Friday, August 14, 2009

Victims don't "get raped": on blaming, passivity, and verbs


One of the significant benefits of working from home is that I can do whatever the hell I want while I'm writing. Eat peanut butter crackers, have conversations with myself or my cat, TV. I love television, and I often watch television on DVD with commentary on while I'm working. Typically, this ends up being "Lost", but lately it's been Mad Men. I love the commentary on Mad Men because there are two for every episodes, and all of those commenting - actors, set designers, show runners, writers - are articulate and insightful.

Today I was watching Christina Hendricks' and Robert Morse's commentary on the penultimate episode of season two, in which Joan is raped by her doctor fiance. It's a very careful and well-constructed scene, and difficult to watch, and in the commentary and in this interview, Hendricks is articulate:
The rape was a shocker—but the audience reactions were perhaps more disturbing. “What’s astounding is when people say things like, ‘Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?’ Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers,” says Hendricks. “I’m like, ‘What is that you are doing? Joan got raped!’ It illustrates how similar people are today, because we’re still questioning whether it’s a rape. It’s almost like, ‘Why didn’t you just say bad date?'”
Let me say something as a disclaimer - I am not criticizing Hendricks here. I'm rather showing how people how are articulately and actively anti-rape use problematic language.

Here's the thing:

We really need to stop saying that people "got raped".

People were raped. Joan was raped.

No one "gets raped". Rape victims are raped by other people. There is no "getting" involved.

To get involves agency. To get means it is welcome. To get means something is sought.

You get presents for Christmas.

You get or don't get the job you want.

I get to go to a concert tomorrow.

I try to "get it" when thinking about cis, het, white, able, thin privilege.

I usually don't use the dictionary to make arguments, but I think it's valuable in establishing what get means and why it's not the same as using verbs of being and doing (was and were). Get means:
1. to receive or come to have possession, use, or enjoyment of: to get a birthday present; to get a pension.
This is where the verbal construction "get raped" comes from. But it's a specific context of getting something that is enjoyed or wanted - not something awful, not something you do not, do not, do not, want, not something that will haunt you.
2. to cause to be in one's possession or succeed in having available for one's use or enjoyment; obtain; acquire: to get a good price after bargaining; to get oil by drilling; to get information.
Already, get means "to seek". Women don't look to acquire rape. Men don't succeed in being raped.
3. to go after, take hold of, and bring (something) for one's own or for another's purposes; fetch: Would you get the milk from the refrigerator for me?
Again, rape is never pursued or wanted. It's not fetched - it's forced.
4. to cause or cause to become, to do, to move, etc., as specified; effect: to get one's hair cut; to get a person drunk; to get a fire to burn; to get a dog out of a room.
See what I'm talking about? Being raped is not getting drunk. Victims don't take their accuser into their body past their comfort level - their bodies are forced into.

We must stop using passive language when talking about rape victims. When we say that women and men "get raped", our language is constructed as such that we are saying that men and women who are raped are asking for it, that it was their responsibility to not be raped. "Get raped" implies they looked for it, wanted it. It implies complicity, and never violence. It's a victim-blaming construction, and it needs to stop. "Get raped" constructs the victim as the gatekeeper towards sexual violence, and not the victim.

And this applies to other forms of violence - they are not sought or requested - they're done to a victim. People don't get shot, or get murdered. They are shot and are murdered.

Now, listen. Please don't take this personally. I'm not saying that you think rape is awesome or blame victims if you have said that women "get raped". This is an ingrained and socially constructed phrase that we've been taught is okay to use. Even while I was writing this very piece, I wrote: "People don't succeed in getting raped." I'm asking you to think about your language in the future, and the implications of this phrase.

The next time you talk about rape, use your verbs to place the onus for rape on the perpetrator. Don't implicate the victim. Use the active language of "were" and "was" to make sure the person you're speaking to understand who's responsible for rape - and who is not.

Further Reading:
Teaching Rape
Rape is not sex: framing and language in assault
Porn & Rape (via Ariel of Feministing on Twitter)


  1. Well written and completely spot-on. I love Mad Men, and I found this one of the most disturbing scenes in Season Two, played beautifully by Hendricks.

  2. This language issues has so far completely slipped past my radar, so I really appreciate this post. I think part of the reason for that is I don't tend to use this phrase myself, but I will definitely be intentional now about not using it!

    BTW I followed you here from my blog so it's the first time I've seen yours--love the background image!

  3. And even then, we could take this one step further and say, "Well, there was another person involved in the rape, so let's NOT use the passive language "was raped." Instead, let's say something along the lines of: 'Today, I was watching Christina Hendricks' and Robert Morse's commentary on the penultimate episode of season in, in which Joan's doctor fiance rapes her.'" That way, we attribute the verb "rape" to the person who committed the rape, instead of placing it on the rape survivor. Just some food for thought!

  4. Thanks for the thoughts, all! simplesavvy, great point.

  5. Thanks for these very good points. I especially appreciate knowing that the cast members of Mad Men are disturbed by the problematic responses of their viewers (I haven't seen the commentary reels).

    I have not always thought of the word "get" as being associated with good things. We get sick, fired, drunk, run over by buses, etc., as well as getting presents and jobs. I agree with you and simplesavvy that the main problem with the verb "to get" in this context is that it removes the rapist from the discussion and thus minimizes the assault.

