Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: What we can learn from Roast Busters

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Joseph Lavell Parker (left) and Beraiah Hales are members of the Roast Busters Facebook group.
Joseph Lavell Parker (left) and Beraiah Hales are members of the Roast Busters Facebook group.

Some teenage girls recently described a group of their male friends to a news station. "They're not rapists," they said, of six young men who sexually assaulted young girls, then named and shamed them online. "They're cool dudes. They can make really dumb decisions, but they're being teenagers."

Many will have sniggered at their words; gaped in horror at their nerve and naivety. 'Cool dudes?!' they may have spat from their armchairs. 'He won't look like a dude at all once I'm done with him.'

Indeed, most of New Zealand is in agreement that these aren't sterling examples of manhood. That there's precisely zero coolness attached to their person, because how on earth could there be if they were capable of that.

And yet.

We have highly paid, mainstream radio DJs casualising sexual assault as "mischief"; asking an 18-year-old girl "how free and easy are you kids these days?", as though in her answer must surely lie proof that yes, they wanted it, and boys will be boys.

We have a police force insisting they have no grounds for arrest, despite a formal complaint by a then 13-year-old victim. Two years ago.

We have a prime minister making reductive statements - "These young guys should just grow up" - that could just as easily apply to petty theft or tagging.

We have a vigilante group baying for blood at one end, and apologists muttering "I'm not defending Roast Busters, but...." at the other end, and nothing in between.

We have all of the above precisely because the "in between" is a long, hard look at our faulty social narratives around rape. And that will always be more confronting, complex and protracted than cash rewards for HD hidings.

Unfortunately, there's no shortcut. The only way to weaken simmering cesspits of misogyny - the sort that might spawn a group of guys who rape for sport - is to myth-bust.

Many rapists rely on entrenched myths around rape, in order to rape. In particular, that "real" rapists are always strangers. That they leap out from the bushes. And, importantly, that there is never prior interaction between a rapist and his victim.

This script is dangerous because sex offenders hide in its margins. If we believe the only "real" rape is stranger rape, sexual violence between acquaintances automatically becomes "lesser". Our predetermined criterion creates a baseless, unimaginably harmful hierarchy.

There is context: mythology around "acquaintance" rape as we know it - that its victims are less harmed and its perpetrators less predatory - emerged when studies of victimisation emerged in the 80s. New research clearly showed that the vast majority of rapes were not committed by strangers after all, which lead to terms like "date rape", which carried connotations in public discourse of "rape lite".

Hence the so-called "murkiness" of acquaintance rape; the elusive hunt for the "line" between rape and crossed wires/confusion/mixed signals. The latter selection being so much more preferable in every way - for everyone but the victim.

Of course, the discovery that most rape victims know their rapists also carved a space for victim blaming. Why was she there? Was she drinking? What was she wearing? Was she flirting? Did she have sexy photos on her Facebook page? Did she cry 'Rape!' out of regret the morning after?

In effect, searching for a rapist-shaped loophole became easier. And rape culture - fortified by society's almost paralytic inability to study its own social paradigms - could thrive.

But there's no excuse anymore: we have the facts. We know most rapists aren't strangers, we know why men rape, we know most rapes are planned, and we know that the majority of acquaintance - or "undetected" - rapists use alcohol to defeat resistance.

To be clear: a large portion of rapists choose alcohol over brute force as their weapon. ("I just kept blacking out 'cause I had drunken too much,'' one victim has said. ''You could say I got raped. I had sex with three guys at one time.'')

Yet despite all of this - despite the decades' worth of work by researchers, doctors, counselors, academics and sociologists; including the testimony of hundreds of rapists themselves - stranger rape remains our model. As though any other "type" is somehow off-brand, and therefore suspect by default.

There's another reason clarity matters: research shows that when society challenges myths around rape, the rate of sexual violence goes down. Inversely, when rape myths are accepted, sexual violence rises. Rape myths shape a culture that breeds more rapists; it's as simple as that.

We have all the resources in the world at our disposal. Let an intelligent, empathic society be our model. Accept nothing less: not from our broadcasters, prime minister, police force, friends, family or colleagues. Demand re-education - do it yourself wherever and whenever possible, even if it's uncomfortable. Especially if it's uncomfortable. Rewrite social narratives.

Because, as explained unequivocally by the Roast Busters themselves, "We take what we do seriously, some of you think this is a joke, it's not."

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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