Teaching Men Not to Rape

In this guest blog post, Beth Sherouse highlights recent rape prevention campaigns targeting men, boys, and bystanders.

One of the major challenges facing sexual assault survivors and those who advocate for them is confronting a culture that repeatedly engages in victim-blaming. When someone survives a sexual assault, authorities, the media, and the public often place the onus of preventing assault on the victim. Survivors, particularly women, frequently face statements like, “She shouldn’t have been walking to her car late at night by herself”; “She shouldn’t have been wearing such a short skirt”; “She shouldn’t have invited her date up to her apartment”; or “She shouldn’t have had so much to drink at that party.” Others instruct women to prevent being raped by walking in pairs at night, dressing more modestly, and keeping an eye on their drinks. These messages seemingly come from everywhere—family, school, and even workplaces—but distract from the real causes of sexual assault.

Recently, however, sexual assault prevention advocates have begun pushing the conversation about prevention away from teaching women how to avoid being victims and toward teaching men and boys not to rape. This shift also encourages bystanders to intervene in cases where one person is being aggressive or someone is unable to consent.

A few months ago, writer, activist, and rape survivor Zerlina Maxwell appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program and suggested, simply, that our public discussion surrounding sexual assault needed to shift away from victim-blaming and advising women and girls how to avoid being assaulted. “I don’t think that we should be telling women anything,” she told Hannity. “I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there with prevention. […] If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.”

Many seemed bewildered by her comments, and scores of netizens attacked her with racially- and sexually-charged insults, including suggestions that she be gang-raped and murdered. To sexual assault prevention advocates, Maxwell’s suggestion seems logical and straightforward: Teach potential rapists not to commit assaults instead of teaching potential victims to avoid being assaulted. But the backlash against Maxwell’s remarks reflected an unwillingness among many Americans to shift the responsibility for preventing sexual assault to those who commit the vast majority of these crimes. In response to the online attacks on her, Maxwell wrote 5 Ways We Can Teach Men Not to Rape,” giving credit to established organizations such as Men Can Stop Rape in order to show that her view was not out of the mainstream.

Fortunately, there are indications that the conversation surrounding sexual assault prevention is beginning to shift. Alternative media outlets such as Salon and Democracy Now jumped to Maxwell’s defense and have attempted to address the idea of teaching men and boys not to rape. Advocacy groups have released posters and begun campaigns targeting men and encouraging bystander intervention in situations that some might find uncomfortable. Missoula's Intervention in Action Project, whose “Make Your Move” campaign recently went viral, produced posters with slogans like “I could tell she was asking for it…” in large print, continuing in smaller print “…to stop. So I stepped in and told my buddy that was no way to treat a lady. And he backed off.”

Similar posters have gone viral on social media and sites like Upworthy in recent months. Many of these poster campaigns use humor to suggest the absurdity of expecting women to prevent their own assaults. One such poster, titled “10 Top Tips to End Rape,” included tips such as “Don’t put drugs in women’s drinks,” “USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public,” and “If you pull over to help a woman whose car has broken down, remember not to rape her.”

As these campaigns suggest, men and boys can and should be taught not only not to rape, but also to respect women and intervene in situations where other men are being predatory or disrespectful. In March, during the Steubenville rape trial, popular blogger AskMoxie wrote a letter to her two young sons, highlighting the importance of teaching boys to respect women and their bodies from the time they first begin learning about sex. She also encourages her sons to intervene in situations where their friends are being disrespectful. “I know you’re going to hear other boys say things about girls, or sometimes about other boys, that means they don’t care about those girls’ feelings or bodies,” she writes. “When you do, I need you to step in.”

AskMoxie’s letter to her sons demonstrates a simple and potentially effective model for teaching boys to become men who help prevent rape. Moreover, the fact that her letter and these other campaigns targeting men have gone viral in recent months suggests that despite the persistence of rape culture, many Americans are finally recognizing that rape is the fault of rapists. By shifting the blame (and responsibility) from victim to perpetrator, we are one step closer to bringing an end to sexual assault.

Beth Sherouse recently earned her Ph.D. in History from the University of South Carolina. She has been a gay rights activist for 10 years and has a passion for politics, local government, and rescuing basset hounds.