Is there really no rape culture in the West?

First published by The Independent, 11th June 2015

Laura Southern, a reporter with TheRebel, attended a SlutWalk demonstration in Vancouver yesterday and held up a placard reading “There is no rape culture in the West”.

It really made me think: wow, how completely wrong can someone be?

The term “rape culture” was first used by feminists in the 1970s, and unfortunately remains relevant today. It describes a culture where acts of sexual violence are normalised, and rapists protected by public opinion.

Approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year, which on average is just over 230 a day. And over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted every year. Why might this be? What else can possibly explain this ugly phenomenon?


1. Women are taught ‘not to be raped’

Above: Two examples of poster campaigns from the NHS (L) and Sussex Police (R) that have been accused on victim blaming Above: Two examples of poster campaigns from the NHS (L) and Sussex Police (R) that have been accused on victim blaming

From anti-rape nail polish to the “hairy leg stockings”, women are expected to take precautions to prevent rape. The responsibility for rape is placed upon the shoulders of women, which feeds neatly into a culture of victim blaming and slut-shaming. The idea that women are ‘asking for it’ if they’re drinking or out late or wearing a short skirt or walking home alone, is very pervasive.

It conveniently denies the fact that women are raped in baggy clothes and burkas and in their homes and at work and at all times of the day and when they’re stone cold sober. Which would we prefer? A society where women are hyper vigilant in guarding themselves against rape and are suspicious and fearful of men, or one where men don’t rape?


2. Rape isn’t believed, or goes unreported

False reports of rape are often pounced on by the media and “anti-feminists”, despite the fact that false reports of rape are no more common than false reports of any other crime. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) states that false reports of rape are ‘very rare’ and make up only 1 per cent of cases.

However, the myth that it’s common for women to lie or make up stories about rape discourages many victims from reporting their experiences to the police. CPS estimated in 2012 that as many as nine in ten rapes are never reported.  It’s hardly surprising, when some survivors of rape are even pressured into dropping charges by the police.


3. Rape is trivialized within pop culture

Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton in the terrible wedding scene in Game of Thrones season five Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton in the terrible wedding scene in Game of Thrones season five

From rape jokes to the way sexual violence is presented in films and TV shows (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), rape is routinely normalized and trivialized in popular culture. It’s used as a shock tactic, and as a lazy way to definite male characters or paint a setting as “gritty” and “dangerous”.

More often than not, the effects of rape are not explored and the impact on the victim is skipped over. In the UK, 1 in 5 women between the ages of 16 and 59 have experienced some form of sexual violence. 1 in 3 female university students have been the victims of sexual assault. So maybe it’s time we stopped making it into a punchline, and instead presented sexual violence in a more meaningful and nuanced way.


4. Consent isn’t understood in the way it should be

As a society, we still seem to operate with the belief that unless the victim screams “no!” and fights back, it cannot possibly be rape. This feeds into the idea that there are “grey areas” when it comes to sexual assault, and that certain kinds of rape are “worse than others’”.

Survivors are further discouraged from reporting to the police, because they believe that what happened to them wasn’t serious enough or violent enough to be considered “real rape”.  But the bottom line is very simple.  Only yes means yes.  Sex without consent is rape.


5. We believe unhelpful myths about who can be a rapist and victim

The idea that rapes are carried out by psychotic strangers in dark alleyways still holds great cultural sway. We find it very difficult to reconcile our collective selves with the fact that anyone can be a rapist, because it’s such an uncomfortable truth. Rape Crisis England & Wales estimates that 90 per cent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

And it’s not just young, attractive, cisgender women who are raped. Women and girls can be raped at any age, regardless of their class, culture, race, faith, ability or sexuality. Although it’s largely those who identify as female who are the victims of rape, those who identify as men can be raped too (and it’s believed that 9,000 are every year).

And yes, there are also women who perpetrate sexual violence, just like there are men raped by other men. Trans men can be raped. Trans women can be raped. Which is to say, there is no hierarchy – the experiences of all victims are valid.

All of the above is rape culture in action. It’s not made up. Laura Southern is either misinformed, or wilfully closing her eyes to the reality of rape culture. The West that Southern appears to believe in sounds very pleasant, but it’s a complete fantasy.

Coachella: Cultural Appropriation, Rape T-Shirts and Why We Should Care

Ah, Coachella. The most glamorous and star-studded of all the festivals, always enshrined in sunlight and bedecked with flower crowns. We don’t have an equivalent in soggy Britain, not even in the form of our hallowed Glastonbury with its miles of mud and ageing hippies complaining that the whole things has become too commercial.

