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The Meanings of Rape

A demonstrator at Amherst College wants the administration to admit its past mistakes.

A nod to the semantics of “rape” seems pertinent in the current climate. After all, this is a polysemous word, that is, a word with multiple connotations, some of which look like anachronisms.

In Middle English, “rape” was used when talking about haste, as in the proverb “oft rape rues,” or “haste makes waste.” Our contemporary use seems to be linked; “rape” entails an act done rashly and injudiciously—an insincere, histrionic, violent act.

The word has acquired other meanings in modern English. It is a noun, “rape,” and also a verb, “to rape.” It refers to a plant, Brassica napus, of the mustard family, whose seed yields rapeseed oil. In Spanish, rape is monkfish.

Yet unquestionably, the most prominent meaning of “rape” today is to force sexual intercourse through the use of violence. Shakespeare, in his narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594), which is based on Ovid and Livy’s histories of Rome, described the aftershocks of the sexual assault suffered in 509 BC by Lucretia, wife of Collatinus and a consultant to the king, by Sextus Tarquinius, the king’s son. The event brought about popular unrest, ultimately giving place to the founding of the Roman republic. The Bard certainly understood rape as we do now.

In the Romance languages, the verb “to rape” is violar (Spanish and Portuguese), violer (French), and violentáre (Italian). Upon arriving in the United States as an immigrant from Mexico in the mid-eighties, I remember feeling puzzled by how in English, “violation” didn’t quite mean the same as in Spanish: It is “the act of doing something that is not allowed by a law or rule,” though not exclusively the act of taking another person’s dignity through sexual force. Thus, in my early days as an English-language learner, my instinct would be to use the verb “to violate” as a synonym of “to rape,” as in “the criminal violated her.” It took me some time to get this lexical nuance straight.

The discussion of rape we’re engaged in now owes much to the Second Wave of Feminism, in the late sixties and early seventies, which argued that rape isn’t exclusively the behavior of pathological individuals; rather, it is the result of an intrinsic imbalance of gender roles that perpetuates male domination. Thus, rape is perpetrated by people of all types.

The polysemous aspect of the word is, in part, the result of a nomenclature that has been built around rape. It distinguishes between “rape by an acquaintance,” “date rape,” “rape by a stranger,” and “gang rape.” These categories are clear from the cases often reported in the news. There is one more that is less discussed: “consensual rape.” It was described to me not long ago by a student who wrote a paper for “Impostors,” one of the classes I’m teaching. The paper is on the complexities of an accusation of rape on a campus. It alternates the narratives of the two participants, who suffer dramatically—and in dramatically different ways—the consequences of the encounter. In any case, “consensual rape” involves a contradiction: rape plotted by the victim.

The best example I know of it is in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Emma Zunz.” Published in 1948 in the Argentine magazine Sur, it is about a young woman in Brazil who receives a letter telling her that her father has just committed suicide. She knows the truth: The suicide was brought about by her father’s partner, who pushed him to the edge in order to keep their joint business for himself. Emma also knows that her father’s conniving partner planned everything so meticulously that the law isn’t likely to find out. So she takes the law in her own hands. Still a virgin, she finds a total stranger on the pier, makes him rape her (se deja violar), then travels to her father’s partner’s factory. It is late at night and no one is around. She knows where he keeps a gun. Emma and the partner engage in small talk; she gets the gun, kills him, and calls the police. He abused me sexually, she says over the phone. “I had to defend myself.”

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