Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop at the Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind., on May 2, 2016.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images
Ideas
May 3, 2016 12:12 PM EDT
Bates is the founder of The Everyday Sexism Project and the author of Everyday Sexism

After a presidential candidate has made repeated misogynistic comments, accused his opponent of “playing the woman card” and suggested that women who have abortions should be punished, what else can he do to alienate female voters? Apparently, if you’re Donald Trump, the answer is simple: start throwing around the word ‘rape’.

Speaking about the trade relationship between the U.S. and China at a rally in Fort Wayne, Ind., Trump said: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.”

Except, of course, it isn’t.

When you use the word “rape” to mean taking advantage of another country financially, beating a sports team, logging into someone’s Facebook account without their knowledge or any of the other common uses that have nothing to do with sexual violence, you dilute the importance of the term and belittle the experience of survivors. This is particularly damaging in a culture that too often seeks to discredit survivors and doubts the validity of women’s allegations.

This isn’t the first time Trump has become embroiled in a row over rape. He was forced to distance himself from his lawyer and top aide Michael Cohen last year, after Cohen claimed it wasn’t possible for a man to rape his spouse. Speaking in response to a question about an allegation of rape made against Trump by his former wife Ivana Trump, who later said she did not mean to use the word “in a literal or criminal sense,” Cohen said: “You’re talking about the frontrunner for the GOP, presidential candidate, as well as a private individual who never raped anybody. And, of course, understand that by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse.”

Trump also revealed his breathtaking ignorance about the reality of rape—not to mention sweeping racism—when he suggested that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. were responsible for perpetrating crimes, including rape. In the speech announcing his presidential bid, Trump said: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

When he later claimed there was a “mind boggling” link between rape and illegal immigration, CNN host Don Lemon pointed out that Trump had misunderstood a report actually revealing that 80% of women crossing the Mexican border are raped along the way. In response, Trump said: “Well, somebody’s doing the raping, Don! I mean somebody’s doing it! Who’s doing the raping? Who’s doing the raping?”

If Trump took a moment to consult some survivor support organizations, he might learn the answer to that question. Rapists are usually men already known to victims, such as intimate partners, colleagues or friends—not strangers in dark alleyways. Nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have experienced rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives, with more than half of female victims naming an intimate partner as the perpetrator, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. And about 68% of assaults go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

That under-reporting is one reason why rhetoric like Trump’s casual use of the word “rape” is so damaging. We live in a society that continually doubts, dismisses and disbelieves survivors of sexual violence. Comparing their experience to a financial transaction only serves to belittle it even further.

Survivors already contend with a world in which the word rape is misused or treated as a joke, from adverts to online memes. The more frequently we throw it around out of context, the more we desensitize ourselves to it and even normalize the concept. It sends the message to perpetrators that rape isn’t something our society takes seriously, and tells victims that they might not be believed if they come forward.

Ironically, we desperately need presidential candidates, politicians and other public figures to talk more about rape. But we need them to address the problem and suggest ways to solve it, not devalue it by using the word as a metaphor for something else.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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