We need to talk about rape

Content note: this post does what its title suggests

When is a rape not a rape? The answer, apparently, is ‘most of the time’.  Of more than 58,000 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales last year, only 1758 resulted in anyone being charged with rape, let alone convicted. Of course there are legitimate reasons why some cases aren’t pursued. Some rapists are never caught; some complainants are too traumatised to participate in the long and gruelling process of bringing a perpetrator to justice. (And yes, a small percentage of reports—as with any crime—may turn out on investigation to be untrue.) But the number of reported rapes that disappear into the void—that get ‘no-crimed’, reclassified, put on the back burner, or abruptly dropped without charge—suggests a deeper and more systemic problem. As EVAW, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said last month, the chance that a rapist will be convicted is now so small, rape is ‘effectively being decriminalised’.

Language can also make rape disappear. When I called this post ‘we need to talk about rape’, what I meant was that we need to talk about the word ‘rape’: how it’s used, when it’s avoided, and how that both reflects and contributes to a culture of impunity and injustice.

Earlier this year, when the victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird expressed concern about the low rate of rape convictions, one critic accused the QC and former Solicitor-General of failing to grasp a fundamental principle of the justice system. ‘The jury’ he mansplained,

is there to ensure that what gains a rape conviction is what the general society agrees is indeed rape. That’s actually the point.

Though I do not draw the same conclusion this writer does–that the system is working as it should–he is surely right to say that the treatment of rape in the justice system is affected by ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’. From a feminist perspective that’s exactly the problem: what is generally agreed to be rape overlaps only partially with what women experience and report as rape, or even with what the law defines as rape. There’s a mismatch between the legal definition (which in England and Wales, as in many other modern jurisdictions, centres on the absence of consent, or of a ‘reasonable belief’ in consent) and the common-sense understanding people carry in their heads.

One place where you can see this mismatch is in language, which is both an expression of our cultural common sense and a means through which it is reproduced. That’s why I think it’s instructive to examine the way words like ‘rape’ are used–or, just as importantly, not used–in public discourse. Here I’m going to concentrate mainly on the language of the media, whose reporting both reflects and shapes public opinion. How do the media talk about rape? What tacit assumptions underlie their linguistic choices?

I’ll start with a case that made headlines at the end of August, when Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of the victims of the now-deceased child abuser and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, made a public statement in which she described three coerced sexual encounters with Prince Andrew. (For the record, he denies this.) The first two took place when she was 17, and in Florida, where she made a sworn statement of these facts in 2011, a 17-year old is below the legal age of consent. It is also illegal, not just in Florida but in most jurisdictions, to make use of the sexual services of a person under the age of 18. Furthermore, Giuffre’s statement made clear that even if she had possessed the legal capacity to consent, she was not, and did not act like, a willing participant.

If ‘rape’ means sex without consent, then what Giuffre alleged in her statement was rape (or in legal terms, possibly, depending on the details, sexual assault). But as a number of people noted on Twitter, the word ‘rape’ did not appear in any of the news reports, which in most cases used the formula ‘forced to have sex’. Though ‘forced’ obviously implies coercion, those who tweeted about it saw ‘forced to have sex’ as a euphemism, deliberately avoiding the strongest term the English language makes available for describing non-consensual sex. And many evidently suspected that the reason for that avoidance was Andrew’s status as a member of the royal family.

My own explanation is different. While I’m sure the media were keen to avoid suggesting that the Queen’s son might be a rapist, the fact is that they also avoid the term ‘rape’ (or ‘alleged rape’) in many ‘ordinary’ cases. This avoidance, as we’ll see, reflects various assumptions about what rape is and what it isn’t. In this case, I think the basis for those assumptions was not the status of the people involved but the context in which their encounters took place.

‘Forced to have sex’ is an agent-deleted passive: once you make it active, you see that the grammatical subject and semantic agent of the verb ‘force’ is not Prince Andrew but Jeffrey Epstein. The underlying structure, in other words, is ‘A forced B to have sex with C’. And in this scenario, where one man (let’s call him a pimp) makes a contract with another (a punter–though in this case not a paying punter: girls were ‘loaned’ to Epstein’s associates without charge), we do not generally call either man’s actions ‘rape’. We only think of it as rape when the two roles, forcing someone to have sex and actually having sex with them, are played by the same individual.

It is also typically assumed that sexual encounters of this type must be consensual by definition, because that’s what punters pay for, and because women who sell or are sold for sex have neither the right nor any reason to refuse (prostitutes who make rape complaints tend to get particularly short shrift from the police.) Repulsive though feminists may find them, these assumptions are widely accepted, and they explain why the word ‘rape’ is rarely considered applicable to this kind of situation.

