Throwing Around the Word “Rape”

It looked so wrong in the little instant messaging box: “I’m gonna get raped tomorrow.”

For a moment, I was terrified that my friend faced serious sexual violence. But no, she was just concerned about her performance on an upcoming Advanced Placement test. I hear this word all too often in the hallways of my high school. It is used to talk about grades and tests (as my friend did) or to get psyched up about beating other sports teams (“We’re gonna rape them tomorrow.”). And every time I hear it, it sounds odd and startles me for a second. Why “rape?” Why is the word for such a vile act being tossed around high school like it’s a joke?

To use “rape” so carelessly trivializes its actual meaning. A senior on my school’s varsity soccer team points out that his teammates’ use of the word “was almost always accompanied by laughter.” A high school student who thinks rape is something to joke about does not realize the devastation of the act, and the genuine vulnerability women face. According to the Rape, Incest, and Abuse National Network (RAINN), one in six American women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes and, according to 2010 Department of Justice  statistics, one in five college students will be sexually assaulted.

Though some might dismiss this high-school usage as simply hyperbole, University of Chicago graduate student Elise Kramer believes,

Using ‘rape’ in this way is sort of doubly meaningful. It bolsters the masculinity/powerfulness/coolness of the speaker in two ways; first, because threatening rape is inherently masculinizing and second, because being ostentatiously not sensitive to the word ‘rape’ is also masculine.

Some academics label our society a rape culture because it tolerates and seemingly approves of sexual violence against women as the norm. To prevent people from becoming more and more indifferent to the word–and thus indifferent to the prevalence of rape–we should work to raise awareness about the offensiveness of the word. University of California, Santa Barbara linguistics professor Mary Bucholtz reports that for several of her students, “once they became aware that the term is highly offensive, they stopped using it.”

It is true that words used as slang can lose some of their original meaning. We have become accustomed to hearing “My parents are gonna kill me” and “I’m dying here.” But I can’t get used to casually hearing about anyone being raped. I never want to feel comfortable with that usage of the word.

Photo of the sculpture “Rape of the Sabine Women” by Giambologna in Florence, Italy, from Flickr user storem under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Update: Inspired by this blog post, linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky breaks down the word “rape.”


  1. To trivialize the word is to take it’s power and take it back. An entire generation is growing up where “rape” and “faggot” are dissociated from their historical meaning, taking on new (though still derogatory) meaning. To ignore these changes in language use is navel gazing of the highest caliber.

    And the entire premise of this article is a lie: there was not even one millisecond when you though your friend was going to be sexually assaulted.

    If elimination of forced sexual contact is your goal, making a ghoul of the word and making an eggshell prospect of it’s use is the wrong way to go about it. Take it back.

    • Matthew says:

      I disagree with your argument that to allow dismissive and insensitive connotations to be linked with the word would somehow eliminate sexual assault in our society. I think it is very short sighted of you to make that claim.

  2. Matthew says:

    I am glad this issue has been brought up. It is horrendous, in my opinion, the way the term rape is being so blithely used in our culture. It pains me to hear it thrown around in such a callous and dismissive way. It seems a fairly recent development to me (though unfortunately I am probably wrong about that) and an indiciator of the overall lack of sensitivity, compassion, and justice for those who are not demeaning, exploiting or assaulting others in our culture.

    More and more it seems, victims are vilified and humiliated publically, especially in cases of rape. This issue seems like an extension of the terrible direction in which our society is trending. I agree 100% with the final sentence of this article and will go a step further and say I don’t ever want to live in a society that is comfortable with that useage of the word.

  3. I think that any discussion of the term “rape” as a slang word needs to give at least a passing mention to male-male rape, particularly in the prison context, as the precursor to the term, “made ____ my/his bitch,” is based on similar imagery.

  4. Jebus, are you a troll? I’ve never left a comment here before but I was genuinely surprised to scroll down to read what you said: not only did you state that you could “take back” a word such as rape, but you said it was “navel gazing of the highest caliber” to suggest otherwise.

    I am trying to think of a respectful way of saying this but what on EARTH are you on about?!

