TIME to stop being coy in this age about the age of consent? Beyoncé’s new ‘visual’ album is, it has to be said, filthy. In a year that saw many public discussions on culture, sexually objectifying imagery, and sexual violence, it is fitting that the year ended with the release of this album.
In the same week as Beyoncé released her album, the final Cabinet meeing of the year tabled the Labour Party’s policy to lower the age of consent to align with ‘current social practices’, to quote Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. The Government could do worse than tune into the Beyoncé album if they wish to know more, for stamped across Beyoncé’s self-titled album, in every song and video are statements about current social practices for girls, for women, about sex, love, and gender.
Current social practice in Ireland is that the majority of children seeking support in Rape Crisis Centers in 2011 in Ireland are abused by someone they know, and 37% of them were abused by another child. Yet much current social practice is to coyly recast the rapes teenage boys commit against teenage girls as romantic, star-crossed love.
The fact is that, in our society, the older child is exceptionally vulnerable to sexual violence and that sexual violence is highly likely to be misunderstood, minimised, and denied. If we are serious about addressing this crisis then lowering the age of consent is altogether the wrong starting point.
Many of the conversations we have had in 2013 were about the ways the female body is objectified, sexualised, visual fodder in particular in pop culture. We have attempted to understand the impact of this phenomenon on young girls (rarely did we ask about the impact on boys). We went to uncomfortable places, yet one aspect we avoided talking about was, oddly enough, sexuality.
We all commented upon that Miley Cyrus twerking incident, how she stripped down and sexually objectified herself with a disinterested man almost twice her age, but we were too coy to discuss how the most uncomfortable part of it all may have been that she did it all so sexlessly.
Enter Beyoncé. In her new album, she takes on race, religion, poverty, misogyny, sexual objectification, and gender but, most of all, she takes on dehumanisation. Beyoncé takes up her position at the heart of one of the most powerful sources of misogynistic sexualisation, and pornographication — modern R&B — and radically simply tells us about her sexuality; raw, explicit, honest, erotic, complicated, holistic, pleasurable, fierce, delirious, fragile, hard, and altogether human.
To say Beyoncé’s album and its imagery is unashamedly sexual feels like a misrepresentation, since such utterings are normally associated with the anodyne misogynistic offerings of the music industry to which we have become inured. Instead, Beyoncé reclaims her sexuality for herself, and perhaps for all of us, in a way that exposes current norms of sexual explicitness as coy and gormless.
Beyoncé, in the video ‘Partition’, explores the erotic sexual fantasies of a woman; in the tender ‘No Angel’, she calls out the dehumanising impacts of poverty and gender with striking images of people all too often stereotyped and either dismissed or feared, and explores the possibility of love in hard places: “Underneath the pretty face is something complicated. I come with a set of trouble but I know that’s why you’re staying, because you are no angel either.”
In the fragile ‘Mine’, she reveals the strain motherhood put on her relationship; In ‘Rocket’, she puts all-but-extinct female sexual pleasure firmly back into the R&B frame.
And she also makes statements about the world in which girls are routinely objectified and diminished.
And throughout Beyoncé is in front of us in a way that would make a pornographer blush, with extreme close-ups which glory in her sexuality but also at times revealing un-airbrushed flaws.
Iin her arguably most political song, she calls out the infrastructure of the current social practices. In hijhab-wearing, midriff-baring, high heel-strutting, thigh-reverberating ‘Superpower’, Beyoncé eschews the patriarchy complicit shades of ‘girl power’, with its false dawn of nihilistic, individual empowerment without consideration for context.
Instead, she chooses ‘Superpower’ to talk about the “laws of the world … a subtle power” (read ‘current social practices’ here) where the revolution will be based on human connectedness, honesty and fragility: “Just like you I can be scared, just like you I hope I’m sparred, it’s tough love.”
Where are we having these conversations in Ireland? Unfortunately, much of our societal, structural, and leadership responses or lack thereof, to teen vulnerability is essentially coy. In Ireland, we have no mandatory sex education in secondary schools. Consent and relationship education is often treated as suspect, while status quo-complicit, victim-blaming safety lists for girls are seen as responsible interventions. There is no national prevalence study of children’s sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours because it was deemed unethical to ask children about the reality of their experiences as recently as 2005.
Where we do measure (adult) cultural knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour of sex and sexual health, we are invariable coy about sexual violence.