But it should not be thought that this is the only context in which the media prefer formulas that do not contain the ‘R-word’; the same avoidance can be observed in almost all contexts. Jane Gilmore, the Australian feminist behind the ‘Fixed It’ project, where she takes a red pen to sexist headlines and publishes a screenshot of her amended version with the caption ‘here you go [name of media outlet], I fixed it for you’, is particularly exercised by the persistent use of the word ‘sex’ rather than ‘rape’ in reports on rape cases, even though the media could meet their legal obligation not to prejudice criminal proceedings simply by adding the modifier ‘alleged’. cropped-fixedit_ex-cop-rape-400x468.jpgAs Gilmore says, this is not how they approach the reporting of other crimes which no one has yet been convicted of. If someone is accused of stealing a car, the media feel no need to describe them as merely ‘driving’ the car until a jury has convicted them of theft. Even if their defence is ‘I was driving it with the owner’s permission’, words like ‘theft’ or ‘steal’ won’t be completely off-limits. ‘Rape’, however, is a different matter.

I came to similar conclusions while researching an article for the TES on the language used in media reports on child sexual abuse. The reports I read, especially on cases involving adolescent girls, showed a marked reluctance to use either the word ‘rape’ or other words implying criminality, like ‘assault’ or ‘abuse’. For instance, teachers who had been charged with abusing a position of trust were most commonly said to have ‘had sex with’ the teenage pupils they solicited; sometimes they were said to have had a ‘relationship’ or an ‘affair’. The language, in other words, was drawn from the register we would normally use to talk about sex or romance between consenting adults—even when the teacher was a serial offender preying on pupils as young as 13, and even in reports published after he had been convicted.

Why are reports on cases involving children so cautious about words like ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’? I did wonder if it might be because the actual charge in most of these cases isn’t rape (offences against minors have other names, like ‘sexual activity with a child’). But on reflection I concluded that the charge was not the issue: the avoidance had more to do with two other factors.

One of these factors is a reluctance to use words which imply violence in cases where the perpetrator used emotional and psychological manipulation rather than force or threats. This is how many child abusers operate. In a talk I heard recently about the case of Larry Nassar, the US gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of girls over a period of two decades, the journalist Lindsey Smith (who, with her colleague Kate Wells, covered the case for Michigan public radio, and went on to tell some of the survivors’ stories in the award-winning podcast Believed) explained that the main reason Nassar got away with it for so long was his ability to win the trust both of his victims and of their parents and coaches. Teachers who exploit their pupils also rely on trust; perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that the ‘abuse of a position of trust’ cases were the ones where formulas like ‘had sex/a relationship/an affair with’ were most consistently favoured. By using this language, though, the media just repeat the gaslighting which enables this form of abuse to flourish.

The second factor is a tendency to deny or gloss over the power imbalance between adult men and adolescent girls. The language of ‘relationships’ and ‘affairs’ implicitly affirms what Jeffrey Epstein argued explicitly–that teenage girls should not be thought of as vulnerable children. They may be technically underage, but in reality they are sexually and socially mature adults: they neither need nor want protection from the sexual attentions of older men.

Sometimes the denial of girls’ vulnerability is taken to the next level, by representing them as more powerful, calculating and in control than the men who have exploited them. This victim-blaming story is quite often told in court. At one trial in 2015, the judge said, of a 44-year old teacher who had just been convicted of abusing a position of trust by having sex with a 16-year old pupil, that he had been ‘groomed’ by an ‘intelligent and manipulative girl’. Another adolescent victim was described as a vindictive ‘bunny boiler’.

This portrayal of adult men as the real victims, ensnared and manipulated by predatory teenage girls, is a good example of what the philosopher Kate Manne calls ‘himpathy’, our socialised tendency to feel a man’s pain more easily and keenly than we would feel a woman’s, and to give him, wherever possible, the benefit of the doubt. That tendency provides another motive for not naming men’s actions as rape: since everyone agrees that rape is a particularly heinous crime, we must be ultra-cautious about making such a damaging accusation. We see this concern about ruining men’s lives in everything from the reluctance of judges to punish young men with promising futures to the demand that defendants in rape cases should be granted the same anonymity as their victims. Though the world is full of men who have been accused of rape and have not lost everything (think of Roman Polanski and Donald Trump), this may be yet another reason why  people so often shy away from the R-word.

