The first time Shivangi Choubey missed the curfew at her student hostel was a night in late September. It was not the only rule she broke that day.
Women students at Banaras Hindu University are not supposed to protest. Many are made to sign a contract that spells this out explicitly. Men are not required to sign anything of the kind.
Nor, at many hostels on campus, are women served meat, permitted to speak on the phone after 10pm, or allowed out in the evenings when their male counterparts still roam the tree-lined campus on sputtering two-wheelers or cram into the library to study.
So it was especially shocking – and unprecedented in the university’s 100-year history – when Choubey led 200 women through the gates of their college to join hundreds of others assembled outside Lanka gate, the campus’s bustling entrance. “Nobody ever misses a curfew,” she says, pulling a scarlet shawl around her shoulders. “That’s something very big for us. But we were so agitated, because these things keep happening to us.”
The day before, an undergraduate student walking home from her department said she had been sexually assaulted by two men on a motorbike. Campus security guards had been sitting in plastic chairs about 20 metres away but did nothing, the woman said. She told others that the warden at her college had dismissed the incident, telling her: “They just touched you. They didn’t do anything serious.”
“These comments were a spark on already burning logs,” says Dhriti Dharana, a psychology student living at the same college as the alleged victim. “We thought, to hell with everything. We’re going to protest.”
The days of demonstrations that followed have brought one of India’s most prestigious and conservative universities to its knees. Its vice-chancellor is on indefinite leave. The head of security resigned. Colleges were emptied of students – “evacuated”, one said – days earlier than a scheduled holiday after footage of police using batons against young women went viral, drawing national condemnation.
Sexual harassment, misconduct and gender violence by university staff are at epidemic levels in the UK, a Guardian investigation suggests.
Freedom of information (FoI) requests sent to 120 universities found that students made at least 169 such allegations against academic and non-academic staff from 2011-12 to 2016-17. At least another 127 allegations about staff were made by colleagues.
But scores of alleged victims have told the Guardian they were dissuaded from making official complaints, and either withdrew their allegations or settled for an informal resolution. Many others said they never reported their harassment, fearful of the impact on their education or careers. This suggests that the true scale of the problem is far greater than the FoI figures reveal.
“These numbers are shocking, but sadly, from our experience, are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr Ann Olivarius, senior partner at the law firm McAllister Olivarius. “Sexual harassment of students by staff members has reached epidemic levels in British universities. Most universities have no effective mechanism to stop staff from pressuring students into sexual relationships, and when it happens, any sort of disciplinary action is pretty much nonexistent. Those in charge are often colleagues who have many incentives not to intervene.
“Young women are often terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint about a staff member. So often, when they do, the university’s chief concern is to downplay any wrongdoing and protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet.”
Anna Bull, co-founder of the 1752 Group, set up to address staff-student sexual harassment in higher education, said: “There is evidence to suggest that the actual figures in the UK will be staggering. The Association of American Universities undertook a detailed survey of sexual assault and sexual misconduct in 2015 (student-student and staff-student). Surveys were completed on 27 campuses, with 150,072 students responding. The survey found reporting rates for sexual harassment – staff and student – [were] 7.7%, and only 28% of even the most serious incidents are reported to an organisation or agency.”
I went to my first sexual consent classes when I started university in 2014. Along with talks on fire safety and how you can’t live solely off crisps were sessions on the complexity of sexual consent. I laughed them off at the time – but now, I’m running them.
The classes didn’t get the warmest reception. One boy mockingly printed off “official sexual consent permission forms”, which he handed round to everyone. When we talked in the sessions about what we’d do if someone tried to stop during sex, responses included “I’d call her a bitch,” and “I physically can’t stop having sex once I’ve started”.
Those classes taught me more than I’d expected. That sex isn’t necessarily the smooth, wordless encounter we are constantly fed in films. That consent is retractable – proving that someone has consented at some point doesn’t prove they weren’t raped. Even discussing what I already knew wasn’t pointless; having an honest conversation about sex the first time I met my university friends made me feel safer and more at ease. Plus it was a pretty cool way to break the ice.
The 45-minute sessions are not patronising “Orwellian” lectures, as Spectator journalist Brendan O’Neill has described them, but informal discussion groups run by student volunteers. Attendees are given a list of scenarios to talk through which describe situations in which consent is a grey area. One might involve a sexual encounter where someone is continually pushing you away; another where someone is extremely drunk. Eventually, the students come to a definition of consent as active and ongoing.
And already, the sessions have left a positive mark on student life. The workshops introduce incoming freshers to people they can go to when they need help or advice.
Some of the culture you’re exposed to at university can be difficult to speak out against – particularly for people who are disempowered due to gender, ethnicity, disability or sexuality. At my institution, there are drinking society events where the girls go round lifting up their tops while the boys cheer louder if they have “nicer tits”. I’m sure they are some people’s idea of a great night out. But in the intimidating climate of the first couple of terms at university, it’s nice to know there’s another option.
The classes also support victims, helping them to recognise what has happened rather than having to deal with the shame, guilt and feelings of emptiness alone. One girl approached me after we ran a session on rape and said that she had had an experience the previous summer which she had blamed herself for. Only now did she identify it as a crime – and she’d resolved to contact the police.
A 2013 survey released by the ONS estimates that one in five women aged 16 to 59 experience sexual violence after the age of 16, with 90% of assailants being someone the victim knows. And yet, only 6% of reported rape cases end in conviction.
Talking about consent as part of the freshers’ induction curriculum allows us to locate the debate in our culture – as a topic we all have the duty and power to tackle – instead of treating every case as a tragic exception.
To an extent, the sceptics are right about the limitations of the initiative. They are right that most people become sexually active before arriving at university – education about sexual consent should begin much earlier.
They are also right that classes alone can’t solve the deeply rooted causes of sexual coercion in our society. But maybe, in talking about it openly, we can help to elevate it to a status which it is still being denied: that of being recognised as a problem.
QotD: “Action against sexual harassment in schools is more about protecting the male orgasm than girls”
How much pain and suffering is the male orgasm worth? Is there ever a time when a man’s right to access hardcore pornography is outweighed by the rights of young women to feel safe?
