This week @policecommander John Sutherland wrote a sad and profound blog entitled ‘The Loss of Innocence’. The blog was, in part, driven by an article in The Independent (8th September) about young people and their relationships with ‘sexual knowledge’. It told the shocking truth about the implications on society and its institutions (predominantly the police) of adults not dealing honestly with our children’s questions about sex and sexual relationships.
Sexual education in schools doesn’t even really ‘go there’ because, it seems that we as a society, cannot cope with young people knowing about ‘sex’. The article quite rightly describes the implications of this societal embarrassment by highlighting that the internet era makes it easy for young people to subsequently ‘learn’ about sexual relationships themselves via their own research. Accessing such ‘knowledge’ via the internet leads to young people creating their own meanings from these depictions along the way. This is particularly difficult for those that have no one to discuss such imagery and narrative with.
The implications of this extend well beyond children. Previously in my role as a researcher in the Metropolitan Police Service I conducted research in a London borough where I heard of many instances of sexual assaults happening to young girls in schools. Incidents were rarely reported for a range of reasons (anecdotally non reporting concerned girls not understanding the event or being able to name it a ‘violation’, fear of reprisal and schools dealing with it from ‘within’).
A couple of weeks ago I attended the European Society of Criminology Conference where I listened to two papers which came back to my mind when I read John’s blog. One of them focused on a recent evaluation of a campaign aimed at preventing rape in the UK. A campaign focused on young men within university environments and issues of consent.
The prevailing issue and strength of rape myths about gendered violence was clear in the speaker’s presentation about the findings of his research. Young men, he had interviewed, clearly had a blurred understanding of consent. Decisions on whether to continue physical contact with young women was often based on the subsequent response to the touching. But essentially it was acceptable in the main to ‘touch’ in the first place.
The young women he interviewed as part of his research however reported that such behaviour had become almost normal (if they hadn’t experienced it their friends had) but they felt they would not be believed if they told anyone, nothing would happen and actually those working on the doors in clubs found it amusing – perhaps a normal function within the night time economy. Some of the narratives discussed by the researcher, on behalf of the young women he interviewed, were shocking and clearly showed that despite a more open conversation now about sexual violation such events and behaviours are endemic.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about a similar issue for the organisation Everyday victim blaming. I spoke about events in my teenage years and juxtaposed them with issues reported more recently on TV programmes and university blog sites about the real experiences of women today. I concluded that despite the openness about these issues nothing has really changed and this most recent research only highlights to me how rape myths are alive and kicking and still service to justify ‘blurred lines’ and comments like ‘she wanted it really’.
This brings me to the next paper I attended in the same session. This focused on deviant leisure activities and how nearly all forms of leisure are driven in some way by consumerism and marketization. They spoke of particular consumer events and the pressure to consume ‘goods’ as legitimising the use of violence. In this context they discussed the events that occurred on ‘Black Friday’ which led to significant displays of violence whilst people fought to get to tills in order to ‘pay’ for their goods. The sense of people not getting their fair share was advocated and reinforced in the build up to this capitalist venture which culminated in people being violent for fear of ‘missing out’.
The question is can we relate this to sexual assault? In April this year the manufacturers of Bud Light offered an apology for it’s ‘up for whatever’ campaign. Some bottles actually displayed the phrase: ‘The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night’. The campaign was described as being ‘light hearted’ to the point where in March a message referring to St Patricks Day was sent via social media, stating the term ‘pinch people who are #not up for whatever’. Whilst they deleted the message they referred to it as being ‘playful’ rather than a sexist and dangerous remark. The old adage ‘sex sells’ is true – however I think the speakers here are right. Such methods, which appear functional to marketization and capitalism essentially use these very dangerous methods to a: sell their products and b: legitimise behaviour that is entirely unacceptable. The biggest concern here is that it seems to be exploiting a largely vulnerable group with, already, unclear boundaries about the meaning of consent and young women who feel that their voices of complaint are unheard and therefore remain silenced.
The ethical implications of such campaigns (and the Bud Light one is not alone) are immense. The use of rape myths to sell products makes young people, who are already operating within a culture of embarrassment when it comes to sex is appalling. Young people are already referring to the internet to make sense of what sexual relationships are and should be and young women via these campaigns that normalise sexual violation then feel even more confused about the behaviour they experience and whether it is ‘wrong’. Therefore it is not just simply about the embarrassment society might feel about discussing sex with their children and young people it is about the allowance through capitalism and a culture of consumerism for companies to utilise and confirm myths seeking to legitimise acts of violation on young women. And additionally the power that words such as only being playful have on women’s interpretation of the behaviour they experience.
I witnessed such events in my teenage years and it saddens me to think that years on we are still in a position where women who experience sexual assault are not able to say it out loud and be taken seriously.