A tough week to be a woman

WHAT CAN WE DO: It's time to teach our kids not just about safe sex, but also kind sex.
WHAT CAN WE DO: It's time to teach our kids not just about safe sex, but also kind sex.

Michele A'Court writer, columnist, social commentator, actor and comedian talks about how it's been a tough week to be a woman ... 

It has been a tough week to be a woman, or someone who loves them.

Since news broke last Sunday about a group of men who say they have spent the last two years having sex with young women and girls for sport, and bragging about it on Facebook, all of us have felt some degree of trauma.

We've felt horror at what these men do; fear for our daughters; initial frustration over apparently inadequate laws that left police powerless without complainants coming forward; then anger when we discovered complaints had indeed been made but not actioned; and tremendous sadness when we've heard the voices of rape survivors and their supporters.

Like I say, an emotionally traumatic week for women and the people who love them.

I am sorry that I know the names of those involved and the title they have given themselves. I will not write them here. What they wanted was power and fame, and I refuse to play any part in that.

But I am not sorry that it has ignited a conversation this week about our rape culture which has, at times, managed to shed light as well as heat.

Listening to the experts who have been dealing with the issues for much longer than a week, it seems there has been a shift in cultural norms. Our sons and daughters live in a world that is very different from ours, and is invisible to us in many ways.

Turns out, we might have been talking to them about the mechanics of sex - the how - but not the ethics - the why. Tricky subject, that, to discuss with your own teenager - sexual pleasure, respect, love, eroticism, mutual desire, kindness.

Instead, they're getting their sexual clues from pornography. Not the porn that men my age nicked back in the day from their dad, or borrowed from their mates. Young men now have access, through the internet, to all the porn. Much of it violent, cruel and hateful.

And the bragging that used to be behind the bike sheds and shared only as far as the town border, forgotten about in time, is now uploaded on video via the internet to the whole world, where it stays forever. You might always be what you did - or had done to you - when you were 13. And semi-conscious.

These are useful things for parents to hear this week, that there is something we haven't done and could do better for our sons and daughters. To tell them to practise not just "safe sex" but "kind sex".

Of course, not all of this week's conversation has been enlightening. Again, I refuse to write their names, but some of the radio talk has been ill-judged at best, brutal to some ears, and no doubt re-traumatising for rape survivors and the people who love them who may have been listening.

A lot of questions have been asked about the victims. What was she wearing? Had she been drinking? Why was she there? Was she a virgin before this? All versions of, "did she behave in a way that made her vulnerable to sexual assault?"

Nowhere - did I miss it? - were any of these questions aimed at the perpetrators. I have no idea what they were wearing, whether they were sober, or anything about their sexual history. And I'm really not sure I need to know these things either because none of them are relevant to an act of rape.

Let's say some things, though, about how women dress. My daughter is now 20 years old, and I have spent much of the past few years wishing she would put more clothes on. She and her delightful friends dress in a way that, to my middle-aged eyes, looks kind of slutty.

Doubtless, my mother said the same thing about me, and hers about her. Every generation has two sartorial aims - to not dress like their mothers, and to dress like each other. It says everything about fashion, and nothing about behaviour.

This might be hard for a middle-aged radio jock to understand so I will write it clearly: a tiny skirt does not mean she wants to shag you. And to men of all ages, let's say this really clearly: if you want to have sex with her, ask her, not her clothes. And then listen to what she says.

And seriously, it is insulting to men to suggest that women can dress or behave in a way that invites rape or mitigates its criminality to any degree. Do we really think that a short skirt arouses men to such a level of sexual excitement that they can't stop themselves forcing their penis into someone? If that's all it takes, should any of them be allowed out, ever?

You would have to wonder why women aren't being constantly sexually assaulted at cocktail parties, or at the beach, or working out at the gym. You would also have to wonder why the elderly and infirm and babies are also victims of rape.

If we can learn anything this week, let's make it this: rape is not about sex. It is about power through violence and control.

In fact, it may be useful if we think of rape, not as a "sex" crime, but as a "hate" crime. Something you do to someone for whom you have no respect, no empathy and who you target because they belong to a different social group. Rape is a hate crime against women.

Imagine for a moment that these 13-year-old girls being assaulted, victimised and humiliated were instead Jewish, or Black, or Gay. Best guess is that there would be a lot less, "Had they been drinking and what were they wearing?"

When someone is attacked because of their race or beliefs or sexual orientation, we give no credence to anyone who says, "could they maybe look less black when they go out?" or "what was he expecting, wearing that yarmulke?" or "those gays are always so well-groomed, they're just asking someone to make them look dishevelled".

Most of us are pretty good at spotting attacks based on racism, religious hatred and homophobia. We need to get just as good at recognising assaults by people who hate women.

Perhaps the most useful thing I've read this week is by a university health educator in Massachusetts who works in the field of sexual assault prevention. Dr Emily Nagoski says telling women not to drink so they won't be a target of sexual assault - aside from all the blame-the-victim politics of it - simply doesn't work.

What does work is viewing sexual assault as not just something between victim and perpetrator but as something that involves witnesses. She says that in those early moments of the predator stalking and finding prey, it is our job as bystanders to step in and do something to interrupt the flow of violence and prevent the assault before it happens.

One girl on her own is easily outnumbered, but include the bystanders and suddenly the numbers are on her side.

Dr Nagoski gives simple examples - offering the potential victim a glass of water in another room, distracting the potential perpetrator by engaging in conversation, finding any way to separate them from each other. "It's about doing something," she says, "and something is anything that isn't nothing".

It makes sense, right? And it's another conversation we can have with our daughters and sons, along with the one about kind sex.

So yes, it was a tough week to be a woman, or someone who loves them. I'd like to think we can start making the next weeks tougher for people who hate women.

Sunday Star Times