How can we fight rape?

March 21, 2013

The emerging movement against rape and sexual assault is a welcome sign that people are fed up with violence against women--and a society that produces it.

"NIGGER! I hope you get raped and your throat slit!" "You need to be gang raped to get you some common sense. You stupid bitch."

That torrent of racist misogyny was directed at activist Zerlina Maxwell after she appeared on Fox News host Sean Hannity's show and dared to suggest that arming women won't stop rape--and that the onus for preventing rape shouldn't be on women, since women aren't responsible for rape to begin with.

"I don't think that we should be telling women anything," Maxwell told Hannity. "I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there."

You wouldn't think that statement would be controversial, would you? How could anyone disagree with telling men not to rape women?

But the loathsome response Maxwell got after appearing on Fox News seems to be par for the course when it comes to these discussions.

Over and over again, the issue of sexual assault and rape is twisted inside out. On college campuses, women are told not to walk alone or wear the "wrong" clothing, or they are inviting a sexual attack. In the aftermath of rape, women are questioned about what they wore, what they drank and what they did to "provoke" their attacker. In the legal system, they're questioned about whether they fought hard enough or whether they sent "mixed signals."

Protesters against victim-blaming at a New York SlutWalk protest in 2011
Protesters against victim-blaming at a New York SlutWalk protest in 2011

Just such a noxious pattern was on display during the high-profile trial of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, for the rape of a young woman.

That the two teens were found guilty this week doesn't erase the vile abuse that was heaped on the young woman after she dared to go to police about the rape last year. The defense strategy was a familiar one: She didn't say no--an argument lawyers made despite photos that surfaced on social media showing the victim was unconscious and unable to say anything.

The message in this and so many other cases and situations is that the burden is on women to prevent rape, rather than on men to not rape.

But there is a new conversation about rape and sexual assault happening in the U.S. A new generation of young women--often shoulder-to-shoulder with male allies--are refusing to be shamed or silenced about rape, whether it happens in Steubenville, Ohio, or on a college campus, or in the ranks of the U.S. military. These activists are pointing a finger at the disgusting aspects of our society that lead to rape--and the institutions that allow it to go unchallenged.

ZERLINA MAXWELL earned the hostility of Fox News fanatics for making the simple point that right-wing calls for women to arm themselves with handguns to stop sexual assault wouldn't work.

Maxwell didn't even point out that the right wing's real concern is the right to bear arms, not stopping sexual assault. After all, Republicans in Congress blocked renewal of the Violence Against Women Act until they were shamed into backing down earlier this year. A shocking number of Republican candidates in the last election lectured women about "legitimate" rape.

The right wing wouldn't know what to do if women in this country really did start shooting rapists. As Maxwell told Hannity, "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...I want women to be able to protect themselves, yes, but I want women to not be in this situation."

In an article for Ebony magazine, Maxwell expanded on what she meant, quoting Eesha Pandit, executive director of Men Stopping Violence. Pandit told her:

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.

As Maxwell, Pandit and others point out, rape is treated differently from other crimes: The victims are frequently not only second-guessed, but also judged complicit because of their personal behavior--from what they wore, to whether they had a drink, to how hard they fought back.

On college campuses, for example, administrators still routinely warn women students to curtail their behavior as the best means of preventing rape. In some cases, this is taken to absurd lengths--as when the University of Colorado sent out a list of 10 "last resort" tips for women to stop a sexual assault. Included on the list were "Tell your attacker that you have a disease or are menstruating" and "Vomiting or urinating may also convince the attacker to leave you alone."

This may be going to extremes, but the general idea is commonplace--that the onus is on women to avoid getting raped, rather than on men to not rape.

This twisted logic was starkly highlighted in a 4-3 ruling last year by the Connecticut State Supreme Court that overturned the conviction of Richard Fourtin Jr. on charges of sexual assault.

The victim in the case was a woman with severe cerebral palsy who can't communicate verbally and, according to reports, has the "intellectual functional equivalent of a 3-year-old." Nevertheless, according to the highest state court in Connecticut, the victim didn't do enough to fight off her attacker--since she was supposedly capable of "biting, kicking, scratching, screeching, groaning or gesturing" her non-consent.

