In which I get all serious about sexual violence and sexual threats

A slightly disturbing incident got me thinking this morning. I answered the phone to one of those computer maintenance scammers. I work mainly from home so this is a fairly common event. For those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with this scam, there’s a discussion of the details here on the Money Saving Expert Forum.

Now I take a fairly dim view of this sort of call. Most of the time I just hang-up, but sometimes, when I’m bored, I play along for a while just to see how it works. Today was one of those days. I went along with the caller until we got to the point when he wanted me to bring up a Windows command prompt and type in his instructions. I politely declined, at which point he asked if I was a bitch-whore. I said no, and he replied that he was going to rape and sexually abuse me. At that point I laid the phone handset down on the other side of the desk and let the caller rant to himself until he ran out of steam and hung up about two minutes later.

Not a happy phone call, obviously. Not desperately scary though. The call seemed to originate overseas, so the threat, in this case, was very obviously just words, but it’s the choice of words that I want to get out in public and have a jolly good look at. Here we had a man who was slightly irritated by a woman, and chose a really specific set of language to threaten her with. The language was explicit, violent and sexual, but, sadly, it wasn’t unusual.

Female writers and bloggers talk about receiving sexual threats and abuse here. Social networking sites host pages of misogynist “humour” – you don’t believe me? Hop over to facebook and try searching for “rapist” to see just a few of the pages of rape jokes available. If you feel like doing that would rot your soul, you can read the BBC’s take on the story from last year here. The particular page discussed in that article has been taken down, but there are plenty more still live. Similiarly take a look at the youtube comments under any video featuring a female performer. Comments on the woman’s fuckability and the willingness of commenters to force themselves on her are not uncommon.

So sexually violent language is out there on the internet, and, it turns out, potentially coming down the phone lines into your home. It’s also in print. Some of the language in the mainstream lads’ mags is so extreme that readers can’t differentiate between the views of women expressed in those popular magazines and those espressed by convicted rapists. Websites targeting young men use the same language and express similar views. The recent closure of the UniLad website was noted more for the fact that the site apologised for an article lightheartedly advocating rape, than for the fact that they published the article to start with. Even after the website owners apologised, some of their readers took the view that the only problem with the article was that women couldn’t take a joke.

And rape jokes are increasingly mainstream. Comedians including Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand, Brendan Burns and Sarah Millican have all included rape-jokes in their live shows. Now I don’t want to get into an offensiveness of comedy debate here. In principle I don’t think any subjects are off-limits for any art form, but with comedy there’s an issue about whether we’re being asked to laugh at something or someone or to laugh alongside them in a way that normalizes and condones the activity being discussed. So in Jimmy Carr’s joke “What do nine out of 10 people enjoy? / Gang rape” it doesn’t feel like the joke is at the rapists’ expense. It feels to me like we’re being invited to laugh with them, not at them. Plenty of people would say that doesn’t matter. They would agree with those UniLad readers and say that a joke it just a joke, and that to suggest any wider significance is uptight in the extreme.

So are they right? Does the use of sexually violent language in jokes or at an anonymous distance from the recipient necessarily matter? Does it translate into realworld threats?  End Violence Against Women have looked in depth at realworld experiences of sexual threats and violence. They found that nearly 1/3 of 16-18 year old girls had experienced “unwanted sexual touching” at school, and around the same proportion of teenage girls have experienced sexual violence from a partner.

Sexual threat and sexual violence are real. They’re not unusual, and our criminal justice system’s record in addressing sexual violence is pitiful. Around 6% of reported rapes lead to a successful conviction.  I’d suggest our attitude, as a society, to sexual violence is at the centre of that low conviction rate. If we believe that a woman who flirts can’t really have been raped, if we believe that a woman who’s been drinking can’t really have been raped, if we believe that a wife can’t really be raped by her husband, then those women are less likely to contact the police; they’re less likely to follow the process through to trial; and a jury is less likely to believe them, because juries are us. They live in the society that we create. So if we believe that sexual violence is not such a big deal,  that’s what the jury will believe.

Joking about sexual violence, saying we’ve been “fraped” if a mate logs into our facebook, using words like whore and bitch to describe women helps create that society. It makes sexual aggression feel normal, feel ok, feel like an irritation we’re expected to make light of and soldier past. And it’s not. It’s not ok, and the more of us, women and men, who are prepared to say so, loudly and repeatedly and without fear of being told that we’re uptight and just not getting the joke, the better.