I didn’t laugh at your rape joke?

I must not have a sense of humour.

Trigger warnings for: rape, rape culture, non-con, sexual assault

Okay, this is obviously a contentious topic. While I’d like to be confident that I can write about it without causing offence, but I don’t want to presume that level of confidence. Please do contact me about it.

Although I do not feel qualified to discuss rape (while simultaneously feeling so much more qualified than various political figures) I can address the rape culture. In particular, I am going to address how it, as well as my own experiences, has impacted me personally. Not only is this a topic which is liable to anger me, I’m going to talk about relatively personal experiences, and thus feel the need to warn that my writing will almost certainly lack eloquence. And will contain too many asterisks.

To begin, I am 18 years old, and female.

There has been another spate of (mainly American or Assange-ist) political figures throwing about phrases like “legitimate rape”, or implying that we ought not trust rape claims. While I am from the UK, and can remain thankful that politicians like Paul Ryan and Todd Akin do not direct control or indeed political sway in my country, it would be foolish to dismiss their views as having no impact here. That sort of blatant denial is a problem globally, reinforcing the rape culture that permeates society. The same rape culture which is still being ignored by a seemingly terrifyingly large portion of the population.

I mean, I was taught in school to yell “Fire!” as opposed to “Rape!”, because it is much more likely to be responded to; tell me that apathy doesn’t ring of rape culture. Girls, and indeed guys, are literally taught at school that society doesn’t care, that it will not help you, that it will not listen. What a healthy message that is.

Despite going to an all-girls school, where you may think that the priority would lie on informing as much as possible, this was the only form of rape* ever discussed. Date rape was glossed over (hold onto your drinks, don’t drink from anything already open), but the idea that it could be an acquaintance, even a friend, went unmentioned. Crucially, we were essentially given rules to follow in order to be safe. I doubt I need to highlight the multitude of wrong that is.

When you are forced to build up a tolerance to “harmless” behaviour towards you from an early age (and let’s be honest, you’re fair game from 12 or before), it becomes harder to distinguish the levels of badwrong. Is wolf-whistling supposed to be flattering? I know a lot of people my age do find it flattering (while acknowledging some vague sense of objectification), but that isn’t how I perceive it. That isn’t how most women perceive it. If a stranger in the street yells something crude, why does everyone seem to accept it? It’s creepy, invasive, and makes me supremely uncomfortable. And no one will bat an eye. Unsurprisingly, I’m not actually interested in any of the various suggestions thrown my way from car/van windows. What exactly is the aim? Has yelling potential sexual favours ever actually resulted in said favours occurring? I mean really.

When a strange man approaches me in a public place and insists on invading my space and my boundaries, where is the outcry? Okay, I see you ladies on the other side of the bus-stop giving me a sympathetic look. Is that it? Why aren’t you helping? There’s a group of you and I’m on my own! It’s dark, and this guy is kind of ignoring my personal space bubble, and being generally creepy**. A sympathetic look won’t cut it, sister. Help me out. If you think that I’m being paranoid, then you aren’t seeing the severity of this; I wouldn’t say I’m dwelling on the matter constantly, but there is part of my brain always on high alert. I’m not the only one***. Obviously, I can’t tell at a glance if someone is a rapist, I can’t tell if there’s malicious intent, and thus I’m going to stay on my guard because until it’s been proved either way. If there was a magical technique to being able to spot a rapist at fifty paces, it’s safe to say rape wouldn’t really be an issue. It is.

I have friends who are nice guys, and those who I suspect are Nice Guys ™****. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m purposefully distancing myself from friends who genuinely mean well? Worse: what if I’m right? What if the willingness to get with a girl one day overpowers the fact that she’s too drunk/half-asleep/doesn’t want it? Maybe the occasional sexist joke is deep-seated misogyny. Maybe it’s yet more ironic hipster insensitivity. In fact, in terms of jokes, the gals I know keep pace with the guys; it’s a race of sexist joke telling, and if you aren’t laughing then maybe you need to get a sense of humour. On a related note, if I hear another get-in-the-kitchen/make-me-a-sammich joke I will scream.

