Rape in NI Part 3: Tackling Sexism.

The statistics regarding rape in Northern Ireland are cause for greater concern than what is currently shown: there are many issues arising from these and there should be much more discussion surrounding them. In my previous posts on the topic, I have chosen to discuss why rape is not something to be made light of, and to highlight the problem of victim-blaming (rape is not the victim’s fault)…it is important, too, to take a step back and to ask why this heinous act happens, again and again, in the first place. Why do men rape, and what kind of culture accommodates rape?

Rape happens when someone is willing to rob another human being of their dignity, disregarding their worth and abusing them for their own gratification. Most often, the rapist is a man and the victim is a female; but there are indeed occurrences of men raping other men (certain areas of Belfast are known for this) or, more rarely, women sexually assaulting men (the legal definition of rape is penetration with a penis so the terminology will differ).

We must source the culture that births such belief. However reluctantly, we must acknowledge the toxic thoughts that we accept and normalise in society as things that bring about horror and trauma. It would take a lifetime to study in depth the nooks and crannies in the building that is Northern Irish culture – a complex culture in which are engrained deeply complex beliefs and attitudes.

At the heart of our culture’s beliefs, however, must exist, in order for rape to be so commonplace and so belittled, the belief that women are not of much value. This is not a novel idea. Indeed, sexist values have been named as the cause of the rape culture in Northern Ireland as well as for the sex trade in the country. “Sexism”. Not a word we like. It’s time to wake up and realise that this is not only a word spoken by women who march and campaign, rather, sexism is a reality in our country that we must address in the interest of putting a stop to such problems as rape and sex trafficking…and, to be frank, day-to-day life for the women in the country. In this post, I wish to refer to sexism as the degradation and devaluation of women.

Women: of lesser value. Objects. Solely sexual. Exist to please men. Disposable. Abusable. Exploitable. These are the beliefs that lie at the heart of these problems. And these are the beliefs that must be challenged. Indeed, a culture in which are engrained the sexist values that allow and promote the devaluation of women is a culture which actively hosts and condones their rapes, which comply put, is an extremely brutal manifestation of sexism.

I was shocked this week to read an offering by Boston College’s male bloggers who saw it fit to write a list of criteria for girls to match in order to ‘get a guy’. Whilst some of the items of list are simply incomprehensible, its general tone is that men should not be expected too much of and perform much better with a little alcohol in them, whilst women are there purely for men’s pleasure and are physical objects who should better themselves by never going to class without make-up on as they wait to be swept off their feet (read: picked up at a fraternity party for a one-night stand by a guy who makes no promises of remembering their name). This is where our society is at. To bring it home (because really, there is no need to look at the global picture when the examples of sexism and the problem of rape are so severe in NI) I will quote once more the Amnesty International survey of NI’s students’ views on rape:

– 44% felt the same way if the woman was drunk;
– 30% if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing;
– 10% felt that it was acceptable for a man to hit his girlfriend or partner if she had flirted with another man;
– 9% thought it acceptable to hit her if she nagged.

Keeping it local: one of QUB’s societies was advertising a social event on Facebook last week named “CEOs and hoes”. Not only was the use of the word “ho” problematic, the message was that the male students would be dressed as respectable businessmen, and the female students would dress sexually and insultingly to, presumably, their qualifications common with their male counterparts – this was communicated both in the terms used for both genders and in the pictures chosen to illustrate the event (a male fixing his bow-tie, a girl peering over glasses wearing a tight skirt and unbuttoned shirt). Issuing a complaint, we were met with a very responsible response from the SU who communicated our dislike to the society’s event organiser. Whilst they changed the name of the event, the picture remained as though, without using sexist language, an utterly sexist event could go forth (thankfully, a day later, the event was cancelled and an apology issued.)

Melinda Tankard Reist wrote this week about the (global) problem of  violence against women as endemic to culture. It should go without saying that the media’s message is that women are purely physical and sexual objects, worth nothing more than a sexual encounter that pleases a man. Just this week, Lynx’s ad campaign featuring Lucy Pinder was banned by the ASA for being degrading- and thankfully so, as its message was potent and very dangerous towards women. Not only degrading in its imagery and consequent message, the “Can she make you lose control?” tagline potentially shifted the blame for rape and sexual violence from the perpetrators to, again, the victims. A common problem in Northern Irish, and global, discourse.

