Rape culture and blame

I blogged a couple of months ago about the Brock Turner sexual assault case, and intended to write this post then, but I left it as a draft for some time – perhaps out of discomfort for the personal disclosure involved, or a sense of distance from the incident that made me want to post about my own experience. But it has never really gone away, because it is so prevalent, both in the tip of the iceberg of individual rape cases, and the massive underlying mass of the pervasive cultural acceptance of male sexual coercion of women (eg the horrifying statistics about misogynic beliefs and rape myth acceptance amongst male college students, particularly those involved in sports that I shared in a previous blog). It seems that just as racial tension has come to a head in America over police shootings, rape has come to a head with the Brock Turner case – with 1.3 million signatures on the petition calling for the judge to be sanctioned for his decision to go for a sentence well below the ordained minimum. And this week debate about whether the olympic diver proposal was romantic or inappropriate*. It seems that themes of sexuality and gender have become fault lines, showing wider problems in society.

Of course there have been many other cases making headlines since my previous blog on the topic, and rape and sexual assault are rarely out of the news. A woman who was raped in Qatar was found guilty of the crime of having sex outside marriage and given a suspended prison sentence and fined (I suppose we should be grateful that she didn’t get the 140 lashes that her rapist got, given they were nominally convicted of the same crime), whilst a woman in Argentina was convicted of murder for possibly having a miscarriage (though the only proven miscarriage in the case was the miscarriage of justice). Here a photographer lured young men to his home for photoshoots where he drugged and raped them. Another victim of campus rapists from athletics teams. This man used a woman’s desire to protect her children as leverage to stop her resisting his rape. This 7 month pregnant woman was raped at gunpoint. The list goes on and on and on. And there is evidence of systemic problems in how US police handle rape cases. Meanwhile lots of people have been brave about talking about their own experiences of “rape culture”. For example, this one, and this one.

I thought I might share some of my own experiences, to talk about both what it says about the culture, and the blurry line around consent. To give this some context, I’m not an extraordinary woman. Nowadays I’m a middle-aged mum. Non-smoking, rarely drinking, overweight and a bit of a workaholic, with that boring but comfortable lifestyle that many families fall into of school and work and supermarket shopping and homework and swimming and weekend outings to parks and historic places, with the occasional family visit or trip to the cinema. I’ve been happily married for 19 years this month, and I lived with my husband for 3 years before that. But even before that, I wasn’t extraordinary in appearance or behaviour, and I wasn’t reckless.

So when I say there were two occasions in my life when I felt I was at significant risk of rape, I’m pretty sure that other people have had similar experiences.

The first was when I was sixteen and had just started at sixth form. I would go out drinking with a particular group of friends from school most weekends, but I usually just had two or three single shot drinks with a mixer to make them last longer (vodka collins was a favourite, and much like a Smirnoff Mule now). One night I was with a group of friends outside a pub and one of the lads bought a bottle of “Thunderbird” fortified wine from a shop. He was pretending to drink himself and with nothing more than encouragement and peer pressure, he effectively persuaded me to drink more than I wanted to. I was a very innocent 16 and when he walked me away from the group and down the dock road out of sight I hadn’t expected more than a snog and a fumble.

However I suddenly became aware of my own vulnerability once we were away from the group. I was wobbly on my feet and nearly fell over, and in an amazing demonstration of both his strength and sobriety he practically picked me up and walked me firmly down the street. A minute later he put me on some concrete ground up a few steps from the road, hidden from sight by a lorry. It was then it became apparent that he was very determined to have sex and started taking my clothes off. I was putting them back on as best I could, but I didn’t know him well and didn’t want to risk him becoming violent (he was a foot taller than me, and I was too drunk to run away) so from his point of view I didn’t give a clear ‘no’. I was still kissing him to buy time to pull my clothes back up and trying to figure out whether anything else would appease him or whether there was a means to escape. But there was nobody in sight, and he was bigger and stronger than me, and this was in the days before mobile phones, so I felt completely on my own. Thankfully after half an hour or so he gave up and walked off. He left me dishevelled and alone, down the dock road of a town that was closed up for the night, having missed my lift home. But even as I stumbled back to the phone box, called my parents for a lift and made excuses about being drunk, I was feeling relieved that things hadn’t gone much worse. I look back and feel it was a lucky escape as no form of penetration occurred.

It was a frightening but in retrospect enlightening experience. Firstly, I learnt never to be drunk enough to lose my ability to run away or plan an escape with my full faculties. Secondly, I realised that from his perspective he was just trying to persuade me to do with him what another guy had lied and said we’d done at a party. He thought that it was just a matter of persuasion and persistence, which are socially acceptable aspects of the interplay between potential sexual partners – and importantly I never said no. Maybe if I’d have said “look Chris, I don’t want to have sex, stop it” he would have. However, maybe he’d have been angry that I was leading him on. I have no way of knowing. If we’d have been interrupted or I’d escaped and I hadn’t experienced him leaving without sex, I think I would have felt it was a near miss. I don’t know if I’d have ended up reporting an attempted rape, but I certainly felt that repeatedly pulling my clothes back on was a pretty clear indication of lack of consent that he should have respected but didn’t.

Finally, I learnt that within that group of mutual friends he had done nothing wrong. They saw me leave willingly with his arm around me, and therefore everything that followed was presumed consensual. When I tried to steer clear of him they wanted me to make up with him as he was part of the group, despite the fact that I found his behaviour pretty sinister. However, for a teenage boy, plying a girl with drink, getting her to go somewhere private, trying to take her clothes off and ignoring the signals that she did not want to participate seemed a legitimate strategy, both to him and our mutual friends. He wasn’t a stranger, or someone menacing. He was an ordinary guy who was above average in appearance and intelligence. He now manages IT services for a bank.

