It’s time to stop disputing whether rape culture is real or not, says Darren McGarvey
In my teenage years I got into a relationship with a girl with whom I’d been friends from a young age.
She and I lost our virginity together in our mid-teens. Before that, our physical relationship had consisted of kissing and touching after bed-time, almost like a game. We would have sleepovers and pretend to be asleep, before resuming our intimacy. Sometimes this would happen in a house, other times it would happen in a tent out in the back garden. There were times when she initiated it and times when I did.
But I am also sure, in hindsight, that there were instances when I pestered her.
Until recently, I had always partitioned off that period of my life. It was around this time that my mother passed away, an event that came to define my teenage years. I never considered the implications of our sexual relationship, for the girl involved.
I’m not saying I did anything wrong. But, given how many abusive men there are, who genuinely don’t believe they have behaved abusively, I must be willing to consider the possibility that just because I didn’t think I had harassed, harmed or abused anyone does not necessarily mean that I didn’t.
My lack of awareness around consent at the time when I became sexually active is the reason I have spent the last few days in a deeply contemplative state, oscillating between anxiety and relief, clarity and confusion, pride and guilt. Even going as far as contacting the now grown woman to discuss some things I was concerned about. Thankfully, I had been overthinking it, but even then, the fact I was so uncertain is cause enough for concern.
The notion of consent should have been ever-present in my mind as soon as I was old enough to think, much like the thought that I may be run over emerges whenever I cross a busy road. Moreover, sex should be viewed through the lens of human relationships, which are based on a desire for connection, from a young age – not just as a physical urge one must be educated to wield.
This subtle shift in emphasis, away from the physical act of sex and into the emotional interior of our instincts, is fundamental to creating the deeper awareness many men currently lack – not only of our own behaviour as men, but how this impacts on the safety and quality of life of women both individually and culturally.
Maybe this lack of understanding, and its wider social implications, is what feminists mean when they use much contested terms like ‘rape culture’? Maybe this theory is, among other things, an attempt to account for the blind-spots that exist in the minds of men who otherwise appear to be morally upstanding. Like people who have a very fixed idea of what harassment and rape look like and thus exclude many other possibilities – not least those that may apply to their own attitudes or behaviour.
What advocates of this theory are saying, I think, is the idea that boundaries of consent are poorly defined or misunderstood is exploited by coercive men to abuse women when they are vulnerable. Or worse, they may not believe they are being abusive at all. Think of the dynamic between the male boss and a female employee, the teacher and his female pupil, the man paying for sex with a prostitute, the husband who feels entitled to sex with his wife or the woman who can no longer give consent because she is too intoxicated.
We must smash the idea that any such grey areas exist and shift the burden of anxiety from women and girls and onto males with abusive impulses, who should live in fear of acting on them.
For many women, their sexualisation begins at school, when boys pull their bra straps or stick their hands up their blouses or skirts at a time when their bodies are undergoing immense changes.
Furthermore, it’s during those formative years that many young men develop the skewed sense of sexual entitlement that leads to harassment and abuse later.
Many young women develop a hyper-awareness of their proximity to males and this affects everything from how they dress to how they behave.
They may begin to see themselves as a male audience would see them, and become detached from their own needs. This is compounded by the fact most women know males are physically capable of dominating them, should they choose to.
As a result, many young men grow up thinking that a woman, just being herself, jogging, dressing up, sunbathing, swimming, shopping, eating, dancing, is some sort of performance – for them.
Which is why so many boneheads don’t think twice about cat-calling or beeping a horn at a woman, because they often genuinely think that’s something she will appreciate.
Some women will blame themselves when men feel entitled to behave inappropriately towards them, even when they have been raped or abused.
“Did I encourage this?” they may ask themselves.
From the woman raped by a close friend she trusted, to the one ostracised from her family for being honest about the abuse of a close relative, to the woman who won’t dare reveal the truth about her ordeal because the myths created to conceal it are the only thread holding her family together.
That is what is meant by ‘rape culture’. It’s time to stop disputing whether it’s real or not and just do something about it.
Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social commentator @lokiscottishrap