I have been told again and again that I wear short skirts, which yeah, I actually knew that. It then turns the warning that my skirt is “too short”. Really? You can’t actually see anything apart from my legs, and regardless what exactly is the point you’re trying to make? Yes, these tights do have a hole in them. I fell over, it was terrible, there was blood. No, these tights don’t magically signify that my body is up for grabs. They merely have a ladder in them. The number of girls my own age who have told me that I look like a slut/shouldn’t act like such a slag/whatever based purely on the length of my skirt is terrifying. My best friends have acted like my clothing was a crucial facet of my personality, that it was more important than my actual actions. The number of times well-meaning adults have told me that I really shouldn’t go out in public with a skirt that short is worrying. While I’m sure it’s mainly well-meaning, there’s a part of me that hears this constant judgement of clothing as preparation for an “I Warned You”.

The secret code on what is and isn’t acceptable (like a bandeau with a sheer top is fine, but a bra with a sheer top is slutty, or something) is something I don’t get at all. I didn’t initially realise that allowing someone to buy a drink for you is actually the equivalent of signing a contract offering them rights to your body. Or that by dancing with someone you have essentially promised them sex. The first time I found that one out, I was pretty lucky to have enough friends with me (female and male) that no one got too angry, no one got violent. I think it could have been. I think that if I hadn’t had friends with me, if there had only been strangers, no one would have bothered to interfere. And the wonder is whether that’s because no one saw that there was an issue, or because by dancing I had been clearly implying something. I don’t know. Either option is kind of horrible, and I just don’t know.

I don’t appreciate being made to feel that my clothes are giving off signals that I’m not okay with*****. I don’t appreciate the feeling that society is washing it’s hands of its short-skirted population, myself included. I don’t like that the 40-something% of rapes that are reported have shown the media excels in victim blaming. I hate the fear that I’m beginning to internalise this bullshit.

Okay. Trigger warnings for the italic section: firsthand account of non-consensual kissing.

I keep forgetting that I can’t really trust anyone, regardless of their position. That sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. This is an anecdote from my summer, and honestly I feel like it has a pretty happy ending. 

So, I was on holiday abroad with friends. We’d been drinking, not much but enough that I was tipsy. I was wearing a dress, with little to no cleavage showing, that wasn’t particularly short. My alcohol consumption and clothing choices shouldn’t have to be mentioned, but they do. More on this later. 

We were at a… disco? Disco seems the best word, as I certainly wouldn’t deem it a club. The dancefloor felt like two separate rooms, because of the position of the bar split the room in half. This is also relevant. 

We’d been dancing among ourselves, but some of us went outside for air. When I made to go back inside, to find the rest of my friends, the bouncer said something to me. I stopped, to explain that I didn’t speak the language, but charade that I was just going in to find my friends. He smiled and nodded, and so I went to walk by. He took my wrist. He wasn’t that much taller than me. He was certainly stronger. This is probably extremely, stupidly naive, but I sort of assumed he was going to help me find my friends. I mean, he was a bouncer: to a certain extent they’re there to protect you. I trusted that, which seems ridiculous in hindsight. 

It turned out that while I’d been outside, they’d roped off and shut down half the dancefloor (one of the “rooms”). I went left, to the open half, to find my friends. He went right, to the closed half, and brought me with him. I struggled a little. Honestly the music was loud, and I doubt anyone would have heard if I had bothered to yell. If I had yelled or kicked him or something, then maybe he would have let me go. Maybe he would have been violent. Maybe things would have gotten much worse, much more quickly. I think that’s partially why I didn’t really try too much.

I didn’t fully panic until I was against a wall. I want to reiterate that he was stronger than me, because I feel like that bears repeating. It was looping over and over in my mind. He smiled (smiled!) and kissed me. I turned my head away as much as possible. That’s all it was, really. A kiss. It could have been so much worse. I mean, I had said no, I had shaken my head, I had turned away, and he had kissed me anyway. I‘m not sure he even realised that I was a non-consensual participant. Then again, he was restraining me. He probably had some idea. 

At this point, it was easy enough to persuade him to let go: a smile and a promise that I had to tell my friends but then I’d be back. Naturally, I stumbled away as quickly as possible, until I was outside and could see the friends I’d left there. Suddenly, a bit too late, my fight or flight instincts had kicked in. When I did find them, I think I looked shell-shocked enough that no one really questioned my sudden desire to leave now, right now, please. Half my friends accompanied me home, and half stayed there. 

I wish I could say that was the only time I’ve had a man try to/successfully force themselves on me/take advantage. It isn’t. 

Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Kisses aren’t a big deal, right? Ideally they’re consensual on both sides, but regardless they’re still just kisses. Then again, look at things that way and where on the scale do you differentiate what is a big deal? If it’s nonconsensual, it’s a big deal. Never mind what “it” is. That’s the only way I can see it.