I am wondering this in light of today’s Women and Equalities Committee Report into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. The way in which young men see their female peers is tainted, poisoned by broader cultural narratives about what female bodies are for. Boys are not born with a need to hurt and humiliate for pleasure, but they are acquiring it, and fast.
The findings of the report are dismaying, if not altogether surprising. It states: “A number of large scale surveys find girls and young women consistently reporting high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in school.”
Data published in September 2015 found that over 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over the course of three years, including 600 rapes. Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching in school, while 41 per cent of girls aged 14 to 17 in intimate relationships reported experiencing sexual violence from their partner. Sexual harassment starts in primary school, with lifting up skirts and pulling down pants, driving some girls to wearing shorts under their school skirts.
One obvious conclusion to draw might be that boys do not like girls very much. They see them as objects to sneer at, flesh to grab at, holes to penetrate. They don’t see them as people, at least not in the way that they see themselves.
The report claims that, “boys and young men . . . are adversely impacted themselves by a culture of internet pornography that has become so prevalent amongst young people”. The images they are seeing distort their beliefs not just about what women want, but what women are.
Of course, it’s not as though sexism and rape culture are products of the internet. They have been with us for millennia. We tell ourselves that we are making progress. Eventually – not in my lifetime, though, nor even in my children’s – such things should not exist. Yet it seems that as soon as one channel for hate disappears, another emerges. The report posits “a correlation between children’s regular viewing of pornography and harmful behaviours”:
“The type of pornography many children are exposed to is often more extreme than adults realise . . . The government should immediately update its guidance on SRE [sex and relationship education] to include teaching about pornography. The new guidance should offer advice to schools about how to approach this topic in an age-appropriate way. It should also include suggestions of how schools can work in partnership with parents to address the impact of pornography on children’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent.”
While I don’t disagree with any of these recommendations in particular, there’s something about the whole enterprise that makes my heart sink. It’s as though pornography is a natural disaster, something terrible that cannot be avoided, or some strange, dark offshoot of youth culture – a modern version of painting your walls black while listening to Joy Division – around which the grown-ups must tiptoe and fret.
You’d never think it was something created, paid for and used by men of all ages and classes, as part of the way they systematically dehumanise, objectify and exploit female bodies. You’d never think it was a multibillion pound leisure industry in its own right. You’d never think that violent, abusive pornography only exists because huge numbers of men want it to.
I understand the arguments. It’s here now and there’s nothing we can do about it (other than make more of it, harder, faster, crueller, the lines between consent and coercion increasingly blurred). The only thing we can do now is hope that SRE (sex and relationship education) lessons at school – followed up by consent lessons for those in higher education – will counteract the worst effects.
It’s as though misogyny itself is not something to be eradicated, but something young men must learn to enjoy in moderation. Grown men can handle it, we tell ourselves (after all, it’s not as though they’re sexually harassing and raping anyone, is it?). It’s the young ones you’ve got to worry about. They just don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Unlike the punter who can magically tell whether the person he is penetrating has been coerced, or the viewer with a sixth sense that informs him whether the rape he is watching is real or fake. We’re genuinely meant to think it’s only children who are at risk of not seeing the humanity in others.
I am tired of this. I do not want my sons to grow up in a world where watching violent pornography and paying to penetrate the body of someone poorer than you are seen as a perfectly acceptable recreational activities as long as one is over 18. Where watching scenes of choking, beating and rape – without knowing how much is acted, how much is real – is justified on the basis that nothing that gives you an orgasm ought to be stigmatised.
I do not want my sons to attend the “sensible, grounded sex education” lessons being proposed by Women and Equalities Committee chair Maria Miller if all they learn is how not to be too “laddish”, how to keep their misogyny at an acceptable level for polite society, how to pretend women and girls are human without truly seeing them as such. Because then this is not about equality at all. This is about etiquette. The gentrification of misogyny: down with lad culture (so vulgar!), up with hardcore porn on the quiet. No rapes until home time, this is a serious establishment.
It’s not good enough. Girls are suffering, horrendously. Their self-esteem – their very sense of self, their belief that their bodies are their own – are being destroyed. What if the cost of ending their suffering would be to say “Enough. The male orgasm is not sacrosanct”? There is nothing liberal or enlightened about promoting an age-old system of exploitation via the cum shot. Men – adult men – could end this if they wanted to. Surely a first step would be to stop pretending otherwise.
Very mainstream, ie no mention of male entitlement, and being overly concerned with the quality of men’s sex lives, but still worth a read:
When a therapist friend told Allison Havey that her then 13-year-old son was almost certainly viewing online pornography, she felt angry. “I was offended because I thought, why would he be doing that? It’s deviant behaviour and he’s not deviant.”
What Allison now knows is that it’s natural for boys to want to look at sexual imagery. In fact, the average age for first exposure to online pornography in the UK is 11. For slightly older boys, it’s completely normal – of 3,000 boys aged 13-18 surveyed, 81% said they looked at it.
Allison – who with Deana Puccio has written a book dealing with this and other issues for parents in the digital age – says that there are two major consequences. First, this suggests that conversations about sexual behaviour have to happen much sooner, and within the family.
Second, the conversation is now much more important because of the proliferation of online pornography, which boys are looking at on their mobile phones.
There is a risk to this generation, say Allison and Deana, that online pornography could damage the sexual sensitivities of boys and their future relationships. Girls, who are far less likely to be interested in pornography at this stage in their lives, are at risk too, from their partners and future partners who could mistake the fiction of online pornography for the “norms” of satisfying sex.
This has far-reaching consequences, and it’s something most parents don’t know enough about. But if you go online and look at what today’s young people are viewing, it’s a world away from the type of pornography a generation who grew up in the 70s and 80s might be familiar with. We’re not even talking about hardcore images; it’s the relatively tame videos that focus, obsessively, on male pleasure, particularly oral sex. The vast majority of women have surgically enhanced breasts and female pubic hair is almost entirely absent. By normalising such things, pornography could be conditioning boys to have unrealistic expectations of the women with whom they will have sex.
