In today’s Mail on Sunday, Mariella Frostrup’s column focuses on a report prepared by Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz. The report, entitled Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups, was released last week and describes the number of girls forced into sexual activity by gang members. In response to the report, which is no doubt truly disturbing reading, she argues,“we need a Man Army determined to change cultural stereotypes, full of blokes that boys revere – footballers, musicians, actors and even Top Gear presenters (not normally short of opinions) – saying, loud and proud, that rape is for cowards, child abuse is despicable and treating girls like pieces of meat is simply unacceptable.”
Frostrup presumes that men can be immunised against committing rape by seeing anti-assault messages from men they respect and admire, an approach that suggests that men commit rape because they believe it’s somehow acceptable. She is sorely mistaken – men commit rape precisely because they know it is not acceptable. The power imbalance implied by the act, the misuse and subjugation of a victim by that assault, is very often entire focus of the act.
For rapists of this type, rape is rarely about sex or the lack of it; it’s about power and domination, control and shame. It’s about telling a person that they mean so little that they can be used in whichever way their attacker chooses. Sexual assault, like domestic violence and emotional abuse, is a way to dehumanise someone; their aggressor shows them that they have so little power that they cannot prevent their own mistreatment. They become, as the article suggests, a piece of meat, lacking agency and control – the shock of rape emanates as much from the complete denigration of the victim’s personality and humanity as it does from any violent physical act.
There is, of course, another type of rapist – one who misreads signals, assumes consent where none has been given, or fails to notice that his partner has lost interest in continuing. These men are not psychopaths, nor do they necessarily set out to cause harm, but the effect on their partner can be no less powerful. Some of these men notice their partners’ waning interest and stop in good time, some never notice and so continue, and some notice and make a conscious choice to keep going.
Some months ago, a discussion on Reddit emerged that allegedly contained contributions from men who had committed rape. Most were from young men who took a previously consensual act too far; few seemed to exhibit the psychopathic aggression we’re led to expect – perhaps these men were present but declined to post, understanding the negative reaction they’d receive. All those who posted were aware of what they’d done, and many knew they were committing rape when they were still in the moment of committing it. The following quotes are taken directly from the discussion, and seem to make little effort to excuse the acts of each correspondent.
“I ignored her and did it. She realized what was happening and tried to clamp her legs shut, but it was too late and I was much stronger than her.”
“My hormones were going insane, I didn’t have any empathy in my heart at that moment just my own concerns. She wasn’t a person anymore just a path, a tool, a means to an end. Then once again, I can’t remember. I don’t remember what happened, I never asked her. I almost don’t want to know. But I know I got off. I hate to say it but after it was done I went to bed, she stayed up crying. It wasn’t until two days later that I realized I had done something awful.”
“Most girls don’t really understand how horny guys are, how much stronger guys are, how guys will rationalize what they do. I see feminists and women on the Internet saying that no means no and women should be able to get as drunk as they want and not be sexually assaulted, and I couldn’t agree more. But the reality of the situation is that women have to be careful because guys are one way when they’re hanging out and another way when they’re horny or worse drunk and horny.”
“My rapist (ex’s best friend) told me he knew it was wrong, but would have probably done it again given the chance. He also was surprised that forced sex didn’t make me want to be his girlfriend.”
A further objection can be raised to Frostrup’s assertion that perpetrators of rape and sexual assault “steal their [victims’] innocence and their futures”. In recent decades, the feminist movement has made efforts to transform the perception of the raped woman from ‘victim’ to survivor’ – a semantic shift, but one that can make a powerful difference to the way a woman experiences the time following her assault. Tell her that her life is ruined and she may well believe you, but tell her she can recover and you give her the power to overcome the experience; it’s not difficult to imagine which is the better impression to give someone in that position.
The kind of person inclined to commit rape for power will not be swayed by the words of a TV presenter or a football player, particularly words that have been put in their mouths by well-meaning authority. When one person decides to violently assault another, logic and government-sponsored messages play no part in the thought process. The kind of person who commits rape through misreading signals is unlikely to consider such advice in the heat of the moment; how can they, if they don’t realise they’re doing anything wrong?
Rapists commit rape for various reasons, none of which excuse the trauma they inflict upon their victim. Some do so to intimidate or punish, to inflict fear and denigrate their victim. Some do so because they misread signals or inaction from their partners, some do so because they simply don’t respect their partner’s wishes enough to stop. None of these situations can be remedied by a public service announcement or advertising campaign.
Rape is a cultural problem, but one that occurs in all cultures and throughout history. It’s not the job of public figures to tackle it with good intentions and a public service announcement; instead it’s the job of parents, teachers, sex educators, and then the media. From films like Grease onwards, certain media products have positioned men as pursuer and women as the person who must exercise control and resistance; through these stories, we normalise sexually threatening behaviour. Young women come to expect and tolerate it, and young men feel they are excused to act as their hormones allegedly dictate.
To lower rape statistics, we much challenge the culture that excuses male sexual aggression and tells women that they must take sole responsibility for their own safety. We must abandon the macho culture that places to much emphasis on sexual experience, and instil a sense of respect and consideration for one’s sexual partners. It’s a difficult task, given the extent to which modern life is permeated with messages about sexual behaviour, but it can be done. We must start at the beginning and maintain a consistent message, and in doing so we can ensure that another generation of young women aren’t exposed to the same fear and exploitation as the ones that went before them.
First posted Sunday, 25 November 2012