This legal "reasoning" is sickening--but the truth is it's only a more outrageous example of the kind of questioning survivors of sexual assault are routinely subjected to.

Even on the left, such ideas aren't unknown. Writing on Alternet, Valerie Tarico, herself a rape survivor, acknowledges the high rates of rape and attempted rape in the U.S., but goes on to state that "the relationship between female helplessness or coercion and sexual arousal for our species is hard wired, and it's not going away...Absolving women of responsibility denies us response ability."

ACCORDING TO the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (some studies place that number even higher). Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S., and approximately two-thirds of these assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.

Shifting the terms of the debate about sexual violence, as Maxwell and others are trying to do, is vitally important. So is building an active struggle--something activists on campuses and in communities across the country are also taking up.

The "rape culture" that today's activists talk about is not universal and all-pervasive, nor is it innate to all men to rape or be sexist. (In fact, studies show that a relatively small percentage of men commit rape.)

One of the critical issues highlighted by the new movement is how social and political institutions contribute significantly to the high rates of sexual assault--by systematically downplaying the prevalence of rape and shielding those who commit it.

That's obvious in the Steubenville case, where the star football players who raped a young woman were enabled by adults like their coach, Reno Saccoccia, who tried to shield them from getting in trouble.

On college campuses, administrators are being exposed for their scandalous record of trying to silence victims and stifle scrutiny of the true scale of sexual violence. It has taken courageous individuals like Angie Epifano at Amherst College and Landen Gambill at the University of North Carolina to speak out about how they were discouraged from coming forward and asked inappropriate questions that made them feel victimized all over again.

In the military, rape routinely goes completely unpunished--like in the case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who was unanimously convicted of assaulting a female contractor in a court martial, but who is on active duty today after Third Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the ruling.

With this behavior so prevalent in respected social institutions, is it any wonder women are hesitant to come forward about rape?

If we want to stop sexual assault, it will take a fight against the entrenched sexism and victim-blaming atmosphere of such institutions. And beyond that, it will take a fight against a society that instills into the minds of young men that they are entitled to access women's bodies--a society based on exploitation and oppression, in which women's inequality is a feature of daily life.

The dehumanization of the victim in Steubenville by her rapists wasn't the result of bad parenting or a lack of morals, as some have claimed. It is the result of a society in which women's oppression is a fundamental cornerstone and women's sexuality is commodified in a myriad of ways.

As Zerlina Maxwell wrote in her Ebony article, "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 one in five 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."

WHILE THE guilty verdict in Steubenville is an important outcome given the vicious atmosphere of victim-blaming, the conviction of two young men won't stop rape and sexual assault, in Steubenville or anywhere else.

The two teens will be incarcerated in a "justice" system that offers little in the way of actual rehabilitation--and much in the way of further dehumanization.

Moreover, the guilty verdict doesn't apply to those who enabled and even encouraged their behavior--the adults who treated a 16-year-old and 17-year-old like heroes with a free pass because they were football stars, and who blamed and even threatened the victim for daring to come forward.

Today, millions of people--men and women alike--are outraged and want to fight back against a society that produces sexual assault and victim-blaming.

We saw it in the SlutWalk protests--sparked when a Toronto police officer told women that in order to avoid rape, they should not "dress like a slut." We're seeing it in Steubenville, with the protests of those standing with Jane Doe. And at UNC, Amherst and Yale, where students are taking on administrations that have failed to take rape seriously. As the New York Times wrote:

In the past year, campaigns against sexual assault on college campuses have produced an informal national network of activists who, while sometimes turning for advice to established advocacy groups, have learned largely from one another. They see the beginnings of what they hope is a snowball effect, with each high-profile complaint, each assault survivor going public, prompting more people on more campuses to follow suit...

Some activists are conscious of speaking to the broadest of audiences...But more often, they are addressing just their campuses, and then are stunned to find that people far away are watching.

People aren't just watching. They want to be part of this growing movement to end sexual assault. We have to do everything in our power to build it.

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