Don't Call them Rapists

Another day, another football player tied up in a rape case. Jordan Johnson's case at the University of Montana is a familiar story where a college athlete has been accused of rape and an investigation is revealing a culture of tolerance around sexual assault within university athletics. Johnson's case comes on the heels of another accusation that a woman was assaulted by five men, four of whom play football for the University of Montana. In a move mirroring the initial internal reactions in the Sandusky and Steubenville cases, university official James Foley sent an email urging others in the administration to refer to is as a "date rape" rather than a "gang rape."

Yesterday, I was interviewing Jyl Shaffer, a sexual assault advocate who works on college campuses for an upcoming documentary. One of the main problems she faces is that people still think of rape as something that happens primarily between strangers. We differentiate between rape that happens when someone jumps out of the bushes, and rape that happens at a party among friends. The implication is that if we can just get everyone to agree that date rape is real and just as bad as stranger rape, then we would be more successful in prosecuting rapists and changing behavior.

Over at Salon, Stephanie Hughes examines this premise against the case of 25-year-old Lydia Cuomo, who was pulled into an alley and penetrated vaginally, orally and anally by a stranger on the way to work. The police found DNA evidence in her underwear and there were witnesses to the crime, but she couldn't tell the court what color a car parked in the alley was. According to the jury, this showed that her memory of the event was "unreliable," and her attacker was not convicted of rape.

Where this gets really interesting is that he was convicted of "criminal sexual conduct" for orally and anally penetrating her. In this case, "rape" was defined exclusively as as non-consensual vaginal penetration, and, even though the jury agrees that this man did assault Cuomo and penetrate her twice, they would not call him a rapist. The punishment for rape and criminal sexual conduct is the same and this man will ultimately spend 75 years in prison for his crime. Still, by legal terms, he is not guilty of rape.

As a sexual assault advocate myself, I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, a conviction is a conviction and if juries have such deep-seated knee-jerk reactions against the word "rape," perhaps it should be replaced with "criminal sexual conduct" in all courtrooms. Perhaps describing what athletes do at drunken college parties as "nonconsensual intercourse" will prompt administrators to address the problem rather than automatically go into PR mode and work to soften the language.

On the other hand, calling a rape a rape is important for victims/survivors. "Rape" as a word has it's power because of the intimate and long-lasting nature of the crime. Sex crimes are often compared to murder or robbery, but rape, as a word, has more emotional power than either of those. Death remains the realm of mystery, healthcare and religion, but sex and relationships are the stuff of our life. As a culture and as individuals, we are obsessed with who we love, how we love and how we make love. Being attacked on this level has the potential to impact every other aspect of a survivor's life for years and years to come. This pain is silenced when we take the emotional power out of rape in our speech.

In terms of fighting assault on college campuses and within athletic programs, there are cultural forces at play that go deeper than the drinking and presumed coquettishness of women who date. There is a deep resistance to the applying the word rape to attacks simply because it is such a strong word. Asking a survivor to soften their experience in order to seek justice is just one more way the system is stacked against them, but at this point in time, a compromised justice seems like a better solution than letting sexual criminals go free.