Tag Archives: Zerlina Maxwell

Rape Prevention Through Education: If It Doesn’t Work, It’s More Dangerous Than Just Wasting Resources

Vancouver’s “Don’t Be That Guy” ad campaign was credited for a 10% drop in reported sexual assaults for 2011 after its inception that summer. This begs the question, though, of how exactly the campaign’s effectiveness could be measured, whether there is both causation as well as correlation, and, if so, what worked?

I have doubts about the ability of education to reduce sexual violence on the part of offenders, simply because I believe that most men don’t need it and the relatively few who do won’t respond to it. This isn’t just some intuition I claim through experience. As I’ve written before, recent and replicated research on the most common type of rapist by far does not dovetail with the idea that we can teach the instinct to sexually offend out of a rapist- or even a boy who hasn’t yet offended, but likely will for a yet unknown reason. That’s part of the problem. We don’t know what causes boys, usually in adolescence, to begin viewing sexuality so pathologically. Our assumptions, like victimization in their childhood, have been revealed as dubious at best by psychologists like Anna Salter and others. It’s frightening and frustrating, but believing myths simply because they are comforting only makes predators more powerful and elusive.

Of course I can’t state with certainty that early intervention on the nature of consent or appropriate sexual interaction won’t lead to the better development of a potential offender. I also can’t say that a detected offender couldn’t be shown the error of his ways or benefit from whatever form of education his own detection might produce (investigation, prosecution, public repudiation). But I wouldn’t bet on either scenario. Reasonable people can argue limitlessly what works, what doesn’t, and what we’re dealing with. But we might as well begin with what we know. There has been some excellent study on acquaintance rape in the last 15 years, and, at bottom, here’s what it’s mined:

1. Most men who rape do so over and over again until they are detected, and very few are.

2. Rape is usually a planned, pre-mediated attack, not an honest mistake by a socially inept person.

Remember: There’s more at stake here than just wasting resources if education doesn’t work, or work well enough. If we believe that an act of rape is caused by a lack of some crucial, social education, we will be more likely to forgive it as such and demand less accountability.  Acquaintance rape in particular is already committed far too often with impunity. The rapists are often socially accepted in their environments or at least non-threatening in appearance. So when we believe the rapist, already nicely ensconced within the environment, is really just misguided (a bumbling oaf, perhaps who just “didn’t understand consent” and “ended up” committing a rape), we go down a very dangerous path.

Imagine what follows: We believe a rape occurred. We even understand what a life-altering, traumatic event it was for the victim, male or female. But we also believe it was committed not by a serial predator but an “unenlightened” guy in need of intervention. We think he’s been “scared straight” by the system or otherwise, perhaps, at least now better educated. So how much will we want to punish him? And how likely, now that he’s been “taught,” is he to reoffend? Take this view, and the answers will boil down to 1) not much, if at all; and 2) not likely.  

Zerlina Maxwell’s appeal to education to reduce sexual violence seems to be more targeted toward boys who have not yet offended. I’d love to believe there is purchase there, and maybe there is more than I understand. I absolutely agree, in any event, with teaching boys non-patriarchal respect and decency toward women. This is desperately needed, but it’s also constantly undermined by the “sex sells,” deeply objectifying culture we live in.

Still, I believe naturally, non-offending males can embolden each other as peers to stop rape by acting as bystanders and intervening before attacks can be planned or executed (women can do so as well). My point? If there was a real effect with the Vancouver campaign, I’m willing to bet that was a bigger part of it. 



Zerlina Maxwell and Sexual Violence: We Agree On One Aspect, Not on Another

iStock women w gunI have great respect for Zerlina Maxwell and no desire to contradict her on what are thoughtful and well stated positions on the prevention of sexual violence. I support fully the central argument she makes:

Stopping rape is an issue men must take up rather than women.

She’s right, and that cannot be underscored enough (I’ve addressed the issue previously here). Women cannot “stop rape” by being better behaved, smarter, more intuitive, or even by being better self-protected (i.e., with a firearm). Colorado state senator Evie Hudak has absorbed  much criticism for challenging a witness at a legislative hearing on the efficacy of firearms in the protection of women.  But while Hudak’s remarks might have been perceived as inartful, they are not baseless. The vast majority of sexual assaults on women are perpetrated by men they know, and whom they’ve invited into their physical environments with their guards down; thus, in situations where a gun- no matter how proficient the owner- would make no difference. The gun lobby and its gun-worshipping echo chamber have of course demonized Hudak, Maxwell, and everyone else who dares to contradict the intoxicating, Hollywood scenario of street justice meted out by a gun-toting woman against some horrific offender. But the sad fact is that guns don’t prevent the kind of rape most often perpetrated on women, men or anyone else. It just doesn’t work that way (as an aside, it’s funny to me how conservatives blame Hollywood for everything but will stand beside the “Death Wish” narrative as a real prescription for addressing interpersonal violence).

To be clear: I would never discourage any woman- a stranger or my little sister- from owning and training with a handgun for personal defense. Nor would I refrain from applauding heartily if her possession of the gun, willingness to use it, and skill and good fortune in its use resulted in the neutralization of someone who meant her harm. But I deal in reality and not macho fantasy. I know that a gun is a sword and not a shield; that simply owning one is several steps away from its utility as a protective measure. And I know that that reality almost never involves a Tarantino-esque bloodbath against the unjust and in favor of the righteous.

My only disagreement with Ms. Maxwell’s prescription for a safer world is with her apparent belief that men (and more to the point boys) can be taught to be less sexually aggressive, i.e., “taught not to rape.” Research does not bear this out. In fact, most men are not sexually violent. Many if not most have learned objectifying and unhealthy attitudes toward women and sexuality, but most will recognize discomfort or terror, or a state of unconsciousness (or semi-consciousness) on the part of a potential victim and back off. Most men don’t need to be taught to refrain from sexual violence.

Again, to be clear: This does not mean for a second that I don’t favor teaching boys as they grow into manhood more about decency, equality, and non-patriarchal gentleness toward women. It only means that, when it comes to the urge, desire or proclivity to commit felonies, the violators are generally not teachable, and the non-violators are not in need of that kind of instruction. A healthier societal attitude toward women will probably encourage more bystander intervention (which I do think is a good area to invest time and effort) and may generally make men think twice before objectifying in the first place. But that’s a distant dream in a media environment saturated with sex and objectification, and currently selling everything from toothpaste to tires.

The most perplexing and frightening aspect of sexual violence is the mystery of its origins. Most who believe in an ordered universe assume that evil is not innate but inculcated, and thus preventable or at least reversible. Would that I could agree, but it’s not what recent and replicated research on the subject suggests. Similarly, supposed “equalizers” like handguns are floated as panaceas, but they are not the answer either- and they carry terrifying potential downsides.

The answer, as Ms. Maxwell suggests, lies within the perpetrator. Unearthing it, sadly, is still an elusive proposition.