RAPE CULTURE – the ultimate in control
‘Rape Culture’ may be a phrase new to a lot of you (and I hope this blog post is shared a lot, so there are a lot of readers). I’ve blogged about my personal experiences before; link to that here. ‘Rape Culture’ is defined as the society in which we live which perpetuates heteronormative (i.e. acceptance and promotion of heterosexual as the normal and ‘right’ way to be) sexist ideals of sexual behaviour and a masculine entitlement to sex. For the purposes of clarity, the society to which I refer is the western, first world society, and specifically the United Kingdom, in which I reside. Men are the active protagonists in sexual encounters whereas women are the passive subjective receptors. Men can express their sexual desires and are entitled and expected to do so whereas women are the objects onto which those desires are projected and the submissive partners through which those desires are expressed. Put simply, men take sex, women give sex.
Some facts (sources listed at the end of this blog):
- In 2011/2012 there were 536,000 victims of sexual assault (all definitions from voyeurism to rape). There has been no significant statistical alteration in this figure in the last five years.*
- Women are more likely to be repeatedly victimised by sexual assault than men; 3% of women suffer repeated assaults compared with 0.3% of men.*
- There is a very limited awareness of incidents of reported rape in the UK, with women (3% overall) less likely to be aware that over 10,000 are reported per annum than men (6%). Younger respondents were more likely to be aware of the high reporting level.***
- The maximum sentence available to the judiciary is 10 years for a sexual assault on a person over the age of 13 years, and 14 years if the victim is under 13. Mitigating factors such as pre-meditation, intoxication of attacker and so on will be taken into account in sentencing.**
- Sentences combine time in custody and time on licence in the community, i.e. not simply time to be spent in prison.**
- Intention to commit a sexual assault was determined to be less serious than if the assault had actually occurred; i.e. if rohypnol (nicknamed the ‘date rape’ drug) had been given but the crime was interrupted and did not occur.**
- The conviction rate is 5.3% for the 10,000 plus reported rapes per annum.***
- 34% of respondents believed flirtation makes a woman partially or totally responsible for being raped, with no significant gender disparity in this belief.***
I urge you to access the documents cited. It is important to note that the report on judicial sentencing and perception of crimes clearly states that such statistics were determined within the context of a society which has predetermined attitudes towards what defines a sex crime: “traditional depiction of rape tended to assume that sexual offences are facilitated by physical violence, coercion or detention for example, and are discrete one-off offences, rather than multiple offences over time…media coverage of cases colours perceptions of sexual offences to fit stereotypical views, when in fact sexual offences can also occur without physical violence, or occur a number of times before being reported”**.
With regard to sentencing, I personally believe there should be a difference in the sentence if a crime intended but did not occur in comparison to if it did occur. However, we should be aware that this may have an effect on social attitudes towards rape and an explicit understanding that this does give clear evidence of attitudes towards sexual behaviours. The fact the crime did not occur does not alter the intent of the perpetrator, which is the same whether the crime occurred or not. It is the social factors behind this ‘intent’ which creates and perpetuates rape culture.
Rape Culture is a combination of many factors, of which this is by no means a comprehensive list: victim-blaming and failure to prosecute rapists; normalisation of sexual abuse, where one in three women experience sexual assault; raunch culture; objectifying sexualisation of women and girls; rape/abuse jokes (trigger warning: an example was posted two days ago on Facebook, and can be found here – read the comments for explicit examples of attitudes perpetuating and exemplifying rape culture, but please be aware, they are potentially triggering); the violent abusive sexual threatening language deemed acceptable to many in such forums as online gaming should a female or perceived female be participating in the game; the threats made on comment threads for blogs by declared feminists (I have yet to experience this, thankfully); sexist portrayals of sexual activity in mainstream pornography which is increasingly accessible through the internet; patriarchy as a the dominant cultural influence; intersecting discriminations such as hypersexualisation of women of colour and transgender women and the heightened ‘feminisation’ of gay men, which are both seen as contributing to respective victimization of and perceived responsibility for assaults those within those groups may suffer.