Himpathy can influence attitudes to rape in other, less obvious ways. Earlier this month, the Court of Protection delivered a judgment in the case of a cognitively impaired man who wanted to have sexual relationships, but who had no understanding of consent. In the past he had behaved ‘inappropriately’ towards women, and his carers, worried that he might be arrested for reasons he was unable to comprehend, had put measures in place to prevent this. The judge, however, ruled that those measures infringed his fundamental rights. He was entitled, as she put it, ‘to make the same mistakes which all human beings can, and do, make in the course of a lifetime’.

As the lawyer Ann Olivarius commented on Twitter, the judge seemed wholly indifferent to the consequences of her ruling for the women this man’s carers believed he would victimise. In fact, she actively minimised the threat he posed to women by reframing it in bland, euphemistic language. Talking about ‘mistakes which all human beings can and do make in the course of a lifetime’ suggests that the issue is something commonplace and relatively minor–like the possibility the man might cause offence or embarrassment by making clumsy and unwelcome advances. In reality his carers feared he would commit a serious sexual offence. Few people would describe raping someone as a ‘mistake’, and certainly not as the kind of mistake that ‘all human beings can and do make’ (especially if we think women count as human beings). Of course, the judge could hardly have said, in so many words, ‘this man should have the same freedom to rape women as all other men’. But if you can get past the silences and the euphemisms, is that not, in essence, what her ruling does say?

This year, schools in England and Wales will be required to teach their pupils what the law says about sexual consent. Young people will learn that you have to be 16 to give consent, and that sex without consent is illegal. But outside the classroom the same young people will encounter large quantities of discourse in which non-consensual sexual acts, including acts involving minors, are described in terms that either normalise them (‘sex’, ‘relationship’, ‘affair’) or trivialise them (‘behave inappropriately’, ‘make mistakes’). Which of these conflicting messages do we think they will retain?

We need to talk about rape—by which I mean, talk about it as rape. EHcdN-TVUAAaSgZThe legal definition may have changed, but ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’ is still, in many ways, closer to the view Susan Estrich critiqued in her 1987 book Real Rape, according to which rape was only ‘real’ if it involved a savage attack by a stranger on a woman of blameless reputation. (The reporting of this kind of case is the one context in which we don’t see any avoidance of the R-word.) If we want to change the current consensus, we need (among other things) to stop using, or tolerating, language that makes the reality of rape disappear.



Since I originally wrote this post, two high-profile news stories have underlined its point about the way language is used to downgrade the seriousness of sexual violence against women and children, and to cloak the reality of violence in vagueness and euphemism. They’ve also demonstrated that this isn’t just an English language problem.

In Spain there have been street protests following the decision of a court in Barcelona that six men who gang-raped a 14-year old girl in Manresa in 2016 could only be found guilty of the lesser charge of ‘abusing’ her, because they did not use ‘violence or intimidation’. They didn’t have to, because drink and drugs had rendered their victim incapable of resistance. Although the Spanish penal code does not recognise ‘rape’ as a specific offence (the more serious crime is ‘sexual assault’), ‘rape’ was the word protesters used in denouncing the ruling and calling for the law to be changed to frame the offence in terms of (non-)consent. ‘No es abuso, es violación’–‘It’s not abuse, it’s rape’–they chanted.

In France, the actor Adèle Haenel gave an interview in which she recounted her experience, between the ages of 12 and 15, of being abused by the director Christophe Ruggia. I have chosen the word ‘abused’ because Haenel was a child at the time. The details she has given do not suggest rape (i.e. penetration), but they do indicate a sustained pattern of abusive behaviour–forced touching/kissing and constant unwanted sexual attention–by a much older man towards a minor girl he had power over. But media reports, as usual, preferred other words, like ‘sexual harassment’ (as used in reports on #MeToo cases involving adults in the entertainment industry), and in the case of Screen Daily, the old-fashioned, euphemistic ‘molest’ and ‘molestation’.

What we see in these cases is a pattern whereby the language used, by the courts and/or the media, systematically downgrades the seriousness of whatever behaviour has been complained of. Gang-rape becomes ‘abuse’; child abuse becomes ‘harassment’ or ‘molestation’ (and as we saw at the height of #MeToo, harassment becomes ‘inappropriate behaviour’). The repetition of these formulas establishes them as the ‘official’ reality.

