What the hell is “non-consensual sex?”

David WuIn 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.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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