Rape myth acceptance and Slutwalk London 2012

I still find it astounding that rape myths still exist in the general consciousness with such power and prevalence. Rape Myth Acceptance (RMA) has long been a topic for study by psychologists, and was quite probably the reason why I first studied Psychology. Rape myths were defined by Lonsway and Fitzgerald (1994) as ‘attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women’. There are a number of variations on the definition, and I would personally remove the ‘generally’ from generally false, but you get the gist. In layman’s terms (or laywomen’s) they are beliefs about the victim which are used to place the blame on the victim and justify an assault.

As a young woman trying to figure out my place in the world and what this whole being modern woman thing meant, I grew to be astounded by the views that people have about women; about women generally; women’s sexual identity; and women who are victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Academically my interest in RMA started during my law degree nearly ten years ago; I completed my dissertation examining Judges’ comments and summing up in rape trials. It was not much surprise to me at this point that they were deeply sexist and largely victim blaming. But, I thought to myself, these are old white men of incredibly privileged backgrounds and great wealth, it is no surprise they have deeply distorted views about women, that is after all surely what a public school education does to you. I thought that the solution was greater heterogeneity in the judiciary; judges of colour, women judges, openly gay judges, and perhaps most controversially, judges who didn’t go to public school, perhaps ones that didn’t even go to Oxbridge! Surely, I naively thought to myself, ‘normal’ people could not actually think in this vile way about women. Oh how wrong I was. I remember one night at the student union, where I wore some fairly low cut jeans, and a tight t shirt exposing my midriff, as was the fashion in the height of the Britney Spears’ days. On rocking up to the bar to meet my friends, one of them proclaimed ‘nice outfit, I wouldn’t wear it, I’d be afraid of getting raped’.

When I went on to study psychology I wrote my dissertation on the effect of pre trial publicity on juror’s verdicts in rape trials; did newspaper accounts of rape which conform to rape myth stereotypes (e.g. she was wearing a short skirt and was drunk) inform whether juror’s find the defendant guilty or not? And sadly of course it does, highlighting the impact of rape myth acceptance amongst jurors, and also the importance of a publicity blackout for rape survivors, and, I would argue, not allowing things like clothing of the victim to be admissible evidence at court.

I don’t mean to just recite my academic CV at you, but to further illustrate my journey, I then went on to do a Masters in Forensic Psychology. This time, exploring differences between groups (men, women, older, younger) in their attitudes towards rape and rape myth acceptance. Predictably, again there was a high acceptance of rape myths among all groups, women judging and blaming other women,  and particularly older women, expressing the idea that they wouldn’t dress like ‘that’ anymore and were somehow lucky to not be sexually assaulted when they did dress like ‘that’. Most astounding to me of all, one young man sat opposite me openly expressing the view that once a women is in bed with you she has consented to sex. I wasn’t even so shocked that he thought this, but more that he would openly admit it and talk like it was obvious and common sense – like he thought I was going to agree with him! I thought I would have to delve deep with clever psychologising (not a real word) and analysis to get at these insidious beliefs and where they come from, but no, it was right there, straight on the surface, shouting loudly and unashamedly.

Now none of these pieces set the academic world on fire, and ten years on I can’t 100% vouch for their scientific rigor. if anything they were my attempt to make sense of the world we live in and to try to understand why attitudes towards women are so judgemental, what I should do about it, and how I should generally live my life. I’m not sure I answered all those questions, but when I finished studying I felt I had resolved something for myself, if only that I would spend the rest of my life actively challenging these attitudes wherever I might find them. Even though I accepted that then, It does still surprise and sadden me that 10 years later there seems to be little change.

Which all brings me to why I was at Slutwalk London 2012. Slutwalk is a protest/rally/march with a simple message; no matter what someone wears or does, they are not to blame for being sexually assaulted.

Some of slogans on the day were:

  • Buffy wouldn’t stand for this shit
  • A kiss is not a contract
  • Yes means yes not how I dress
  • Being asleep does not make me fair game

 

The atmosphere on the march was lighthearted, but pretty empowering, with women and men of all ages, colours, shapes and sizes singing and chanting and wearing mainly underwear to illustrate the point. It was a good thing to be involved in, and I wholeheartedly believe in the main message and felt pretty proud to be there.

