(Hopefully Not) Passing on Rape Culture
[Trigger warning: if you have experienced sexual assault, please just be aware that rape and rape culture are discussed in this post. Many of the links similarly lead to pages that need a trigger warning.]
Sad, sickened, shocked, triggered, appalled, horrified, not-actually-that-surprised.
Most New Zealanders could tick most of those boxes this week as our national news has been dominated by revelations about a group of teenage rapists.
If you’re outside New Zealand, you may have followed a somewhat similar event last year in Steubenville, Ohio, which sparked horror in the United States and beyond. Many of the questions the cases raise are the same.
The young men in Auckland repeatedly, habitually predated on girls and young women, often intoxicated beyond the point of consent, often under the legal age of consent. They then bragged online about their assaults, even setting up a Facebook page dedicated to this behaviour (with a name that has become shorthand for the case, but which I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of mentioning).
The police told us last week they’d been observing them for two years – two years! – but were unable to act, because no girls had been ‘brave enough’ to complain:
“We would love to take some positive action for these girls and others who may be victims in the future, but without actual evidence my hands are tied,” says Detective Inspector Bruce Scott.
“None of the girls have been brave enough to make formal statements to us so we can take it to a prosecution stage or even consider a prosecution stage.”
Then it turned out that they had. Four had complained. One had made a formal complaint, two years ago, and had been told by police that her clothing suggested she was asking for it. She was 13.
Two popular shock jock radio presenters – and part-time politicians – called the rapes ‘mischief‘ and told a victim’s friend, herself a teenage girl, that the problem was that ‘a lot more girls who might have consented … might well just line up and say they were raped as well’. (For a full transcript of what the radio presenters said, head to Giovanni Tiso’s excellent piece.)
So now the conversation has moved from plain, distant disgust at these young rapists, to distrust of the police involved, to what kind of culture we are all living in that means these young men think what they are doing is not only acceptable, but so cool it should go online. What kind of culture are we living in that police officers act as if the victims should bear more responsibility than the offenders and that middle-aged men can publicly speak that way to a teenager?
Well, as many people learned for the first time this month, this kind of culture has a name. It’s called ‘rape culture.’ We perpetuate it whenever we imply that rape is the fault or responsibility of anyone other than the rapist or play down the seriousness of a sexual assault.
I am no kind of expert on this stuff, but I’m good at assembling data and spreading it, so what I have here is a round-up of some material around the web that strikes me as insightful or useful for those of us who want this world to be different, and want to be part of making that change, particularly when it comes to how we, as a society, raise our children.
It’s long. Feel free to skim. If it’s helpful, please share it around your networks.
Throw out the rubbish: critique rape culture with young people
As we participate in everyday life and as we influence children and young people in how they see the world, we need to be careful to name rubbish for what it is.
Rape culture is largely about people believing and spreading harmful nonsense, often without realising it. So just to be clear:
A cornerstone of rape culture is transferring responsibility away from the rapist, by focusing, for example, on the victim’s dress or behaviour. If you or people around you would like a recap of why this is inappropriate, you might like to read these brilliant pieces on the issue.
First up, from LudditeJourno, writing on the feminist site The Hand Mirror, comes that awesome graph above. We’ll come back to the discussion that follows the graph in her blog post in a minute.
Slamming the point home with poetry, sarcasm, rage and wit is blue milk, in her most popular ever blog post, I think. It’s called Don’t Get Raped. Read it and share it:
Don’t go out and get drunk, it could lead to you getting raped. Also, don’t have sex with someone because it could get you raped by someone they know. Don’t be young, that could definitely get you raped. While we’re at it, especially don’t be a child, that could really get you raped. Don’t be older either, that can get you raped. Don’t be living in a nursing home; women get raped there. In fact, what are you even doing in an establishment like that, are you asking for it?
Applying those ideas to the current news and debate, if you want a concise round-up of the events of the last week or so, and insightful analysis of the way forward, Toby Manhire is your man. Even better, focusing on the myths of rape culture, is Michele A’Court. If you have a teenager in your life, you might like to read one of these pieces alongside them and chat about it:
A lot of questions have been asked about the victims. What was she wearing? Had she been drinking? Why was she there? Was she a virgin before this? All versions of, “Did she behave in a way that made her vulnerable to sexual assault?”
