Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Rape culture is alive and well

Reports about sexual assaults on girls are all too common. Photo / Getty Images
Reports about sexual assaults on girls are all too common. Photo / Getty Images

Attitudes to sex and gender expectations are putting unprecedented levels of pressure on adolescents already negotiating the regular difficulties associated with simply growing up.

As if becoming an adult wasn't complicated enough, now teenagers must grapple to understand the deep and troubling connections between rape culture, sexual assault, consent, pornography and social media.

News reports about sexual assaults on girls are all too common.

There was the 2013 scandal involving "a group ... of predominantly West Auckland youths who allegedly bragged on a Facebook page about having sex with drunk and underage girls".

Then in 2015 it was reported that "senior boys from an unnamed New Zealand secondary school [were] plying young girls with alcohol and recording sexually degrading acts ...

in a competition to see how many girls they could get into compromising photos".

Fast-forward to this year and Wellington College was in the news following a Facebook post that said: "If you don't take advantage of a drunk girl, you're not a true WC boy."

The students responsible were stood down.

Yet it seemed to me that the school principal may have been more focused on the potential damage to the boys' reputations, their future prospects, as a result of this incident rather than the harmful impact of such attitudes on society in general and women in particular.

And some people deny that a so-called rape culture is alive and well.

Then we read that a "teenage boy from an exclusive private school allegedly raped a drunk 15-year-old girl at a house party in Sydney while his mate filmed the assault on his mobile phone."

Furthermore, the "victim did not realise she had been assaulted until the footage was posted on social media days later".

"Rape culture" is a strong term, yet when you consider the contents of these news reports, it's difficult to argue it's an inaccurate one.

According to one expert, there are two main parts to rape culture. First is the "the minimisation of rape, jokes, justifications, victim blaming ... This has the effect of silencing victims and creating uncertainty around what counts as rape."

The second part involves "the way we normalise male sexual aggression and female passivity ... so that men hold more power and women can find it difficult to challenge that masculinity, or to say no."

So, when women are objectified, when social convention dictates they change their name upon marriage and when they're paid less than their male counterparts, it's just bolstering an environment that allows and enables men to view themselves as masters of the universe.

Yet there are people who deny the presence of a gendered power imbalance.

I'm not sure how anyone can convincingly claim that women are not treated as second-class citizens both socially and institutionally. This scaffolding that supports a hostile patriarchy is so insidious, so business-as-usual, that it is rendered invisible to those with a vested interest in it.

Many commentators believe that the unprecedented accessibility of hard-core pornography is one of the reasons sexual assault of young girls is never far from the news.

Rosemary McLeod wrote that "some young men's brains get hard-wired with images that degrade women, and none that celebrate affection."

Rachel Smalley also drew attention to the pornography problem: "Every act is X-rated. It's aggressive. It often involves domination. Or force ... [Y]ou can see how sexual assault becomes trivialised. Or normalised."

In an article which revealed Auckland Grammar has launched a "healthy relationships programme", the school's principal said: "From the material I've read, too many boys are getting their sex education ... from going online and viewing pornography."

He added that modern pornography is often overly aggressive and, furthermore, "in a porn world there doesn't appear to be such a thing as consent".

Consent was examined in an animated video which equated sex with tea. It was striking and memorable. Here are four key messages (along with the relevant narrative) that I took from it.

Force or coercion is not okay: "Don't make them drink tea. Don't get annoyed at them for not wanting tea. They just don't want tea. Okay?"

People are allowed to change their minds: "They might say: 'Yes, please. That's kind of you', and then when the tea arrives they actually don't want the tea at all. Sure, that's kind of annoying as you've gone to all the effort of making the tea but they remain under no obligation to drink the tea. They did want tea; now they don't. Some people change their mind in the time that it takes to boil the kettle, brew the tea and add the milk. It's okay for people to change their minds."

Previous consent does not constitute ongoing consent: "If someone said 'yes' to tea ... last Saturday that doesn't mean they want you to make them tea all the time. They don't want you to come around to their place unexpectedly and make them tea and force them to drink it going 'But you wanted tea last week'."

Don't take advantage of unconscious people: "And if they're unconscious, don't make them tea. Unconscious people don't want tea and they can't answer the question 'Do you want tea?' because they're unconscious."

But does a cartoon about consent run the risk of trivialising a serious matter? Possibly, but I think the benefits far outweigh that piece of nit-pickery.

The short video communicates important concepts in an accessible format.

But what does get lost amidst all the worthy chatter about consent is how disturbing it actually is to realise that anyone needs to be "taught" that forcing sex on another person is inappropriate, beyond wrong, not to mention unlawful.

Still, anything that gets people talking about and understanding consent can only be positive.

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Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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