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For attitudes towards rape to change, society needs to drop its sexual double standard

James Bloodworth

51128179 186x300 For attitudes towards rape to change, society needs to drop its sexual double standardOne of the most shocking statistics to come out of a recent Mumsnet survey on rape was the astonishing number of victims who felt that society viewed them in a negative light.

Nearly three-quarters of those polled said the media was unsympathetic to women who reported rape, while more than half said the same was true of the legal system and society as a whole.

This perception is not as far from current social attitudes as we may like to think. A survey of more than 1,000 Londoners in 2010, carried out to mark the 10th anniversary of the Haven service for rape victims, found that more than half of those questioned said there were circumstances when a rape victim should accept some responsibility for an attack.

Whereas social attitudes towards racial equality and homosexuality have tended to become more progressive as the younger generation has come through, attitudes towards the sexual assault of women appear to lag significantly behind. A 2008 poll of Northern Ireland university students commissioned by Amnesty International found that almost half of those polled believed a woman to be partially or totally responsible for being raped if she had behaved in a flirtatious manner. And the recent controversy over the website Unilad was perhaps most striking for the fact that the creators of the site did not consider their “banter” to be anything out of the ordinary until they were pulled up on it.

In 21st century Britain, the idea that a woman can dress how she pleases, flirt as much as she wants, and lie in the same bed as a man without being obliged to have sex with him, remains a revolutionary one.

Understanding why social attitudes towards the victims of rape remain so regressive, however, cannot happen without first confronting one of society’s last great taboos: the demonisation of promiscuous women.

Women live with the constant knowledge that arbitrary judgments will be made about them based on how many sexual partners they have had. When a woman is asked how many men she has slept with (other women don’t count for some reason), she must lie to maintain her reputation. When a man is asked the same question, he too will also lie, but in doing so add a zero and reserve the right to pass judgement on any women giving an answer similar to his own. This double standard begins at an early age. As Jessica Valenti points out in her book He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut:

“I was called a slut when my boobs grew faster than others. I was called a slut when I had a boyfriend (even though we weren’t having sex.) I was called a slut when I didn’t have a boyfriend and kissed a random boy at a party. I was called a slut when I had the nerve to talk about sex. I was called a slut when I wore a bikini on a weekend trip with high school friends. It seems the word slut can be applied to any activity that doesn’t include knitting, praying, or sitting perfectly still lest any sudden movements be deemed whorish.”

More worryingly, the latest set of statistics shows that society itself will pass judgement on a woman who has been raped based on similar arbitrary criteria – that is, her real or imagined sexual promiscuity. For a significant number of people it would seem that if a woman has a reputation as a “slut” or as “easy”, or if she simply wears a skirt that is slightly too short or sends out the “wrong signals” to a man, she forgoes any right to have a say over who impregnates her. A man seemingly has the right to bring her back into line by asserting control over her wayward sexuality.

If as a society we wish to improve attitudes towards the victims of rape – and in doing so improve the number of women who actually come forward to report rape – we should make a start by putting an end to our sexual hypocrisy. The number of men a woman chooses to have sex with is the business of nobody else but her, and is unrelated to morality. More importantly, it in no way compromises a woman’s right to say no – with a boyfriend, a husband or on a one night stand – at any point during any interaction.

It seems an obvious point to make, but rape isn’t caused by anything other than the perpetrator’s decision. Oh, and women like consensual sex too, so grow up and deal with it.

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  • timmymagic

    “someone” bringing up a topic that is widely disregarded (as you so aptly demonstrated) doesn’t equate to society’s narrative. I think you know what I have said is true but it’s inconveniently so for someone with your agenda. but just in case you’ve miraculously missed the trend, try Googling “rape awareness” and then hit the Images filter on the left sidebar, then report back with what you discover :)


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