The opposite of this coyness is to get serious about understanding the world our children are navigating and to do what we can to support, empower and protect them. To engage in this conversation, rather than lowering the age of consent which permits us to disengage further? If we are looking for some pointers and possible rape prevention, safety messages for young girls, they are on this album.
One example is where Jay Z, rap superstar and also Mr Beyoncé, who in the flagrantly erotic ‘Drunk in Love’ duet with his wife, identifies his key attribute as being, ‘Niceeeee.’ In today’s culture that’s a powerful anti-rape message and it’s one for the boys.
Yes, the age of consent is an arbitrary line but, given our current social practices, lowering it is untenable. Instead we must work together to make it redundant. It will be redundant when we have a society in which boys understand that being NICE is the coolest and sexiest thing, where equality is hot, and a female’s body is always her own.
To make that a reality, we need leadership and commitment, and for our education system to support and empower young people towards the possibility of experiencing not only safe but a self-defined and fulfilling sexuality, when and if they so choose.
In short, in the face of social realities we need a leadership that is less coy and more Beyoncé about sex!
Former newspaper tycoon Eddy Shah’s has claimed some underage girls are to blame for their own sexual abuse, highlighting the persistence of the ‘she was asking for it’ narrative, writes Clíona Saidléar.
CHILDREN WILL BE children, especially teenagers it seems, and what is an older, powerful man to do if they will throw themselves at him? This was the plea made by Mr Eddy Shah this weekend when he described the ongoing UK investigations of certain men’s sexual activity with underage children, largely girls, as ‘easy policing’, ‘easy prosecutions’ and a ‘witch hunt’.
What he clearly expressed was the understanding that sexual violence committed by coercion, deceit and manipulation was largely a victim’s own fault, and this standard to even apply when the victim was a child. In contrast sexual violence that is committed with physical violence is deemed ‘real’. Yet the majority of sexual violence involves power and coercion and little if any physical violence.
Mr Shah, who was recently cleared of raping a girl between the age of 12 and 15, came out with a set of statements about powerful men (of whom he is one) and celebrities engaging in sexual activity with underage girls. He asked us to have sympathy for those men, whom he does not deny had sex with minors, who are now being investigated by the police, and rather to direct our ire at the girls and boys involved whom he claims have largely only themselves to blame.
Do the laws of decency not apply to powerful men?
The particular case Mr Shah is making is that the law and common understandings of decency should not apply in the same way to men who were and are famous and powerful. After all a 40 year old man having sex with a 12-year-old is altogether different from a 40 year old famous rockstar bestowing on a 12-year-old the privilege of his sexual attention. While the first are clearly criminal child abusers, the later are not to be held responsible as the children in question most likely threw themselves at the rockstars is the argument being made.
Mr Shah goes on to describe a child’s vulnerability, compounded by the vastly disproportionate power of the older celebrity, as mitigation for abusing that child. Exposed in this argument is an overriding sense of entitlement that sweeps away legal and common sense understandings of child abuse and responsibility. Put simply, positions of power, particularly fame, come with entitlements. Those entitlements include sex, with whomever, and the younger the better.
A sense of entitlement underlies most sexual crimes
As Mr Shah rightly points out children have always wanted to ‘appear adult and do adult things’. Does a person’s – and in particular a child’s –desire to get close to power and fame ever justify abusing and/or taking advantage of that vulnerability? If you take advantage of a grown woman in those circumstances you, at the very least, deserve to be called out as a cad. If you do it to a child you are a child abuser. No ifs, buts or maybes.
The perpetrators’ utopia that Mr Shah describes, with its stark and extreme sense of entitlement, exists in a privileged world of powerful abusers. Yet we should not forget that a sense of entitlement underlies most crimes of sexual violence. Most abusers take what is not given freely because they convince themselves they deserve, have earned or are in some way are entitled, to that other person’s body.
The challenge for us is to take the lesson from this exposure of a culture of entitlement and see how that culture plays out in everyday responses to sexual pressure, coercion and crimes.
This column was published on theJournal.ie on August 8th, 2013. You can read the original here.
A ‘One Night Stand Guide – For Him’ on the CollegeTimes.ie caused controversy today after it told men to ‘prey’ on women and get them drunk. Cliona Saidlear writes there was nothing satirical about the article.
FROM TIME TO time deeply problematic articles are written and published about sex or more precisely how to get it. These are largely but not exclusively penned by young authors and largely but not exclusively published on student and youth platforms. The latest article around which there is considerable discussion is an article published in the College Times on August 6 entitled, ‘One Night Stand Guide: For Him’.
