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Judi Sutherland

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Dangerous Occurrences

Posted: 31/01/2013 13:15

Feminists talk about 'rape culture'. I'm not sure I buy into the terminology, although I understand what it means; that nasty brand of laddish 'humour' that denigrates women and makes sexual slurs and jokes, up to and including the premise that rape and sexual violence are acceptable and deeply hilarious. I was unsure about the term because it seems overstated; any man who hasn't actually raped a woman could dismiss 'rape culture' as being about somebody else, and not him. But rape culture, or at least a culture of sexual aggression, is pervasive, and the same internet that has given grass-roots feminists a voice also brings into the daylight the conversations that groups of men might have previously had in private, and they appear to be quite bizarrely nasty.

When I was working in a pharmaceutical facility, we followed the recommendations of RIDDOR, the 'Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations' (bear with, this will become relevant). The concept of RIDDOR is that all dangerous occurrences should be reported, no matter how small. If someone is working up a ladder and they fall a couple of feet, but aren't hurt, the reporting system kicks in. The idea is that by collecting evidence of possibly dangerous situations, management can act before a serious accident occurs. Those much-maligned Health and Safety Officers would check the forms filled in and, from the number of Dangerous Occurrences they were seeing, could detect a pyramid of incidents and intervene before a situation goes critical. There was even an expected ratio between the number of Dangerous Occurrences and Lost-Time Accidents. (I think I was the only manager in that facility who had to sign RIDDOR forms when a technician, who reported to me, had one of those old-fashioned high-level toilet cisterns fall on his head. I'm not sure that could have been predicted from the data, but I digress.)

I feel the same way now about 'rape culture'. Many of the sexually aggressive things said, and done, fall short of rape, but when they occur they are symptomatic of a situation that could turn dangerous. For every rape, maybe there is a pyramid of, say, ten serious sexual assaults, fifty gropes, two hundred catcalls, and a thousand misogynistic comments on the internet. I don't go looking for internet rape culture, but when I see it, I challenge it. I am, in a small way, acting as a Health and Safety Officer, and I think we all should.

I've just seen a tweet (what it is about Twitter that strips the thin veneer of civilisation from so many people?) from a well-known journalist who wished to bring to our attention a piece where Toby Young demolished, point by point, an article by the infamous Suzanne Moore on the state of education. This commentator described Young's riposte in these terms:

@toadmeister gives Suzanne Moore such a seeing-to she'll be walking bow-legged for months

After a few outraged replies, including one from me, the tweet was deleted and an apology given. So maybe half a dozen of us have made one media luvvie think again about the language he uses. To be fair on him, he probably forgot that some women can actually use the internet these days. I know, it's freakish, but he might have to get used to it.

It does make me sad to see so many mentions of sex in these combative terms. This lad culture / rape culture seems to think of sex as something a man does to a woman, against her will, and as an assertion of power, not pleasure. It's a video-game style win/lose transaction, with no concept of mutual benefit. At the risk of sounding like Mary Whitehouse's grandma, I'd like to add, wistfully, that 'in my day' (i.e. twenty-something years ago, when I was single) that's not the way it seemed to me. I could try and describe what I mean, but instead I'd like to quote the elegant words of poet John Siddique, who in a recent poem 'Love and the Body' described sex like this:

and all there has ever been is you and I

so easily lost in the feelings, the reaching,
and all there is, is love and the body.

It's a brilliant poem, please go take a look at it here. Is it hopelessly romantic to expect that sex might be like that, rather than a point-scoring exercise in which they win, and we lose?

I've heard it said recently that the flip side of women being afraid of physical and sexual violence from men is that men are afraid of being manipulated and trapped by women. Maybe that's what rape culture is all about. We're too smart, too feisty, we're running rings round men these days, they are afraid, they're taking it out on us. That is so sad. It doesn't have to be like that; we could be living in mutual respect. Interestingly, our rogue tweeter, in his apology, said;

I'm sorry, Suzanne, my Tweet was over the top. I've used it on with ref to men before, but I realise with women it's wrong.

So images of anal rape are ok then. What's the matter with men? They are afraid of us and afraid of each other too? Well, not all men. Poets obviously see sexual relationships more positively, whereas some tweeps just don't get it at all. Which is maybe the problem.

 

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