Coachella is for beautiful young things, dressed in Free People and suspiciously clean for music festival attendees, primed to celeb-spot Bieber or the Jenner sisters. It’s also a hotbed of ignorant sartorial choices, ranging from the Native American headdress to the jewelled bindi. However, this year Coachella has really outdone itself, causing mass offence in the form of one man wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’.

This incredibly clever and nuanced reworking of ‘eat sleep rave repeat’ from the 2013 Fatboy Slim and Riva Starr track manages to perfectly epitomize rape culture in the form of a single, probably home-made, festival shirt.

Jemayel Khawaja, managing editor of Vice’s EDM site THUMP, was the first to tweet a picture of the t-shirt wearer. Khawaja told THUMP that “he seemed really stoked about it when I asked to take a picture, thus the cheeseball smile”. Not only did the t-shirt guy think there was nothing wrong with wearing the offending article of clothing, but he was proud to pose for a snap to showcase his totally edgy choice of attire.

One of the most pervasive elements of rape culture is how rape and sexual assault are normalized to the point that they become amusing. Rape is a monstrous crime. It causes immense suffering, and often leaves survivors battling serious mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder. It should not be used as a fun t-shirt slogan, a way to show others how irreverent and daring your brand of humour is. There’s nothing daring about using humour to punch downwards. You risk nothing by reinforcing the status quo: that rape isn’t a big deal, that people just need to ‘lighten up’ about it, and having to consider the fact that 1 in 5 In the UK have suffered sexual violence is a huge threat to your freedom of speech.

It’s not just the ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’ wearer who should think more carefully about his fashion choices. Music festivals have largely become synonymous with cultural appropriation, and none more so than Coachella. Celebrity attendees continue to set a bad example, with Vanessa Hudgens, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner emerging year-on-year as appropriation queens.

By adopting sacred symbols of another culture, you reduce them to cheap fashion choices and disregard the history behind them. White, half-naked festival goers wearing versions of the Native warbonnet is incredibly offensive, and has been likened to wearing blackface or a medal of honour that you didn’t earn.

The difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is not always completely clear cut, but as a good rule of thumb, if you’re wearing a bindi or a warbonnet because it looks cool or pretty or on trend, you’re falling into the appropriation category. It’s not ok to pick and choose bits of another culture to make up your festival wardrobe or to help you up your Instagram follower count.

Donning a bindi or a feathered headdress might not be as immediately shocking as wearing the vile ‘Eat Sleep Rape Repeat’ shirt, but both are ignorant expressions of privilege. To even mention privilege might make me a hand-wringing liberal leftie, but to fail to recognise privilege smacks of a wider lack of humanity and compassion.

If you’d experienced racist harassment and bullying, or cultural invisibility, it might stick in your throat when symbols of your culture are misused and made into accessories for people with no understanding of your heritage. If you’d ever experienced sexual violence, you might not be amused when your experience is packaged as a hilarious t-shirt slogan.

Come on, Coachella party people. Do better.

