I’ve been wanting to write about arguing with men about rape for a long time now. I sort of knew my argument, and I tried to write it before, but it just wasn’t clear enough in my head. It took one of those full-blown arguments on (yes, you’ve done it too) a Facebook thread to get my thoughts and feelings to click into place for me.
So this is what happened: my friend posted this video of Cate Blanchett walking the red carpet, cheekily asking the cameraman, as he slowly scanned her body from toe to scalp, ‘do you do that to the guys, too?’
Straight away, it got lots of ‘likes’ and nods from the ladies, who identified with that unnerving feeling straight away. But this was followed by the inevitable: ’BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ?!?!!’
‘This happens to men too, by the way’ surely must be one of the most infuriating argument styles of all time. Whilst I’m not belittling the experience of men who feel objectified and scrutinised, I don’t see why it should detract from or undermine the experience of women. Two wrongs don’t make a right – we can all hate that panoptic gaze together, guys. So getting back to the Facebook thread – the general consensus amongst the males was, ‘but by designers dressing her up and going down the red carpet, surely she accepts that’s going to attract certain behaviour?’
Well, let’s look at the facts here. Cate didn’t launch into a scathing, infuriated, radical feminist diatribe. She made a light-hearted quip that got us all thinking. She’s been an actress for some time, so of course she expects the camera flashes and obsession over what she’s wearing to occur at an awards ceremony. But that doesn’t mean that she can’t draw attention to something that makes her feel uncomfortable. Becoming a successful actress needn’t insinuate that she is ‘asking for’ attention that she finds disquieting, nor should she has to accept the established sexism of Hollywood. Cate’s allowed to express her own truth – that she (and no doubt many others like her, men and women) – don’t particularly enjoy a camera scanning her body silently and proprietorially.
The predictable reaction (girls ‘liking’ and relating, men defensively justifying sexist behaviour) to my friend putting that post up made me think of pretty much every time I’ve talked feminism, where many men seem to recoil and go on the defensive. If I’m on my own, they’ll start a rallying defence of all men, and, if I’m in a group of fellow feminists, they’ll just go quiet rather than engage (or heaven forefend, agree with us). And I truly have no idea why, because clearly my feminist friends and I don’t live a life of rigid and vehement man despising. Many of us don’t even own a pair of dungarees. The snarly, uppity reaction of so many men to the #yesallwomen campaign illustrates that, sadly, it appears that lots of them really do think feminists hate men – when really, we just hate sexism. So whenever an issue that seems to be a bit of a no-brainer comes up, say, for instance, this Cate Blanchett video, there’ll be all these impassioned guys rallying to the defence of the poor, put upon patriarchy.
This is never clearer than when the subject of rape is brought up.
Tell me I’m not the only one to encounter this…
Man: I totally agree that rape is bad/abominable/unforgiveable…but…
[NB NO good sentence ever begins with this line]
…You have to agree, that there are just some bad people out there, and there are risks you shouldn’t take. I’m not saying it’s the girl’s fault, but…
[Once again, ‘BUT’ WHAT?]
…If she gets herself into a situation, like she’s passed out drunk or walking alone at night in a tiny skirt, or leads a guy on then she says no at the very last moment, there is some modicum of blame to be had on her part.
Me: But most rapes aren’t in a dark alleyway by an illegal immigrant on crack. In the majority of cases the rapist and victim know each other.
Man: I know, but what I’m saying is…in some cases the girl has some sort of responsibility for it.
I’ve had this baffling conversation with so many men, innumerable times. And it’s very often well-educated, thoughtful, kind men who respect women as equals and love their girlfriends. The conclusion I’ve come to is that…
a) Men seem to think that when we talk about rape and feminism, we’re accusing all men of being rapists and generally hating on all men and…
b) To demonise the rapist as an evil, anomalous ‘other’ and/or the girl as ‘asking for it’ they can detach and distance themselves from the scenario. Whereas to accept the cold, hard fact that last year, in 90% of serious sexual assaults, the victim knew the perpetrator means a level of empathy may be felt by the guy I’m talking to, which must surely be a very disconcerting sensation.
