Wednesday 19 December 2007

Rape, Raunch Culture and Girl Power.

'Every 10 to 15 years, feminism needs rebranding', says Katherine Townsend for the BBC.

Today, John Redwood has publicly declared that 'date rape' is different from 'stranger rape' and should be punished differently; effectively, yet another old white Tory telling us that we're asking for it. There is nothing new in this attitude, but such a respected politician saying it so unashamedly in so public a forum is very, very worrying indeed. Thank god Redwood never became Prime Minister.

Righteous indignation aside, the 'asking for it' attitude can be very pervasive. Even as a hardened, well-read feminist I still find it difficult to process my own experiences two years ago of date rape and subsequent venereal infection in anything other than those terms. We're persuaded that rape is something that, if we behave in a sexually forthright manner, we should practically expect - and expect to go unpunished. And this is one of the attitudes that allows endemic rape to be a continuing fact of our society.

Elsewhere in the patriarchy today, the Spice Girls' reunion tour has prompted lots of debate about changes in the nature of feminism over the past ten years - not that the mainstream press ever takes its cue from Red Pepper, of course.

I am a feminist who is both pro-porn and pro-sex. However, I'm completely in accordance with Ariel Levy and her fellow critics of what she terms 'raunch culture': the idea that, to be empowered, girls and young women must be 'sexy' above all else, must be in a constant state of hyper-pneumatic, barbie-doll faux-arousal, flashing our bodies for popular approval. Adverts on the underground promise us that breast enhancement surgery will make us 'more confident', that we do not deserve 'confidence' unless we appear constantly young, sexy, desirable and up for it. But this is not confidence. This is not empowering. This is not rebranding feminism: it's old-fashioned sexism re-packaged as something new. Young girls are being taught that sexuality is performative, not for their own enjoyment but for others to take advantage of - and how that's a great step forward from the sexual prudery of the 19th century, I don't understand.

So, on the one hand, young girls are taught that the only way to gain approval is to be 'sexy', to act, dress and behave in a raunchy manner in accordance with a mass media saturated with unreal images of vapid, nubile, 'sexy' examples of womanhood. On the other hand, we're still being told that if we do dress in such a way, we can expect to be raped and to have only ourselves to blame. That makes our culture one of assumed rape-privilege over women and girls compliant with the zeitgeist - and that's a terrifying thought.

The 'total coverage' effect of raunch culture should not be mistaken for anything other than misogyny. Just because we're assaulted by images of unreal naked women at every turn does not mean that the attitude of the patriarchy to women's bodies is any different: on the contrary, women's bodies are presented just as they are seen - as consumables belonging to the observer or purchaser rather than the woman herself, and as acceptable targets of violence and exploitation.

Girl power is more than a short skirt and an up-for-it attitude. I'm not suggesting that female sexual prudery is the path to personal emancipation - as a former burlesque dancer it would be rather hypocritical of me - but we must re-educate ourselves, our comrades and our children until there is an understanding that women's bodies are not for sale. We must teach our daughters that their sexuality is for their own enjoyment, and not only there to gain them approval from patriarchal consumer culture and from their peers. We must make it clear, once again, that our bodies are not free too be used by anyone without our consent - under any circumstances.

Bigots like Redwood are not going to disappear any time soon, but we can make them understand that we will not tolerate being treated in this way. Our 'confidence' does not depend on our commodity value, because we are not commodities - we are whole people, with complete say over how and for what our bodies are used. Nothing else can be acceptable.


  1. Hmm. I expected to be commenting with a general justification of the belief that there might be good reasons to separate 'date rape' from 'stranger rape'. Then I read what Redwood actually said. What an odious shit that man is.

    With the caveat that I am not a lawyer, I've always though that the legal problem we have with rape (the v. low conviction rate) is a particular problem for politicians because it undermines a set of legal principles which are, for almost every other crime, entirely sound. The presumption of innocence, the requirement to have witnesses or compelling circumstantial evidence, the avoidance of using one person's word against another - all of these make perfect sense for most crimes. But for rape, these principles get in the way of securing convictions of genuinely guilty individuals.

    I'm not surprised that conservatives err on the side of preserving the legal system; that's what conservatives are for. My worry, as a liberal lefty kind of person is that I can't really see a better solution.

    What I think that Redwood was trying to say is that we might be able to more harshly punish stranger rape, perhaps nudging the evidential requirements a little bit in favour of the victim, if we treat it differently from date rape. It's a lot easier to assume non-consent for stranger rape, on the basis that the individuals concerned haven't consented to spend any other time together.

    Of course, this suits Redwood's agenda as a conservative. The message becomes "Men! Don't think you can go out for one-night stands - you'll have a hard time proving it wasn't rape. Get married like good conservative young men and you'll be fine!". This is the price Redwood wants to charge for increasing rape convictions.

    This issue is difficult precisely because there isn't, as far as I know, an answer that is simple and right. Or am I wrong? (it's distinctly possible, most of what I just wrote is based entirely on my preconceived political notions).

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