Last year, in a nightclub, I noticed a man filming me and my friends as we sat talking; a long, slow sweep of the camera along the line of young women dressed for a night out. When I confronted him, he put his hands on me, a lingering stroke that ended at the waistband of my jeans. It was a threat, and a reminder of my place in his world. What I should have done was knock his hand away and start shouting. What I actually did was step back in disgust, yielding space and power to the already physically and culturally dominant party. The doorman showed up and barred him from the venue while he was still trying to convince me that he knew the owner, as if that gave him the right to act like the club was the red-lit window of an Amsterdam brothel.
Later that same night, I had the same general conversation with someone’s unwelcome ex, whose complete unwillingness to take “fuck off” for an answer was only weakened by the presence of an angry woman inside his own personal space. This wasn’t the same night on which a punter threatened unspecified harm to the DJ’s fiancée if he didn’t play his request; the threat was made in conversation with the DJ himself, who didn’t have the song in question, and the fiancée was kept unaware of the danger until it had passed. Indeed, the punter only knew they were a couple because she’d told him so when she’d turned him down four times earlier in the evening.
This kind of thing happens all the time because the club stays open after the pubs close; after 1am, the event becomes a human zoo for drunken Essex boys who believe they’re operating in a buyer’s market. The message was plain: this is a space that we can take from you and use against you. You thought you had a legitimate presence and agency here? We’re here now, you can go back to being the exotic and specialised property of entitled misogynists. For the most part, we tolerate it; it’s a tiresome inevitability, but one that most of us got used to while we were still at school. We tell ourselves that it really wasn’t that bad; the ones that took pictures didn’t talk, the ones that talked didn’t always touch, the ones that touched didn’t really hurt us…
2014 was a vintage year for rape culture. Every aspect of popular culture was unusually saturated with aggressively anti-consent messages, from the misrepresentation of BDSM practises in 50 Shades Of Gray, through news coverage of rapist hero-worship in Steubenville, past the ugly harassment of feminist campaigners on Twitter, on to the normalisation of abuse in the lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines; by any measure, a barrage from all sides. To the untrained eye, it looked as though the oppressor was winning.
For young women – and, indeed, young men – growing up in a culture which drips such poison in their ears from their earliest years, it takes considerable resistance to grow up rejecting these messages and asserting their own agency. The influence of teachers, parents, peers, and the media, whether positive or negative, constructs a sexual identity and morality that can be difficult to alter. Early expectations about later sexual encounters have to come from somewhere, and the twin threads of pornography and fiction weave an uneven and warped tableau. Girls expecting consideration and care meet boys who imagine that women enjoy being choked, having their heads held in place, and accepting anal penetration without preparation or warning. The two are irredeemably incompatible; someone’s going away disappointed.
When young women emerge blinking into the light of the real world, they slowly begin to understand that they were never really a pawn in this game at all: instead, they were the prize. In this transaction, sex is the reward that a man expects for his involvement. It is the return on his investment, the dividend paid to him for paying us attention, buying us dinner, being a Nice Guy, allowing us to bask in the bright light of his important and enviable masculine presence for a few hours. The choice we’re given is no choice at all; a woman who does becomes the proud owner of a new set of social labels, and a woman who doesn’t takes possession of a similarly bitter collection of invective. There is no position from which a woman can win. If we dodge, if we falter, if we defy or redesign the traditional balance of power, if we love women over men, society finds a way to punish our transgression.
The dominant culture of the UK is one in which young women are required by society to take responsibility for the sexual responses of male strangers and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Women and girls who dare to wear the “wrong” clothes, “overindulge”with drugs or alcohol, or have the temerity to walk home unaccompanied are understood to have contributed to their own victimhood. Just as folklore used to warn us against drawing the attention of jealous fairies by displaying too much pride or wandering from the righteous path, 21st-century bogeymen are used to force young women back on to the straight and narrow. Add to this the bare-bones sex education of the generation before – boys cannot control themselves, so you must exercise control for both of you – and you’re left with a pretty damning picture.
The implication is that young men are not responsible for their urges or their behaviour; by compelling young women to act as sexual gatekeepers, we excuse young men from taking responsibility for their sexual behaviour. By propagating the belief that a young man is unable to exercise self-control, we don’t just remove his responsibility; we also imply that he lacks the capacity for impulse control and objective judgement that separates humanity from animals. Rather than using this as an excuse, it’s amazing that young men aren’t more insulted by this slur against their capacity for reason and judgment.
Asking young women to take responsibility for young men’s sexual behaviour places an additional burden on their shoulders; now, in conjunction with considerations about pregnancy, disease, and social censure, they must also negotiate the complexities of sexual ethics and consent for two people. This is expected of girls and women equally, both by their peers and their elders, as well as by other women. Tellingly, the easiest ways to insult a woman are to accuse her of promiscuity or of being unattractive; the two worst things a woman can be are too desirable or not desirable at all. Conversely, portraying a world in which men are helpless hair-triggered slaves to their sexual longing is to cheat some men of their place in the picture: men for whom sex is not important, who prefer to take a passive role, or whose sexual nature is incompatible with aggression and entitlement don’t fit easily inside this worldview.
But this image is made up of layers of myth upon myth: in all likelihood, your rapist will not attack you in a dark alley on the way back from a club. This is obfuscation, smoke and mirrors, the Red Scare of our 21st-century sex war. Keep your eyes on the stranger in the shadows, and you won’t see the real threat – your husband, your boyfriend, your colleague, your best friend – until it’s too late. Your rapist is probably not the big bad wolf. Often, he’s the woodcutter.
