I’ve been known to critique quite a few government media campaigns against sexual and domestic violence. Usually, such critiques are incited by a focus on potential victims rather than perpetrators, which tells women it is their responsibility to keep themselves from being raped. And sometimes, anti-violence campaigns that are directed at men really just seem to have the wrong focus. A lot of campaigns that supposedly work against gendered violence actually promote as many dangerous messages and myths as they challenge. And those campaigns are definitely worth analysis and criticism.
But here’s how you don’t critique a campaign aimed at stopping male violence against women: by saying that its sexiness may just inspire men to rape more.
That’s how Copyranter slammed the above poster, created by the UK Home Office a couple years back and recently spotted in men’s bathroom at a bar. The ad shows a presumably white woman from the torso down, wearing nothing but a white pair of underwear with a red “no entry” sign, and reads “Have sex with someone who hasn’t said yes to it, and the next place you enter could be prison. If you have sex without consent you could end up going prison, for rape. If you don’t get a yes don’t have sex.” Copyranter quipped:
Call me confused, but showing a half-naked woman in a rape awareness ad being viewed by plastered horny pissing men is just bloody stupid, right?
The somewhat jokey but still disgusting implication is that drunk, straight, cis men who have their dicks out for completely non-sexual reasons simply can’t control themselves around sexual imagery. Further, that the desire for sexual contact is what actually causes men to rape women, rather than misogyny and the desire for power over them.
[Copyranter]’s got a point. And this long-running bathroom stall British Home Office campaign does a poor job achieving its goal In fact, all it does is make men think more about sex. Because, as we all know, men don’t need much in the way of motivation when it comes to wanting sex.
This is not to say men are just walking hard ons looking for a play but it’s a well known fact sexual imagery makes men think about sex. Why a rape awareness campaign would go even remotely near the use of sexual imagery is a bit baffling
He then goes on to make a rather disgusting and potentially triggering joke about prison rape against convicted rapists. Lovely.
First of all, I have to say that while opinions on this one will undoubtedly vary, I don’t find the above image to be particularly “sexual.” As a matter of fact, I happen to view women’s bodies as exactly that — bodies — rather than an inherent visual representation of human sexuality. The woman’s pose is not provocative in any way, and I don’t see much about the image that could be described as particularly “hot” or designed to titillate. Secondly, I have to say that while I agree with Steve on the count that images intended to gratuitously arouse and excite would be a ludicrous in an anti-rape campaign, I sometimes think that sexual imagery can be used extremely effectively. To argue that sexual scenarios cannot ever be used in anti-rape campaigns when many rapes are committed in contexts that contain sexual elements (flirting, kissing, other consensual sexual activity) is both bizarre and limiting.
But again, the real problem with this line of criticism is the argument that any image of women’s bodies will invariably make straight men think about sex, and further that thinking about sex is what inspires men to rape. The argument seems to be not that the message is ineffective because men will not absorb it when thinking about sex — though I still find this argument problematic, as I’m incredibly disturbed by the the assertion that most men will be contemplating getting it on while reading text about rape. Rather, I read it as going a lot farther, to suggesting that making men think about sex at all is dangerous, and that male arousal is the antithesis of any anti-rape campaign.
Because, no, guys. The way to stop rape isn’t to get straight men to stop being sexual beings. It’s to get straight guys who don’t view women as human or consent as an absolute requirement for sexual contact to start doing just that. And the idea that it’s “stupid” to show drunk, horny guys sexual imagery when you don’t want them to rape is actually a hell of a lot more dangerous than this poster could ever be.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t find the poster at all troublesome. To the contrary, I give it rather mixed marks.
On the one hand, I really, really love the focus on affirmative consent rather than passive consent or the lack of a “no.” I’m frankly tired of “no means no.” I hate the idea that someone has to say no to get someone to stop touching them, rather than say yes before someone feels the right to touch them in the first place. I like that the poster actually defines consent as the presence of a yes rather than the absence of some kind of revocation of consent that is otherwise constantly presumed to be present. “She didn’t say no” is an incredibly repulsive defense, and one that seems to only be growing in popularity and acceptability. It’s very important to combat that.
On the other hand, I find the “no entry” symbol and further pun regarding “entry” in the text to be glib and all around off-putting. Rape isn’t about “entry,” it’s about violation, and that can take many forms. And it really just seems like the wrong time for sexual innuendo and wordplay.
Further, while I don’t find the image to be overtly sexual, that doesn’t mean I don’t find it objectifying. I’m tired of seeing women’s bodies detached from their person, women being represented by their bodies rather than their faces, and women’s bodies just all around being used as symbols rather than treated like they belong to us. I’m tired of the idea that if we don’t show a face, it’ll be more universal — personally, I think that showing a face is a much better reminder that women are people, with thoughts, and feelings, and minds of our own. Beyond that, if we are going to use women’s body parts as representations for women, I’m tired of seeing the same precisely shaped body parts over and over again. I’m tired of the idea that only a thin woman with a flat stomach and no cellulite is “good looking enough” to be raped. And while I think that it would have been just as problematic, if not more so, to feature a woman of color in this kind of disembodied, headless, and objectified position, it is incredibly frustrating and disturbing that white women are so persistently presented as the only real victims of rape.
Which is all to say that I’m not defending this ad as containing some kind of fabulous, model message. I’m attacking the aspect of rape culture that says rape is primarily about sex, rather than primarily about the desire to violate and debase a human being viewed as lesser than oneself. I’m attacking the aspect of rape culture that says men can’t help themselves, so we better be careful to not “give them a reason.” I’m saying that there are many, many legitimate grounds on which to critique anti-sexual violence campaigns, but those which reinforce rape myths shouldn’t be the ones we’re after.