Then came the speeches in Trafalgar square; some heartfelt stories about people’s experiences of being judged, not believed and having rape prosecutions fall down, or not even be brought in the first place by the Crown Prosecution Service, because of what they wore, what they drunk, or who they kissed. I’ve heard them before, from friends, in articles, during my research, but it still needs to be said; people still need to tell their story of how their lives have nearly been destroyed, and attitudes still need to be challenged, because having a brave woman stand up and speak out, and provoke an emotional reaction in my heart, and throat and eyes is the most powerful weapon we have.

Unfortunately people want to believe that it was a person’s own fault for being assaulted, want to blame them rather than the attacker, it’s a natural defence mechanism and that way you can believe it won’t happen to you because you wouldn’t be in that situation, wouldn’t act that way. But rape happens to people from all backgrounds; people in care homes, old people, young people, transgender people, people in jeans, people in skirts, sex workers, people with make up, people with long hair, people with short hair, people who are mothers, sisters, friends, lovers. The sad fact is it can happen to anyone. The way to stop it is not to lay the blame on those it happens to, but to support them, and to challenge and change views which support violence against women.

I did however have mixed views about the march on leaving at the end of the day. During the speeches the English Collective of Prostitutes contributed. It absolutely fits with the message o f the day to highlight that sex workers are also often not believed when they report rape and are therefore even more vulnerable to sexual violence. Challenging victim blaming attitudes feeds into this and is intrinsically linked. Unfortunately, the issue of legalising prostitution was also brought into the mix. I’m not sure what I feel about legalising prostitution, I don’t think sex workers should be criminalised and I think safer working conditions and taking control away from pimps all sound like common sense. I also know that some research shows that the red light district in Amsterdam, for example has not solved many of the problems it was hoped it would, such as exploitation and oppression of women, by men. It’s a big messy issue and I feel is a debate that should be reserved for another day. And that’s ok, there is room for disagreement and debate amongst feminists, we’re all individuals and are not going to think the same thing on every issue. But I felt, the message from Slutwalk should be kept clear and simple; yes means yes and no means no. That’s why I was there, and that’s why I was walking (in high heels of course).

Book Review: Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

Yes, it’s another book for teenagers, and yes I am probably far too old to admit to reading it, but I will say this in    my defence, It is far better written than Hunger Games, which I also have to admit to also having read (and greatly enjoyed…)

Delirium is set in an alternate USA where love has been classified as a disease and all of the population is inoculated once they reach the age of 18 (any sooner and it can cause brain damage – something to do with the brain not being fully developed yet). I say inoculated, it appears to be more of a lobotomy which reduces pretty much any desire, affection, or joy in life.

Their society has all the required elements of an oppressive fascist society; neighbours (and other family members) are encouraged to inform on one another for any inappropriate behaviour which might indicate the disease; people are encouraged to give their loyalty to the state rather than their family, all working together to form a non sentimental and productive society. It’s a poor America we see, with most people lacking in the mod cons, electricity blackouts being common (the author may well be making the political statement that Socialism is bad, and we will miss the heady freedoms of Capitalism if they ever go, but maybe I’m giving this levels that just aren’t there). There’s Government censorship of just about everything (music, history, the internet) and of course, the biggie – relationships being controlled by the state. All marriages are arranged by the state. After completing an assessment of attitudes, intelligence (during which for some reason you have to be naked) at the age of 17 all girls and boys are put in matched pairs. If you are deemed intelligent enough you get to go to college first before having to get married. If not, it’s straight to a life of responsibility and duty. Same sex relationships are of course not allowed, being deemed to be a pure product of the illness and not fruitful for society.

Now I generally hate teenagers and books or TV shows about teenagers. But I do love books about fascist dictatorships, oppressive societies, and curtailment of civil liberties. They remind us why transparency and accountability of government is fundamental. They remind us why even in the face of terrorist threats and economic uncertainty, that free speech, peaceful protest, an independent judiciary, gender equality, and civil liberties (shhhh don’t call them human rights, people hate that) are so important. They make me ask myself what would I do, and how far would I go to stand up for the things I believe in (I would be some kind military genius, guerrilla warfare leader, inspiring normal people to take action and fight their oppressors, by the way. Obviously). Ok, it’s not subtle, but many teenagers might not have read 1984, Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451 and books like this say it is important to vote, it is important to speak up, it is important to campaign against injustice.

