“I feel like I’ve been raped,” said the man on the table next to me. He wasn’t talking about an uninvited sexual experience. He wasn’t talking about someone robbing him of any physical control. He wasn’t even talking about someone exposing him in an emotional sense. He was talking to a friend about his business partner setting up a rival company.
Of course, he probably felt betrayed, hurt, even humiliated, but can we really compare his experience with the vicious theft of someone’s personal space, body and choice?
Anyone who has experienced this trauma, in whatever way, may feel a similar sense of initial compassion when reading the statement, which quickly turns to something of a shock combined with anger once understanding the context. How can a word that describes such a horrific experience be casually compared to a potential loss of business?
In the UK, one in five women and one in 20 men have been raped or sexually assaulted, and one in six children have been sexually abused, according to the Rape Crisis. Using the word rape in a blasé sense, rather than treating it as the serious crime that it is, undermines a hugely traumatic experience.
I doubt the man at the table next to me meant to do this. I doubt he gave a second thought to the word he’d used, the impact it would have on those around him, and the message it conveyed about his character.
Arguably, I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping on someone’s private conversation, but after discussing the scenario with just a handful of people, it quickly became clear that this nonchalant use of the word rape was not a one-off, especially in workplaces.
Last year, 63,136 rape cases were reported by the police, the highest ever, with most likely hundreds of thousands left unreported for various reasons – from fear and embarrassment, to the heartbreaking fact that only one in 100 reported cases resulted in a charge.
While the lack of conversation around these staggering statistics may be seen as a reason to why people perhaps aren’t aware of the seriousness of nonchalantly using the term, rape isn’t the only word still being employed in an inappropriately casual capacity.
A week after overhearing “I feel like I’ve been raped”, I heard another shocking simile, along the lines of “imagine something really scary, like a Black man in a dark alleyway” – this time from the spiritual leader at a luxury detox retreat.
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This dangerous racial connotation can’t be excused. Yet, when challenged by a member of the group, the man leading the retreat insisted that there was no racialized motive behind using a Black man as an example of a frightening figure. I have argued that he changes the description all the time, using everything from someone with pink hair to different ethnicities. Call me skeptical on this point.
There’s always a motive behind our words, whether we’re willing to admit it or not. And clearly, even Black Lives Matter, a huge global movement, wasn’t enough to emphasize this to some. It was n’t then surprising that numerous people struggled to connect with the retreat leader’s preachings of peace, love and non-judgment, as the tone had already been set by his racist simile.
We’re all guilty of putting our foot in our mouth at some point. All of us have said things we wish we could take back, or even used words that felt acceptable at the time and now fill us with remorse when remembering them – but certain words and phrases go above an innocent misjudgement, and using them will convey a sense of who someone is that can even overshadow the actions they may follow up with.
Ignorance is certainly not bliss, and you may come across as an insensitive bigot, whether you truly are or not, depending on the words you use. Choose them carefully.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.