But the Spanish case shows how powerful it can be to challenge this linguistic downgrading. abuse Even where the word ‘rape’ has been removed from the penal code, it remains meaningful–and potent–in everyday language. The protestors are saying, in effect, ‘your patriarchal law cannot define our experience; its language does not speak for us’. (The cartoon alongside captures this sentiment: it’s captioned ‘sorry, but the only one who can decide if you were raped or not is me’.) Spanish feminists have insisted on talking about rape as rape; they have foregrounded the naming of the crime in chants and hashtags (#NoEsAbusoEsViolacion). Wherever we see the same kind of linguistic avoidance and downgrading, we should follow their example.

The illustrations are reproduced from Jane Gilmore’s ‘Fixed It’ project, from the Denver Post (h/t Twitter correspondents Jarvis Good and EwokNews), and from the Facebook page of Campus Relatoras (h/t Pilar Cuder Domínguez)

Unreasonable doubt

Content note: This post deals with the reporting of sexual violence, and contains details of a very distressing case.

In the first week of 2019, news media around the world reported that a woman in a healthcare facility outside Phoenix, Arizona, had unexpectedly given birth to a baby boy. This was not a happy event. The woman had been in a vegetative state since suffering brain damage many years earlier (some reports said ‘over a decade’, others 14 years; later it was suggested she had spent as long as 27 years—by implication, most of her life—in full-time medical care, relying on others to take care of her most basic needs. Yet her pregnancy went unnoticed until, alerted by her moaning, a staff member realized she was in the advanced stages of labour.

Clearly, there are all kinds of questions that need to be asked about this horrific case. And while it isn’t the most important or the most urgent, one of those questions concerns the way it was reported by the media.

Criticism of the media’s coverage of sexual violence often focuses on the twin problems of victim-blaming and ‘himpathy’, the tendency to make excuses for men or to present them as victims themselves. In this case those problems did not arise. But there was another problem with the language used in reports, as you may notice if you look at these examples:

  1. The police in Phoenix have opened an investigation into allegations that a woman in a vegetative state at a private nursing facility was sexually assaulted and gave birth to a child last month (New York Times)
  2. An Arizona health care facility is investigating what it calls a “deeply disturbing incident” that a local television station has said involved the alleged sexual assault of a patient in a vegetative state (People)
  3. Local news outlet KPHO-TV reports that the Phoenix Police Department began investigating the incident as a possible rape case after the woman gave birth on Dec. 29. (Huffington Post)
  4. Police in Phoenix, Arizona, are investigating a possible sexual assault after a woman in a vegetative state gave birth at a healthcare facility on Saturday (Insider.com)
  5. Woman in vegetative state gives birth after apparent assault (ABC News)
  6. She gave birth on December 29 after apparently being raped at the facility some months earlier. (Mail Online)

A fancy name for what concerns me about these examples is ‘epistemic modality’—the expression of meanings relating to certainty or uncertainty, belief or disbelief. Suppose I’ve lost my keys and you ask me when I last had them. I can convey the same basic information—that I had them yesterday—in a range of different ways that communicate different degrees of confidence in the truth of that proposition. I might say, for instance (though there are many other possibilities):

It must/ might/ may/ could have been yesterday
I know/ think/ guess I had them yesterday
It was definitely/ probably/ possibly yesterday
I’m absolutely/ quite/ pretty/ almost sure it was yesterday

I’ve deliberately used a banal example to make the point that we all do this all the time. But in some contexts it’s particularly important to pay attention to this aspect of language. News reporting is one example. In a genre where, proverbially, ‘facts are sacred’, reporters must choose their words to make clear whether a proposition is being presented as a fact, a theory, a belief, a rumour, a supposition, a speculation or an opinion.

In news reports on the Arizona case, the proposition that the woman who gave birth had been sexually assaulted or raped (Arizona’s state law uses the term ‘sexual assault’ for both) was persistently worded in a way that implied a lack of certainty. In the first two examples reproduced above, the assault is said to be ‘alleged’ or an ‘allegation’, i.e. a claim someone has made that could be either true or false. The next two refer to a ‘possible’ sexual assault or rape. In the last two we get ‘apparent(ly)’, which suggests a higher degree of confidence, but stops short of full commitment (‘we don’t know for sure, but this is how it looks’). In everyday talk ‘apparently’ is often used to indicate that a proposition is hearsay, second-hand information whose truth the speaker can’t vouch for independently (e.g., ‘she’s broken up with her girlfriend, apparently’).

I didn’t make a full survey of the coverage, but this was the dominant pattern in the sample of reports I looked at. Among those which did not fit the pattern, most avoided taking any position at all (for instance, by reporting only that the woman had given birth and the police had launched an investigation). I found only one report, in the Washington Post, that expressed a high degree of confidence a crime had been committed:

The birth — and the sexual assault of a vulnerable individual that must have preceded it — has cast a harsh glare on conditions at a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a leading provider of health care for Phoenix’s medically fragile.

