Hysteria: trigger words and social response

HysteriaThis morning I was linked to a BBC news article from 24th April 2013 titled Sex consent could still lead to rape charge, judges say. The piece discusses a case in which a man and a woman engaged in consensual vaginal intercourse without protection, agreed to on the basis that the man would withdraw before he ejaculated. He did not, and the woman became pregnant. Four high court judges claimed that due to his actions “her consent was negated” and argued that the situation therefore “falls within the statutory definition of rape.” I am not going to argue that this man was in the right; although I am hesitant to use the word ‘rape’ his actions are at the very least immoral, unethical and a completely disgusting thing to do to anyone. I am glad the woman involved called him out on this, because it is an utterly inexcusable thing to do. But still – rape?

My real issue lies with the word ‘rape’ itself; in fact, I often have the same issue with words and phrases such as ‘paedophilia’, ‘sexual assault’, ‘abuse’, ‘domestic violence’… I could go on. I am in no way denying that there are cases wherein all of the above terms are accurate, and the acts themselves are heinous. But these words are hysteria-triggers. They conjure up horror stories of images and ideas, and the public reaction to this seems to be hysteria. When there is a case in the news and one of these words/phrases is used, what I see in social media and hear in conversations about the case becomes increasingly devoid of sense and reason, and increasingly full of angry, knee-jerk responses. I am glad we live in a world where this kind of extreme immorality is met with disgust, but when it comes to such serious issues, blind rage seems to be an incredibly destructive driving force.

It is for this reason that I felt so unable to comment on the Yewtree investigation back in December when it was in full swing. As one of the few bloggers I know who has written candidly about paedophilia and rape, I felt I should speak up and add my two cents to the discussion, but the hysteria convoluted the issue to such an extent that I could barely see the wood for the trees, let alone extract a reasonable article. Again, don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing excusable about Savile’s actions, and some of the incidents truly defy human understanding. But there are also incidents within the fallout of Yewtree that are based on issues of legality, rather than violence or cruelty.

Take, for example, a similar case: Megan Stammers and Jeremy Forrest. Technically, yes, this is a case of rape and child abduction. Stammers was below the age of consent and therefore unable to legally agree to any sexual relationship between herself and Forrest. (There is also the issue of student/teacher relationships, but I haven’t seen a great deal of discussion on that side of it, despite striking me as the biggest breach of trust involved.) But using the term ‘rape’ conjures images of violence and cruelty; and in this case there was neither. Although Stammers was too young to give consent – and for that Forrest absolutely deserved to be arrested and taken to trial – their relationship was not against her will, and she has even said she wants to be reunited with him when he is released from prison – where he is serving a five-and-a-half-year sentence.

While both the Stammers case and the Yewtree investigation, including its fallout investigations, call into question issues of morality and legality, I struggle to ally myself with an hysterical public feeding purely on trigger-words such as ‘paedophilia’, ‘rape’, and ‘child abduction’. I have seen so little reasonable discussion in the wake of these terms.

At this point it occurs to me that there is a huge problem with my argument: with the exception of the widespread misunderstanding of the term ‘paedophilia’ (which is not the same as ‘hebephilia’ or ‘ephebephilia’) in neither of the cases I have cited have terms/words been (overwhelmingly) misused. The Yewtree investigation is about child abuse and in many cases paedophilia as well, and the Stammers case is about rape as we legally recognise it.

Technically, by law and by definition, when the media uses these terms, they are correct. The thing is, a word like ‘rape’ carries so much more than its technical definition. It is not just a four letter word for non-consensual sex. It is infused with abuse, with exploitation, with violence, with trauma… yes; all of these things can, and often are, involved when it comes to incidents of rape. But they aren’t always. This is even truer of paedophilia; the word itself suggests children – not teenagers, but children, – naïvety, coercion, abuse; but it is often used to describe situations in which the underage party is not unwilling, or pre-pubescent. Please don’t take this to mean that I am condoning underage sex, but simply that I think the distinction is important. Such actions are still illegal, immoral and unethical, but to call Jeremy Forrest, for example, a paedophile would put upon him an unfair amount of social prejudice and hatred when we consider the reality of his actions. He acted idiotically and illegally, but by all accounts he is not as sadistic or abusive as such a term would suggest.

To further illustrate how damaging hysteria can be, I have two more cases for you, both of which hit much closer to home.