Nowhere – did I miss it? – were any of these questions aimed at the perpetrators. I have no idea what they were wearing, whether they were sober, or anything about their sexual history. And I’m really not sure I need to know these things either because none of them are relevant to an act of rape.
… This might be hard for a middle-aged radio jock to understand so I will write it clearly: A tiny skirt does not mean she wants to shag you. And to men of all ages, let’s say this really clearly: If you want to have sex with her, ask her, not her clothes. And then listen to what she says.
And seriously, it is insulting to men to suggest that women can dress or behave in a way that invites rape or mitigates its criminality to any degree. Do we really think that a short skirt arouses men to such a level of sexual excitement that they can’t stop themselves forcing their penis into someone? If that’s all it takes, should any of them be allowed out, ever?
If you have a strong enough stomach for much more detailed analysis of the New Zealand situation, comparable atrocities in North America, and how rape culture is implicated in each, Auckland University’s Dr Nicola Gavey has this excellent, exhaustive, explicit examination of the rapists’ actions and cultural influences, with a particular focus on the role of pornography. Please consider this a warning though, and feel free to skip over the descriptive sections – including extensive quotes from the alleged offenders’ social media pages – to get to the critique.
The even bigger challenge is how to dismantle whatever it is that is supporting the widespread revival of misogyny and ongoing sexual violence that allows these boys to act like this for so long. These acts of abuse reflect a “trend of degradation” according to Peter Boshier from the White Ribbon campaign. The whole idea of masculinity and what it means to be a man in our society has to be looked at. Francis Bird and Kim McGregor have both raised the role of pornography in contributing to this misogynist sexual culture.
Pornography is a mixed bag, but the everyday kind of mainstream pornography that many young men now regularly consume glorifies hostility towards women. Young women are props for male sexual pleasure – participating as second class human beings whose sole purpose is the consumer’s enjoyment. It is essential as part of our efforts to prevent sexual violence that we start talking about pornography, it portrayals of women and men and sex. And asking questions about the ethics of celebrating male sexual domination and female submission and aggression towards women in the name of sexual pleasure.
[Read more at Sexual Politics Now, a site dedicated to asking questions about pornography.]
It’s not a ‘scandal’
Here’s a point that’s mine. Think about your language and what it communicates to young people.
The New Plymouth teenager who has just pleaded guilty to filming his mates allegedly raping a young woman at a party says he just thought, at the time, that the incident was funny.
If we keep talking about the Auckland case as a ‘teenage sex ring‘ or ‘sex scandal,’ as news outlets repeatedly describe it, we contribute to rape culture by minimising what has happened. This is not some exciting, dramatic scandal. It’s not a piece of sexy naughtiness. Girls and women were raped and shamed. If we keep using this kind of language, teenagers may keep on having trouble distinguishing between consensual sex and rape.
This is not a ‘scandal,’ it’s a crime. These people were not part of a sex ring, they were serial rapists. A 13-year-old is not a ‘young woman’ but a girl, in this circumstance – someone of an age the law regards as incapable of giving meaningful consent to sex. A child.
And I have avoided using the name these men called their group on Facebook. It’s demeaning to the girls they raped to keep giving airtime to the image they were trying to portray of being big men having edgy fun. They were raping.
Empower kids to protect the vulnerable
Both the Auckland group and the New Plymouth incident involved rapes in public, at parties. There were a lot of people who witnessed them.
If one day my son goes to a party where something like this happens, I really want him to have the skills and character to do something about it. Equipping him to stand up for people who are vulnerable – starting with the kid in the playground when he’s 6 or 7 – is part of my job as his mother.
We do not care if you are the smartest or fastest or coolest or funniest. There will be lots of contests at school, and we don’t care if you win a single one of them…
We don’t send you to school to become the best at anything at all. We already love you as much as we possibly could. You do not have to earn our love or pride and you can’t lose it. That’s done.
We send you to school to practice being brave and kind.
Kind people are brave people. Brave is not a feeling that you should wait for. It is a decision. It is a decision that compassion is more important than fear, than fitting in, than following the crowd.
Trust me, baby, it is. It is more important.
