Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Why everything Brendan O'Neill said about rape is wrong and offensive

Trigger warning: contains discussion of rape and rape apologism

Disclaimer: because O'Neill, and all the discussions of rape this last few weeks, talk about men as perpetrators and women as rape victims and survivors, I am doing the same. It's not to deny the experiences of men survivors.

So, today Brendan O'Neill joined the legions of commentators who have taken it upon themselves to tell women, survivors and experts that everything they know about rape is wrong, and that the commentator is right, simply, it increasingly seems, because they are men and men know best.

His piece in the Huffington Post does something a little different to his colleagues such as Galloway. Like him, he's a man who is ignoring everything we know about rape and consent in order to re-define it. But, unlike him, he claims that it is feminists who re-defined rape first - by stretching the definition to encompass behaviour that he doesn't call rape, but instead calls 'bad sexual experiences'.

O'Neill believes that the phrase 'sex without consent is rape' is undermining the serious crime of rape. He's getting this from the part of the Sexual Offences Act that states rape occurs when the perpetrator "does not reasonably believe" that consent existed. To quote the law fully:

"(1)A person (A) commits an offence if—
(a)he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,
(b)B does not consent to the penetration, and
(c)A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
(2)Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents

O'Neill is using the wording of this law to challenge the statement that 'sex without consent is rape', because he believes it ignores what's in the mind of the perpetrator or alleged perpetrator. He, tellingly, doesn't mention (2) of the law that mentions efforts made by A to get consent. He also doesn't understand that 'reasonably believe' means that the court can disagree with whether that 'reasonable belief' exists, for example if a rapist bases that reasonable belief on a rape myth such as 'she was wearing a short skirt so that meant she was consenting'. He argues instead that feminists are ignoring the law, coming to the conclusion that:

"[i]n essence, we are witnessing the redefinition of rape to mean effectively "bad sexual experiences". The subtle, inexorable downplaying of the idea of criminal intent in rape means that all kinds of horrible or just foolish sexual encounters can be rebranded as rape, even if the intention to commit this heinous crime is lacking."

He's wrong of course. And he's wrong in ways that are not only offensive to survivors of rape, but also to all men who aren't rapists.

O'Neill, like many of his fellow commentators of recent weeks, is perpetuating the myths that there is 'real rape' and then there is 'bad sexual experience'. These 'bad sexual experiences' - as he defines it - are committed by:

"stupid men, drunken men, thoughtless men and idiotic men who engage in ill-advised or regretted acts of sex"

It barely seems worth explaining why O'Neill is wrong, it's so obvious. But I'm writing this post anyway, because so long as high profile media men seek to undermine the experiences of rape survivors, then I'll keep calling them out on it.

The Sexual Offences Act does contain the point that a rapist is someone who knows that consent has not been given. However, I don't believe, and deep down I don't think O'Neill believes, that a man doesn't know if a woman is consenting or not. And to suggest otherwise is frankly offensive to all the men who don't rape.

He writes:

"a civilised society should only brand as criminals those who set out to or intend to commit a crime. A civilised society should only punish those who are morally and mentally responsible for their criminal acts. Feminists who are subtly rewriting the meaning of rape are taking us away from this civilised approach and towards something more backward, even feudalistic: the criminal punishment of people who do not have criminal minds."

Rape doesn't happen by accident. Men's penises don't accidentally fall into women. It's a deliberate act. Every man who has sex with a woman without her consent therefore has a 'criminal mind', because they are a rapist by definition, no matter how Brendan O'Neill tries to spin it. Men know when a woman isn't consenting, they know that they are committing the crime of rape. I just don't believe there's any argument.

Because it isn't hard. Consent shouldn't be confusing. And for Brendan O'Neill to say that we're confusing rape and a lack of consent with a 'mistake' undermines the experiences of victims and survivors who have been raped. And it denies men the agency, the  intelligence, to know when a woman is and isn't consenting. What's more, it puts all the onus on women's behaviour, and lets men who choose to rape off the hook because they can claim they simply 'don't know what consent looks like'.