It’s not only the images. The language on pornographic sites is very particular too: verbs such as “nailed”, “hammered”, “screwed”, “pummelled”.
“Anyone would think it was an advert for a DIY store,” says Allison.
According to a 2014 IPPR study, 77% of young women say that they feel pornography pressurises girls or young women to look a certain way and 75% say it has led them to act in a certain way. Anal sex is just one of the sexual acts increasingly regarded as normal. “But the truth is that anal sex is a sophisticated, intimate act, not something 14-year-olds should be regarding as ‘normal’ teen behaviour,” says Allison, whose own children, a son and a daughter, are 19 and 14.
Researching the book, Allison and Deana realised that laddism – which they refer to as “lad-itude” – far from being a phenomenon of sixth form and university years, is actually prevalent among boys from as early as year 8 – in other words, 12 to 13-year-olds.
“We have spoken to teenage girls who describe their guy friends as real Casanovas, collecting girlfriends like stamps and loudly bragging,” says Allison.
Sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and racist language and attitudes are also common. In the book, Allison and Deana list the kinds of everyday sexism boys use and girls overhear: “Would you?” “I would.” (Boys discussing girls as they walk past.); “On her knees, that’s where she belongs”; “I would destroy her”; “She’s a fuck and chuck.”
So what are the messages parents should be giving children – and how should they do it? Allison, who with Deana runs schools workshops as part of a project called Rap (Raising Awareness and Prevention), says that when she asks groups of pupils how many have ever discussed online pornography at home, only a tiny fraction put up their hands. She’s convinced, though, that opening discussions with children at the start of adolescence, perhaps as young as 10, is vital. “The thing you need to get across to your kids is that the sex they see online is far removed from real-life experience,” she says. “What’s almost always missing are the very things a real relationship thrives on: kisses, hugs and sensuality.”
When parents are brave enough to have the conversation, there’s no doubt their words carry weight. The quotes in Allison’s book from boys whose parents have talked to them about pornography show that they remember what they have been told. “My dad told me not to ram women like they do in porn … that women don’t like it that hard,” a year 11 boy said; a year 12 boy said: “Dad told me that real men don’t watch porn. They have confidence with women and know how to take care of them.”
The fact is, Allison says, all parents want to protect their children: and online pornography is making victims out of teenage boys, as much as teenage girls because both sexes are extremely vulnerable and are all too often looking at these images and videos alone. And, of course, as Allison says, material designed for older men will deliver a quite different message to a 14-year-old in his bedroom.
The good news is that teenage boys, when asked “Do you want a close, intimate, fulfilling and happy sex life?” still say yes. So here’s the essential ingredient to get across: if that’s what you want, you need to think about more than online pornography and smutty playground humour.
“We say, if you want to have a great sex life, follow the age-old formula,” says Allison. “What you need to do is talk to girls, if you’re going to find out what you both want. We tell them, you need to think about three things – the three things any good sexual relationship is based on. Friendship, romance and intimacy.”
One big problem for parents and educators like Allison and Deana is “lad culture” and the difficulty for teenage boys, in particular, in stepping out of line and questioning friends who tell rape or sexist jokes; or making them understand that distasteful jokes about women and sexual behaviour is having an adverse effect on behaviour and expectations.
“We need young people to know that when you stay silent when a friend delivers a rape joke, you’re being complicit and therefore supporting this behaviour,” says Allison.
Anyone who plays sexist video games or watches degrading music videos and hardcore pornography online is supporting a sexist, misogynist culture. Parents, in other words, have to play their part. The online threat is real but parents are far from powerless.
More than 70 Australian schools are targets for a perverse pornography ring of teen boys and young men secretly swapping and exchanging graphic sexual images of female students and other nonconsenting women.
News.com.au can reveal more than 2000 images have been posted or traded by Australian members since the group began operating in December last year.
Young men use the site to nominate the specific high school or region they are phishing for nude photos from, along with the full names of girls they are “hunting”. Hundreds of individual names have appeared on “wanted” lists, including the names of sisters and entire high school friendship circles.
Once a girl’s name appears on a list, other members of the group then “contribute” by posting identifying information about the intended victim, such as her full name, face, school, home address, and phone number, along with directives like “Go get her boys!”
Any “wins” (a colloquial term referring to nude photos) of the nominated target are then uploaded or offered in exchange for a trade. Some targets are so sought after that “bounties” have been offered for any user who can post a “win”.
In one case, one user offered to trade up to 300 nude images of other victims, in exchange for a single nude photo of the one girl he was currently tracking. Another user said he had been trying to unearth nude images of a particular victim for more than five years.
Here are just a few of the thousands of comments from the site*:
“Anyone have any Wenona wins?”
“Anyone have any Saint Clare Year 12 wins?”
“I’ve got heaps of Miami High girls. Kik me if you wanna trade!”
“I ripped these from a computer I was asked to fix a few years ago.”
“Who has nudes of this bitch? I hear she throws it around!”
“I’ll [upload] all [the nudes] I have if people start looking for Hunter Valley, Newcastle or Port Macquarie girls, or any hot sluts”.
“I’m posting pretty much all the hottest little teens I have. All high quality images from Maitland, Newcastle, Cessnock, Rutherford etc.”
“I have a fair few of ***** ****** including a few box shots of her.”
“What do you want for the **** * wins bro?”
“I’ll pay good money to see the rig under **** *******, anyone have any of her?”
“Any **** *****? I’ve hear she sucks d**ks”.
“Let’s make this huge!”
So far thousands of explicit, nude images of teen girls and young women have been uploaded or traded on the swap-meet site. Some high school girls are pictured performing sexual acts while wearing their school uniform. Other images on the site include graphic close-ups of victim’s genitalia and breasts, and photos of young women engaged in penetrative sexual acts.
The site has been reported numerous times to police for child pornography, but so far they say they are unable to act because the site is hosted overseas.
Since its creation, multiple victims have also posted on the site, pleading with the young men to remove their images. Their requests are mostly ignored, laughed at, or in some cases, men retaliate by calling on their “bros” to unearth and upload even more images of the victim.
