There are only two prominent messages we hear about how to prevent rape; don't get raped and don't commit rape. Police campaigns as well as horrendously clumsy statements by police and politions regularly attract controversy for their implicit and occasionally explict victim-blaming; the suggestion that if women took steps to avoid rape, it wouldn't happen. This is a problem. I don't need to explain why.
But telling men "Don't rape!" is also fairly futile, for three very siginificant reasons.
- The vast majority of men are neither rapists nor potential rapists. As someone who has never downloaded an illegal film, bought or borrowed a pirate, I feel mildly insulted having to sit through the rowdy anti-piracy warnings at the beginning of rented DVDs. I imagine being told not to rape is a bit like that, only you know, about rape.
- Men who commit rape are extremely unlikely to call it rape. If you want to identify rapists among survey respondents, you phrase it differently. Rapists generally regard real rape as something a notch or two worse than the rapes they have committed.
- Some men are the victims of rape and not all rapists are men. This isn't merely important in terms of But what about men?! but (a) these victims matter (b) the model of rape as an inevitable consequence of straight men's sexuality and something women have to protect themselves against is at the heart of our problem with rape.
1. Look after your friends and don't mind your own business.
While women are in much more danger of sexual violence, men are more likely to be injured or killed in other forms of street violence. So where late nights and drink is involved, everyone needs taking care of. When out at night, pay attention to where your friends are, who they are with and how they are doing. If any friend is
- extremely drunk, unwell or otherwise vulnerable
- receiving unwelcome sexual attention
- receiving sexual attention from someone with an evil moustache or something else that gives you the willies
- paying sexual attention to someone who seems uncomfortable, or is themselves very drunk, very young etc.
There is a limit to that, of course; if your friend actually tells you to go away, then you need to do so, but by that stage you'll have at least dropped the hint that you feel something is not right. There's no need to get all white-knighty and tell your friends how to behave, but exchanging our instincts about new people and situations, “I just don't like what's happening here.” is perfectly reasonable and one of the main advantages of being social animals.
If you're wrong, the very worst that can happen is someone tells you to bugger off. If you're right, you could save your friends an awful lot of trouble.
2. Encourage others to trust their instincts when it comes to creepy and inappropriate behaviour.
To the greatest extent, our culture teaches us not to trust ourselves when it comes to unwanted sexual attention. Then, having convinced ourselves we have a legitimate concern, we talk to other people about our feelings and are often told to question them further; Are you sure it was meant that way? Are you sure they weren't just being friendly? Are you quite sure they meant to touch you? You should take it as a compliment. You shouldn't read too much into it. And so on.
This is a disaster.
Nobody is entitled to anybody else's time, energy, attention, company, friendship or anything else. No matter how drunk, lonely or socially inept a person may be - no matter how funny, popular or decent they may be regarded by others - it is perfectly okay to say, "This thing you're doing makes me uncomfortable. Please stop it." and "You're making me uncomfortable. Please leave." and it's okay to respectfully remove yourself from their presence and have nothing more to do with them, with or without explanation.
Encourage your friends. Support their decisions to avoid people who make them feel uncomfortable. When they question themselves (and they often do - my mother thought she was being unkind to change the time she went swimming to avoid a regular at the pool who made sexually explicit remarks about her*), reassure them that it is more important that they feel comfortable than anyone else - even another trusted person - has access to them. Even if they are completely over-reacting to some poor hapless person's clumsy advances, acting on their intuition this time is excellent practice for the time when it's not an over-reaction.
I had written this bit when the wonderful Captain Awkward and the Awkward Community covered this issue better and more thoroughly than I ever could. Part of this obviously has to be
3. Exercise zero tolerance towards sexually aggressive people.
Sometimes, people make genuine mistakes with flirtation and other times, innocent behaviour happens to press someone's buttons. But there are limitations to this, which really ought to be obvious to everyone. Obvious examples include unwanted touching, spiking a drink, making sexually explicit remarks out of context, joking about sexual coercion (see below) and anything if it is repeated after someone made it clear they felt uncomfortable.
