Plenty of people think that feminism today is verging on irrelevance. The waves of political agitation that saw women gain the right to vote and to work alongside men in many spheres of modern life have subsided. The remaining issues seem relatively vague when compared with the problems faced by previous generations, and the feminist movement has fractured into a series of disgruntled factions who have struggle to engage the general public. Men and women in Britain today – and the West in general – take it for granted that the sexes deserve equal rights, without realizing that there are still battles that must be fought before this will be achieved.
I’m writing this article because it seems to me that people are unwilling to lend their voices to an overtly feminist cause. You can probably find this out for yourself by asking the students in your next seminar to put up their hand if they are a feminist and witnessing an uncomfortable silence (unless, I imagine, you happen to be taking a gender studies class). University of Sussex Sociology tutor Dr Shamira Meghani suggests that “some women are concerned by the thought of being ostracized by using the word feminism – because it marks their wish for substantial change.”
‘Our society continues to privilege masculine interests, to the exclusion of both men and women who do not wish to adopt a masculine identity’
In a way, I can see why this reluctance exists – feminism can seem like an ungenerous attack upon all men, even the well-intentioned. It can also seem like an attack upon certain life choices that women make. It is neither of these. Feminism is simply an attack upon the social factors which push men and women to see each other as hostile opposites. Yes, men and women are intrinsically different in some areas. But many of the differences which do exist now are the result of out-dated social conventions, and it is these that need to be changed. Our society continues to privilege masculine interests, to the exclusion of both men and women who do not wish to adopt a masculine identity. It is in the interests of any man who has felt pressured to be strong and impassive to be a feminist. It is in the interest of any woman who feels vulnerable when walking through a city late at night to be a feminist. Feminism is nothing more than common sense and fairness for all.
It is also common sense which happens to be very relevant to our lives here at Sussex. As students, we are not immune to sexual violence, sexism and the burden of social gender expectations. By writing about the issues that feminism tries to address, I’d like to raise awareness of how we are affected by them and what we can do to resist regressive social trends. This week, I’m writing about sexual violence, in part because a student of this university was recently raped in the popular nightclub Digital, and this crime reminded me of how close to home such violence is for all of us.
Sexual violence = social control
If you read a newspaper like the Daily Mail, you quickly learn one or two important things about rape. Firstly, (to quote columnist Peter Hitchens) “that a rape victim who was drunk deserves less sympathy”; secondly, that most of the news stories about sexual violence are – strangely gleeful – reports on women who “cry rape”; and finally, on an insidious level, that women who behave provocatively are responsible for tempting men.
In search of some academic guidance through the tricky terrain of gender politics, I spoke to Dr Alison Phipps, another Sociology lecturer at Sussex. Both she and her colleague Dr Meghani state that those who, like the Daily Mail writers, argue that women are to blame for sexual violence “are never justified.” That’s right: never. Dr Phipps cites the ‘not to condone rape, but men are biologically programmed to have sex’ defence as particularly risible: “Even if there is a biological urge, we are social animals. We have a lot of urges, and we control them.” The idea that male sexual feelings are somehow more urgent to begin with may also be an entirely constructed idea of human sexuality. Essentially, there is no excuse.
‘The threat of rape helps keep women in their place in Western society by implying that drinking, being out late at night and being sexually aggressive are exclusively male territories’
Rape is not simply a criminal issue – it is a political one. It is a power that only men can exert, and is often used as more than just a means to sexual gratification. The threat of rape helps keep women in their place in Western society by implying that drinking, being out late at night and being sexually aggressive are exclusively male territories. Women who dare to behave in a liberated fashion are the ones which can be condemned as ‘asking for it.’ This line of reasoning may not be entirely conscious on the part of men, but it is present at a deep subconscious level of society, as the Daily Mail’s articles suggest.
This form of rape as social control is more overt in other countries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo women are systematically raped by the soldiers and militiamen who fought in Congo’s Second War. Even now, fighting – and sexual violence against Congolese women – continues today in eastern regions of the country. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecologist, explained to the New York Times that he was medically treating around ten women every day throughout 2007. Many had been gang-raped or sexually assaulted with guns and bayonets, which permanently destroys any chance of giving birth for these women. Amnesty International conducted a survey over the first quarter of 2008 to find that incidents of sexual violence are continuing. Amnesty also concluded that “in many cases, sexual abuse and rape appear to be ethnically motivated and/or aimed at terrorizing and demoralizing communities suspected of supporting enemy groups.” It is, essentially, a sex-specific form of torture that women have no defence against.
Some pragmatists note that rape has always been a weapon of warfare. This is does not excuse it – imagine, for example, that racism was accepted as an ugly fact of life and not worth trying to punish simply because it has always existed in some form or other. These rape epidemics show just how much work there is left for those who support feminism. We can do this by supporting Amnesty’s campaigns and by transforming the UK into a model of gender relations that other nations can look to as an example. And this in itself presents plenty of challenges.
‘Those who argue that women are to blame for sexual violence “are never justified.”‘
So what is it that feminists can do to alter the UK’s ambiguous stance towards rape and other forms of sexual violence? Dr Meghani argues that “only an overhaul of newspaper ownership and purpose would allow for a proper challenge and change,” which makes a great deal of sense when the male domination of the media is taken into account. Dr Phipps notes that the current UK government has become more aggressive in its criminalisation of sexual violence, and now offers much more support to victims as well as punishing the perpetrators. Other improvements are forthcoming: in July, Home Office minister Vernon Coaker announced a new government anti-rape strategy: “every force has a responsibility to ensure that every single officer who comes into contact with a rape victim is supportive and believes the victim,” he said.
Dr Phipps concludes that the only way to truly change attitudes to rape is through education. “Criminalisation doesn’t address the root of the problem. A better solution would be to improve sex and relationship education and re-examining old ideas of male sexuality as active and female sexuality as passive. The government is campaigning on the issue of consent, but they need to reach people at a younger age.” It would be hard to deny that this is a common sense way of changing how we see and judge sexual violence. And this is what feminism today should be about – practically applicable common sense. This common sense is relevant in every part of gender relations, and I plan to examine a few of the other areas where social attitudes are still failing both men and women over the next week or two. I realize, in the meantime, that the meanings of feminism – and its goals – are open to debate, and if you have alternative views to mine then please send them in to The Badger.