Is Rape Preventable?

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Zerlina Maxwell has been stirring quite the controversy, and the subject matter makes many uncomfortable: What prevents and stops rape?

Maxwell appeared on Hannity a few weeks ago, answering this very question. She argued that the current conversation is headed in the wrong direction; we should not be focusing on how women can defend themselves, but what cultural shift could prevent rape as a whole. She said,

I don’t think that we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there…You’re talking about this as if it’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone you know and trust…If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.

The response to Maxwell’s seemingly benign comments have been astounding. The Blaze called her claims “shocking,” and her comments have spurred a mind-blowing onslaught of racist and violent comments directed toward the self-proclaimed rape survivor. Some called her a “nigger,” others oversimplified her argument to say that she thought that women should get raped instead of defending themselves. The fluster around Maxwell’s appearance on Fox transformed her academic comments into straw mans and maiden-in-distress victimhood; her message has been lost in the fire. Let’s reexamine it.

Maxwell believes that the United States needs a paradigm shift to facilitate ending rape, which she details beyond Hannity in “5 Ways We Can Teach Men Not to Rape.” I was immediately intrigued; is there a cure for rape culture and rape itself in America?

Unfortunately, Maxwell’s argument is paper-thin. Her insights start with “teach young men about legal consent” and ends with “teach males about bystander intervention.” While requiring an enthusiastic “yes!” to consider sex consensual, and questioning all else otherwise is probably a good idea, most of her goals are already being instilled in young men (or, might I add, any gender) across the country. Her ideas about consent are nothing new. These ideas have been presented pointedly and recently in 2009 and 2011. Again, this idea is not groundbreaking.

Now, I am all for a paradigm shift that would prevent rape. We’ve seen great leaps in terms of racial, gender, and sexual equality all in the past 50 years; cultural change is difficult but possible. But I’d like to highlight that it is not enough; just like there is still discrimination in the workforce as a continuance of racist and sexist ideology, there will likely always be rape. Sexual violence is likely not preventable in all cases because (I’ll be the one to say it) it is something inherent to human nature. Rape is seen cross-culturally; there is not a single culture that does not have rape. While education may prevent some rape, it will never entirely do away with the problem, regardless of the assailant and victim’s gender, income status, or race. Sorry, Jessica Valenti.

Education is important, but it is not enough. While it may prevent some rape, women and men still need to have the agency to defend themselves and their bodies from violent sexual assault, because rape will always occur across societies. In an attempt to distance myself from the second amendment arguments unfairly targeted at Maxwell, let me simply close by saying Maxwell should rethink her claims into simple, actionable arguments beyond a “cultural shift,” and should steer away from such optimism that rape is entirely preventable in America, or anywhere else.

See Zerlina Maxwell’s interview on Hannity here:

  • jdkolassa

    Rachel,

    I’m wondering if you have seen Sarah Skwire’s posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on rape, and what you think about them. The most recent is here – http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/03/what-are-we-supposed-to-do/ – and an earlier one is here – http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/02/violating-our-principles/. The first one did cause some of a hullabaloo.

    You seem to take a decidedly different take than Skwire. The differences are interesting.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rburger Rachel Burger

      I have read through Sarah’s pieces (and I’d like to add that I think she is an excellent writer and I respect her greatly). I do not think that our ideas necessarily oppose each other. I offer that there are limits to what changing “rape culture” can do for America… I’m all for a paradigm shift (as I mentioned in this article), but education can only do so much. It cannot replace a woman’s ability to defend herself. I’m not sure if Sarah would disagree with that.

      • Kevin Boyd

        ” I offer that there are limits to what changing “rape culture” can do for America… I’m all for a paradigm shift (as I mentioned in this article), but education can only do so much.”
        Isn’t this a bit contradictory? You call for a paradigm shift but at the same you seem to acknowledge (correctly) that rape is biological. What exactly do you have in mind?

        • http://www.facebook.com/rburger Rachel Burger

          It’s not contradictory at all; I think that we can bring down the number of rapes we see through education—-to a point. To have a society free of rape, with an absolute of 0 per year, to the point of not needing the ability to defend oneself, is not only impossible but a dangerous notion. It is simply not possible, but the ideas do not necessarily contradict each other. I believe that some rape is cultural, but not all.

          • Kevin Boyd

            “It’s not contradictory at all; I think that we can bring down the number of rapes we see through education—-to a point.”

            We have been doing that. It is commonly known that rape is a crime, “no means no”, if you are arrested and convicted you go to prison. I fail to see what if any good any further education can do, except possibly reduce a few instances of “date rape”, but in many of those cases drugs and/or alcohol are a factor.

            If we want to reduce the instances of rape, we’re better off encouraging victims to report their rapes to law enforcement and prosecuting more rapists.

