Still from The Piano Teacher, By Michael Hanneke
‘We know that real men know the difference between rape and consensual sex’
This is the slogan that has been chosen to summarise a campaign launched recently by Lambeth council, ‘to address the growing numbers of rapes and sexual assaults, and to remind men of the legal and social consequences of going too far’.
I HATE IT!
When I posted the link to the Lambeth website on twitter, stating I was angry and distressed by it, people asked me why?
Well I am angry for two key reasons, no, three:
1) The concept of ‘REAL MEN’ knowing the difference between sexual assault, consensual sex, harassment and flirting, delineates between ‘real men’ and ‘not real men’. It draws on the values of machismo, to make men feel they are not ‘man enough’ if they do not fit certain social norms and behaviours. So, rape is not a great way to behave, I agree. But why should it relate to someone’s ‘manliness’? Isn’t that the kind of idea feminists are supposed to oppose: that a man’s masculinity can be proven by his sexual aggressiveness? So why would using this concept in its converse form be any better? And, as Mark Simpson commented in relation to a campaign about how ‘real men don’t pay for sex’, there is an insinuation here, an underlying message, a question posed in another way: ‘What kind of man are you? That does THAT?’
2) ‘Knowing the difference’ between sexual assault and consensual sex, or sexual harassment and flirting is not always easy, for men or women.
‘Flirting makes the receiver feel happy, excited and flattered’ says Lambeth’s website. ‘It can be a fun part of a night out. But when does flirting change and become hassling? Hassling can make a person feel degraded and scared’.
When indeed? I find it often depends on my mood. What can feel like flirty fun on one evening, becomes unwanted hassling on another. Or, it can depend on who is doing the ‘flirting’. I don’t think I’d be that likely to feel harassed if I was approached by James Franco, say, in a bar. But some pissed up bloke who I didn’t fancy? Maybe that’d be more annoying. Sometimes believe it or not, women flirt and also ‘harass’ men. You only have to go into town on a Friday night to see that some groups of women out drinking and chatting up men can be just as ‘in your face’ as their male counterparts.
And when it comes to sex the lines get even more blurred. What about when you have sex with your partner out of duty rather than desire? What if you really are too drunk to make a rational decision, but both parties are as drunk as each other, and it is an unsatisfying fumble and shove in the dark? The idea that sex is either consensual, wonderful and brilliant for everyone involved, or violent, horrible and assault by a man to a woman, is what is reinforced by campaigns like ‘Know the difference…’ No, I don’t always know the difference. If I were a man would that make me a criminal?
3) This campaign is aimed at men. Legally, in England and Wales**, rape is only possible by a ‘man’ against a ‘woman’ (when we take man as someone with a penis). That’s another discussion to be had. But placing all the responsibility at men’s door for negotiating consent, and distinguishing between ‘flirting’ and ‘harassment’ , ‘sex’ and ‘assault’ is unfair and misleading.
* I mention feminism as I think this and other campaigns are informed by feminism, and research into sexual violence and ‘rape culture’ always has a feminist perspective. Also as I have said elsewhere, feminists seem intent on keeping rape ‘special’ and keeping women as ‘victims’ and the status that accords them.