The flesh is weak: On the Erection Equals Consent rape myth

Rape myths take many forms, and male victims have their own myths to bust.

CONTENT NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS BRIEF BUT GRAPHIC DETAILS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Whenever an article appears about the sexual abuse of men and boys – especially abuse perpetrated by women – you can almost guarantee that a comment will appear saying something like: ‘well he couldn’t have been that unwilling if he got a boner.’

It is an incredibly damaging and harmful myth, for at least five reasons which I shall detail later in this post, but first let me do my best to convince doubters that it really is a myth. [Read more…]

Those sharing stolen photos are not acting like Edward Snowden – they are behaving like the NSA

In the 36 hours or so since the stolen intimate photos of movie and music stars began to be published online, I have read some outstandingly stupid justifications and excuses for their distribution.

Most of them are depressingly familiar from other discussions of sexual violation. Typical arguments include that these (mostly) female stars have previously traded on their sexuality, so have forfeited their right to say “no” to any other appropriation of their sexuality; that by allowing private photos to be taken in the first place they were ‘asking for it’ and so have no right to complain if someone takes advantage; or that it is all some deliberate publicity ploy and that they were probably complicit in the leaks – or in other words, they wanted it really.

Amongst all this predictably disingenuous balderdash is one claim that I’ve seen repeatedly on various Reddit threads and by several commentators on this Guardian thread. This argument equates the release of the stars’ private photos to the leaking of the NSA files by Edward Snowden, and suggesting that if one approves of the latter, it is hypocritical to object to the former.

There are many things I could say in response to this, but the most polite and restrained is that it is completely upside down and back to front. [Read more…]

No excuses: Yewtree, the stars and the victim-blaming

 

content note: brief details of sexual assaults are relayed later in this piece

 

Unlike Neil Lyndon, I was too young to experience the legendary decadence of the 1970s. I did, however, party my way through the chemical kaleidoscope of the late 80s and 90s, a time which bore many similarities. Hedonism was at a premium, good judgement and self-restraint were in scarce supply and, as one of Lyndon’s friends recalled of the previous era, at times it almost seemed like everybody was fucking everybody.

Except not quite. I remember once my (three male) housemates and I stumbled out of a club, pie-eyed, in the small hours. As we waited for the all-night bus we got chatting to some similarly mashed girls. They asked us if we had any weed and pretty much invited themselves back to our place. At some point a kind of collective ripple of realisation ran among me and my mates that these really were girls, not women. When someone asked how old they were they just giggled and said something vaguely flirtatious. We let them toke on a couple of spliffs to help them land gently from whatever they’d taken earlier then sent them grumbling back to their mums and dads. I never did find out their ages but a few days later they turned up at our door in their school uniforms at lunchtime. I was out, but my horrified housemate reported that tin the cold light of day they looked about 15 at most.

I recount this very mundane story to make a very mundane point. Not screwing children really isn’t that difficult, if you are any kind of decent human being. Even when they are dolled up in party gear and make-up, you can tell. Even when you’re shitfaced on the finest pharmaceuticals Hulme has to offer, you can still tell. Had any one of us grown men taken one of those girls to our bedrooms – even with her apparent consent – we would have known exactly what we were doing. I simply refuse to believe that teenagers in the 1970s were so very different that one couldn’t tell.

So I have little sympathy if Neil Lyndon or any of his friends from the time are waking up with the cold sweats expecting a knock on the door from Operation Yewtree. Just because they thought they could get away with it at the time, doesn’t mean it was right at the time. Justice delayed is still justice.

However there is another point on which Lyndon’s piece is deeply, grotesquely ill-conceived. I have not seen a single shred of evidence that any of the known victims of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and others were enthusiastic groupies who threw themselves at their heroes in pursuit of an intimate connection. Of course in the 1970s, just like today, there were hormone-crazed teenage girls, either side of the age of consent, who actively pursued sexual contact with adult crushes – whether pop stars, DJs or their teachers. While it is absolutely 100% the responsibility of the adult to ensure they do not abuse children, this is irrelevant in the cases under discussion. These victims were not carefree libertines inspired by Erica Jong’s notion of the zipless fuck. They were vulnerable victims of abuse, assault and rape.

There must be thousands of women, now in their 50s and 60s, who had teenage encounters with pop stars and celebrities through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I do not doubt that many were under the age of legal consent at the time. I have known personally several women who would willingly own up to those kinds of experiences without any apparent regret. I am not excusing the men who took advantage of them when I note that these women are NOT now phoning up the police to report themselves as victims of historic sex crimes.

