By Laura Bates
In all my interviews with young women, my visits to schools and the Everyday Sexism Project entries I’ve received from girls, one theme crops up again and again: confusion and misconceptions about rape.
In part, these are fueled and perpetuated by the portrayal of sex in online porn, which sometimes shows women being hurt, degraded or abused. One parent reported that at her child’s school, a part of the playground difficult to see by supervisors was known as “the rape corner.” Other accounts included teenage boys saying that “rape is a compliment really” in a classroom discussion, and young boys thinking that a girl crying and saying no was “part of foreplay.”
My stomach turned as I flicked through my emails one morning to see that a girl had contacted me in distress that her school’s 11th-grade prom was “having a biggest rapist award.” Other awards included “biggest slut.”
A 16-year-old wrote to tell us:
“My younger brother’s 13. He had his friends round last weekend and I couldn’t believe it when I heard them sitting in the front room discussing girls in their class in three categories ‘frigid’, ‘sluts’ and ‘would like to rape’.”
Another girl tweeted:
“At age 11, a classmate on a school trip stated that ‘no-one would rape me anyway because I’m too ugly’. Others only laughed at that.”
And in a heartbreaking Everyday Sexism Project entry one schoolgirl wrote:
“I am thirteen and I am so scared to have sex it makes me cry nearly every day. We had sex education in Year 6 and I felt fine about it, but now some of the boys at school keep sending us these videos of sex which are much worse than what we learnt about and it looks so horrible and like it hurts and it keeps coming into my mind and at night I get really scared that one day I will have to do it. I don’t want to speak to my mum or dad about it obviously and I feel like if I say to my friends that the videos and stuff scare me and upset me they will laugh at me and everyone will find out and pick on me for it. I try to think don’t worry you won’t have to do it for ages but everyone at school keeps acting like it’s normal and we’re meant to do it really soon like some of the boys keep asking me have I done it and can I do it with them and showing me the horrible pictures and things.
“I know it sounds stupid but I just wanted to tell someone because I feel like it’s unfair that girls have to have horrible things done to them but boys can just laugh and watch the videos and they don’t realize how scary it is. Why did they talk about sex at school like it was okay but then the real life sex that we see is so scary and painful and the woman is crying and getting hurt?”
Nothing has emerged more clearly from the Everyday Sexism Project than the urgent need for far more comprehensive mandatory sex-and-relationships education in schools, to include issues such as consent and respect, domestic violence and healthy relationships. It’s not just girls who need it so desperately. For boys, porn provides some very scary, dictatorial lessons about what it means to be a man and how they are apparently expected to exert their male dominance over women. It is as unrealistic to expect them, unaided, to instinctively work out the difference between online porn and real, caring intimacy as it is to demand the same intuition of young women.
One recent project entry described a young woman’s first sexual experience, in her late teens. Mid-intercourse, her boyfriend suddenly put his hands around her throat and started trying to strangle her. When she reacted in shock and horror, he broke down with relief and explained that, having watched similar acts in multiple porn videos, he had thought she would expect it of him.
If we don’t talk to young people about these issues, clearly and informatively, we are failing them and leaving them open to abuse.
Both boys and girls are seeing mainstream porn that suggests a woman’s role during sex is to be subjugated or humiliated, to please a man and often even to be hurt or punished. And without receiving any counter information to offset these norms, or mitigate them with ideas about consent, relationships, respect and boundaries, it is easy to see how, for some, these things could simply become accepted as the ‘reality’ of sex.
It’s futile to attempt to prevent young people from accessing porn on the Internet. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t offset its impact with clear, targeted education to provide them, at least, with an alternative narrative and to prevent what they have seen from crystallizing into unquestioned, accepted assumptions. Such standardized information is desperately needed in a world in which many young people are still receiving damaging messages from abstinence-only education and “purity balls,” suggesting that the onus should be on girls to say no, not boys to seek consent; that sexual behavior is damaging or immoral, and that girls are somehow forever tarnished after having sex, while boys largely escape unscathed or reap praise and rewards.
We should be providing sensible, age-appropriate information that allows for the notion that sex can be pleasurable and enjoyable for both partners, regardless of gender, rather than the antiquated message that it is something bad and scary that happens to girls, with boys as the active and always eager protagonists.
Said one girl:
“I always thought I was the problem. Since reading everyday sexism I’ve learnt it’s not my fault. I felt guilty for all the events. And they should be taught things like that rape isn’t only stalking a stranger down a dark alley, but taking advantage of a vulnerable girl, and how to recognize and understand when they are doing so.
If we don’t provide our children, boys and girls, with such basic information, we risk failing them all.
From Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. Copyright © 2014, 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.