Wednesday, 17 November 2010

consent, education and rape

This is a bit of a rambling lunch break constructed rant.

You’d hope by now, in the year 2010, that most people would have worked out what rape is. But, in what seems to be a fairly regular happening, a new survey has come out today that, yet again, suggests people are pretty confused about rape.

Today survey says:
Nearly half of young men think that if a woman is too drunk to know what is going on, it is not rape.
46% of men think that if a woman changes her mind during sex, and he carries on, it isn’t rape.
23% of men think that ‘having sex’ with a woman even if she has said no from the start is not rape. (I have put ‘having sex’ in inverted commas because it’s rape, not sex)

Don’t read the comments unless you want to vom.

This survey has come out the week after we see a victim of rape being jailed for perverting the course of justice, because her violent husband threatened her if she continued to press charges. By a judge who has repeatedly released domestic violence offenders because they ‘don’t pose a big risk to society’ (

As you can imagine, this survey has made me pretty angry. And perhaps I am most angry by how much these myths persist, and how, with a bit of education, they could be resolved.

In the past, feminists have suggested that better education about rape and consent would help reduce offences and encourage reporting of rape. This proposal is often met by hand wringing about ‘stolen childhood innocence’ from the Daily Mail, and scorn that ‘education won’t stop people from raping’ from that charming, well informed bunch on CIF (sarcasm :-/). But this survey shows that, actually, many young men don’t even know or understand what rape is. This survey shows that  some young men are committing a gross and inhuman crime, without understanding or knowing that it is what they are doing. And, on the flip side, this suggests that all too often, young women don’t know what rape is. A heart breaking radio phone in had a teenager confusedly asking the presenter whether she had been raped, when her boyfriend and all of his friends raped her. Because she had not been taught about what consent meant, because she had not learnt that she could be an active agent in sex, with real and important desires, she didn’t understand what had happened to her. With better education about what active consent means, and what rape is, perhaps men would think twice about what they are doing.

The key is active consent. Not being too drunk to know what’s going on. Sex is about mutual pleasure and desire, about you both actively wanting it to happen. If one of you doesn’t even know anything is taking place, then how can you be actively engaging in sex?
It is important to move away from the idea that not consenting to sex means clearly and loudly saying no. Commonly, we see situations where women have been intimidated or coerced into sex, threatened if they don’t go along with it. These are situations where saying no could put her in further danger. Perhaps they are in a violent relationship, and are even more afraid of the repercussions of the word no. Perhaps she has frozen, and is too scared to know what to say or do. There are lots of reasons why a woman might not say no. But not saying no doesn’t mean she hasn’t been raped. This is why the issue of active consent is so important. The idea that both parties are actively engaged in and want to have sex. It can be with someone you love, someone you’ve only just met, someone you don’t even like, but it has to be something you want to do and want to be part of.

The myth that men can’t stop once they’ve started is terrifyingly pervasive and as well as being dangerous to women, it is insulting to men. A long time ago I had an argument with a guy at uni about this, who insisted that even if a woman withdrew consent during sex, a man could not stop what he was doing. At this point my friend screamed at him ‘have you ever been penetrated?’ Because, although when it happens consensually it can be great, without consent it is a gross violation of another person’s body and boundaries. If a woman says stop, then you stop. It doesn’t matter whether you don’t want to stop. You don’t have anything inside you that at that moment you don’t want to be there. You don’t know what that woman is going through, physically and emotionally. So have some fucking respect and do what she’s asking. It isn’t hard to stop. It isn’t impossible. It IS rape if you don’t.

And the final point in the survey. The 23% who just rape because they don’t see no as meaning no. The men who see women’s bodies as their entitlement. The men who have learnt that women’s bodies are objects for them to use. A lesson learnt from the sex industry. A lesson that says that women are not active agents when it comes to sex. Just bodies that are to be used. The men who don’t understand and who don’t care, who think that they deserve what they want, with no regard for what that means for the woman on the other side of their body.

Where does this sense of entitlement come from? Well, one place is violent and degrading porn, strip clubs and prostitution. Young men are seeing, from the age of 11 on average, imagery that tells them that sex is something that is done to a woman, that he ‘takes’ from her and that she won’t complain, no matter what you do to her. They experience one of the most intense physical sensations whilst watching a woman being harmed and hurt. They come to view women’s bodies as something they are entitled to, that belong to them no matter what. Young women grow up seeing sex as something they perform, not as something they actively engage in. It’s a toxic combination.

Mix this with an education system that refuses to talk about consent and respect, and that doesn’t discuss desire and pleasure. Add in schools that ignore sexual harassment of its female pupils, seeing it as ‘boys being boys’. Stir in a culture ruled by patriarchy, where women are not viewed as full and equal citizens of the world, where rape is seen as a hazard that women have the power to avoid, and the results of the survey are no longer surprising.

But they can be changed. They can be changed with education. They can be changed by teaching respect. By teaching consent. By teaching that sex is a mutual thing. They can be changed by transforming society’s view of women’s and men’s sexuality. And it all starts with education.

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