When a man oversteps this mark with a woman, other women are often nervous of cutting him off because they don't want to seem over-sensitive, uptight or hostile to male attention**. Other men are nervous of going against the brotherhood, of failing to laugh off or empathise with their comrade's actions. When a woman is creeping out a man, both victim and perpetrator become a joke; my family laughed about the drunk woman who'd repeatedly tried to kiss my reluctant cousin because women aren't supposed to be sexually assertive and men are supposed to be up for whatever comes their way. In my limited experience, gay and lesbian creeps are treated with less tolerance, except within scenes where - like the kink community - the defensiveness of the community as a safe, tolerant and funky place can silence members who have a problem.
Not only are people who violate other's boundaries in small ways very likely to violate them in much bigger ways, but people who cross these moral lines are unlikely to restrict themselves to this particular kind of bad. Often people tolerate creeps in their social circle because they themselves are immune to their attentions. But someone who doesn't care about not intimidating someone they find sexually attractive is unlikely to care all that much about not being an arsehole, in myriad other ways, to someone who considers them a friend.
4. Give all young people the same information about personal safety. Don't tell boys or girls that their sexuality makes them dangerous.
As a girl, I learnt that I needed to be afraid of rape. Girls start receiving sexual harassment on the street very early on, and by the time a few of us had been shouted at, groped, followed home etc., we began to exchange ideas about how to defend ourselves if we were actually attacked. This now amuses me really; a can of hairspray and a lighter will make a rudimentary flamethrower but you need both hands and about thirty seconds longer than you probably have to fend off an attack. But we understood that we faced this threat. Anyone who thinks that women don't know the danger they are in is quite wrong.
At the same time, entering into adolescence, we understood that there was a demand on us to be sexy which we had to balance up with this risk of rape – dress too modestly and you're not sexy, dress too sexily and you might be raped. Even in the twenty-first century, a lot of the discussions around the sexualisation of young girls hinges on the idea of children being in danger of giving off sexual messages to men, as opposed to kids adopting a value system which is going to make them unhappy. When I was a teenager, bridging tomboy to hippy, I thought I received a lot of sexual harassment because I was tall and I had big breasts. In fact, I was told that men must think I was older than I really was. So it was all about me, and things I couldn't help about myself.
Nonsense. I was in my primary school uniform when I received my first sexual harassment from adult men. Mature looking or sexily-dressed children don't confuse men. Sexual harassment is an abnormal behaviour, and the people who do it operate abnormally; children are vulnerable and the kind of men who shout lewd remarks or molest women in the street and on public transport look for vulnerable-looking women, including children, whether they are wearing high-heels or trainers.
So girls should not receive dynamically different messages from boys about safety on the streets.
All young people need to be taught basic self-defence and to be given basic advice about travelling in groups, not drinking to a point of incapacity, avoiding certain places late at night, trusting and sharing their instincts about people and situations, only using registered cabs and so on. There is no evidence that anyone's clothing effects their likelihood of being sexually assaulted, so nobody should receive any advice about that.
Girls are much more likely to be subject to sexual harassment, but as it can happen to boys too (as well as other forms of harassment, e.g. racist, homophobic and disablist abuse) and strategies for dealing with this are much the same whoever you are. A culture which endlessly lectures girls on how dangerous there lives and bodies are but implicitly assures boys that no harm can come to them and there's never any need for them to run away, fails everybody.
5. Encourage a culture where everyone gets to say "No" without negative social consequences and respect a "No" whenever you hear one.
At primary school, a teacher I didn't know accosted me in the corridor and asked me to run an errand. I didn't fully understand what was being asked of me – it was something to do with putting a dinner tray somewhere where it would be washed up, but I didn't know where she meant and I was anxious about getting in trouble with my own teacher for being late. So I said that I didn't want to. I had no idea how rude that was; apparently, it was the most shocking insubordination this teacher had ever encountered and what followed was the single worst telling-off I received in my entire school career.
