I took part in a recent debate on Fox News’ Sean Hannity Show about whether women should just get guns in order to prevent rape. There I said the following:
“I think that the entire conversation is wrong. I don’t want anybody to be telling women anything. 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. Don’t put it on me to prevent the rape.”
As a rape survivor, the conversation about how to best combat rape and domestic violence is personal and can be very challenging. Rape culture is a pervasive part of our society because of social conditioning. Yet we struggle to find ways to avoid patterns of victim blaming and many of us would rather advise women on the precautions they should take to avoid being raped as opposed to starting at the root of the problem: teaching men and boys not to be rapists in the first place.
When I said that “We can prevent rape by telling men not to commit it,” I wasn’t expressing some simplistic, fantastical worldview. There are organizations like Men Can Stop Rape and Men Stopping Violence that are already doing the work to train men from a young age to understand and challenge rape culture. Interestingly enough, many who disagreed with my argument chose to send me rape threats, insults, and dismissive remarks that in many ways proved my point.
We need a cultural shift NOW. In hopes of getting a conversation started, here are five practical ways by which we can teach men not to rape:
1. Teach young men about legal consent: Legal consent tops my list for a reason. Without it, sexual contact with someone is rape…whether you intended to rape or not. A woman who is drunk, unconscious or sleeping cannot give legal consent. And it’s not about a woman simply saying “no,” it’s really about making certain she’s saying yes!
Jaclyn Friedman author of Yes Means Yes, coined the term “enthusiastic consent,” which flips the traditional lens with which we view consent on it’s head. She asks, “What if, instead of just the absence of ‘no,’ an enthusiastic ‘yes’ was required as a standard for sexual consent?"
“The really important thing about consent education, it’s not that rapists don’t know they don’t have consent it’s that everyone else is vague about it in their own lives,” Friedman tells EBONY.
“Consent is actually easy to figure out. You have to ask. It’s your job to ask. It’s not gendered. Women also have the responsibility to ask. And if you can’t tell, ask.”
By not being clear that the concept of legal consent is simple and not a vague gray area, “[w]e are removing all of the excuses and allowing rapists to get away with it with impunity. We assume guys don’t understand what consent is and that they don’t understand what they are doing and then we let them off the hook. They likely know they don’t have consent, even though they may not identify what they are doing is rape.” The men and boys in your life should want for their partner to be not merely submissive, but excited at the idea of having sex. Let them know—you don't want a girl to 'give it up,' you want a mutually enjoyable experience that both parties went into willingly.
2. Teach young men to see women’s humanity, instead of seeing them as sexual objects for male pleasure: There is a reason why women are shamed into silence and why teenage boys in Steubenville, Ohio are caught on camera laughing about gang raping an unconscious girl at a party. The dehumanization of women spans all areas of American life.
There is no shortage of evidence that rape culture results from the objectification of women and the view that we exist simply for male pleasure. When a ESPN football commentator implies that the reward for being a star quarterback is that you get to have a pretty girlfriend, that takes away a woman’s individual agency. She is simply an object to be possessed. An object there for male desire and nothing more.
The young men in Steubenville aren’t monsters. They did something monstrous and criminal but perhaps we should begin to stop repeating the notion that “criminals” are the ones raping 1 in 5 women. No, it’s our husbands, boyfriends, acquaintances, relatives, and friends and they rape because they are not taught to see women as full autonomous human beings.
3. Teach young men how to express healthy masculinity: “The question that’s being asked about what women can do to prevent violence against them is the wrong question. It’s not what can a woman say or do that can prevent being attacked. We need to turn that paradigm upside down. We need to focus on the messages that men are getting and about how they relate to women. We also need to focus on what messaging men are getting about women and about what kind of women get raped,” Eesha Pandit, the Executive Director of Men Stopping Violence told EBONY.
Most importantly, “we have to…redefine what masculinity means…rape is not about evil in the world. It’s about power and control, in relationships and in the world. The messages that men get around masculinity from a young age are too often about violence and about exerting power and control. We need to challenge the definition of masculinity as inherently violent,” says Pandit.
4. Teach young men to believe women and girls who come forward: The vast majority of women do not report their rapes to the police and many more only tell one or two people in confidence. That is a result of our proclivity towards victim blaming. What were you wearing? How much did you drink? Why were you there in the first place? When we hear about a rape case in the news or when we hear about one in our own lives, the first reaction should be to believe and support the accuser. There is a misleading perception that many or most rape claims are false. That is simply untrue. When a victim comes forward, they are committing an act of extreme bravery, and we owe it to them, to support (leaving the criminal investigation to law enforcement) them and place blame directly and solely on the perpetrator. In Steubenville, for example, there is photographic proof of the young women being dragged around, and yet the high school coaches and so-called "adults" still questioned whether the victim was lying or implied she asked for it. No one asks or wants to be raped.
5. Teach males about bystander intervention: Both Men Stopping Violence and Men Can Stop Rape have bystander intervention workshops for men of all ages. “It’s about community accountability,” says Pandit, “We require men to talk to other men in their lives and tell them about these programs. It is important that we have community networks that hold men accountable.”
Monika Hostler President of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence tells EBONY, “We have to engage men and boys, especially around masculinity and bystander intervention. In order to end rape, we have to change the culture in how we treat women and girls.”
When we talk about bystander intervention, it’s more about simply intervening when you see someone doing or about to do something wrong, “It’s also about first calling people out for sexist jokes about women and girls. It’s not just the intervening act, it’s about all of the things that lead up to it. We degrade and oversexualize women and girls and this contributes to sexual violence. We must be consistent to get society to understand how sexist jokes are connected to sexual violence.” Our young men shouldn't shift uncomfortably when a peer jokes about bringing home a drunk classmate who can't possible give verbal consent; they should know to speak up and to do all they can to prevent it from happening—even when it simply seems like a vague possibility.
“Society doesn’t fully understand that rape is not about sex. It’s actually about power and control as a result of hypermasculinity. Bystander intervention is about intervening with people and peers that you know personally. These aren’t evil people. Intervention is all about talking about social and cultural change when people are young.”
Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and soon-to-be attorney. You can follow her on Twitter @ZerlinaMaxwell.