RAPE. It’s a horrible word and a horrible thing. Rape, rape, rape. Does it make you uncomfortable just to read the word? It should. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Sometimes the most uncomfortable conversations are the ones we most need to have.
We live in a society where honest conversations about rape don’t happen very often, but jokes about rape happen all the time. We live in a society where men are sold magazines filled with language that is indistinguishable from the language rapists use to describe their crimes, and where over fifty per cent of women believe that rape victims should take some responsibility for their attack.
(If you’re interested in either of those last two facts, by the way, you can read up on them here:
I don’t feel like anyone should have to actually point this out, but sadly I do: women shouldn’t have to avoid being raped. Men just shouldn’t be raping women. End of story. A woman’s clothing, reputation or blood alcohol level have absolutely nothing to do with it. To clarify: the problem is not the people who are getting raped. The problem is the people who are raping people. It seems like a subtle distinction, but it’s important.
In case you didn’t read the article I linked to about lads’ mags (because who actually clicks the links in blogs, seriously?) the gist of it is that when presented with a selection of phrases, some taken from statements given by convicted rapists and some taken from the lads’ mags we all see on the shelf every week, people only guessed the source of the quote correctly 50% of the time. They found it very difficult to decide between the two. Another study, run at the same time, asked a group of 92 men aged 18-46 to state which of the quotes they identified with. Horrifyingly, more of the men identified with the quotes taken from the convicted rapists’ statements.
Not surprisingly, all the lads’ mags refused to offer any comment on the news articles reporting these studies. It’s interesting that they have nothing to say about their shameless promotion of sexual violence towards women – and that’s what this is. They might not actually be saying “go out and rape someone” – although there was that incident where a columnist recommended that a man cut his ex-girlfriend’s face, “so no one will want her” – but language like this is aggressive, and sexual. It’s a threat.
A friend of mine was walking down the street minding her own business recently when a man walking past with a group of friends – a total stranger – loudly declared “God, I’d smash the death out of that!” I sincerely hope I’m not the only person who is incredibly saddened that in today’s culture, this isn’t just a regular occurrence, but one that is actively encouraged. When my friend mentioned this on Facebook, one of the first responses (from a man, I should note) was “I bet a little bit of you was flattered though, haha!”. To me, this response is as telling – and almost as disgusting – as the original comment. Not only is it ok for a man to offer this vile and unsolicited opinion on a woman’s body in the street, but the woman should be glad of the attention. Sorry… what?! That’s not much different to expecting a woman to be flattered if someone came up to her and said “I would rape you.” If you want to pay a woman a compliment, pay her a compliment. Say “your eyes are beautiful” or “that outfit looks really lovely on you”. This sort of language isn’t about making a woman feel good. It’s about fitting in with your mates. It’s about being the alpha male. It doesn’t matter at all whether the woman hears the remark, or whether she’s flattered or offended. These comments are about power.
The thing is, rape isn’t about sex. Rape is about power. It doesn’t matter if you’re dressed up in a tutu and a bra or wearing jeans and a sweatshirt when you’re walking through the park late at night, because a man doesn’t rape a woman because he thinks she’s beautiful. He does it because she’s vulnerable. Because he sees an opportunity. Because he can. So no, a woman should not be flattered to hear that a man wants to “smash her back doors in” (a phrase, incidentally, that I have had directed at me). Other phrases I’ve heard include “I’d destroy that” and “I’d break that in half”. I notice it’s never ‘her’, always ‘that’, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of objectification – but even so, it’s never “I’d cook that a nice dinner and then make sure it has at least one orgasm before I do.” Cheers, guys. Really encouraging.
While we’re on the subject of sexual assault, here are some slightly more ‘minor’ incidents that I have personally endured. I’ve woken up on a coach with a man breathing in my ear and sliding his hand between my thighs. I’ve been spanked while standing at a bar. A man put his hand between my legs while we were dancing. Another man walked up behind me on a dance floor and without even seeing my face, tried to put his fingers inside me – and if I hadn’t been wearing tights he would have succeeded. To be honest, these all sound horrible written down, but they don’t particularly haunt me, and haven’t particularly affected me. I was raised to know that my body is my own and I have an absolute right to refuse to let someone else treat it however they want – so I stood up on that coach and pointed and screamed until the man jumped out at the next traffic lights. I got the guy who spanked me kicked out of the bar. I kicked the guy who slipped his hand between my legs in the shin and threatened to find the bouncer if he didn’t leave. When the man in a denim waistcoat who was old enough to be my father tried to finger me on the dance floor I turned around, grabbed his collar and yelled “what the FUCK do you think you are doing?” into his face – and he looked shocked. I was absolutely baffled. Does that normally work for him? Do the girls normally stand there and let it happen? After a few seconds, he stammered something I couldn’t hear, pulled himself out of my grip and staggered off. When I tell this story to people, it tends to come off as a sort of “Ugh, that club is full of arseholes, let’s not go there,” but really, in a deep and uncomfortable part of myself, I know it was more than that. A man tried to force a sexual act on me, in a public place, while I stood elbow to elbow with my best friends, where I should have been safe. And I know it’s not uncommon. In fact, I know from his reaction that it’s more uncommon for the victim to react, and the only reason I can think of not to react to this sort of behaviour is fear.
