Last week, Democratic strategist, writer, and rape survivor Zerlina Maxwell went on The Sean Hannity Show and argued that men and boys should be trained not to rape. Maxwell was viciously attacked by conservatives following her appearance. But if there’s any problem with Maxwell’s argument, it’s not that it went too far—it’s that it could have gone even further.
“I don’t think we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there for prevention,” Maxwell said on Hannity’s show. “You’re talking about it as if there’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone that you know and trust.”
“Women need to know that these situations arise,” responded Hannity, apparently unaware that women know all too well that rape is a constantly looming threat. It affects our decisions on a daily basis: when and where to jog, when to walk with our keys in between our knuckles, and when to hop out of a cab a block from home if the driver gives us the creeps.
Maxwell was on the show to address the newest twist in the ever-misinformed public conversation about rape. The subject was the role of firearms in rape prevention on college campuses—a hot topic since the Colorado state legislature has been wrestling with HB 1226, a proposed bill that would ban concealed weapons on campus. (The sponsor spiked the bill after the hubbub surrounding Maxwell’s appearance.)
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Maxwell argued that, while problematic on a several levels, the argument that women can prevent rape by packing heat is primarily a failure because it is not rooted in the reality of campus rape.
“I want women to be able to protect themselves, yes, but I want women to not be in this situation,” said Maxwell.
“Knowing there are evil people, I want women protected, and they’ve got to protect themselves,” responded Hannity.
Maxwell doubled down: “Tell men not to rape.”
Glenn Beck’s The Blaze called her argument “bizarre.” But it’s disingenuous to suggest that women must choose between being armed or being raped. Saying that a woman should be able to pack heat for self-protection is one thing. But self-defense is not the same thing as rape prevention—and carrying a gun certainly doesn’t guarantee defense against rape.
“If firearms are the answer, then the military would be the safest place for women,” said Maxwell. “And it’s not.”
For her audacity, Maxwell received a torrent of abusive tweets. These Twitter users said she should be gang-raped and that her throat should be slit. They called her a “nigger.” Many others simply insisted on perpetuating a false, twisted representation of her argument: Zerlina Maxwell believes women should be raped instead of using a gun on a rapist.
So it’s come to this: We now must add carrying a gun to our victim-blaming checklist. “She wasn’t carrying a pistol; she must’ve wanted it.”
As if that list wasn’t already long enough.
Maxwell is right, of course. The only problem with her argument is that it didn’t go far enough. For men and boys to be taught not to rape, they have to first learn what rape is.
College women are more likely to be raped than their unenrolled counterparts, and the vast majority of college rapists are trusted acquaintances of the victim, not a man in a ski mask hiding in the bushes wielding a knife or a gun.
Freshmen are more likely to be raped than other students. College rape most often takes place in the victim’s home and is likely to be preceded by consensual kissing. It is almost never reported; fewer than 5 percent of rapes and attempted rapes on college campuses are reported to law enforcement officials, according the National College Women Sexual Victimization (NCWSV) study conducted by the National Institute of Justice.
When the NCWSV study asked rape survivors why they didn’t call the police, “the common answers included that the incident was not serious enough to report and that it was not clear that a crime was committed.”
The preferred weapon of choice in a typical campus rape is confusion. “Date rape” sounds like something that occurs after a candlelit dinner with a cracked crème brulee. In reality, it’s more like “passive-aggressive rape”; kissing precedes the attack, and orchestrated pleasantries may follow. The words coming out of the rapist’s mouth may sound like sex, while his physical actions feel like rape. Women are often left wondering if they could have been raped by such a “nice guy,” and they often conclude, at least in the short-term (the study only addressed incidents that took place in the previous six months), that they weren’t.
The study concludes that many women don’t characterize their sexual victimizations as crimes for a few main reasons: “not clearly understanding the legal definition of rape, or not wanting to define someone they know who victimized them as a rapist, or because they blame themselves for their sexual assault.”
So a survivor may answer yes to a behavior-specific screening question such as, “Has anyone made you have sexual intercourse by using force or threatening to harm you or someone close to you?” but answer no to, “Were you raped?”
The concept of grooming, or manufacturing emotional and psychological confusion in a victim, is easily understood when it comes to child victims of sexual abuse. But that understanding does not yet extend to the romantic realm, though the processes sound similar. We still have a hard time recognizing that a “nice” college guy who makes a woman pancakes after a disturbing and confusing sexual episode the previous night is a rapist—and the research shows he’s counting on it.
Psychologist David Lisak, a forensic consultant, leading expert on non-stranger rape, and rape survivor, has conducted groundbreaking research on “undetected rapists” (as in, “nice-guy” rapists who routinely get away with acquaintance rape). He found that college men are just as confused as women; they answer yes to having committed behaviors graphically describing rape, yet no to being a rapist.
“They shared the very widespread belief that rapists were knife-wielding men in ski masks who attacked strangers; since they did not fit that description, they were not rapists and their behavior was not rape,” wrote Lisak.
Can education campaigns targeting men and boys prevent all rape? Of course not. Flagrant criminals interested in violently attacking strangers will only be stopped the old-fashioned way: with arrest, injury, or death.
But we can reduce instances of the most common type of college rape by teaching men and women, boys and girls, what rape actually is. We can help prevent rapes perpetuated by boys and men who are totally OK with being jerks about getting laid, but not necessarily fine with being rapists—or, at the very least, not OK with winding up behind bars.