Monday, May 16, 2011

Slutwalk, Victim-Blaming & The Demonisation of Straight Men

I have a few reservations about Slutwalk, but not nearly so many about the media coverage. The project has inadvertently provided newspapers with an opportunity to publish pictures of pretty young barely-dressed white women before opening on-line “debate” about whether or not such women are asking for it. Most of the participants, like the cop who originally warned women not to dress “like sluts” take the view that the compulsion to rape is a natural part of male heterosexuality and it is up to women to avoid rape by removing the temptation. Recurring analogies seem to be all about car theft; sometimes a sluttily-dressed woman is a car left with the keys in the lock, sometimes she's a shiny new cars versus an old rusty one. And of course, there are plenty of comments about how the women photographed aren't up to standard and thus in no danger of rape anyway.

But of course, the temptation to rape has almost nothing to do with sexual attraction. Because, guess what? Most men who are sexually attracted to women are not rapists. Most straight and bisexual men are capable of experiencing an infinite amount of lust and longing without turning to violence. It's not that rape doesn't have anything to do with sex – I think a lot of the solutions to rape are about female sexual empowerment. But the compulsion to rape is not a sexual one.

To say that rape is mostly about power is not just an abstract feminist analysis. We know this to be the case because sometimes straight men rape other men as a punishment or assertion of power; the rape of male prisoners of war is commonplace and the men who rape men in prisons are frequently heterosexual on the outside. We also know this because those women most vulnerable to rape are not those who are considered most sexually attractive – for example, disabled women are more likely to be raped than non-disabled women, despite our lack of conventional attractiveness.

Meanwhile, men who admit to rape (in crafty studies where they phrase questions around physical aggression, sex and consent, so not to actually use the word rape) are not generally sexually-frustrated, but typically men who have a lot of sex with a lot of people. The number of famous sportsmen convicted of rape demonstrates this point very clearly; it is not that these wealthy, famous, often physically attractive young men have any trouble getting consenting sexual partners, they just get nasty when they find that they can't do whatever they like to whomever they like. This comes from entitlement, arrogance and an utter contempt for women. And of course, if rape was matter of lust, then there wouldn't be such variation in rape statistics between cultures. There are entirely non-sexual reasons why in the US, a woman is one and a half times more likely to experience rape than in the UK.

Rapists use sex as an excuse and the rest of us often prefer a narrative of sexual provocation and frustration because it somehow makes rape less horrific than it is – it puts rape on a spectrum of regrettable sexual behaviours and indiscretions. Even rape victims can fall foul of this. At the height of the Julian Assange scandal, I read a blogger writing in Assange's defence, describe her own experience of being physically forced into sex despite objections and physical resistance as “just something that happens between men and women, which is sad, but it's not a crime.”* Which I found very sad indeed.

We also know that women are statistically less vulnerable to rape alone on a street or around strangers than they are indoors with a date, a male friend, boyfriend or husband. Thus, according to the numbers, a woman in a short skirt and high heels walking alone down a dark alley is not creating nearly such a good opportunity to a potential rapist as a woman in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt sitting at home with her boyfriend. The scantily-clad woman on the street has places to run to, maybe people to call out to, probably a phone inches from her hand. And if she is attacked, then there's less confusion. It may even possible she has more chance of conviction than the girlfriend of a rapist, I don't know.

The idea of masculine heterosexuality as something out of control, compelling men to take every opportunity for sexual contact with women, lets straight men off many social hooks. There is still a double standard about sexual morality, whereby girls and women are expected to take responsibility for sexual decisions, contraception and so on, whilst the idea that boys will be boys is used to excuse almost anything, up to and including the rape of children by adult men. There's absolutely no doubt about the effect this has on women's lives, our sexual and mental health, our freedom of movement and expression and our relationships with men.

However these same ideas demonise the sexuality of straight and bisexual men. It removes the value of men's sexual choices, it diminishes any sense of their free will. It makes the sexual assault of a straight man by a woman impossible, since no real man would ever say no to anything. It places a great deal of pressure on boys and men to be sexually active whether they want to be or not, whether they want the available kinds of realtionships or not. It alienates men who are shy, romantic or uncertain about sex, let alone those have religious beliefs around chastity. It makes male celibacy into something deeply sinister. And of course, it makes male sexuality out to be inherently dangerous, leading to a culture of suspicion towards men who work around children and other vulnerable people.

It's not an accident that straight men perpetrate the vast majority of rapes, but it is not because being a straight man makes you bad. This is all about power. And it is up to straight men to take the power away from those within their ranks who use these excuses for violence.

Hannah has written a very good review of some of the more reasoned coverage and discussion around Slutwalk, the reclamation of language, whether it is a feminist movement and so on. I've read other good things written about it, but just now the only thing I can remember is the Germaine Greer piece in the Telegraph, which gave the rallying cry, "If they're to be liberated, women have to demand the right to be dirty. By declaring themselves sluts, they lay down the Cillit Bang and take up the instruments of pleasure."

*I paraphrase for anonymity.

1 comment:

Elizabeth McClung said...

I agree with your analysis of risk for male/female rape. And also how it is an act of violence and dominance more than it is about sex. What I don't understand is that these shows, all shows that demonstrate men as dogs, as willing to rape all that is there, willing and unwilling is an idea brought forth and kept alive by men to men.

In graphic novels there is a phrase 'mens eyes' referring to seeing the world from a male viewpoint - and in these works, which are later turned into film (or have been over the last 7-10 years) the world view is that women are there to f*ck, and there is no other purpose. Superheroes have groupies and those who are wives of 'supes' "just don't get it", while villians, or misguided heroes grab and rape children and teen girls because, I guess, they can. It is a dirty place, but one which heterosexual men hold dear, from Watchmen to 300, the popular icons, fav films and TV shows are ones in which even 'good' guys do bad things to women, or put them 'in their place' - and are created and played to an audience of heterosexual men who need this fantasy that while THEY might not rape NOW, they would also be the first to describe the post-apocolypse, Jail, or history as a place of men, 'real' men dominating and seizing what they want by force.

I guess I don't understand why heterosexual men want this as part of their identity so badly?