Neil Lyndon, and all those making similar points, should go back and read again the testimony of the victims in the trials of Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris, or the inquiry into the crimes of Jimmy Savile. Read the stomach-turning testimony of the shy young girl who had never had a boyfriend, whom Savile met in hospital. He befriended her family, offered to take her out to buy chips, then raped her in his camper van outside the chip shop.

Lyndon should read again the account of Stuart Hall’s victim, who was only nine years old and in her own bed when the TV presenter crept into her room and molested her.

Lyndon should think on the evidence of the victim of Rolf Harris who was just 13 when she was first molested as she climbed out of the shower while on holiday.

I could continue but I hope the point is made. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of stories like these. Not a single witness in any of the trials has remotely matched the image conjured by Lyndon of lascivious, enthusiastic teenage sexpots entrapping poor, helpless male celebrities.

What we have in Lyndon’s piece is an extended exercise in the most extreme, literal form of victim blaming. By conflating the very real and all too human victims of serial sexual predators with enthusiastic participants in a carnival of orgiastic sex, he is saying that the victims of these criminals were actively complicit in their own abuse. This is a gross slander on the victims themselves, and an appalling misrepresentation of history.

Enthusiastic consent in a muddy puddle of context

My last couple of blogs led to extensive discussion below the line about issues of consent and the value of various models of enthusiastic consent* over a more simplistic ‘no means no’ model.

With impeccable timing, the Scottish government has released preliminary findings of a survey of over 1000 school students, aged approximately 15-18 (Years S3-S6 in the Scottish school system.)

The findings are worrying. When presented with the statement “When a girl says no to sex, she always means no” only 73% said it was definitely or even probably true.  When asked about “When a boy says no to sex, he always means no” only 55% said it was definitely or even probably true. Let that sink in. Very nearly half of teenagers don’t believe a boy means no if he says no – and we are surprised to learn that large numbers of males are subjected to unwanted, coercive or abusive sexual contact?

Perhaps most worryingly of all, 89% of respondents agreed that a person could change their mind about having sex at any time, even if they had previously consented – meaning more than one in ten Scottish teenagers failed to agree with that most basic statement of consent principles.

I think this study is particularly troubling because the respondents in this survey are at the precise age when people are learning to negotiate their sexualities and behaviours. Those will often go on to become our habits and our expectations. It’s an age when we are finding out what is acceptable, desirable or enjoyable to ourselves and others. Most of these respondents will not be hugely sexually experienced – they have not learned through their own bitter experience that potential partners sometimes play hard-to-get; they have almost certainly picked up these myths from popular culture, their elders and their peers.

This murky puddle of confusion is the context against which enthusiastic consent (or crystal clear consent, affirmative consent, positive consent or whichever alternative model or jargon you prefer) is recommended. I don’t for a moment believe that teaching enthusiastic consent will solve all problems. It is not a magic bullet to prevent all rapes, assaults, exploitation and abuse. Enthusiastic consent won’t stop determined rapists from raping, but it does tear down the curtain of excuses and justifications behind which they often hide.  Enthusiastic consent is not even necessarily a cure to the attitudes revealed in this survey, it is more their natural logical progression.

The uncomfortable truth is that the large proportion of young people who said that no doesn’t always mean no might not be entirely wrong. We live in a culture where people’s desires and intentions are not always immediately apparent to others. For myriad complex reasons people sometimes say no when they mean yes, and sometimes say yes when they mean no.  If you are a halfway decent human being (as I firmly believe most of us are) then pinning your behaviour to a simplistic, all or nothing, one word reply has to be inadequate.

None of this relates to criminal law – what is or is not rape or some other form of assault – this is happening at a much more basic level of personal morality. Does it bother you to think you might be violating someone, traumatising someone, hurting someone, even raping someone? If the answer to that question is no, you don’t care, then no amount of consent training will make a difference.

If you do care, then adopting principles of enthusiastic consent is really the only way you can be sure to get it right.

 

 

* I’ll be honest and confess that I find extended interrogations of what enthusiastic consent really means and exactly what it looks like to be disingenuous and ugly. In a nutshell, if you’re not sure that consent is enthusiastic, then it isn’t. But if you want a more extended explanation, I like the one by Dr Nerdlove here.