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Violence against women: We’re complicit

Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

Violence against women has dominated the headlines recently. As men, we’re all complicit.

I must have been about 14. Blackburn Lake was the place in suburban Melbourne where my parents took me for walks. I rode my bike there with my friends. Later, it was where I tried alcohol. One night, sharing a drink with my best mate, (we couldn’t access or afford more than a couple) there were maybe four or five other boys there, our age. We listened as they spoke of petty theft and crashing their parent’s cars while drunk.

There was one girl there. She was drunk. I barely remember her going to the bushes with a boy – or was it boys? Suddenly there were few of us at the picnic table. I remember a boy coming back from the bushes. He was buckling his belt. He said the girl was on her knees giving oral sex; there was a line and we could join if we wanted.

“Did not one of those guys question what they were doing,” I saw a Facebook post this week about the 11 men arrested for raping a pregnant women after she was dragged into a building in Joburg CBD.

Did I think about what happened to the girl in Blackburn Lake? Did I question what was happening? I didn’t join the line – I was shy. Only 15-years later do I recall the incident.

As I mentioned the story this week, a friend noted a Setswana term “lepanta” – a belt, referencing a woman going through the hoops of multiple men. He remembered someone he liked sleeping with multiple men at a party. Did she maybe consent to one guy, he wondered. Had she thought she was hooking up with one person before others were forced on her? Did her drunken state even allow for her to express consent? Was she raped?

Only this week I asked these questions of what happened at the lake. I’d written it off as something from my anxious youth, something that happens, the norm. The norms you and I live with as men that support and perpetuate gender-based violence.

There have been calls this week to “protect our mothers and sisters”. Such calls inherently raise their own questions, especially in consideration of the fact that men commit sexual violence against their mothers and sisters. How do we treat women outside of that hypocritical and self-serving hashtag?

Let’s start at the bar or the club. When we’re out as men, it’s only about us. We offer to buy a girl a drink. If she accepts we feel entitled to something more: a conversation, a dance, sex. If she rejects us we’re insulted. She’s a snob or a hoe or both, but still a reward we think we deserve that we’ll keep fighting for to prove our own worth. We feel entitled to a woman the second we feel attracted to her. Her life, her choices, matter little. She’s for the taking and that’s all we see. Anything else is unacceptable.

Perhaps a girl likes you. You go home together. She might want to have sex with you. She might not. She might change her mind. She might be drunk and not able to consent, a factor guys often take as an advantage rather than a reason to pause.

A friend of mine in Canada was questioned by police after he was charged with rape. It was a drunken one-night stand, we said, rallying around him. “It must have been a misunderstanding.” “Maybe they were so drunk, had sex, and now she’s questioning what she did.” The number one response from us friends: “He couldn’t have done that.”

Two accounts of rape in City Press on Sunday expose rape and its justifications. One young man was watching soft porn on TV and saw his 13-year-old niece watching through the cracks of her bedroom door. The young man got turned on and raped his niece, apparently blaming TV rather than accounting for his own actions. There’s little explanation for his actions other than that he got turned on and his niece was close by, which in itself says a lot.

The other story recounted how a man took a woman on a date. They were from Joburg. She was studying in Cape Town while he had little going for him. “Marlon” had chosen her; he wanted to marry her. He recognised her disinterest and knew there would be no second date. Driving her home he decided to rape her. He believed he was entitled because he deeply cared for her. It didn’t matter what she felt – he showed know empathy or understanding for her in his story – he felt only his own urges, his opportunity.

Both cases related to a perceived entitlement over women’s bodies, expressed in our everyday language describing men as subjects and women as objects. 

“Did you get any last night?” we ask our friends. “Did you hit that?” For men, sex is power. It’s a sign of our masculinity. Our identities are built on sexual achievement, something we lust for like being the hero in defence of the weak.

We do not accept women as equals. How do you feel when a partner expresses sexual desire for someone other than you, or mentions her previous partners? What happens when you have the “body count” discussion and she has been with more people than you or more people than you expected? We not only feel inadequate but the axis of our universe is shattered.

We talk about these issues as friends. A guy will think he’s entitled to any woman that displays sexual desire or even sexual experience. She’s immediately seen as a slut who must “want it” – she’s “down to fuck” and men act on that belief. “I thought you wanted the D…” he’ll say forcing unwelcome advances.

Some men, myself included, rallied around women this week. But in our histories we should have done more, have asked questions, have taken action, have avoided being part of the problem rather than the solution. Violence against women is a part of our identities. It starts with the language and ends in rape. We must recognise our complicity if we want to change the situation. Government policy must change, but it’s also on us.

I don’t know what happened to the girl at Blackburn Lake. Maybe I would if I questioned what those boys were doing to her, if I had recognised the violence of which boys and men are capable. Instead, I nodded to the boy from the bushes, appreciating sexual conquest over the violation of women. DM


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