What is rape culture? Are you complicit?

The reports of sexism, harassment and sexual assaults in schools detailed on the everyonesinvited.uk website has led to concerns that “rape culture” is prevalent in our academic institutions.

The term rape culture refers to the pervasiveness of rape and sexual violence against women and how this is normalised, enabled and excused. Rape culture is all around us. It is deeply rooted in patriarchal beliefs, power, and control. It is further fuelled by gender inequalities, gender stereotypes and sexism. It is the normalisation of sexist/rape jokes, sexual harassment and online abuse, as well as society perpetuating myths like the “rough sex” defense and victim-blaming with statements like “she was drunk” or “she was asking for it”. It is in how we entertain, glorify or excuse predatory male behaviour —from songs about “blurred lines” to TV shows where rapists end up marrying their victims. It is displayed through misogyny and the language we use to degrade and objectify women. It is how we over sexualise women’s bodies, and glamorise sexual violence.

It is all over our social media feeds. We cannot talk about rape culture, especially in reference to young people, without touching on the influence of social media where thoughts and ideas can quickly spread like wildfire. On platforms like Tik Tok for example, which are dominated by children and young people, it has become a trend to mock those who prefer conventional sex over the more experimental and oftentimes, dangerous sex which has become normalised by pop culture. BDSM has even made its way into some romance novels – the irony. So there are videos of young men mocking their girlfriends and calling them boring for not being into choking. To some this means that she doesn’t know how to have a good time; she is frigid and uncomfortable with her sexuality. BDSM itself is not a problem when it is an experience between consenting adults. But it is frustrating to see some try to represent choking, punching and belittling your partner under the banner of “sex-positivity”. When active consent and safety are missing, BDSM becomes a violation.

It is in TV shows that are popular with young people, featuring high-school-aged characters like in Euphoria for example. There are frequent scenes of a sexual nature including uncomfortable casual tinder hook-ups, indecent image sharing and abusive boyfriends. All of this adds to the normalisation of the over sexualisation and adultification of teenagers. It makes them feel like this is what they should be doing and this expectation can end up putting them in dangerous situations they are too young to comprehend or handle, mentally and physically.

It is in the rise in easy access to online pornography although experts say it is not clear whether the rise of sexual harassment, abuse and assault among young people is related. However, one woman said this about the impact of porn on her sexual experiences; “Most guys I have slept with have wanted to choke me during sex. The amount of times a man has hit me during sex without asking . . . I’ve been slapped quite hard. They never ask, “are you into this?” It has become normal.”  She said it felt like it was something the men had seen online and were trying to act out in real life. In fact, more than one in three UK women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sex, according to research conducted with 2,000 women for BBC Radio 5 Live. Whilst overt violence against women and girls has become less socially acceptable publicly, it seems to have shifted to the bedroom, where men can dominate and overpower women in private spaces under the veil of consent. Like any form of abuse and violence, “rough sex” is all about power and control.

According to research and data collected between 2015 and 2016, 65% of 15 to 16-year-olds in the UK admitted that they have accessed pornography, with porn more commonly seen by boys. Just over half of the 241 boys in the study aged 11 to 16 who had seen porn said they thought it was ‘realistic’ compared with 39% of 195 girls in the study who had seen porn, with 44% of boys and 29% of girls saying it had given them ideas to try out. The pornography that is widely available online is not only graphic but aggressive, and the women depicted on some of the sites are getting younger and younger – yet again, the adultification of teenage girls. With a lot of young people admitting to learning more about sex from pornography than Relationships & Sex Education, there is definitely a cause for panic because we know that pornography creates unrealistic expectations of bodies, sex and healthy interactions.  

A High Court judge from a shocking criminal case in October this year was met with such issues: “Child access to internet pornography should be addressed at primary school level,” she said as she sentenced a teenager for raping his niece – admittedly acting out pornographic scenes he had been viewing from the age of 9. Ms Justice Deirdre Murphy was absolutely right because what is the point of talking to young people about consent much later on in University for example, if access to pornography is occurring at primary school level? We have seen how universities and schools have become breeding grounds for sexual violence and assault, where very little is done to curb sexism and sexual harassment or even hold perpetrators accountable. Young people are being brought up in a culture of victim-blaming and lack of support in their formative years. This not only shapes their attitudes to life, but it also perpetuates rape culture and allows it to fester as they grow older. 

We all have a responsibility to examine behaviours, beliefs and biases that enable rape culture to continue. Are you in support of policies that make life more difficult for women? Are your thoughts on gender identity biased and ill-informed? Do you define masculinity as “dominant” and “sexually aggressive”, while defining femininity as “submissive” and “sexually passive”? Do you put pressure on men to “score” while putting pressure on women to “smile” or not appear “cold,” “bossy,” or “aggressive? Do you trivialise harassment and sexual assault as “boys just being boys”? Do you blame the victim for her assault because she was “promiscuous” or “dressed provocatively” or “drunk so she was asking for it”? Do you believe that “real” men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped? Do you refuse to take rape disclosures seriously? Do you tell girls how to avoid getting raped instead of teaching boys about consent? If you have answered yes to any of these questions then you are complicit in the culture that we speak of. The end to abuse and violence against women and children begins when we unlearn these narratives. The culture shift starts with each one of us because rape culture permeates our society at multiple levels; individual, one-to-one levels, as well as in sytemic and institutionalised structured ways.

Sources:

Everyone’s Invited – Ofsted Update by Safer Schools

Is pornography to blame for rise in ‘rape culture’? by The Guardian

Primary schools have to address child access to online porn, says judge in Cork rape case by The Irish Examiner

How do we talk to teens about sex in a world of porn? by The Guardian

The impact of online pornography on children and young people by The Children’s Commissioner

Our focus for 16 Days of Activism this year is on the importance of engaging with young people now, to prevent incidents of violence and abuse in the future. For more on our MENgage and EmpowHER programme and our Haven In Schools campaign for 16 Days of Activism 2021, visit here.

Additional Resources:

Video: Rape Culture – Let’s talk about it not normalise it

Video: A Life Of Rape Culture | Brynne Thomas | TEDxYouth@TCS

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