One young woman who begged for images of her friend to be removed, then had her own name added to the wanted hit-list as punishment.
Another young woman who stated that some of the victims might be “suicidal” was told that it was her fault for behaving like a “slut”, and that her images now belonged “to the internet”.
Most victims, however, appear to have no idea they are even on the site. Users of the site have deliberately tried to conceal their activities from victims by writing the names of targets in a simple code which prevents the girls from searching their own names. “Ellie”, for example, might be written as 3ll13, or “Amanda” as @m@nd@.
School names are also written in code to prevent high schools from detecting that their students are being targeted.
Yet a review of the site has found that at least 70 Australian school names have been mentioned by users requesting “wins” of current or recently graduated students.
In total the site mentions 28 high schools in NSW, 18 in Queensland, 15 in Victoria, five in the ACT, two in South Australia and two in Tasmania.
The site also encourages users to post their “wins” based on location, so that men and boys can study nude images of girls and women who they might know in real life. The site has at least 55 distinct individual threads organised by regions in Australia from urban hubs like Ryde in Sydney to regional centres such as Orange and Cessnock.
The discovery of the website follows a number of recent related scandals involving students at Brighton Grammar, Melbourne Grammar and St Michael’s Grammar School in Melbourne.
Users on this swap-meet website have also picked up on the media coverage of those scandals and have sought to uncover the original images which appeared on the Brighton Grammar “Young Sluts” Instagram account.
One website user, who admits to being a former Brighton Grammar student, comments that he finds the matter — including the exploitation of primary school girls — hilariously entertaining.
Sharna Bremner from End Rape on Campus says she felt “physically sick when [she] learned of the website and its contents”.
“These boys and men are behaving like a pack of hyenas hunting their prey, and then sharing the spoils with the rest of the group,” she said.
“They’re reducing girls to objects and trophies to be traded like nothing more than swap-cards in the playground”.
Ms Bremner says that charges should be laid against those responsible and that the mentality of these men closely mirrors that of a rapist.
“There are already plenty of consensual adult nude images online that are easily accessible. But these boys and men are not interested in that, because it’s not the nudity alone that they are after,” she said.
“What they are getting off on is the very fact that these images are not consensual and that the victims have no idea they are being exploited.”
Ms Bremner also notes that the users are not searching or categorising the images based on particular physical preferences or fetishes, such as a desire for “big boobs, or blondes, or redheads or whatever”.
“They are hunting women and girls who live in their area and sorting them according to geography. It’s the idea of proximity and accessibility that is considered arousing.
“The thrill is not just that they might see the girl who sits next to them in maths class, it’s also that they can put in an order for the girl from maths class. What these boys are really getting off on is the sense of power they feel over these girls, and the idea that they can own and obtain them like objects.”
Ms Bremner says that she can “absolutely see this [website] leading to acquaintance rape.”
“If you’re a young guy who has been told by your peers that getting images without consent is a good thing, that it gets you pats on the back, then just imagine the accolades you’ll get for physically taking advantage of a girl.”
“This group doesn’t just normalise the idea that consent is irrelevant and doesn’t matter, it actively encourages boys to ignore and violate consent.”
The NSW Sex Crimes Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Linda Howlett says that it “is a criminal offence to take, transmit or possess images that are considered child pornography”.
“This also applies to teenagers, who are reminded that the dissemination of any material depicting nudity or sexual activity involving young people could constitute a criminal offence,” she said.
“They should be aware they could be arrested and charged and, if convicted, end up with a criminal record.”
Police are encouraging any victims to come forward and report it.
Found via Feminist Current, with the comment “Despite the fact that these young men have the massive Internet porn machine at their fingertips, they specifically seek to violate these girls, as their unwillingness is central to the appeal.” I will also add that Australia is a country with a patchwork of legalised and decriminalised prostitution.
By some measures, girls appear to be faring rather well in twenty-first-century America. Teenage pregnancy rates have been in steady decline since the 1990s. Girls have higher graduation rates than their male counterparts at all educational levels. The popular culture abounds with inspirational images and anthems of girls “leaning in” and “running the world.” But according to two new, rather bleak books, these official signs of progress have given us an unduly rosy impression of the modern girl’s lot.
In American Girls, a study based on interviews with more than two hundred girls, Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales argues that the most significant influence on young women’s lives is the coarse, sexist, and “hypersexualized” culture of social media. American girls may appear to be “among the most privileged and successful girls in the world,” she writes, but thanks to the many hours they spend each day in an online culture that treats them—and teaches them to treat themselves—as sexual objects, they are no more, and perhaps rather less, “empowered” in their personal lives than their mothers were thirty years ago.
All young female social media users, Sales contends, are assailed “on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis” by misogynist jokes, pornographic images, and demeaning comments that “are offensive and potentially damaging to their well-being and sense of self-esteem.” In addition to this steady stream of low-level sexual harassment, many girls are subject to more aggressive forms of sexual teasing and coercion: having their attractiveness crudely assessed on “hot or not” websites, receiving unsolicited “dick pics” on their phones, being pestered or blackmailed for nude photos. (A group of thirteen-year-olds in Florida explain to Sales that girls who acquiesce to demands for “nudes” run the risk of having their photos posted on amateur porn sites, or “slut pages,” while those who demur are usually punished in some other way—by being branded “prudes,” or by having sexual rumors spread about them.)
The unsparing gaze that social media train on girls’ sexuality—the supreme value that they place on being sexually appealing—engenders a widespread female anxiety about physical appearance that is highly conducive to “self-objectification,” Sales claims. All of her interview subjects agree that on sites like Instagram and Facebook, female popularity (as quantified by the number of “likes” a girl’s photos receive) depends on being deemed “hot.” “You have to have a perfect body and big butt,” a fifteen-year-old from the Bronx observes grimly. “For a girl, you have to be that certain way to get the boys’ attention.” Girls who spend long enough in this competitive beauty pageant atmosphere don’t need to be coerced into serving themselves up as masturbatory fantasies, Sales argues. Taking their cues from celebrities like Kim Kardashian—whose vast following on Instagram Sales identifies as a marker of social media’s decadent values—they post “tit pics,” “butt pics,” and a variety of other soft-porn selfies as a means of guaranteeing maximum male attention and approbation. “I guarantee you,” a seventeen-year-old from New Jersey tells Sales,
“every girl wishes she could get three hundred likes on her pictures. Because that means you’re the girl everybody wants to fuck. And everybody wants to be the girl everybody wants to fuck. Every girl who isn’t that girl secretly hates herself…. It’s empowering to be hot…. Being hot gets you everything.”
