To the Editor:

I received the Duke Alert on my phone this morning that a young woman had been sexually assaulted in a Central Campus common room. My heart breaks for her. As a psychiatrist who has treated victims of sexual assault for many years, I am all too familiar with the devastating ways in which her life will be changed. 

However, the language used in this alert was indicative of our culture’s poor understanding of sexual assault, which all too often is underplayed. Witness the recent Supreme Court hearings. For this young woman, the intruder did not “force her to have sex.” He raped her. He assaulted her. This is a critical distinction. Rape is a crime in which sexual assault is the weapon. It is about power over and it is violent and terrifying and completely threatening to the integrity of the self. Using the term “having sex” implies an act with a ring of consensuality, even if preceded by the verb “forced.” It has nothing to do with “having sex.”  One would never say a stabbing victim was forced to “have a knife fight."

I know the Duke Police work hard to protect our community; we all appreciate the risks they take to care for us. I hope this letter will be of use to them in their future communications.  

Mindy Oshrain, M.D.

Mindy Oshrain is a consulting associate in the School of Medicine's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.