“You keep using that word.

I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Princess Bride


There was an article in The New York Times recently about Virginia Woolf.  Her half-brothers sexually abused her, and part of the article dealt with the use of the word survivor to describe people who’ve been victims of sexual abuse or sexual assault.  It said of the term survivor,

“what once felt radical has blossomed into a rhetoric of almost mandatory heroism.”

I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

I’m a writer, so I’m fascinated by the words we use and the way we say things.  I choose my words and my phrasing very carefully. That means I also have strong (ahem) opinions on the words and phrasing of other people.

Mary and I went back and forth about what to name our organization.  We finally settled on Say It, Survivor (which was Mary’s brilliant suggestion) because it embodied empowerment, reclaiming our stories, and the acronym -SIS- made me inordinately happy.

And also because we DID.  We did survive.

I didn’t use the word survivor to describe myself until a little over a year ago, long after it became the popular turn of phrase.  The reason?  The jury was still out.  I wasn’t entirely sure I would survive my abuse, even though it was over three decades ago.

a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.

We use the word survivor because not everybody does.  Not everybody survives.

In the past couple of days, there has been a lot of talk about rape culture, survivors, consent and privilege.  In the wake of the Brock Turner verdict there is outrage, and understandably so.  Then, of course, in response to that outrage, in reply to those demands for change, there has been pushback.

I had a guy on Twitter last night respond to a tweet I sent regarding Ann Voskamp’s beautiful post about raising boys.  I pointed out that we are not APART from rape culture, we are a PART OF IT.  All of us, to varying degrees.  The gentleman came back with, “define rape culture please. Sounds like a leftist feminist phrase.”


After I stopped laughing, and after I typed and deleted several seriously snarky tweets, I simply responded with the definition- that it is the ways in which society blames victims of sexual assault and normalizes sexual violence.

Because that’s what it means.  Words and expressions have meanings, and there are a few that have been trotted out a fair bit the past couple of days that have me fired up.  The thing that so unsettles me is that they are being used, for the most part, by really well-intentioned people.

I have an issue with the term consensual sex.  Why, you ask?  Because by stipulating sex is consensual you imply there is another kind.  There isn’t.  Sex and rape are not the same thing.  Not even close.

It’s like saying applying for a loan to buy a house is a ‘consensual’ mortgage to distinguish it from guys storming into the local bank and waving uzis under the teller’s nose demanding she empty the safe into a bag.  Except for consent they’re exactly the same thing, right?  They both involve large quantities of cash leaving the bank into someone else’s possession, right?  Same/same.  Except, NO.  They AREN’T.

Why don’t bank robbers just walk in the front door, faces exposed, unarmed and apply for a loan?  Why does anyone ever get shot in a robbery anymore- tellers are trained to hand over the money.  They could just SAY they had a gun or a bomb, in all likelihood the bank employees would comply.  Why the stealing and the hiding and the terrorizing?

Because the TAKING is the POINT.  The TERROR is the POINT.

Sex is a union between two people, both of whom consent and benefit.

We are missing the point with the way we’re talking about consent.  Consent is not even an option in rape, because the lack of consent?  In most cases, it’s the POINT.  The lack of consent is the point of rape.

It’s not as though, “Gee, but for the fact that she didn’t (COULDN’T) give consent they’d have been having some lovely sex.  Behind a dumpster.  In public.”  That ignores the fact that the primary motivation for rapists is violence, control and domination.  Consent is not only not a factor, it’s a deal breaker.

And another thing.

I read an article yesterday that was mostly quite good.  It covered the verdict and the reaction to it.  In what was undoubtedly an attempt to draw attention to the ghastly inadequacy of the half year sentence, it basically said ‘he got six months and she got a life sentence.’

Now, I’m a writer.  I understand the WHY.  It’s a nifty little turn of phrase, playing off the verdict, intended to underscore both the severity of the impact on her and the joke of a sentence he received.

I also read two articles that said in no uncertain terms that her life was “ruined.”  I think I may have actually gasped when I read that.

Please, for the love of all that is holy, stop.  Do not say those things.

