This week three stories appeared in the national press about university students, both men and women, using frosh week as an occasion to celebrate rape.
The first story to break concerned “student leaders” at St. Mary’s University in Halifax who encouraged new students to chant a rhyme about raping underage girls. Next we learned that business students at the University of British Columbia had latched onto the same rape chant, while engineering students at Newfoundland’s Memorial University passed out mugs proclaiming, “If she’s thirsty, give her the D.” The phrase derives from the name of a porn site.
In a recent survey of undergraduate students at Canadian universities, four out of five women reported that they had experienced violence at the hands of men they were dating. Of those, 29 per cent had been the victims of sexual assault. In a separate survey, 60 per cent of college-aged males said they would rape a woman if they were certain they could get away with it.
How have we arrived at a place where young men take the idea of rape so casually, where even young women in the highest-risk age group think it’s OK to celebrate rape in public? Matt Gurney has it all figured out. According to the National Post columnist, “An investigation into these incidents is wasted effort because everyone knows full damn well what the problem is: teenagers are idiots…. Investigation complete!”
Gee, thanks, Matt, that clears everything up. Well, almost everything. We understand that, as you say, “Teenagers are impulsive, have lousy decision-making skills and are highly vulnerable to peer pressure.” There’s nothing like a good stereotype to put things in perspective. But there is just the small question of context.
In 1914, youths were expressing their idiocy by volunteering to go to a war they knew next to nothing about. In 1970 idiotic teens were trapped in the delusion that sex, drugs, and rock and roll could put and end to war, famine and school. In 2013, they’re chanting about raping each other’s little sisters.
These are all excellent examples of the dangerous stupidity of the young, but they’re hardly interchangeable. We’re still left with the question, why this idiocy, and why now? In 1914, young people were influenced by a culture of imperialism, in 1970 by a culture of self-indulgence. Today it would appear they live in a culture that says rape is cool if you can get away with it.
Where a mature society might promote the freedom to follow one’s sexuality, the duty to play responsibly, and the joy of sharing good sex with an equal partner, today’s advertising-driven pop culture teaches success through sexual conformity: men be macho, women be available, girls be women before your time, boys start learning sexual opportunism long before you’re ready to understand what that means.
In support of his tidy explanation for rape chants on campuses, Gurney offers the evidence that he himself was an idiot as a youth, guilty of “stupid pranks, minor trespassing,” lots of “stupid, hurtful” remarks, and at least one act of drunkenness serious enough to involve the police.
He produces no evidence in support of the claim that idiocy was a function of his youth, and has since passed, but let’s take that as a given. At least one of the things he confesses to – binge-drinking on over-proof alcohol – has proven fatal for a number of young people, tragedies which might have been avoided if the young weren’t socialized to drink like fools.
By the same token, if young men were not socialized to see women as commodities, and themselves as consumers, they might be less inclined toward rape. But what is to be done? Censorship is neither a desirable solution, nor possible in this mass-media age. People young and old will continue to be exposed to images of women and girls as sex toys, and men as careless little boys who may be forgiven for misusing their playthings.
All we can do is offer a counter-narrative, one in which young people are not assumed to be idiots, and the presumed impulsive foolishness of youth is not made an excuse for self-destructive or criminal behaviour. As soon as they are capable of understanding, children need to begin a comprehensive sex education, one that teaches them that sex between equals is a beautiful and desirable thing.
We can’t ban rape language. No law will change the fact that, in pop culture, the word “bitch” means both a woman and a slave. But we can make a counter-offer. We can present the language of love, and of equality. We can also be honest and frank about rape, be clear that it’s not a joke but a horror, an assault from which few ever fully recover, and a very serious crime.
Here’s a tiny first step down that road we media types could take. Almost every news story about the college rape chants refers to child rape as “non-consensual sex with minors.” That’s like calling murder non-consensual death. If we want to build a culture that discourages rape, let’s start by calling it what it is.
Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.