Friday, 20 November 2015

Asking For It

JJ Marsh looks at five different points of view on ‘rape culture’ and asks what’s changed in twenty years.

The Play

In 1996, Theatre Royal Plymouth hosted a production of Fair Game, the English version of Israeli playwright Edna Mazya’s shocking play Games in the Backyard.

The play is based on a real event, the gang rape of a fourteen-year-old girl by seven males aged seventeen in northern Israel in 1988. The actors play both victim/perpetrators and their respective lawyers, adding a level of irony to interpretation of circumstances. The teasing camaraderie becomes pressure, the emotional manipulation overwhelming and the violations incremental.

I was the education liaison, connecting with schools, youth centres, Rape Crisis, NSPCC, teachers and young people, trying to start conversations on the concept of rape and abuse as part of our culture. Not an easy gig.

School groups watched the play and after the curtain call, the actors came back onstage, in character, to answer questions from the audience. Such fury and outrage tumbled out from 15/16 year-olds of both genders, we were all taken aback. The worst vitriol was reserved for ‘Greg’, who did not rape ‘Joanne’, but orchestrated the circumstances in which the others did. When the emotional tension tipped into upset, we broke the illusion and introduced the actors by name. The change was instant. Young people who’d been yelling ‘You’re a fucking bastard!’ at Andrew Crabb (Greg) were asking for his autograph.

The play touched more than one nerve: young people were angry about the gender imbalance of our culture, our legal system and the media and peer pressure on both young men and women regarding sex. One red-faced teenage girl stood up and yelled, “Some people think rape’s a joke. How do you deal with that?” Good question.

The Stand-Up

Can women find humour in the subject of rape? Adrienne Truscott can. A choreographer, dancer and comedian, she devised a stand-up show called Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! 
Dressed in a denim jacket, blonde wig and heels and naked from the waist down, she drinks, jokes and exposes the stereotypes for what they are.

"If the rules are that a flirty lady having a good time in provocative clothing and having a couple of drinks is a girl asking for it, then that would be me – and yet every night I am able to walk out of my show unraped. It has nothing to do with what I’m doing or what I’m wearing. It has to do with whether there is a person in the audience prepared to rape somebody."

While swigging at a can of lager, she suggests maybe women should avoid alcohol and cover themselves up. Then they’d be safer. 'Like women in Iran or India.'

One part of her show involves images of rappers, comedians and politicians projected onto her lower body, thereby giving them a goatee and rendering them more absurd as they opine on ‘rape-rape’, female sexuality and what ‘no’ really means.
"There is no end to the ways that you can use a female body, or, these days, any body, to counteract the categories our bodies put us in by the culture at large."
Truscott takes on the rape joke and the often misogynistic stand-up comedy scene, by taking off her knickers. In doing so, accepted cultural attitudes are challenged and ridiculed for the joke that they are. Best of all, it’s funny.

The Research

Kate Harding’s book Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, (Da Capo Press) confronts the complicit nature of US (and wider) society surrounding the subject of sexual assault. This is a well-researched and articulate critical analysis of where we are and how we got here.
"American boys are growing up with this incredible sense of entitlement to women's bodies. Boys are taught that sex is their right – it's on demand, basically – and that girls will resist, and their job is to overcome that resistance."
Despite the subject matter, the book is a surprisingly upbeat read which tackles various difficult aspects such as blame myths, reporting, false accusations, male victims, online trolling and ends with reasons for optimism. Harding has a scholarly approach to accuracy but a wickedly sharp tone. This example on the topic of consent made me laugh.

Pop quiz: Do the following responses mean yes or no?

1. I’d love to, but I already have plans.
2. Sweet of you to offer, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it.
3. Oh geez, maybe another time?
4. I so wish I could!
This book is an intelligent exploration of the way we think and how we can change it.

The Novel

"Slut. Bitch. Skank. Whore. You were asking for it." - Asking For It

Eighteen-year-old Emma is bright, popular and beautiful with a happy home life and a promising future. Until one day she wakes up on her own doorstep. She has no idea how she got home from the party or why she’s got so many bruises. Until she sees the pictures plastered all over social media.
The fallout of Emma’s public gang rape affects every aspect of her life. Her friends, her family, her health. Not only has her body been violated but her identity taken from her. She’s now the ‘Ballinatoom Girl’, a case to be discussed by expert pundits on TV or locals in the pub, shamed and blamed on Facebook.

The hardest parts of this book are the awareness that the ordeal has only just begun. She will be publicly exposed all over again when the case comes to court. Even those closest to her find it hard to let go of the stereotypes. Her mother says, “They’re good boys really, this just got out of hand".

O’Neill is unflinching in her portrayal of the effect this has on a young woman’s mind and the ending is both sad yet logical. A painful but important read, this is not the first time Louise O’Neill has taken on the ingrained sexism of contemporary culture (see our June interview with the author) and I have a feeling it won’t be the last.

The Speaker

Not all the people tackling rape culture are women.

Jackson Katz has lectured across the world with his Mentors In Violence Prevention (MVP) program, on college campuses, in professional and college athletics, in the United States military. He states that gender violence is every bit a man’s problem and has to be addressed at the very roots of sexism. A paradigm shift in thinking, he asserts, will benefit both genders.

He invites men to take a stand at every point on the spectrum – from the sexist joke over the poker table to the assault on the street. As he says, you don’t let a racist or homophobic slur pass, so why accept a constant devaluation of your sisters, mothers, friends, lovers and daughters?

He argues that widespread violence in American society, including the tragic school shootings, needs to be understood as part of an ongoing crisis. His deconstruction of the way we use language and attribute blame is refreshing, his exposure of how expectations of masculinity undermine both genders is informative. Most of all, he’s practical. In some of the most resistant environments, he engages young men in ways to take a different approach and works with his audiences to change their own perceptions.

Twenty years ago, we didn’t use the term ‘rape culture’. We do now.

We’ve acknowledged something and we’re talking about it.

It doesn’t matter what method we use to address the topic, we’re all asking for change.

All of us. We're asking for it.

By JJ Marsh

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