The second time, was after the tragic abduction and murder of toddler Jamie Bulger. A friend of a friend at university came to my door and said he was from Bootle and really distressed about it and wanted to talk. Although it was clear he had been drinking, in light of his distress I let him in, and we went up to my room as other people were in the sitting room of my student house. We later heard them leave, and after that the conversation changed to how, despite having a girlfriend, he wanted to have sex with me. He tried to kiss me, but it was unpleasant and unwanted so I moved away. He started to undress, and try to grab at me. I realised I was cornered in the attic room of a house by a drunk man of substantial build with nobody else within shouting distance. However, this time I was sober and a bit more streetwise, so the balance of power was different. I told him that I wasn’t interested and wouldn’t be taking any of my clothes off. I suggested he get dressed and go back home, and I kept myself out of reach until he acquiesced. He knocked at the door the next day to nominally apologise in order to ask me not to tell his girlfriend.

Again, when I told my friends (and this time they were my friends, as opposed to mutual friends) they didn’t really see it as a big deal. I’d guess they didn’t see the story I recounted as having any bigger emotional connotations than “Drunk guy embarrassed himself. Assertive girl put him in his place”. But it’s never quite as simple as that. Because even if it is only for one moment, the awareness that somebody else in your social network could force you to have sex against your will is a pretty stark realisation, even for an extraverted assertive girl. And however you think about it, it has an impact.

Whether by coincidence or subconscious drive, I put on weight after those two events, adding 40% to my bodyweight over a four year period that has stayed with me ever since. I thought it might be due to the contraceptive pill, or a less active lifestyle at university. But it seems more likely looking back that I just didn’t want unwanted sexual attention, and a fat suit is quite good at narrowing your appeal and not conforming to the socially accepted norms for attractiveness.

But it does feel like the psychological equivalent of wearing anti-rape pants. That sucks because anti-rape pants are a terrible idea that I object to in the strongest terms**, because they place the responsibility for not being raped onto the individual women. Rather than stopping a few men being rapists and a heck of a lot of men feeling so entitled that they act like overcoming the woman’s resistance is a normal and acceptable part of the process of dating, it makes women take the responsibility for not being raped. Why should it be that we need special pants to indicate we are not accessible for non-consensual sex, rather than the default position? And why should I feel that being a more attractive version of myself would make me more vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances?

I should perhaps state the obvious here. I’m not a man hater, and I’m not tarring all men with the same brush. I don’t think of men as Schrodinger’s Rapist or at least, I don’t want to, because the vast majority of men I know are lovely human beings who care about other people. But yet, our survival instinct is a powerful thing. One fall down the stairs 20 years ago, and I am still careful about stairs and escalators. Two situations in which I felt vulnerable to sexual assault (and a fair few clinical cases in which I have heard stories of rape, sexual abuse and/or domestic violence) have made me see risk in men that I don’t know well, and to view being perceived as sexually attractive to those outside my trusted circle as a potential vulnerability. It is a troubling conclusion, and one I don’t know how to resolve.

*We’ve got men today saying it is ridiculous that people have questioned the romantic gesture of the Chinese diver proposal, even when the recipient of that proposal looks uncomfortable about it. They’ve been led to believe every woman wants to get married and is just desperate for her long-term bf to propose, rather than that deciding to get married and how to tell everyone about is should be a mutual agreement, or recognising that there could be duress involved. For me, the seed of doubt is in the body language and facial expressions when I watched the video. Of course, it might be a cultural difference, or the amount of adrenaline and anxiety about being in the spotlight with cameras all around her, but her face doesn’t suggest delight. It suggests hesitation and uncertainty. Quite the opposite of the rugby player and stadium manager involved in the proposal the previous day. From the silver medal diver’s reaction you could imagine the subtitles of the whisper in her ear, or the sentence after holding up the ring being “I don’t want it to be over, please say yes, don’t shame me in front of all these people” just as easily as you could imagine it being “I love you so much I want everyone in the world to know it, please forgive me for doing this in public”. And her response involved no grins, no kisses, no seeking physical closeness, just discomfort, tears, a delayed nod and then acceptance of his actions. Whilst we may never know the answers about the specific example, the themes have echoes in how gender roles are perceived across the world. So I believe the discussion is worthwhile and should not be shut down.
**I should also add that there is no evidence that these pants are effective. Instead it seems likely that a man motivated to remove the underwear of a non-consenting woman would play out in other forms of sexual assault or violence if he was thwarted by her pants. They also add to victim blaming of anyone who doesn’t use the product; “but if you didn’t want to get raped why didn’t you wear safer pants?” Similarly, a rapist might threaten the woman to get her to remove the pants, and this might then be twisted by defence lawyers to imply consent. I think this product shows a profound mis-reading of the problem. Most rape is by someone known and trusted by victim, not the kind of opportunistic attack by a stranger that will be thwarted by her wearing lock up knickers. Some thought about who will buy them, and how they will change behaviour suggests problems too. It seems to me that their main customer base will be women who are anxious about being raped who probably won’t put themselves in a position where stranger rape is possible, whilst women who buy these pants to mitigate a risky lifestyle might have false faith in their ability to prevent negative outcomes (eg if they wear them so that they can drink to unconsciousness they probably aren’t addressing why they are making themselves so vulnerable, or the risk to physical, emotional and financial well-being that this might lead to). It made me wonder about when you would wear the pants? Every day to reinforce helplessness and anxiety or just when you feel likely to be raped? If the pants are a means to say no to a partner when sex is not wanted that says something very disturbing about relationships that needs to be addressed in more than just her choice of underwear. Finally, would another person such as a partner or controlling relative ever make the woman wear the pants like a chastity belt?