If a woman is too drunk, or unconscious, or sleeping, then fundamentally the man knows consent hasn't been given. If she says no, or fights back, or cries, or freezes, or acquiesces because she is afraid of further violence to her or even her children, or any of the many other situations in which rape is committed, then the man knows consent hasn't been given. Whatever the situation, sex without consent is rape. Always. The man committing the crime may be, as O'Neill suggests, drunk, may be stupid, may be thoughtless, may be idiotic. But they must, they should, they do still know when consent has been given, and when it hasn't.

What all this points to is that O'Neill doesn't know, and believes men don't know, the difference between enthusiastic consent, where both parties are clearly up for it and want to engage in sexual activity, and lack of consent, i.e. rape. And, I have to say, I have more respect for men than that. I truly believe that men do know the difference. And that men know that sex without consent is rape.

Now, it may sound that the next part of the blogpost is going to contradict everything I've just said. Because I'm going to suggest that there is perhaps one tragic and terrifying way in which some men and boys do not know what consent means. But it's not the way O'Neill thinks, it's not men or boys using excuses to pretend they don't know when a woman isn't consenting to sex, and using that to allow society to deny or minimise the crime they have committed. It's because a combination of half-arsed sex education that doesn't teach consent and respect, and a rape culture that glamorises and sexualises violence against women and girls, means that boys are growing up not learning what consent actually *is*.

A 2010 survey by Havens of young people aged 18-25 makes disturbing reading when it comes to consent. They found that:

  • "Less than half (47%) of young adults would assume that the person they are intimate with doesn’t want to have sex with them if they are being physically pushed away. This indicates that more than half would not view this behaviour as a deterrent.
  • Only 57% would assume that the person they are intimate with doesn’t want to have sexwhen they say no. This suggests that 43% don’t think ‘No means No.’
  •  Although 56% say they would never pressure their partner into having sex with them against their will, this suggests that 44% would.
  • Over a third (37%) say that they would assume their partner does not want to have sex with them if they were crying. This suggests that 63% would not be put off by tears.
  • 92% of women agree that when a person says no and the other goes ahead with sex, it constitutes rape. Only 77% of men say the same and the research suggests that nearly 1 in 4 (23%) men don’t believe this is rape.
  • Three quarters of women (75%) compared to just over half (54%) of men believe that if you change your mind and the other person continues with sex, that is rape.
  • 71% of 22-24 year-olds, compared to just 60% of 18-19 year-olds, believe that it is rape when someone continues having sex with a person who is asleep."

The Havens survey shows that young people are growing up with a terrible understanding of consent. And in a world where sex education doesn't address respect and consent, and where filmed rape or filmed simulated rape all too often fills the gap of that education, it's not entirely surprising. But the solution isn't found in Brendan O'Neill's thesis that this ignorance leads to 'bad sexual experiences'. It means that instead we should be insisting that consent is taught, and taught some more, and that we should insist on the message that sex without consent is rape.

It's so irresponsible for O'Neill to argue that men and boys might not know the difference between rape and consent, and use that to excuse those who have sex without consent, to say that they haven't committed a crime. Sex without consent is rape, it is a crime. And rather than trying to find ways to pretend a crime hasn't been committed, when the Havens survey clearly shows we're in a crisis around understanding consent, we need to be firm and strong and teach our young people that sex without consent is rape. No ifs, no buts. We must never excuse it or minimise it. We must fight against the tide of rape culture, so that all young people grow up respecting enthusiastic consent. This survey shows that we must try harder to teach about consent, not shrug our shoulders and re-define rape instead.

I have to say, I'm getting increasingly nervous as to why so many men are denying and re-defining rape. Because they know that if you have sex without consent, it's rape. They KNOW! They know when someone isn't consenting. And, deep down, I think Brendan O'Neill knows that too.

Rape Crisis Freephone Helpline number 0808 802 9999. Open 12 - 2.30pm & 7 - 9.30pm

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