That means I need to pay a man-pinion tax, which I will discharge by sending you to read the following excellent pieces: tatjna’s searing, smart rebuke to the media (trigger warning); Gaayathri Nair’s consideration of how the world around these boys told them they were doing nothing wrong; and Marianne Elliott’s sad account of growing up in NZ and how it prepared her for the stories of women’s rights activists in Afghanistan.
So if you came in late: the Roast Busters. Teenage boys in Auckland who have group sex with girls and brag about it online. Except some of the girls were blind drunk or otherwise incapable of consenting. And some of the girls were underage. And some of the girls said no but weren’t able to stop sexual contact from happening. Which is to say: rape, rape (statutory), and rape, with a bonus of online humiliation afterward.
Oh yeah, and the police had received multiple formal complaints from victims and were monitoring the group for years and basically did nothing.
I have never seen the phrase “rape culture” as frequently as I have this week. The nation is having a very big, very intense conversation about this. I can’t remember the last time so many people were focused on just one topic – well, okay, the America’s Cup, and before that the Rugby World Cup. But when was the last time so many people were focused on a topic unrelated to cups? It’s been a while. This feels to me like a moment of possibility. There is so much interest, so many people staring at what happened in disbelief and rage – how could these boys keep doing this, how could the police know about it and do nothing, how could a 13-year-old girl be told what she was wearing contributed to what happened to her?
The thing I want to point at right now is how NZ culture and rape culture interact. The way we do things here in NZ, sticks us with some particular vulnerabilities that rape culture greedily exploits.
First thing about Kiwi culture: we are useless at straight talking. “Yeah nah” is part of our lexicon for a reason. By and large we prefer to keep things ambiguous, to let other people piece our message together by themselves. This ties into other cultural features like our preference for social equality and maintaining a cool head; the taciturn farmer who communicates with a subtle nod of the head is an iconic figure for us.
And this of course means that Kiwis are particularly useless at straight talking about sex. Sex tends to be emotionally risky so our quiet tendencies are magnified. Unfortunately, without talking, we find it very hard to clearly indicate sexual consent, or to ask for it. So we don’t. We keep consent hazy and ambiguous like all our other communications, and most of the time we get along fine.
Consequence of this: Kiwi youth are trained to be perfectly comfortable with ambiguous consent. Of course it’s ambiguous! That’s just how we do things here!
Second thing about Kiwi culture: we like to drink. We rely on it in fact, in a way that’s shocking to people from most of the rest of the world. For various reasons (not least our discomfort with communication, see above) we use alcohol heavily in social situations. Among teenagers, getting very drunk is a common occurrence.
And this of course means that we get used to seeing drunk people, and we think that’s fine. In fact, we are entirely comfortable with people getting very drunk and hooking up. It’s pretty much the default approach we use in starting relationships. (I’d tell it as a joke in backpacker hostels in Europe: in _my_ country if you want to go out with someone you get very drunk and sort of fall over on to them. Everyone would laugh! Except it isn’t really a joke.)
Consequence of this: Kiwi youth are trained to see see gross intoxication as normal, and sexual contact involving a very drunk person as commonplace. Of course they’re drunk! How else would they have the courage to even talk to each other?
These are vulnerabilities. Because if you live this culture a while, if you test it the way these boys tested it, you discover some exploits. Like, it’s easy to attenuate “ambiguous consent” down to “really ambiguous consent” (it’s pretty much the same thing, right? Nothing unusual happening here really, this is just how it’s done…). And from there, it’s one neat hop to “no consent”.
And it’s easy to take “we’re all drinking together to loosen up” through to “you’re a bit too drunk to know what you’re doing”. Particularly if you’re pouring the drinks. And from there, it’s an easy step to deliberately stupefying a target.
So a person can be targeted, isolated, stupefied, and have protests ignored, all without setting off many alarm bells.
Ordinary people can watch this happening and won’t see what’s wrong. It’s just an extension of business as usual for our youth. It’s just mischief.
And if that goes on long enough? Heck, why not create a Facebook group to brag about what you’re doing?
Rape is easy here.
So where to from here? The answer is already underway: the big national discussion of rape culture needs to take root, so it can get on with challenging the layers of awfulness throughout our society; and as part of that big discussion, we need to address our particular cultural vulnerabilities. We need to re-code our expectations and thoughts around alcohol, for a start. We need to continue developing our ability to talk about uncomfortable topics (it can happen: a recent ad campaign gave us a good model for telling someone they are too drunk to drive. Lots of small steps like that and you’re getting somewhere.).
These changes would be straightforwardly positive for everybody. Disentangling alcohol and hooking up would likely mean more sex for fewer hangovers, which seems like an excellent trade-off, while getting our national talk on will likely enhance our ability to progress from flirting to more-than-flirting.
More than that, though, these changes would make it harder for those who rape. They will have a harder time disguising their actions in an environment where ambiguity and intoxication are less common; they will have a harder time convincing themselves what they do is normal.
That would be a start.
So keep the conversation going, all you good smart angry people. And if you’re out in the mix of parties and alcohol and potential hookups, don’t be afraid to cockblock anything that sets off alarm bells. Here’s an excellent guide to cockblocking potential rapists.