These articles are characterised by an assumption that sexual activity amongst young people in our society is largely generated by men’s insatiable appetite for ‘no strings’ sex and these men’s capacity to trick women into ‘giving it up.’ Women are targets, men the predators.
While it is wearying and perhaps disrespectful to readers’ intelligence to point out the litany of misogyny in these articles and the clearly troubling and dangerous unrelenting assault on any concept of consent, what is less obvious and noted is the misandry that underpins every argument.
Women as sexual objects
Throughout these articles men are assigned a sexual straightjacket. They are encouraged to be opportunistic and manipulative towards fulfilling that narrow sexual objective, ejaculation inside a vagina. From the smorgasbord of sexual experience men are supposed to snatch the dry cracker and reject all other delights, with men being instructed to avoid intimacies such as ‘kissing’ and ‘look[ing] her in the eye’.
Secondly men are expected to be contradictory and duplicitous; sincere yet masters of manipulation, show kindness and compassion while being remorselessly detached and cruel, have honesty and integrity but lie flawlessly. In other words in the battleground of love, relationships and sexual activity men of otherwise sound, decent and good character are understood to operate with an altogether different set of rules. A set of rules that dehumanises and brutalises everyone involved.
When sexual activity and relationships, aspects of the human experience with so much potential for joy and fun, are reduced to a combat zone where the best that can be hoped for is to come out the murderer rather than the prey, there is little left for either sexes to be proud of or hopeful for.
The principal skills men must learn in these how-to guides are about identifying women’s existing vulnerabilities, creating and increasing those vulnerabilities and then exploring the means to use those vulnerabilities to manipulate, pressure and coerce them into unwanted sexual activity. The icing on the cake is how to then humiliate and denigrate the women who have been victimised by these tactics.
The tenuous negotiation of consent described here occurs when the man is instructed to invade a woman’s body space in seemingly innocuous ways, a hand placed on the small of her back, and if the woman does not react with aggression then she is understood to have given the green light.
The women are name called and belittled throughout. In this latest article the author cranks up the misogyny with each paragraph first likening women to dogs, then horses, fish, ducklings, baby gazelles and finally simply as ‘prey’. These dehumanisations underscored by an accompanying cartoon from a popular tv show of a couple in bed with the female depicted as a rhinoceros.
However, much more sinister is the fact that in the final utterance of the article women are humanised again by virtue of the ‘successful’ male ‘hero’ of the piece being likened to a ‘murderer’. Murder being, by definition, something only one human being can do to another.
This article first appeared on theJournal.ie on August 8th, 2013. You can read the original here.
It is not only sex that sells, it appears rape culture also sells, and it sells Coca Cola.
Only 30% of 2011 Rape Crisis Centre clients had reported the crime to the Gardaí. Ultimately, this figure should be recognised for what it is, a failure. The majority of survivors of sexual violence crimes choose not to seek justice and reporting one of the most serious violent crimes on our statute books is the exception, not the norm.
Yet 30% suggests a vast improvement. While the figures are not directly comparable, only a decade ago the national prevalence study (the SAVI report) found that only 10% of all survivors were reporting the crimes to the formal authorities.
What has and is changing are our laws, formal policy and guidance, particularly concerning child protection, at the same time the RCNI and our member Rape Crisis Centres have been working closely with statutory agencies, the Gardaí in particular, transforming the range of supports, expertise, communications and responses available to ensure the least added trauma to a survivor engaging with the system.
Yet still only 30% of survivors make the choice to engage with the authorities. While there are many detailed reasons why each survivor makes the personal choice that is right for them in their own circumstances, one overwhelming aspect weighing heavily on every survivor’s decision, is culture.
Survivors often choose not to tell because they make the assessment that they will not be believed; that they will be judged; that they will be blamed; that their character and behaviour will become part of a story that is told about how the perpetrator who chose to rape them wasn’t entirely responsible. This is rape culture.
Victims assess that they, the victim, will be held accountable for the upset caused to loved ones by the crime. Survivors will often assume the responsibility of protecting others from the harm caused by the rapist, that responsibility will often cost them their chance at justice and perhaps even support. These victims will assess that cost as the lesser of two evils. That is rape culture.
Those assessments are made by a survivor because they have spent a lifetime learning the rules. These rules are based on a simple truism which states that women and men are sexually unequal with men having higher and at times almost uncontrollable (and always heterosexual) sex drives.