The “empowering” nature of hotness is a theme that crops up frequently in Sales’s book. A number of the girls she meets vehemently reject the notion that they are oppressed or objectified on social media. On the contrary, they tell her, they are proud to be sexy “hos” and their highly sexualized self-presentation is a freely chosen expression of their “body confidence.” Naturally, Sales is not much persuaded by these claims. The fact that being “the girl everybody wants to fuck” can now be characterized as a bold, feminist aspiration is one measure, she suggests, of how successfully old-fashioned sexual exploitation has been sold to today’s teenage girls as their own “sex-positive” choice.
Peggy Orenstein, the author of Girls and Sex, is equally skeptical about the emancipatory possibilities of hotness. “Whereas earlier generations of media-literate, feminist-identified women saw their objectification as something to protest,” she writes, “today’s often see it as a personal choice, something that can be taken on intentionally as an expression rather than an imposition of sexuality.” Her investigation into the sex lives of teenage girls finds plenty of evidence to suggest that the confidence and power conferred by “a commercialized, one-dimensional, infinitely replicated, and, frankly, unimaginative vision of sexiness” is largely illusory. This generation of girls, she argues, has been trained by a “porn-saturated, image-centered, commercialized” culture “to reduce their worth to their bodies and to see those bodies as a collection of parts that exist for others’ pleasure; to continuously monitor their appearance; to perform rather than to feel sensuality.” As a result, they are eager to be desired, but largely clueless about what their own desires might be, or how to satisfy them; they go to elaborate lengths to attract male sexual interest, but regard sex itself as a social ritual, a chore, a way of propitiating men, rather than as a source of pleasure.
Orenstein, it is worth noting, is not concerned about the quantity of sex that young women are having. (There is, she points out, no evidence to suggest that rates of sexual intercourse among young people have risen in recent decades.*) Her interest lies rather in the quality of young women’s sexual experiences. “The body as product…is not the same as the body as subject,” she observes sternly.
“Nor is learning to be sexually desirable the same as exploring your own desire: your wants, your needs, your capacity for joy, for passion, for intimacy, for ecstasy…. The culture is littered with female body parts, with clothes and posturing that purportedly express sexual confidence. But who cares how “proud” you are of your body’s appearance if you don’t enjoy its responses?”
Orenstein interviewed more than seventy young women for her book, each of them chosen to represent those who had “benefited most from women’s economic and political progress.” All were at college or college-bound, and almost all struck her as “bright, assertive, ambitious” students. Yet their sexual histories, she reports, were characterized less by joy, ecstasy, or even minimal satisfaction than by discomfort, intimidation, and a chronic lack of “self-efficacy.” Half of them had suffered “something along the spectrum of coercion to rape.” And much of what they described about even their consensual experiences was “painful to hear.” Although many of them led active sex lives and professed to find sex “awesome,” few had ever achieved orgasm with a partner. (Most of them had faked it.) And while the majority of them regarded providing oral sex as a mandatory feature of the most fleeting sexual encounter, they rarely received, or expected to receive, oral sex in return. (Several rejected the idea of cunnilingus as embarrassing and worried that their vaginas were “ugly, rank, unappealing.”)
Some of the misery of teenage girls’ sexual experiences is attributable, Orenstein contends, to the “hookup culture” in which sex, “rather than being a product of intimacy…has become its precursor, or sometimes its replacement.” (Rates of female orgasm are much lower for casual encounters, she notes, than for sex that takes place within committed relationships.) Another contributing factor, she suggests, is the part that pornography now plays in determining normative standards of teenage sexual behavior. As one example of this, she points to the fact that most of her interview subjects had been dutifully shaving or waxing their “bikini areas” since the age of fourteen. (Rather like Ruskin, whose ideas about the naked female form are said to have been gleaned from classical statuary, modern porn-reared boys expect female genitalia to be hairless.)
She also notes that, in the years since the Internet made hardcore porn widely accessible to teenage boys, anal sex has become a more or less standard feature of the heterosexual repertoire. (In 1992, only 16 percent of women aged eighteen to twenty-four had tried anal sex; today, the figure has risen to 40 percent.) Despite the fact that most girls report finding anal penetration unpleasant or actively painful, they often, Orenstein claims, feel compelled to be good sports and submit to it anyway. (According to one study she cites, girls are four times as likely as boys to consent to sex they don’t want.) Among the girls she interviewed, the most common reasons given for doing so were a fear of being considered “uptight” and a desire to avoid “awkwardness.”
History has taught us to be wary of middle-aged people complaining about the mores of the young. The parents of every era tend to be appalled by the sexual manners of their children (regardless of how hectic and disorderly their own sex lives once were, or still are). There were some in the 1950s who were pretty sure that the decadent new practice of “going steady” augured moral disaster. Both Sales and Orenstein have undoubtedly grim and arresting information to impart about the lives of American girls. And neither of them can be dismissed as a sexual puritan. (They are not troubled about teenagers leading active sex lives, they assure us, only about the severely limited forms in which female sexuality is currently allowed to express itself; they are not even against casual sex per se, just eager to ensure that there should be, as Orenstein puts it, “reciprocity, respect, and agency regardless of the context of a sexual encounter.”) Even so, neither of their books entirely avoids the exaggerations, the simplifications, the whiff of manufactured crisis that we have come to associate with this genre.
Both writers make rather invidious comparisons between the frenzied, romance-free social lives of today’s young women and their own halcyon youths. Sales recalls walking back from school with her ninth-grade boyfriend to do homework together at her house. “The point of being together was not to have sex, necessarily. It was to become intimate,” she writes. Orenstein observes that her college experience was not about binge-drinking and hook-ups, but “late-night talks with friends, exposure to alternative music and film, finding my passions, falling in love.”
