Now would appear to be the opportune moment to discuss the rape-specific aspect of the general euphemism treadmill phenomenon. This pretty much always happens but it’s been especially difficult to avoid lately. Basically, rape-culture-related claims are always described as one level less severe than what they really are. Rape gets euphemised as sexual assault, assault becomes harassment, harassment becomes “inappropriate misconduct” or some shit, and everything else basically falls off the map.
There are a few reasons why this is more than typical bourgeois overpoliteness. The first is the general instinct to soften claims against powerful people. It’s not exactly news that society is built around flattering the prejudices of elites, but there’s an ideological tilt to it as well: pretty much everyone gives benefit of the doubt in proportion to how powerful the target already is. Naturally, this is backwards. Claims against powerful people are automatically going to be downplayed simply by virtue of that fact; that’s pretty much what being powerful means. So it’s much safer to err on the side of viciousness, since there’s basically no chance a powerful person is ever going to face consequences that are too severe relative to their behavior (especially since they should all just be killed a priori). For example, the Iraq War is usually described as a “mistake” or “quagmire” or something along those lines, when the truth is that even “catastrophe” is far too genteel – what it actually was, and still is, is a war crime. People have literally been executed for less. But calling it a war crime isn’t going to bring Bush any closer to a guillotine, so if anything the correct move is to overstate the case just to push the envelope further in that direction (assuming there’s actually a way to overstate “war of aggression”). Being skittish about this completely defeats the purpose of bringing up the issue in the first place. Just throw the punch.
But this type of euphemism also plays an important role in rape culture specifically. One of the key aspects of rape culture is an implicit denial of not just the severity of particular cases of abuse, but of sexual violence as a concept. People sometimes like to say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a person, but once the issue actually comes up it’s clear that they don’t really believe it. Typical excuses are frequently things like “she was being a tease” or “he’s a guy, he couldn’t help himself” or “what did she expect, doing <insert literally any action>”, and in cases of obvious guilt the lines become things like “she was acting friendly with him afterwards, so it couldn’t have been that bad” or “it’s not worth ruining his life over.” What’s notable about these arguments is not just that they’re always bullshit, but that they’re extremely weak. Swap murder in for rape and even vaguely implying any of these things would make you look like a straight up sociopath. After all, if someone has an “instinctive desire” to say, kill people and eat them, and if the victim of such a person “brought it on themselves” by acting carelessly, we don’t consider that to be any kind of excuse – if anything it just makes the person even more condemnable. In fact, these claims are so weak that they are only comprehensible at all if you are operating under the assumption that rape is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Even things like theft and adultery that are genuinely several orders of magnitude less harmful than rape don’t elicit these kinds of responses. We don’t always think they’re that big of a deal, but we address them with an appropriate level of seriousness.
So one of the functions of euphemisation is to uphold this order of values. This begins with the false distinction between “violent rape” (or, in Whoopi Goldberg’s famously idiotic formulation, “rape-rape”) and “date rape.” Since the entire thing about rape is that it’s physical coercion, a lack of injury doesn’t indicate a “less severe” type of rape any more than asphyxiation or poisoning are “less severe” types of murder. Rather, the fact that some rapes involve more bodily harm than others simply means that in those cases an additional crime is being committed – they’re cases of rape and also battery or murder. Euphemising some rapes as “sexual assaults” is one of the ways that people convince themselves that a distinction actually exists, when it doesn’t.
Other distinctions do of course exist – the proper use of the term “sexual assault” is to indicate situations involving physical coercion but not intercourse. (There is some slipperiness here, but it’s a direct result of the slipperiness in what counts as “sex” in general; the assault part is actually very straightforward by comparison.) In fact, groping, which often gets glossed as “harassment,” is actually worse than assault. Assault, legally, requires only a physical threat rather than actual contact – actual contact is called “battery,” hence the term “assault and battery,” because they’re different things, but when you punch someone you’re committing both of them. Groping is sexual battery. Louis C.K.’s actions – masturbating in front of people in situations they felt unable to exit due to intimidation – are correctly classified as sexual assault. Direct verbal intimidation – for example, walking up to someone on the street and telling them “what you’d like to do to them” – is not “creepy” but is in fact assault.
Continuing down the line, “harassment” means to impede someone by creating a hostile environment for them. For example, the extremely lame joke that that one Uber guy made during the Uber meeting about how Uber is totally going to start doing something about sexism was described as “sexist” and “inappropriate,” but what it actually was was harassment. The attitude that it expresses stifles women’s actions on the basis of their being women and creates an environment in which they cannot operate effectively. It wasn’t “tone-deaf” or “out of place,” it was actively harmful (or it would have been, had there been any non-extremely-rich women present).
