How To Destroy Rape Culture: Step 1: Descriptivism

I believe that the first step toward destroying or dismantling rape culture from its deepest essence, must begin with a revision of the ways we understand data.

Which of the following statements do you believe are true?

1. Words in English have their own meanings, making it possible to use a word incorrectly.
2. Words in English have no meaning until the speaker of the word assigns it a meaning.

If, for some reason, you believe number 1 to be true, you are contributing to the perpetuation of rape culture. Learning to believe number 2 to be true, is the first step toward ending rape culture from its deepest roots of the must underlying, fundamental beliefs, outward for a ripple effect leading to genuine change. Arguably the biggest reason that rape culture is believed to have such a firm grip is that the people who claim to be against rape culture have and defend a philosophy that is completely hypocritical to the cause.

In the linguistics community, people who believe that number 1 as true are linguistic prescriptivists, who propose that a dictionary or reference material on words is where the “rules” for usage come from, but this isn’t true. You may believe you learned this in school — but what you were actually taught was, that in order to pass that particular class, those rules must be obeyed.. but they are not really rules outside of the class.

In the linguistics community, people who believe number 2 as true are linguistic descriptivists, who accurately recognize that words are only given power by their speakers, not dictionaries or grammar books. For you see, dictionaries and grammar books themselves, are descriptive of how speakers have used words in the past.

Statistics is another field in which a prescriptive philosophy of data perpetuates rape culture.

1. If there were 8760 rapes last year, then since dividing 8760 by 365 equals 24, meaning that someone was raped every hour of every day last year, so we should worry about being raped every hour of every day.
2. If there were 8760 rapes last year, that was x less/more rapes than the previous year.

Those who believe number 1 are statistic prescriptivists, that attempt some kind of rape-prophecy for the future based on patterns of the past. If you’re just going to make predictions of the future when the future has not arrived, why don’t you just tell us what the lottery numbers will be tomorrow? Because no one knows the future, and fooling yourself into believing that the past dictates the future means that since rape culture has always existed, then it will always exist. If you believe that rape culture needs to stop in the future, then you must stop believing that the past dictates the future.

Those who believe number 2 are statistic descriptivists, that make observations of the past for comparison with the past, where the future is open. 8760 rapes last year does not mean that “this year, someone will be raped every hour of every day” because that is prescribing, not describing.

For the linguistic angle again, think of the way that a newspaper reports on say, a murder. Is the newspaper “saying” that all future murders must occur in this manner? No. The newspaper is describing one past murder, not limiting or restricting methods of future murders. Is a newspaper reporting sport scores in order to mandate that all future games between those teams must result in that same score? No. The newspaper is describing, not prescribing, how one sporting event’s score turned out.

Likewise, a dictionary is merely a ranking of the ways speakers intended their own words to mean, by consent of the speaker. A dictionary does not prescribe the way words must be used — that is precisely contrary to the very nature of a dictionary. Dictionary researchers observe and research (in a sense, ask consent) of what the speaker actually meant when they used a word.

Think of Twitter’s hashtag search. If you search for a Twitter hashtag, you’ll find a list of the ways that hashtag has been used by others, not limitations on the only ways the hashtag is permitted to be used. A dictionary is just like a hashtag search, if all words ever were hashtags.

Dictionary researchers document the way words are used in every day life by everyone around them — magazines, tv transcripts, subtitles, facebook, twitter, tumblr, movie scripts, books, etc, and observe the way speakers use words, and then rank the individual “meanings” within a single word’s entry in order of “most frequent observation of the word used in this way.”

The idea that a dictionary sets limitations on the way words are only allowed to be used is false for general English. That may be true for Scrabble, but the words you use in real life are not scored on a Scrabble board unless you’re using them to play Scrabble, in the same way that they are not graded in the classroom unless they’re being used in the class. You may have a job that requires you to use words in a certain way (such as the medical field), but that limitation does not exist outside of the job.

By believing that words have power outside of what a speaker intends them to mean, such that a speaker can use incorrectly by accident, you are perpetuating the philosophy that makes rape culture possible. The idea that words can “mean something you didn’t intend to mean” strikes at the heart of why men think that women could even possibly think that “your lips say no but your clothing says yes,” or that “you say you’re opposed to rape, but yet you still go to parties where rapes happen.” The wrongness of these quotes are based on the underlying philosophy that the words you use can be used improperly, and that it is valid to interpret someone’s words against that which they adamantly deny.

The descriptivist asks for consent every time, even during. The prescriptivist believes present or future consent based on past hints.

The descriptivist has present-tense and active proof as a firm foundation for present action. The prescriptivist makes guesses and deals with the fallout later.

Compare these:

1. Words in English have their own meanings, making it possible to use a word incorrectly.
1. If there were 8760 rapes last year, then since dividing 8760 by 365 equals 24, meaning that someone was raped every hour of every day last year, so we should worry about being raped every hour of every day.
1. She hasn’t given me consent, but by the way she moves I can infer that she is offering her consent without me even having to ask.

2. Words in English have no meaning until the speaker of the word assigns it a meaning.
2. If there were 8760 rapes last year, that was x less/more rapes than the previous year.
2. She continues at present to give consent, continually, and there are no doubts of her proper ability to give it, but that could change at any moment and I must cease if that ever becomes true.

Prescriptivism is the philosophy that actions of the past create boundaries for how the future must happen, or will happen, or if do not happen that way are in error.

Descriptivism is the philosophy that actions of the past only describe the past. Present evidence describes the present. The future is not predictable, because we cannot observe it.

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