A new study reports that adolescent girls think sexual aggression is “normal stuff.” Samantha Eyler asks: What are we telling our kids to make them believe rape culture is normal?
On Sunday, Melissa Harris-Perry hosted a roundtable on new findings about how young people conceive of and respond to sexual harassment. The study, from the journal Gender & Society, built upon results from a 2011 survey where 56% of middle- and high-school girls and 40% of boys reported that they’d received aggressive sexual advances—pressure for a date or to have sex, or verbal harassment. Of those harassed, only 9% reported the incident.
Harris-Perry and company were aghast at what they mistook for an initial report on how often sexual harassment occurs among kids. Unfortunately, though, that bit is actually old news. In fact, the original contribution of the Gender & Society study is to reveal the extent to which girls who’ve suffered sexual harassment often see it as “normal stuff” that “just happens” because it’s what “guys do.”
The researcher, Heather Hlavka, finds that survivors of sexual aggression understand these aggressive encounters partly in terms of “dominant discourses.” Translation: they frame their own experiences of harassment based on cultural notions about what gender and sexuality are—or should be.
Sad, then, isn’t it, that those cultural notions are often bullshit.
Teenage girls see rape culture as the norm because the endless chatter about what masculinity and femininity “really mean” pivots around a very particular set of myths—myths that have proved hugely effective in protecting privileged people from being held accountable for sexual aggression.
Myth #1: Males of our species have very poor self-control.
This idea implies that men cannot be held responsible for what they do with their penises, because (to paraphrase this piece) they have less developed moral compasses and would screw any available orifice with a clean conscience if there weren’t so many women around to make them feel bad about it.
I hope I don’t need to explain why this myth is 1) highly misandrist and 2) not genuinely believed even by the most patriarchal men themselves, who for millennia now have had enough confidence in their own sense of self-control to bestow responsibility for civilizations, governments, corporations, churches, and families on their fellow penis-wielders. Nevertheless, this lack of self-control is posited as inherent in being male, and, in Hlavka’s words, “girls are thus expected to endure aggression by men because that is part of man.”
Myth #2: Female sexuality exists for the benefit of and belongs to men—and men alone.
Sex, as conceived of by the girls in Hlavka’s study, is “something men do ‘to’ women,” not something in which women engage for their own pleasure. Thus, any display of an interest in sex by women can only be reasonably interpreted as a sexual invitation for men, even if it’s not directed at them. Thus teenage girls who friend-zone boys—or worse, “lead them on” while not being prepared to have sex with them—are clearly blurring lines.
This leaves girls no leeway for sexual exploration and experimentation based on the girls’ own desire. Much less the possibility that girls might be performing “sexiness,” independently of sexual intention, to gain social status. (Because we all know teenage boys are never competitive about their sexual prowess.)
Myth #3: Girls must take responsibility for male sexuality and protect themselves against it.
In Hlavka’s words, “Given expectations of, and experiences with, male aggression, young women were charged with self-protection by reading and responding to potentially dangerous situations.” In other words, besides not being able to freely explore their own desire, girls are burdened with managing boys’ sexual desire for them as well. Girls are the “sexual gatekeepers” and it falls to them to grant or deny the vaginal access that boys can’t help but push for so insistently.
Myth #4: If any dispute arises about whether sexual contact was enthusiastically welcomed, err on the side of the penis, because women are manipulative liars.
The girls in Hlavka’s study, who avoided making a “big deal” out of their own experiences with sexual aggression, were also quick to dismiss other girls who openly alleged rape. One of these was 12-year-old Jillian, who criticized a 13-year-old friend’s allegations of rape against an 18-year-old:
Rachel wanted to, but see, the reason why she’s telling everybody that he forced her into it ’cause she don’t want it right there and then.
[Stop: If you haven’t read Soraya Chemaly’s fantastic Role Reboot piece on “How We Teach Our Children That Women Are Liars,” please do so now and then proceed.]
These myths offer teenagers no useful framework to navigate the complex development of their own sexualities with any regard for gender equality and consent. Why, then, in our era of Equal Rights, when the Patriarchy has been definitively pronounced dead by your favorite lefty magazine, are teen girls still being fed and judging themselves according to this claptrap?
Because these myths are still useful in protecting the privileged, that’s why.
Because properly enforcing sexual harassment law would land large swathes of a privileged segment of our population (such as, say, white middle-class frat boys) in court, where “Men have less developed moral compasses” does not count as a legal defense. Thus society needed either to change our “inconvenient” rape laws, or invent myths like the ones above to systematically absolve sexual aggressors and discredit those who dare accuse them.
Now contrast this situation with the U.S.’s unblinking enforcement of drug laws, which has entailed the incarceration of millions of black males—many of them non-violent offenders—who are then, upon release, stripped of voting rights to prevent them from democratically trying to change the draconian laws that landed them in jail in the first place. If you are an 18-year-old black or Latino male caught on a campus with a bag of dope, you will almost certainly do jail time. If you are an 18-year-old white male and drunkenly rape someone at a campus party, you almost certainly will not.
Exhibit A of how the institutions of culture, law, and law enforcement interact to protect the position of the most privileged and take away the voices of those deemed expendable.
And if there’s anything we can take away from Hlavka’s study, it’s that when it comes to sexual aggression, teenage girls are led to believe their voices are the most expendable of all.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.