How dismantling the rape culture can help free us sexually and combat both misogyny and misandry
The term ‘rape culture’ originated among feminists in the 1970s to refer to the presence of cultural norms in a society which allow sexual violence, particularly against women, to be normalised. This does not mean that most people think rape or sexual assault sound like a good idea; in contemporary British society, most would wish to strongly disassociate themselves from such highly charged words. Rather it means that a range of widespread assumptions regarding appropriate behaviour for men and women, sexual relationships – more broadly, what ‘truly’ constitutes sexual violence – and what causes it – allow for sexual activity without the consent of all partners to be routinely excused, downplayed, or denied.
This understanding of sexual violence against women as a symptom of broader social, sexual, and even political inequalities between men and women emerged as a natural extension of the second-wave feminist aim to draw attention to the prevalence of violence against women as a cultural trend for public concern, rather than a series of individual incidents to be resolved, or endured, in private. Since then, along with other major gains towards women’s equality in the UK, violence against women has become broadly recognised as a social problem, with official government strategies aimed at tackling it.
Nevertheless, domestic abuse continues to affect 1 in 4 women in England and Wales and 1 in 5 in Scotland, and while feminist organisations work to raise awareness of the huge numbers of women who never report their rapes, and the low prosecution and conviction rates for those which are reported, public misconceptions around these issues remain rife. The tendency to downplay rape can still be found in public discourse (see: George Galloway’s claim that the allegations against Julian Assange merely amounted to ‘bad sexual etiquette’), while media coverage of cases of sexual violence against women, as well as research into general public attitudes, demonstrate that the focus is still frequently put on the victim’s behaviour.
The trouble with the attention, and often blame, afforded to the behaviour of women is the implication that such behaviour can be seen as ‘inappropriate’ or , as the troubling saying goes, ‘asking for it’. This intimates expectations of behaviour not only of those involved, but of all women and all men. If a woman can expect to be raped as a result of wearing ‘revealing’ clothing, or being promiscuous, or flirtatious, or drunk, or for having at one time, or many times, consented to having sex with the man who went on to rape her, this suggests that women should not behave in these ways – or that they should be prepared for the ‘consequences’ if they do – and that it is an inevitability that men will attempt to force themselves upon anyone who presents themselves in this manner.
I received an interesting message as a result of my own research into attitudes towards sexual behaviour and sexual violence against women. This message indicted me for my ‘misandry’, or hatred of men, which they felt was apparent from the research topic. I feel that it is worth explaining here how vastly inaccurate any association between negativity towards men and challenging the cultural assumptions around sexual violence against women truly is. Such efforts aim to dispel assumptions about men’s sexuality which can only be described as insulting to men, by making clear that there is no behaviour on the part of a woman which means that a man will be unable to control himself and will ‘obviously’ act upon his desires.
In fact, most instances of sexual violence are precisely about control; the control of the perpetrator over the victim. This is also not to deny the sexual violence experienced by men, and within same-sex relationships, but is rather to point out that, as a ‘trend’, sexual violence is a highly gendered phenomenon and that the manner in which the topic is typically approached, from the media, through general social attitudes, to the legal system itself, both attests to and reinforces that fact.
As a gay woman and advocate of equality and freedom, I feel that we need a major cultural shift in how we think and speak about sexuality, sexual relationships and sexual desire, in order to bring about a society in which sexual autonomy is both respected and protected. This notion is particularly salient amid the recent debates around Sex and Relationships Education and teaching about consent.
We as a culture have a strange tendency to accept, on the one hand, the prevalence of sexual imagery in popular culture, while on the other hand fearing to discuss sexual matters openly, particularly with young people, fostering the idea of sexuality as something shameful.
It is my firm belief that, until we encourage a positive attitude towards sex as something meant to be enjoyable for everyone involved, and promote respect for the right to consent to whatever sexual activity one chooses, we will never sufficiently uphold respect for the right to withhold consent. It is my hope that this vision can be regarded as one which would be beneficial for everyone and certainly not one which denotes any hatred of men.
Caitlin is an intersectional feminist with a BA in politics and English literature. She is currently studying towards an MRes in Equality and Human Rights, researching attitudes around sexual violence against women, and tweeting at @_alittlecloser.
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