    How can you “take back” rape? What does that even mean? Even if you refer to taking back the word rather than the action, it still doesn’t make sense. Unlike “queer” or “slut” the word “rape” is not a name call. It is verb not a noun, and turning it into slang doesn’t lessen the impact actual rape has. It may desensitize those who have not been raped (such as in the excellent quote below) but for those who *have* been raped this talk of “take it back” is absolutely meaningless, not to mention bizarre.

    (“Using ‘rape’ in this way is sort of doubly meaningful. It bolsters the masculinity/powerfulness/coolness of the speaker in two ways; first, because threatening rape is inherently masculinizing and second, because being ostentatiously not sensitive to the word ‘rape’ is also masculine.”)

    On a personal level, I am disabled and I have never felt supported in anyway when abled people throw the word “spastic” around. I am sure this is comparable to the issue here. Explain to me how a group of wo/men talking about how they’re “gonna rape” a group of other wo/men during a game of sports helps actual rape survivors feel empowered or that they’ve “taken back” rape or feel better about rape.

    I agree that we shouldn’t be frightened of words but, again, take back??? When was it ever “ours” to begin with? And take it back from whom? From rapists? You’re just talking in slogans.

    It’s like saying phrases like “I could murder a pizza” empowers people who’ve been affected by murder, or that we the people have “taken back” murder. We’ve reclaimed murder! Woohoo!

    (Also, you do get that the premise of this article wasn’t the email the friend sent, right? The email was a talking point, the premise of the article was that the word “rape” is “tossed around… so carelessly [that it] trivializes its actual meaning.”)

  5. Valerie says:


    I couldn’t agree with you more. I certainly understand the concept of “taking back” words that have evolved to have different connotations. It can undoubtedly be an empowering process. In many ways, it’s similar to what the Vagina Monologues does with a number of its pieces. However, on the flipside and in this particular situation, I take what you say to heart when you say, “I can’t get used to casually hearing about anyone being raped. I never want to feel comfortable with that usage of the word.” Trivializing the word ‘rape’ isn’t going to get us any closer to eliminating sexual violence within our communities. The only thing it accomplishes is to de-sensitize the masses to the magnitude of the crime. I know that may sound like a bit of a stretch for some, but I see that as a reality. The truth of the matter is, we live in a culture that tolerates sexual violence, and throwing around the word rape as casually and carelessly as many of us do is only further setting us back in our fight to end this crime. Moving forward requires us to educate, advocate and speak out against instances such as the one you describe in your blog. Thank you for posting this blog. I really enjoyed reading it and all of the comments. You did a great job in initiating a dialogue among readers. I think we can all appreciate that. It’s so reassuring to know that you GET this.

  6. I’m OUTRAGED!!! How dare these people use the word rape in any of it’s other contexts such as plunder, despoil or abuse! We all know that we should only ever use the FIRST meaning of any word, MAYBE the 2nd… but to go beyond that is too challenging to peoples intellect.

    • USMC Limey says:

      Dang, you beat me to it.

      Granted, the word rape is thrown around a lot unnecessarily. But, it usage is not limited to the act of forced sexual activity. Originally the crime of rape was considered a crime against the head of the household (paterfamilias) in ancient Greece and Rome and was mainly limited to wine who were chaste. In Seventeenth century France it was considered rape to marry a woman without her parents consent. Times have changed and thankfully we’ve moved on to realizing that it’s a crime against the individual who is sexually assaulted. Note that I use the term sexually assaulted, because that is an accurate description of what it is. Granted it doesn’t fit too well on a lapel pin, and it’s certainly a little much to expect women to stand in the street screaming “Sexual Assault”.

      The term “Rape” really came into common usage during the 1970’s although up until recently it was considered acceptable in polite society to use the term to describe things such as urban sprawl “raping the landscape”, or any other case where the purity of something was being destroyed.

      What is happening today is seeing a term in common usage bring hijacked by a special interest group who act as if they have a patent on the term.

      Yes rape means:

      “The crime, committed by a man, of forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with him without their consent and against their will, esp. by the threat or use of violence against them”


      “The abduction of a woman, esp. for the purpose of having sexual intercourse with her”

      But it also means:

      “Spoil or destroy (a place)”

      “The stalks and skins of grapes left after winemaking, used in making vinegar”

      “A plant of the cabbage family with bright yellow, heavily scented flowers, esp. a variety (oilseed rape) grown for its oil-rich seed and as stockfeed”

      “(in the UK) Any of the six ancient divisions of Sussex”

      Maybe those who are so offended should consider picking a less commonly used synonym such as “despoil” or “molest”.

