Disclaimer: Before I begin this discussion, I would like to point out that rape culture affects everyone, regardless of gender. Although most examples deal with the sexual assault carried out by men on women, it is essential to note that sexual assault is gender neutral; it can, and does, happen to anyone, regardless of gender. I do not wish to criticise the typical behaviours and attitudes of men or women in general, I simply wish to bring certain things to your attention – the seemingly little things that occur around us every day where we fail to consider the negative impact because they have become habitual and normalised; the smaller and seemingly unimportant things we take for “just the way things are nowadays” that contribute to a more disturbing reality: the emergence of a rape culture.
Do not dare tell us that we are asking for it by wearing short skirts. Do not dare tell us that we are asking for it by drinking too much and getting drunk. Do not dare tell us that we are asking for it by accusing us of dancing in that way, a way you wrongly and boldly perceive as a ‘clearly wanting it’ kind of way. Do not dare tell us that we are asking for it by being flirtatious, or not even that, by just talking and being friendly and smiling and making eye contact; friendliness, eye contact and/or a smile is not an invitation to touch a girl in whatever invasive way you want. Do not dare hold up the outfit a girl was wearing at the time of the assault as evidence in court and say that it proves how she was “asking for it” and think “sure, would you blame him.” Yes, this has been done, and it is nothing short of disgusting. Bullshit excuses. Think of your best friend, your sister, your future daughter, and ask yourself if you would brush it off with a flippant and ignorant “she was asking for it.” If so, well quite frankly, you’re an asshole, and I’m afraid there’s no quick fix for that.
Some of the societal attitudes towards gender, sexuality and the way in which we interact have become corrupt and damaging in how they are so heedlessly accepted, and have contributed to a big problem in our world today. It is a problem we face most full forcedly as students in college; a modern element of society come to be termed as rape culture. Rape culture is defined as ‘a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalised due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality’. The term was coined by feminists in the United States in the 1970s, and in its more extreme form highlights the way in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalised male sexual violence. Before diving into a deeper discussion on rape, it is important to consider the basics of the area, to zoom out and examine the big picture, and all the little things that contribute to it: our attitudes towards gender and sexuality, how we behave when it comes to sexual relationships, how we handle these relationships and the customs that seem to govern them; these are the things I wish to address.
Think of the situations you have heard about or have even seen happen to people, strangers or friends, on a night out in a bar or club. The calculating, head-to-toe looks, the inappropriate whispered comments or sometimes not-so-subtle (and bordering on harassment) shouts, the evasive touches, the groping out of nowhere as people walk by… It is not ok to just push your hands up a girl’s skirt, even if you are kissing already. It is not ok to assume that just because someone is kissing you means that they want to go any further. “Agh, go on.” … “You should be flattered, it’s a compliment.” There are ways to flatter a girl, to flirt with a girl, to treat a girl, without making her feel as though she is only good for one thing; being made feel like a piece of meat, a ‘piece of ass’ for the night, is in no way flattering or a compliment. Likewise, allowing oneself to be treated as such shows a lack of respect and a deep-set insecurity that many are oblivious to. This conception instils a distorted twisted sense of worth; a girl can feel worthless and like she isn’t pretty/beautiful/sexy enough if she isn’t approached by guys in such a way, while guys can feel pathetic and like they aren’t confident/manly/brave enough if they don’t approach girls in such a way.
We must learn to talk, to be open about what we want and what we are comfortable with. As well as this we must learn to listen, to notice, to respect. For the times we don’t speak, for the times we don’t vocalise what it is we want or are comfortable with, we must learn to look out for, notice and respect those silent signals; pulling away, sudden quietness, avoiding eye contact, any hesitation, be aware of these things and consider their possible meaning.
Please remember, as I said in the disclaimer, I am not criticising the behaviour of guys here; I am criticising the behaviour itself, whether it be carried out by a guy or girl, that we all assume isn’t a big deal, is just what happens and is just how things are. Not all guys give into this pervasive, normalised attitude; not all guys behave accordingly with these typical ‘lad’ behaviours. A lot of discussions on sexual assault deal with the effects on female victims and are coming from a female viewpoint, but another aspect of rape culture exists in which the guys’ perception is affected unfairly also. It must be so hard, as a truly good-natured guy, to read about all of the facts and statistics about sexual assault and rape cases. Men – a lot of men, truly good hearted men – don’t want to treat woman in some of the ways that are taken nowadays to be “what you do” or “flirtatious banter (flanter, right?).” Many guys feel under pressure from friends to act a certain way, to treat girls with a particular attitude. A guy shies away from treating the girl he likes with the honesty, respect and courtesy she deserves, for fear that he’ll get stick about it from the lads, for fear he’ll be seen as weak, or “whipped,” as if liking someone and being honest about it is a bad and limiting thing. Basically, sometimes guys are afraid to act like gentlemen because their friends will give them shit for it. This is an entirely unfair, misleading, restricting and pressurising misconception. Honesty about one’s feelings is not a sign of weakness; it is in fact a demonstration of incredible strength.
