Commentary Abortion

Zerlina Maxwell Braves Online Attacks and Abuse to Speak Out About Rape Culture

Imani Gandy

Zerlina Maxwell, a lawyer, writer, social commentator, and rape survivor has been heaped with abusive tweets and internet postings for more than a week for suggesting guns are not the answer to rape culture.

Zerlina Maxwell appeared on The Sean Hannity Show last week to push back on the prevailing and ludicrous right-wing narrative that stockpiling weapons is the best way for women to prevent rape. While she expected a somewhat hostile response, she did not foresee, however, the vitriolic backlash that followed. 

What Zerlina said is not controversial: She spoke out in favor of changing the conversation about rape and criticized the sort of victim-blaming inherent in the notion that men don’t rape people, women without guns are raped by people: 

“Well, I think that I think that the entire conversation is wrong. I don’t want anybody to be telling women anything. I don’t want women, I don’t want men to be telling me what to wear and how to act, not to drink. And I don’t, honestly, want you to tell me that I needed a gun in order to prevent my rape. In my case, don’t tell me if I’d only had a gun, I wouldn’t have been raped. Because it’s still putting it on me to prevent the rape.” (Video clip and transcript, below.)

Both Hannity and Gayle Trotter (the other guest on the show) kept insisting that guns are the solution. “Every year there are 2.5 million defensive uses of guns,” Trotter proclaims. “Every year!” 

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But that statistic is meaningless: For one thing, it has been roundly criticized as “mythical.”  And even if the number is accurate, those 2.5 million defensive uses are not necessarily women shooting would-be rapists.

For his part, Hannity kept trying to re-frame the debate as “women using guns to stop rapes-in-progress” as if Zerlina was suggesting that women politely ask men to stop raping them as opposed to what she was actually suggesting, which is that we focus on educating men about respect for women’s bodily autonomy and teaching men what rape is. Either by design, or, as is more likely, crippling ignorance, Hannity refused to grasp the simplicity of Zerlina’s point. “Criminals will not listen,” Hannity argued.  

This sort of unthinking analysis is par for the course for the likes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Anyone not interested in purposeful obfuscation knows full well that Zerlina did not argue, as The Blaze claims, that “women don’t need guns for self-defense; just tell men not to rape women.”  

That this debate about arming potential rape victims is even a thing is patently absurd. First, the claim that women need to be armed to prevent rape is a symptom of a broader problem: The argument by anti gun-reform proponents that guns are *the* answer to violence co-exists with a willingness to then verbally assault anyone who disagrees. For example, some proponents of the idea that guns will make women safer from rape have also engaged in public harassment and mocking of Maxwell, a rape survivor who dares suggest that maybe we should change the conversation surrounding sexual assault and stop victim-blaming. These attacks are another form of violence and abuse.

Second, the claim that women should have the choice to be armed is beside the point. In the reality-based world, two-thirds of women are raped by someone they know, and if women start shooting every man who might rape them or who they think might rape them (because remember, your right to self-defense hinges on whether you think your life is in danger) then, let’s just say, there will be many more shooting deaths in this country. Moreover, what happens when the rapist attacks you when you aren’t around your gun?

But, of course, those who watch Fox News or who read The Blaze would rather attack the messenger. And attack they did. They attacked on Twitter. (Zerlina was alerted by her mother of all people to the infamous tweet by Michael Shapiro aka @michael_ny_usa (which I will not post here because it is that ugly, but which you can view in Josh Marshall’s post at Talking Points Memo). They also attacked on Facebook, where a photo of a smiling Zerlina with the word “IDIOT” emblazoned on it has been shared on Facebook almost 25,000 times and “liked” almost 96,000 times.  

In an interview with Rewire, Zerlina says, “I made a strategic choice to go into a hostile environment to talk about this issue knowing that I was going to get push back.” “What I didn’t anticipate,” she says “is the level of vitriol as a result.” 

The vitriol left her taken aback and feeling somewhat alone, until Friday evening, when Jessica Luther of Flyover Feminism rallied supporters around the #TYZerlina hashtag, which, Zerlina says, has helped her cope with the level of nastiness that this particular appearance on Hannity’s show engendered. She recognizes that she’s out on a ledge by appearing on Hannity as frequently as she does. “I get tweets calling me stupid or an idiot every single time I go on,” she says. “I get hate tweets every single time.” 

But this was different.“This was particularly painful,” Zerlina says, “because I know I wasn’t speaking for myself.” When asked why she chose to go on Hannity and speak about rape culture, she responds, “I’ve been fed up.” Her litany of grievances is familiar:

“Particularly after the election what we went through with ‘legitimate rape,’ ‘honest rape,’ ‘another form of conception’ rape. You can’t have the morning after pill; you can’t get an abortion; Paul Ryan being on the ticket at all; we’re going to de-fund Planned Parenthood; we’re going to do a transvaginal ultrasound against your will. I’m really just fed up.”

For Zerlina, exploiting rape survivors in order to support the NRA’s crusade against gun control was simply a bridge too far.

Her efforts have paid off, however.  She has received supportive messages from conservative Twitter rape survivors who tell her how much they disagree with her on every other issue except this one. By putting herself out there, Zerlina has been able to reach out to women across the aisle. The importance of this cannot be understated because, as Zerlina points out, “Rape isn’t a partisan issue. There are Republican survivors, too.”

***You can find a link to Zerlina’s appearance on The Ed Show last night here.

***You can find a complete video of Zerlina’s appearance on the Sean Hannity Show at Feministing here, and a transcript of her appearance (courtesy of Natalia Hacerola) here.

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