      I don’t agree with the notion that overuse of the phrase “rape” leads to an increase of the act anymore than saying murder or kill has.

      I personally don’t use the word often for the same reason you shouldn’t say bomb on an airplane, you end up wasting a lot of time explaining your use of the word to somebody.

    • I suppose you are open-minded enough, then, to use ass in it’s second definition, meaning, “You’re being an…”. Same issue, one of sensitivity and new, dominant meaning of the word.

    • ElegantButler says:

      Early on, the word ‘rape’ wasn’t just about unwanted sex. It referred to an attack on a person, often but not always sexual in nature, meant to devastate the intended target by destroying or at least damaging that person’s inner spiritual and emotional core. For example, in the movie “Into the Woods” when the witch says “he was robbing me, raping me”, she doesn’t mean he was forcing her into sex, he means that the man was committing a devastating attack upon her by stealing an item whose theft would have a destructive influence upon her.

  7. USMC Limey says:

    Not exactly sure what the statue picture has to do with the article ??? Are we to assume the man is raping the woman ? Maybe somebody should photoshop a rape whistle in there ?

    Based on the premise that the author takes that using the word rape too casually will cause more rapes (which is nonsense), maybe we shouldn’t be showing representations of bare breasted women. Maybe it will drive men who see the picture to run out and rape somebody ???

    Yes I’m exaggerating, it’s called sattire, and it’s completely called for.

    Sexual assault is a serious problem but we don’t combat it by whining about verbs. We combat it by informing ladies on how to avoid circumstances where they may be raped and informing men how they can help, and what things they can do to avoid becoming a target of a rape accusation (whether it’s true or not).

    • The author is talking about the power of language, not rape-prevention tactics. There are certain words that are powerful, and have powerful histories.

      Lets look at the word “retard.” If your friend says something stupid, do you call them a “retard,” or that they acted “retarded”? I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told in school (starting in Elementary) that “retarded” (as a derogatory term) is not okay to say. The point, obviously, was to ween it out of the slang vernacular. Because hey, guess what, not only is “retard” used when someone drops a plate, but it’s also used in a very hurtful, violent way to bully people who are or who are perceived as mentally disabled. You know, retards.

      The author may be “whining about verbs” but it has been demonstrated time and time again that language is a powerful tool that has and is used to oppress people and, in some instances, can be used to incite violence.

      Go walk up to a (perceived heterosexual) guy and call him a fag, or a sissy-boy, or a nancy-boy. Tell him he throws like a girl. See what happens, and then tell me language isn’t powerful.

    • “Sexual assault is a serious problem but we don’t combat it by whining about verbs. We combat it by informing ladies on how to avoid circumstances where they may be raped and informing men how they can help, and what things they can do to avoid becoming a target of a rape accusation (whether it’s true or not).”

      Notice how this entire paragraph doesn’t contain one little mention of “teaching men/people in general NOT TO RAPE”? Thanks, Mr. Rape Prevention Expert, for informing us that we prevent sexual assault by hiding away and never walking home alone. You obviously know so little about what would actually prevent sexual violence that I’m fairly sure we can safely dismiss everything else you have said.

    • I know this is old, but please tell me how old ladies avoid rape? Married women avoid rape in marriage? What was wrong with the jeans, pullover, winter coat and boots I was wearing? I didn’t know the guy, just someone i got taking to in the local family pub. I had just left my first husband who had been my only partner until then.

      Get this clear, no woman asks or deserves to be raped. It’s not because a guy can’t control himself when he sees a woman hie fancies or a woman dressed in any particular way, it’s about power and control. Trivialising rape by using it as a joke like above or frape etc, or saying it’s a woman’s fault is dangerous, it makes it less serious than it is, it tells young men it’s ok if she was asking for it, it tells women they’re not worth anything or allowed to say no. It tells others that they don’t need to take a woman seriously when she said she we raped. I’ve been told I wasn’t raped because it didn’t get to court and only a judge can say it was rape.

  8. The statue is called The Rape of the Sabine Women. There are other statues like it, but you can read about this one:

    • USMC Limey says:

      Thanks, I actually learned something and actually chuckled a little that the Rape of the Sabine women had absolutely nothing to do with Sexual assault. They were abducted (some might say liberated) from the Sabines.

