In the media coverage of Congressman David Wu’s resignation some disturbing language jumped out at me, from the biggest, most mainstream papers to smaller and even feminist online publications. The phrase “aggressive, unwanted sexual encounter” or just “sexual encounter” seems to have originated with The Oregonian and spread freaking everywhere (with some minor and even more disturbing alterations). Then there were spins on the wording like “unwanted sexual activity.” Oh, and of course there was “sex scandal.” Then there’s the version that for some reason has disturbed me the most, “non-consensual sex,” which even appeared on RH Reality Check.
Seriously, what the fuck is “non-consensual sex?”
There is no such thing. Sex is something that happens when the parties involved are all consenting. Rape isn’t sex, it’s an act of violence, and if there’s no consent it’s rape. (I can’t believe I actually just wrote that. Haven’t feminists already made this one clear, over and over and over and over and over again?)
The details of the case are vague, so perhaps sexual assault would be the more appropriate term to use. A few outlets, like the Daily Mail, actually did use “sexual assault,” though I haven’t seen “rape” anywhere. Which just makes the use of a phrase like “non-consensual sex” even more baffling.
As Zerlina pointed out when discussing a passage in Bristol Palin’s memoir that seems to describe a rape, putting that label on your own experiences can be incredibly difficult. The word has a lot of stigma surrounding it, as has been made obvious in recent cases where accusations of rape seem to reflect worse on the accuser than the accused in the public eye. But the media has a responsibility to report ethically about sexual violence.
If members of the media have been informed the accusations are of actions that would be defined as rape, they should call it that. If the information is more vague, they should say sexual assault. Repeating The Oregonian’s “sexual encounter,” calling an act of violence a “sex scandal,” and spreading the dangerous false category of “non-consensual sex” is lazy, irresponsible journalism. And it’s part of how rape culture spreads.