During an early experience of sexual abuse, I actually said, with a forced laugh, “What about consent?”. This says a lot about my socialisation. I was desperately trying to work out the code that would make it stop. I had tried, “I don't think I want this.” and “I really don't think I want this.” Even when I was in great pain and crying, I still reached for, “Please can we stop this now?”
I don't believe that this happened because I didn't know how to say “No!” in a firm and forceful manner - I've never met anyone who had such problems with nuance that they confuse, “I don't think I want this.” with “Yes!” or even “I'm not bothered either way so do as you feel.” But “No!” may well have been useful and I simply didn't have it. I don't even have it now. I probably have it for a stranger jumping out of the bushes, but for anyone I know well, like or respect on any level? Probably not.
This is partly about gender, although I know men who don't have “No!” and women who do. Rebelling against authority, to some extent, is part of our cultural narratives about how boys become men. They get to say “No!” to parents, teachers, maybe even the law, at least for a short time, in order to assert their masculine individuality. Culturally, teenager girl's rebellion is almost always framed as defying one's parents by accommodating the needs of one's male peers, putting out, rather than asserting one's own sexuality or non-sexual aspects of identity. The adult version of that telling-off I received as a child is being called a selfish bitch, a cock tease, a frigid dyke and so on.
However, it's worth saying how tricky it can be for boys and men to say “No!” in a sexual context, because of the idea that a real man, whether straight or queer, is preoccupied with and available for sex with any marginally attractive person. This idea feeds into the idea both that all men are potential rapists struggling to control themselves, as well as the idea that, immune from the possibility of unwanted sexual attention, men cannot be raped. One of the disturbing aspects of the otherwise hilarious Cosmo's 44 Most Ridiculous Sex Tips (this remains one of the funniest things I have read this year) and other “sex tips” from women's magazines is the number which don't involve even looking for basic clues as to whether a male partner might, at that moment, enjoy being groped, ravished or even physically assaulted as part of an experiment.
Which brings me onto
6. Practice, Discuss and Teach Your Kids About Enthusiastic Consent
Enthusiastic consent is the principle that great sex means ongoing positive communication between parties; you check with your partner and express your own enthusiasm (with words, noises, touch, gestures, eyebrow code etc.) at every stage. You don't have sex with someone just because they want to, you feel obliged to, because they've nagged you or sulked about it or because it gives you something to do with your hands while you work on that difficult formula. You don't have sex with someone who you suspect doesn't feel like it or seems uncertain about how they feel, or is very tired or drunk or otherwise vulnerable. You don't assume that the other person's willingness to be with you in one context (e.g their presence in your bed, their kissing you, their performing certain sexual acts on you) means that the other party is up for anything else that crosses your mind. You ask. You respect their answer. You expect the same from them.
Practicing enthusiastic consent isn't merely about being a considerate lover or avoiding doing something sexual that wasn't entirely welcome. You're likely to be in a much better position for managing your reproductive choices and, outside a lifelong monogamous relationship, it also helps protect your partners and their future partners by setting a precedent.
This does warrant discussion because (a) this isn't yet a dominant model of how sex should be in our culture – it certainly isn't what we see in the films, in Men's or Women's Magazines, let alone porn - and (b) some of us struggle with how to practice this, because of programming and personal issues around sex. What if talking out loud is a turn-off for a partner? What if you're doing something that renders eye-contact impossible? What about times you do something sexual for someone because you love them even though it's not really your thing? All this stuff is resolvable, but the principle matters and quite obviously, one's chances of having better, more mutually-fulfilling sex rocket compared to the model where one person (usually a man) initiates, everything just happens and both parties hope for the best.
My top tip: Being British means talking out loud about sex is almost impossible without giggling - just now I'm recovering from the effect of having put the words sex and rocket next to each other in the same sentence. Reading and participating in written discussions, both public and private, is much easier than sitting around with friends and saying, “So, you know when you really fancy the thing with the bubble wrap and the hedgehog costume, but your partner's busy reading Ovid...?”