The worst thing, I think, is how I felt about it, how I felt my friends felt about it. On the one hand, I didn’t want them all to come with me, because I didn’t want it to be a big deal. Bad experiences can’t define me. On the other hand, I felt like a burden. Like I was ruining their night. Like they didn’t see it as a big deal, and neither should I. Certainly, it is no where near to the worst thing that has happened to any of my friends. It had a happy ending. I got away with a mere kiss, and a bit of a scare. Going home felt like giving up, but I couldn’t stay there.

I mentioned my clothes and the fact that I had drunk alcohol that night because these things have become important. Not because it meant something would happen, but because that’s what the media focusses on. Because constantly I hear that Bad Things happen to girls who drink, who wear short skirts, who go clubbing. So part of me wonders, would that have happened if I was sober? If I’d been wearing jeans, not a dress? Did I do something? Because for everyone screaming on the internet that you cannot blame the victims, there are so many more who whole-heartedly disagree, or don’t even care. All I’m hearing is that I did something. That society doesn’t really care, but the majority that does is blaming the victims. That maybe there is some intangible thing that lures out predators. That maybe it’s worth changing myself if that’s the cost to stop harassment.

I know that’s ridiculous. I know that it isn’t anything I do, it isn’t anything that any woman (or man) does that causes them to be a victim. It would be easier, I think, if there was something. If there was a switch to flip, and suddenly we’d all be safe. It isn’t like that. And still I’m hearing the media, the world, tell me otherwise.

Wolf-whistles and cat-calling are just lads being lads. Slutwalk and its kind are condemned by men and women alike. People still tell victims of sexual assault that everything happens for a reason. Rape cases still spend time and effort decimating the characters of the men and women who were victimised. ‘Women Against Rape’ ask the world “But does anyone really believe that extraditing Julian Assange will strengthen women against rape?”******. People still believe that you can be ‘asking for it’. The majority of rapes aren’t reported even now. Anyone truly speaking up is dismissed as paranoid, menstrual, or a feminazi. The impact it’s having is devastating. None of the objectification is okay. None of the intimidation is okay. None of the name-calling, redefinitions, blame-games are okay. Certainly, none of them are harmless.

I don’t make out with people at parties, I don’t respond to chat up lines beyond a raised eyebrow, I don’t like other people buying me drinks, friends or not. It isn’t worth being labelled a tease, or a flirt, or anything, really. It isn’t worth the ‘I Told You So’s of society. I know I should stand up and fight for my right to wear my skirt as short as I want, dance with whomever I want, and not have to worry about repercussions. I want to. I just don’t want to be dismissed like so many others. I don’t want to have to give up hope, I don’t want to have to admit that maybe society just doesn’t care.

*I don’t prescribe to the “let’s keep redefining rape until it doesn’t exist” bullshit that gets recycled every couple of years, but I feel Jezebel’s article ‘The Official Guide to Legitimate Rape’ accurately surmises what I’m attempting to convey.

**The Schrödinger’s Rapist article seems to cover this one fairly clearly. I honestly don’t care if you’re attempting to have a friendly conversation, you’re being creepy. Stop it.

A similar theme here on unacceptable behaviour and totally logical reasons for why it’s unacceptable.

***While a vaguely upsetting piece to read, particularly if you never think about this sort of thing, Andrea Grimes’ piece ‘Who Will Rape Me?’ shows this mindset very well.

****For definitions of Nice Guys ™, see this  and maybe this

*****Amanda Hess, in ‘On Short Skirts’, shows the ridiculousness of this argument. Not that you need showing the ridiculousness, but it’s still worth reading. On a similar theme, and quoting some of the same material, see Jezebel’s ‘Short Skirts and the Politics of Sexual Assault

******This travesty is here.

    • Grace
    • August 24th, 2012

    Thank you so much for writing this. I loathe the way my friends report that they were whistled at, or propositioned, or honest-to-God groped in the street, not appalled, but in a sort of gosh-I-got-male-attention way. Or frankly some of the things I’m taught by school or church. As a woman I am allowed to have sex and to like it. This doesn’t make me a whore, it makes me a functional human being. I am not and never will be ‘asking for it.’ And it’s not because men have needs or anything with such Stone-Age logic as that, it’s because we live in a rape culture that such behaviour is condoned.

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