That titles is absolutely intended to be click bait. A completely honest description of the topic is going to sound very boring. That I had to use the click-bait title only demonstrates my point, really. So, what is this post really about?
I’m taking a quick break from my World-building seminars to address a topic that’s both in the news a lot lately, and is also a relevant example of how you can add depth to your world-building. The issue is sexual consent, and the broader application is linguistics. Using the word “rape” to talk about issues of sexual consent is a linguistic choice, a cultural choice, and a rhetorical choice. But what a lot of people don’t understand is how those three types of choice interact, and it really makes it hard to have a useful discussion on the issue of sexual consent when we focus on rape and whether or not the definition of the word should be expanded. I’m going to make a lingusitic, cultural, and rhetorical argument that it shouldn’t. The interaction between those three frames of references is the world-building aspect of the post.
First, I’m going to give my short essay on why I am taking the position I am, and then I’m going to explore how the topic could be generalized to help with world-building. Those of you who aren’t writers or don’t care about world-building can certainly skip the second part of this post. I think you could benefit from it, but if the issue of rape and consent is why you came here, I’m not going to try to force you to look at the broader implications of my argument. Here we go!
Rape is often defined as forcing sexual intercourse on a target. From a linguistic standpoint, you could argue that rape is any form of sexual intercourse without consent. That’s the linguistic frame of reference. Now, consider the “prototype” of the word rape. (I’ve talked about prototypes in linguistics before. Essentially, it’s the first example you think of when you picture the word in your head.) It’s a guy dragging someone kicking and screaming into an alley for a lot of pop culture. So you’ve made a perfectly valid linguistic choice, especially if you explicitly state your definition of all forms of sexual intercourse without legal consent. But you haven’t made a good rhetorical decision, because when you call someone a rapist, or say a crime is rape, your listeners/readers are going to compare it to their prototype, and it it doesn’t fall within that individuals personal tolerance zone for deviation from that prototype, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage in convincing them of your argument,
There’s also a cultural choice involved. Each culture has its own prototype for a word, and the concept the word describes has its own connotations. Rape culture is a common buzzword these days. It’s not a “culture”, it’s a set of attitudes, beliefs, and connotations within our larger common culture or popular culture that arguably encourage, allow for, or cover up rape and sexual misconduct/lack of consent. By calling something “rape”, within a culture with a strong rape culture component, and knowing the prototype for rape is different, perhaps significantly so, from the crime in question, you make a poor rhetorical decision. It might even be argued to be a poor linguistic decision, because to an extent words are variable, and a word in one culture might have such a strongly differentiated prototype that you can’t really say your definition is correct or reasonable.
However, there’s also the rhetorical decision that “rape” gets people’s notice. You might write a linguistically, culturally, and even otherwise rhetorically sound decision to use a different term, and then you won’t reach your target audience because that term isn’t on their radar.
Now, my argument is that we should not be focusing so much on the word “rape” in these discussions. Not only is it rhetorically risky, it doesn’t acknowledge that so-called “rape” is only the tip of a massive iceberg called “non-consensual sex”, the prototype of which is just the tip of another massive iceberg of incidents which are non-consensual sex but not considered so by popular culture, even if they may be considered “skeevy” or sleazy, or ethically grey/black. But to call them rape gives your rhetorical opponent a lot of wiggle room. Here’s a technically “true” statement reworded in several different ways to give you an idea of how strong an influence these cultural and rhetorical choices exert on discourse:
- “Barney Stinson raped a dozens of women within the fictional New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother”.
- “Barney Stinson assaulted dozens of women within the fictional New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother”.
- “Barney Stinson had unconsensual sex with dozens of women within the fictional New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother”.
- “Barney Stinson lied to dozens of women to get sex they would not otherwise have given within the fictional New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother”.
- “Barney Stinson tricked dozens of women into having sex with him within the fictional New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother”.
Now, given the popularity of the show, and the lack of outcry over Barney’s behavior, I’d argue that last version is the worst most people would say of the behavior of Neil Patrick Harris’s character in HIMYM. Personally, I think #3 does the best job of balancing linguistic reality, rhetorical wisdom, and cultural perception. The trick here is, I don’t think mainstream cultural perception would accept the label “unconsensual sex” for these incidents. After all, the women said “yes”. Barney did not use force on any of them. None of them were roofied, although depending on how you classify alcohol, you could argue many were drugged; but, most of them drugged themselves, so you probably won’t have an easy time making that argument, despite its truth or falsity.
Now we have to dig down a bit deeper. Most people consider consent as a simple black and white “Did she say yes at some point?”. That certainly makes it easier for someone accused of misconduct to defend themselves. Or to avoid a lot of thought on whether the person actually wanted to be part of an encounter with them.
A more sophisticated view is, “Did they say yes without external pressure such as alcohol, force, or threat of force?” Does a slightly better job of determining true consent by my definition, but still isn’t quite there.
Better yet, add “implied force, peer pressure, hierarchical pressure(boss, teacher, adult to kid), cultural pressure, or economic pressure”.
However, that can be very hard to test for, and our society’s focus on freedom and being able to go with the flow and not be too analytical can make it hard to determine consent to that level. Explicitly asking those questions can get you a rejection you might not otherwise have gotten. Again, this creates wiggle room for people who do know that they wouldn’t have gotten sex without external factors. The vast majority of rape accusations are against people who knew they were applying outside pressure or that some other factor was.
However, the ethical standard I’m choosing to apply is, “Did the accused (or not, if you’re judging yourself) know that under normal circumstances, the other party would not have consented to sex with them?”. If so, and if they had sex with the person, they must have known that the person’s capacity to consent was compromised when they decided to pursue sex. Legal issues aside, this is unethical. It also often accounts for why people view some approaches to obtaining sex as sketchy or generally less than a stellar recommendation of someone’s character. If you’re admitting something is sketchy, I’d argue you are admitting there’s a good chance it is either unethical, should be criminal or both.
Now, is that rape? No, I don’t believe so. I would restrict rape to the person knowingly applying their own form of force through physical means: i.e., physical force, threat of physical force, implied threat of force, them drugging the person, or them getting the person drunk. However, I do think it should be considered immoral, unethical, and probably criminal. The crime here is intentional denial or avoidance of consent for the purposes of obtaining intercourse with the person. We don’t have a rape problem, we have a consent problem, and insisting on focusing on rape obscures that. Certainly in our lifetime, it’s unlikely this sort of crime will ever be considered under the umbrella of rape from a legal or pop culture standpoint, and I think trying to shoehorn it into that category makes a difficult task even harder.
Now, onto the world-building section, it is a bit short, since this is an example-based article. Using this as an example can you think of any other issues that suffer from similar complexity? There are quite a few. Drug crimes, religion, various areas of ethics. The humanities, the sciences. You can use the contrast between culture, rhetorical value, and linguistic meaning to add depth to any area of your world-building. The spaces between these related meanings leave people room to rationalize, have different opinions or takes on a subject, and room for cultural change and/or growth. This also applies to conflict between individual characters and groups of characters.