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Words are slippery and what means one thing to one person may mean something totally different to someone else.  The word sex is not interchangeable with rape.  Nor is it intended to be.  I am forensic nurse practitioner in a  large urban community.  I am on the front lines almost daily.  As I see it my role is first as a highly qualified health care professional whose aim is to ensure the individuals’ health and well being.  My second role, as a member of our sexual assault response team, is to collect evidence that can support the victims’ allegations of a crime.   I have been a witness to numerous police interviews regarding allegations of rape.  I have collected evidence, including the history of events, from a diversity of victims including men, women, children, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning, young and old.   Victims, police, health care providers, in their  shame, embarrassment, seeming sensitivity, sometimes interchange the word sex with the word rape.  I admit that I have even done it.  Trying to detail something something so appalling, embarrassing, and unbelievable in vivid and graphic detail is to say the least embarrassing and at worst unspeakable.    The description of the act of rape as sex implies a level of consent.   Rape is not sex.  The word sex rarely captures the gruesome nature of such an appalling act as rape.  Sex is nicer and cleaner and less vulgar and easier on the ear.  No one wants to hear how a victim was yanked, pulled, beaten, and a pipe was shoved, as opposed to pushed, up her vagina.

I remember a discussion with a sex crimes prosecutor about a case of rape with actual findings i.e, lacerations of the vaginal wall and the posterior fourchette.  I had taken detailed photographs of the vaginal findings in this case.  Some of the  prosecutors’ colleagues felt that the photograph where offensive and too graphic to be presented to the jury.  Where they worried that the juries would be offended?   Believe it or not many cases of rape fail to reveal any finding that the general public associates with rape.  Less sophisticated juries fail to understand that rape can and does occur in the absence of actual genital trauma.   In a majority of cases the issue is one of he said/she said.  In a nutshell consent.  Somehow using words and phrases such as sexual abuse/ sex/fondling/touching/groping/kissing take the sting out of the gruesome act of  rape.  These descriptors lessen, in your mind and mine too, the impact of something so deplorable that we don’t want to imagine it and we certainly don’t want to think about it.  No one wants to have a  visual of John Wayne Gacy slicing up his victims or the BTK serial killer, Denis Radar strangling someone.  Yet it seems that  hearing this might be more palatable than hearing about how Charles Ng, tortured and sadistically raped his victims.  Our old attitudes and likely hangups about sex make it difficult for many of us to hear about the deplorable act of rape.   It’s completely understandable.   It’s  been verboten in public discourse and the media to speak the evil details of of rape least it embarrass, offend and taint the potential jury pool and our polite sensitivities.

The public editor of the New York times, Earl Wilson, explores  reader’s comments and concerns about the confusion of sex with rape.  Reader’s flooded the New York Times with  emails about the Penn State case and Jerry Sandusky.   I am in agreement with many of the readers. Patricia Raube of Binghamton, N.Y., elaborated on the same point about the same passage: “An adult can rape a child. An adult can molest a child. An adult cannot ‘have sex’ — a phrase connoting consent — with a child.” In her view, the language soft-pedals the “enormity of the abuse perpetrated.” Rape is not sex and calling it so doesn’t make it any less deplorable and yet it does have the potential to cloud the issue of consent.  Tell us what you think.  Or better yet write to the New York Times editor public@nytimes.com

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