Trigger Warning for rape apologism.
A few months back, I wrote an article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free about a U.K. study, which showed a significant number of respondents thought that some rape victims were at least partially to blame for their attacks. The various reasons that respondents blamed women were the unsurprising — if she had been drinking, if she had worn something revealing, if she had engaged in some other kind of sexual contact with the rapist, etc. — but no less disturbing than they’ve always been.
Well, it seems like someone in the Scottish government decided to do something about it. Rape Crisis Scotland has launched the “Not Ever” campaign — the title referring to when, exactly, a rape victim is actually to blame for a rape.
The television ad, which has just been released, focuses on the rape myth that women who dress a certain way are “asking” to be raped. (And thank you, BBC, for putting the word “myth” in scare quotes, as well as “prejudice.” What ever would we have done without that oh-so-subtle dismissal?) The ad can be seen on the Not Ever website or below:
A scene of a party. A pale blond woman in her 20s stands talking to two men, one pale and one with darker skin. She wears a black top and sparkly blue skirt, and all parties hold drinks in their hands and appear to be having a good time.
Woman: (laughing playfully) You’re terrible! (laughs) You’re so bad! Shut up!
Cut to two presumably white men across the room.
Man One: (looks at woman, sucks in air between his teeth) Check out the skirt! She’s asking for it.
Man Two: (laughs)
Cut to scene of the same woman in a department store. She pulls two skirts off the rack, one the sparkly blue skirt she wears at the party, and takes turns holding up each one to her hips. A sales assistant, a pale middle-aged woman, walks up to her.
Sales Assistant: Can I help?
Woman: Yeah, thanks. I’m going out tonight and I want to get raped. (smiles) I need a skirt that will encourage a guy to have sex with me against my will. (holds up each skirt again)
Sales Assistant: (smiles eagerly and folds arms across chest) The blue one. Definitely the blue.
Woman: (nods and smiles)
Woman turns and directly faces camera, with a sarcastic look on her face.
Woman: As if.
Male Voiceover: Nobody asks to be raped. Ever.
Here is what I love about this ad: it treats rape apologist attitudes as a problem, regardless of whether or not they refer to a specific rape. There is no indication in the commercial that the woman has actually been raped. There is no indication that she will be raped. There is no indication that the man who makes the “she’s asking for it” comment is actually planning on raping her, or anyone else, for that matter. And still, in spite of all of this, his comments are dangerous, they have a real impact, and they are worthy of our attention. They’re worthy, in fact, of a PSA about how incredibly fucked up they are. All on their own.
And that, I think, is absolutely fabulous.
Here’s what else I love about this ad: while there’s no indication whatsoever that the man is a rapist, there’s no way to tell for sure that he’s not, either. As Thomas has pointed out many times at Yes Means Yes, while not all men who make rape apologist jokes are rapists, rapists do tend to make rape jokes and apologist comments. Leaving the man’s motives up to interpretation thus manages to do two important things: tell guys who aren’t rapists but think that rape is something fun to joke about that it’s not, as well as tells guys that if their friend is making these types of comments, you should probably point out that it’s not cool. As bystander behavior is incredibly important, I have to say that I love this potential dual effect.
A few points are also scored for the casting. While it’s my understanding that beauty standards on UK television are far less rigid than they are in the U.S., I still appreciate that the man making rape apologist jokes is an average looking guy — not “hot,” not purposely and “demonically” ugly — and that the woman, while pretty, looks like someone you might see walking down the street. Of course, we can also talk about how, yet again, the woman in the ad who is portrayed as most definitely not to blame is presumably white, middle-class, abled, straight, and cis, when women who are not these things are likely to face even worse blame. That’s a disappointment, though on the race front at least it’s worth noting that my research says Scotland is about 98% white — not meaning that erasure is therefore acceptable and harmless, as I’m sure many non-white Scots will tell you, but simply that we’re dealing with a different climate than the ones I usually write about (and therefore can’t effectively speak to).
Sadly, for a campaign which I unusually happen to have very few other complaints about, it all starts to break down on the website.
Most of the material on the site is great. In addition to the section about “dress” that goes with the ad, there are also short but smart sections about rape myths involving “drinking” and “intimacy” — and when I saw that the latter actually used the phrase “sexual autonomy,” I damn near swooned.
The problem is with the “Have Your Say” section of the site. The section can’t be avoided by browsers — excerpts appear right on the front page. As I write this, the five comments scrolling across the front page are as follows, three anti-rape, two rape apologist:
“Rape seems to be the only crime where it’s seen as ok to put the victim on trial.” Natasha, Female from Glasgow
“Every woman has the right to wear the clothes she likes, have fun with her friends and has the right to say no at any point, without the fear of rape.” Jo, Female
“Women need to understand men don’t think logically when they are aroused, and its the way they dress and act that arouses men.” James, Male
“It’s about time there was a campaign about something other than women having to curtail their actions to prevent rape.” Mooji, Female
“Obviously its ridiculous to think that anyone ever “wants or deserves” to be raped but to ignore that how someone behaves affects the possibility of their being raped is foolish and to start a campaign to deny it is irresponsible.” Mark, Male
The comments from James and Mark are the exact opposite of what this campaign is trying to get across — they fully represent the attitudes it wants combat. I could understand taking these comment and addressing them on a serious level as an educational tool. But placing them on the front page of the site uncritically just about undoes the job the campaign seemingly intends to do.
Users are also invited to share their views on the forum (trigger warning). I opted to not delve too far into it, but from what I did see, the many thoughtful users who are posting have not prevented it from nonetheless quickly turning into a space where rape apologist views can be freely aired, often unchallenged. This is especially sad, as I think the user oriented parts of the site have transformative potential — if moderators and educators were watching and engaging with topics, it could serve as a great 101 learning space. Some users are in fact asking questions, and those questions deserve to be answered. Unchecked, rape apologist, victim-blaming tirades, on the other hand, don’t serve to educate anyone of anything.
Website moderation matters. As I’m sure most people here would agree, if you’re going to allow comments, it’s part of the job of running a website. I know better than anyone that moderation can be difficult — it can be overwhelming, it can be triggering, and sometimes it can feel outright impossible. But here, I can’t even see the faintest illusion of trying.
I’d really, really love to see Not Ever get the website situation under control — either moderating out rape apologist comments and discussion topics, or directly challenging them and using them as learning tools when they do appear — because I otherwise think the campaign is pretty great. Great enough, in fact, that I’m really curious as to whether or not they’ll do future ads about rape myths surrounding drinking and intimacy, and look forward to seeing them if they do. I also noticed that they’re doing some polls on the site, with some of the results coming out disturbing — I’d love to see them use the information they gather as a resource for effectively extending the campaign.
What are your thoughts on “Not Ever”?
Thanks to Pamela for the heads up.
UPDATE: Video added, some text updated to reflect that it is embedded in the post. Rape Crisis Scotland has also responded to the critiques of the website in comments!