With ex-judge Mary Jane Mowat’s recent comments ringing in my ears I think it’s time to talk about rape culture and why stopping “women getting so drunk” isn’t the answer. Rape culture, it’s an uncomfortable phrase isn’t it? It implies that everyone is to blame. It implies that our culture is in some way broken. ‘Rapists and murderers’, to us these are the two most frightening types criminals that exist in our highest security prisons, and as statistics will show they are much more likely to be men. The phrase ‘rape culture’ was coined by feminists in the 1970’s, to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence. Be clear that this isn’t about a society that accepts rape; it’s one that puts its victims on trial instead of the accused.
With the uncomfortable reality of Yewtree unravelling itself in the UK press we find society pacifying us with the argument that ‘this was a different time’. Now I’m not denying that things weren’t different in the 70’s & 80’s, of course they were. But I thought our attitudes to the victims might have changed as well. But the sad truth about all these high profile cases is the public’s reaction to them. At first we were quite rightly outraged, however, slowly but surely the old values have started creeping in. The targets of this shaming are now full grown women.
Comments like ‘sure they’re all coming forward now’ are becoming all too familiar. We can’t possibly be blaming the victims for this? It was a ‘different time’ wasn’t it? A time when you didn’t speak about things like sexual assault? Criminologist Freda Adler said, “Rape is the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused.” We are socially conditioned to question the victim of this type of offence. To accuse someone of rape is a huge accusation. But as women we’re conditioned from such a young age to be scared of it, you almost grow up believing sexual assault will happen to you at some stage.
Laurie Penny says, in her book Unspeakable Things, “Structural sexism does not always have to come from a place of hate”. She talks of the ideology that women need to protect themselves from rape, that we’re taught from a young age as women not to go out alone at night, not to wear certain clothing, not to be too friendly to certain men. Just by being visible we are not protecting ourselves. I remember as a young girl idolising the Spice Girls, and taking a pair of scissors to one of my skirts to give myself a giant slit up the side, in a hope that I might look like them. After sliding past my Dad in a long coat, 13 year old me managed to make it to the party, I remember an older boy describing me that night as ‘jail bait.’
If I ever have a daughter I will not teach her that her body is bait, nor that her body is ever asking for something her mind does not want. To end rape culture once and for all we need to understand the words of Jessica Valenti – “[ending rape culture] will mean rethinking institutions and families and power dynamics and the way we interact with each other”. But we can take things slowly, we can sweat the small stuff. Because none of this exists in a vacuum.
Rape culture is clever, it’s a social assumption that takes a serious criminal offence that no one can deny is horrific, and feeds itself with smaller trivial things that we’re chastised for caring about. This is a social problem, so society needs to deal with it. By law yes it is difficult to convict a rapist if the victim has been drinking, but this is the case in all crimes not just sexual ones. Subtle things are often the most powerful forms of repression because they are so rarely questioned. Sexist comments about women’s intelligence or being irrational are seen as ‘banter’. Just sit there and look pretty, we’re told as if this is all we’re good for.
No More Page Three, the banning of Pharrell & Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, and female body hair are all things I’ve been criticised for caring about. But to me they are all things that signify the unequal balance of power. To be only represented in public life as eye candy, or not at all, isn’t empowering. Power makes those without it fearful. Fear feeds into rape culture, fear to go outside at night or to wear certain clothes. Sexual power is demonstrated every time we are forced to conform or to think about the way we present ourselves. Conform to the way we’re told to look and behave so we can be protected, society tells us.
The ‘is she asking for it’ question has bored us all to death. I don’t want to hear it anymore. No one is asking to be raped. Ever. I believe in a woman’s right to walk down the darkest alleyway completely naked and not be assaulted. Bodies are not bait and rape isn’t sex, so please don’t bring our sexuality into it. Earlier this year I went to the Blurred Lines stage show at the National Theatre. It was the first time I’d seen something actively challenge the way the film industry incorrectly glamorises rape and sexual assault. Amongst many other feminist points, its argument is this; rape isn’t sexy. Women are sexual beings because we have sex, not because we’re here to be sexed.