          • http://www.facebook.com/rburger Rachel Burger

            Doesn’t mean we can’t do more. What you’re advocating is on the victim’s side, which we have seen plenty of. I agree with Maxwell that we should focus more on the perpetrators.

            Also, rape is not so black and white. Sometimes women don’t say no and neither does their body language, for example.

          • Kevin Boyd

            “I agree with Maxwell that we should focus more on the perpetrators.”

            How exactly?

            “Also, rape is not so black and white. Sometimes women don’t say no and neither does their body language, for example.”

            That’s a genuine problem. I have two opinions on this. First opinion is that “no means no”, period. If a woman says no, irregardless of body language, its no. However, I do know that there are women out there who do tease guys, promise sex, then change their minds right before doing the act. Or even in same cases, they cry rape if the sex was not satisfactory (ex. one of the rape allegations against Julian Assange is along those lines) That’s not so black and white is it?

          • http://www.facebook.com/rburger Rachel Burger

            I think her idea of having a solid “yes” is a good one, for starters.

            I know there are “women out there who do tease guys, promise sex, then change their minds right before doing the act,” but that’s still clearly a “no.” That’s still rape coupled with a broken promise. I don’t know enough about the Assange case to comment, but that does sound dubious.

          • Kevin Boyd

            “I think her idea of having a solid “yes” is a good one, for starters.

            I know there are “women out there who do tease guys, promise sex, then change their minds right before doing the act,” but that’s still clearly a “no.” That’s still rape coupled with a broken promise.”
            But alas, we have to deal with reality. The reality is that in the case of dubious consent (or nonconsent), if a prosecutor even decides to bring a case, it will be very hard for a jury to convict because the burden of proof is so high (beyond a reasonable doubt and sense rape is ultimately a crime of nonconsentual sex, all the accused has to do is create a reasonable doubt).
            I don’t have the first clue about how to go about addressing that. These also seem to be the only categories of rapes that can be addressed by education and I’m dubious about the return on value on that. Ironically its agreeing with your conclusions, but not necessarily how you reach them.

  • http://thoughtsonliberty.com/ Gina Luttrell

    As we discussed a bit, I think in order for you to say that rape is a part of human nature, you’d have to control for patriarchy, which is also predominant in many cultures on our planet.

    • Kevin Boyd

      Gina,

      Isn’t the domination and overpowering of physically weaker creatures (which is what rape is a form of) as old as humanity and indeed the animal kingdom itself?

  • gliberty

    The idea that “rape will always happen” and “it’s human nature” is a very frightening and disturbing justification for allowing violence of a despicable kind to continue. At some points in history and various cultures in the world the same might have been said (or is still said) about slavery, oppression by religious and tyrannical powers, child- and wife-beating, even cannibalism and viscous genital mutilation (like female circumcision), etc. We have found a way to change culture to reduce (or prevent to a huge degree) these, why not aim to do the same for rape?

    • http://www.facebook.com/rburger Rachel Burger

      At no point does this article justify rape, nor does it call for “allowing” sexual violence to continue. It merely argues that a society can NEVER do away with rape altogether, so to think that education is a fix-all is a dangerous and ignorant notion. I have no problem using education to try to prevent rape, as I’ve mentioned in this article, but it will not cure American culture of the problem.

      As an aside, in all the examples you mention above, they still exist today. Not only that, but serious coercion was involved in changing cultural behavior; education alone was not good enough.

  • Astraea_Muse

    Violence is inherent in humanity. But it is only in rape that we focus on the victim, not the perpetrator. Rape is violence, and as a crime it should be treated like any other crime. When you hear about someone being robbed, your first question isn’t whether they were dressed provocatively…

    • http://www.facebook.com/rburger Rachel Burger

      I’m not sure if I agree with this statement; if you were robbed, someone might ask if you had the door locked. At no point in this article do I victim blame either, but I do think that women should have the agency (and do have the agency) to protect themselves.

      • http://www.facebook.com/joy.holowicki Joy Holowicki

        In that context. But in the acquaintance/ intimate rape context Zerlina is speaking about -the context that most rapes happen in and the context where victim-blaming the most occurs -what is the role of agency? That’s the problem here. Wouldn’t you agree?

        • http://www.facebook.com/rburger Rachel Burger

          I don’t understand what you’re arguing here. Can you point to the victim blaming in this piece or in that comment? Agency does not suddenly disappear when you know someone.

          • http://www.facebook.com/joy.holowicki Joy Holowicki

            Well, you engage in rape culture by throwing up the red-herring of stranger rape (like Hannity did, congratulations!). Victim-blaming in the case of intimacy-rape is implicit in your suggestion that someone has abdicated their agency in the events leading up to an attack. This makes them partly responsible for the event. She didn’t -she chose to act in some other way. (Vulnerability in exchange for love-acts in a relationship? Oh my…)

            But yeah, you’re right -you outsourced your argument to Gina’s confused discussion of agency. So, yes, I suppose you didn’t do the victim blaming directly, just implicitly by your definition of agency (which I addressed on the other blog and implicitly in my comments above.)

