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Christine Sawyer responds to recent claims that there is no ‘rape culture’ at our universities in the latest instalment of our 21st Century Feminist column.
I don’t know about you, but at times it is hard to be motivated, and think that you have a purpose in this world. At times it is hard to put things into perspective and know what it is important. Which is why I turn to article writer, life coach* and myth debunker Joanna Williams for all my wisdom. Most importantly, she has removed a huge chunk of worry and stress from my life and could save us all a load of time with her practical solutions. This week: don’t worry guys, there is no rape culture! Great! From now on I can stop walking round (as feminists do) in a perpetual state of worry about rape. I can begin to take the grope imposed on me with every visit to Jesters as a compliment; after all, I secretly do spend my evenings at the gym not for fitness, oh what an idea that would be, but to be a part of that elite club of females who just happen to be there when some lovely gentlemen from first year are playing Monopoly, as first years do of course, and one gets a ‘Go to grope. Do not miss breast’ card. It’s just a game right? It’s not this poor lad’s fault that the dice roll how they do, surely? Oh and even more of a relief, I can save myself the effort of complaining because, on the advice of my life coach and the rest of society, nobody is going to listen anyway! Williams should probably stick to her day job and avoid the life coaching until she gets a firmer idea of the experiences of others. Because her recent article not only denies the experience of many, it also generalises terms like ‘rape culture’ grossly, ignoring what they actually mean and their implications.
She compares today’s women’s groups, who highlight the importance of consent, with Victorian sexists, on the basis that both discourage women from going to University. As a member of such a group I feel I must protest. I cannot speak for all women’s groups across the UK and am not representitive of every feminist, but I can assert that the attitudes which do plague wider society, which we see in University life as well, such as ‘stop making an issue about it,’ ‘it was clearly your fault’ and this wise little nugget of advice ‘calm down, it’s just banter’ are much more a development of the effort to silence women and shrink the areas in which they can feel safe, not unlike the Victorian style of deterrance Williams speaks about. These are much more evident in her article than in the efforts of women’s groups trying to bring the topic out into the open and ensure that every student is given space to thrive. She blames said women’s groups for making female students afraid to go to evening lectures. Perhaps this is also the culture we live in which still blames the victim and essentially tells us we are responsible for our own rape. Who knows.
The most fatal mistake she makes, where she can pretty much just give up right there and then, is claiming that because there aren’t an astronomical amount of rape reports coming from Universities, ipso facto columo oreo there is no ‘rape culture.’ Amazingly, the word ‘culture’ is ignored completely. Rape culture is distinctive from rape. It is perhaps considered different from person to person, but to give a brief overview it is an entire culture which thrives on silencing victims, apologising for rapists and treating human beings as objects to have, to earn, to give or to own in some way. Not every terrified first year who gropes a woman as part of a challenge is a rapist or even a bad person, but we can all perpetuate and embody rape culture at some point, especially if we allow ourselves to become passive and uncritical of what happens around us and how what we do or say has an effect on others. Williams may not be so talented at differentiating between two different terms, but perhaps she can salvage her work by not hugely over-generalising? Oh, shame.
She is critical of the idea that university students are sexually assaulted based on statistics showing that 90% of victims knew their attackers. Her reason is that students are away from old networks of friends and family. I think we can all marvel at her logic there. Secondly, she questions, out of the 14% of students experiencing assualt, why only 17% have reported it. She then procedes to essentially say ‘but you weren’t really assaulted were you? Not really. No seriously, really’ by questioning why certain incidences are not reported and putting it down to next day ‘regret’. And she wonders why assault isn’t always reported. Then goes on to ignore the factors which may make one hesitant to report assault.
Far from depicting women as ‘victims’, as one could believe upon reading William’s article, aiming to prevent rape culture is based around ensuring mutual respect. It is not about ‘saving’ some ‘innocent’ woman from a homogeneous group of perverted men but about ensuring that one should respect a woman, with or without clothes and this ‘respect’ does not include using language, implying that she is no more than her body or telling us that no secretly means yes. It is a movement to instil confidence in anybody to explore their sexuality without feeling pressure, being unsure where the line is between ‘spontaneity’ and assault or being labelled ‘slut’ for personal decisions or ‘deserving of rape’ when wearing a short skirt.
When they see a young lass stumbling home alone from a night of intoxicating fun, wearing clothing indicative of both the presence of sexuality and the wearer’s awareness of said sexuality, they stop the car and offer to give the damsel in distress a ride home. What gentlemen! BUT THERE’S A TWIST. Instead of driving the girl home, they drive her in the opposite direction of her home, as far as they possibly can, and then, when they get to the TBD nowhere spot, they drop her off, laughing and laughing like teenage Mitt Romney cutting a gay kid’s hair, and drive away, filming the “slut” they just “dropped” as she angrily/sadly watches them recede from her…The best, coolest campus ever involves tons of sluts, but the worst possible tragedy that could befall this already-fucked world of ours would be if, somehow, the sluts were not informed in no uncertain terms that they exist to be humiliated and harmed for the amusement of othersErin Gloria Ryan
The most sinister part of William’s claim is that the call for consent takes the ‘fun’ out of sex. Again, rape culture is not about rape. Stopping people from calling somebody a ‘whore’ is not to be boring, to stand up to cat-calling is not about resenting ‘spontaneity’ and most of all, to not want to hear over and over again ‘I know you want it’ as an answer to your ‘no’ regardless if that encounter ends in rape or not, is not about rejecting exploration and adventure. It’s not about reducing free speech and shrinking spaces but coming to decisions together as a body of students and promising respect and an open mind.
Where one person may not notice an issue, another may find a situation triggering or demeaning, which is why awareness and communication is key, which cannot be achieved when certain people are denying the experience of others. Is there a ‘rape epidemic’ at Universities? Without open and honest reports on the experience of every student we cannot say. Is there rape culture? Certainly. In the same way that it exists in wider society, but the concentration of students together with focus on nights out, fear of not fitting in and various aspects of life which are intensified in student life may create a clearer or more intense manifestation of a culture which has still not been explored in all its complexity but which merits recognition and open discussion.
*Williams is not actually a life coach. Please do not try and ask her for any advice.