Is it ever acceptable to use the term “Rape” in a business context?

Are you made uncomfortable by the repeated use of the word “rape” in a work setting? To my surprise I was.

First let me preface this by saying I am no shrinking violet. I’m a CEO who grew up in the semiconductor business where blue language and sexual harassment is/was common. I’m tough to shock and I will drop an F-bomb myself to make a point (although I am trying to stop this!).

But I found myself in the middle of a conversation about how a class of vendors would “rape” the company being discussed. There were 10 men in the room and me, and the word kept getting repeated, with intensity, from person to person as the discussion grew. It’s not the first time I have heard the word rape be used for a company being “skewered”, “screwed”, “taken advantage of” etc. in a pricing and supply discussion. However, I was surprised to find myself reacting to the repeated, high energy use of the word. I had an internal stress reaction – I was distressed and very uncomfortable. Of course I schooled my body and face to make sure no reaction showed, and watched my own reaction flow through me until the conversation switched to another topic.

It made me consider whether it is ever OK to use such a violent word in a business setting?

Rape is a violent act, in 90% of cases against women. One in six women in the US has experienced rape or attempted rape – and it is one of the most under-reported crimes. Rape is featured widely in classical art by artists like Titian, Rubens and Poussin. It is shown both as a violent act and as in-the-end-she-liked-it in films. In no case are women, or most men, numb or indifferent to the physical and emotional violence of visual portrayal of the act, or the description of the act.

We use other violent words in business. We talk about “attacking a market”, we talk about “killing an issue”, sometimes we tastelessly use war terminology when describing a market strategy, talking about defeating the enemy. Business is not for the faint of heart.

But I find men talking about “being raped” by business terms a bridge too far. It’s insensitive to the violence of the real act and it’s terrible after effect on the victims. To me, it’s in the class of talking about women’s bodies in a business setting – carrying the objectification of women in the media into the workplace. It’s in bad taste and insensitive. But to bring the issue up at the time would be professional suicide (notice the use of the word for another violent act in a phrase which is in common use). So I just “suck it up”. Would you?