Tuesday, April 04, 2006

 

Sex and Rape - Identitical Twins Or Distant Cousins?

First of all, let me apologise for yet another (very long) serious post. I shall try and get back to what this blog is really about soon, I promise. However, a post on the new 'Comment Is Free' blog has exercised me inordinately.

The post, by Guardian science correspondent Alok Jha, obviously taking time out from his taxing day job that involves, amongst other things, doing the Atkins diet, pontificating upon the value of urine, and misrepresenting routine press releases, plunges into the murky world of sexual politics.

Jha's post, 'Lad culture corrupts men as much as it debases women', is a response to the Home Office's new campaign of 'rape awareness' posters. First of all, credit where it is due - it is well-written, and I believe well-intentioned. Unfortunately, I also believe it to be badly, badly wrong, on a level far more important than that of the quibbling about 'lad's mags' that occasionally ends up on this blog. In order to state why, I intend to do a thorough deconstruction of it. So let us begin:

'It's a typically British way of doing things. Too shy, lacking in confidence or plain incapable of working up the courage to talk to someone you fancy, you fall back on the standard social back-up plan: get drunk. Then perhaps a snog, and you pass out, waking up the next morning with a headache and questions of, er, should we maybe, er, go out sometime? You can always blame the booze if things get too embarrassing.'

This is supposedly an example of how a young man thinks. By using the formulation 'typically British', Jha immediately brings the piece to a personal note - you may have experienced this, you may have been in this situation. It is the first step on the long, rocky mountain path to the pinnacle of self-loathing that you are likely to find yourself at by the end of the post.

'But alcohol-fuelled nights don't always end with clumsy kisses and promises to call. Two-for-one deals on extra-strength cocktails and clumsy machismo can end in a messy confusion of intentions where lack of communication isn't just an endearing sideshow, but morphs into tacit permission for men to have sex with women, no matter how drunk.'

Like all good liberals, Jha starts looking for the 'root causes' of rape. He identifies two - alcohol, and 'clumsy machismo', which we soon come to see means lad's mags, yet again. Already, the eventual logical unravelling of his piece has started. We are told these root causes. We are being told, effectively, that rapists have some form of diminished responsibility. He may not even mean this, but look at the phrase 'messy confusion of intentions.' The man in our scenario needs to keep his macho image, so he's boozed up and going to have her, whether she wants it or not. It isn't wholly his fault for getting into this mental state, though, it is at least partly down to cultural phenomena. This is a dangerous road to go down.

'"If you don't get a yes, you don't have sex" - the new Home Office campaign warning young men about the consequences of date rape is a no-holds-barred assault on such behaviour. Young men might see the advertising as yet another finger pointed at them by a society that already characterises them as hooligans responsible for the drunken skirmishes outside pubs every closing time. Now their list of shameful behaviours has grown: all young men are potentially guilty of rape until proven innocent the (hungover) morning after. Even murderers aren't treated like that.'

Here, he correctly identifies a typical reaction of a young adult male to the new Home Office campaign. Indeed, it is similar to the argument I approved of here.

'So what positive impact can the Home Office hope to achieve? The problem is that the adverts, for all their finger-pointing, do not go far enough.'

We should go even further in characterising young men as drunken, hooliganistic rapists perhaps?

'Start with the images. To a bunch of advertising executives, the image of a woman's crotch wearing skimpy underwear with a coy no-entry symbol must have seemed inspired in its simplicity.'

This is the image he is talking about:



There are some very sensible points made about it here, so I won't bother now.

'To a bunch of drunk and horny men, it's just a woman in pants, as likely to excite as to force them to thoughtfully consider their actions.'

I've been looking at that picture for about five minutes now, and I can't say I find it remotely erotic. I don't suppose I should find it so were I drunk, either. Notice, too, the lazy assumptions not followed through to their logical conclusions - after all, if young blokes are going to get frisky from a picture of a woman in pants, imagine how they'll react to a real woman in a low-cut top! There is, actually, behind the feminist frontage to this piece, a strong current of Puritan thought (not that the two are always, or indeed often, that far apart). For instance, Jha clearly has a particularly negative view of human nature. Men are all potential rapists, just waiting to be excited into action by the right (or wrong) image.