I discussed this with my boyfriend, who has definitely brought up the aforementioned scenario in the past. He’s great, because our views on certain matters do differ, and he’s never afraid to express his opinion, even though it might not sit well with me. I much prefer this to someone just going quiet and disagreeing in his head, because when a subject becomes taboo, the divide widens and prejudices sink deep inside, rearing their ugly head in discriminatory behaviours (say, certain folk grumbling that ‘they don’t want to offend the PC brigade’ but then voting UKIP). Plus our heated discussions help me clarify my own opinions. So, I tested my theory on him and we shouted at one another for quite a long time, eventually realising that we were in agreement. He said that yes, he finds it hard to stomach that the reality is that rapists are men like him, the implication of this being that he has the potential himself to rape. I think that many, many men, if they were honest, also feel this way.
Rapists can be our fathers, sons, husbands, legal guardians, friends and work colleagues. Women are raped in their own homes; women who are quiet and plain are raped, disabled women and elderly women, those wearing pyjamas or a burqa. Rape consists of everyday men raping everyday women, (and I’m aware I’m not even broaching the subject of male rape here) and I think that’s very shocking and difficult to truly, deeply contemplate – so it’s much easier to seek refuge in that tiny percentage of scenarios where women are deemed to be ‘asking for it.’
As frustrating as it is to me, I am going to try to empathise with the man next time I have this argument (and I have this argument a lot). The above must be a discombobulating notion to get one’s head around, and perhaps leads to this defensiveness. If I bear this in mind in future when I talk about the subject, I might be able to argue more effectively, managing to develop more of a dialogue rather than the usual shouting match from either side of the pitch. My views on rape are extremely passionate, and this is pretty obvious when the aforementioned ‘rape chat scenario’ comes up. I yell, I shout repeatedly that ‘rape is by its very nature sex without consent, so the fault is with the rapist,’ and tears spring up in my eyes. The man brings up ‘asking for it’ or ‘there are bad people in the world,’ to be met with my stony gaze. I know I’m right, having grown up in a patriarchy and being actively feminist I’m armed with a lot more knowledge and detailed Home Office statistics: nevertheless, every time, a frustrating stalemate is reached. The guy definitely won’t bring it up the subject in future in case I get shouty – but his opinion won’t alter – if anything, it’ll be strengthened. Nothing will change.
I’m not apologising for rape apologists, I’m just saying that I could make more effort to understand why this clichéd narrative of rape is brought up so many times. Am I angrily pointing my finger at these guys? No. Are they part of the problem? Yes, because the ‘asking for it’ mentality filters into the brains of the police, friends or relative that will ask, ‘what she was wearing?’ ‘Was she drunk?’ However, if I want to get these guys on my side rather than just shouting at them, I need to understand that in numerous cases, many men are upset and disturbed because, once the fallacy of the ‘stranger in a dark alley’ is exposed, it highlights how ordinary men commit these kinds of acts every day. Maybe that just feels too close to home and that feeling, coupled with my anger, puts them on the defensive, which is how this impasse has been reached.
I wrote this article because I’m tired. Things need to change, and maybe, in order to change, I need to understand and even empathise with the subtle ways in which these sexist attitudes are so very entrenched in our society. I wish all my lovely friends would realise that we’re all on the same side – that when I protest and argue and talk so passionately about injustice surrounding rape, I’m not accusing them of being the bad guys. I’m not rallying against men, but against rape. I wish that this unsettling empathy that men feel with rapists – the realisation that it’s men like them, not crazy weirdos that lurk in alleyways – could be embraced and used to mobilise action against rape. Instead, nothing changes: the chronic lack of justice suffered by so many , nor the baffling denial; the slut-shaming or the victim blaming.
- Rebecca Pearson