A couple of years ago, a close friend of my brother was harassed by one of his teachers. The teacher was fired and taken to court, and the boy dealt with it calmly and reasonably, as he felt was best. Some time later, when it all came to light and the reports were made more public, the boy’s schoolmates found the stories and began to share the events on Facebook. What followed was a deluge of abuse towards the teacher and a great deal of hysteria surrounding the issue, resulting in further discomfort and upset for the boy involved. In amongst the anger and shock everyone had forgotten that this was a human being, a friend, capable of sense and reason, who needed to be supported, not turned into an object of sick social fascination.

The second case I would like to cite is from personal experience; I was in an abusive relationship, and when I finally decided to end it, I barely told anyone the details of what happened. It wasn’t because I was ashamed, it was because I knew the words I would have to use in order to describe the relationship – terms such as ‘rape’ and ‘mental abuse’ – would trigger certain reactions from my friends and family. Although those terms are technically accurate, they do not fairly describe what actually happened, and I had no desire to cause anger and upset; I wanted to deal with the situation calmly – like my brother’s friend – and move on. It was hard to explain why I did certain things, or avoided some situations, without telling people what I had been through, but I knew it would be even harder to say ‘rape’ and then try to explain, in detail, why it wasn’t as traumatic as you see in the news. For myself, I stand by my decision; but I still have concerns about the people my ex might encounter in the future. It was through my fear of hysteria that I didn’t feel able to out him and give others the warning they deserve.

Some words are so much bigger than the sum of their parts. When someone says ‘rape’, I see the opening scene of Lucky by Alice Sebold; I do not see myself uncomfortable and unsure with someone I know intimately. Technically both fall within the definition of the term, but the word ‘rape’ does not always accurately describe the situation. These words are so powerful, so heavy with the weight of emotion that they can and often do trigger responses that lack the sense necessary for reasonable discussion, and it is for this reason that I truly feel we need to be more careful about how we use them. I am not suggesting we stop using them altogether – in many cases they describe the situation with horrifying accuracy – but an explanation offers so much more clarity than a loaded word or phrase, and I find our desire to quickly label something and brand those involved incredibly short-sighted and often dangerous. Furthermore, this is about acting with sense and reason for the sake of victims.

But – and yes, I will say it – this is also an issue of being honest when describing perpetrators. Going back to the BBC article that inspired this piece, you can call the man involved unethical, cruel, immoral, disgusting, but to brand him a rapist seems hasty. Yes, it was non-consensual; it’s just that by its sense of feeling, ‘rape’ is such a very very big word to use offhand.

6 thoughts on “Hysteria: trigger words and social response”

  1. Ruby Goodnight says:

    I’m glad you touched on the misuse of the term pedophilia. I often said that it was actually incorrect to call Jeremy Forrest a pedophile, as he was not attracted to a pre-pubescent child – which is the accurate definition of a pedophile. He was attracted to a 15/16 year old teen. I had a relationship with a much older man when I was 16, and I was in no way, shape or form a ‘child’ at that point in my life. I dare say that Megan could have been the same.

    1. Harper Eliot says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I was in a similar situation when I was 15, and… well, 15-year-olds aren’t idiots.

  2. Heather says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I agree with many of your points around incorrect use of words like pedophilia, and I share similar frustration with the casual use of the word rape to mean aggressive/violent sex in the kinkoverse. To use those words in those situations is incorrect.

    That said, I don’t see the value in not using the word rape to describe situations where nonconsenual sex has occurred. Giving into hysteria and changing our language doesn’t strike me as something that will fix the problem (the problem being people seeing rape only as a certain type of act). The fact that people associate rape with violence or sexual assault with rape is part of the whole “legitimate rape” problem.

    I know it’s hard work, but I think it’s really important that we challenge people when we can to extend their concepts around these words – to see beyond the hysteria and look at how it plays out in actual daily life.

    1. Harper Eliot says:

      Actually, I completely agree; I don’t think we should stop using the word ‘rape’, I just think we need to be aware of what it really means when we do. I agree that it would be better to change perceptions of the word to include all forms of non-consensual sex. However, given the current state of things, I also think there needs to be more consideration of what such terms mean when we use them.

      It’s really about making people think, and slowing the spread of hysterical response. But on principal, I’m pretty much with you.

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