So, I’m going to hit you with a headline, and you can tell me if anything seems “off” about it. Ready?
Here it is: “Woman Uses Machete to Force Ex-Boyfriend to Have Sex.”
I know, they could have thrown an “allegedly” in there. But put that aside for a moment. What about these headlines below?
How bizarre. There is surely a more specific word for what (allegedly) happened here. The forcing of non-consensual sex, with or without a weapon as terrifying as a machete, would seem to meet the criteria for “rape.” So why don’t the media phrase it that way?
Even the Washington Post falls into the rape-erasing formula: “Montana Woman with Machete Hides Behind Ex-Boyfriend’s Door, Then Forces Sex on Him, Police Say.”
This starts to make more sense when you realize that the woman in question wasn’t even charged with rape, but aggravated burglary and assault with a weapon. As far as a court is concerned, the sex was secondary. That’s likely because although the Justice Department modified its definition of rape in 2012 to be gender-neutral — none other than FBI Director Robert Mueller III was responsible for that change — the crime still only encompasses “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person.”
Legally, then, it sounds as if only the person doing the penetrating can be accused of rape.
And the appearance of “force” in the headlines above carries an ironic sting, because Mueller’s 2012 update was motivated in part by objections to the misguided idea that rape is categorically a matter of force and resistance; the old definition, aside from suggesting women alone can be victims, included the word “forcibly,” which is not the same as “without consent.”
Yet the Montana case embodied both circumstances, as well as any broader description of rape provided by experts other than law enforcement. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example: “Unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will…”
No wonder those articles sound so euphemistic, or give one the impression that a victim’s erection forecloses the possibility of rape. Police can’t charge a woman with raping a man unless she penetrated his anus or put a “sex organ” in his mouth. Therefore, journalists have no technical grounds to label it rape when a woman is arrested for allegedly breaking into a man’s home with a machete and making him have intercourse under physical threat.
This whitewashing of a serious physical violation only reinforces the problematic assumptions that plague the conversation around male victims of sexual assault. That’s not good for anyone, and it’s definitely bad for the men struggling to even recognize that they’ve been abused this way.
To say a woman “forced sex” on a man gives oxygen to the false premise that if sex happens at all, the man must be enjoying it—or that he’s literally incapable of refusing intercourse. While this isn’t exactly comparable to the oppressive culture of injustice and fear that makes the far greater number of female victims feel powerless and silenced, we nonetheless owe these men an honest accounting for their trauma. After all, there are more of them than you think.
But apart from tweaking the Justice Department’s terminology again, along with a shift in how these crimes are prosecuted, newspapers are caught in a bind, forced to refrain from calling some rapes what they clearly are.
The rest of us should commit to more accurate language.