Sex education in the UK: time for a far-reaching overhaul

First published by Open Democracy, Tuesday 31st March 2015

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?
I don’t remember much about my own sex education lessons, other than an overwhelming sense of dread. We were taught about the terrifying prospect of pregnancy and about numerous sexually transmitted infections, with accompanying graphic images on laminated pieces of card. I was terrified that the teacher was going to talk about same sex relationships, knowing that it would lead to shouts of ‘dyke’ and my peers putting chewing gum in my hair. I realise now, of course, that if LGBT relationships and their validity had been discussed, the nightmare of homophobic bullying I endured during high school could’ve been dealt with much more effectively.
Everyone has a different story about their experiences of sex education, but the thread that runs through all of them speaks of inadequacy. Too little, too late, too biased, too focussed on the mechanics, too weird, too awkward, too many gaps. When 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex, and 22% surveyed by the NSPCC said that they had been subjected to physical violence by a boyfriend, including punching, slapping, strangling and being beaten with an object, it’s pretty clear that our approach to sex education needs an immediate and far-reaching overhaul.
The NSPCC’s report also found that the UK had the highest rate of children and teens sending explicit sexual images. 40% of the girls who had sent sexual pictures to a boyfriend said that their partner had then shared the images with other people. 39% of boys admitted to watching porn regularly, and 25% were shown to harbour extremely negative attitudes about women. In order to tackle these issues, sex and relationships education urgently needs to address them. The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault on our university campuses doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If children are taught early on about the essential nature of enthusiastic consent, and about the harmful culture of victim-blaming and rape myths, I believe that the prevalence of sexual violence can be combatted effectively and young people of all genders can be mutually supportive, rather than in opposition to one another.
Grace attends a selective state school. She wishes there had been more than a very basic model of safe sex and some ‘gory’ STI photos discussed, and describes her sex education as “totally penis-centred, with the vagina barely mentioned, let alone the parts labelled”. She says “there was absolutely no talk about consent or even what consensual sex means, or mention of anything other than heterosexual couples. Consent should be the most crucial thing when teaching young people about sex and when things like foreplay aren’t even mentioned, it’s unsurprising that teenagers turn to porn to answer their questions”.
Porn is currently a point of contention in the debate over what should be taught to children and teenagers in their sex education lessons. A leading Danish sexologist is calling for pornography in be shown in classrooms as part of a healthy, well-rounded sex education curriculum, so that teenagers can be“conscientious and critical consumers” who can tell the difference between fantasy and real relationships. Although there are those who think that young people are more than capable of separating the fantasy of mainstream porn, with its false focus on spontaneity and predilection for showing women in a subordinate and submissive role, if sex education is inadequate, it’s likely that porn will be used to fill in the gaps.
Anyone who opposes the expansion of sex education in the name of protecting childhood innocence is living in a fantasy land. Unless you cut your child off from all forms of technology and contact with other children (and their laptops and smartphones), you cannot prevent children from accessing or being shown pornography.
Teenagers need to be equipped with the critical tools that will allow them to view commercial sex as exactly what it is, rather than a guide to how they should behave in the real world. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in the Guardian, that “young women have told me how surprised they have been when, during sex, hands have been placed around their necks, their hair has been pulled so hard they’ve wept, their faces and breasts have been ejaculated on without consent”, citing these stories as examples of how pornography has infiltrated the relationships of teenagers.
It’s also important to consider the differences in the kind of information given at faith-based schools, as opposed to the sex education curricula taught at non-denominational, secular places of learning. Claire attended a Catholic school in the 1990s and remembers attitudes to contraception being very poor. “There was a page missing from our biology text books and when we looked in the index to find out what was missing, it was the page on contraception. Our main sex education was delivered during an event called “family day” at a nearby convent where we mainly talked about adult life, getting jobs, having a family etc. This included a very uncomfortable talk from our form tutor who talked about how God only approves of the kind of sex that can make babies… so using your mouth or hand is very bad.”
Little appears to have changed in terms of how sex education is delivered at faith-based schools. Charlotte left school five years ago, and remembers her sex education at a Catholic school as “extremely biased and confusing, particularly to people who didn’t define as heterosexual. We were shown abortion videos and given a slut-shaming talk by people who told us we had to wait until marriage to have sex”. Female oral sex was never mentioned, but Charlotte was told that “giving your husband a blowjob is the most intimate thing you can do”. The teacher described this as part of a wife’s “emotional responsibility” to her husband.
There’s obviously a conflict of interests here. Some parents will inevitably choose to send their children to religious schools because they want them to receive teaching that is influenced by religious doctrine. Unfortunately, this is extremely harmful when it comes to sex education, as teenagers are often provided with information that is objectively false, that leaves out crucial material, and is inherently detrimental to young women when they are shamed for showing an interest in sex or becoming sexually active. All children and teenagers, regardless of whether they come from Catholic, Church of England, Muslim or secular backgrounds, deserve to receive unbiased information about sex and relationships, so that they are able to make their own, informed choices about their lives and bodies.
If teachers aren’t correctly trained to deliver a meaningful sex and relationships curriculum, it’s essential that schools employ outreach and youth workers who can pick up the baton in this area. Schools should be equipped to provide honest information about LGBT relationships and gender identity, so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender students are not excluded from sex education. Teenage years are full of exploration and are often the time when young people are discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality.
It’s important that we don’t overlook the interest teenagers have in the fundamental questions about sex and relationships. Young people need to be aware of the building blocks that will help them form healthy, mutually pleasurable relationships, including creating foundations of trust and respect. Otherwise, the myth that sex is something men should attempt to get from women (at all costs) and sex is something women should withhold from men (to prevent them being denigrated as ‘sluts’ or ‘easy’) will continue to be perpetuated.
The government’s plans to introduce the teaching of consent to children aged 11 are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough? The series of lesson plans on the meaning and importance of consent, produced by the Personal Social Heath and Economic Education Association (PSHEA), were backed by ministers but not made a compulsory part of the curriculum. This means that teaching of consent may be cursory or sporadic, and some schools may choose to ignore the lesson plans altogether.
The need for a more comprehensive sex and relationships curriculum is urgent. By providing young people with unbiased and broad-ranging information on consent, mutual respect, mutual pleasure, pornography, and the meaning of rape culture, structural problems of sexism and sexual violence can be challenged early on. It’s essential that teenagers are able to navigate sex and relationships in a safe and informed manner, so that their personal lives can be fulfilling and independent, and free from harmful misinformation and abuse.

Create a website or blog at