      Very appropriate picture, just not in the way that the author intended I think.

  9. Natalie Rose says:

    I cannot say “thank you” enough for writing this article. For years this has made me nuts, and for years I’ve been told to “calm down” and “stop being so over-sensitive” when it’s clear to me that the problem is a lack of sensitivity regarding rape. Rape is horrifying, and if you’re a survivor, sometimes the word itself is enough to be triggering. That was the case for me. I was raped as a small child, and threatened with death if I ever told, so even hearing the word “rape” was traumatic for me for years. I couldn’t say it, I couldn’t look at it, and I felt like I wanted to die when I heard it, especially when some classmates of mine would horse around and then make jokes that they were raping each other. It’s disgusting, it’s disrespectful, and it’s unkind. Rhetoric has real power– think before you speak.

    And thank you again.

  10. If you are advocating to stop the use of rape for trivial use, you should also mention the power of a simple word like “kill”. When I hear “I’m going to kill myself,” or “I’m going to kill you,” these words don’t have much a meaning until it is the motive that is the power. So, when you talk about the word “rape” being disturbing because a test is going to “rape” her, you shouldn’t take such plight to write about it, and take into account how mostly everything is trivialized nowadays and it shouldn’t matter unless she was actually going to get raped tomorrow morning. By the way, men get raped to, by women, so please don’t make “rape” a women thing.

  11. This post makes a really great point. I’m in high school too and I am always really taken aback by the overuse of the word “rape.” Obviously no one is thinking about what they are really saying when they use the word rape in these contexts, but it is still pretty disturbing. I think it all boils down to the lack of women’s studies and sexual violence education in high schools. These issues need to be talked about, and not in the context of a joke. Awareness needs to be raised about these issues, and it is up to us to make it happen!

    I am starting a zine called Grrrl Beat and am looking for contributors! More information here:

  12. Just this summer I found myself dis-invited to a fourth of July barbecue over this issue. I was hanging out with a friend of mine and some people I knew but didn’t know well. One of the boys turned to my friend and made a comment about how the two of them plus two of their female friends were going to this intense party the next week. He said something along the lines of “we have to be there to make sure Heather and Sarah don’t get raped, but I need you there with me to make sure I do.”

    I have also heard rape used in forms like “that midterm totally raped me up the butt” by my college classmates. But this stood out for me because in the same breath this boy mentioned rape in the traditional context and then used it cavalierly as a synonym for “sex.”

    I called him out on it, trying my damnedest to keep my cool as I pointed out that rape is not comedy, no matter what Judd Apotaw says. Eventually I saw it going nowhere and dropped it. The next day I got a call from my friend saying that he felt it would be “more comfortable” for everyone if I didn’t come that night after I had yelled at Chris.

  13. This is just like kids saying things are gay, to mean its bad. That implies that being gay is bad. Same thing when someone says rape and laughs. If they get raped, they wont be laughing anymore.

  14. Those who use the word they really take it as joke.May be they don’t realize the impact of using this word.Anyhow this type of word should be prohibited.

  15. Saying a certain connotation of a word that is used variously and has been historicallly used variously is its ACTUAL meaning is not correct.

  16. Thank you! I’ve been hearing it too and it shocked and upset me also. I heard a girl yesterday saying how she wasn’t gentle with her hair extensions and she said “I’ve like literally raped my extensions” I sat with my mouth opened pondering ask her if she realised what she had just said! I get sick of people joking about it too. It’s a serious and horrifying crime and should never be used so lightly. Thank you for posting this and helping me realise I wasn’t just being oversensitive! Lets hope it doesn’t carry on! 🙂

  17. Shahin Larhnimi says:

    I feel like slang words lose the original meaning and that people just say words because it sounds a certain way. For some reason, people do believe that words like that are “cool.” Noticed from my own experience, teenagers usually do not mean to say what certain words actually mean, and try to make excuses to justifying it by explaining that it is only a joke or that they did not mean it like that etc . As Valerie pointed out; “I can’t get used to casually hearing about anyone being raped. I never want to feel comfortable with that usage of the word.” When people use these words more, such as rape and murder, others accept it and it becomes casual, like nothing is wrong with it.

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