Thirty-eight per cent of adults in the UK hear jokes about sexual assault or sex offenders regularly, according to a new survey by OnePoll. The nationally representative study of 1,000 British adults found that a quarter of men and 11% of women said they had made this type of joke themselves.
The poll disproves the notion that these attitudes towards sexual violence are dying away. It found that 71% of 18-24-year-olds have made a rape joke or flippantly used the word rape, and 88% of respondents in this age group were familiar with the term “frape”, or Facebook rape, which is usually used to describe the act of logging into somebody else’s Facebook account and posting using their profile. Thirty-six per cent of people aged 25-34 reported that they frequently hear the word rape used to mean “beat in some form of competition”.
The results come amid a flurry of recent high-profile cases where companies have been forced to apologise after using rape, or appearing to allude to sexual assault, in festive advertising. A Singapore-based online retailer, SuperGurl, acknowledged it had “made a mistake” after advertising its Black Friday sale with the slogan “rape us now”. The department store chain Bloomingdale’s apologised for its holiday advert, which featured a young man creepily eyeing a laughing young woman beside the slogan: “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.”
This follows on from controversy last Christmas about a rape-themed Christmas T-shirt available for sale online, and a reference to chloroforming your partner in a 2012 Virgin Mobile US Christmas advert.
It isn’t a coincidence that these cases seem to spike in the holiday season, when consumer culture reaches fever pitch. Such adverts, alongside the use of female bodies to sell unrelated products, promote the idea of women as consumable objects, there for the taking, with their own autonomy and choice conveniently left out of the picture. The fact that rape is seen as an acceptable topic to joke about, and use as a hook to sell products, reveals our social normalisation of the concept – a phenomenon also described as “rape culture”.
It is a difficult topic to discuss. Objections to rape jokes are frequently dismissed by those who argue that they represent a form of free speech, or those who point out that there is no evidence to prove a direct link between objectifying or sexually degrading images of women and sexual violence.
In fact, there is evidence of some links between the portrayal of women as sexual objects and attitudes that underpin violence against women and girls. The government-commissioned Sexualisation of Young People review found evidence to suggest a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviours as the norm. And the 2010 report by the American Psychological
Association on the Sexualisation of Girls detailed links between sexually objectifying images of women and girls in mainstream media and significantly higher levels of acceptance of rape myths, victim-blaming, sexual harassment and interpersonal violence.
One particularly problematic aspect of the widespread and flippant use of the word “rape” is that it contributes to the idea that sexual violence is an acceptable topic about which to joke. Jokes in which rape victims are treated as a punchline are especially significant in a society in which only about 15% of victims feel able to report serious sexual assault to the police. But while 87% of those surveyed by OnePoll said they would never make a rape joke in front of somebody they knew to be a survivor of abuse, nearly a quarter of respondents said they felt it was acceptable to make these types of comments among friends. Yet when you tell a rape joke, statistically one in five women who hear you have experienced or will experience some form of sexual assault, whether you know it or not.
The idea that those who object to rape culture represent a threat to free speech is, ironically, a form of silencing in itself. There is a significant difference between expressing concern about rape jokes or images objectifying women and suggesting that all such content should be “banned”. Indeed, it is unlikely that any kind of censorship would be particularly successful, as the problem lies as much with underlying attitudes as it does with the adverts or jokes themselves.
The feminist endgame is not to publicly punish everybody who makes a rape joke, or ban every advert that uses rape as a titillating way to sell products. It is to create a society in which it would never occur to anybody to do either in the first place.