It’s important to insist on the correct terms not just for the sake of conceptual accuracy, but because without them, the real issue drops out of the picture. The issue is not about sex; sex in these cases is the means by which dominance is exercised. This obviously results in a unique set of dynamics – sex is uniquely suitable for exercising dominance due to the fact the we conceptualize ordinary sex as dominance in the first place – but getting rid of the sex doesn’t get rid of the coercion. Precisely because the issue is not really about sex, men who “act appropriately” are nowhere near off the hook. Recognizing the conceptual gap between sex and dominance reveals the possibilities of being a filthy pervert who only gets off consensually, and also of being a prude whose ordinary non-sexual behavior oppresses women. The Mike Pence Strategy of not interacting with women in the first place is actually just as bad as the Harvey Weinstein Strategy of using women for your own gratification in the course of working on their careers, because both have the same practical effect of relegating women to second-class status and denying them access to power. (Honestly, while it’s not for me to say, the Weinstein approach could be considered the preferable alternative, because someone like that might actually end up helping your career in the course of otherwise being a shitbag, whereas someone like Pence simply has no role for you other than “Mother”.)
Thus, the net effect of this whole chain of expressions is to negate the part of each concept that relates to the actual problem. Rape folds into sex, assault folds into flirting, and harassment folds into jokes and banter, and in each case the true central dynamic – coercion and dominance – precipitates out of the solution. (By the way, there’s still room for umbrella terms such as “abuse” or “violence,” and in fact it’s important to these terms when grouping together behaviors like Weinstein’s and C.K.’s, so that you’re accurately generalizing rather than conflating distinct behaviors.) The importance of defining deviance upward is not just not respond to the issue with the appropriate ardency, but to respond to the part of the issue that is the actual issue.
Doing this requires arguing in terms that the Keepers of the Norms will dismiss as “extremist” and “hysterical” and “shrill” and “intemperate” and I could literally go on all day with this, also you should probably notice how many gatekeeping terms are simultaneously sexist insults. While we do, at long last, have a culture that actually talks about abuse, this should provide no comfort. In fact, it introduces a significant new danger: the conversation about abuse is being conducted on patriarchal terms, with the implicit goal of channeling outrage and placating anxiety without actually changing anything. Seeing yourself acting in accord with rich fucks is the number one red flag that your tactics are counterproductive.
It is therefore critical to draw a distinction between extremism, which is potentially justified depending on how big the problem in question really is, and inaccuracy, which is never justified by any amount of good intentions. Centrist op-ed assholes fucking love to conflate these things, but they’re entirely different. You can be a frothing ideologue while also being right, and you can be a polite even-hander who is wrong about literally everything. In the same sense, though, trying to overstate the issue as much as possible (such as if, hypothetically, you were trying to make yourself look good on some kind of public forum) is generally a good way to take a correct stance and make it wrong.
Specifically, current events have encouraged a number of people to back themselves into the following corner:
I really doubt you could find a lot of women outside of ethnic cleansing campaigns who would be willing to describe their life experiences in this way, and if we’re talking about the experiences of successful women in Hollywood, which we mostly are right now, then this is downright farcical. (Also, acting all shocked and aghast about basic information that you didn’t know because you’ve somehow failed to ever pick up a fucking book in your life while transparently begging for head-pats re: what a good sensitive boy you are is not an attractive look.) (Also, if you’re a man and you believe this, you are the movie monster, so you’re ethically obligated to kill yourself, which you aren’t going to, so stop lying.)
The problem with this isn’t that it’s overwrought (although still stop it please), it’s that it’s a factually incorrect description of the situation. While all men are complicit in patriarchy by virtue of the fact that their gender allocates privileges to them without their consent (and this is actually bad for men in the long run, which is why patriarchy hurts men too), very few men are actual abusers. Rape rates along the line of one-in-four are occasionally cited as ridiculous overestimates, but what a number like that actually says is that the vast majority of women go their whole lives without being raped. And because predators are predators, they usually attack multiple victims, which means the number of male assailants is even lower than that. None of this makes the issue less serious – indeed, the fact that a tiny minority of abusers is able to define what gender means for an entire society is properly horrifying – but it does mean that the issue operates differently than a simplistic conception in which all men are constantly out to get all women (also, plenty of women are collaborators, which is one of the problems with “believing women”). Inaccuracy in the advocacy of a just cause harms that cause, and should therefore be considered just as dangerous as outright opposition. Once you’ve got the dynamics, right, though, you should address them in the most extreme terms that you possibly can. Being extreme when you’re wrong makes your wrongness worse, but being extreme when you’re right makes your rightness better. So, you should get things right, and you should be an extremist about them, in that order.
