If you are familiar with our work as a campaign, you’ll know that a main aim of ours is to address issues of sexual assault and violence within UK higher education institutions. As I type out that sentence, I understand it is an ambitious goal for an organisation run and led by a group of students and recent graduates, but it’s something we are all passionate about and by working collectively through the campaign, and alongside other groups, have sought to do in a range of ways. One such way will be the topic of today’s blog post and over the next few paragraphs I’ll be delving into what we mean when we as a campaign talk about culture change.
It’s safe to say any campaigner or individual aware and alarmed at the prominence of the problem of sexual violence want to see an absolute reduction in occurrences of behaviour that is encompassed by the term. To do this however we can’t just focus on the action of harassment, assault or worse, but examine the culture which leads to sexual violence as well as the culture which allows it to happen and enables individuals to harm others.
The culture I am referring to is rape culture. A term most of us will be familiar with or understand to varying degrees but would still be useful to outline here. Ann Burnett states that a “rape culture is one in which rape, or sexual assault, is an expected, normal occurrence, found worldwide. Contributing factors to rape culture include hegemonic masculinity, media, language, politics, and rape myths.” Another useful definition to consider is that by Emilie Buchwald who authored the book Transforming Rape Culture in which she writes “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm . . . In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable . . . However. . . much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”
What is illustrated by these two definitions is that rape culture is not straightforward to understand, consequentially the task of addressing it is not either. To understand why it is so hard to address this we need to take a wider look at other forms and models of culture.
Not only will we consider rape culture within the context of universities, but we will examine how frameworks of organisational culture are relevant to them – after all universities are a form of organisation.
Culture may be understood to be “an umbrella term which encompasses the social behaviour and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups”. Further, organisational culture may be defined as “the pattern of values, norms, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that may not have been articulated but shape the ways in which people in organizations behave and things get done.” What is apparent from these two definitions as well as the ones we considered previously is that culture has a bearing on how we think, behave and act. Culture is intrinsically linked with what we consider to be social norms and expectations and thus our moral compasses and processes for making sense and judging situations.
As stated above, these assumptions that are shared by a group of people may not always be able to be articulated, perhaps because they are so ingrained in what we as a collective consider to be appropriate or normal. They are things we expect to happen, and hardly expect to be challenges. This poses a challenge for shaping and influencing cultures. This has an impact on things like policies which exist as explicit outlines and guides on what is acceptable but can possibly be at odds with what is subconsciously held by the wider group.
Now we have had a brief overview of what culture is, challenges of shaping it we can look at what we mean by culture change. Put simply, we want to change the underlying assumptions and expectations that sexual violence is a fact of life and risk most people will be at risk of. We want to challenge the societal expectations of how sexual violence can take place and what a victim-survivor or perpetrator looks like. By aiming for culture change we want to address all the elements of rape culture which are manifested in harm.
We highlight these things because societal attitudes to survivors lead to negative outcomes when it comes to supporting them. Arguably there is a cultural misconception on who the “perfect victim” is and who is worthy of sympathy, support or justice. Conversely there is a cultural understanding of who someone who assaults or harms another individual is – perhaps a stranger who follows someone home. These ideas are harmful not only because they can be far removed from the typical incident but also because they have tangible effects when it comes to gaining justice and recourse for the survivor.
As it pertains to the role and our demands of universities and organisational settings - culture change needs to start with an acknowledgement of the incumbent culture, driving factors and challenges to approach it. Once these things are established they can be taken into account when constructing policy approaches. These are also the preliminary steps needed to start constructing a means by which to drive culture change.
A conversation around societal culture change wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t also take a look on how culture leads to those becoming perpetrators. We all either uphold or have a role to play in perpetuating a culture if we aren’t challenging it. That being said, we all have a role in possibly perpetuating rape culture and shaping the cultural understandings of those who go on to offend. In this scenario culture change can mean calling out misogynistic or harmful jokes or tropes but it also means having fair conversations on consent for all young people. Rape culture is not just the assault in itself but every message that reaffirms a harmful ideal or stereotype which can lead to a lack of respect or entitlement to the bodies of others.
To finish off I would like to highlight this article I read earlier this year. The headline – almost 4/5ths of young women (18-24) in the UK had been sexually harassed. At the time it wasn’t breaking news and for the most part didn’t stand out from the typical news cycle. What was such a stark example of the harm women are at risk at was another afternoon of news. What could be a stronger example of rape culture that desperately needs changing than 80% of young women being harassed and the country not even batting an eyelid.