I am determined to blog properly more often and here is as good a place to start as any. A report – It’s Wrong But You Get Used To It – on sexual violence and attitudes to sex has been compiled by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, discussed the report with John Humphrys on Radio 4 this morning. Some headline findings (handily compiled by the Guardian) are:
- Girls as young as 11 are being systematically groomed, exploited and raped in the worst gang-affected areas of the UK, with the peer-on-peer violence going undetected, unreported and ignored.
- In some areas the level of sexual violence and the types of violence inflicted are comparable to how sexual violence is used in war-torn territories.
- Of the 188 young people and 76 professionals questioned, 65% shared examples of young women being coerced into sexual activity; as one 18-year-old put it: “Once they’ve implemented that fear into them it’s easy to get what you want.”
- Half of respondents shared examples of girls having sex in return for status or protection, while 41% identified examples of rape and 34% of gang rape.
The findings speak for themselves (to most sentient beings) so I am not going to discuss them; rather it’s the report’s coverage on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that I am finding almost as troubling at the moment.
While Berelowitz discussed the report, Humphrys asked a very worrying question. I paraphrase: are you sure that it is really rape? Are you sure that it’s not just young people going out and drinking too much and having consensual sex?
Berelowitz reiterated (because the first time she made the point clearly wasn’t enough) that there is considerable evidence that young girls are being raped – repeatedly and systematically – in parts of the UK. Let’s unpick what Humprys was implying with his question. First, you can tell when it is real rape because a victim fights back, is probably being attacked by a stranger, and will probably show physical signs of rape. In the absence of some/ all of the above, it’s not real rape, right? Wrong. Second, it can’t be real rape when either alleged victims or alleged perpetrators are drunk or high because, in such cases, there was probably just confusion around consent. Right? Wrong. Third, if a victim knows her rapist(s), and she was drunk/ high and didn’t resist (per se) then she was probably consenting by default and/ or asking for it anyway. Right? Wrong. Fourth, if the victim was drunk/ high, she probably consented at the time and her accusations of rape after the fact are more likely buyer’s remorse. Right? WRONG.
It’s not easy to fit four rape myths into one question but Humphrys managed it. Victim-blaming, which forms the basis of almost all rape myths, is never acceptable and never appropriate. Indeed, if one were to be scientific about it, it’s never logical either. Yet it is without doubt the most common reaction to accusations of, and evidence about, rape. Reducing cases of rape to something that must be wrong with the victim (her outfit, her behaviour, her presence) is our go-to response because that is more comfortable to us than addressing the very real issue of extreme violence towards women and girls. And, in turn, we are beside ourselves when we hear about findings such as those above because we cannot continence a society in which such shocking and misogynistic attitudes to women, their agency and their bodies are so prevalent. Yet we reinforce them ourselves every time we hear about a case of rape and ask of victims, “what really happened? No, really, what happened.”
There is no gradient of rape, there are no “blurred lines” around consent, there is no such thing as “real rape”. If we are ever to address rape, it’s about time we looked within to see how our own attitudes – and those myths we ourselves perpetuate – feed the problem.