By using the modal verb ‘must’, this report presents the proposition that the woman was assaulted as something we are logically obliged to treat as certain. Even if there were no witnesses (or more exactly, none capable of making a statement), there is no other explanation for what some people did witness, the birth of a child to a woman who had been in a vegetative state for (much) longer than the duration of her pregnancy.

To me, and I imagine most readers of this blog, the conclusion drawn by the Post is self-evidently the correct one, while the caution displayed in other sources is excessive. If ‘sexual assault’ is understood to mean sex without consent (which is how Arizona’s legal code defines it), then there is no doubt that this woman was assaulted. Her pregnancy is evidence of sex (or in a hypothetical alternative scenario involving artificial insemination, of a bodily intrusion that would also count as assault by Arizona’s definition), and because of her vegetative state we can be certain that she did not consent, nor do anything that could have been construed as consent. In any case, under Arizona law a person affected by ‘a mental disorder, defect, drugs, alcohol or any type of impairment’ lacks the capacity to consent to sex.

In this case there really are no ifs, buts or maybes: what was done to this woman was a criminal assault. Why couldn’t the media just say so, without all the hedging and equivocating? The impression their language gave was that they didn’t understand either the legal definition of sexual assault or the concept of consent. The hedging invited readers to look for reasons why this might not have been rape, potentially reinforcing well-worn myths like ‘it’s not rape if he doesn’t use force’ and ‘it’s not rape if she doesn’t resist’.  Or in this situation, ‘it’s not rape if she’s in a permanent vegetative state’. (Yes, it’s a horrible thought–but there are men who think it’s not rape if a woman is asleep.)

On Twitter, I saw a number of comments suggesting that cautious language had been used for legal reasons (‘they can’t say it’s rape when it’s still being investigated’). In some cases, it’s true, the legal presumption of innocence obliges the media to remain non-committal on the question of whether a rape occurred. If the defendant in a case is denying he raped the complainant and claiming it was consensual sex, then the complainant’s account of it as rape cannot be presented as factually true, or even as more credible than the alternative, because that would be prejudicial to the defendant, presupposing his guilt before it has been proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ (the standard of proof required for a criminal conviction). Unless and until there is a conviction, the complainant’s statement can be presented only as an ‘allegation’. And most rape cases where the disputed issue is consent do not result in a conviction. The arguments made by defence lawyers and the conclusions drawn by jurors reflect the attitudes of the wider culture, which is not only predisposed to doubt women’s accounts, but willing to accept almost any argument for doubting them as ‘reasonable’.

But in the Arizona case it should have been obvious that these considerations did not apply. No police officer or lawyer will ever question this woman; no jury will ever be asked to determine whether she consented, or whether she lied. If there’s a trial, it will be all about the DNA. How, in these circumstances, could anyone have thought it was necessary, or indeed accurate, to report that the police were investigating an ‘alleged’ assault? Who is supposed to have made the ‘allegation’? Clearly not a woman who is unable to communicate. And if it’s the staff at the facility, what they did was not ‘allege’ something but report something some of them had directly witnessed. As for ‘possible’ assault, when you describe something as a ‘possible X’, you’re saying it might turn out that either nothing happened or that what happened was something other than X. In this case, what would that have been? Abduction by aliens? A miracle?

What were the people who wrote this stuff, or passed it for publication, thinking? One answer to that question might be quite simply that they weren’t thinking: they just reached for the conventional formulas on autopilot, without stopping to ask themselves whether in this situation the result would be inaccurate and misleading. Like the political writers George Orwell criticized in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, they were stringing together stock phrases in the manner of ‘a prefabricated henhouse’.

Feminist efforts to change the language of rape reporting have often assumed that this thoughtless recycling of outdated formulas is the central problem, and that the solution is a combination of awareness-raising—getting people to notice what’s implied by the language they habitually use—and offering practical alternatives. That’s the approach taken in, for instance, this checklist for journalists produced by Canada’s Use the Right Words project , which touches on the question of epistemic modality: it notes for instance that ‘allegedly’ may be necessary in certain contexts but warns against over-using it, and recommends that complainants’ statements should be framed using neutral verbs (e.g., ‘she said’) rather than verbs that imply doubt or blame (like ‘she claimed’ or ‘she admitted’).

But while this kind of advice can be helpful to those who are disposed to take it, the problem it can’t address is that which words are ‘the right words’ depends on what story you’re using them to tell. What if the media use the words they do strategically, because they are in fact the ‘right words’ for the narrative being constructed? Is the problem the words themselves, or is it the narrative?

