the administration’s inability to accurately understand that rape always afflicts harm on the victim, regardless of the setting and situation. Changing a word for the benefit of an administration makes it acceptable for those whose job it is to judge rape cases, to have a pre-conceived notion that some cases are less serious than others.
The word change renders educating administrators unnecessary, and if they cannot learn and understand that rape is always a complete violation of a human beings regardless of circumstances, why should the student body be expected to?
If universities want to put an end to campus assault, they need to face the fact that every case of “non-consensual sex” is indeed a serious crime and deserves to be treated with equal respect.
Margarita Artoglou, FCRH ’18, is a communications and media studies major from Queens.