Normalising the notion that a man’s very nature is what makes him dangerous means that trying to have a healthy sex life can feel like taking a cobra to bed; everyone knows they’re dangerous, so keeping the snake happy is a necessity. If you’re going to take the risk and then aggravate the creature, no one will be surprised if it spits poison. They certainly won’t blame the snake: the nature of a cobra is to do harm when provoked. We’d be to blame for being in that situation in the first place. Are we really expected to believe, then, that the nature of the men in our lives – the instincts of brothers and fathers, colleagues and friends – is to rape when they choose to?
Little boys are rewarded for displaying strong and assertive behaviour, and little girls are brought up to be obliging and people-pleasing. Boys are conditioned to push for what they want, and girls are conditioned to acquiesce to the wishes of others. When a small boy hits a little girl, she may be told that he did it because he likes her; an irresponsible gesture, perhaps, but also the first step on a lifetime of equating pain and love, suffering and affection. It creates in both children the understanding that someone who cares about you can demonstrate this by hurting you; a pernicious message, and one that too often flies under the radar. What else will this young person tolerate, having mistaken aggression for love, ten or twenty years later when the idea is thoroughly internalised?
Conversely, a girl that hits another child – regardless of that child’s gender – is censured for being spiteful, just as she is rebuffed for shouting, answering back, standing up for herself in a group, or otherwise displaying behaviour that deviates from her socially-assigned role of looking pretty and being a good girl. Slowly the child is robbed of her ability to assert herself, push for her own desires, and defend her own needs within a group dynamic. In adulthood, this develops into an aversion to causing trouble, starting fights, or displeasing those around her – useful in the workplace, but entirely dangerous in the bedroom.
Pair this with decades of additional conditioning by society in general and the media in specific – magazine articles exhorting her to look good and perform like a porn star for ‘her man’, the ageless and baseless notion that men should maintain the upper hand due to some spurious biologically determined propensity for dominance – and a woman with a pushy partner must struggle with her own psychological programming just to consider asserting her right to refuse. While newly designed relationships and sex education courses cover issues of consent and ways to say no, it’s difficult to imagine that negotiating your way out of an unwanted encounter with a pushy partner is as easy as some make it sound.
Of course, consent training and rape awareness campaigns will never entirely remove the threat of sexual violence from our streets and our homes; indeed, by clarifying the lines and making an act unacceptable, you create a clear weapon for those individuals whose psychological makeup makes such power desirable. Not all rapists are motivated by their sense of entitlement or the need to control another human; some, unquestionably, are motivated by the terror and abasement of their victims.
The report in autumn 2015 that identifies a 17% increase in rape convictions is to be welcomed, but more concerning was the statistic that revealed that few of these cases were historic. Crimes against property and against the person have fallen year on year, but offences linked to sexual violence are becoming more prevalent. We must push for a strengthening of the judicial response to sexual violence complaints, although there will never be a simple solution; a multi-pronged attack, cultural, social, ethical, legislative, and judicial, is necessary to create real and lasting change.
Opposing rape, as a man or a woman, doesn’t just mean not committing it. The dominance of rape culture can be diminished by refusing and resisting. We live in societies that have never been more connected, more able to interact; we’ve never been more able to communicate our disgust and resentment at the microaggressions rape culture uses to prolong itself. Male social groups use humour to bond; some groups make such egregiously off-colour jokes that there seems to be no limit to how far they can go. In company where rape jokes and open sexual assault – in a nightclub, for instance – are treated like fair game, it takes a special kind of strength to stand against it.
Some years ago, campaigners tried to tell the world that consent is sexy. it isn’t; it’s mandatory. there can be no argument. This is the viewpoint that commissions consent seminars for university freshers, and the notion that young men who don’t think they look like rapists try to kick holes in. What the young men have missed, though, is that rapists look like everybody else. To argue differently is to buy in to the pervasive myths surrounding sexual violence, the ones that tell us that the real threat is the heavy-breathing creeper in the darkened alleyway. As a society, it’s time to move past the harmful rhetoric that reinforces these ideas.
Some victims of sexual violence have shared their experience – an act of courage or of anger or of healing – and these testimonies will help to explode some of the more tenacious fallacies that still dog our understanding of the issue. Making such a bold statement carries its own risks, though; say you were assaulted at a party and you’ll be asked how much you’d had to drink and what you were wearing, say you were raped by your husband and someone will argue that he had a perfect right to your body. The anonymity of online exposure makes it easier for victims to share their stories, but also makes it easier for other users to criticise, question, and blame without fear of censure. Moderators can ban and supporters can shout the harasser down, but – as any writer will tell you – reading the comments is easy, and ignoring the content is hard.
For a species that survives by fitting in with the people around them, being the one voice of dissent in a laughing, complicit crowd can feel as if you’re trying to start a fight. Rejecting media that endorses rape culture can mean missing out and being made to feel like you’re the one with the problem, particularly if you use a platform like Twitter to question the creators. Challenging news reports and idle gossip that perpetuate harmful and damaging rape myths can lead to eye-rolling from those nearby who have heard the message before. That’s no reason to quit.
Dilettantes change little; online activism may feel lightweight, but the combined weight of those continued challenges will leave its mark in time. Culture is not monolithic and handed down from on high; it shifts and evolves, and it comes from us. Even the most tacky, vulgar, and puerile products of the modern media are there by our assent; culture is designed by committee, even if – like all the worst committees – it’s unequally composed, vague in its outlook, and dominated by those who shout loudest. However, change is not impossible. It takes time, and efforts are met with ridicule, derision, and overt aggression. No-one would claim it’s easy, but with slow and patient effort change is achievable. Tides turn, social values shift, those in power yield to pressure. Changing culture is possible because we create culture.