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).