A Letter From The Opinions Editor To Public Safety: There Is No Such Thing As Non-consensual Sex… There Is Only Rape

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Mary McLoughlin
Opinions Editor

This morning, UD students woke up to a public safety advisory email reporting that “At approximately 1:00 am on September 3, 2018 a female student reported a sexual assault at an unknown location in the student neighborhood. The student reported that a male who was not known to her engaged her in conversation while walking in the south student neighborhood. The suspect then took her behind a house and forced her to engage in non-consensual sex.”

I was horrified to hear about the violence that occurred on campus last night, but I was also horrified reading how that violence was reported, specifically that last line. A woman did not “engage in non-consensual sex.” A man raped her. There is no such thing as non-consensual sex. Sex is something that happens between people and something that only occurs when there’s consent.

When there’s no consent, it’s rape.

Public safety’s use of “non-consensual sex” is more than just a troubling oxymoron—this language distorts the inherent nature of rape. Any person being forced to do an act is not engaging in it. Therefore, a woman having a sexual act forced onto her is not engaging in sex. Public safety should not be using participatory language such as “engaged” when the criminality of rape is rooted in the very lack of consent and participation that words like “engaged” undermines.

If a woman was robbed last night, I’m certain we wouldn’t have woken up to an email about a criminal who “forced her to engage in non-consensual gift-giving.” In terms of theft, we know that a non-consensual exchange of any kind is fundamentally different than the consensual version. Likewise, when someone is assaulted in a non-sexual nature, we don’t say she “engaged in her assault.” But when it comes to sex and sexual assault, we’re less likely to use language that draws a firm enough distinction. It may be less jarring to report on rape in terms of non-consensual sex, but the passivity of this description changes nature of the crime at its core.

Public safety must respond to rape with language that correctly responds to the nature of rape, no matter how uncomfortable. This is the first step to rejecting a culture that normalizes rape.

I’m not just a riled up English major being nit-picky about word choice here—language matters. The words we use transform the way we react to any situation. In our age of #MeToo, it can be easy to normalize rape by creating a false spectrum of problematic and non-problematic sex. When we describe sex as non-consensual, we imply the problem is that rapists are having sex in the wrong way. The truth is, rapists are not having sex at all.

With so much of the national conversation dominated by discussions of rape alongside conversations of legitimate sexual activity, it’s too easy to treat rape as an unethical but inevitable part of sexual activity. It’s not. A lack of consent does more than just make an act of sex wrong—it stops the act from being sex at all. Rape is inherently different than sexual activity, and this means we need to treat rape as distinct from just bad sex.

Describing rape as sex without consent ignores the reality that sex only exists when consent exists. If this campus wants to be serious about ending and preventing rape and sexual-assault, we need to recognize that there is no sex that’s non-consensual. In the future, I urge public safety to use language that forefronts this distinction. We need to talk about rape is an active act perpetrated against a victim, not something the victim engages in.

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