Friday, 11 May 2012

Don't presume

I don’t watch Question Time anymore. I’ve got better things to do than to watch lots of often ignorant people being given a national platform to air often ignorant views. But I checked Twitter last night when I was reading my book (These Old Shades fact fans) and saw that the panel were indulging in some pretty disgusting victim blaming in terms of the Rochdale case that was sentenced the day before. Comments ranged from the ‘girl surrendering their innocence for a bag of crisps’ to how we need to give girls ‘values to keep themselves safe’ and the ridiculous suggestion that we should put a ‘curfew’ on girls (what happens if the rapist is at home ey? But don’t let facts get in the way of your victim blaming – oh no!). The people that no-one was talking about of course, were the perpetrators. The men who sexually exploited and raped those girls. You know, the men. Who chose to commit these crimes. 

I took to Twitter and wrote: 

Rape is caused by some men choosing to rape and abuse women and girls. That's what causes rape. That's what we need to talk about #bbcqt

There were a few re-tweets but then the responses came – responses where people helpfully informed me that men are survivors of rape too, and did I know that women can be perpetrators? I explained that I was tweeting in the context of the BBCQT discussion – especially in regards to the curfew comment. 

But the episode made me angry. Because I feel so strongly that the accusation was that because I care about violence against women and girls, and because I pointed out that the elephant in the room in the discussion about VAWG was the men who committed the crimes, then it meant I immediately didn’t care about men survivors or women perpetrators. That I’m ignorant, and that someone had better inform me pretty quickly and patronisingly of my ignorance. 

And so now I am going to tell you why that accusation is untrue, and why that patronising telling off is not only offensive, but potentially triggering.  

Like everyone in the UK, I know women who are survivors of rape and domestic abuse. I say ‘like everyone’, because 1 in 4 women experience this, so the chances are someone you know is a survivor. I also know men who are survivors of various forms of abuse and assault. A woman who I know very well was quite seriously sexually assaulted by a woman, and a woman friend of mine was in an abusive relationship with another woman. 

Finally, I have experienced two identical ‘unwanted sexual contact’ from a man and a woman. The incidents were exactly the same – I was pushed against the wall in a club and the other party stuck their tongue down my throat without my consent, before pushing me back and walking away. 

So for people who don’t know me, who know nothing about me, to have the gall to come over and tell me that men are survivors too and women are perpetrators too? How dare you? How dare you make the presumption that I don’t know this, that I don’t care about this, that I haven’t experienced this? How dare you? How dare you presume to know anything about my life or my experiences? What gives you the right to tell me what I do and don’t think, without even asking me if I know, if I’ve heard, if I’ve felt? 

There are two further points I want to make here. The first is that we need to take more care when we talk to each other online. We need to understand and respect context, so that when we start commenting back or accusing people, we know what they’re responding to in the first place. And we need to think more. Think about what that person might have experienced. Think about where they might have come from and consider whether our retort – perhaps witty or wise in our heads – could actually hurt, or trigger. I need to do this too. I’ve spoken out and regretted it later. We all need to try harder. 

But my final point is that I’m still not going to apologise for calling out the fact that the people who committed the crimes in Rochdale were men who chose to rape and sexually exploit girls. Because that’s what happened. And of the 80,000 rapes against women and girls in the UK every year, the one thing that the perpetrators have in common is that they are men who chose to rape. They didn’t have in common ethnicity. The common factor wasn’t that their victims behaved in certain ways, that they wore short skirts, or were outside, or inside, or drinking or wearing jeans. They are men who choose to rape. 

And speaking this truth that doesn’t mean I don’t care about male survivors. It doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about low reporting rates triggered by worries of homophobia, not being believed, being thought ‘unmanly’. Or that I don’t think we need a drastic re-assessment on ideas about masculinity to ensure that no survivor feels this way. It doesn’t mean I don’t find prison rape jokes abhorrent, or demand to know why rape in prison is so widespread. It doesn’t mean I don’t think men survivors need support and helplines and care. 

It doesn’t mean that I don’t count the woman in my list of ‘unwanted sexual contact’ incidents. 

But it does mean I understand that when we talk about rape culture and victim blaming, we’re overwhelmingly talking about male violence against women and girls. These are the crimes where we seek to lay blame on the victim and survivor, whilst the perpetrator is safely ignored. It’s when we talk about women that we demand curfews on our freedom, it’s women who are forced into a life of fear and it’s women who are blamed when violent crimes are committed against us. The fact that when we try and talk about this we are instantly made to talk about something else just shows all the more how we as a society are refusing to recognise that male violence against women and girls is endemic.

So next time you decide to take it upon yourself to explain to me that men are survivors too and women are perpetrators too, don’t. I know it. 

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