The rules therefore state that given women’s bodies tempt men; a good woman should take it upon herself to protect herself, and indeed men, from the temptation she presents to men. Men who resist their ‘natural’ instincts to take women regardless of their consent are good men and furthermore should act to protect their women from all other men, none of whom can be trusted, forming a never-ending gendered protection racket.
In this story a woman’s sexual experiences are not her own rather they are men’s experiences of desiring, protecting, resisting or abusing her. A woman’s voice, a woman’s choice and a woman’s right to say YES has little space here. Put in these stark terms it sound preposterous (probably because it is) but this makes it no less real.
The messages reminding us of these rules are everywhere in the fabric of our culture sometimes in the most innocent of places. Witness one of the latest Coca cola ads where the viewer is invited to feel uplifted by the endearing and positive young teenage boy who is proudly declaring his act of controlling his sister’s sexuality while playfully chiding his friend to obey his command to keep his hands off his sister. He does not demand his friend listens to his sister, he demands he listen to him. It is not only sex that sells, it appears rape culture also sells, and it sells Coca Cola.
For victims of sexual violence crimes the impact of this story of unequal genders and sexuality and its rules often means that they blame themselves, choose silence and experience added trauma.
Therefore, the child groomed to perform sexual acts will understand the ‘truth’ in the words spoken by their abuser that the child provoked the assault and that the abuser cannot help themselves. They will understand that they deserved this because not only did they grow up in a home where they were told they were worthless but they also understand when the abuser explains these acts are their shame.
The boy being raped will accept that he should be enjoying this, even though he doesn’t, because he has been exposed to pornography since he was 9 that told him real men always enjoy sex. The 15 year old girl will know that because she was drinking underage when she was raped she has no one to blame but herself because she had been warned all her life that bad things happened to bad girls. The middle aged woman, who took a lift home with a man she was on a date with, will know that if she had wanted to call what happened next ‘rape’, she should not have let him pay for dinner and give her a lift home. The woman who fell asleep in a bed at a party and woke to find someone she had spoken to earlier that night raping her, will know they both know she will not report him because she has already been set up by a list of ‘stay safe’ rules, many of which they both know she has already broken that night. Like the majority of victims of sexual violence crimes they will not report.
Until we change the script and take equality seriously, we will live in a culture where victims of sexual violence struggle with self-blame, society judges victims and Coca Cola sells soft drinks to children with a ‘feel good’ message about sexual violence that does not condemn sexual aggression, does not challenge a potential perpetrator to respect and listen to a girl’s lack of consent, but rather cements two teenage boys’ friendship on the winning side of a game whose backdrop is the ever present threat of rape.
This article first appeared in the Daily Mail in July 2013.
Over the past year, the RCNI’s Calling Time on Sexual Violence series has examined the issue and role of alcohol consumption in incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence in Ireland. This series makes clear that while alcohol does not cause sexual violence, it significantly contributes to the attitudes, behaviours and contexts in which sexual violence is more likely to happen and which make recovery and justice more difficult to attain. Read more
Over the 9th and 10th of November, 2012, the third International Conference on Survivors of Rape (ICSoR) was held at NUI Galway, hosted by the Rape Crisis Network Ireland. This conference drew together international experts, service-workers and survivors of rape and sexual violence to examine issues and responses to rape and sexual violence. Read more
Service providers have an important role to play in recording data that can be used to monitor and evaluate sexual violence in Ireland. Given the prevalence of alcohol in sexual violence in Ireland [i] collecting data in relation to alcohol consumption and attitudes towards alcohol and sex is of considerable importance to ensure effective policies and programmes. Read more
The facts suggest that alcohol is the most common drug used to facilitate sexual assaults and rape[i]. Although drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB have received much attention internationally as ‘date-rape drugs’, in Ireland, there has been no evidence to suggest that they are used with regularity in incidents of sexual assault[ii]. Read more
Rape and Justice in Ireland (RAJI) identified that adult victims of rape in Ireland are predominantly young, with half of all reported rapes involving a victim under the age of 25. Those accused of rape were also young: 33% of those accused of rape were under the age of 25.[i] The RAJI study did not include victims or perpetrators of rape under the age of 18; however, evidence suggests that sexual violence perpetrated by, and against, those in the 14-18 year old category is common[ii] . Service providers in Ireland note that sexual violence against girls in this age category increasingly resembles sexual violence committed against adult women rather than younger children. [iii]