To use these sun-dappled recollections of life before the iPhone as a way of pointing up the misery of girls’ present conditions is a little misleading. To be sure, certain kinds of sexism have been amplified—or perhaps transmitted more efficiently—in the Internet era, and girls are now under pressure to present themselves as pliable sexual creatures at a much earlier age than they have been in the past. But even in the far-off 1970s and 1980s, young women experienced their share of exploitation, abuse, and unsatisfactory sex. Witness the feminist writer Ellen Willis drily reporting on the state of the sexual revolution in 1973:
“For men, the most obvious drawback of traditional morality was the sexual scarcity—actual and psychic—created by the enforced abstinence of women…. Sex was an illicit commodity, and whether or not a sexual transaction involved money, its price almost always included hypocrisy; the “respectable” man who consorted with prostitutes and collected pornography, the adolescent boy who seduced “nice girls” with phony declarations of love (or tried desperately to seduce them)….
“Men have typically defined sexual liberation as freedom from these black-market conditions: the liberated woman is free to be available; the liberated man is free to reject false gentility and euphemistic romanticism and express his erotic fantasies frankly and openly…. Understandably, women are not thrilled with this conception of sexual freedom.”
If the good old days were never as good as both writers are wont to imply, the dark days of our present era are not quite as unremittingly desperate either. Notwithstanding the vicious influence of pornography, social media, and Miley Cyrus, contemporary girls still manage to have high school boyfriends; some of them even get around to watching alternative films at college. Fifteen-year-olds may go online to learn how to perform fellatio, but they also post fearsome rebukes to boorish boys on Facebook and have lengthy debates on Twitter about whether or not Kim Kardashian is really a good “role model.” Girls use editing apps to whiten their teeth in their selfies and fret about the size of their “booties,” but they also celebrate the sororal power of “girl squads” and attend Nicki Minaj concerts to hear the rapper sermonize on why a woman should never be financially dependent on a man.
Sales portrays social media as an irresistible and ubiquitous force in the lives of young women. All of the girls in her book, regardless of their socioeconomic background or individual circumstances, are presented as being equally in thrall to their phones and computers. Some are queen bees, most are drones, but all are trapped in the social media hive. None of them appears to have a single cultural resource or pursuit outside of its ambit. (The one exception is a young woman who doesn’t own a smartphone—but that’s because she’s homeless and itinerant.) Is this an accurate representation of social media’s utter dominion, one wonders, or a reflection of Sales’s rather narrow line of questioning? (If you gathered up two hundred young women and asked them exclusively about their pets, you could probably write a shocking exposé of the outsized role that domestic animals play in the lives of American girls.)
Orenstein offers a rather more nuanced and measured account of the way girls live now, but she too has a tendency to underestimate the heterogeneity of teenage culture and the multiplicity of ways in which girls engage with it. At the start of her book she notes that the meanings of cultural phenomena are complex. Selfies are neither simply “empowering” nor simply “oppressive,” and wearing a short skirt is neither just “an assertion of sexuality” nor just “an exploitation of it.” Better, she suggests, to think of these issues in terms of “both/and.” Yet more often than not, she ignores this advice and opts for the reductive language of “might seem, but is actually.” Thus, Beyoncé may appear to be an inspiring, powerful figure, but she is actually “spinning commodified sexuality as a choice.” Girls may think they’re powerful when they look hot, but in fact, “‘hot’ refracts sexuality through a dehumanized prism regardless of who is ‘in control.’”
Orenstein is most convincing when she addresses the passivity, the “concern with pleasing, as opposed to pleasure,” that characterize her interview subjects’ approach to sex. Young women’s propensity to give male satisfaction priority over their own is not a new development, but Orenstein is surely right to be indignant about how little has changed in this regard over the last fifty years. Her belief that new, stricter definitions of consent on college campuses are a step toward establishing “healthy, consensual, mutual encounters between young people” is perhaps unduly optimistic. Setting aside the question of whether it is useful or fair to apply the bright line of “yes means yes” to sexual situations that tend, by her own admission, to be blurry and complicated, the new college codes assume a female confidence, a willingness to challenge the primacy of men’s sexual wishes, that many of Orenstein’s subjects have specifically demonstrated they lack. Making young men more vigilant about obtaining consent and discouraging their tendency “to see girls’ limits as a challenge to overcome” is no doubt essential, but if young women are still inclined to say “yes” when they mean “no”—are more willing to endure unwanted sex than to risk being considered prudish—the new standards of consent would seem to be of limited value.
Far more interesting and persuasive are Orenstein’s recommendations for revising the American approach to sex education. In place of the failed “abstinence-only” programs (that have used up $1.7 billion in government funding over the last thirty-five years) she proposes offering classes that frankly address all aspects of teenage sexuality, including female pleasure. (Even the most comprehensive sex education classes currently on offer in high schools fail to mention the existence of the clitoris, she notes.) In addition to candid discussions of “masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality, and orgasm,” this new sex education curriculum would offer guidance on how to make decisions and to “self-advocate” in sexual encounters.
The idea of encouraging girls to speak up for themselves—of promoting their ability to ask for what they want and to refuse what they don’t—seems an eminently sensible one. “Assertiveness training” for women has gone out of fashion in recent years. Indeed much of the recent discourse about girls and sex has tended to reinforce rather than to challenge the idea of female vulnerability and victimhood. It would be a salutary thing to have some old-school feminist pugnacity injected back into the culture.
Aside from the obvious reversal of guilt and innocence blatantly on display here, a tactic not new in rape trials, what Dan Turner misses about rape culture is constituent of the larger social misunderstanding of what it really is: rape culture not only implicates the millions of male rapists around the planet, rather it is the larger discursive framework which allows the individual rapist or rapist apologist, to take the sexual violation of a woman and parenthetically extricate these “twenty minutes of action” as somehow anathema to that male subject’s essentially good nature. You know, the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of that particular day. It is as if we must uniquely defer to what the male subject does when he is not “out of character” raping women to constitute his holistic “happy go lucky self” who can get back to his eating his ribeye steak.