Rape culture is essential to patriarchy, and is what fosters intentions and mitigates actions within sexual behaviours.
There is a danger that the media reporting of objectifying sexualisation of young girls becomes the assumed experience of all girls, which is not statistically accurate. The vast majority of young girls are not sexually experienced nor are they participating in sexual activities. The assumption that they are removes agency from young girls in exploring and understanding their own sexuality and in itself perpetuates the objectification of them. The median age for first sexual activity (17 for boys, 16 for girls in the UK) didn’t change in the 10 years between 1990 and 2000****. However, girls reporting first sexual activity taking place under the age of 16 has almost doubled from 10.3% in 1990 to 20.4% in 2000****. I was unable to find more up-to-date statistics for 2010. Women are also reporting more lifetime sexual partners for their age compared to like samples from previous surveys, and the same applies to men. However, women still report a lower figure than men. The reasons for such decisions are not given, and we should not infer from our own beliefs and assumptions what such motivation may be purely from statistical data. Most importantly, these statistics refer only to consenting sexual activity, and do not define how or what determines that consent.
Anecdotal evidence does support an increased objectifying sexualisation of adolescent girls and sense of entitlement to sex amongst adolescent boys. A recent study by Sheffield University reported in the Daily Telegraph cited clear differences between attitudes towards sexual activity between the genders, and a clear lack of understanding of the nuances of ‘consent’.
What is fundamental to combating rape culture is developing and actively applying an understanding of informed, repeated, enthusiastic, freely-given consent (my emphasis). Informed, repeated, enthusiastic consent is vital to healthy sexual lives. Pressure exerted in any way, such as making a partner feel guilty or that they owe something, removes autonomy. Deliberately trying to intoxicate potential partners removes their ability to consent. Past history bears no relation to a person’s consent, which should be clearly received free from pressure for every sexual encounter. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Physical or emotional pressure removes one’s ability to freely consent. External societal pressures remove one’s ability to freely consent. Consent given once does not mean consent is given for all future encounters with the same person. The inability to verbalise consent does not mean it is given. Consent to one type of sexual activity does not imply or infer consent to others.
If in any doubt as to whether a person whom you are interested in having sex with can give consent, for example if one is with a person who is intoxicated, unfocused, stumbling over words, making little sense in conversation, it is best to assume consent is not given and not have sex. One can never assume consent is given. It is better not to have sex under such circumstances, lest one should become a rapist. The way a person is dressed, being in a relationship, flirtation with someone; none of these factors imply or give consent. No-one is entitled to sex. Every person is entitled to free agency over their own body and their own sexuality, but no-one is entitled to agency over another person.
Personal moral judgments and beliefs apply only to our own agency and should not be imposed on others. For example, one may believe that sex should only occur within marriage, but that does not mean one should assume or assert that belief over others as that also removes autonomy and the freedom to give or deny consent. Even within marriage consent must not be assumed. Sex workers can often find themselves having their autonomy removed by both pro-sex work and anti-sex work activists. Judgement with regard to consent is made without consultation or understanding of the complexity, and it is a complex issue, but for workers in the industry such consent is vital to their safety and autonomy. I would argue working conditions make it difficult for such consent to be given within our society at this point in time, but not impossible. Anecdotal evidence is clear in that there are those involved in sex work who do give consent as I have defined it, and also that there are those who do not.
Informed, repeated, enthusiastic, freely-given consent requires respect between parties involved in the sexual activities, and responsibility for one’s partner or partners. Respect is negated should any external pressure or removal of agency be part of the decision.
Rape Culture exerts pressure over all of us. It is controlling, invasive and removes autonomy. Rape by legal definition does not take into account the myriad nuances of sexual behaviour and is directly influenced by patriarchal and intersectional discriminatory beliefs. It removes the agency and freedoms of all of us, and is the ultimate controlling tool. It must be fought against, loudly and vehemently, for all our sakes.
*** Sexual Assault Summary Report prepared by ICM on behalf of Amnesty International, published 12th October 2005
**** http://www.natcen.ac.uk/natsal/results.htm – reference tables summary