Top flight associates in mental health and social care delivering service improvement
Why I started the Men Against Rape campaign
By Hári Sewell
Posted: Monday May 9 2016
Most people readily agree that rape committed by a stranger is a terrifying and traumatising experience. There is sometimes less clarity and strength of feeling about what is the most common rape bay far, when the rapist is known to the person. The Men Against Rape campaign was started to tie in with International Women’s Day and focuses on men perpetrators against women though of course all rape needs to be tackled.
Over the last five years or so have I noticed that many of the women with whom I had meaningful conversations had been raped. If I added those who had a close friend or relative who had been raped I can confidently say this was more than half. That’s those who had disclosed this to me. It’s not unreasonable to assume that there are many who have been affected who have not disclosed it to me. Research is comprehensively emphatic that the number of disclosures is a significant under-representation of the true scale of the number of actual rapes.
Constantly hearing that women I know have been raped is a pretty sickening experience. I’m not in anyway seeking sympathy or detracting from the pain of the experience of women and girls who have been raped. I’m just saying that it is really disturbing to have to face the two sides of the equation: so many women and girls are experiencing this violence and so many men (who are supposedly living normal lives amongst) us are perpetrating it. In my professional work in mental health and in my networks I witness women with internal and external scars, affected by poor mental health as a result of being raped as girls or women. Relationships are affected, parenting is affected. Some girls act out in teenage the consequences of what happened to them as babies and small children. I see women reliant of substances who have stories to tell of sexual violations. As a society, on one hand we criticise and hate the consequences and on the other we celebrate the things that increase the chances that we will have to deal with these things.
The circumstances surrounding the experience of rape is made worse by the widespread disbelief of women and girls who have been affected. Many of the men and women, both young and old who I talk to about rape, ask me whether I think that most of the girls (women) change their mind or make a mistake (about having sex) and then say that they have been raped. The question of consent that demarcates sex from sex-based violence seems to have dissolved in people’s minds from the concrete criteria that it is. Further, many people more easily believe narratives that present as routine, the extreme exceptions where women have lied. This is a way of victim-blaming.
I declare my hand. If a woman says she’s been raped I hear it in the context of the massive body of high quality research which demonstrates that women who say they have been raped usually have been. The criminal justice system has responsibility to be sceptical and investigate a crime and in doing so, to be open to all possibilities. I want them to do their job. I do not want to see innocent men accused and potentially convicted. For me however, being empathic is important and my starting point is to believe a woman.
If I could throw my hands in the air and ask “why are men raping so often?’ it would be easier in some ways. I wouldn’t wrestle so much with my own responsibilities, my own culpability. What’s hard for me as a campaigner against violence against women is that I am part of a system and social contexts that fuel the propensity of men to rape. Yes, it is rapists who commit rape. It would be naive however to pretend that these acts occur in a social vacuum. Having sex with a woman or a girl when they have not given consent clearly happens in many different ways. Most people routinely accept that a stranger grabbing a woman off the streets and raping her is an abhorrent violent act. In my experience there is a common belief that some rapes are less bad. This is a problem.
I am not writing this piece to lambast rapists or to point fingers. I’m writing to share my own thoughts and feelings on the context for rape and the conflicted feelings I have about certain things that are often part and parcel of my everyday life. I think that until we as men start to have some real honest conversations and look really deeply at the contributing factors, things won’t change much.
Music and the night time industry that is fuelled by alcohol consumption, creates some sub-cultures which cast women in a way that devalues their worth as human beings beyond their sexuality. Some music celebrates the objectification of women by describing their beauty and their value in terms of looks and body shape, sometimes described in detail. Some music takes this further and veers off into the downright misogyny. Much of this music is played in nightclubs, in family homes and on music channels and is widely available on internet, which is where much music is consumed. There are many people for whom it is normal, even desirable to routinely listen to music dripping with explicit lyrics that cast women in a role of being there for the pleasure of men. I’m referring to music that is nowadays pretty mainstream. In many social gatherings whatever the supposed status it is routine for a male MC to make a comment such as “There are so many beautiful women in here tonight”. It is intended as a compliment but is laden with much of what creates a social expectation that women are there to be looked at as items of beauty. I am aware that for many people any critique of such things sounds bizarre, as if any truly heterosexual male would see it as a wonderful thing that women are celebrated in this way. For me the conflicted feelings that I referred to earlier arise because musically there are some great sounding songs that have undesirable lyrics. I hold two realities. I appreciate a broad selection of music genres and some rhythms are engrained in my psyche as having more resonance. I own music that uses words and concepts that I really don’t like (and this includes anachronistic racist terms). I go out at night often and much of the music being played is part of the culture of celebrating the sexualisation of women, including what appears to be the expression of an internalised version of this by women themselves.
I realise that people reading this could say that I should just stop listening to these kinds of music and stop going out dancing. There may be very good arguments for this. I am however trying to do something in this piece. I’m trying to show that not all people who wish to see women respected are spoilsports. I am also trying to plant some seeds for men to think a bit more deeply about a culture that celebrates the idea that women exist largely because they are, or have something, which is desirable to posses. I’m trying to highlight the close link between believing that women are there for the pleasure of men and what flows from that, which is the right to take what is there for us.
I know the vast majority of men, are not rapists or at least do not see themselves as such. The pool gets smaller however if you exclude men who do not believe that in a relationship a woman should have the right to say no to sex just because she chooses to. Take out of the pool also, men who do not believe that using alcohol, drugs or inducements is an unacceptable part of the game of getting sex. Further, exclude men who do not think that it is fair play to get their desires met even if they felt the woman has impaired judgement (e.g. because they are sleepy or distressed). The reality is however, that sex without true consent is rape. I wonder how many men truly believe that sex with a woman is not rape ONLY when it is through clear unpressured consent with no form of manipulation involved?
I remember when I was in my first year of my social work course and I had been set an essay on rape by the Gender Studies tutor, Noreen Randall. (Well, she gave us a choice of three essays she reminded me some year later and I chose that one). I recall that in my research as a young man I read about the way that men benefit from rape even though they are not rapists. That may manifest itself in an occasion when a new or established partner does consent to sex but does so because it’s easier than the confrontation and what might follow if she resisted. That is just one of many ways in which power imbalances perpetuated by extreme acts have a more general effect.
The Men Against Rape campaign isn’t just about tackling the vicious stranger rape. It’s about being active in tackling rape and the conditions that contribute to rape. As we all grow and mature in our awareness, not raping as a standard position needs to become something more active. What I see from my own experience is that just me skipping a track on a CD is not enough to create the shift. Yes, I do listen less and less to unedifying music. However, we need a collective decision to see and treat women as the precious beings that they are; precious because they are of equal value; precious because they have the capacity to be the cornerstones of families, communities, industries and nations alongside and not instead of men.
Hári Sewell is Director of HS Consultancy and started the Men Against Rape campaign for International Women’s Day 2016. He is a promoter of events at nightclubs and is a competitive sprinter. Men Against Rape t shirts can be purchased at www.hsconsultancy.org.uk/products . Hári is available to talk at schools, colleges, youth clubs and other settings about standing up for women’s rights. See the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/menstandingupforwomensrights/?fref=ts