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Dublin: 22 °C Tuesday 23 July, 2019
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Column: Accept it – ‘rape culture’ exists

Rape ‘jokes’ and equating violence with passion – just two of the ways in which Ireland shows some alarming societal attitudes towards women and sex, writes Lisa McInerney.

Lisa McInerney

A FAMILY MEMBER told me a particularly dark anecdote recently. A teenager in the late 1970s, he recalls a sex education lesson in biology class, where female classmates were told by the male teacher that if they were ever raped, the best damage limitation would be to just lie back and try to enjoy it.

You could write a whole book on what was wrong with this statement. Even thirty years ago, it was a shocking thing to come out with; if it weren’t, my storyteller wouldn’t have remembered it with such clarity. The reason I’m bringing it up here is that most of us would assume that we’ve come a long way since then. It’s no longer acceptable to tell teenage girls that sexual violence is a likelihood they should prepare for, and accept submissively because it’s easier for everyone in the long run.

“That,” you might state with some degree of confidence, “was what you’d call Rape Culture. Thank God it’s not acceptable to think like that anymore.”

I am genuinely puzzled by the anti-feminist backlash I’ve seen in recent debates on prevalent sexual issues, two recent examples being the UniLad website’s rape jokes and Prime Time’s exposé of the sex industry in Ireland. Discussion of both subjects is to be encouraged, and in general, those opposed to the violent misogyny of UniLad and the normalisation of prostitution in Ireland seemed happy to engage with people offering different viewpoints, or people who wanted to know more about either. All well and good, and exactly how it should be. But there were still far too many comments from people who wanted neither to engage with, or be challenged by, anti-exploitation advocates. People who seemed genuinely appalled that anyone could be offended by rape jokes, or challenge the validity of prostitution as a career choice.

What’s funnier than encouraging young men to rape unwilling marks because statistics say they won’t get caught? What’s more empowering than having sex with someone you’re not attracted to because you need the money? If I wasn’t so busy chortling at the former, I’d be wondering why I’d never thought of trying the latter.

A woman who complains about rape jokes is told she has no sense of humour

And you know how it goes. A woman who complains about rape jokes is told she has no sense of humour, that she’s a killjoy lesbian, and that she should get back in the kitchen. If she disagrees with the selling of sex, she’s sneered at for being a prude and a hypocrite, only interested in a woman’s right to choose if it means choosing a “respectable” career. Therefore, the points she makes are easily dismissed, as now she’s been labelled a shrieking shrew or a Holy Joe. God help her if she should identify as a feminist, or use controversial terms such as “rape culture”.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether it’s simply a case of misdirection and misinformation that has created this – let’s face it – fear of feminism. Don’t people know what a feminist is? A feminist is simply someone who believes that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. She is not someone who hates men, or who thinks that all sex is rape. She’s not necessarily even a She. All of the strong, intelligent, charismatic men I know are feminists; they believe in gender equality. That’s all feminism is… how could anyone proudly, publicly disagree with that?

Sometimes you’ll hear women stating, “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equality”. Believing in equality is exactly what a feminist does. Why should a woman be ashamed of calling herself a feminist? Because people will automatically presume she’s a radical misanthrope who’ll spray breast milk everywhere and beat men around the head with her jackboots if one so much as smiles in her direction?

Sometimes you’ll hear men saying, “I try to enact equality, but then women expect me to open doors for them,” which is incredibly depressing as it’s a confusion between women’s rights and basic good manners. I hold doors open for men sometimes, which I guess makes me a Bear.

Some people dislike the notion of feminism because they believe that women already have equal rights in our society, and certainly, in a legislative sense, we’re coming along nicely. We’re not there yet, but I can see how people who don’t have direct knowledge of such topics as pay equality or abortion would think that we are. But as a society, we’re a long way yet from treating each other with equal respect, regardless of gender. This is where “rape culture” sticks its ugly head back in.

“Rape culture” is a fairly new term to the popular lexicon, and again, I think that those offended by its use don’t quite understand what it refers to. If I say that we currently have a “rape culture”, many people will assume I mean that rape is socially acceptable, or that all men are rapists, or that simply being female is inherently dangerous because we live in a world of violently hormonal men. Such hyperbolic definitions mean that anyone using the term “rape culture” can be immediately dismissed as being a radical malcontent in a world full of happily smiling normals, but it doesn’t take much more digging to find the truth in the theory.

There’s no denying that Ireland has a rape culture

“Rape culture” actually refers to the set of societal norms that equates violence with passion, pigeonholes male sexuality, and excuses or downplays sexual violence. There’s no denying that Ireland has a rape culture. Am I being deliberately provocative by stating that? God, no. But it certainly suits many people to assume so, so they storm away, frothing at the mouth and wildly asking how I could be so terribly offensive about healthy, straight sexuality.

But ask a group of Irish women whether any of them have ever thought twice about walking alone after dark, or tried to convince a female friend not to do so. Ask if they’ve ever been verbally abused in a bar for not engaging with a crude come-on. Ask if they’ve ever been groped in a crowd.

A friend of mine, a young man with a pretty girlfriend, spoke with me recently about relationship problems they were having. It turned out that the main problem was her insistence that she could wear dresses to work if she wanted to.

“She’s a barber,” my friend explained. “If she wears a dress to work, men will look at her and make comments and come on to her. It’s unprofessional and irresponsible of her to wear a dress in a male environment.”

His stance essentially pre-blamed his girlfriend for any unwanted attention she might receive, while excusing possible perpetrators as not being in control of their own rampaging desires. I tried explaining this, but no amount of counter-argument could make him change his mind. This kind of mentality, which defines rape culture so perfectly I wonder how I didn’t make it up, does a disservice to men as well as to women. Are we to believe that all men are so in thrall to their own lust that they can’t help overpowering attractive females? Are we to believe that rape happens because women are just too darn sexy?

Rape culture definitely exists. Why not accept that, and work together to get rid of the damn thing?

What would the abandonment of rape culture mean, anyway? It’d hardly be a great loss. If women were no longer afraid to walk alone at night, in case their mere feminine presence invited violent assault. If men didn’t feel that they had to conform to a very narrow definition of male sexuality, and didn’t feel emasculated if their chosen target demurred. If victims of sexual abuse weren’t afraid to speak out, weren’t bound by shame to blame themselves. If men and women who believed in equality and mutual respect weren’t demonised for using the word “feminist”.

That sounds like a nice kind of way to do things, really. I don’t know how any reasonable person could object to that.

Let’s keep the debate going, because the more I think about it, the more I believe that it’s definitely just a case of misdirection and misinformation that has created this fear of feminism. I mean, the only alternative is to assume that significant sections of the population are terrified of women, and that we’re living amongst some extremely militant misogynists. And that can’t be right… can it?

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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Lisa McInerney

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