When politicians sense an opponent’s knife skimming the jugular, they often resort to shock talk to provoke public outrage. Over the past two years, Mayor Marion Barry has proved a fluent provocateur, invoking two time-tested trump cards: the Holocaust and rape. Last spring, he compared the control board to Nazis after the board forced his crony Vernon Hawkins out of his job at the Department of Human Services. Now he’s comparing severe congressional restrictions on home rule to “a rape of democracy.”

Over and over again, for two weeks, Barry has regurgitated “rape” without mercy, on radio, on TV, and in print. And his desperate plea for attention worked. The quote appeared at least 15 times in the Washington Post and six times in the Washington Times, and popped into headlines in both papers.

And each time Barry rips out the word, women all over the city cringe. “Say the word ‘rape’ to most women and there is a shudder, an involuntary muscular reaction, or some other visceral response,” note Joseph Weinberg and Michael Biernbaum, leaders of Men Stopping Rape, in an essay in the anthology Transforming a Rape Culture.

“Every woman I know is aware of the fact that he’s using that word, and we’re all talking about it and we’re all very angry about it,” says community activist Marie Drissel. Earlier this week, Drissel found herself at a beauty salon full of women uneasy with the mayor’s word choice.

City experts in rape counseling and prevention were less affronted by Barry’s semantics. “I am more offended by what he’s done to the city than his loose use of the language,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, based on Capitol Hill. The overuse of the word “rape,” Berkowitz says, “could do damage, but it would have to be used by someone who commanded a little more respect.”

Brandishing the word “rape” in political rhetoric “sometimes dilutes the intensity of the word,” says Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. “It can feed into a mind-set that minimizes the trauma and reality of a sexual assault act.” But the analogy has some merit, she notes: “What Congress is doing is extremely disempowering….The use of [the word] in a situation like this can make people have a snap realization of what has happened.”

But beyond the sensationalistic splash of the comparison, there is a logical flaw in Barry’s word choice. Rape doesn’t happen to an institution or a political system. Rape happens to people who have no choice, who do not participate in their own degradation. It does not happen to a lifetime mayor who has refused time and time again to take responsibility for his own failures.

If anything, says local activist Sandra Seegars, the District has been date-raped—by Marion Barry. “The residents allowed him into their hearts, into their homes, to lead them the right way,” she says. “And as soon as he gained their trust he ‘raped’ them.” Says Drissel: “He knows just what he’s doing.” CP