7. Use The Word Rape To Describe Rape
One of the big problems we have even talking about rape is that our culture has an ideal model for the crime which (roughly) features a virtuous young single woman walking along in daylight when an armed stranger leaps out from nowhere and drags her into the bushes. We consider a rape a crime which necessarily
- results in significant physical injury
- results in long-term trauma with immediate effect
- results in a very specific mix of rational behaviours (e.g. reporting the incident to the police immediately) and irrational behaviours (e.g. being very upset all the time, refusing to leave the house and taking a vow of chastity).
Some rapes are much worse than others, involving more violence, greater fear of death, more than one assailant and so forth. This doesn't mean that other rapes are not serious or not actual rapes. Often, victims struggle to use the word rape because they don't feel what happened was quite bad enough and because they are deeply invested in avoiding any drama. Dissociation is a common reaction to the shock of an assault, which can mean that, on auto-pilot, the victim is sociable and friendly with the rapist in the immediate aftermath. Together with domestic violence – of which rape is often a feature – victims often see a choice between carrying on with things as they were and getting back to normal as soon as possible, or else identifying as a victim, condemning their friend/ lover/ spouse/ family or community member as a rapist and disrupting every aspect of both their lives.
So often accounts of rape begin, “I wasn't raped, but this thing happened to me once where I was forced to have sex against my will...”
This isn't victims' fault, and nobody should be pressed into using language about their own experiences which they don't feel comfortable about. However, the rest of us need to get this right.
We generally struggle to use the word rape or even sexual assault when it is appropriate. The term “had sex” is overused in reporting of sexual crimes, even when discussing the abuse of young children. Julian Assange is currently suspected of rape, but the word is rarely used when discussing his case, regardless of anyone's stance on his as-yet-uncertain guilt. In the coverage of an upcoming film about Mike Tyson, I've heard reference of “his time in prison” but not the fact that he was put in prison for rape (which in most minds, is towards one end of the huge spectrum of things a person can be imprisoned for). I've even seen film reviews that refer to "rough sex" when the only sexual content is an unambiguous rape.
I don't believe that this is because people don't know what rape is. I just think we're massively squeamish about the word, like we are about some anatomical words - rape is perhaps a word we wouldn't use in front of our grandmothers. But this is part of the reason why people can commit rape and frame what they do in the language of say, men's magazines. If we consistently used the word rape to describe any time someone has sex forced upon them, it would make it far more difficult for rapists to rationalise their future crimes.
8. Avoid humour around rape and sexual aggression.
Many jokes about rape and sexual aggression muddy the water about the acceptability of these behaviours. Sure, people laugh because these things are shocking to say and hear, but they are rendered less shocking by the saying, hearing and laughing. Jokes don't make people rape, any more than racist jokes make white people go out and beat up black and Asian people. However, I guarantee that rapists, like violent racists, are much more comfortable in an environment where the joke is on the victims of their violence.
Meanwhile, I think this saga, which continues into the comments, demonstrates how shocking it can be to people who consider themselves harmless and decent to realise the hurt, distaste and profound mistrust that this kind of humour can elicit from people who have experienced, or are at higher risk of experiencing, sexual violence. You may be free to joke about whatever you like, but you will be judged for your humour and you will help create environments which make some people feel safe and others feel alienated. It's worth considering what kind of people you want to reassure and what kind of people you want to push to the edges.
I'd include in this, don't use the verb rape to mean kick ass, thrash, wipe the floor with etc., in a competitive context, e.g "Chelsea are going to rape Man U this weekend." Stephen recently reported reading the phrase "raped by the postage" to refer to someone being charged high postage. I mean, just no!
* This really shocked me, because Mum is in her late fifties, is made of very stern stuff and would probably respond to the same story coming from another woman with a cunning plot to bring about the creep's humiliating comeuppance. But when it was her own case, she reverted to a young girl second-guessing herself about leaving a party to avoid a boy who just groped her - except that among her machinations, she argued that because of her age, the man couldn't really mean anything sexual or pose any kind of threat.
** Not all women have any interest in male attention, but many women are socialised not to rock that particular boat, regardless of sexuality.