Louise O’Neill, author of Asking For It, interestingly points out in a documentary recently broadcast on RTE that we seem to have difficulty discussing sex, let alone sexual violence, even though we’re supposedly living in a sexually liberated society. In the documentary Dr. Siobhan O’Higgins, of the School of Psychology in NUIG, explains why this may be so, as she outlines how in Ireland we went from having “no sex unless you wanted to make babies” (the Catholic church’s strong influence advocated that sex was purely for reproduction purposes) to “having any kind of sex you wanted” in the space of 6 years, and this rapid turnaround in how we viewed and treated the concept of sex has left many young girls and woman (guys and men too) “feeling like they should be into all of this stuff; we missed out on sensuality, eroticism and failed to properly explore the concept of sex and sexuality within the Irish psyche.” Dr.O’Higgins explains how many girls (and guys) feel as though they can’t ask for what they want, like they can’t talk about what they like and what they don’t like when it comes to sex, “because if you do you’re a slut.”
In an article for The Irish Times, entitled “Louise O’Neill on writing Asking For It: Unblurring the lines about rape,” Louise talks about the Steubenville rape case, which broke in the US in December 2012, and attracted worldwide media attention as shocking photos and videos of the horrifying incident were shared online. “A party full of drunken, horny teenagers. A young girl who had too much to drink, her friends laughing while her body was violated. Photos and videos taken, shared online, forever seared into the collective consciousness of the public.” In the same article, Louise talks about a time she asked a group of men in their early twenties “why is it always the woman who is held to a higher moral standard, why is it always the woman who is expected to “behave?” She says, “they all scoffed at me, saying that the girl was ‘a dirty slut and a whore’. ‘What if it had been your sister?’ I asked them. Would you want to see her just thrown to the wolves for public entertainment? ‘If she was my sister’, one of them told me, ‘I would be so disgusted, I would never speak to her again’.”
Notice here the issue of the double standard; it appears what is expected of woman is starkly different to what is expected of men. Likewise, what may be acceptable behaviour for a guy may be utterly unacceptable for a girl. Louise outlines the attitude that in basic terms boils down to “boys will be boys but … girls are expected to safeguard their virginity, to behave themselves in a ladylike fashion.” It’s a catch-22 for the girls; innocent, prude, stuck-up versus slut, whore, demanding and clingy. The girl who knows what she wants, knows what she deserves, is demanding. The girl who speaks out about what she wants is clingy. The girl who refuses a guy is stuck-up and a prude; the girl who ‘goes for it’ is a slut.
So many girls, too many girls, especially college students, can tell of at least one incident that occurred on a night out in which they were inappropriately touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, and violated by a guy. Too many girls can tell of times they got into arguments with guys who were trying to take things further with them when they themselves didn’t want to, and had to physically put a stop to what the guy was trying to do, sometimes having to push him away, almost having to fight him off. A friend of mine recently said to me, after getting with a guy at the house party where both she and the guy were drinking, “I’ve got to give him credit for not taking advantage of me though.” No. You do not give a guy credit for not taking advantage of you. The fact that some girls feel like this, feel as though they owe a guy for not taking advantage of them when they could have, is where the problem lies. This is how these things that happen all too often contribute to a rape culture; it leads to girls feeling like what happened to them was no violation of their bodily rights when in actual fact it was; it leads to girls feeling like they can’t say anything about it because it “wasn’t actually rape” or “I didn’t say no though.”
This brings up the issue of consent. Consent is an important concept in a discussion about rape culture. There are many arguments and debates over what actually constitutes consent; what it is exactly and where is the line? I feel as though many of the arguments can be boiled down to one or the other by rational, common sense reasoning; a person being drunk is not consent, not explicitly saying “no” aloud is not consent, dressing or dancing in a particular way is not consent. Many campaigns about consent aim their messages at young guys and men; I think it is important, especially considering that double standards are an issue, that consent isn’t just about teaching guys when “no” means “no” and being drunk is not consent, that a short skirt is not consent and so on… consent works both ways. We must all be aware of consent vs non-consent in general, regardless of gender.
Let us not turn this discussion into a girl-on-guy, female-on-male argument or criticism; this is an opportunity to notice and become aware of pervasive societal attitudes, behaviours and norms that, if we open our eyes and minds to, we see happening every day; they are evident in the underlying fabrics of society and are contributing to a much greater problem than the one they seem to be when considered individually. Let’s not hide behind ‘the way things are’ or brush things that make us uncomfortable off with ‘it’s not a big deal’ or ‘it’s nothing, I’ll leave it’; talk about it.