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The Problem with Sexual Assault vs. Rape

November 11, 2010

I have been reading feminist blogs lately, and those written also by conservatives, detailing, or arguing that the term sexual assault is the same as rape, that violating a woman during the birthing process should be called birth violence as opposed to birth rape, and that the word rape just has too many negative connotations.  The argument about birth violence vs. birth rape has been detailed in another post of mine, where I compare a Salon Broadsheet columnist’s push to define rape according to her own perception based on the fact that doctors “can’t be expected to ask” to Amity Reed’s argument that rape is rape, regardless of the perpetrator.

But, in broader terms, I have problems with this issue of redefining rape as something it is not:  birth violence, which implies that it is the birth that acts as the catalyst, making it a phenomenon that impacts only women (men can’t give birth), or sexual assault, which implies that rape is merely sex gone wrong.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “sexual” on page 669, as “relating to or involving sex,” which it then goes on to say or involving “the sexes,” but the primary definition in rape should not be that it has to do with something sexual, as if it is a consensual but assaultive, or attacking, rather than just saying it is an act of extreme violence, which is what rape defines.  This same Merriam-Webster defines rape (p. 607) as: ” 1) a carrying away by force 2) sexual intercourse by a man with a woman without her consent chiefly by force or deception;  also unlawful sexual intercourse of any kind by force or threat.”

The term sexual assault isn’t even in the 1997 version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  Of course, this definition of rape illustrates how limited the term was in 1997.  The definition of rape has expanded to include other kinds of violence or unwanted contact with the genitalia, but in no way should the assault simply be labeled as “sexual assault” when the commonly held definition involves sex, as a consensual act gone wrong.  True, as definitions change, and the law recognizes varying kinds of genital violence, including now genital mutilation, and the movement away from medically validating even circumcision as routine, perhaps the term “rape” doesn’t fit every scenario, but the term “sexual assault” , like the faulty term “birth violence” fails to define what really is a rape.

I repeat:  rape, is rape, is rape, except when those in denial want to call it something else, and it shouldn’t be determined by the perpetrator, or with the implication that somehow men are just animals who can’t control themselves in the sexual moment, the medical moment (or even medical emergency).  Rape is unwanted genital violence, no matter who perpetrates, in what setting, or by which gender, and no matter whether or not the attacker is wearing medical paraphernalia, has a degree after his or her name, or is of one social class or another.

We have to be very careful that columnists, like those employed by Salon’s Broadsheet (who tend to annoy me anyway with a singular perspective on all things female, NY, and “career-driven” and therefore supposedly speaking on a granted token for all women) don’t allow the violence against women to be “watered down” by its very commonality.  That we don’t allow law enforcement officials to imply that genital violence is somehow an assault by a sexual act.  A sexual act involves both partners, violence against someone’s genitals is not a sexual act, except among the perverse, sick, or those guilty of war crimes.

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