On rape culture

Below you can find the text of a blog I wrote in my capacity as a student union officer at Edinburgh University Students’ Association in 2014-15 and a speech I gave at a rally.

In response to sexual assaults on the Meadows:
Many of you will have heard about the sexual assault that happened on The Meadows early on Saturday morning, and many of you will be shocked, angry and perhaps frightened because of it. These incidents are horrifying, disgusting and entirely unacceptable, and the fact that they are commonplace near and on our university campus, around the wider city, and amongst our own students, are why I’m dedicated this year to working against sexual harassment and assault in all its forms. But I will always do so in a way that targets those guilty of it, rather than the survivors of such incidents who have no responsibility in what has happened to them but who are often at once blamed and shamed for it.

Because too often when we’re appalled by incidents like that of the weekend our kneejerk reaction is to fall back on narratives that place responsibility on women to look after themselves and each other, taking precautions not to ‘invite’ rape or sexual assault and to ensure that their friends don’t either. We therefore see campaigns telling women to monitor their alcohol intake so as not to be vulnerable, or to get taxis home so they don’t come into contact with rapists – but never posters telling men not to drink if they can’t control their drunken behaviour, or to get taxis home to limit their exposure to women since they are statistically a threat. What this approach fails to recognise is that these incidents are nothing to do with the behaviour or decisions of their victims and everything to do with that of their perpetrators: behaviour that hurts and violates a victim; the decision to do so. That’s not to say that physical harm of other types doesn’t happen to men – they are disproportionately more likely to be the victims of common assault, for example – but that when it does nobody asks what on earth they were doing taking their nose for a walk in the middle of the night, practically begging strangers to punch it.

When we talk about living in a ‘rape culture’, we talk about a society where 2 women will die every week at the hands of a man, but where we still question whether he was somehow provoked. We talk about a country where 400,000 sexual assaults happen to women each year yet men – educated men, our own students – still deem it acceptable to shout rape jokes at passing women. We talk about a situation where women are sentenced to death for accusing men of rape, yet men convicted of it can walk back into public life with little repercussion. And we talk about a culture that falls back on victim-blaming and slut-shaming because that rhetoric reinforces the idea that rape has a recognisable narrative of strangers and darkness and alleyways, rather than the uncomfortable truth which is that the majority of rapes happen between people who know each other. Victim-blaming narratives protect the privileged from having to confront their own failings; a systemic culture problem which makes sexual violence a daily reality and very real fear for women worldwide.

If you’ve read this far and are wondering whether maybe I’m being a bit one-sided here by framing this as a women’s issue, well I suppose that’s because I am. Because while men can also be sexually assaulted – particularly trans or LGB+ men – 90% of sexual violence victims are women and roughly the same proportion of perpetrators are cis* men. That this difference is so stark is no coincidence when we consider how it chimes with power dynamics in wider society – rape is an explicitly gendered crime which serves the purpose of reasserting male dominance over women.

So when horrible instances like that over the weekend happen, we should certainly pull together and ensure the safety of everyone where we can. But we should also collectively be horrified at the prevalence of this type of violence and we should make a commitment to listen to women who share their experiences with us, to believe them and to absolve them of all responsibility, and to turn our collective anger and disgust instead on the perpetrators. A society which relies on victim-blaming narratives is one which alleviates the responsibility of rapists and protects the status quo – and it’s clear that that status quo is too horrifying to be protected.

*’cis’ is used to refer to someone who defines only as the gender they were assigned at birth.

Speech from Edinburgh University Anti-Rape Culture Rally:

(TW: rape, sexual violence)

I’ve had a totally bizarre week of being quoted all over the national press, as well as international magazines like Time and Cosmopolitan, but throughout it all I’ve wished I wasn’t because the incidents that led to my statement should never have happened – horrible, misogynistic men on our campus joking about and threatening rape, amongst other awful comments.

This week we managed to turn that around. Women on our campus were angry about what had happened so we brought them together late last week and planned an anti-rape culture rally at really short notice, where we got an amazing turnout and managed to channel our energy into something powerful, protesting not just the recent incidents but the fact that they’re symptomatic of a huge cultural problem. I’m really proud of last night and everyone who was involved, and the fact that we mobilised a lot of students who haven’t traditionally been involved in activism but who I’m sure will continue to be now – and it’s nice to be in the press for something like this instead of just being reactionary! Here is the full text of the speech I gave at the rally:

When we met to plan this event one of the first things we agreed on was the fact that this couldn’t be seen solely as a reaction. People are angry – I am angry – about the things that have happened in our city and on our campus recently, but I am far angrier that there’s nothing unusual about them, that they’re not isolated incidents. We talk about a rape culture but what does that mean? It means 1 in 4 women being affected by sexual violence in her lifetime. It means 2 women every week being killed by a man. It means a system which allows women like Reyhanna Jabbari to be hanged for accusing men of rape, but for rapists like Ched Evans to walk back into public life no questions asked.

The fact remains that women every day are being assaulted and raped, 90% of them by someone known to them. And yet we’re still talking about pre-booked taxis. We’re still talking about CCTV and lighting. We’re still talking about blood alcohol levels. When will we start talking about rapists? About the fact that we know them, we study in classes with them; we walk past them every day? That they’re not strangers in the darkness but our family and friends and coursemates, men who might be charming and handsome and successful.

Victim-blaming, slut-shaming and writing men off as victims of their own masculinity play into the hands of the privileged and powerful. While we’re talking amongst ourselves about well-lit routes and walking buses, they’re breathing a sigh of relief because it looks like we haven’t caught onto them yet. We’re letting them ignore the fact that this isn’t about women learning to keep to their place, it’s about a systemic and widespread societal failing, and one that we need to address. But as long as we’re talking about temporary stopgaps, we won’t.

All oppression is interlinked and our experience of one kind doesn’t give us authority to talk on behalf of others. While privileged white women may be oppressed on the basis of gender, they might feel comfortable going to the police, for example, in a way that a woman of colour, sex worker or someone else might not. We value some people’s safety over others. We talk about well-lit paths without acknowledging that if it isn’t you, it’ll be someone else instead. We universalise on the basis of gender over other identities, erasing them and the impacts on people’s experiences. This is not feminism; this is rape culture.

If anything good has come from the recent events in this city, it is that women are angry. All across our campus and our city, women are refusing to stand for it anymore, and refusing to apologise for their anger. For the women here tonight that experience this rape culture day in day out, this rally is not a response so much as an exasperated sigh against a backdrop of thousands of years of women’s subordination. And it’s not the end either. It’s only the beginning, because it’s scary to know that we’re not safe in our own surroundings, and it’s terrifying to feel like that’s out of our control. But the power we do have is in mobilising, in organising. It’s in standing up against sexual violence and narratives which excuse and trivialise it, not just when they hit the media but when we’re experiencing them every day in the form of unwanted groping in nightclubs, rape jokes at a society social. It’s in believing women when they tell us about their experiences. And it’s about valuing and fighting for the right to safety of all women, not just those who look like us and whose lifestyles we agree with.

I once heard someone say something that seems all too important today; “Oppression is like a wall, and we keep chipping away at it. You don’t know who will be the one to make it fall, but when it does you owe it to everyone that chipped away before you.”

Let’s keep smashing the wall.

Check out coverage of the rally in The Daily Record here.

Winner of 2015 ‘Write to End Violence Against Women’ Award

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