While all that is true, it wasn’t really my reason for the words I chose. The word rape has weight to it, more than the phrase sexual assault. It sits inside you with a leaden presence that presses on your bones and crowds out oxygen from your lungs. But it matters that we call things out for what they are. A man forcing himself inside you against your will, whether it’s on a dark street, or in a fancy office, or a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, is rape.
I understand why advice columnist E. Jean Carroll is refusing to characterize what she says Donald Trump did to her in that Bergdorf Goodman dressing room decades ago as rape. She prefers to call what happened between them a “fight.” She said that by thinking of the experience that way, she doesn’t feel like a victim. And she is entitled to label her experience however she wants.
I just know that after disclosing publicly that I was sexually assaulted, I came around to the realization that if I owned for myself what had happened — if I said to myself, “I was raped” — I would actually be taking control of the experience as a survivor. A man pinned me down, pulled my legs apart and pushed himself inside me. I didn’t invite it, I didn’t want it. It was rape. And acknowledging that gave me power over the memory.
Even if a woman isn’t beaten and bloodied in the process, rape is a violent crime, because forcing yourself inside someone is inherently violent. The act has nothing to do with sex. It’s about power, often about rage, and it has everything to do with one person gaining control over another and forcing her into submission.
Trump’s reaction to Carroll’s story? He denied it, and he did so in a way that was intended to slap her down again by saying, “She’s not my type,” as though he had been accused of asking her for Saturday night movie date, not raping her. Carroll may not be the type of woman Trump would date or marry, then or now. But that has nothing to do with whether or not she is the type of person he might attack.
We should all understand why Carroll doesn’t want to use the word rape to describe how she feels about what happened to her. But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from using it, and not because we want to correct her memory or her attempts to process it now, but because we want to accurately name what she says was done to her. Rape is an ugly word to describe an ugly act; it makes any decent person recoil and shudder. No matter where it happens or how well-dressed the rapist is, or how powerful, it’s a bad dream that isn’t a dream. It never leaves you. Certain smells bring it back, the sound of someone’s voice or the way the light falls through a window.
I believe Carroll’s account of what happened. I believe she was raped. I do not believe she is a victim. And if it’s true that Trump slammed her head against the wall and pushed himself inside her, then he is a rapist. But she walked out of that dressing room into her life and into a future where she found the courage to talk about what happened to her. It’s important that we use the word rape. That doesn’t mean we have to use the word victim.