Don’t try to be the best this year, honey.
Just be grateful and kind and brave.
Maybe this TED talk by violence educator Jackson Katz will be more up your street, particularly if you are helping raise a young man. The blurb says:
Domestic violence and sexual abuse are often called ‘women’s issues.’ But in this bold, blunt talk, Jackson Katz points out that these are intrinsically men’s issues – and shows how these violent behaviors are tied to definitions of manhood. A clarion call for us all – women and men – to call out unacceptable behavior and be leaders of change.
For more on the role of men in changing rape culture and protecting people from rape, see the possibly controversial advice from Yes Means Yes:
The thing is, rapists absolutely need one thing to operate. They need people to believe they are not rapists. Stranger rapists do that by trying to hide that they are the person who committed the rape. Acquaintance rapists do that by picking targets who won’t say anything about what happened, or by using tactics that, if the survivor does speak up, people will decide don’t really count as rape. If you want to do something about rapists, make sure people know they are rapists.
…[Y]ou can tell everyone you know that the person is a rapist. You may not be able to say how you know, because you may not have the survivor’s permission to talk about it. But you can quietly tell your friends.
[This may seem controversial. For more context, head to the full article at Yes Means Yes.]
The day I hear that my son has stood up for someone being bullied, or hurt in any way, will be the day I know I’ve done a good job. It’s my gold standard of parenting.
If you have ideas on how I can parent him so that dream comes true, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Build a culture of consent and empathy with little ones
After her awesome graph above, LudditeJourno has a great discussion of how building empathy in little boys helps them practise empathy as young men.
Teaching little boys about empathy, teach them to try and imagine, by reading to them and talking to them, how other people feel. All the time, about everything. So when they are starting to explore being sexual with other people, that’s in their kete of skills.
Let’s stop telling little boys, big boys and men to ‘harden up.’ Last week I was playing in my vegetable garden, and the next door neighbour’s children were hanging out with me, weeding. The three year old boy was heaving on some tall weeds, and fell on his bum, face crumpling up. I asked him if he was ok. His six year old sister said ‘Yeah, he’s tough.’ I said ‘I think you can be tough, and things can still hurt. Are you ok?’
And he had a little cry and a little hand squeeze with me, then jumped up to do some more weeding and talk about favourite biscuits (his: tim tams; mine, on that day: toffee pops).
If we encourage boys to express all of the feelings they have – including vulnerability and sadness and sometimes just not knowing – we will grow men who have a range of emotional options available to them, not just anger. And that will help them navigate the tricky waters of life, where anger being your default expression seldom leads to great relationships.
[Read more at The Hand Mirror.]
Since Lucy linked to it months ago, I have been thinking about HisFeministMama’s post, Building a Culture of Consent in our Youngest Children:
Putting it simply: If we teach children that we honour their bodies and choices (and our own) from the moment they are born, they will see the value and necessity of consent as they develop into adults. Alternatively, if we disregard the body autonomy of children, if we don’t model a culture of consent, how can we expect them to seek consent of others or demand that partners seek their consent in moments of intimacy? [Read more at Our Feminist Playschool.]
For our family, this means things like asking or telling our toddler we’re going to touch him, change his nappy, whatever – the same way you would an adult in a hospital bed, perhaps – and letting him know he’s in charge of things like whether he gives anyone a kiss or cuddle.
Talk about sex – and rape
I’m not remotely ready to talk about how to talk with kids about sex. My boy turns two next month! But until that day, here are few things I’ve read recently that might be useful in your own thinking. Or not – no worries.
Emily Maguire encourages people to think of sex as dancing not fighting. You can invite someone to dance, but there’s no point trying to coerce them – it won’t be real dancing if you have to move their arms and legs for them.
There is a better way to talk and teach about sexual negotiation and consent, a more realistic and ethical approach that would, I believe, also be more successful in reducing sexual assault. It begins with thinking of sex as the outcome of a collaboration rather than a battle, as dancing rather than fighting.
