July 2nd, 2014

Women’s right to refuse

By Kokila Annamalai

On May 23, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, that was motivated by the desire to punish women for rejecting him.

While many in the international community have condemned his actions, some men on social media responded with empathy for Rodger and a certain understanding of his sentiments.

A group of men went further to start a Facebook group to hero-worship Rodger.

On June 16, University of Washington student Keshav Bhide was arrested for claiming to be “the next Elliot Rodger” and threatening to murder women.

He claimed everything Rodger did was justified and publicly praised the latter’s actions. These men not only defend Rodger’s actions, but relate to his anger towards women who rejected him.

Their anger in response to sexual rejection hints at a perceived right to have sex with the women they desire and a denial of women’s right to refuse.

While some have blamed Rodger’s mental health issues for his actions, it is clear from the support of some men and the many such stories of men’s violence in reaction to women’s sexual rejection — collected by online campaign When Women Refuse — that Rodger’s attitude towards women is not a psychological problem, but a social one.

Women around the world experience violence when they reject men’s sexual advances. Why?

A recent United Nations survey of 10,000 men in Asia and the Pacific found that nearly half of the men interviewed reported using physical or sexual violence against a female partner and nearly a quarter admitted to rape.

The most common motivation that men cited for rape was sexual entitlement — a belief that they have a right to sex with women regardless of consent. In short, women are seen as not having the right to say no to sex.

Singapore, too, has seen incidents of women being attacked for rejecting men.

Recently, a man reportedly threw alcohol and smashed a glass into the face of a woman who ignored his advances at a club in Clarke Quay.

Readers’ comments in response to news reports of the incident included those that said the victim must have been out in Clarke Quay because she was desperate for sex and that she should have “use (sic) more EQ if she intend (sic) to reject him”.

When women are raped or sexually assaulted, they are often told they should have said no more assertively or fought off the perpetrator. They are blamed for sending mixed signals or not doing enough to stop the rape.

Yet, when women are attacked for rejecting sexual advances, they are told they should have been more polite or tactful about it.

This is a clear case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. These victim-blaming attitudes excuse men’s sexual violence as uncontrollable, reinforcing their sense of sexual entitlement.

Right to choose

Male sexual entitlement is perpetuated through mainstream media, where men are regularly shown responding to women’s rejection with anger and violence.

In Singapore, it is also perpetuated through the law, which gives men immunity when they force their wives to have sex, unless the couple are living apart or a Personal Protection Order has been started or obtained prior to the incident.

The masculine rhetoric of sex as conquest, rather than as an experience shared by two consenting adults, diminishes women’s right to say no.

When male sexual aggression is portrayed as an acceptable way of flirting or engaging in sex, rather than as harassment or violence, women are not safe when they reject men.

Sex education must focus on the importance of consent and the right of everyone to say no without fear of repercussion.

Language such as “giving in” or “putting out” in reference to women consenting to intercourse reduces their role in sex to submission, rather than active participation.

All of us have a right to choose whom we have sex with. Women’s sexual desires and choices are as important as men’s.

Fixating on Rodger’s psyche or that of the men who commit violence against women draws attention away from underlying social norms and power structures that contribute to such violence.

Men should not have to prove their masculinity by committing violence against women, while women should have the right to say no to sex without fear of repercussion.

Only then can women be equal participants in private and public life, able to exercise their choice with intimate partners or a stranger at a club.

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About the author: Kokila Annamalai is the campaign coordinator for We Can! End All Violence Against Women (Singapore chapter), a global movement against gender violence.

This opinion piece was first published in TODAY on 26 June 2014.

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