Tuesday, June 11, 2013

To prevent rape, know what it is

A couple of months ago, political analyst Zerlina Maxwell startled Sean Hannity by rejecting his notion that more access to guns was the best strategy for protecting women from rape. Her alternative plan? Teach men not to rape. 

If you read the transcript, you may notice that in exchange for her efforts to tell men not to rape women, she received numerous rape and death threats. Stay classy, internet.

As you can see, the idea that rapists could be taught not to rape was baffling to Hannity. Many of the people charged with finding solutions to the problem of rape in the military seem equally perplexed. Unlike Hannity, their best guesses weren’t to arm women, who presumably do have access to guns, but to keep women out of the military altogether. Senator Saxby Chambliss opined that raging hormones were to blame for the rampant sexual assault in the military and suggested that things wouldn’t improve as long as women were allowed to serve in the armed forces. This is like telling robbery victims to stop owning things. 

As the epidemic of sexual assault in the military makes clear, arming people in hopes of deterring violence does not and cannot work. This is particularly true in the case of rape. According to Maxwell, 80% of rapes are ‘acquaintance rapes’, meaning that the victim knows the rapist. That means that either the woman already knows that the man is violent, in which case she’s five times more likely to be killed by him if there are guns around, or she has no reason to suspect that he’s violent, in which case she probably wouldn’t keep her gun at the ready. Either way, guns are no help to either civilians or military personnel.

Let’s go back to Maxwell’s prescription: teach men not to rape. Hannity thought the idea of convincing a rapist not to rape was ridiculous. Not being known for being a good listener, he missed her point entirely, so I’ll spell it out for him. If you teach men what rape is, they’ll know it when they see it and they’ll be less likely to do it. At this point, you may be thinking, "Come on! Everybody knows what rape is!" Really?

Is it rape if you have sex with a girl who’s dead drunk? The boys involved in the Steubenville High School rape case didn’t think so. Even after the trial, many members of the community still didn’t think so, judging by the backlash against that girl. The problem isn't that some people are born evil as if they grew on rapist trees, it's that ordinary young men don't recognize sexual assault for what it is. Maybe that story would have played out differently if rape were more clearly defined in our society.

Maxwell doesn’t just pass around empty platitudes. She has some concrete ideas for how to go about teaching men not to rape. One idea I particularly liked: teach young men to take an enthusiastic ‘yes’, rather than the lack of a ‘no’ as consent. This would preclude men from thinking that sex with a woman who was unconscious or incoherent was acceptable.

If Hannity and Chambliss think that men are incorrigible and can’t be dissuaded from their desire to rape, then I have a higher opinion of men than they do. I also have a higher opinion of the power of information and education. With those tools, we can and must make the world safer for women.


  1. Maxwell is amazing. Way to stay on point! She even got the last word (it seemed, at least) with Hannity!

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  2. I know! I've wanted to write about her ever since I saw that clip of her on Hannity, but I didn't have a blog until now!


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