Reading the original ‘joke’ made me feel like throwing up, but watching the follow-up was even worse. I’m trying to work out what it is about the whole debacle that made me feel quite so sick, and I think it’s partly this: it’s a reminder that the ideas and ideals I live by are not as widespread as I think they are.
There are reminders every day of course: I’m governed by a group of people I didn’t vote for, who increasingly pass laws and express views the kind of views that make me feel like punching something. I can pick up a copy of the Metro, or visit the Daily Mail website, and see hundreds of people writing comments that make me want to scream. But that is, if not ok, something I can deal with – because my friends are beside me screaming with rage and punching things too (sometimes metaphorically; occasionally literally). And not just my friends, my friends’ friends, and their friends; I feel like I’m part of a community that is separate, but whole.
And then something like this crops up, and I watch that community shrink as men who otherwise count themselves as liberal or left-wing or whatever tell me it’s no big deal; it’s not worth getting upset over.
And the blokes who put together this sorry excuse for a website are men I recognise. I don’t mean I know any of them personally, but I know or have known versions of them: the self-proclaimed ‘lads’ I knew at my university, who I would sometimes go out drinking with. Friends of friends. Friends’ boyfriends. Male friends who think it’s edgy to start making rape jokes after a couple of drinks. All those men I’d always thought were just a bit annoying, but who essentially had my back.
And then I start to think about the men who I thought were annoying, but essentially decent, until I found out more about them: the times they’d “pushed things a bit too far because they were drunk”, and more.
Not my good friends, because I am picky as hell like that, but people who were in my social circle – part of my gang.
I don’t think that all men are potential rapists. I don’t think that joking about rape leads directly to the act. But I do think that when people shrug off rape jokes and tell me that they’re not worth getting het up over, when they join in because it’s cool to be controversial, when they tell women to focus on bigger issues, they contribute to a culture where it’s all too easy for rapists to think they can do what the hell they like. Because if the message, repeated over and over again, is that it’s not ‘really’ rape if the victim is drunk, or asleep, or skimpily dressed, is that sexual behaviour that should be seen for what it is – predatory, creepy and horrific – is normalised.
That’s what I mean about the self-selecting bubbles. I feel betrayed by the bastards in my life who turn out to be worse than I thought. But I’m not regularly meeting and talking to these people – I’ve seen it as one of the perks of being an adult and being able to choose where I live and who I spend my time with.
And that happened here, too – just as I was beginning to despair, to think that perhaps the people on facebook telling me to ignore a site aimed at any man at university celebrating sexual assault was no big deal were representative. Just as I was about to give up and wonder what the hell the point of being a feminist was, dozens of women and men started to complain loudly. To capture screenshots showing that the joke wasn’t a one-off; there was a clear pattern of hideously misogynistic language and imagery on the site. Suddenly, it seemed, companies were withdrawing their sponsorship, and the universities the authors went to were publically expressing concern.
So, thank god for that. I don’t, after all, live in a country that thinks joking about sexual assault is normal and funny.
But one of the reasons I’m a feminist is because I want to change things. I don’t just want to see sites like unilad taken down; I want the people who write them to realise what’s wrong with what they’re saying. Is that an impossible dream? If it’s not, how is it going to happen if feminists – me, you – don’t find a way to talk to these people and get our message across? I am sick of feeling like it is my responsibility to explain why rape is horrific; rather than theirs to understand it.
The joke that kicked off all of this fuss used statistics about rape, and the reporting of that crime. So it wasn’t an off the cuff remark – these people looked up the statistics in order to make a creepy joke. They can look at figures showing how few rapes get reported, and see that as the basis for laughter rather than outrage. Have they never had a sister, brother, friend or cousin who has been assaulted? Unlikely – it’s more likely the people writing crap like this are the people no one would feel safe talking about their experiences to.
And so we all float further and further apart in our little bubbles. How the hell do we ever burst them?