Has The Word “Rape” Been Stripped Of Its Power?

Confession. Sometimes when I go on a really successful shopping binge at, say, a store like Charlotte Russe, where I literally pilfer the racks of all their amazing awesomeness, I’ll declare, “I totally raped the Russe today.” Yes, raped.

I am not the only person who uses the word “rape” to describe something other than sexual assault. Mikki Halpin says the word is rapidly becoming a popular term within pop culture, from Taylor Kitsch on “Friday Night Lights” using it to describe a bad audition and viewer assessments of Jon Stewart’s critique of Jim Cramer’s financial predictions. She writes:

“Increasingly, rape is used to describe experiences such as a sports loss, a poor score on a video game, or being on the losing end of a business deal. Again, these are all unpleasant experiences, but none rise to the level of what rape truly means.”

I don’t think the way I used it is any better. Halpin believes the term should only be used the way the dictionary defines it: “The unlawful compelling of a woman through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse,” or, the second definition, the same act committed on a man.

It reminds Amy Benfer of “the many ways in which the word ‘gay’ has been misused to describe everything from a crappy-looking shirt to kids who don’t seem to fit in with cultural norms.” She points out that the casual use is often used to imply a defeat that leaves the victim/loser shamed and humiliated, and this is indicative of a larger problem with the way people view sexual assault victims — as if they have something to be ashamed of.

I have a problem with men using the word in a casual way. Sure, men can experience rape, too, but it’s not nearly as common as it is for women. I’m pretty sure Chicken Parm doesn’t walk home late at night clutching a key in his fist in case some perv follows him into his building vestibule and tries to sexually assault him.

Most women I know, on the other hand, have one eye peeled for weirdos when they’re headed home alone at night. In that sense, I am less offended by women using the word rape because we’re the ones who live in fear of being the “one in four,” and perhaps it’s a way of taking that fear back and making it less daunting and scary. Sarah Silverman has made a career out of joking about rape (among other things) — to some, she’s hysterical. To others, she’s intolerable. Of course, I’ve never been raped. I might feel differently if I had been. That’s why I would never say, “I totally raped the Russe” in mixed company. You never know who you might offend or hurt unintentionally.

Regardless, I probably won’t take the phrase out of my vernacular entirely, despite Halpin’s totally valid argument. But I do agree that casual use of the word “rape” is something that should not become commonplace in mainstream media — Jon Stewart shouldn’t say it and neither should the pretty boy from “Friday Night Lights.” It’s disturbing that date rape, for example, has become so acceptable, thanks to movies like “Observe & Report.” Combine that with mainstream news anchors, comedians, and TV hunks using the word to describe bad business advice and job mess-ups, headlines about absolutely pathetic rape kit laws, and depressingly low rape conviction statistics, and it all adds up to a culture that desperately wants to avoid addressing the seriousness of sexual assault.