Please Stop Calling Rape Sex

That's it, just what seems -- to me, anyway -- to be a relatively simple request I'm putting out to the universe today, because it's something that comes up almost constantly in work and discussions around sexuality, something where I've grown impatient waiting for change.

I'm asking what I'm asking as an advocate for survivors, as a survivor myself and as someone deeply invested in sex being something truly beneficial for people, and which we only define as something people willingly, wantedly, choose to do when they do choose it.

Please stop calling rape sex (especially if you are not talking about your own experiences with sexual abuse and assault, where those experiences are things you yourself choose to call sex). Please stop calling rape or other kinds of sexual violence things like "unwanted sex."

Please stop saying someone engaged in sex when you know it was abuse or assault, suspect that it was, or just don't know if everyone involved was consenting. Please stop asking why rape isn't included in articles or studies about consensual sex (and perhaps missing that for many of us who are survivors, it is refreshing as hell to have studies and articles which recognize the difference, rather than conflating the two).

Please stop helping those who rape dictate what is or isn't sex by defining sex in ways that include what, if it has even been that, was only sexual or about sex for one of the people participating. Please stop helping rapists and others to perpetuate and deny assault and abuse, and stop standing in the way of survivors to know what was done to them, heal, and have real ownership of their actual sexual lives by in any way continuing or enabling the harmful mythology that what is rape and what is sex are too murky to clearly differentiate between.

One of the things that tends to be very clear when you are a survivor of sexual abuse and assault and then experience consensual sex -- sex you experience desire for, want and are a real part of, sex that couldn't have been sex had you not been a real part of it -- is how very, very different abuse or assault and sex are. While outsiders or non-survivors, survivors who have yet to experience consensual, and certainly some rapists (though they'd get it in a heartbeat were the shoe on the other foot), may not understand that rape and sex are vastly different things, those of us who have experienced both? We know. It's not murky. It's crystal.

Sex and rape are not different kinds of apples, or even apples and oranges. They're apples and slugs: two things so different that the only thing they really have in common is that they can happen to the same person, in some of the same places on their body, just like apples can live in the same soil and climate as slugs. But we'd never confuse one for the other, nor would we offer a salad with fresh slugs on it to anyone and expect them to be happy about it or ourselves accept slugs as a tasty stand-in for an apple with our lunch.

If we understand sex to be something, anything, that everyone involved freely chooses to do to tangibly and actively seek to express, explore or enact their sexuality, when someone calls something someone else engaged in sex, what they say is that everyone involved was and chose to be engaged in sex and that everyone involved was expressing and exploring their sexuality.

Around here, when we say sex, we're talking about consensual sex, where anyone and everyone involved was freely consenting. When we know that was not happening, for anyone in a situation, we don't call that situation sex anymore. Because when we know anyone was not freely consenting, and was not seeking to express their sexuality, we know it wasn't sex for at least someone.

In fact, I posit that the only way someone can be engaging in sex all by themselves when someone else is when they are masturbating. So, when we're talking about rape, a rapist isn't having sex or participating in sex. They are raping; they are not perpetrating sex or part of sex. They are perpetrating and part of only abuse and assault.

I strongly feel that any time more than one person is involved in a situation or activity, if everyone isn't truly involved in something they consider sexual and intend to be sexual -- and that also means everyone is actively consenting -- it's not sex. When two people put on gloves and other protective gear, get in a ring, and agree to a fight as a sport, with a particular set of agreements (otherwise known as rules), we call it boxing.

When one person walks up to another person on the street and just starts punching them in the face, we don't call it boxing. We don't call it "unwanted boxing." We call it assault.

It's been suggested to me more than once that this notion, the idea that sex between or among people is only really sex when it's sex for everyone, is radical, but I disagree. I acknowledge and understand it might seem radical, but I'd suggest that if it does, that's only because our cultural, collective or individual notion or experience of what sex is is still so frequently retrograde, regressive and so deeply mired in sexual violence.

Sexual abuse and assault (the primary terms we use now, even though they are certainly imperfect, including around the issue I'm talking about here) -- rape and other sexual violence -- are things we know often are sexual for the perpetrators of those crimes. They aren't or might not be always, or, more to the point, their motives in perpetuating those crimes may not be motives we or they consider to be sexual. The sexuality and sexual motives of rapists is a subject far more complex than I can do justice to here, but that's okay, since we don't need to, as that's not who I'm talking about or privileging here. This isn't about them.

See, whatever a given rapist's sexual motives or experiences may or may not be, what we know for sure is that for the victims and survivors of those crimes, we can't even talk about sexual motivations or sexualities, because you have no motive for something when you are not mutually, and by choice, engaged in it, but when it is being done to, on or unto you by someone else who has withheld from you the ability or right to make your own choices. No one should ever decide for a victim or survivor that they were having sex during rape, and thus, had sexual motives in their own rape, because that is not only hurtful and damaging, it is also a complete oxymoron.

We don't talk about the charity or generosity of someone who was mugged, or about having one's wallet stolen as any version of an act of philanthropy, because we easily recognize they were not engaged in an act of giving, nor were they even allowed the choice of giving or not. Whether or not the person who robbed them considers them to have "given" them their wallet, we know that they very much did not. It should be just as easy to see that the same is true of rape.

