Don’t Call it a “Sex Scandal”: Rape is a Violent Crime

In response to an article in The Atlantic Wire, Kate Harding tweeted: “Once more with feeling: Rape allegations are not a ‘sex scandal.’ They are a violent crime scandal.”

The article in question concerns French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. DSK has already been charged with numerous allegations of sexual assault, as The Atlantic has previously reported on. Now he is being accused of gang-raping a Belgian sex-worker in 2010. The Atlantic article however equates this latest accusation of a violent crime with a “sex scandal”:

Sometimes we just wish Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his sex scandals would vanish from the news cycle. He probably does too, considering the fact there are new accusations coming out today that he allegedly gang-raped a Belgian prostitute in D.C.hotel in 2010.

Gang rape, or any form of rape, may involve a sexual act, but it is not itself sex. It is an act of violence. Reporting that equates allegations of rape with a sex scandal perpetuate the myth that rape is about sex, when in reality it is about power.

Last year, media coverage of the accusations of sexual harassment made against DSK were reported alongside coverage of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infidelities and child with a member of his household staff. Kate Pittman at Loose Garments described the conflation of these two events’ similarities as an indication that we do not consider crimes involving sexual violence a serious matter:

Conflating these two events frames the sexual assault charges as something other than what they are, criminal violence.  Dominique Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty.   But discussing this alleged crime using terms like “sexual antics” and “sex scandal” illustrates that socially, we still do not take crimes involving sexual acts as seriously as other crimes.

The L Magazine also talked about the harmful consequences of labeling allegations of rape or sexual abuse as “sex scandals” in light of Penn State’s so-called “sex scandal.” Last fall, numerous media outlets discussed the accusations child rape made against Penn State coach as a “sex scandal,” but a non-consensual act of a sexual nature committed against a child should in no way be conflated as sex.  It should not fall into the same category as a story about a politician having a child out of wedlock by, what appears to be, consensual sex between him and his housekeeper. Putting an act of violence in the category of a sex scandal only appears to lessen the crime, which, as L Magazine describes, has harmful consequences:

Calling rape a sex scandal reinforces the idea that it’s equally bad to get caught messing around on your wife as it is to rape someone. I know there are people out there who are like oh, it’s just language, quit quibbling, politically correct blah blah blah. But language matters. It’s how we understand the world around us, and every time somebody minimizes rape or apologizes for a rapist, they make it that much easier for some other person out there to think he or she can get away with rape.

Language is not innocent; it is in part because of this language that we live in a culture where “college football is more important than children not being sexually abused.” Our language should reflect how  serious and harmful a crime rape is, not treat it like tabloid fodder.

Thank you Kate Harding, for reminding us again: Rape allegations are not a “sex scandal.” They are a violent crime.

DSK’s Pimping Scandal Now Has a D.C. Gang Rape Allegation [The Atlantic Wire]

New Sex Allegations Against Strauss-Kahn [NY Times]

Rape is not a “Sex Scandal” [Loose Garments]

What Happened at Penn State is Not a Sex Scandal [The L Magazine]

2 comments
  1. Erin Kathleen Sands said:

    No one needs to explain this to anyone. It is being reshaped by the foxes charged with guarding the chickens.

  2. alessia said:

    Dear Emily, thanks very much for your post. I obviousely agree with your view and I very much see the problem in labelling rape as a “sex scandal”. As you said, rape should never be associated with sex. My doubt, though, is: is it right to refer to rape as sexual assault, sexual violence, sexual abuse and so on? Isn’t the existence of these ready-made “labels” just another way to stress the “sexual” aspect of the violence, rather than the violence, humiliation and power abuse which are involved in it? I myself can’t think of any other alternative, apart from rape of course, but I was just wondering whether it would make sense to avoid using these labels in order to change the perspective in which rape is seen, focusing on the abuse rather than on the sexual aspect, which, as we know, is just the means to domination.

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