Cultivating Consent Culture: Shifting Attitudes in Public and Politics

By Loura Kruger-Zwart

This article is the third of a short publication series in which articles written by the new editorial team will be showcased. This article is written by Loura Kruger-Zwart (from Australia and New Zealand, cohort 2021/2023), currently doing her first semester at the University of Groningen.

Content Note: this article discusses rape, assault and violence; reader discretion is advised.

The statistics are both shocking and not: in the European Union, one in ten women have been the victim of sexual violence, and over thirteen percent of reported rapes and sexual assaults have a male victim. The data behind these statistics, however, is based on reports, meaning that unreported assaults are excluded. Therefore, the real extent of the rape culture phenomenon remains unknown.

Rape culture: more than just a buzzword, this term refers to the pervasive beliefs, among others, that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘she was asking for it.’ The former holds that men’s behaviour is excusable as locker-room talk, playful antics, no big deal, while the latter holds that if something bad happened – it must have been her fault. These attitudes come together to incite victim-blaming which not only deters survivors of sexual violence from coming forward due to  fear of backlash or dismissal, but changes how ordinary people and policymakers approach the subject. 

Consider language, for example. Often said is “she was raped,” in the passive form, instead of “someone raped her” in the active. This linguistic structure creates a distance that retains the focus on the victim as active in the crime, and diminishes direct actions of the perpetrator. In turn, this language becomes accepted and is frequently embedded in (media) discourse. Victim-blaming places the responsibility of preventing assault on the person to whom it happens and not on the one committing the crime. It creates a culture of telling women – especially – how to ‘avoid rape’ by dressing modestly, travelling in groups or well-lit areas, and avoiding alcohol. The recent London case of Sarah Everard has demonstrated, not for the first time, that even women who are dressed for running, walking along residential streets, sober, can be victims of the violence these ‘precautions’ are meant to prevent. 

What makes the Everard case (and any other like it) more distressing is the situation of the perpetrator: a Metropolitan Police officer was convicted in September 2021 for her kidnap, rape and murder. He received a whole-life sentence not least for the grotesque abuse of power, as a warrant-carrying officer, to coerce the young woman into his car. Besides the disturbing fact that this occupation is founded on the protection of citizens, many of the perpetrator’s colleagues were somewhat unsurprised to learn of his crime — despite being nicknamed ‘the rapist’ for indecent exposure and habitually making women colleagues uncomfortable, the ex-officer managed to retain his position and nothing was done until after it was too late. Much discussion could be had about the ins and outs of this case, but the bottom line is that rape culture is embedded across all layers of society and levels of accountability are unsettlingly low. Between the statistics and the brutal, tragic examples, in reality, it affects members of every community and undeniably needs to be addressed. 

How can we address the pervasiveness of rape culture and victim-blaming? Considering that the statistics are limited – underreporting is a symptom of the problem – what is clear from the reports that are made is this: ninety-nine percent of those convicted for violent sexual crimes in the EU are men. Thus, the narrative must be shifted. Instead of teaching one group ‘how to not get raped,’ the focus must change to ‘how to not rape.’ An approach like this requires diving into issues of everyday misogyny, pervasive patriarchy, and the impact of toxic or fragile masculinity – maybe, a complete overhaul of social assumptions is necessary. 

Amnesty International is pursuing one such option that works to change political and public attitudes towards sex: cultivating Consent Culture. Ten years have passed since the Istanbul Convention, which sets minimum standards for prevention of (domestic and sexual) violence against women as well as prosecution of perpetrators, was first opened to signatures. While many Council of Europe members have signed the treaty, not all have ratified or entered into force the convention. Turkey, one of the founding signatories, has just this year even withdrawn from its namesake convention altogether. There is movement, however, to make change happen!

At policy level, Amnesty is working to have the Istanbul Convention – specifically, that lack of consent must be at the centre of legal definitions of rape and sexual violence – implemented into national law throughout Europe. At this point in time, only 12 of the 31 EU/EEA countries (plus Switzerland) have done so, and while there is still work to do, progress is being made.  On the social level, Amnesty’s #LetsTalkAboutYes campaign has developed a consent-education module for use in schools and universities to further encourage healthy, inclusive discussions about consent. In the Netherlands, where consent-based laws have not yet been implemented, the campaign is involving passionate students across the country to encourage their universities to sign a manifesto: commit to better policy, accessibility of resources, and more importantly, to preventative measures through the education of staff and students on the culture of consent. The combination of national policy change, module education, and university institution support is a progressive step in the direction of social change. Many universities are already on board —

Is yours?


Picture Credit: Richard Potts (Flickr)

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