I’d like to take a moment to state the obvious: The words “rape” and “sex” are not interchangeable. On this I hope we can all agree. While the word “rape” has jurisdictional definitions that vary, it generally refers to forcing someone to engage in sexual contact or penetration through physical force, by duress, or otherwise without consent. There is precious little agreement worldwide as to how to define the word “sex,” but I would argue that the participants’ consent to the activity is implied.
It was with this understanding in mind that I found myself listening to the Cleveland Police Department’s press conference in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight from years of captivity. One reporter asked if the three women had been held as “sex slaves.” Later, a New York Times article covering the story also used “sex slave,” but it appears to have been quickly updated or edited to remove the phrase (though there was no correction about that in the piece). In fact, a Google search reveals countless online references to these three women as “sex slaves.” Many of those references are from articles that were published after the women’s allegations of being raped repeatedly came out. The “sex slave” references also come after it was reported that suspect Ariel Castro is the father of Amanda Berry’s six-year-old child and after Michelle Knight’s statement that Castro impregnated her multiple times and forced her to miscarry through brutal physical abuse (which may lead to aggravated murder charges).
A search of the New York Post website demonstrates the publication’s preference for the phrase “sex slave” in articles and headlines (66 hits); the publication used it as recently as May 11 when covering the Cleveland story. The paper also used the phrase in reference to Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted at 11 years old and held for 18 years, during which time she was repeatedly raped and abused. The article, from the Associated Press, is headlined on the Post‘s site as “18 yrs. as sex slave nets $20M.” (Who knew victimhood could be so lucrative?)
The use of the phrase “sex slave” to describe someone’s rape experience poses many concerns, not only for survivors themselves but for society as a whole. It says something troubling about how we view perpetrators of sexual violence and how we view sex.
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You don’t need to be an expert on Ohio law to know that victims of kidnapping cannot give meaningful consent to sexual activity. And while I acknowledge the word “slave” communicates force, I remain unconvinced that using it as a qualifier of the word “sex” makes for an accurate description of what these women allegedly experienced, which is rape. Calling them “sex slaves” conjures up images of 25-cent pulp fiction novels and bad pornography. “Sex slave” feels salacious, and a little bit dirty. It feels qualitatively different than labeling someone a “rape survivor” or “crime victim,” labels which evoke sadness, empathy, anger, and other appropriate emotions. And I strongly suspect it feels different for these three women, and for the people who love them. Consider how it would feel as a parent of a missing child to have that child referred to as a “sex slave,” as opposed to a “crime victim.” As a society, we should strive to do all that we can to avoid shaming survivors of sexual violence, in part by thoughtfully choosing the words we use to describe them and their experiences.
Another problem with this use of the phrase “sex slave” is that it the perpetrators of violence are let off the hook in some ways. It significantly minimizes the severity of their violation of societal norms and the law by putting uncomfortably little distance between what Ariel Castro is accused of doing (rape) and what most well-adjusted people engage in at some point in their lives (sex). This lack of distance makes it easier for people to dismiss a perpetrators’ behavior because it seems more like something they are capable of doing themselves. Naming the crime conveys more accurately the nature of the behavior being described, and appropriately transfers the shame and stigma from the victim to the perpetrator.
Conflating the word “rape” with “sex” demeans sex for all of us, but most especially for survivors of sexual violence. Elizabeth Smart, a survivor of similar horrors, recently spoke out about the damage done to rape survivors when we treat sex as something that ruins people. We do a similar disservice to rape survivors and to everyone who values sex when we refer to rape as a type of sex.