'Let's empower girls to be in charge of their sexuality and not passive about it.'

'Let's empower girls to be in charge of their sexuality and not passive about it.' Photo: Lisaphoto

I’ve been thinking a lot about rape culture recently. What it is, how it is perpetuated and the various excuses offered up to deny its existence. To quote myself, it refers to “a social system that has slowly normalised rape and sexual assault through the bombardment of images, language, laws and social attitudes”. (For additional primers, refer to this piece on the conflation of rape with property theft and this piece on the shameful practice of victim blaming.) 

As Bianca Hall illustrates here, society overwhelmingly directs the responsibility for rape prevention towards women. We’re reminded frequently to ‘take care of ourselves’. To not drink too much, to dress sensibly and to not behave unwisely with strange men. Our bodies are positioned as some kind of external piece of equipment that, without proper care and attention, can be stolen or broken into after we’ve been careless enough to leave them discarded or unlocked somewhere. Despite the fact most sexual assault is committed in a private residence by people known to the victims, stranger-rape still dominates most of the conversation around rape prevention (possibly because people are still uncomfortable interfering with domestic forms of violence). As a result, the majority of victims and the factors which lead to their abuse are ignored, while survivors who more conveniently fit into society’s idea of stranger-rape are blamed enough for inviting their assaults that their attackers are provided with caveats to excuse them. 

As I see it, our current strategy of expecting women to be responsible for preventing rape ignores two fundamental issues: how rape is both a gendered crime and an act of casual dehumanisation. By shifting focus to these two things, we might actually be able to affect real change. 

1. Stop being vague about the perpetrators 

Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell earnt the damnation of the Fox News audience last week when she appeared on The Sean Hannity Show to discuss whether or not women should be armed in order to protect themselves from sexual assault. Maxwell, a rape survivor, made the daring suggestion that women shouldn’t be directed to do anything when it comes to sexual violence. Instead, she argued that we need to start telling men not to rape people. 

As Maxwell so succinctly told Hannity, “You’re talking about this as if it’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone you know and trust. If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.” 

Here is the uncomfortable truth that remains conspicuously absent from most mainstream discussions about rape prevention: rape is a gendered crime almost always committed by men. The Victorian Crime Statistics show that in the fiscal year of 2011/2012, 78% of juvenile and 90% of adult victims of sexual assault were women. Conversely, 95% of juvenile offenders and adult offenders were men. 

This isn’t to say that all men are potential rapists (although the culture of rape apology certainly paints them that way when it perpetuates the idea that men have sexual needs that can be triggered by women’s behaviour). It’s merely to state the obvious - that rape is a crime almost solely perpetrated by men and almost solely experienced by women. It's something these men choose to do, often repeatedly (in the instances of ongoing sexual abuse), occasionally with premeditation (by using drugs like Rohypnol, targeting vulnerable women, plying women with alcohol) and sometimes by simply deciding not to stop when consent has been either refused or withdrawn. Ignoring the gendered nature of the crime does little to protect women and only enables those men who choose to rape to do so with less fears of reprisal. 

Perhaps it’s easier for men to absolve themselves of responsibility because, unless they’re in a high risk group for incarceration, the threat of rape isn’t something they’re taught to live with. And if they don’t feel like rape is something they’ll ever perpetrate, then it’s easy to imagine it’s nothing to do with them. The fears and threats to women therefore become the problem of women to solve. 

But whether or not individual men are responsible, rape is a gendered crime overwhelmingly perpetrated by men and overwhelmingly inflicted upon women. Pretending that it’s some kind of shadowy phenomena in which there are no common variables other than how we perceive a victim to have behaved isn’t just disingenuous, it’s an insult to the trauma experienced by women who are often forced to account for their actions. Human decency dictates that you challenge your own privilege, especially when it’s used to oppress another group. 

Why can’t we be honest about that and mount an effective campaign that puts men front and centre as the both the cause AND the solution? Because here’s another stat to add to those up above. When Canada ran its ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ campaign, shifting the responsibility of rape and sexual assault prevention onto men, reported incidents of sexual assault dropped by 10%. 

