(Note: This post discusses sensitive issues such as lack of consent and sexual assault)
Often it can seem as though the shared imaginary is one homogenous mass – The sense that most of the public share the same views and perspectives is systematically perpetuated though media narrative. However, what can be observed, is that speaking out and challenging certain public discourses actually serves to fracture that illusion of hegemony.
In recent weeks, from the US, there has been a surge of anger towards Judges for imposing a lenient sentence on perpetrator Brock Turner. This has manifested in a lot of interest on social media, criticising the way in which court proceedings further victimised the female, who had already suffered at the hands of Turner. In court, she was subjected to complete interrogation of her demeanour leading up to the attack – feeding into the sense of the imaginary that is suggestive of the view that if there was alcohol involved, that somehow the woman holds some culpability. The culture of alcohol and campus party culture was pointed to as a instigative factor in the attack. She was not only forced to answer irrelevant questions such as “What were you wearing?” “How much did you have to drink” – thus conferring the responsibility to her to maintain moral codes surround female behaviour – but it was also inferred that because she was unconscious, there was no way to prove that she hadn’t consented and it was left to Turner to “fill in the gaps”
Both of Turner’s parents wrote pleading letters to the judge that have been published within the public arena.
The father’s attempt to make sense of his son’s crimes describing “20 mins of action” – harking to imaginary notions of the simplicity of a promising young man sowing his wild oats. The impact on Brock Turner’s sports career is given great prominence. There is no secret made about their fears for their son. A white, male college kid who would struggle in prison.
But missing from both letters is any reference to the girl their son raped. Her invisibility is utterly striking. At no point is the impact that this has had on her life ever mentioned.
This recent example goes some way to show how the imaginary feeds into shaping perceptions around the sensitive issue of rape and sexual assault. Furthermore what this could suggest however, is that cultural understandings of rape and rape culture require examination.
Within the popular imagination, rapists are often represented as a ‘savage other’ – not a middle class, white, college jock. Moreover, when the issue of rape is framed within tensions of power rather than sex, as well as the discourse of “no- is – no” there is a tendency to ignore some of the more subtly pernicious ways in which forms of power condition the imaginary. Playing into ‘rape myths’ such as the role of alcohol being an excusable causative factor, or the emphasis on the impact that the trial had on Turner and his life chances(!) all play into cultural myths configured through the imaginary.
The role of social media in this is to shift the discourse from one geographical location in America –, to a global platform whereby the situation can be understood for it’s wider implications. The intention isn’t to minimise or exploit the impact of rape, rather to highlight what this tells us about the role of the imaginary in this instance.
A focus on the more subtle forms of power can lead us to a better understanding of how ‘rape culture’ manifests in society. Instead of focussing on rape as a physically coercive event, (such as the image of a stranger in the bushes, who ignores the pleas to stop) – it is perhaps more useful to understand how for conditions for “rape culture” are structured and facilitated.
One possible avenue for understanding is to examine the side effects of the proliferation of pornography – ever pertinent in the digital age of quick and easy internet porn. Internet porn has a tendency toward a world of false image, a symbolic melt down of the barest iconics of sexuality. And the darker side – an arena in which submission and brutality are glorified and normalised and the culture of entitlement to women’s bodies becomes manifested in the imaginary. For it is the generation that are becoming adults that are the ones whose first sexual contact was offered through the screen, long before the real event, by which time a set of false norms and schemas have already embedded themselves.
It is this imaginary that needs to be challenged, as it is the threat posed by this culture of entitlement that needs breaking down. By drawing attention to “rape myths” we can act to disrupt the illusion that these ideas are naturalised within everyone’s consciousness.