Tuesday October 1st 2013

Warning: this is about rape-justification and victim blaming

First published here for Bea Magazine in September 2013.

My last two posts have been about the Edinburgh Festival; one was praising it loudly for its massive and diverse programme of events, its general and overall brilliance, the second being cross at the level of misogynistic humour to be found at it.

And frankly, I thought that I was done with Edinburgh for the year, really. I wasn’t planning to mention it again here (well, maybe in passing) for a while, given that I had allowed it to take over two consecutive Bea contributions. But then I read this post on Fringe veteran John Fleming’s blog, and wanted to cry. Because it is a post that features a transcript of some women talking about rape, and doing a whole lot of victim blaming.

I know that plenty of people will say that this is just the speakers’ opinions, and that they are entitled to have them. But I am entitled to say that it stinks, and so I’m going to say that. It stinks. It makes me incredibly angry when people pass judgement on other people for behaving a certain way. It makes me cross that they can’t empathise with someone else’s experience. It makes me even crosser when they basically suggest that a woman deserves to be raped if she decides that she doesn’t want to have sex with someone.

During an appearance at John’s Fringe chat show, doyenne critic of the Edinburgh Fringe Kate Copstick said this, on the topic of rape: “Well I genuinely believe – this won’t go down well, but – if you walk into Battersea Dogs Home with your legs covered in prime rump steak, you cannot complain if you get bitten.”

I can only think that she thinks/knows she can get away with saying something like this precisely because she’s the queen of Edfringe critics, because of a vaguely untouchable status and a reputation for saying exactly what she thinks and not caring – apparently – who she hurts in the process. No-one questioned her at the time, seemingly, and the women appearing alongside her appeared to happily go along with her viewpoint.

She moves on to speak about how there are different kind of rapes; you know, that thing where being physically violated by a man’s penis is only really awful and traumatic if it happened on a dark night, with a stranger, and rape in other circumstances doesn’t quite count the same.

“At the moment”, she adds, “it’s ludicrous, but that one word [rape] covers both someone who is wandering along a road and some person completely unknown to her leaps out – which must be horrendous and terrifying and it’s not about sex, it’s about violence. It’s a very specific form of assault… That is one thing… That is horrendous…But then there’s some twat of a 19-year-old who dolls herself up, covers herself in make-up, goes out, gets shit-faced, gets a guy, gets more shit-faced, takes him back to her place or goes back to his place, takes some items of clothing off, starts playing tonsil hockey, has her nipples twiddled, starts playing the horizontal tango … It’s too fucking late to start complaining. It’s not his fault any more. You can’t go Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes – Oh! – No! – It’s not fair.”

What she’s challenging, there, is a person’s right to decide when they want to call things to a halt. She’s saying that if a woman gets to a certain point with a man, that she owes him a happy ending. She’s saying that once she’s allowed a man to touch her, a woman no longer has the right to what happens to her body. That if she suddenly feels fear, apprehension, she’s not allowed to act on it. Not if she’s going to deprive that poor man she was fooling around with of his happy conclusion.

She’s also implying that men can’t control themselves. That all men have the capacity to continue when asked to stop. This is deeply unfair to men as a whole.

People talk and talk about what constitutes consent, they get hung up on whether someone said this one word – ‘no’ – when a lack of consent can be communicated hundreds of other ways. But when a person indicates, whichever way they indicate, that they don’t want to have sex, if the person they are with continues, then it is rape. We don’t need more than one word for it.

I’m very concerned about the tolerance of rape in the society around me and other societies the world over. I have observed in horror what happened in Steubenville, what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons, I see the tolerance of violence against women evident everywhere (rape t-shirt, anyone?) and I abhor it.

There is of course no excuse for rape, ever. If someone is not consenting (and that includes being unable to consent, for myriad reasons) then it’s rape. And that should be where it ends. It’s just wrong, and that’s that, no matter who the raped person is, where they were, what they were wearing. We shouldn’t have to, and never should examine that person’s lifestyle choices, blame them, put them on trial.

So, it’s probably wrong, and un-feminist of me to want to say this to Kate Copstick: please won’t you try and understand these nineteen year olds that you’re dismissing as twats?

Wrong and un-feminist, because by trying to talk about why young women might behave like this, it might sound as though I’m trying to explain away “bad behaviour” – and I don’t, for a moment, think that women that say no at the last minute have behaved badly. But I’ve got a massive itch to answer Kate’s unspoken question – why do they get themselves into that situation?

Women have always been raised to try and please men. They are brainwashed into it from an early age. You’d think we’d have got past that, but I don’t think we have. There’s this common theme, when women admit to having accepted harassment and abuse in their pasts; they didn’t want to be mean; they found it hard to reject someone. They had to be nice to him, because that was what was expected of them. Some young women – don’t expect them all to be magically assertive and in control of everything by the time they are 19, by the way – get themselves into difficult situations with men because they are afraid to let them down, they are afraid to be strident; they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Perhaps the only time they feel they can really put their foot down is when it’s getting close to the point of entry…? Doesn’t mean to say they are a ‘twat’.

Women, young women especially, are also under a lot of pressure these days, from the sexual standards heavily imposed on them by the media and porn. The media is full of women (on every magazine cover, in magazine ads, in internet ads, on the telly) making ready-for-sex faces at every opportunity, and porn, which is increasingly consumed in massive amounts by young people (including younger teenagers) is full of women making actual sex-faces, and being represented largely as a set of holes to be penetrated. I think the result is that young women are brainwashed into feeling that they must act a certain way. I’m not condemning them for expressing their sexuality, there’s nothing wrong with that; what I am saying is that these media send the visual message that women are, or ought to be, in a permanent state of sex-readiness, for men. And whether it’s because they don’t want to lose face with their peers, or with the men involved, perhaps some young women end up going further than they’d like to, because of those messages that say “this is normal”. But if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean to say they have done anything wrong when it comes to the point that they say “no more”.

Or yes, this mythical 19 year old might simply have been all gung-ho about it to begin with. She might have gone out, had drinks, wanted to get laid, as is her absolute right to do so. She might have thought she wanted it to happen, with that particular chap. But perhaps she suddenly felt wrong about it. Perhaps he whispered something in her ear that made her feel uncomfortable. Perhaps she suddenly realised she was miles from home and on her own with a man she didn’t really know very well. Or perhaps she just didn’t want to any more, and in any scenario, she should be able to draw back without fear of rape or recrimination.

Or, maybe, just maybe, she always just wanted to fool around a bit, and not actually have sex. After all, that’s what ‘careful’ teenagers have done since practically forever.

Rape happens in all sorts of places and situations, and most often the attacked person knows the rapist well, so incidents following the plot of Kate’s scenario probably make up a rather small percentage. But if that scenario does occur, and rape ensues from it, it is not the raped person’s fault, or something that they should “expect”.

As I finish this (I could go on, really, for hours like this) I’d like to go back to that first comment about dogs and meat. What Copstick is saying is, if you go out looking for something, you can’t complain if you get it. I’ve seen many people espouse the same view. If a woman goes out looking to have sex with someone, that she can’t complain when it is forced on her. I don’t understand the people who think this; I don’t get why they can’t see that even if a person is looking for sex, it should be THEIR CHOICE as to WHO they do it with, and when. Do people REALLY think that by wanting sex, and going out looking for it, a woman has surrendered her right to choose the person she engages with?

Well, yes, they probably do. Men are entitled to women’s bodies, according to their thinking, and if the body is there, they should be able to take it.

There are clearly many people in our world that think this, whether they fully realise it or not.

And that’s shocking, isn’t it?