In a 1992 article entitled ‘The linguistics of blame’, Kate Clark analysed the vocabulary and grammar used in the Sun newspaper’s reporting of violence against women,  and found that different patterns were associated with two contrasting narratives: one in which an innocent victim—a child, a chaste young woman or a good wife and loving ‘mum’—was attacked by a man described as a ‘monster’, a ‘beast’ or a ‘fiend’, and another in which a bad woman—a negligent or frigid wife, a provocative ‘Lolita’ or promiscuous ‘blonde divorcee’—was held responsible for provoking whatever had happened to her. In addition to being a standard-bearer for sexism, the Sun was a staunch supporter of right-wing ‘law and order’ policies: cases of violence against ‘innocent’ women could be used to advance that part of its political agenda. More recently we’ve seen some sections of the press eschewing the usual scepticism and victim-blaming where that enables them to construct a racist narrative in which ‘our women’ [i.e., white women and girls] are being exploited and abused by non-white, foreign or Muslim men.

In the Arizona case it seemed the media had no strong or consistent narrative. We might have expected this to be, in the Sun’s terms, an ‘innocent victim abused by a monster’ story, worded to express outrage rather than caution. But the outrage was noticeably muted (‘a deeply disturbing incident’ was as strong as it got). Though the victim’s ‘innocence’ was not in question (many reports contained obfuscation and needless scepticism, but none engaged in actual victim-blaming), there did not seem to be much empathy for her either. As this comment piece notes, abusers of women with disabilities (who as a group suffer disproportionately high levels of sexual violence) can exploit not only their victims’ inherent vulnerability, but also their cultural invisibility. The mistreatment of disabled people in institutions is hidden from public view, and the media that might bring attention to it are, as one disability activist quoted in the piece puts it, ‘still largely uncomfortable seeing disabled people as, well, people’.

Even if they are deemed ‘innocent’, some victims may still be treated as less deserving of our sympathy and concern than others. Race, class, age and (dis)ability all influence the ranking. (Another pertinent example recently in the news is the way the media covered R. Kelly’s marriage to 15-year old Aaliyah in the 1990s, described in this piece as a ‘collective shrug’ which resulted from a combination of celebrity-worship, himpathy and misogynoir.)

I am not suggesting feminists shouldn’t criticize the media’s use of specific words, stock formulas or linguistic strategies (something I’ve done myself in this post), but I do think we need to recognize that the problem here goes far beyond language. The language of rape reporting is more a clue to the problem than a cause of it: it reflects the narratives the media construct around sexual violence, the culture of disbelief those narratives spring from, and the male dominance which that disbelief protects. Those things, ultimately, are what we have to change.

Update: since this post was written a man who worked at the Arizona facility as a practical nurse has been arrested on charges of sexual assault and vulnerable adult abuse. 


The fembots of Ashley Madison

Content note: this post includes some explicit sexual material which readers may find offensive and/or distressing.

‘Life is short. Have an affair’.

That was the sales pitch for Ashley Madison, the website for people seeking ‘discreet’ extra-marital sex that recently came to grief after hackers dumped a load of its users’ personal data on the web. It turned out that the website was basically running a scam. Straight men, the majority of site-users, were paying to hook up with women who did not, for the most part, exist. Real women did use the site, but they were massively outnumbered by fake ones.  Profiles were cobbled together by employees, and then animated by an army of bots which bombarded male subscribers with messages.

The bots’ opening gambits were merely banal: ‘hi’, ‘hi there’, ‘hey’, ‘hey there’, ‘u busy?’, ‘you there?’, ‘hows it going?’, ‘chat?’, ‘how r u?’, ‘anybody home? lol’, ‘hello’, ‘so what brings you here?’, ‘oh hello’, ‘free to chat??’. But if a man responded (using his credit card as instructed), they started to sound distinctly bottish. ‘Hmmmm’, they would confide, ‘when I was younger I used to sleep with my friend’s boyfriends. I guess old habits die hard although I could never sleep with their husbands’. Or: ‘I’m sexy, discreet, and always up for kinky chat. Would also meet up in person if we get to know each other and think there might be a good connection. Does this sound intriguing?’ No, actually—it sounds like you’re a bot.

Some men did suspect fraud. In 2012, one site-user complained to the California state authorities, though nothing came of it at the time. What tipped him off wasn’t, however, the bots’ clunkily-scripted lines. It was being contacted in a short space of time by multiple women who supposedly lived in his area, who hadn’t looked at his profile, and who sent him identical messages. All things that might have passed unnoticed if the bots hadn’t been operating on such an industrial scale.

