A 15-year-old boy was describing to me and a group of 12 other young men his relationships with teenage girls. He held firm with his opinion that if a girl came round to his house it implied that she wanted to have sex. But there was one boy in the group who, even in the face of pressure from the others, was certain that “even if she’s naked, she’s not supposed to be raped”.
I was interviewing the young men about their experiences of relationships for the Female Voice in Violence project, and it was clear that the majority of the boys did not understand the concept of rape. They could not see it.
Would you “see” rape? This is the question being asked in the second stage of a government campaign to raise awareness of abuse in teenage relationships. The initiative is launched at a time when there is an increasing focus on young women’s experiences of sexual violence. To date, those shouldering the responsibility of rape prevention have been the victims: girls are blamed for making themselves vulnerable to rape, and their low self-esteem or a craving to belong is the reason, we are told, that they place themselves in situations where they may be victimised. Now, however, it is the turn of those who commit sexual violence to be challenged to recognise it.
It is right that girls are supported to reduce their vulnerability. However, there is a growing sense of frustration among girls, and some services that work with them, that this vulnerability is communicated as the cause of sexual violence. The message they hear is that girls are raped because they are vulnerable. Where, they ask, is the space to consider the responsibility of those who are perpetrating abuse? So a campaign that challenges the perpetrators to ask whether they see rape is welcome.
Girls have told me they are relieved that they are not once again being told to modify their behaviour in order to avoid abuse. Those same girls would call for services to support victims of sexual violence; these are essential. However, providing services to pick up the pieces, or reduce vulnerabilities, will never, on their own, prevent sexual violence. Until the behaviour of rapists is understood and challenged the abuse will continue.
The campaign signals a move to reframe and revisit questions about how to prevent sexual violence, so it is crucial that the response on the ground is able to mirror this. While investment has been made in services for boys and men who commit forms of violence such as gun and knife crime, little attention has been given to preventing their use of sexual violence. This needs to change.
Young people’s views are shaped by a mosaic of messages, images and attitudes. Professionals need to be supported to challenge these ideas in order to stem the development of abusive attitudes and behaviours.
Challenging the ideas that normalise sexual violence, from the outset, should underpin any such preventive work. The inclusion of men and boys in this debate is critical. The young man who condemned rape in the face of peer pressure is not a one-off. We need to understand the difference in attitudes between young men. Only then will we move from seeing rape to stopping it.