“One man’s trash is another’s man treasure” is a phrase that is used often to explain that not everyone views an object in the same way. We place meaning in certain objects, in people or in words that other people cannot grasp. To them its just a beat up, bent ring missing two stones, not the ring that a grandfather found on the street and gave to his young granddaughter before he passed away.
We do the same thing with words. The world pulchritudinous which somehow has the pleasant definition of “physically beautiful” will always be hilarious to me because of the context upon which my friend and I happened across it one day thinking it must mean something wretched and used it to insult people before we thought perhaps we should look it up. Although you might now look at that word and see how bizarre it is and agree with me that it hardly seems like an appropriate compliment, it will never hold the same meaning to you as it does to me. A memory of youth, of two silly young girls and one overly-talkative, slightly creepy older gentlemen.
The same goes for the word rape. Even among different survivors of sexual assault, the emotions and connotations we place on those four simple letters are hugely different. For me, it was a heavy meaning that almost carried physical weight.
I have always loved words. From the time that I learned to read, books have barely ever been out of my hands, unless of course it was in place of a pen. The computer, instead of the doom prophesied by many, has made me an even more avid reader. I read articles on all sorts of topics I never would have imagined looking up on my own and I write about topics online that I never would have thought to put down on paper. Since elementary school I wanted to be a librarian and I chased that dream through an English degree and then an MLS.
I say this because perhaps words have more meaning to me in general, perhaps I give them too much power.
And those four letters, I gave the most power of all.
I was sexually assaulted in high school. No. I was raped. But it took me so long to use that one in connection with myself. Even though I knew in my mind that what had happened was the very dictionary definition of rape, I didn’t want to use the word. One memory that is permanently etched forever on my mind is the voice of a dear friend that I called a few days after the incident. I started to describe to her what had happened and she cut me off and in a kind of whisper full of weight said, “Jess, did he rape you?”. For some reason I balked. And started to protest, “Oh, no, no, he didn’t do that”, even though my very description said it was so.
For years after I couldn’t bring myself to say the word even once I had accepted that it was an experience I unfortunately could claim. When I saw it in books I panicked. I didn’t like it, I didn’t want it there. I love books. How could they betray me like that? Lead me on with a beautiful story and then seemingly out of nowhere throw that word out before me?
When I was growing up in a Christian school, a lot of our library books were peppered with black boxes, “curse” words crossed out by the librarian with a perfect Sharpie rectangle. Curses like “damn” and “ass” but also any line that contained “Oh my God!” since that was taking the Lord’s name in vain. Slowly, my own books began to look like that. Except I wasn’t crossing out curses, I was trying to cross out the memories and images that word conjured up.
And then I did it to library books. I remembered the first time I whipped out my marker and defaced the page of a book that was no mine. It might not seem like a big deal, after all, people underline and highlight library books all the time. But for me, who wanted more than anything to be a caretaker of such books, who held them up as little temples of knowledge, it was almost a sin. I did it almost before I realized the book was not my own and then spent agonizing minutes trying to convince myself that it was ok, the world was better for not seeing that language, especially when it was printed with so little thought to how it might effect the reader.
I no longer do that. Perhaps I’ve healed enough. Though I think in some ways, that very act helped me to heal. I could control very little about the experience, either while it was happening or how it made me feel after. I couldn’t erase the memories but I could erase that word.
I no longer feel panic, what I feel is anger.
The anger when I hear the word thrown around in nonchalant ways. When sport teams “rape” other sports teams, when people say they were “verbally raped”, even just when armies are casually remarked to have “raped and pillaged” because it divests the word of so much of hurt and pain that i have wrapped up in it.
We use it so often, so unthinkingly, it has become so common place, is it any wonder that some members of our society do not think it is that big of a deal? It’s something you do to an opposing team, it’s something you say as a “compliment” to a hot girl, it’s a one word replacement in textbooks for the devastation brought upon entire communities during atrocious battles and suffering”
We have acknowledge that “I love you” can sometimes be meaningless because of how often it thrown around in casual conversation, the same thing has happened with rape. We joke about how “that is not a good enough reason to use the word penetration” or laughingly say “I feel violated” by a small infraction against our person space or privacy but for me, these are no laughing matters.
Rape is a horrible, atrocious,inhuman, dehumanizing, painful, disgusting, violating act. There aren’t words adequate to describe it and its effects. If the fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself, then we have done ourselves an disservice by allowing the word to creep into pop culture as something to throw around like any other juvenile joke.
We need a word that is horrible, a word you wouldn’t apply lightly, a word that strikes terror into the heart when it is spoken because that is what that jumble of sounds and letters represents, something that is unspeakably horrid.
We have failed ourselves and our descendants by allowing rape to become a joke, both grammatically and physically.