The Ashley Madison bots were pretty basic. But the sex industry is a serious player in the world of AI bots—more sophisticated programs that can learn from their interactions with humans, and produce novel, unscripted messages. David Levy, who has twice won the Loebner Prize (a competition based on the Turing test for machine intelligence, in which a computer has to convince human judges it is also human) is the author of a book called Love and Sex with Robots, and president of Erotic Chatbots Ltd, a company whose name is self-explanatory. Recently it has gone into business with an enterprise that makes high-end sex dolls. At the moment, sex dolls are designed to satisfy their owners’ physical and aesthetic requirements: few of them talk, and none of them could be said to converse. Chatbots, on the other hand, talk, but they’re not usually physically embodied. Bringing the two things together in one package—a doll that looks and feels realistic and can also make human-like conversation—seemed like an obvious (though technologically ambitious) business proposition.

When I first read about this I was sceptical, for reasons that are succinctly summarized in this comment left by a man:

Don’t you realize, the whole reason to get a doll is so we DON’T have to listen to them talk after sex?

But while this may be the prevailing attitude among the minority of men who regularly fuck inanimate objects, there are reasons to think it is not how most men feel. In surveys of men who buy sexual services, a high proportion typically claim to want some kind of human relationship. Silent, sullen prostitutes who make no effort to get to know the client, talk to him or pretend the encounter is enjoyable for them are apt to prompt complaints from punters, even if those punters also describe them as physically attractive and compliant.

You might think this issue would also deter men from having sex with robots: you can’t have a human relationship with a non-human entity. However, many experts believe otherwise. Studies of people who work with robots in other contexts have found a strong tendency to anthropomorphize them, projecting personality traits and feelings onto them which, outside fiction, they do not have. The military sometimes uses robots to do dangerous tasks like disarming bombs, and sometimes the robots get blown up. Human soldiers reporting these incidents say things like ‘poor little guy’. One group whose robot got blown up held a funeral for it.

So, there could be a market for talking sex robots. But what kind of conversation will they make?

The less ambitious developers are just hoping to improve on the current generation of ‘unintelligent’ sex chatbots, programmed to spew out the sort of random messages Ashley Madison’s subscribers got. You could do this by giving them a sexed-up version of the capabilities displayed by Virtual Assistants like Siri and Cortana. They wouldn’t pass a Turing test, but they’d be able to, as one developer puts it, ‘follow simple instructions’.

Erotic Chatbots Ltd. has more ambitious plans. At the moment it’s developing a bot that can ‘talk dirty’. Levy explained in an interview how you train a bot to do that:

You give them lots and lots of examples and they generalize from those examples and they can make the whole of their conversation sound like somebody who talks dirty in a loving way. We teach [the bot] and it generalizes, but it will talk about any subject. You can talk to it about Italian food and it will interject about lasagna. “I could have a great time with lasagna!”

His business partner Paul Andrew chipped in:

We’ll be using erotic writers to help us program the language, so we’re actually going to work with people who do this for a living, as it were. That way we can give the chatbot a good understanding of the vocabulary and the… talk. I’m trying to think of a good word to use there. Basically, we will give them a really good grounding, and then the chatbot learns. Once they have a vocabulary, once they have a basic brain, they grow themselves. They’re quite competent. We also work with some people who do [sex] chat lines; we’re going to pick their brains, too.

In other words: ‘we’re going to teach our bot to emulate the linguistic characteristics of porn’. In the circumstances that’s not a big surprise. But there is, perhaps, a certain irony in it. Levy and Andrew want to use cutting-edge science and technology to make machines capable of producing one of the most predictable and stereotypical linguistic registers in existence—so clichéd that its human users often sound like bots themselves.

Paul Andrew mentions ‘picking the brains’ of people who work on sex-chat phone lines. Back in the mid-1990s, the linguistic anthropologist Kira Hall did some research on the language used by phone sex workers (their own term was ‘fantasy makers’) around San Francisco. She found their performances traded heavily on stereotypes about women’s language. Like speaking in a lilting, breathy voice, ‘using lots of adjectives’ when describing yourself, and dropping in plenty of elaborate rather than basic colour-terms (your imaginary underwear wouldn’t be ‘pink’ or ‘black’, it would be ‘peach’ or ‘charcoal’). The workers knew these were stereotypes: the language they produced on the phone was nothing like the way they talked when they weren’t taking calls. But stereotypes, in their experience, were exactly what their customers wanted.

