Rachel Hunter, producer of this week's CUSU Women's Campaign-backed play, on the trivialisation of rape
by Rachel Hunter
Friday 26th October 2012, 13:32 BST
‘Facebook Rape’. The phrase, bandied around constantly and certainly in my circle the most common use of the word ‘rape’ contains connotations of entertainment, pranks and boredom. ‘Fraping’, especially since the increased ownership of smartphones and tablets, hit my newsfeed hard the moment my friends and I left for university, and yet very little consideration is given to the term itself. For what is essentially harmless and trivial fun regarding a social networking site has been branded with a word which contains every contrary connotation: the crime of forcing one person to have sex with another.
US Senate nominee Todd Akin’s statement that ‘If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down’ appalled the media and world alike. Such ignorance was shocking, but revealed a telling stereotype of the action of rape: a man attacking a scantily clad woman, previously strangers, in a darkened alleyway: heterosexual, unforeseen and unaccountable; the responsibility of the perpetrator and not of society as a whole. It is this view of rape, or sexual harassment in general, that is the issue.
In over 30 countries, including Singapore, China and Egypt, marital rape is not a crime. A woman is unable to stand up in court and accuse her husband of forcing her to have sex with him. Whilst it is illegal in this country to commit such a crime, it appears difficult to draw the line on what is, and is not sexual assault. Where rape is portrayed as an act of abuse, and therefore treated as such in all circumstances, often a concern is felt that without active violence no crime has been committed. George Galloway, who spoke last year at the Cambridge Union (to which writer Zadie Smith refused to return, branding it a ‘sexist institution’) and returns to speak at the Wilberforce Society this term, explained away the accusation against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange of putting his penis into a sleeping woman as ‘bad sexual etiquette’. And so the trivialisation of rape continues.
I have had friends explain to me that they entered into sexual situations because ‘I felt bad for him’, indeed even seen groups of girls in a room laughing about this fact. Where intercourse hasn’t felt comfortable, I have heard girls agree that ‘giving him head’ was a fair alternative - an action which has given them no sexual pleasure whatsoever. Whilst this is not an act of rape itself, it’s the obligation behind it which is the issue. I have heard stories of girls being groped, Savile-esque, in interviews for positions in city jobs. One close friend told me that she was led into a bathroom in a bar to have forced intercourse with someone she had fancied for months, and yet because of her deep embarrassment and fear of the consequences was unable to vocalise the word ‘no’.
Student Lauren Steele’s play Did You Say No Though? with proceeds going to the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre (we're hoping to raise £1000), contains five accounts of characters affected by sexual harassment. It does not tip-toe around the issue and contains accounts of experiences which provide the ongoing debate that currently fills our headlines; experiences involving both men and women which are far removed from the stereotypical view of ‘rape’. The Week 4 lateshow at the Corpus Playroom, written and performed by a cast and team predominantly of women, challenges such issues and brings them to the fore. It questions why a women has to give details of what she was wearing to the police, while a man does not, and why it is mandatory to ask the women if she vocally refused the man’s advances.
This week, Netmums proclaimed ‘feminism dead’. Recently I went to a ‘women’s forum’ meeting in King’s, held as an opportunity for women to get together and talk about women’s rights both in and out of Cambridge: body image, academic confidence, and safety issues. Of the estimated 9000 female students at Cambridge around 30 attended. Yet the debate concerning sexual harassment rages on. The word ‘feminism’, defined in the OED simply as ‘advocacy of the equality of the sexes’ has developed connotations of bra-burning and man-hating, the larger problems concerning women passed over for argument surrounding the word itself. Hopefully the play will do something to challenge the trivialisation of a word now on the level of a "prank".