The presence and portrayal of women has been under the spotlight over the past week. With the culture minister Ed Vaizey’s call for more women on the BBC’s agenda setting Today programme, a distinct gender imbalance at the Davos meeting (just 17% of delegates were female) and the Leveson inquiry’s focus on the representation of women in the press, it is obvious that there are ingrained attitudes towards women in our society which desperately need changing.
Not too long ago I was having a conversation with a male friend and somehow the topic turned to the prosecution of rape, and his response was, ‘but a lot of women falsely accuse men of rape’. I tried to argue that just because a false rape allegation may get heavy media coverage, it does not justify the ridiculously low rate of reported rape cases which end in prosecution, or necessarily mean that every rape allegation should be treated with scepticism. I was – possibly naively – shocked that someone who was relatively intelligent, rational, and normally disapproving of violence, was ready to shrug off one of the most serious, damaging violations that can be committed. Every time someone cracks a joke about rape, or a popular TV series runs the age old ‘woman who falsely cried rape’ story line, my heart sinks, as it shows how lightly and wrongly the issue is dealt with.
Yet these attitudes exist because they are continually perpetuated and upheld by the popular media. The evidence presented to the Leveson inquiry highlighted what is pretty obvious, that images of women in the press are heavily sexualised, and reporting on rape, sexual abuse and violence towards women is sensationalised. By focusing on a victim’s appearance, clothes and actions it makes it seem that they are responsible, and that a crime like rape is an act of lust rather than what it really is, an act of violence. A woman who’s wearing a short skirt on a night out does not deserve to be attacked any more than a woman fully clothed walking home from work, and the unfortunate reality is that it happens to women in both these situations. However, due to the myths churned out by the media, people feel it is something they can shrug off, be cynical about, and possibly even get a punch line out of.
Whilst it is true that women in the UK are in a better situation than women in other parts of the world, it does not mean we can afford to be complacent, or should ever stop striving for more positive changes. The fact that Nadine Dorries’ education bill, which would have seen young girls given lessons on ‘sexual abstinence’, was even scheduled for a second reading shows the extent to which these attitudes are institutionalised. If attitudes are to change we need to challenge the forces that continually allow them to prevail.