Sex norms skewed by porn-saturated culture

Having sex with someone who has passed out is regarded by some as a ‘grey area’

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 08:28

Shock has been expressed that rates of rape in Sweden are the highest in Europe, yet Sweden’s high rates of rape have been known about for 10 years. An Amnesty International report on rape in the Nordic countries highlighted the problem again in 2008, saying impressive progress in gender equality seemed to halt at “the doorsteps of private homes”.

Feminist Naomi Wolf said in 2012: “In other words, the purported magical Swedish kingdom of female sexual equality, empowerment and robust institutional support for rape victims . . . simply does not exist.”

The report calls for redoubled efforts to eliminate patriarchy. Unsurprisingly, very few have suggested that the much- vaunted age of sexual liberation may be patriarchy’s latest and greatest enabler.

We have no room for complacency in Ireland, even though our reported rate of rape is lower than in many European countries. We have dumped one set of norms regarding sexuality in Ireland and replaced them with very, very little. At the same time, access to violent, misogynistic pornography that glorifies rape culture has never been easier.


Repressive boundaries
Our young people are the ones who grew up without what we now term repressive boundaries. However, qualitative research with students by the Rape Crisis Network shows notions of consent in sexual activity are alarmingly foggy in this age group.

For example, having sex with someone who is having a blackout from alcohol is considered by some a “grey area” rather than rape. (In another recent survey of more than 1,000 students, more than 80 per cent indicated they had been drunk to the level of not remembering later what they had said or done.)

Consent to sexual activity is a minimum standard in a civilised society, and the students who were interviewed for the research have not properly understood even that minimum.

But the problem runs deeper. Consent should be the minimum standard but we’re treating it as the maximum. In other words, provided people are above, or even near the legal age, and both parties have given consent, we have no other guidelines to offer other than to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection.

Embarrassment used to centre around discussing sex. Now we are too embarrassed to suggest there should be any standard higher than consent and so-called safe sex. Yet how real can consent be in a society saturated with sexual imagery, where alcohol abuse is a national hobby and the unspoken norm is that there is something odd or even weird about not being sexually active?

Despite considering ourselves to be rational and thoughtful, most people don’t make choices so much as follow norms. And our norms around sex are seriously skewed. Little kids watching the VMA awards are treated to Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus acting like oversexed idiots. Grave concern is expressed but all that happens is that the next controversy- courting performance has to be even more outrageous.


Flesh-coloured thongs
One of the videos for Thicke’s infamous song Blurred Lines features very beautiful women wearing nothing except flesh- coloured thongs. A child aged eight can access that on a phone with no difficulty.

More troubling than the video, though, is that the concept was dreamed up by a woman, producer Diane Martel, who could not see what the fuss was about. She said she “wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men . . . They [the women] are in the power position. I don’t think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as f***.”

So dancing around virtually naked while the men are fully clothed, to a song with lyrics that are misogynistic, sexist and “rapey” is fine so long as you are in the “power position”?

It’s back to the notion that all that matters is consent. The women in the video are enjoying themselves, so what’s the problem? Aside from the very obvious problem of acting as role models for very young kids, actively consenting to your own exploitation is still wrong.

It is ironic: we don’t let people work for less than the minimum wage, or sell their organs even if they want to, because of the impact on the common good. Yet we seem to have an entirely different moral framework when it comes to selling images of your body.

Porn is everywhere, and pornographic images have seeped into the mainstream. The recent case in Britain in which a 13- year-old boy raped his seven-year-old sister after viewing hardcore porn on an Xbox is an extreme example but it is not the first case of its kind.

It is unsurprising that social norms for young people now imply that abstaining from sex is weirder than having serial sexual partners without necessarily loving or being committed to any of them.

Our final remaining boundaries centres on protecting kids from premature sexualisation. Perhaps Sen Jillian van Turnhout’s recent Seanad private members’ motion calling on stakeholders to oppose child beauty pageants is a small but significant step towards unblurring some of the lines so they protect rather than compromise women and children.

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