Sex without consent is rape: what we still struggle to understand in 2021

We live in 2021, and still, myths and gender stereotypes related to rape and consent are widespread in our societies, including in courtrooms. Today, more than ever, it is necessary to change the culture, to unhinge social attitudes based on gender power relations, also thanks to the contribution of the media and social networks.

“You asked for it” 

“It’s your fault, for how you dress” 

“You made him jealous, he had the right to beat you.”

We thought these expressions belonged to the past but, instead, they emerge dramatically from the Istat report on gender roles in Italy, made in 2019. One in four citizens (men and women) are convinced that violence is caused by how the woman is dressed, while less than 40% of the respondents think that, if you want, you can escape sexual intercourse. According to 15% of the interviewees, “if you are drunk, you are partly responsible for the violence suffered.

In a country that justifies rape, in this case Italy, one is still mired in prejudice. The key to defeat violence against women is cultural change, starting from criticism and overcoming stereotypes, which are still many in today’s society. Like the one that pushes 10% of the population to believe that reports of sexual violence are often false or that, even when women say no to sexual intercourse, it is actually a yes (7.2%).

The story does not change when it comes to domestic violence, in fact, the Istat report revealed that 7.4% of the people interviewed believe it’s acceptable for the boyfriend to slap the girl “because she flirted with someone else.” As many as 17.7% consider it normal for a man to check the partner’s cell phone or social media accounts. There is a division of roles linked to the past: the woman takes care of the house, the man must be successful at work, and for 31.5%, “men are less suited to housework“.

This painting could be partially imagined but, seen through the numbers, it makes an impression. So much has been done, so much still remains. 

We must invest more in culture, school, parental relationships. The change must be radical because it affects the relationship between men and women and the very idea we have of males and females.

The penal route has not produced improvements. On the contrary, it has shifted attention away from the real challenges. The head of state, Mattarella, is right when saying that violence against women is a public emergency. A woman is killed every three days, and every 15 minutes, a woman suffers some form of violence. However, it should not be treated just as an “emergency but as dramatic normality despite being an emergency”. 

Normality affects anyone and everyone. Not just women, not just those who suffer violence. If you keep watching without speaking, you’re not just guilty, but you’re also part of the problem.

Often, victims of rape do not physically resist“. There should be no assumption that a person has given consent –  in law or practice –  because they have not physically resisted. Just because a woman doesn’t have visible injuries, doesn’t mean she was consenting. Despite the expectation that a ‘typical’ rape victim will fight the attacker back, freezing when confronted with a sexual attack has been recognized as a typical physiological and psychological response, leaving the victim unable to oppose the assault, often to the point of immobility. 

For example, a 2017 Swedish clinical study conducted in 2017 found out that 70 % of 298 women rape survivors assessed experienced ‘involuntary paralysis’ during the assault.

Another common assumption is that rapes are mostly committed by strangers. But in fact, the majority of rapes are committed by someone known by the victim. They can be a friend, a colleague, a family member, partner or ex-partner. The ‘stranger myth’ sends the wrong message that a sexual assault committed by someone known to the victim is not rape. 

The assumption that what a woman wears can provoke a man to rape her stems from traditional stereotypes about male and female sexuality. However, in reality, women are being raped or assaulted wearing any clothing. No type of clothing is an invitation for sex or implies consent. What a woman was wearing when she was raped is not relevant. Rape is never the victim’s fault. An understanding that sex without consent is rape is the first step to change social attitudes that further harm rape victims.

The Istat report helped us to open our eyes, now we have to take action because no one, ever again, thinks that a woman who is raped has sought her out. Because no one thinks he can limit the freedom of his partner by considering it his property. It isn’t easy, but it must be done.

Giulia Francesca Pressani

 

Sources:

“Gli Stereotipi Sui Ruoli Di Genere E L’immagine Sociale Della Violenza Sessuale.” Istat.it. Last modified November 25, 2019. https://www.istat.it/it/archivio/235994.

“News Briefs.” The Medical Journal of Australia. Accessed May 19, 2021.https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2017/207/1/news-briefs.

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