There was a recent case in Montana of a young man, a college football player, being acquitted of rape. The jury felt the evidence wasn’t there, the young woman who accused the young man of rape wasn’t deemed a believable enough rape victim. The young man maintained his innocence all along; he didn’t believe that he had committed rape.
The return of the verdict troubled many people because of how difficult it is for rapists to be convicted and punished for their crimes. I can’t speak on the defendant’s guilt or innocence in absolute terms but I found myself able to believe that it was possible that a rapist could not know he committed rape.
Is this the story of all rapists? Definitely not. Does a man’s lack of understanding of the fact that he committed rape change the experience for the woman forced to suffer as a result? Not at all. Does it change the fact that rape took place? No. It only changes the type of conversation that our society has to have.
We have to recognize that we have created a rape culture that is having damaging impacts on both men and women. It changes how we need to approach rape prevention. Clearly years of trying to target women to change their behavior, practice and clothing have, very unsurprisingly, failed. After all, how could targeting only the victim of a crime prevent the crime?
That’s why Zerlina Maxwell went on the news show Hannity and explained that she believed men needed to be involved in the conversation on sexual violence. That men needed to be taught how to prevent rape. For her honest assessment based on her own experience as a survivor of rape, Maxwell has been subjected to ridicule, derision and even rape threats.
As shocking as some of these responses can be, I find myself unsurprised. Rape culture promotes exactly this type of thinking as a response.
The men, and likely some women, who had trouble with Maxwell’s assertion, first and foremost object to it on the basis that they believe it paints all men as rapists. I find this a bizarre reaction considering the fact that these same individuals seem to have no problem with campaigns targeted at women, encouraging them to protect themselves from rapists (i.e. men). Campaigns, which seem to say that men cannot control themselves around women because of the way they dress, when they are in certain situations and certain neighborhoods. Rather they take umbrage with the idea that men are influenced by the pervasive culture around them but they have agency and the ability to change ingrained and subtle patterns of thought and behavior.
These men also want to bring up the fact that women are not the only victims of rape. That is very true. Men also suffer rape, verbal abuse and violence, at times at the hand of women. Talking about how incredibly common violence against women is does not negate that terrible reality, yet bringing up instances of violence against men during discussions of violence against women is indicative of an attempt to minimize the horror of that reality.
Furthermore, these men explain that rape is not something one learns, no one is taught to rape but rather it’s an act committed by bad people. These assertions are simply not supported by fact. The prevalence of gender-based violence indicates that too many men are involved for us to simply be able to brush this off as an act of a few evil individuals who are aberrations of society. Also, the cycle of violence that sees the eventual blurring of the lines of victims and offenders when you consider that many perpetrators of violence against women witnessed violence in their own homes or were victims of it themselves, is a testament to the fact that this is a learned behavior. We should really be asking ourselves, where is the source of this learning?
It is impossible to overlook the home environment, as explained above. Yet how many parents are shocked by the acts of violence committed by their children, insisting they did not learn that behavior at home?
Society has a clear and damning role to play in the perpetuation of gender based violence.
From a young age men are taught negative messages about their identity and the identity of women around them. The creation of a rape culture is one of the outcomes of this. Rape culture is not so obvious as to be a message that says, “oh hey, rape is great!” Rather the message is much more subvert, insidious and unrelenting. It’s small messages like women want to chased, that they are looking for men to be proactive during romantic pursuits. We can see this idea in commercials, movies, books, television shows, music – anywhere you see a depiction of romance – often there is a male pursuer and if he just persists long enough, he’ll get the girl. This has caused men to think women will eventually “come around”, it impacts understandings of consent, and whether men understand that no really means no.
We also see women regularly portrayed as objects to be acquired. Female bodies are regularly marketed to sell cars, alcohol, vacation destinations, and food. The dehumanization of women in this manner inevitably shapes the way men view women as well as the way women view themselves. In this line, women become simply the playthings of men.
Masculinity is often measured in how many women a man can be with. In how quickly you can move on to the next relationship or hook up. Women are viewed as conquests.
Rape is also about power so there is no overlooking how negative portrayals of women will see men internalizing hatred towards women. Women are needy, they are pushy, they think they are better than men, they are judgmental, they are uppity, they are emotional and they need to be put in their place.
The most frustrating aspect of the objections to Maxwell’s comments is that they represent incredibly simplistic understandings of human reality. They are lowering the discourse surrounding violence against women. Mankind has reached a stage in which it has the potential to tackle difficult issues with the nuance and complexity these situations deserve. Human beings have the potential to read their reality and move beyond cultural and social influences. However, we have to diagnose the true cause of social ills and all participate in its healing. We should no longer be content with simple solutions or simple explanations of these problems, we have to dig deeper and push ourselves outside our comfort zones in developing lasting, just solutions to society’s continued disintegration.