Consider it: if you ask someone to dance and they say no, there is not an awful lot you can do about it. Sure, you could nag or threaten them or ply them with double-strength drinks, but even if that works you will know they are not really into it. And what if they stop part-way through the song? Are you going to take hold of their limbs and force them to move? Shake their hips for them? You could dance at them while they stand there, I suppose. Is that fun? Would you not rather try to find someone who wants to dance? And failing that, well, the cool thing about dancing is that you can do it alone. It may not be as fun as doing it with a willing partner, but it is better than doing it with someone who does not want to be there.
It seems some men have trouble telling when they’ve got consent for sex. I find that astonishing, myself, but it’s clearly the case.
There’s a concept people are writing about called ‘enthusiastic consent.’ If everyone knew that this is the standard, not just ‘she didn’t say no’ or ‘he didn’t seem to mind’ then maybe we’d make some progress. Here’s one person’s take on the concept:
Enthusiastic consent is about welcoming. “Yes, I would like you to.” “I would love it if you did.” “Your presence here is not an invasion, nor just benign, but a welcome addition to my life.” It says something to welcome another person’s touch, verbally, openly. It’s an affirmation of affection. Openly expressing consent clears the air of mistrust and anxiety on whether we are doing something wrong, paving the way for further intimacy and trust. And to get enthusiastic consent, one has no choice but to ask.
At the same time we discourage violence against each other, we can also encourage affection towards each other. Enthusiastic consent is part of that encouragement. It’s not, obviously, the be-all and end-all, but for all the “no means no” we expound on, we need to further the idea that “yes means yes”. The more positivity we present to the world, the easier it is to identify negativity.
Plus, next to “yes” in a lineup of affirmative expressions is “yay”. And “yay” is a very useful expression indeed! [Read more at Ecstatic Days.]
Don’t just model, but commentate on your values
As I wrote in my guest post on kids and spirituality at Lulastic and the Hippyshake, it seems to me that most kids don’t automatically pick up on the values we hold and live out daily if we don’t also talk about them.
You might be a pro at finding God in everyday life, or seeing the spiritual angle of your routines and choices. In my observation, many kids don’t notice this in their parents. Churches I have been part of are full of kids who would be astonished to know why their parents actually follow Jesus, because the subject simply hasn’t come up. If you want to model spiritual stuff to your kids, you’ll have to live it out loud.
We are developing language in our family to do this. When I see the first glimpse of sky in the morning, I instinctively, habitually, think of God’s goodness, which is, in the words of the Bible, ‘new every morning.’ But my son can’t know what’s going on in my head, or make these connections without help, so when we open the blinds in the bedroom in the morning, we say, ‘Good morning, Wellington! Thank you, God, for a new day.’
Similarly, as well as having ‘thank you, God’ routines for mealtimes and bedtime, we say ‘God speed that ambulance’ when we hear emergency sirens. When his dad leaves for work at the hospital, we call it ‘going to help people for Jesus’ to make the connection between work and spirituality obvious.
It probably wouldn’t occur to most of us to spell out, in advance, why it is wrong to get someone drunk so you can have sex with them. But given that there are currently lots of teenage boys, in Auckland and New Plymouth, in the US and Canada, in the news and in court on rape charges, and many more of their peers aware of their behaviour and saying nothing, it seems that these things do need to be spelt out.
The idea that anything other than screaming ‘no!’ equals consent needs to be countered, out loud.
One of the values that SBJ’s dad and I hold strongly, and we will have to speak about with him, is that sex is best situated in marriage. We can’t just rely on ethical osmosis. When he is surrounded by pop culture and peer culture that push in other directions, we’ll need to make sure he can at least articulate what we value and why.
Whether or not he decides to follow that path himself, I hope our conversations will leave him under no illusion that filming some mates having sex, or raping, at a party can just be ‘a joke.’
It’s one (terrible) thing to choose to do something you know is wrong. It’s another to do something that seems edgy or kinky or maybe even a bit dodgy, but you don’t realise is actually harmful and criminal. That may be the position some of the rapists currently in the news are in, partly thanks to rape culture. Maybe some of them just didn’t know the difference between rape and ‘mischief.’
Giving them the tools of empathy, education, culture critique and bravery I hope at the very least that we can equip all the kids in our lives to know the difference.
Given the subject matter, I welcome sensitively worded comments below and will be tightly moderating them. Please do give your responses and your ideas on how we can raise respectful, safe children.
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