For example, one of the classic radical feminist arguments is that, because patriarchal society does not take consent seriously as a concept and instead assumes that male sexuality is inherently predatory, “rape” in patriarchal terms is simply sex that violates certain social norms. Thus, patriarchal ideology does not draw a real conceptual distinction between sex and rape, making it accurate to assert that, from the patriarchal point of view, “all sex is rape.” (To be clear, since everyone constantly gets this backwards, it is sexists who believe this proposition, and feminists who reject it in favor of the proposition that men are people.) To insist on this interpretation of the situation while simultaneously insisting on the facts that few women experience rape and very few men are actual rapists (as opposed to unreflective rape-sympathizers) is to describe the true dynamics of the situation with maximum severity.
No matter what issue you’re working on, you’re eventually going to run into a “Rolling Stone campus rape article” situation that puts you on the wrong side of the consensus and threatens to discredit your approach. The correct response to these events is to ignore them – you shouldn’t even try to argue against them, because even if you win, it doesn’t actually help your case. That Rolling Stone article appropriately reflects on no one but the people who wrote and edited it, and the lie itself reflects on no one but the liar. The fact that one person lied and one magazine sucks provides zero evidence one way or the other about how rape operates in society. I mean, if you seriously thought that no women ever lied about rape, then yeah, that’s news for you, but nobody’s really operating under that assumption, and no similar belief is required for making sense of the issue. There’s all kinds of fucked up people in the world, and getting hung up on the details of this or that case is exactly how you fail to understand anything. Narratives can be useful tools, but narrative cannot be allowed to supersede analysis. If your analysis is actually correct and not merely convenient, then it’s correct even in the face of complicated real-world situations, and you should continue to advance it even as a response to those very situations. The correct response to a woman falsely crying rape is for women to continue to cry rape.
I’ll close with a personal example. Back when I first started reading about feminism on the internet, I was briefly stymied by frequent use of the term “rape culture.” I’d be reading an article and finding it persuasive, but that term always caused me to stop short, since it seemed so obviously inaccurate. Rape is obviously officially proscribed by society, to the extent that you can ask pretty much anyone what the worst thing you can do to a person is and “rape” will almost always be right at the top of the list. So it seemed to clearly be “too much” to describe the problem as a pervasive cultural effect rather than specific areas that weren’t being accounted for or taken seriously enough. But I kept running into the term, so I kept having to think about it, and eventually I realized where the gap in my understanding was. First, “rape” as a term does not have a necessary mapping onto a particular category of physical behavior (because no term does), which means that the things people officially proscribe are only a tiny subset of what sexual violence actually is. Shifting standards from a general sense of impropriety to a specific technical definition of violation changes which things count as rape, and a lot of the things that count under the latter standard end up being things which most people condone. Second, just because people say they’re against rape doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything about it. (What cultural criticism does a lot of the time is just to get people to change the way they talk about things while continuing to take the same actions as they were before.) It’s easy to talk big in the abstract, but when an actual person is being accused of something, interested parties tend to revert to denial and excuse-making. And these problems aren’t personal idiosyncrasies, but rather general aspects of the way we define and discuss the issue as a society – they result in predictable behavior that has predictable effects. Ergo, rape culture.
In short, I learned something, and this only happened because the people I was reading were willing to describe the situation in extreme terms that were also accurate. If these writers had been describing the situation incorrectly, such as by saying that most men were rapists, I would have correctly concluded that they weren’t worth paying attention to, and I wouldn’t have learned anything. But if they had been accurate while also “to be fair”-ing themselves into oblivion, I would never have noticed that I was missing anything, and I would have considered myself enlightened without actually changing anything about my beliefs or behavior. Properly applied extremism is the thing that distinguishes empty talk from effectiveness.
If this really is a crisis, then it merits yelling loudly and unpleasantly enough to make people uncomfortable. Talking about “inappropriateness” or “misconduct” is not going to convince anyone of anything (because those terms are non-specific except for their built-in negative valence, they’re incapable of telling anyone anything they don’t already know). Correct analysis requires extremism, and actually doing something about it requires extreme actions. The best moderation can do is manage the danger, temporarily, until the day when it finally gets fed up with your bullshit and lunges.