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Being a feminist in another language is not the same. Words shift and change and disappear in translation. So it is that the linguistic resources I have access to in English become something different in French.

Living as a francophone, I’m finding holes in my vocabulary where there once were signifiers for important categories and concepts. The carefully-mapped out vocabulary of identity politics I once used as an anglophone to structure and understand my life as well as those of the people around me has simply ceased to exist. The language of intersectional feminism that I invested so much time into learning is no longer available to me here.

I am presented with some peculiar problems. Like searching for French equivalents to words for which there are extensive discourses attached in English. Is there a phrase for rape culture? How do I respectfully refer to sex workers? What if these words and concepts just aren’t a thing? Maybe there are more extensive discourses around other ideas, each with their own set of buzz words, so translating ‘rape culture’ might not even be useful anyway. Sex work is illegal here, so does a respectful word even exist? So what now? God, it’s hard. It’s not just a matter of literal translation, but of translation that is relevant to the conversations happening about feminism in France. Sociolinguistics, or something.

Then there is the problem of intensely gendered grammar. Only now do I appreciate English’s genderless articles. Oh, our simple adjectives and verb agreements. What luxury it is to rattle off entire sentences without the need to refer to gender until pronouns come into play. Alas, the grammatical necessity of modifying entire sentences for a person’s gender in French means that binary gender is more enforced than ever. So how do I express gender-neutrality if there are only two choices? How do I refer to queer and gender-variant friends? Surely there are queer feminist discourses around this, but until I find those discourses, I risk alienating people with language.

I feel like a baby feminist again, with all the passion but none of the tools. I see when things are wrong, but don’t have the vocabulary to make a challenge or articulate my feelings. I have to opt out of conversations I’d love to have for lack of words. With diminished language has come diminished power, and it’s super-frustrating. Words, once my favourite weapons, are now a struggle of their own.

The solution is, bien sûr, to stop fraternising with the feminists and start talking to the féministes. They can tell me where the French lexicon is at. It is impossible to translate in isolation. Our feminist vocabulary is the work of the collective, so ’tis there I must go. I need to unsubscribe from some anglophone feminist media and, in between mouthfuls of bread and cheese, read some féministe conversations instead. I’ll see what words the féministes are dropping on tumblr, what fancy hashtags are circling the twittersphere.

So I’ll work on it, but it’s weird right now. It’s like I’m sixteen, learning the word misogyny for the first time. I only just learnt to say ‘fuck the patriarchy’ in French (J’ENCULE LE PATRIARCAT). It will be worth the struggle and social media digging. Because language is so ridiculously powerful, and god, I want that power back.


[Trigger warning: sexual violence]

“Frape” is the generous contribution of Gen-Y (or something) to the social media lexicon, and also one of my least favourite social media buzz words. In the absence of any other words with which to describe a very specific, modern phenomenon, “frape” has become essential internet vocabulary. It’s prolific, and it’s awful.

I hate “frape”. I hate it as a verb, as a noun, and basically as every form in which it’s possible to hate a word.

I hate “frape” for the same reasons for which I hate rape jokes. Because “frape” is a rape joke, despite having slipped through the rape joke radar into common usage. “Frape” isn’t a grand punchline – I mean, it’s just a word – but the word is supposed to be novel all the same, always said with a little titter. It’s said every time like it’s clever and silly, because it’s so hyperbolic and ridiculous to compare Facebook pranks to sexual assault. You see. Har har.

Do you remember when we all agreed that rape jokes are a bad idea? Circa 2011-ish, the feminist blogosphere exploded with articles explaining the reasons for which joking about rape isn’t funny. There are lots of amazing resources on rape jokes, but here’s my favourite bit from my favourite piece, circa 2009:

For those of you who wonder why rape victims get all super sensitive about rape jokes ‘n shit, well, this is why. Before you’re raped, rape jokes might be uncomfortable, or they might be funny, or they might be any given thing. But after you’re raped, they are a trigger. They make you remember what was done to you. And if the joke was about something that wasn’t done to you, not in quite that way, you can really easily imagine how it would feel, because you know how something exactly like that felt. Rape jokes stop being about a thing that happens out there, somewhere, to people who don’t really exist, and if they do they probably deserved it, and they start being about you. Rape jokes are about you. Jokes about women liking it or deserving it are about how much you liked it and deserved it. And they are also jokes about how, in all likelihood, it’s going to happen to you again.

When I first read this article I had not been sexually assaulted. These words were pertinent, but they did not apply to me. Now, post-sexual assault, they describe my everyday reality, in which most mentions of rape elicit flashbacks. “Frape” is one of these things. It turns my experience into a punchline, and it’s a punchline that hurts me.

Every careless out-of-context mention of “rape” risks making a survivor of sexual violence feel a little more certain that what happened to them isn’t that big of a deal. All rape jokes are potential triggers. Every casual rape joke makes more rape jokes ok. Dropping “rape” in a sentence because it’s ridiculous and fun to exaggerate might make you happy, but it’s not worth the trade-off of mental agony for the survivor of sexual violence you might be talking to. And statistically, that might be a quarter of the women in your newsfeed.

And so, you say, what are we to do? If survivors of sexual violence are to get all persnickety about every little thing? If only they weren’t so sensitive. (Victim-blaming ugh ugh ugh). Of course it is quite impossible to avoid the word “rape” altogether, or to flag every discussion with a trigger warning, but when we know language hurts people, let’s do what we can. We know that “frape” hurts people. “Frape” might not be upsetting to every survivor of sexual violence, but it sure is for a fair few, and that’s too many.

Let’s work to make the lives of survivors easier. Let’s try not make rape jokes; let’s try not trivialise something that’s actually really traumatic and serious; let’s try not make it more ok for sexual violence to happen. Please, “frape” is one word we can live without.


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