I reacted because I was not afraid, and I was not afraid because I was raised not to be afraid. I know my body is mine and mine alone. I know that nobody has a right to make me feel uncomfortable and that my safety is far more important than making sure I’m not embarrassed. So I’m not embarrassed to say “a man tried to put his fingers inside me” because, you know what, that’s exactly what happened. That’s just a fact. I shouldn’t be ashamed of it, but that man sure as hell should, and when I looked at his face I got the satisfaction of seeing his shame written all over him. But not everyone reacts this way because for one reason or another, not everyone has that conviction that they are allowed to say no, to scream, push away, make a scene. And really, that’s the saddest thing of all.
By all accounts, I can see why women are scared: because even other women place at least some of the blame for sexual assault on the woman. The statistic, actually, is 50%. It’s hard to get an accurate idea of the percentage of women who have suffered a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault because part of the problem is that a lot of these incidents are never reported, out of fear, or shame. But I think it’s safe to say that at least half of all women have probably, at some point in their lives, been on the receiving end of some sexual behaviour they weren’t comfortable with, be it an unpleasant remark, an unsolicited grope or a full-on rape. And yet, we blame ourselves. It’s a pervasive and very, very damaging idea that women in some way invite these behaviours. It’s also damaging to keep insisting that rape jokes are ok.
The Unilad website made big news recently when it shut down after an article was published containing the following quote. I want you to read it a couple of times, and really let the horror of it sink in.
“If the girl you’ve taken for a drink won’t spread for your head, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to us to be fairly good odds.”
The site put up an apology – one that I don’t think is likely to earn them back much respect, in the circumstances – and I’m going to post some of the responses to that apology from Unilad users:
“Nobody minds a bit of casual rape banter.”
“Rape only happens because lasses can’t handle the banter.”
“Proof women don’t understand freedom of speech and banter.”
For the record, this ‘banter’ thing is getting on my last nerve too. Let’s take a look at the dictionary definition of ‘banter’, shall we?
Good-humored, playful conversation.
v. ban·tered, ban·ter·ing, ban·ters
To speak to in a playful or teasing way.
To exchange mildly teasing remarks.
Hmm. You know what, guys, it’s funny but I just can’t see the part of that definition that explains how ‘banter’ means ‘laughing about women getting raped’! It’s weird how you can see that bit and I can’t, huh? Oh I know. It must be because I have a vagina and therefore don’t understand how all of a sudden, ‘having a sense of humour’ means ‘the ability to laugh at something that causes untold misery to millions of human beings’. Is the holocaust funny yet? It’s just banter!
Let’s look at how funny rape is, shall we? I bet some of this stuff will really make you chuckle.
* 31% of rape victims develop PTSD at some point in their life.
* 30% of rape victims will experience at least one major depressive episode in their lifetimes.
* 30% of rape victims have considered suicide.
* 13% of rape victims have actually attempted suicide.
* Rape victims are 13 times more likely to have a major alcohol problem, and 26 times more likely to have a major drug abuse problem.
Rape victims surveyed about their concerns following their ordeal said they were concerned about the following issues: their relatives finding out about the assault. People blaming them. Their identity being revealed in the media. Becoming pregnant by their rapist. Contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
I know. Pretty hilarious, right? And for those who are saying “the guys reading Unilad aren’t actually going to go out and RAPE someone, get a sense of humour” I say this: how the hell do you know? Maybe those guys are buoyed up by how funny their friends think that joke is. Maybe they make some obnoxious comment to a girl at a party and their friends all pat them on the back like they’re some kind of hero. They get a taste of the power they can feel from making a woman feel bad about herself through a sexual comment. Maybe the next time they’re buying a girl a drink they get a little pushy. Maybe she’s reluctant but they don’t take no for an answer. Maybe they convince her the next morning that she’d seemed like she wanted it. Maybe that girl goes away blaming herself, feeling that what happened was her fault. Maybe she doesn’t tell anyone because she’s ashamed. Maybe she becomes depressed; maybe she catches HIV; maybe she kills herself. It’s easy to say that the boys on Unilad aren’t rapists but it starts somewhere, and the fact that jokes like these are not only common but encouraged is not helping. So it’s time to accept that Unilad didn’t have to apologise because women ‘don’t have a sense of humour’ – it had to apologise because forcing sex on a woman who does not want to have sex with you is wrong, and jokes about it are not funny.
It is desperately sad that women who have suffered rape or sexual assault of any kind have to spend the rest of their lives feeling that they are the ones who are damaged – that many of them feel that it was their fault, that many of them will feel shame and fear until the day that they die – while young men in pubs and classrooms and offices casually ‘banter’ about ‘smashing a girl’s back doors in’. I’ve met women who have suffered sexual assault and rape, and I don’t like to think of them as victims, because out of a rapist and the woman he raped, who is the more damaged? Surely it is the man who is such a failure of a human being that he believes he has a right to force himself on someone against their will? Surely the woman who endures this and then picks herself up and carries on her life doesn’t deserve sorrow and pity but respect and admiration? These women – who go on to have careers and friends and social lives, to have successful relationships with men who love and respect them, to raise sons who would never dream of using force on a woman and daughters who would never dream of blaming themselves for the assaults others may make on them – are brave, and strong, and wonderful.
The reality of rape is that it happens because of men, not because of women. The reality is that while you’re laughing at some ‘banter’ about girls not wanting to ‘spread for your head’ (what a vile phrase, by the way) there is a woman out there being raped, and that woman could be your friend, your sister, your mother, your daughter. Imagine that, for a second.
I bet it doesn’t seem so funny now.
(Statistics on rape victims were from this very helpful webpage: http://www.musc.edu/vawprevention/research/mentalimpact.shtml)