Amy Schumer didn't say yes, but she doesn't call it rape — not publicly, anyway. Earlier this week, Marie Claire published an online preview of Allison Glock's interview with the actress and comedian in its August issue, on stands July 19. In it, Schumer shares that she didn't choose when she first had intercourse. "My first sexual experience was not a good one," she says. "I didn't think about it until I started reading my journal again. When it happened, I wrote about it almost like a throwaway. It was like, 'And then I looked down and realized he was inside of me. He was saying, 'I'm so sorry' and 'I can't believe I did this.''" Schumer says she has not felt the need to punish the person responsible. "This was 17 years ago. There are just so many factors," she continues. "I had another time with a boyfriend where I was saying, ‘No, stop,’ and it was just completely ignored." Yesterday, Refinery29 — along with a number of other websites — reported on these comments. We did not use the word "rape" to describe Schumer's first experience of intercourse, and, for the most part, neither did other publications, save for one or two sites that questioned this move with headlines such as "Why Are Liberal Websites Like Salon Afraid to Call Amy Schumer’s Rape a ‘Rape?’" When we posted our story about Schumer's comments on our Facebook page, we received similar questions, with readers expressing their belief that sex without consent can never be referred to as anything other than rape; other readers sided with our decision to use different terms, with one commenter stating, "Everyone's coming after the person who wrote the article but Amy's the one who didn't call [it] rape." She didn't, and so neither did we. Language is powerful. We use words to capture reality, and when we do, we also shape it. That's why I, and Refinery29, default to the word "survivor" rather than "victim" for someone who has undergone sexual assault. This is not to say that someone who has experienced assault can't identify with the term "victim" and choose it to describe herself; it is to say that we do not force the label on anyone who hasn't selected it. The survivor of the rape that landed Brock Turner in jail for a repulsively short six-month sentence spoke to the power of the word in her court address to Turner, writing, "You made me a victim. In newspapers my name was 'unconscious intoxicated woman,' ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity." While this woman does, in fact, seem to identify on some level with the word — "I am still learning to accept victim as part of my identity," she writes — she points to how assigning someone this label without her consent can shift her self-perception in ways she did not ask for or want. Why wouldn't we conclude that the same could be true of labeling others' experiences?
I've messed up on this before. Some time ago, a friend told me about an unwanted sexual encounter she had just had. "That's assault," I told her, furious. She hadn't seen it that way, at least not at that point. I had defined her experience for her, had informed her of what she had gone through and implied how she should be feeling about it instead of asking questions and allowing her to lead the conversation. I regret that. That regret is why I asked licensed clinical social worker Rachel Goldsmith of Safe Horizon specifically about language when I interviewed her about how to support a friend who has been experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse. "People respond differently to different vocabulary," she told me. "For some people, it can validate an experience to call something abuse, to call something assault. I think that the easiest way is to use the language that the person shared with you… Let’s say they say, 'My boyfriend and I really got into it last night.' Maybe you can ask a follow-up question: 'What does that look like, getting into it? Can you tell me more about that?'" "At the end of the day, the label is less important than a person understanding their experience and deciding what they want to do with their understanding of it," she continued. "Using their words as much as possible can help, because also some people may hear you call something 'assault,' and the person may not be ready to acknowledge that’s what’s happened, and it may feel overwhelming to acknowledge that."
At the end of the day, the label is less important than a person understanding their experience and deciding what they want to do with their understanding of it.
Rachel Goldsmith, Safe Horizon
What do we get out of insisting that Amy Schumer call her experience "rape," or that others do it for her? We're not in a courtroom here. (Courtrooms are pretty bad at recognizing experiences of rape as such, anyway.) Schumer is not seeking to prosecute the man who committed this act, and we are not obligated to use criminal language. To be very, very clear: This is not in any way about protecting this man, about "letting him off the hook" or "letting him get away with it." It's about respecting the testimony of the woman who spoke out about what he did. If Schumer had used the word "rape" for her experience, I would respect that and use it too, just as I respect Lena Dunham's designation of an experience she recounts in her memoir Not That Kind Of Girl as rape: During sex with a man she calls "Barry" — an encounter that later in the book she reveals "didn’t feel like a choice at all" — Dunham realizes that the condom she thought Barry was wearing is not where it's supposed to be. "I think…? the condom’s…? In the tree?" Dunham mumbles mid-sex when she notices it dangling from a plant in the room, where it landed after Barry flung it aside to avoid using it. Dunham kicks Barry out. Over time, Dunham came to an understanding of the events of that night that gave her ownership of them. "Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me," she wrote in an essay for Buzzfeed. "Rather, it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun." When I first read Dunham's account, it called to mind an experience of my own, one I had never called assault. I still don't. Years ago, protected sex to which I had consented became unprotected sex without my permission or, at first, realization. I had said yes to sex; I hadn't said yes to sex without a condom. I experienced a rush of anger, a sense of violation, and a brief pregnancy scare, but not an understanding that I had been raped — in the narrative of my life, that guy is a dick, not a rapist — and it is no one's right to tell me otherwise. But I would never deny the right of Dunham or anyone else to use the word "rape" for an unwanted form of sex. Nor do I deny Amy Schumer's right not to use it. In understanding other women's experiences, I follow their lead. In understanding my experience, I follow mine.
If she had used the word 'rape' for her experience, I would respect that and use it too.
Believe women. We're saying it more often, but what does it look like in practice? Yes, it means that we trust that women who say they were sexually assaulted are telling the truth. But it also means believing the testimony of women — and men, and children, and non-binary people — when they describe their lived experiences. I do not mean that if you suspect a friend or family member is in danger — is being abused, perhaps — you should take his or her insistence that he or she is fine at face value. I don't mean that we should not connect people with education and information and resources that allow them to conclude that, yes, this was abuse or that was rape. I do mean that "believing" people means believing that they have the right to define and describe what they have been through, and that the rest of us have the obligation to respect the language that they use by using the same language when we speak to and about them. We are coming around to this approach to talking about the positive aspects of people's sexualities and gender identities, acknowledging that labels are elective and binaries woefully insufficient. The next step is to allow people to choose words for the darker, harder parts of who they are and what they've been through. When we don't, we are holding survivors to yet another standard: Why didn't she fight back? Why didn't she report it? Why isn't she using the words to describe her experience that I think she should use? Instead of running to this script when presented with someone's personal narrative, we can decide to be guided by the narrative itself. When we do that, we don't diminish the experiences of others who view what they have been through in a different light. Instead, we affirm everyone's right to live on his or her own terms.
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.