'And there is something more systematic to consider: many men have been brainwashed by lad culture and its promises of easy sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Shaking them out of this will take more than a mildly titillating government advert.'

See what I mean? Young men are seen as impulsive creatures, intellectually and emotionally weak and easily manipulated - notice the use of the loaded word 'brainwashed.'

'Take any young man fresh from school, and I'll show you someone racked with confusion about how to behave around women: someone old enough to have wildly insistent sexual urges, but too young to have developed the emotional sense to know how best to deal with them; old enough to have heard of feminism, but too inexperienced to know whether this means that holding doors open and basic chivalry are no longer required.'

To me, even if this were true (and it isn't - 'any young man?' Excuse me!!!) it would suggest a need for better sex education, and for kids to be taught feminism in school. He goes a different route, and blames the old standards:

'No wonder men in their late teens and early 20s lap up magazines such as Loaded, Maxim and FHM, the publications that heralded lad culture and continue to fuel it alongside their more recent counterparts, Nuts and Zoo. They exist ostensibly to give young men a voice, reflect their passions and, crucially, tell them how to attract women.'

'But what lad culture has actually done over the past decade is to distance young men from real life by forcing them into an alluring straitjacket. It tells young men they can get all the girls they want - down some of this drink, spray on some of that deodorant, and watch the girls fall at your feet.'


They are lifestyle magazines. They sell a lifestyle. In this, they do exactly the same as magazines as varied as 'Top Gear' and 'Cosmopolitan, 'Gardener's World' and 'Woman & Home.' They just sell a different lifestyle, that is all. Young men can, contrary to what he is saying here, distinguish between the real world and a Lynx advert.

'These magazines explain in detail how to work out what women think. Fingers, elbows, shoes and anything else pointy pointing at you? She likes you. She plays with her hair? Even better. She comes home with you? Result. She says no? She's playing hard to get. She says no again? She doesn't want to come across too easy. She says no a third time? What are you, a man or not ... take control of the situation, she'll love that.'

Where to start with this? First of all, magazines telling you how to read the opposite sex is certainly not limited to lad's mags. When I was in Spain last year, with two female friends, they had a copy of 'Cosmopolitan', and it did precisely that. Editors want to sell magazines. People want sex. It doesn't take a genius to realise that if you offer tips on how to read the opposite sex in your mag, circulation will go up. However, that is a far, far cry from the insinuation at the end of this paragraph that lad's magazines encourage men to commit sexual assault, even if only tacitly.

'Add to this prescription peer pressure, rampaging hormones and a bottle or three of alcohol, and the promises of lad culture can easily overwhelm the semi-formed nougat that is the brain of the early-20s male.'

This is the part that revolts me so. How patronising can you be? Excuse me, but my brain is not 'semi-formed nougat.' Indeed, I appear to have approached this subject with far greater intellectual clarity than you yourself have managed, Mr Jha. Does he not remember being this age himself? How would he have reacted to being talked down to as if he were nothing but an imbecile, an animal with a veneer of civilisation, just stepped out of 'The Last House On The Left?'

'These magazines claim to give young men the confidence they need: an insight into the skills they require to navigate a path through their romantic lives and an understanding of the qualities that women find attractive. Instead, impressionable young men have been sold a distorted image of who women are and what masculinity is about - an image that does nothing but frustrate, degrade and humiliate them.'

I find it astounding that he can accuse lad's magazines of 'degrading' and 'humiliating' young blokes just two sentences after accusing them of being literally soft in the head. Say what you like about lad's magazines, but at least they talk to their readership as equals, rather than sub-literate cretins.

'For all the faults in its execution, the Home Office campaign does mark an interesting departure. While it is principally about protecting women, the principles behind it could help young men find a way out of a culture that requires an unchecked reliance on alcohol and machismo to have a good time.'

