I was 11 when I was first called a slut. I’d been warned about “the s word” the year prior by a friend who was a year older than me. “It’s worse than the f word!” she told me, eyes wide. Little did I know at the time that it would soon become a regular epithet.
The word now has about as much effect as it would if you called me a turnip, but the culture it is part of has hurt me in ways I’m not sure I can even fully appreciate. From words like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ and ‘cunt’ – which sting like tiny pin pricks now, barely piercing my well-worn armour – to sexual harassment and abuse, rape culture has played a persistent and damaging role in my life.
What hurts the most, however, is that for girls and young women, it seems to be getting worse. Wellington students have been in the news recently; girls for organising a well-attended and widely-covered protest at Parliament and boys for providing the inspiration for that protest by posting boastful comments about sexual assault on social media and sharing inappropriate photos of female teachers.
It’s important for me to acknowledge that many boys joined the girls’ protest, providing a visual reminder that #NotAllMen are down with rape culture, but the fact that a protest was needed in the first place poses a number of awkward questions that society would really rather not answer.
How have some boys come to think that this kind of behaviour is okay? Where are these attitudes coming from? Who is responsible for addressing this issue? How can we fix it? How widespread is the problem?
While many of these questions have no simple solutions, I can answer the last one. Wellington is no outlier. Similar things are happening around the country. A similar thing happened to me a few weeks ago.
Recently, I gave a short talk at a school about a seemingly innocuous topic (which was unusual for me, to be honest – I don’t believe I said the word ‘sex’ once). About an hour later, I found that my Instagram account was suddenly blowing up. A group of students had found me online, and proceeded to send me lovely little messages like the following over the course of a few hours:
“You’re the reason why I hit woman You stupid two hole”
“Feminist’s are scum of the earth”
“You need to shove your stupid incorrect prejudice opinions up your gaping cunt”
“Learn how to take negative criticism over the internet before you and your feminist disease thing you can crawl up from the gutters and attack on normal civilised society. Life was good when women couldn’t vote.”
“Y’all mind if I hit that thot*”
“You are a disgusting hoe that uses feminism as justification for not getting any dick because you’ve past your used by date just like every other piece of meat that has been left on the shelves for too long.”
These comments are disturbing, but the only emotion I felt during the Instagram frenzy was exhaustion. It occurred to me afterwards that I’m so used to being attacked on social media that I watched this all play out as I would read a weather report. This kind of abuse has afforded me a kind of protective derealisation. I’m so desensitised and numb that none of it feels real anymore. It just is what it is.
To the school’s credit, when I reported the incident it was dealt with swiftly and thoroughly. I couldn’t have asked for a better response. Most of the students involved were quickly identified, a significant amount of soul searching took place, and every effort was made to provide both appropriate consequences and learning opportunities. The process will be ongoing, but as someone who unexpectedly found herself in the position of ‘victim’, it was heartening to work with a school that was willing to tackle the issues head on.
Nationally, however, it is time for all schools to act. Not just in response to embarrassing incidents, but to try to prevent them from happening in the first place. I know from experience that there are some schools that are doing incredible work in this area, including the school I spoke at, but it’s a challenge that every school needs to embrace head on.
It’s also a battle that can’t be fought by schools alone. Parents must step up. So must the Government. In a time when rape culture rears its ugly head often, there is no room for an ambivalent sexuality education curriculum. Consent and respect must be taught in our schools, to protect and empower our girls and our boys (and our rangatahi of any other genders).
It is time to acknowledge that more and more boys are accessing violent online porn. They are dehumanising women in ways that could never be taught by a simple Playboy centrefold.
A number of them are also hanging out on sites like 4chan (and its many newer descendants), and buying into movements that attack women online for sport. While reasonable adults may look at figures like Milo Yiannopolous and Roosh and dismiss them as ridiculous lost boys who crave attention, many angry young men view them as heroes.
An unholy combination of youthful insecurity, teenaged angst, burgeoning sexuality and unlimited access to various forms of violence against women has created the perfect storm.
As much as I don’t enjoy being caught up in the roaring winds of misogyny, I’m much more concerned for the girls who are growing up alongside these boys. I’m also concerned about the boys who don’t fit into the hyper-masculine ideal. I stand staunchly in solidarity with all those who marched to Parliament this week. It is inspiring to see young women leading the charge in the fight against rape culture.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an attack on boys or men. This is a plea for our society to do something about the ugly mess we’ve found ourselves in.
Rape culture is real. It is happening. And it warrants urgent action.
*For the uninitiated, a ‘thot’ is another word for a ‘hoe’ (or a ‘whore’). Charming.