When you are in the aftermath of sexual assault, when you are newly traumatized, it feels relentless and never-ending. You can’t conceive of a time when you will move through a day not startling at loud noises or waking up in a panic.  It’s inconceivable you might fall in love again one day.  That you might not view your body as a crime scene.  That you won’t relive your trauma, in real time, over and over on a loop.

Declaring that this young woman, this incredible, resilient young woman, has been handed a life sentence is akin to saying:

“The way you feel right now? It’s forever. This pain? Forever. This shame? Forever. This fear? Forever. This anger? Forever. You are damaged goods. Forever. Sleepless nights? Forever. These triggers? Forever. Flashbacks? Forever.”

When you are still in the direct aftermath you cannot conceive of ever healing or moving past what has been done to you, and well-intentioned but HARMFUL statements like I’ve been reading all day feed into that notion.

Saying her life is ruined gives her rapist the final say over her life.  He does not get that, and NEITHER DO WE.  When we tell her this is a life sentence- WE are attaching shame to her experience and that means WE ARE RAPE CULTURE.

To that brave young woman, I would like to say this:

This is not your life.  This is your life right now.  And it is so hard.  I know.  It’ll be hard for a while- but you are a survivor.  We already know this about you.

You can heal after rape. You can reclaim your story. You can have a good life and be loved. You CAN. It does NOT have to be a life sentence.  Your rapist does not get to decide that for you, and neither do we.

13 Comments on “Sentences

  1. THIS. Yes – all this.

    “Because by stipulating sex is consensual you imply there is another kind. There isn’t.”

    YES. And your words of life to this amazingly strong, brave survivor – AMEN.


  2. Moved. I am so incredibly MOVED by this.

    ‘The lack of consent is the point of rape’ – YES. True, so true. What a fantastic essay.


  3. You are brilliant and I love your writing. It speaks to me so deeply. Thank you for a pertinent and well-articulated post.


  4. Great thoughts. I just have one observation and I don’t mean to be picky because girls are far more often the victims of sexual abuse and deserve all the help they can get. That being said the almost forgotten population is boys. My mother turned me over to her brother for 8 years from age 6 to 14. Though that was 50 years ago and I have “survived” avoiding the most common pitfalls abused children experience (self medication …) there has been little in the way of support. Back then my teachers and doctors ignored the signs and today there are still few resources to turn to. I guess what I want to add to your observations (and I feel the need to add this because what you say for girls is so good) is that both girls and boys can heal and while the level of support can be a factor, healing depends as much on the inner resolve to allow yourself to be healed regardless of gender.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re absolutely right- boys are raped and sexually abused and our culture does not talk about it enough. This piece is about the WAY we talk about it, and given our silence on the male victim experience, yes- this piece does focus on women. I am generally careful to include both genders when I speak of victims- I referenced gender the way I did in this piece because I was referring to the Brock Turner case, in which the victim was female and the perpetrator was male. Typically when we talk about rape even if the victim is a boy, the perpetrator is still almost always male – but there are female predators as certainly as there are male victims and that is certainly worth mentioning.

      I am so terribly sorry you were harmed in that way, and that you are owning your story. I think it’s particularly important for male survivors to do so.


  5. Beautifully said. I had the same reaction to the “life sentence” phrase that I kept hearing people apply to this story. I also rankle when statutory rape is described as a “sexual relationship,” and I hate that sexual assault and abuse survivors like us are said to have “admitted” this fact of their history. We have nothing to admit, just a brutal truth we may choose to share or not. Thank you for pointing out the importance of words. xox

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. We recently had a case where I live in which a local paper reported that a teacher pled guilty to having a sexual relationship with a thirteen year old boy. No. That’s not a ‘relationship’ it’s repeated rape. And the ‘admitted’ thing makes me crazy. There is so much implied guilt in that. Eeesh. There’s so much work to be done.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We’ve had a couple of local cases with the same inaccurate reporting earlier this year. One involved a female school counselor who had “an inappropriate relationship” with two different teenage boys. One of those students said he knew of others.

        It continues to tick me off that various similar stories say that reports were made to various school entities, who may or may not have reported it to law enforcement. Every adult in Indiana is a mandated reporter.

        Liked by 1 person

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