He is just making exactly the same lazy assumptions as he correctly negatively identified in the third quote. He doesn't even make any distinctions - all young men all want to get hammered and impress their mates. That's it. There's no acknowledgement that people rise above this crude, reactionary stereotype. You can see why Josie Appleton claimed his post spoke 'as if a culture of Puritan restraint were the only check on rape.'

'Someone needs to shout as loud as the proponents of lad culture: drink, go out, have a laugh, but, through it all, don't feel you have to bow down to the rules and ideals set down by magazines that want nothing from you but your money and dignity. Never before has there been any consistent public message that the have-it-all and take-it-all ideas behind lad culture need to be tempered with common sense and decency.'

'If the campaign encourages young men to acknowledge some of the more shocking consequences of lad culture - to recognise that they are being sold down the river by the magazines they aspire to - and if it makes a few young men stop to think when they're alone with a woman who's passed out drunk in front of them, then it will have been worth it.'


Ah, the upbeat ending. However, yet again we are being sold the same negative picture of men, who apparently are sufficiently stupid that they need 'Wise One' Jha to tell them who is and who isn't worth listening to, and behind that is still that same assumption that men aren't really capable of managing their emotions and feelings, that they need a Home Office advert to tell them not to rape.

*******************************************************

Sadly - and I really mean that, because it is 2 in the morning and I want to go to bed - the saga doesn't end there. The comments to the post reveal the madness goes still further.

'Josephine':
'What Alok's saying is that young men too are being exploited and patronised. Admittedly, not all men will heed the messages thrust at them, but they're everywhere, it takes constant filtering to ignore it all.'

Because without the constant filtering, the primitive within, hiding behind that civilised veneer, will take up the cudgels that are his natural station. How can anyone want to believe that this is true? Why does this view of human nature appeal so?

'HumanConditioned':
'Despite the Home Office's gallant efforts to tackle the (im)moral values regarding sexuality dominating our hegemonic culture, it's efforts are futile when it is considered how embedded these values are in the less obviously exploitative symbols of this culture, such as the almost universal use of female sexuality in advertising. Any attempted to tackle such universally accepted methods of advertisting would no doubt be seen (perhaps rightly) as an affront to free speech in this county.'

That would be an attack on freedom of speech. Well done. However, is the use of female sexuality in advertising 'less obviously exploitative?' How little perception are we plebs supposed to have?

A quick break for praise:

'nicknack009':
'We've also created an obvious niche for the lad mags to fill - there's just about nowhere else in the media where young men aren't bombarded with guilt about the fact they're young men. Sex, crime, education, road safety - young men? all your fault. Everyone else, feel smug and don't worry about your own behaviour. Any group that can't get the respect of society at large is going to settle for the respect of its peers, hence lad culture.'

YES! Can we make Alok Jha tattoo this somewhere on his body please?

'TheGirl':
'Whilst there may be no (provable) evidence of a correlation between lads' magazines (or, for arguments' sake, 'ladette's' magazines either) and rape crime/reported rapes, there has been - without doubt - a DECREASE in the amount of convictions of men accused of rape: http://www.guardian.co.uk/crime/article/0,,1742641,00.html According to this article, 33% of reported rapes resulted in a conviction in 1977; it decreased to only 5.29% by 2004. One must ask, what kind of society are we living in now, where it is so permissable for men who commit sexual violence to get away with it? Why are so few rapes reported? Why are so few men convicted?'

There are dozens of answers to that. Let's turn to the Josie Appleton piece:

'Rape convictions are indeed very low compared to other crimes. This is in part because rape is difficult to prove - there are often no witnesses, little physical evidence, and it's a matter of his word against hers. Over the past few years the rape conviction rate has fallen further - the numbers of rape cases have shot up while successful convictions increased only marginally - but this is largely the result of the government's redefinition of rape. More cases are reaching court that no sensible man or woman would call rape: drunken students who woke up the morning after and couldn't remember what they had done, for example.'

