ADJECTIVES OCTOBER 8, 2013
All of a sudden, everything is “rapey.” I blame Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which conjured the adjective so many times that even the Wall Street Journal deployed it (surely a sign of the apocalypse). Gawker thinks YouTube pranksters who give unsolicited hugs are rapey. Monday, New York attached the term to a frat bro’s how-to guide for bedding drunk girls, and last month, Jezebel used it to describe graffiti that denigrated victims of sexual assault on college campuses. The list goes on.
I’m all for having a word for behavior that is vaguely troubling rather than full-on threatening, a warning flag to raise at the first whiff of chauvinism. But if “rapey” is the right adjective for a pop song prodding, “I know you want it,” how can it also be the term of choice for a vandal writing “whore” on a photo of a college rape survivor? That’s not “rapey,” it’s a terrifying and sadistic attitude toward rape. We adorn our sentences with adjectives because we want to get specific, as my colleague Noreen Malone underscored in her defense of the “-y” suffix last year: “Caddish” may be a more eloquent choice than “harass-y,” but sometimes the slapdash alternative cuts closer to what you want to say. But bandying rapey around in such a broad range of situations abuses the privilege. Someone needs to buy these bloggers a dictionary.
Except that eschewing specificity seems to be the whole point of calling something rapey. The word is flippant, and crude, and that’s the source of its humor. Most things that get dubbed rapey on the Internet are intended to get laughs, like the aforementioned fraternity brother and his “short guide” to “the 7 E’s of HOOKING UP!” (Including, “IF ANYTHING EVER FAILS, GO GET MORE ALCOHOL.” All-caps emphasis obviously his.) I'll be honest: I've said rapey, probably about the neighborhood of Georgetown, where the sea of guys in popped collars threatens to wash away all the things I like about the world. But I always feel a twinge of guilt when I drop that clunky word. I think, if comedy is the goal, that we need to attach that “-y” suffix to a different base. Real rape, not "rapey-ness," still gets laughed off in America—“he said, she said,” too much booze—and these trivializing Internet associations don’t seem like a ticket to the gravity the subject deserves.
It’s good to have a moniker for sexism at its most flabbergasting and gross, and it’s even good for that word to be funny, to buy the observations some mainstream cred. But if the word needs to be funny, it shouldn't be “rapey,” and it should be kept clear from things—including the college vandalism and that frat bro’s email—that actively encourage or relate to rape. Rape, the real crime, already suffers from enough blurred lines.