And herein lies the punctum of rape culture: that the violation of women is conceived as the rupture in behaviour and “good boy” normalcy that constitutes the civil subject. Male as always good natured (except when he is not), male as in control (except when he is not), male as well meaning (except when he is not), and woman as collateral damage for the except when he is not for the “twenty minutes of action.” To anyone contemplating rape in terms of time management, one could vulgarly frame rape within a larger temporal structure to minimise these minutes such that one might rationalise the act of violation in this manner: “She needs to get over it. After all, it only lasted a few minutes.” Indeed, women are constantly reminded to move on and focus on those events that are really worthy of their attention, as if victims of violence evaluate must forgive the date rapist because she knew him and might have, like Lucretia, encouraged him. Women are told to put a line under what was only a few minutes of a long happy future (if only she could put it behind her).
Rape culture epitomises the presumption that women are perpetually willing victims in their own rape, not because in 2016 it is assumed that she wants to be raped, that she was in the wrong part of town, too drunk for her own good, or that she was wearing tight jeans, as the historical clichés go (clichés which are not at all fantastical, but very much based on historical and juridical fact). But because it is assumed that her body is still, in the eyes of the right a private possession, and of the left a public commodity. Because a woman’s cultural value is still pinned upon her ability to concede—to concede her vulnerability in the current bathroom wars, to concede the most minuscule doubt that perhaps she shouldn’t have taken that route home, and even concede that she should not have been drinking. She is even expected to consider the facts leading up to those “twenty minutes of action,” assumed to actively participate in the casting of doubt and aspersions on her possible willingness to have taken part in her own sexual assault. Dan Turner’s perverse reversal of victim and victimiser whereby his son is bizarrely cast as a victim, is all too common today and demands of the rape victim that she have sympathy with her victimiser, that she ally herself with her aggressor, because such is the task of the contemporary female to be perpetually linked to her symbolic paterfamilias as she strays from the perceived safety of the home. Nary a word about how many political actors of the left still regard rape as an unfortunate price to pay for freedom, rather than an extenuating symptom of male violence.
The specific language of “twenty minutes of action,” is a sad indicator of the cultural temperature for reading violence against women today. When rape is regarded as an action, likened to swimming or any other sport or activity one is forced to extricate morality and violence from what is really just an activity like any other. That this action involved the penetration of an unconscious woman is incidental to Dan Turner and his son. In fact, such a letter indicates the familiar and social heritage of rape within the world. That indeed if it is possible for one person to commit this “action,” then it is even more probable that this actor is surrounded by other like-minded actors who have set the scenario, costumes, stage props, and lighting such that everyone but the victim is acclimatised to the leap of faith necessary to suspend disbelief in this his reality. Rape culture is a permanent state of this suspension of disbelief, from the perpetrator, to his father, and friends and anyone who prefers to view the staging of this tragedy as a romantic comedy, as rapist with a heart of gold, or as the potential professional swimmer who made bad judgment call. When it is time to invoke readings of male subjectivity, every effort is extended to the rapist and his clan to explain why he rapes and astonishingly, Dan Turner’s letter was only one of a pile of letters Judge Persky received.
Here is an excerpt of the letter from Turner’s childhood friend, Leslie Rasmussen:
I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten + years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him. I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right. But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.
Rasmussen, who is now bemoaning the fact that her band has recently had many gigs canceled from various events in New York is incredulous that people take issue with her having minimised a sexual assault because the victim lay unconscious while “not blaming her directly,” of course. But Rasmussen does ask a pertinent question that needs to be turned inside-out to speak to the inconsequence of rape culture in her world view since it is due to her support and the many other letters of support which enact the rationale of political correctness. Since political correctness today is commonly understood as the political discourse of policing language and policies so as not to offend or disadvantage a particular demographic, it is clear that every single letter handed to the judge in support of Brock Turner, to include that of Rasmussen, functions precisely to police the legal interpretation of what Turner committed: sexual assault. Or if we are to believe Rasmussen, “These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgement.” When rape is tantamount to getting drunk and surroundings are a proxy for penises, fingers and vaginas, the stage setting of rape is really as good as the narrative spun by the accused and friends. That is, if they really believe it.
Justice for Brock Turner’s victim, however, is turning into the “gift” that keeps on giving as we now learn that Brock Turner’s sentence has already been reduced to three months due to good behaviour credits applied ahead of time because – sit down for this one – “it was assessed that he was unlikely to misbehave behind bars.” So not only are women like Turner’s victim up against Brock Turners of the present, but we have the luxury to fight against their future persona’s constructed by the generous court system which deems the sexual assailant as benevolent. Sexual offenders are de facto assumed to be “unlikely” to misbehave while paradoxically behind bars for a brief stint because they sort of have – emphasis on the “sort of.” Together with an entourage of people who explain “twenty minutes of action” as a result of “clouded judgment” due to alcohol consumption and who blame Turner’s assault on “sexual promiscuity,” we are being told, effectively, that rapists are just men who rape women. Unpacked, this means that rapists are men who by the sheer number of the world’s population have come into social contact with other humans and who, because of this fact (plus memories), are able to procure letters of support simply because they did not rape every other of these other humans in their inner circle. Unpacked once again: rapists are really not rapists because they did not rape me.
The statement that Brock Turner’s victim read out in the US court was no normal testimony. It symbolised a “new articulacy” for the anger, distress, defiance and (painfully clawed together) dignity of all sexual assault survivors. Which has always been there but, in the past, was submerged under the toxic murk of warped police protocol and societal shaming.
What guts it took for that young woman to write and read out such a piece, calmly describing the grotesque nature of her attack, sparing no one, least of all herself, from the explicit details. How she lay unconscious, humiliatingly exposed, behind a dumpster, soil and other debris from the ground between her legs, pine needles in her hair, underneath her frat-boy attacker (the one with those great swimming speeds!). The survivor also thanked the two men (“heroes”), who came to her aid, demonstrating that nothing, not even her own brutal assault, was going to rob her of her capacity to both embody and appreciate humanity.
