Could you be an unwitting abuser?

A campaign about rape, aimed at teens, suggests we can't cope with intimate relationships without expert help.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics

Last week, the UK Home Office, with the support of End Violence Against Women (EVAW), launched the second part of its campaign called ‘This Is Abuse’ to deal with what they see as the problem of abusive teenage relationships. The first part was launched in September 2011, and the recent launch is aimed specifically at the problem of teenage rape. The short film, ‘If You Could See Yourself’, starts with a teenage couple kissing, and within a few moments the male is forcing himself on the protesting girl. His alter ego character (played by the same actor) stands behind a glass screen, shouting at his rapist self to stop. It is online and there are plans to show the film in cinemas.

For EVAW’s Holly Dustin this is not enough. Echoing the calls of sub-campaign Schools4Girls, she has called for the film to be shown and discussed in schools, where, she claimed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour earlier this month, teachers are grappling with problems of male abusive behaviour and use of pornography. Teachers apparently just ‘don’t know what to do’. Along with teenage girls, boys and any living being not already signed up to EVAW’s agenda, teachers need support and training, it seems – and lots of it. Of course, Dustin went on to say to the more cautious Jeremy Browne, the crime-prevention minister, that she would be very happy to talk with and advise the government on how best to provide this support.

At one level, this campaign, and its support by groups such as EVAW, seems like the outcome of tensions within various sections of government, and an attempt by an interest group to beef up its own position. That position may seem less secure, given the inclination of some Lib-Con coalition ministers – such as the education secretary, Michael Gove – to give short shrift to external interest groups trying to dominate the curriculum. It is interesting that, at the same time that the Department for Education has shown a welcome turn towards at least considering the merits of knowledge and subject-based education, the Home Office is extending an earlier definition of schools’ duty to safeguard and promote welfare of children in a way that potentially reintroduces another, even worse form of therapeutic education than that dreamt up by earlier personal, social and health education (PHSE) advocates.

On Woman’s Hour, Browne sounded distinctly uncomfortable with some of Dustin’s proposals regarding imposing the campaign on the curriculum. Somewhat naively, he pointed out that there may not be a need to do this as the website had half a million hits already. At this point, the presenter, Jane Garvey, stepped in to bolster Dustin’s position by highlighting the ‘danger’ of young people watching the film with no discussion afterwards with a well-equipped expert to ‘pick up the threads’.

And this is where we can see the extent to which we are held in contempt by the likes of EVAW and the ‘respectable media’. What they are saying in tones of hushed, well-spoken urgency is that we cannot be trusted to watch or discuss the film and interpret it in the approved manner. Heaven forbid we make up our own minds – we might just decide the message of the film is a pile of rubbish, or deconstruct it to show what vile assumptions it is based upon and promulgates. As Dustin implied, only adults with the correct ‘support and training’ should be allowed to discuss the film.

The implicit assumptions that characterise this and other similar campaigns are deeply problematic for two reasons. Firstly, they are anti-human; and secondly, the organisations are like wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. The nomenclature and language of these campaigns and groups can suggest a lineage back to past organisations and ideas that were more progressive, but the substance of current campaigns arises from contemporary cultural trends. If you consider the content of the ‘This Is Abuse’ campaign, it is clear that the people behind it assume that we cannot have an intimate relationship of any kind without support, because we are all either too vulnerable or too horrible. These qualities are treated as two sides of the same coin, as explicitly depicted by the male character in the film. If vulnerable, we will be abused and become abusers; and if horrible, it is because of our past vulnerability.

It is a closed-circuit mode of thought that tramples on any notion that our actions could be inner-directed, contradictory, nuanced, have intended and unintended consequences; and that our freely chosen relationships with others might also be a source of strength as well as abuse. In fact, a single relationship can incorporate aspects of both.

Indeed, this campaign is based on the bizarre idea of unwitting abuse. ‘You may not even realise you’ve done it, but if you recognise the signs now you can stop yourself turning into someone you don’t want to be’, the website warns. ‘Abuse can lead to a loss of confidence and harm the futures of both people in the relationship. Most importantly, forcing or pressuring someone to have sex with you is illegal – always respect your partner’s wishes.’

This is a deliberate obfuscation of a fundamental difference between any relationship and rape. Relationships often do involve ambiguity and sometimes pressure, but this does not equate to rape. No one but those involved in a relationship can decide if what they experience as either being pressured or pressuring is excessive, or how they can or should try to modify their actions. Relationships involve a whole host of contradictory emotions and behaviour. This is true of all intimate relationships, but especially for teenagers who lack past experience through which they can consolidate their own identity, values and standards of behaviour. A high degree of privacy and autonomy are needed for this to happen, and this is what campaigns like ‘This Is Abuse’ undermine.

In this campaign, young people are explicitly encouraged to be their own internal policemen, constantly vigilant for any suspect thoughts or feelings, which they should then ‘discuss openly’ with an appointed expert. Far from fostering autonomy, this acclimatises people to outsourcing their own capacity to think, judge, act, consider, reconsider and possibly change.

So am I saying we should back off and just let teenagers get on with it? Well, I think that would be better than giving credence to ideas that undermine adult agency, as well as the agency of teenagers. As I understand it, we have both a negative and positive responsibility to the young. The first involves rejecting this extreme, deficient idea of who and what we are; the second is to guide as wisely as we can, taking into consideration that each situation is unique because the individuals involved are unique. As teachers, our job is to guide and educate – and this education part should be based upon subject knowledge, not misanthropic, perverted assumptions and simplistic templates.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics


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