Since different customers were into different stereotypes, a skilled fantasy maker needed to be able to produce a range of female personae on the phone—schoolgirl, southern belle, dominatrix, bimbo, Asian woman, Black woman, etc. They prided themselves on being able to ‘do’ personae which were remote from their own real-life identities. One of the individuals Hall spoke to wasn’t even a woman, he was a man who could pass for a woman on the phone. On the question of race, the view was widely held that white women made the best Black women, and vice-versa. As one worker explained to Hall, the Black woman of the (mainly white) callers’ dreams was a two dimensional racist stereotype which white women were actually better at producing (not to mention less uncomfortable with).

Women (and men) who work the fantasy lines are like human fembots, performing a version of femininity that callers will pay to spend time with. Not only does this performance not have to be authentic to be convincing, in the context of commercial sex an authentic (i.e., non-stereotypical) performance of femininity would risk destroying the illusion which is the real object of desire.

But you might wonder, what is sex-talk like when the parties are not in a commercial relationship? Is the language less clichéd? Are the personae constructed less stereotypical? The short answer is, not necessarily. The researcher Chrystie Myketiak has analysed cybersex encounters between peers in a virtual environment which those who study it refer to as ‘Walford’. (It’s an online community which did a deal with a university: the university would host and maintain it in exchange for being able to observe and analyse what went on in it. Its members all consented, and their consent is sought again every time they log on). Here’s a typical extract from Myketiak’s data, in which the two parties have taken the roles of a male and a female (most likely this reflects their offline identities, but we don’t know for sure). In the transcript ‘F’ and ‘M’ identify the female and the male participant.

(M) [his] hot seed fills every crevice of your womanhood…
(M) Keeps fucking you hard, jolting your entire body with each thrust.
(F) Grinds you by twisting and turning, faster and faster… she really wants it rough.
(M) Gives it to you so hard your ancestors feel it.
(F) Is pleasured senseless, she has tears coming to her eyes.
(M) Reaches around and rubs your hardened clit, violently.
(F) Whispers “Know any other wild positions? Hehe…”
(M) Whatever comes to mind is good for me.
(F) Same here… surprise me…

Linguistically, what stands out about this extract is the way the participants mix third-person narrative, second-person address and occasional use of the first person. You don’t get that in other kinds of porn. But the narrative itself is full of porn clichés, and the whole thing is organized around the heteropatriarchal proposition that in sexual encounters, men lead and women follow. Men are dominant, women submissive: whatever men desire is also pleasurable for woman. If he’s violent, that’s OK, because ‘she really wants it rough’.

In a paper she gave at a 2012 conference on robots (there’s a written draft version available here), the lawyer Sinziana Gutiu argued that if AI sexbots are successfully developed they will further entrench these ideologies of gender and sexuality. She thinks this will be a serious problem, because the combination of verbal and physical interaction which intelligent sex robots permit will have an even more powerful effect than porn does now on men’s real-world interactions with human women.

Gutiu points out that the advanced capabilities designers hope to give future robots will make them seem human, and that perception will be reinforced by the anthropomorphizing tendency mentioned earlier. However, some key human qualities will be deliberately left out of their design—like the ability to verbalize pain or emotional distress. Above all, there will never be any question about whether a robot consents to sex. It is there for its user to have sex with as and when he wishes. She goes on:

By circumventing any need for consent, sex robots eliminate the need for communication, mutual respect and compromise in the sexual relationship…allowing men to physically act out rape fantasies and confirm rape myths.

And she believes men’s experience with these nearly-but-not-quite human entities will lead at least some of them to assume that real women can legitimately be treated in the same ways.

Her paper also hints, however, that intelligent sex robots could in principle be designed to do the opposite of what she fears. If they were trained to engage their human user in talk which emphasizes negotiating consent, communicating your desires and feelings, respecting others’ boundaries and being willing to compromise, they could be used to teach a different way of interacting from the one which is modelled in porn. I’m no AI expert, but that sounds to me a lot more difficult than making a bot that ‘talks dirty’. And also, of course, a much less attractive proposition for investors whose aim is to make a profit.

It’s not only the money angle which makes me think that Gutiu’s educational sexbot is less likely to materialize than the pornified fembot of her nightmares. Therapists tell us that the most important reason why intimate relationships fail is a lack of open and honest communication, particularly about sex. But intimacy with another person doesn’t seem to be what a lot of men are looking for. If what they wanted was an intimate encounter with a female human being—a unique, complex individual with her own thoughts, feelings and desires—how could so many men have fallen for the fembots of Ashley Madison?