Monday, 22 November 2010

Survey unsurprisingly confirms ubiquitous rape culture

[trigger warning]

The Havens, a set of Sexual Assault Referral Centres in London, have recently released a report "Where is the line?" (PDF) on, among other things, opinions on what constitutes rape.

The survey was of Londoners aged 18-25, though its findings are likely to apply to older and younger people, in other locations, without much variance.

A quick summary of the findings:

  • Around 25% of the men sampled would "attempt to have sex" (i.e. rape) if the other person didn't want to.
  • Depending on the details, between a fifth and a third of men would assume consent to sexual activity based on previous "sexual activity". I put "sexual activity" in quotes because one in five would "expect someone to have sex with them after kissing".
  • Only 54% of men surveyed believe that if someone changes their mind and withdraws consent that it is rape to continue. (only 75% of the women surveyed believe this)
  • Only 60-70% believe that it is rape to "continue having sex with a person who is asleep"1
  • Only 47% of those asked would view being physically pushed away as indicative of a lack of consent.
  • Only 57% of those asked would assume saying "No" indicated an absence of consent. However, 77% of men and 92% of women state that continuing with sexual actions in those circumstances constitutes rape. It's not clear where the discrepancy is coming from between the two figures.
  • Only 56% of those asked say that "they would never pressure their partner into having sex with them against their will".

No gender breakdowns are given for the final three figures, but all of the other questions have more men giving the "not rape" answer.

Unsurprisingly, therefore:

  • 41% of the sample said that they had been pressured into some form of unwanted sexual activity, with only 38% never having felt pressured into any. (The difference, presumably, being those who felt that they were being pressured into sexual activity but whose partners eventually accepted their refusal).

So, looking at those figures, and assuming similar gender breakdowns for the questions where it's not specified, the majority of 18-25 men in London are willing to rape their partners. They won't call it that, firstly because they don't believe that "non-consensual sexual activity" is involved in the definition of rape, and secondly because their partners mysteriously always "consent" (due to their assumptions that "saying no" and "being pushed away" are not markers of an absence of consent).

Several things are clear from this, none of them new.

  • The findings of surveys such as Lisak and Miller that around 5-15% of men will admit to actions constituting rape if you ask them about the actions are almost certainly underestimates. Cara at The Curvature points out one obvious area in which those surveys might undercount, for instance. It's difficult to ask questions even using a behavioural survey, given how different many people's definitions are from the theoretical2 ones.
  • The BCS survey on the prevalence of rape, despite using action-based questions rather than "rape" or "sexual assault" directly likewise considerably underestimates the number of victims and survivors.
  • Our education system is an abject failure. It fails the victims, and it fails the rapists too, who might with better early education on consent, boundaries and sexuality not have become rapists.3 The current guidelines vaguely mention consent - which is still an improvement on previously. A good teacher, within those guidelines, could do a lot to teach about consent. A bad teacher could mostly ignore the whole subject and still be within the letter of the guidelines. Having failed to give good guidance to people as children before they become rapists, there's then very little in terms of "behaviour X is rape: don't do it" public information campaigns later on. There have been a few recently, but there need to be more.
  • Rape and sexual assault are defined in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 as [a sexual act], without consent and "[the perpetrator] does not reasonably believe that [the victim] consents". As I've said before, that last condition only makes sense4 if society in general, as a matter of strong consensus, knows what consent is. This survey suggests that at least half of society doesn't, which makes it trivial for perpetrators to get away. Under the definitions being used by many of the survey respondents, most rape allegations are false, and most rapists "belief" in "consent" is "reasonable".

1 There's some unusual wording here, but we can probably assume similar numbers for the more common case where the rape starts while the person is asleep, rather than someone who originally consented falling asleep in the middle.

2 I want to say "real" here, but how real is a definition that over half the population doesn't believe to be accurate?

3 I do wonder how many of the "committed suicide after a false accusation" cases are actually "committed suicide after realising that the accusation wasn't false".

4 I cannot construct even a theoretical situation where someone who was actually taking reasonable steps to ensure consent would nevertheless end up raping someone, so the best this condition gets to in an ideal society is "unnecessary". For now "actively harmful" is about right.