Kara Eschbach is the co-founder and Editor in Chief of Verily Magazine.
At first blush, affirmative consent may seem like a move in the right direction. A clear, consensual “yes” before sex is certainly a better requirement than “she didn’t say no,” but stricter consent laws are still merely band-aids on a gaping wound. To truly address rape culture, we need to confront our underlying culture of objectification: one which conditions men to view women as things to be possessed rather than as people, teaches girls that womanhood is synonymous with being sexualized, and then shames women when they’re sexually assaulted.
From the moment boys hit puberty (or even earlier), popular culture delivers the message that women are accessories, their bodies are for men’s pleasure, a real man can “have a woman.” Objectification is a near-constant theme in advertisements—from old-school GoDaddy.com commercials to Carl’s Jr’s infamous series of bikini-clad women with splayed legs. In the bestselling video game series Grand Theft Auto, players gain health points for having sex with prostitutes and can kill them to get their money back. Magazine covers, music videos, and pornography portray women as always sexually available to men. Is it any wonder that by the time these young men get to college, they have no idea what consensual sex looks like?
[Other perspectives: A live chat with Kara Eschbach and Jaclyn Friedman]
What’s worse, the very media that meant to help women lead their best lives—the Cosmos and Glamours of the world—perpetuate objectification under the guise of “empowerment.” Their covers feature starlet after starlet in varying degrees of undress and with perpetual come-hither stares, and their editorial coverage equates becoming a “grown” woman with sexualization. It’s not just men doing the objectification; women are taught, by other women no less, that to be powerful one must also be seen as sexually available.
This problem is even worse when you consider that 82% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. These are young men they go to class with, the ones they work alongside, the friend-of-a-friend. Even if a woman is willing to weather a lengthy legal battle with potentially disastrous consequences on both sides, it is particularly trying to do so with her social circle looking on in judgment.
These are problems perpetuated largely by a society that passively accepts and even demands entertainment that sexualizes women. Affirmative consent—making it mandatory to eke out a “yes” before proceeding to sex—does little to address these underlying cultural issues.
As with the movement to reduce smoking rates in the U.S., making a cultural shift, not just a legal one, has far more power. As far back as the early 1970s, TV and radio stations limited ads for cigarettes, reducing the “cool” factor of smoking. Widespread educational campaigns such as D.A.R.E. and the popular “truth” advertisements in the 2000s further stigmatized smoking. The result is that smoking rates in the U.S. are half what they were in the 1960s. Anti-objectification efforts on the same scale could be used to similar effect.
Some progress on this front has been made. More celebrity women are speaking out about being made to feel like body parts, and the #AskHerMore campaign, launched on Twitter to get red carpet reporters ask to women more insightful and less appearance-based questions, is making a point of calling out objectification. It’s a great bit of momentum, but it should be more than celebrities and government agencies speaking up.
If we’re serious about changing a culture of sexual assault, we have the power to change things ourselves. Stop buying magazines with objectifying covers. Give up your Game of Thrones addiction, and tell HBO it’s because of how the story treats women. Don’t buy children video games with sexualized storylines, and when you find out that your son or daughter has watched pornography, use the opportunity to talk to them about what real sex should look like. (Hint: it’s not like porn.)
Certainly, we can pass affirmative consent legislation. If our new standards are well-publicized, maybe they will make some would-be sexual assailant think twice before having sex with a not-explicitly-consenting woman. But if we really want to change a culture in which men and women are conditioned to view women as objects, we need to acknowledge our own reality and choose to say “no more.”
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