In other words: because rape has been re-defined so that sex is now rape unless you have active consent - not just the absence of active dissent - lots of cases are arriving in court where there is no evidence of force, for perhaps little or none has been committed. As a result, because courts presume people innocent until proven guilty (for now), these cases can, and frequently will, fail. Appleton makes another excellent point:

'The government last week announced new measures to 'increase rape convictions'. Not to improve evidence gathering or social services, but to increase convictions, a demand that is normally restricted to totalitarian states. In the ensuing debate, everybody seemed to assume that nearly all defendants are guilty - they talked of 'rapist' and 'victim' not 'defendant' and 'witness' - and the question was simply how to lock more men up.'

Rape is exceptionally difficuly because it is so hard to prove, and it is genuinely sad that actual, real rapists can be found not guilty due to lack of evidence. However, overturning centuries of legal precedent of 'innocent until proven guilty', which is under attack by these Home Office pronouncements, will only lead further into a culture of mistrust and suspicion where people can be tried by public opinion.

One more point about this commenter. She has a blog. This blog, which is subtitled 'Diary Of A Sex Fiend', is more or less entirely about her sexual conquests. It stuns me, frankly, that she can complain about the sexualisation of culture with a straight face. I would also point out that in this post, she includes a picture of herself, minus face, wearing a revealing top. If anyone would like to explain how this is in any way different to the Home Office poster, with the exception of the fact that the Home Office poster can at least lay claim to some redeeming social importance, then I would be fascinated to hear it.

Finally, one last piece of praise:

'Sparklehorse':
'If "lad magazines" inspire young men to rape, would a massive influx of conservative columnists to The Guardian make its readers vote Tory? Or would they head to a different paper? Do we read The Guardian because we're broadly liberal or did The Guardian make us do it? There seems an immense cultural and class arrogance in the attitude that THEIR readers are brain dead and easily manipulated, (to rape no less) while WE are all far too clever to be affected by our reading material.'

Whew. Done.

Comments:
Fuck me. I saw through the whole 'all men are potential rapists' gambit when I was about eighteen. Much as I think lad mags are shit(buy Razzle for fucksakes!), the inability to seperate the reader from the publication he buys is jawdropping and is indicative of utter journalistic laziness. Maybe i'm very wrong in this, but I subscribe to the theory that the damage is done to some males very much earlier than late adolescence when exposure to such magazines occurs.
 
'The inability to seperate the reader from the publication he buys is jawdropping and is indicative of utter journalistic laziness.'

I think that's an excellent point. How easy it is to crudely stereotype people on the basis of no empirical evidence whatsoever.
 
Although I fully understand that stereotyping "people on the basis of no empirical evidence" is not on. I still must say that there is a huge problem resting with a large percentage of "young men". I haven't been on a night out in years where I haven't be verbally or physically harrassed, where I haven't had lewd comments stage-whispered agressively in my ear, or on numerous occasions have had my arms and wrists grabbed. Working behind a bar gives you a new persepctive on this. You can observe freely. Granted, not all men are like this. And likewise all women don't cry in the toilets at the end of the night.

But every single night I see otherwise nice, caring blokes get pulled into this pack mentality and fuelled by - whatever the poison of choice may be- set to work on cajoling and cavorting with every female in the room... welcomed or not.

It has fuck all to do with magazines though -The French were having affairs before Madame Bovary.
 
I don't dispute any of that, and lord alone knows I don't condone it, but it has to be seen in the context of individual responsibility. To give an example:

Jack is an average lad, but he wishes to be friends with Peter and Rory, who are the coolest kids in his school. However, Peter and Rory won't be friends with him unless he throws a brick through a window in the lunchhour. They egg him on, and he breaks a window.

Now, Peter and Rory may very well be twats, but ultimately, they aren't responsible for the broken window - Jack did it out of his own choice.

If you transplant the situation to a nightclub, just because Jack is being egged on to grab Madeleine and force her to dance with him or whatever, it doesn't stop it being his fault if he does that.

PJ O'Rourke says semi-ironically in 'The CEO Of The Sofa' that:

'"Because I was drunk" is a better excuse than "because I was stupid."'

He's right. It is a better excuse. It is not, however, a better reason. Alcohol does not abrogate individual responsibility. Men who are twats when they drink should either drink less or learn to modify their behaviour.
 
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