Oh and there’s a little bit of Footloose thrown in with dancing being banned (well any kind of co-ed gathering of teenagers, let alone those with music and TOUCHING are banned).

The question does remain however, as to why grown women like reading these teen books, the success of Hunger Games both in book and film form has of course been phenomenal (and yes, there may well also be men who enjoy these books, but my book club is all female so I can only really speak from my range of experiences). I have a theory, that there is a lack of compelling female characters in “grown up” books. I want to read about brave kick ass women who defy society and do things they never thought themselves capable of. And I don’t just mean in a Jodi Picoult kind of way, I mean in a way that shatters norms and changes the world. That’s what these books provide, engaging female central characters. Their youth is also a nice device to allow for their beliefs and behaviours to change dramatically in the course of the book as they rapidly mature into adulthood. These are the women I want to read about, not the likes of Anastasia Steele and her introduction to the world of S&M and throbbing members in 50 Shades (which I haven’t read so maybe my criticism is undeserved…but I doubt it).

 

I would definitely say that Delirium is worth a read, but if you can only read one book about an oppressive society and a government curtailing freedoms of the people this summer, then it should probably be Orwell’s 1984. Big Brother will always be watching you.

Hen do “hilarity”

I recently went to a hen party. It was my first ever. I was a hen party virgin, if you will. The fact that I’m recently 30 and none of my female friends have got married, I would like to think says something positive about the career minded independent city girls I hang with, but I’m not quite sure what that is.

I viewed this event as some kind of anthropological observation experiment; I’m not sure quite what my views on marriage are let alone my views on hen parties, but I feel instinctively, with my gender equality leanings, that I shouldn’t approve of many of the traditional elements. Such as:

  • Penis shaped accoutrements. We had glow in the dark, incredibly anatomically correct glow in the dark penis straws.
  • Dress code. Our dress code was 1950s. Now I love dressing up in 50s gear, its fun and feminine and makes me feel damn attractive. But my mind couldn’t help make links to 50s housewifely domesticity and lack of equality in the context of a party to celebrate impending legally approved coupling. I’d like to think the dress code therefore was ironic in some way. I have to, it was my idea after all…
  • Mr & Mrs game. The organisers of this cultural extravaganza had done their research asking the groom to be various questions about his bride to be, and then said bride to be had to try and guess his answer. There were harmless questions such as the groom’s favourite colour, to more interesting ones such as when did you first start dating (ok, that may not sound interesting, but the differing answers did provide some controversy) It was all quite tame stuff really. It’s the prizes/punishments that were given which caught my interest. Prizes = sex related gifts. Punishment = Straight up stomach churning shots of sambuca.

So firstly, the whole sex thing (including those wonderful willy straws). Generally I imagine, it would be frowned upon for a group of women to walk around showing such open interest in sexuality. But the one time its ok, is when your about to get married. It’s like society says now you are to be a wife you are allowed to acknowledge that you have a sexual identity, and might actually like and want sex with your partner. Now I don’t particularly want to walk around at anytime with balloons made into cocks, or anatomically accurate penis straws (with an unnecessary amount of veins). But there seems something weird to me about the only time when women can celebrate or acknowledge their sexuality without being labelled as a slut, whore, prick tease or other such delightful and value laden phrases, is on a hen party, when it’s ok because she is getting married.

And then of course the bride was forced to drink shots if she got questions wrong. This is probably a wider issue about our culture’s complicated relationship with booze. Now I’m being a complete hypocrite; I drink, sometimes to excess. Sometimes I even say, I want to get completely wasted tonight. But I’m not proud of it, and there’s something a bit sinister about other people trying to get you wasted.

Saying all that, I had a fun time, in the way that I enjoy going out with my girlfriends, having a few drinks, and having a little dance. But I wonder if I get married what I will do about this whole situation, will I have a hen party, what will it be like, what does a feminist hen party even look like? I have no idea. Answers on the back of a post card please…