Over breakfast one morning when I was maybe 14 or 15 years old, my grandfather advised me to ‘keep [my] knees together’. To this day, I have no idea what prompted this seemingly random statement.
As an awkward adolescent sitting at breakfast in a restaurant with her family, I was mortified. From the faces of everyone except my grandfather and the choked chortling coming from the wait staff, it’s one of my most vivid memories of my grandfather and one I’d rather not recall quite so easily. The message, however, was as clear then as it is now: my own actions as a girl or woman will be interpreted by others and either invite judgements of virtue or exploitation and I alone hold responsibility over whatever happens. In other words, what happens to me (sexually) is my ‘fault’.
Horseshit, I say, now as I did then. I am of course responsible for the choices I make and decisions I take. But, I am not an object.
Nearly 30 years later and armed with a firm understanding of feminism, sexual justice, and the notion that there is no justification for the subjugation or exploitation of anyone, it’s discouraging to hear what is passing as a project aimed at today’s youth in West Virginia.
Labelled Project Future Two-a-Days, the ‘social media and drug education’ programme launched in August is aimed at high school athletes and guiding them on ‘avoiding trouble on the internet‘. Basically, it teaches young athletes how not to tweet, text or post to social media any evidence which might incriminate them or lead to criminal charges against them.
That is, things happen when you add drugs, alcohol, smartphones and raging hormones. Don’t share it via social media and here’s how you can avoid getting caught.
Maybe, in all this training, we can insert a little bit of guidance on not sexually assaulting young girls? Maybe a little something about ‘consensual sex’ and its meaning? And, hey, whilst we’re at it, maybe we could talk about safer sex? Since the programme mentions drug education, maybe we can also add a little about responsible drinking and drugs behaviour as well?
But, no, the idea is to not get caught — not to not do it in the first place. That it is designed for young male athletes is rather shocking.
News this week has showcased yet another town’s lovely treatment of a pair of young girls who were raped (at a star football player’s home and by him and his friends), one girl being left for dead on her lawn in freezing temps. Despite both physical and digital evidence, despite eye witness accounts from the younger girl and several of the other boys there, and despite what appears to be confessions from the two boys who assaulted the girls, the charges were mysteriously dropped. Instead, the two girls — one 13 and another 14 — were blamed for what happened to them and much of the town stands firmly behind the boys who perpetrated rape whilst publicly shaming the girls.
‘They asked for it’. ‘They deserved it’. ‘Matt 1: Daisy 0’ read one viscious t-shirt — Matt being the star football player, Daisy being the girl left for dead. That t-shirt was worn by another girl.
How many times will this happen? How many times has it happened and gone unreported?
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network provides a depressing answer to that last question: out of every 100 rapes, 54 go unreported. Only three out of every 100 rapists will spend a single day in jail for the crime(s) they commit. Three. I think we can agree that that is appalling.
There is no justice figures like these. Whilst these are figures for all rapes regardless of age, given the reluctance of most kids to talk about sex let alone sexual violence and drugs and alcohol with their parents, it’s easy to imagine that most instances of rape in adolescents go unreported to anyone. But, by all means, let’s start programmes which teach young men how to get away with sexually assaulting young girls.
Gloria Steinem may have been speaking on a seemingly unrelated issue when she recently said that we need to ‘change the culture‘. But, that seems precisely what we need to do. Rather than teaching boys and young men how not to get caught and to not post videos or pictures of their friends raping young girls, we have the tools and responsibility to teach them how to respect young girls and how NOT to rape young girls. We should spend a little energy and time imparting upon them that girls and women are not simply sexual objects — young girls are equally important and valuable — intellectually, socially and culturally. Let’s provide young people with healthy notions of relationships of all types.
And, while we’re at it, let’s teach young girls (and young boys) that have been sexually assaulted that they won’t be blamed for the heinous acts perpetrated against them. They will not be shamed by their community simply because the popular, well-connected individual is the guilty party. It is not their fault when a violent crime is committed against them.
The only way we can change the culture of rape and the culture of objectification is to call it what it is and hold those accountable for turning a blind eye. And, we commit further crimes when we blame those against whom such crimes have been perpetrated.
Thirty years on from that mortifying breakfast and I am realising nothing has really changed. But, that doesn’t mean it can’t.