If you want to fight rape culture, start with your friends

Timea Iliffe

It’s an anti-feminist talking point that “rape culture” doesn’t exist because of how reviled the figure of the stereotypical rapist is in popular culture. If a movie wants to immediately convey that you should loathe a particular character, there’s little more effective it can do than cast him as the shadowy figure waiting in a dark alley, or the older man leering at a bar. Conversely, there’s a particular satisfaction in allowing a hero to prove himself with acts of justified violence against this kind of villain, or even better, allowing your strong female lead of choice to empower herself with some slick self-defence against Predator #1 and #2. And so, the argument goes, given this obvious cultural revulsion, can we really contest that something like “rape culture” exists?

This assertion would work if the image of assault given to us by our culture as a general rule reflected the realities of sexual violence as it actually happens. Sexual violence perpetrated by strangers does, of course, happen, and is no more or less serious than any other kind of assault. But the cultural image of “the” rapist as an unknown figure lurking in the shadows serves far more to enable predators than it does help to hold them to account. If people who commit assault are looming strangers who may as well have their intentions tattooed across their foreheads, how could they possibly be the innocuous-looking men playing on your sports teams, or strolling through the college grounds, or taking their girlfriends out for dinner? How could it possibly be one of your friends?

I’ve used male pronouns up to this point, but this applies as well to perpetrators and survivors of all genders. While sexual violence is overwhelmingly committed by men, and suffered in significantly greater degrees by women, anyone of any gender can commit or experience assault. A cultural image of the perpetrator as exclusively male only serves to silence and diminish the experiences of men who survive sexual violence and gives women who commit assault a free pass to not recognise their actions reflected in the image of the assailant. Broadly, any one idea of what an assailant looks like blinds us to the realities of sexual violence – as a problem not abstracted to some dark corner, but as one that thrives in daylight, among people you cannot bring yourself to recognise as rapists.

Which brings us to the question, as any good Instagram infographic will ask you, “What Can I Do To Help?”. In a culture where, at least on the surface, the call to believe and support survivors is broadly accepted, displaying a public commitment to the cause of fighting sexual harassment carries useful social capital, the mark of being an engaged feminist or a “good ally”. The issue is that this commitment rarely extends beyond this publicity, beyond caring about survivors while their voices happen to be topical and can be expressed in ways that match the colour of your feed.

This is not to be against sharing resources or information via social media on sexual violence, or any other cause you care about. But reposting the latest statistic that’s already been shared on five of your friends’ Instagram stories while you remain friends with abusers does very little for the people who are actually watching – except, perhaps, convince them that you’re one of the good ones. At best, it’s taking the smallest steps to tackle a vast problem, so long as they come at no personal cost to you. At worst, it’s an attempt to cloak yourself in the opinion that lets you preserve your own image, while you protect and promote the abusers in your own life. All of it is inadequate.

Understandably, confronting or cutting off the people in your life can be uncomfortable. Something that can also be uncomfortable is living as a survivor of sexual violence amongst people who care so little about your experiences that they will not lift a finger to end a friendship with an abuser, let alone think about removing them from a JCR, a society or a sports team. Supporting survivors isn’t just about attending marches or taking a day off clubbing. It’s about doing the real, awkward, tense work of calling out and cutting ties with the people in your life whose behaviour you have to wince to excuse. It is rarely fun. But discomfort, as a general rule, is a good metric for the things that actually produce change.

So much discourse surrounding sexual violence exists to create distance between us and them, the dark, anonymous world of rapists and chauvinists, shadowed older men, the subjects of Oxwarnings. The distance you imagine doesn’t exist. If you want to find a rapist, you don’t have to scour back alleys on the outskirts of Oxford. You just have to look around. Sexual predators are at your university, are at your local pub, are upstanding members of your college faculty. They’re playing on your sports teams, and they’re at the crewdates after. They’re getting elected to your JCR, and they’re president of your student society of choice. And half the time, yes, they’re reposting infographics on street harrasment or liking posts about Sarah Everard or sitting through a mandatory consent workshop. Ending sexual violence doesn’t just start with the anonymous violence you think it does, the older other, the figure on the side of the street. It starts with everyone you know.