The statement was incredibly powerful, perhaps too strong for some. In cases such as these, some people would rather not deal with specifics (blackouts, dumpsters, abrasions), because that means letting go of their pipedream that anything bar “central-casting stranger-rapist in a dark alleyway” merely amounts to stupid drunk skanks deviously carping about “sex they belatedly regretted”.
However, amid the statement’s strength and honesty, another moment popped out, one that seemed to go against the spirit of everything else, while at the same time fitting in perfectly. It was when the survivor spoke about being paranoid that people would find out that it was her.
After all she’d been through, she was saying she feared being “outed”. Despite all she was, and all she’d become, – this courageous orator, who’d commanded the attention and respect of the world – she was still scared of being that person, that “thing”, the victim.
This may have been the bravest part of the statement. How much easier would it have been for her to fake a brittle bravado that she did not truly feel. Instead, she spoke the truth about her terror of people discovering her identity and by doing so she highlighted the greater, darker truth that for her and every other sexual assault victim, these fears are not mere paranoia.
The raped are never responsible for their rapes. Yet even today, the shame of rape, the stain of it, remains a burden on the victim. Not only in the persistent archaic babble (“What was she wearing?”/How much did she drink?”), but also in less obvious, more insidious forms. There is a sense that, just by being sexually violated, the victim has been forever tainted and defined by the crime.
This is what rape does. It stands victims in front of a smeared, broken mirror and lies to them about who and what they are and how there’s no escape. For many victims, the only thing that could be worse is if their identities are exposed and there’s not even the bleakest chance of getting on with their lives.
This isn’t weakness or hiding. This is a logical reaction to a society that, even today, persists in its prurient response to rape: dictating that the sexual nature of the crime both defiles and defines the victim as much as the attacker, maybe even more.
At which point, it wouldn’t matter that well-meaning people, including the vice president, Joe Biden, praise and comfort you. You’re a victim, that’s all you are. You’ve been sexually assaulted, that’s all that counts.
So, even as I applaud this young woman’s articulacy, I also respect and understand her fear of losing her anonymity. Society has a long way to go before the shame is placed, not only firmly, but also solely where it belongs.
QotD: “Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect”
The father of a former Stanford University athlete convicted on multiple charges of sexual assault has said his son should not have to go to prison for “20 minutes of action”.
Brock Turner, a former swimmer at Stanford University, was on Thursday sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and probation for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
The 20-year-old from Dayton, Ohio – who was convicted of three felonies, including assault with intent to rape – faced a maximum of 14 years in prison.
But Turner was expected to spend only three months of a six-month sentence in county jail after the judge, Aaron Persky, said positive character references and lack of a criminal record had persuaded him to be more lenient. Prison would have a “severe impact on him”, the judge said.
The decision sparked anger on social media, with many quoting from the victim’s impact statement, which went viral after being published by international media.
The 23-year-old victim gave an emotional speech at the hearing, an abbreviated version of a 12-page impact statement submitted to Judge Persky before the sentencing hearing.
She recounted going to a party on the evening of 17 January 2015 and waking up the next morning in hospital with no memory of the night before. She also told of the invasive exam she underwent to collect evidence and the “excruciating” interrogation of the court trial.
“I thought there’s no way this is going to trial; there were witnesses, there was dirt in my body, he ran but was caught … Instead, I was told he hired a powerful attorney, expert witnesses, private investigators … That he was going to go to any length to convince the world he had simply been confused. …
“I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.”
Her victim impact statement – released by the district attorney’s office and published in full by Palo Alto Online, among others – has received global attention for shedding light on what advocates say is an epidemic of violence on college campuses. On BuzzFeed, it has been viewed more than 4m times since being published on Saturday.
Turner’s father had called on the judge to grant his son probation, saying that he had already paid “a steep price … for 20 minutes of action”.
Michele Dauber, a professor of law at Stanford University, tweeted an excerpt from the probation pre-sentencing report in which Dan Turner said his son’s life had “been deeply altered forever”.
“He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile,” he wrote of his son. “His every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his lack of appetite.”
His statement was met with fury on social media, with many condemning its tone.
Responding to questions over the statement’s validity, Dauber said it was “all too real” and that Dan Turner had read it aloud in open court at sentencing. She has been contacted for comment.
Dan Turner said imprisonment was not the “appropriate punishment” for his son, who was “totally committed to educating other college age students about the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity”.
“By having people like Brock educate others on college campuses is how society can begin to break the cycle of binge drinking and its unfortunate results.”
This echoed Turner’s own statement, in which he said he was in the process of establishing a program for high school and college students so that he could “speak out against the college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that”.
The victim was scathing on this point in her address at Thursday’s hearing, noting that Turner had said he wanted to “show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life”.
“Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect. …
“Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrolment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
Prosecutors had asked for Judge Persky, a Stanford alumni, to sentence Turner to six years in a state prison. The maximum for the three felony charges – assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object – was 14 years.
In justifying the six-month sentence, Judge Persky said positive character references written on Turner’s behalf, such as that given by his father, had factored into his decision. His age, his lack of a criminal history, and the role that alcohol played in the assault were also mitigating factors.
“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” said the judge. “I think he will not be a danger to others.”
Judge Persky is running unopposed for re-election in the Santa Clara county election on Tuesday. A Change.org petition calling for him to be recalled from his judicial position had received more than 15,500 signatures at time of writing.
The Santa Clara county district attorney, Jeff Rosen, criticised the “unjust” sentence on Thursday, which he said did not fit the crime.
“Ultimately, the fact that the defendant preyed upon an intoxicated stranger on a college campus should not be viewed as less serious than if he assaulted an intoxicated stranger in downtown Palo Alto,” he said.
“Campus rape is no different than off-campus rape. Rape is rape. We will prosecute it the same.”
Rosen also praised the victim’s statement as “the most eloquent, powerful and compelling piece of victim advocacy that I’ve seen in my 20 years as a prosecutor”.
Palo Alto Online reported that Turner plans to appeal his conviction and will be represented by Dennis Riordan, a well-known San Francisco appellate attorney.