When E. Jean Carroll accused President Donald Trump last week of sexually assaulting her in the mid-1990s, one word was notable for its absence: rape.
The actions Carroll describes fit the legal definition of rape. According to Carroll, Trump forcibly penetrated her, “halfway — or completely, I’m not certain,” before she was able to push him off of her and run. And according to the FBI, rape is legally defined as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object …without the consent of the victim.”
But Carroll has repeatedly chosen not to describe what happened to her as rape. On Thursday, Carroll and two friends who she confided in at the time of the alleged assault appeared on the New York Times podcast The Daily, and all three of them agreed that she has not wanted to use the word “rape” from the beginning.
“I said, ‘He raped you?’” recalled Lisa Birnbach, the author of The Preppy Handbook and the first person Carroll told. “And you said, ‘Eh, I don’t … he pulled down my tights!’”
“It was horrible,” Birnbach continued. “We fought. And I said, ‘Let’s go to the police.’ ‘No.’ ‘Come to my house.’ ‘No, I want to go home.’ ‘I’ll take you to the police.’ ‘No. It was 15 minutes of my life. It’s over. Don’t ever tell anybody. I just had to tell you.’”
“It was an episode,” Carroll said, “it was an action, it was a fight, it was not a crime.”
Megan Twohey, the investigative reporter who in 2017 helped break the Harvey Weinstein story that fueled the current wave of the #MeToo movement, asked Carroll why she chooses not to use the word rape even now, in 2019. Carroll was vehement in her response.
“Every woman gets to choose her word,” she said. “Every woman gets to choose how she describes it. This is my way of saying it. This is my word. My word is fight. My word is not the victim word. I have not been raped. Something has not been done to me. I fought. That’s the thing.”
“Rape” is not “the victim word.” That doesn’t mean it’s the word Carroll has to use.
From a feminist perspective, it’s tempting to push back against Carroll’s word usage here. If you have been raped, that doesn’t mean you’ve been reduced to a victim and nothing more. That’s part of the reason for the popularity of the term “assault survivor” rather than “assault victim”: It puts the emphasis on the survivor’s strength and the active work they have done to make it through a terrible experience.
Those who choose to identify as a victim of assault rather than survivors are not inherently weak or passive, either. In a recent essay for the Lily, Katie Simon explained why she prefers the term “victim” to “survivor.”
“I do not want to be the focus. I want the crime to be the focus. I want the criminal to be the focus,” Simon wrote. “When we hear the term victim, we think about the crime, acknowledge its perpetrator. When we hear the term survivor, the perpetrator is erased. Empowering victims, linguistically or otherwise, won’t stop rape.”
But Carroll’s discomfort with the term “rape” also makes sense, because all of the vocabulary that we have for sexual violence is fraught and confusing and limiting in ways that speak to our culture’s deep ambivalence about sexual assault.
In 2017, as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum and a different famous man was being accused of sexual assault every week, I looked at the history of the language we use to talk about sexual violence. What I found is that this vocabulary is profoundly limited. Feminists have constantly had to make up new terms to describe acts that were before nameless, words like “date rape” and “sexual harassment.” And every time those new words enter our lexicon, the larger culture pushes back against them and works to drain them of meaning. In the public sphere, they become polite euphemisms that describe acts that are silly and trivial and not actually worth complaining about.
“When these terms are actually used, they’re depoliticized,” linguist Susan Ehrlich told me at the time. “They lose their force.”
We can see that happening in real time with the term “sexual harassment,” which has been heavily devalued since Lin Farley coined it in 1975. “‘Sexual harassment’ was never meant to be a term that the corporate world would feel comfortable tossing around,” Farley wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 2017. “It is a vicious practice — one that flourishes because men hold authority over women at work, and they use it to extract sex and to humiliate. If the price of popularizing the notion of sexual harassment has been to dampen its impact, it’s now time to reclaim and redefine the term as the ugly thing it is — to imbue it with its initial power.”
That is the sort of development arc that led me to write, in 2017:
It’s not that we don’t have a vocabulary for talking about sexual violence, because we do. But that vocabulary is inadequate. It is confusing and flattening in ways that make it hard to talk about sexual violence without either trivializing it, obfuscating the systems that enable it, or getting so specific as to become salacious or triggering. So whenever I talk about sexual violence, I feel like I’m translating: taking the acts that actually happened and trying to cram them into the language that I have available to describe them.
And the inadequacy of our vocabulary for sexual violence extends to what should arguably be the most basic term of all: rape. Feminists can insist that “rape” is not, per Carroll’s formulation, “the victim word,” because being raped doesn’t make victimhood central to your identity — but that logic doesn’t just erase all of the cultural baggage that has been piled on top of the word. It doesn’t magically make our language feminist.
There are good reasons for feminists to continue to push back against the idea that to be raped is to be a passive victim. Language is flexible and changes over time, and continuing to be thoughtful and conscious about how we use weighted terms like “rape” can help us continue to break down the systems that make sexual violence so prevalent and so difficult to talk about in our culture.
But while that work is ongoing, it’s not fair to expect every woman in the world to align her understanding of her own experiences with one particular political project. As Carroll put it, “Every woman gets to choose to her word.”