  6. A really nasty side effect of poor language framing can be the subconscious use of it against oneself. If the horrific ever happened and someone raped someone else. The victim, if they used that kind of language, would already have a subconscious mountain to climb just based around their language to avoid self blame, not even factoring in the culture of slut shaming, rape normalization and the social training to be submissive and not fight.

    (Note: I had to rewrite twice because I have the same linguistic problem XD)

    Another problematic issue of "get" is that it neutralizes the directional nature of something. When you say you "got fired" you're removing any implication that someone actually fired you. It's treating it as an isolated naturalistic event. Like a simple cause and effect, not someone with agency, control and power using it to inflict the verb in question.

    It removes the rapist from the equation and one should always remember the rapist's responsibility and how that person failed in self control and the treatment of others.

  7. For the past few months, I have been pointedly avoiding the passive voice when it comes to rape. Even if I have to simply say "a man raped ____", that is how I choose to phrase it. Saying a woman "got raped" makes it easy to gloss over the disturbing fact that SOMEONE RAPED HER.

    Thank you so much for this post!

  8. When I'd read that comment previously the word 'got' irked me but I hadn't even considered it in the context you present, oddly I'd thought it was just an American phrasing (not negatively) 'got' seems a bit relaxed whilst still trying to make a point whereas 'was' is quite assertive & definite. Maybe it's another symptom of making a point whilst trying not to be the 'scary assertive woman'

  9. As Simplesavvy and Jessica point out, we need to start saying "X raped Y." Y didn't rape hirself and we need to stop letting X off the hook. It's the difference between saying "Mathilde kicked the football" and "the football was kicked," "mistakes were made" and "I made a mistake."

    I wrote my thesis on how the media talked about Chris Brown's assaulting Rihanna and throughout the entire thing, it was such a struggle for me to continually frame it as Chris Brown's assault and not Rihanna's, but it is an extremely important distinction. It gets a little more natural to say after a while, but people are still made uncomfortable by hearing it-- they are so accustomed to a linguistic invisibility for perpetrators of violence.

  10. I disagree with your analysis of "got", even though I agree with the larger point that the passive voice itself is problematic here.

    We *do* say people get killed, get shot, get murdered, get beaten up, get sick, get fired, get their fool ass kicked, et cetera. "get" simply doesn't mean what you claim it does; it's just a way of phrasing things in the passive voice so as to add emphasis. You can get asked a question, you can get run over by a car, you can get shouted at, and so forth.

    So there's nothing wrong with "got raped" that is not also wrong with "was raped". The problem isn't that got implies something that you actively wanted (it *can* be used to imply something that you brought on yourself, but it's actually so common in describing any kind of violence it doesn't have that implication unless surrounded by a context, such as derogatory terms applied to the person who 'got' attacked, that would suggest it.) It's that "a woman got raped" erases the fact that a man raped her.

    Now, in the case of "Joan got raped", I'm not even sure that applies. Joan is the important character here. "Joan's fiance raped her" applies more importance to Joan's fiance's action than to the effect on her, because he's the subject of the sentence. In this case, Joan is the person being talked about, and that's the best use of the passive voice. Where "women get raped" drives me nuts is in constructions talking about such abstractions as the rate of rape, or the likelihood of rape, or general discussions of rape, where saying "women get raped" really does focus solely on the effect of the rape on the women and totally erases the agency of the men who are doing the raping, implying that rape is a force of nature that just happens.

    It may be that the dictionary says that "got" implies something being obtained, but we don't use it that way; we use "got" as synonymous with "was" in the passive voice all the time, whether it's positive, negative or neutral. You never heard "got defeated" or "got fired"? So I can't see any victim blaming in the way this was phrased. But in general the passive voice to describe rape is highly problematic whether "was" or "got" is used.

  11. Great post, wonderful attention to detail.

    I also agree with Alara Rogers point that the language erases the perpetrator.

  12. This is a really good point about language! Awesome post.

    I think I'm coming down on the side of passive voice too. I think, however, that our over-use of passive voice (especially as women), is completely problematic.

    As one of my professors put it, passive voice is the 10 year old way of dealing with things: it relieves responsibility. "Um...the vase got broken." (As opposed to "I broke the vase." Although I think a kid would probably say "The vase broke", which is not passive voice, but IS blaming the vase! I don't think there's actually a way to say that about rape though.)

    Much of the time, we - especially women, and/or especially about uncomfortable subjects - are socialized to also do this: we don't like to blame other people in our speech.

  13. All, thanks for elaborating and strengthening this point!

    Alara, I'm standing by my argument regarding "got" as specific word choice - there's usually (though not always, as you point out) a positive dimension to it, and I think the sense of agency and seeking is especially important. "Got fired" or "got defeated" does have some level of agency - presumably one was fired for a reason, and one was also defeated for a reason. My argument regarding "got shot" is the same as "got raped" - it's a problematic and victim blaming construction.

    But I agree with you (and Wallflower and DS) - I think that you're right, we need to say X raped Y as often as possible and instead of "Y was raped by X".

    However, I don't think it's always possible to clarify the parties involved - when we're speaking of rape in a systematic sense, or when anonymity is a question. In those cases, I think "was raped" is appropriate. Or do you have another suggestion?

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  16. Whoops - I just reiterated every comment on here! Deleting repetitive comment.


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