I’m very sorry if it puts people out to be reminded of men’s contribution to these crime rates, but we don’t have time for anyone’s hurt feelings. If you want to prevent rape, stop men from raping. Simple.

 

2. It takes two to tango, so make sure your partner can dance 

In 2009, Four Corners screened ‘Code of Silence’, a report into the sexual bonding activities present across some of Australia’s sporting codes. Part of the report detailed a 2002 pack sex incident involving a young woman in New Zealand and members of the Cronulla Sharks. The woman, referred to on Four Corners as “Clare”, was working as a barmaid at the time at a hotel in New Zealand where the players were staying. She consented to go back to a room with two of them. Over the next two hours, at least 12 players and staff entered the room without Clare’s consent. Six of them had sex with her, while the others watched and masturbated. Five days later, Clare reported the incident to the police. No charges were laid. 

As Four Corners later clarified, “Most of the activity that took place during the incident is not disputed. Players and staff gave graphic accounts to police of the sexual activity. One player told police that at least one of them had climbed in through the bathroom window and crawled commando-style along the floor of the room.” 

Despite this, public response to the story was mixed. And when I say mixed, I mean there were people who were outraged on Clare’s behalf, and there were others - a significant vocal pool of others - who missed the relative nuances of the case and once again leapt straight to the issue of consent. That the fact that she was there, and had entered sort of willingly into a situation with two players meant her consent carried over to a further 12.

Consent or not, it seems we are so immune to the idea of respect being a vital component of sex - however many people may be involved - that aren't considered as part of a broad range of things that can account for why a woman might feel abused, threatened or assaulted even WHEN initial consent has occurred. Just as consenting to one person apparently also means consenting to their friends, teammates and colleagues, consenting in the first place means giving up your right to say no, to be respected, to be even considered PRESENT in the act as anything other than what Roy Masters, sports writer and former coach, admitted at the time was seen as a ‘vehicle for team bonding’. Women's bodies aren't conduits for male satisfaction or masculinity. 

But it was the following statement from Clare that really spoke to the heart of why this sort of coercive pack incident is closer to assault than the consensual group sex people explained it away as. She said:  “They never spoke to me, they spoke just to themselves, amongst themselves, laughing and thinking it was really funny. When you have sex with someone, it's nice and you talk and you touch and this was awful. This was nothing like that.” 

Rape apologists like to argue that there is no black and white when it comes to sexual assault, only shades of grey. And because of this, we’re expected to direct the majority of our care to ensuring men aren’t falsely accused or even punished for making ‘one little mistake’. 

But shades of grey about consent can be very easily resolved by establishing whether or not your sexual partner is present in the situation, enjoying themselves and being afforded a dignity that recognises and respects their humanity. Coercive sex might not be exactly the same as violent assault (and it’s certainly harder to punish, despite what people fear). But it still relies on one partner asserting control over the other and denying them the sense of respect and value that should be fundamental to any consensual sexual encounter (regardless of whether or not it involves strangers, whips, alcohol or football teams). 

Degrading someone against their consent is really easy to do if you've already dehumanised them in your head. Informed consent therefore needs to move above and beyond simply securing a 'yes' to a place where we constantly ask ourselves, 'Am I treating my partner with dignity? Are they enjoying this? Are they present and equal? Are we experiencing this together?" If you don’t feel like you’re capable of having sex with someone, stranger or not, without affording them the basic dignity of being treated like a human being, then you are part of the problem. 

Society has so much to unpack in regards to rape culture and prevention that it’s impossible to cover it all in one hit. But perhaps it’s a starting point for a broader conversation. The bandaid solution of making rape prevention the responsibility of women doesn’t address the core issue of how and why it keeps happening. Asking a woman to protect herself from rape doesn’t stop men from raping. All it might do is stop them from raping her.

Clementine Ford will be one of the panelists participating in a live discussion of Rape Culture at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.