Of Monsters and Men

Definitions are powerful things whose meanings form the very basis of how we communicate with one another. When we know what a word means, in the common sense, how we react to it is usually based on the definition of that word as it's understood by most people. If we use the word 'love', most people would get that we're trying to talk about a more intimate level of relationship than 'friendship', whether physically, emotionally or both.

Other words get their definition from their context, and can mean different things, a tackle in rugby is different from tackling a problem, a jam is a fruit preserve or traffic.

Almost never do words mean two different things in the same context at the same time however, so when they do we should probably take a long hard look at what's happening, and the messages that are being communicated.

A word guaranteed to provoke a visceral negative reaction is rape. To most people that means violent assault or maybe having sex with someone who is asleep, in either case nobody thinks it's a good idea outside of a few deranged individuals. Society as a whole and the entirety of western culture recognises that these individuals exist and quite rightly reviles them.

Reading an article published yesterday in the Irish Times by Rachel Flaherty about the tragic case of Jill Meagher, who was raped - in the commonly understood sense - and murdered, the reaction from her husband appears to extend what most people understand as rape into a wider social context where men often abuse and assault women.

He wrote an essay entitled 'The Monster Myth' for the white ribbon campaign, which as you can probably guess implies that not all rapists are stereotypical monsters, unhinged and violent individuals often with a long history of violence and crime, but rather and I quote "friends, acquaintances, husbands, lovers, brothers and fathers".

This projection of a crime committed by an insane person onto men in general, somehow holding masculinity responsible for the actions of a murderer, doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Only yesterday we read of how a woman in Fermanagh was convicted of sexually assaulting a young man:

A Fermanagh woman has been found guilty of sexually assaulting a man after she allegedly "forced" herself on him. Fermanagh Court heard that Caroline Irwin, of Carrowshee Park, Lisnaskea, grabbed the man by the backside and tried to give him a "love bite".

Des Fahy, defending, suggested there was nothing sexual in what happened.

The man insisted the way Irwin forced herself upon him was sexual.

The officer found her "passed out" and there was a smell of alcohol and Mr Fahy said the court might feel Irwin’s conduct might amount to assault but there was a question as to whether it was sexual assault.

Judge Broderick disagreed, saying he was satisfied with the man’s account of events. The judge deferred sentencing until April 28, when Irwin must make an appearance.

According to the definition of rape which Mr Meagher appears to be using, a shocking percentage of young men seem to have experienced sexual aggression from women.

A new study challenges some widely held assumptions about coercion, sexual assault and gender. According to a paper published in the American Psychological Association journal, Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 43% of high school and college-aged men say they’ve had “unwanted sexual contact,” and 95% of those say a female acquaintance was the aggressor.

Mr Meagher continues in the same vein by saying

"If a husband batters his wife, we often unthinkingly put it down to socio-economic factors or alcohol and drugs rather than how men and boys are taught and socialised to be men and view women."

And what of those wives and girlfriends who batter their husbands and boyfriends, who taught and socialised them to act like that? There is an enormous mountain of evidence which tells us that women in relationships are as likely to be violent as men, just some of which include:

Obviously nobody is trying to trivialise Mr Meagher's pain or the horror of what happened, but the best response is perhaps not to imply that men need to address rape, in the commonly understood sense of the word, as a gender but to realise that sexual and intimate partner violence is a non-gendered phenomenon, in order to really start to deal with it and reduce incidences in a meaningful way.

Because if we don't deal with the root causes, these problems will continue. And that's not acceptable to anyone.

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