21st Century Sex

Recently four Irish rugby players were acquitted of the rape of a young woman. A detailed account of the trial was published by the Irish Times. If the paper’s report is at all accurate, it seems probable that the victim was indeed raped. So confused and contradictory were the accounts of the defendants that the ring of truth is entirely lacking; in contrast the report of a medical examination, the account of a taxi driver and the record of text messages sent by one of the group that plainly suggest culpability, that it is much harder to believe that consent was given than that it wasn’t. Of course I didn’t sit through the entire trial. There may have been reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury; I do not know. What we do know for sure is that the phone records of these rugby players plainly reveal them to be misogynists. The language used to describe the victim, and their other sexual conquests, is the language of humiliation. She was to them a “spit roast” – not a person but an anonymous object in an evening of self-gratification. The “I believe her” campaign was driven by the sense of enormous injustice as yet another courtroom inquisition proceeded to visit rape by barrister on a woman who had already suffered grievously. But the flames of anger were fanned by the knowledge that these rugby players seemed relieved to be revealed to the world as just everyday woman-haters. They put on a show of remorse for the cameras and for the sake of the financial implications of their tarnished images but make no mistake: they are monsters.

Sadly they are not unique monsters – nor even uncommon ones. Young men growing up in the 21st century learn about sex early from porn sites. Spit-roasts, fisting (which caused the tears in the Irish rugby players victim’s vagina) and non-consensual sex are the everyday fare of pornography to which boys are exposed from a very early age. Taboo is hot on the world wide web, and all manner of abuse is made sexy. There is something terribly twisted about 21st century sex. Porn feeds the over-sexed brains of boys and young men with misogynistic fantasies. They want to do to girls what they see men doing to women in porn, and of course in porn the recipients of acts acts of abuse and degradation are paid to say how much it turns them on. Girls are under enormous pressure to act out what is portrayed in porn. Once porn used to consist of magazines showing photographs of naked women, and there needed at least to be an argument about the connection between this exploitation and sexual violence. But now, after decades of readily available online porn and a relentless pushing of boundaries, one doesn’t have to look hard to find the eroticisation of sexual violence and many other forms of abuse.

“Choking seems to be in fashion” writes Gail Dines in the Guardian. She writes that New York state’s attorney general was recently forced to resign “after four women accused him of choking them, as well as other types of physical assault”. In porn she says women are commonly “choked with anything from a penis to a fist to the point of gagging, and in some cases almost passing out. The victim obviously can’t speak during these acts because she is choking, so it is typically not until the end of the scene that she says, often in a hoarse voice, how much she ‘loved it’”.

This kind of material is not hard to find; it is in fact everywhere. What is it doing to the minds of young people absorbing it? I do not know the answers but I do know that we need to act. Part of the answer is undoubtedly education. We need to get young people to talk, and we need to make sure that young women are able to articulate their feelings free from the fear of being made to feel boring or prudish for simply not wanting to be willing participants in their objectification and degradation; they must be empowered to say “no” to abuse and dgradation. Censorship is frowned on in liberal circles. But we feel much less squeamish about limiting access to terrorist materials. Does the toll of terrorist atrocities exceed the toll of sexual violence attributable to porn? It’s an interesting question and I strongly suspect the answer is no.

What we can do for sure is to call out misogyny wherever it rears its ugly head. Rape victims rarely get a fair trial. The law has changed in the UK so that it should not be possible to allow a victim’s character to become a matter for consideration, but it is still too easy for barristers to do so, as we saw when the team supporting the footballer Ched Evans was allowed by a judge to make this the central plank in a defence that secured an acquittal in the face of unequivocal evidence that the victim was incapacitated by alcohol and thus incapable in law of giving consent. There is a long history of defending barristers attempting to demonstrate that the victim was a bit of a slapper, in the knowledge that the deep-seated prejudices of many jurors will turn them into his accomplices. Perhaps if we were more willing to call out misogynistic abuse for what it is, and to do so publicly and with determination, we might begin to challenge the deep-seated attitudes that make it still all to easy for men to get away with acts of sexual violence.

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