It doesn’t stop at ad campaigns: the dictation of culture through music in the media (which we eat, breathe and sleep in Northern Ireland) is also to blame. Brian McFadden released a song earlier this year entitled “Just the Way You Are” which included the lyrics:  ‘I like you just the way you are, drunk as s**t dancing at the bar’ and ‘can’t wait to get you home so I can do some damage, can’t wait to get you home and take advantage.’ Kanye West goes beyond alien sexual role play (?!) when he raps ‘I’ma disrobe you / Then I’ma probe you / See I abducted you / So I tell you what to do’ in Katy Perry’s song, E.T. It is important to acknowledge that this normalisation of rape is not only on the part of males in the industry. In the very same song, Perry sings ‘Take me, take me / Wanna be a victim / Ready for abduction’, reinforcing the sexual victimisation of females.

Rihanna’s We Found Love video shooting sparked a debate regarding Northern Ireland’s religion-infused sexual repression when farmer Alan Graham asked the singer to cover up as she danced, topless, in the field she was hiring from him. Whether he was right or wrong to do so, the people of Northern Ireland (and of the world) discussed the event at length, some branding it “embarrassing” and damaging to the country’s reputation, suggesting that Graham was a religious prude who reflected the attitudes of the old-wave in our society. What an interesting society it is: an overwhelming presence of churches and religious Christianity teamed with such high occurrences of rape and demand for sex. It would seem that the preached message of abstinence before marriage and one-partner-for-life-sex is being ignored; moreover it seems that our society now goes further than that and seeks to buy sex from exploited females – the sanctity of sex AND of human life being crumpled. The crumpling of the sanctity of human life, yes – but, in this instance, with a tendency towards the crumpling of the sanctity and value of females. The messages of sanctity of sex and human life may fall on pew-fillers’ ears, but the loss of this sanctity and its consequences are not problems reserved for those outside of the Church. Christian men are increasingly named as consumers of sexual services and pornography. As a Christian woman, I am often discontented with how women are treated by their fellow believers, their ‘brothers’ within the context of the Church- the butts of sexist jokes, objectified (see Is Modest Really Hottest?), discouraged from using certain biblically gender-neutral abilities.

Perhaps this attitude and its betrayal of the lessening of women in the context of the Church also contributes to our sexist society.

This list of examples of sexism in our society could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. As a final point, it is important to consider that public or illegal displays of sexism are not alone: as mentioned in the last paragraph, sexism happens at a very basic level daily. The jokes, the looks, the disregard for anything non-sexual/non-physical. The bottom-line message is that women are sexual objects who exist only to please men, who are of lesser value than men and who are exploitable.

It is also worth noting that men are not alone in promoting sexist values: women are often instigators, or at least accomplices, in them. And of course, not all men are rapists, or sexists. Nor does all sexism lead to rape – but it’s time to acknowledge that all sexism is wrong; whether it is manifested in a degrading joke, an objectifying ad or the act of rape; and that furthermore, ‘casual’ sexism makes allowance for more brutal acts. On another note, I recognise that rape does sometimes occur as a result of past trauma in the rapist’s life or in cases of mental illness, and that outside of these cases, although I believe sexist values do contribute greatly to forming a rapist, there are other factors to take into account.

Finally, I highlight the importance of tackling sexism as men and women together – the intention is not to alienate men, because in antagonising a section of society, we create a breeding ground for problems such as rape – sexism in response to sexism is inappropriate and counter-productive; rather to highlight the problem of deep-running beliefs and hold out the hand of partnership as we seek to put an end to harmful attitudes and consequent behaviours.

10 rapes a week in Northern Ireland. We must stop the rape jokes; the victim-blaming; support after-care for victims; demand a higher conviction rate: I believe, however, that tackling the sexist values of our culture that cause such harmful behaviour will be the most difficult thing in changing this statistic. But when the value of a woman is ignored, we have a problem. Because no, not all sexism leads to rape, but it is a slippery slope that I respectfully suggest we remove ourselves from.

UK National Rape Crisis Helpline. Open every day of the year 12-2.30 & 7-9.30.  0808 802 9999.

(Post on “fraping” and rape jokes // post on victim-blaming discourse)

3 thoughts on “Rape in NI Part 3: Tackling Sexism.

  1. I think this is a brilliant series on rape Gemma. Thanks for taking the time to break down all these issues and look at the context that allows sexual violence to fester in Northern Ireland. It would be great to see you at the candlelight vigil on the 10th Dec and any of your readers who want to join us as well! I think it would be fantastic to get the message out around churches to see young Christian men and women standing together to say that rape is never ever acceptable.

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