When someone calls someone else's abuse or assault sex, they effectively decide, for that victim or survivor, that what was happening was not an abuse or assault. (And that's great news for rapists. They say thanks, by the way.)

When someone calls someone else's abuse or assault sex, they empower that person's assailant or abuser to have long-term control of that other person, and to decide, for them, that they have taken part in something sexual whether or not that person wants to or considers what was done to them to be, for them, sexual. Deciding for a victim or survivor what was or wasn't sex for them denies them sexual agency yet once again, compounding and emotionally reiterating a big part of what happened to them when they were assaulted. As well, messages that tell survivors that abuse or assault was sex are perfect fertilizer for the shame and confusion so often involved in being a victim of these crimes that makes healing from them such a challenge. Too, an abuser or assailant's typically false, wishful-thinking claim that they will have power over a victim forevermore usually isn't true. But the sad truth is that it can be if a victim or survivor believes it: and if all around you you hear and see things that support that claim, things like that your rape was really sex, was really something you wanted, was really part of your sexuality, it's sure hard not to believe it.

I think it's pretty easy to think and talk about this differently: it's really just minor adjustments, but adjustments which can make a big difference, both in respecting and supporting victims and survivors -- both in healing and in understanding that while rape removes our sexual agency while it is happening, it does not forever take it or keep from us -- and, I think, it helping to dismantle one of the biggest pieces holding up rape culture.

We need to mostly just constantly remember, and reflect with our words, that sex -- when we understand and want sex to be something that, again, everyone involved freely chooses to do to tangibly and actively seek to express, explore or enact their sexuality -- is a choice.

Sexual abuse or assault is a choice ONLY for the person who perpetrates abuse or assault. It is not a choice for the victims or survivors of that person's actions. Were it a real choice for them, it would not be sexual abuse or assault. More often than not, the way someone who rapes denies rape is by stating, "It wasn't rape, it was sex." And all too often, people actively or passively agree with them, plenty of whom, I'm quite certain, absolutely do not want to be supporting sexual violence in any way.

Agreeing with rapists that rape is sex not only allows them to define what occurred, it plays a part in silencing victims and survivors and in keeping us from the right to own our sexualities and sexual lives. Calling rape sex echoes or reiterates the emotional message someone abusing or assaulting us has already sent: that we don't get to decide when we engage in sex or not, someone else does. That it's not up to us what is and isn't sex for us: it's up to someone else.

Victims and survivors of sexual abuse or assault have been denied real personhood and sexual agency by those who have abused or assaulted us: this is the heart of that crime. If a person wants to respect, support and empower survivors to survive, to heal and to pursue and enjoy the sexual lives they choose, and feel them as their own, then it is paramount they not be yet another person or group who denies us that sexual agency by telling us -- be it directly, or with something like statements in the media about all survivors -- when we have and have not had sex when we have not, as individuals, told an individual or group, that that is what we have been an active part of.

If anyone wants a world where it becomes harder and harder to rape, and where rape occurs and is allowed to occur with less and less frequency, then I think they've got to do everything in their power -- and that often includes some intentional work unlearning, after all, whether you've survived abuse and assault or not, you've likely internalized rape culture -- to, at the very least, be sure they aren't denying anyone any sexual agency, not just in deed, but in word.

So, if you find yourself doing this at all -- or see, hear or read someone else doing this stuff -- see if you can't stop saying things, or going along with phrases like "unwanted sex." When what's being talked about is sexual violence, call it violence, not sex. Even "nonconsensual sex" is problematic, and so are the terms we have to work with most, sexual abuse or assault, but those terms are at least terms which differentiate abuse and assault from consensual sex. Try saying "consensual sex" just as often as you say sex, when that's what you're talking about. If you want to know why a given article or study about sex didn't include sexual abuse or assault, just take a second to think about why or about how you ask that question. For example, something that I often see happens around studies of first-time sexual experiences, where people will say, "What about people whose first sexual experience was rape?" a statement which denies that plenty of us who were sexually abused or assaulted before we had consensual sex don't consider our rapes to have been our sexual experiences at all. Maybe what you want to know is if people who have experienced sexual violence were also included in a study: that's sound. But maybe what you are doing is not being mindful of the fact that a study on sex didn't talk about or include sexual violence because it was a study of sex, not rape. Figure it out first before making statements that conflate consensual sex with rape.

Consider supporting a survivor who has heard and internalized so much conflation of rape and sex who was raped, but has not yet had consensual sex, by letting them, know that their sexual lives -- their own sexual lives -- remain ahead of them, and if their rape isn't something that seemed like what they want sex to be, something which was about their sexual desires and their own sexuality, then no matter what anyone else says, it wasn't.

Maybe this isn't about something you do, but something you, like me, see or read others do. If so, see if you can't call it out a little more often, ask for people to think about these things a little bit more, and make a point of ceasing to accept anyone deciding for anyone else

And if you're not sure if something was or wasn't rape, and you're talking about someone else? Silence can be so very golden. None of us are required to state an opinion about something or name something, and opting out when it isn't even about us really is easy. It's also a quiet, simple way to gently resist or protest a pervasive social dynamic that makes raping someone -- and getting away with it -- incredibly easy: the ethos that says there is nothing at all the matter with someone else, anyone else, deciding, for another person, when they will be sexual.