            I’m glad you attempted to engage this topic from angle of agency, so keep trying.

          • http://thoughtsonliberty.com/ Gina Luttrell

            o.O I fail to see at what point Burger said a person who was raped abdicated agency. She has done nothing but promote agency in her piece.

            Whether someone is being date raped, violently raped, or raped by their spouse/family member, they still retain agency. That is, they still are individual people who have the right to self-determination, and, thus, self defense. Someone doesn’t lose the right to fight off their attacker just because that person is someone they know. Her argument holds no matter who is doing the raping or how they relate to the survivor.

          • http://www.facebook.com/joy.holowicki Joy Holowicki

            Yes it does -your understanding of agency is incorrect.

            “That is, they still are individual people who have the right to self-determination, and, thus, self defense”

            She/He certainly does have the right -but to say that she/he abdicated that right by making some other choice to do something else, is a misstep in the argument. What Rachel is actually arguing for in this case is to place more value on self-defense. But someone in a closer relationship is going to act in more vulnerable ways -with values of love, mercy, forgiveness, submission, or, heck, sexiness! fun! over defensiveness or prudence. You have to argue for the trade-off. I think you can make a principled argument for that, but you’ll have to address the values individuals do choose. Rachel made a very brief argument (though, hampered by agency confusion) and I found it unconvincing on scientific, rhetorical, and moral grounds

            “Someone doesn’t lose the right to fight off their attacker just because that person is someone they know”

            Correct. I once had a boyfriend who was a linebacker and I’m 95lbs. In this case of us two being alone, his physical agency exceeds my own. There’s a vulnerability there. I certainly do have that right -but I would not have the power to carry it out. That’s an extreme -but I would argue that there are more and more of these trade-offs in closer relationships. This is the distinction between agency capacity and moral agency.

          • http://www.facebook.com/joy.holowicki Joy Holowicki

            Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about:

            http://courtneymilan.tumblr.com/post/41817043853/agency-victim-blaming-choices

    • PSG

      “Violence is inherent in humanity. But it is only in rape that we focus
      on the victim, not the perpetrator. Rape is violence, and as a crime it
      should be treated like any other crime. When you hear about someone
      being robbed, your first question isn’t whether they were dressed
      provocatively…”

      This is true, but quite often the first (pick-apart) question is, “Where were you?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/joy.holowicki Joy Holowicki

    “AMY GOODMAN: —is that most women are raped by people they know.

    ZERLINA MAXWELL: Right. And this is one of the reasons why the gun conversation is completely ridiculous on its face in terms of prevention of rape, because most women are going to be in a situation where they know the person, right? So you’re not going to be out on a date or in your apartment with an acquaintance and have a gun out. That’s just not—I mean, if you—particularly because most guns, if you’re doing it the appropriate way, you’re going to lock it up and make sure that it’s not stolen or used by a child. And so, you’re not going to have your gun on hand any time something like this comes up. And I think the problem is, is that too many women, 80 percent of women, are raped by someone they know. And so, you’re not going to have the gun out.”
    -http://www.democracynow.org/2013/3/15/teaching_men_not_to_rape_survivor

    Can you “bite the bullet” like Zerlina bravely did (how’s that for agency?!)? I’d like to see a full-on discussion of agency in common situations concerning rape. I agree, that’s part of the problem -what is there to be done? And while giving men a slight pass at agency (I’m fond of the character-driven kind) -will you give women the same evolutionary pass? What of their in-built, evolutionary submissionism? I’m just wondering aloud now…. do the two cancel each other out? If so, then we’re back to agency, for both parties. And agency means character -so both you and Zerlina agree.

    • http://www.facebook.com/joy.holowicki Joy Holowicki

      Of course, in all this I would not excluded the idea that agency -the power to act – should be expanded, for both sexes. Let’s help free them and grant to them political freedom -let’s free the poor, let’s free minorities missed by our justice system, let’s free the literal captives in our ugly prison system. But that is not the only agency one must be concerned about, most things being equal.

  • Radical

    I seriously question your assertion that “most of her goals are already being instilled in young men (or, might I add, any gender) across the country.” And citing two sources, one five years old and the other two years old, does little to prove your point that “this idea is not groundbreaking.”

    Sure, Maxwell didn’t invent consent culture. And I agree with you that it requires a quite a faith in the perfectibility of humanity to believe that education can end all incidence of rape. But you don’t have to dismiss Maxwell’s argument as “paper-thin” to make that point.