Matthew Parris

To call it ‘rape’ is to debauch the language

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In Manchester, a friend at university there tells me, a new word has entered smart parlance among the young. The word is 'raped'.

The expression is moderately strong, and casual. It is a way of saying that one has in some way been done over, done for, or done in. 'I was completely raped,' a cool young Mancunian might remark, emerging from an examination in which the questions had proved impossible; or on discovering that something he had just bought was on sale much more cheaply elsewhere.

My friend added that some women were complaining that to use a word like this so lightly was offensive, as if rape could ever be equated with everyday problems or setbacks.

I see their point. My friend and I were talking about this not long after the newspapers had reported that in England and Wales alone, between 61,000 and 89,000 women a year are raped, according to a Home Office crime survey. One in 20 women - some three quarters of a million - said they had been raped at least once since they were 16. The survey had found that current partners were responsible for 45 per cent of rapes. Strangers accounted for 8 per cent. Women were most at risk from their partners, former partners, men they are dating and acquaintances.

At this point the reader pauses worriedly. In the old-fashioned (you could call it 'classical') idea of rape, the assailant is unknown, or almost unknown, to her victim. This, I suppose, is the image of a stranger assaulting you in the dark: one of the most frightening images of all. But of the offences included in the Home Office survey's tally, 92 per cent were not of this kind. Nearly half (45 per cent) involved current partners. These people had been raped by, but had not afterwards left, their partners.

One's unease here is provoked not by any wish to condone what these women are putting up with, but the language chosen to condemn it. If what they are choosing to overlook is rape, what word shall we use to describe the kind of assault which nobody could overlook? 'Rape' is losing its meaning. It has been violated by campaigners, desirous of taking for themselves and their cause the capacity which that word had to shock. Language is being, if not raped, debauched.

These campaigners' campaign itself is just. They want to persuade us of what is true: that rape is more common than reported figures suggest. They also want to make the point that compulsion in sex is wrong, and to din it into the heads of the obtuse or unobservant that submission is not the same as consent. But to grab our attention they have cheated. They have taken one of the most powerful words in the English language, 'rape', and drawn and stretched it like a net, too wide, around too much. They have tapped in to the shudder this word always causes, so that we will shudder at other, sometimes different kinds of misdeed.

All of the wrongs which those three quarters of a million women reported were wrongs, many of them very serious: please accept that it is not my intention to question this. But within that global figure will have been a tremendously wide range of wrongdoing: wide in the surrounding circumstances, and wide in the comparative gravity of the different offences. Campaigners have hoped that the least serious will take their colour from the most. The danger is that the most serious will lose their colour to the least. The danger is that the word 'rape' will lose its power to shock.

Cheating with language is something we all do, but those with a burning sense of anger and of mission are particularly prone to the practice because they may feel that the justice of their cause outweighs quibbles about the use of English. In the end, however, we are all, including them, the losers.

Just as the word 'rape' has been raped, so the word 'abuse' has been abused. Rightly concerned to show that sexual interference with children is more widespread than we once thought, campaigners have chosen a word, 'abuse', which used to connote very serious interference, and applied it to a misbehaviour ranging from inappropriate (or inappropriately persistent) touching, to forced penetration. So, yes, in that weak sense, one in ten of us may have been 'abused' in childhood, but another abuse is of the much smaller number whose terrifying and life-twisting experiences have now been cheapened by being placed in the same category as the millions who in childhood noticed in passing that an adult's behaviour was a bit funny.

Apartheid is 'institutional racism' because it incorporates racial discrimination into the fabric of the law. Sir William Macpherson was on less certain ground in talking about 'institutional racism' in the Metropolitan Police: he achieved his headline but 'endemic' would have been a better term because he meant persistent attitudes among many officers, not the rules or structures of the force. The phrase loses potency further when people start talking about institutional racism in the BBC. Whatever racism there may be in the Corporation is plainly not incorporated: nothing explicit or implicit in its structure can be called racist. The phrase ends up meaning little more than 'frequently' or 'habitually' racist.

The same can be said of the word 'poverty'. If it is used (in the phrase, for instance, 'child poverty') to mean no more than relative deprivation, then a minor cheat with language designed to make us sit up and think about inequality leads to irritation when, on reading the small print, we realise that not being able to afford new trainers is now taken as 'poverty'. We end up cynical about the whole campaign, and dulled to what was once a powerful word. Where poverty does exist in Britain (and it does, but among a small and pitiful number of people) we are left with no word to describe the intensity of their plight.

'Student poverty' has become a new vogue-phrase too. My friend in Manchester may find himself complaining that he is living in poverty and often raped. He will have gained, for a few seasons, some temporarily colourful turns of phrase which will soon fade. And our language will have lost a little more of its power.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.