Recently, a wise woman named Zerlina Maxwell pointed out that guns aren’t going to solve the problem of rape. She dared to suggest that perhaps the onus should be put on men to not be rapists. “Don’t put it on me to prevent the rape,” she said. Maxwell isn’t suggesting that women shouldn’t fight back when they are attacked, but she is saying that the focus of the conversation has been wrong this whole time.
And Maxwell’s not just trying to put responsibility on someone else. For instance, she’s written this excellent article suggesting ways that men can be taught not to be rapists. She’s said that a social change needs to happen and she is doing what she can to contribute to that change. Zerlina Maxwell is, to the best of her ability, being the change she wants to see in the world.
One of the reasons I find Maxwell so inspiring is that my own brief forays into attempting to educate men on the topic of rape have been very frustrating. Someone I know made a rape/gun-control joke on Twitter and our conversation about it was difficult. A few long facebook messages back and forth and I felt like I’d accomplished nothing. He seemed to feel that rape is a topic it’s okay to “agree to disagree” on. If it’s that hard to change one person’s entrenched ideas on the nature of sexual violence, how gutsy do you have to be to take on our entire nation’s entrenched views on sexual violence?
Sexual violence and gender violence are complex topics, with no one simple fix. They’re especially complex to explain to people who have no reason to think they’ll ever be victims: strong young heterosexual males. But I absolutely think the discussion and education Maxwell hopes will take place can take place. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, but I think it’s an important one.
Jessica Valenti points out that when you say men can’t unlearn sexual/gender violence, you’re really saying that men are inherently violent against women, rather than just socialized that way. I believe constructive dialogue and education can take place because I know plenty of men who are examples of truly healthy masculinity (or I suppose, truly healthy humanity, as virtue is not a primarily the territory of one gender or another). Whether it’s because of how they were raised or things they’ve learned through experience, these men interact with women respectfully as equal human beings. But there are many other men who have a long way to go, whose attitudes and actions are ignorant or consciously misogynist, who contribute to the widespread sexual and gender violence in our society.
There’s a weird mental construct that a lot of people seem to carry around about rape. The cultural conversation always seems to assume the stranger-jumping-out-of-the-bushes scenario. At which point, you know, the situation can be solved if the woman pulls a gun or kicks his crotch and runs away. Easy. But that’s actually one of the least common rape scenarios, at least here in the U.S.
I knew in my head, of course, that sexual and gender violence often occur in the home, by someone you already know, in a situation where it’s hard to get away or get a weapon with which to protect yourself. But that knowledge really hit home when I was assaulted in my own house. A guy wanted to have sex with me, I was nearly asleep and ignoring him, so he started pulling at my clothes and generally trying to get something started without my consent. (Steubenville, guys, should have helped you all realize that being unconscious is not consent, and it’s not a hard leap from there to realize that being nearly asleep is also not consent). I pushed him away, mumbled sleepily at him “stop it”, he didn’t, he climbed on top of me, and I threw him off, saying, “When I’m not responding to you, it means I don’t want to have sex with you!” He acted all offended, saying, “You’re so confusing!” (I’m not sure what’s confusing about saying “no” and “stop it”) I said, “No, you’re confused about what consent means.” And then I thought, maybe that’s the truth. Maybe that’s all he needs, a little education.
I was wrong. Don’t try to educate a horny guy who just sort of assaulted you, that’s not safe. I should have told him to leave, but he seemed so nice and so sorry and like he just didn’t know what had been going through my head. He seemed to think that I (fully clothed and almost asleep and telling him “no”) had somehow wanted to have sex with him. So I thought, its okay, I will try to talk him through this. Ladies, if you’re ever in this situation, don’t reason with him, make him leave your house and lock the door behind him and never get alone with him again. He was confused, but in ways that were dangerous to me. He didn’t understand that I’m just as much of a person as he is, and that my “no” matters.
When I told him what I’d been thinking, how he had scared me, and I asked, “If I had just laid there and not actually thrown you off of me, what would you have done? Would you have stopped?” He didn’t answer because he knew what he would have done: he would have gone through with nonconsensual sex. He would have raped me. But when I finally came out and said it, he acted all frustrated, saying, “I would never do that! I would never force you!” He started begging. He started trying to prove what a nice guy he was and how much he wanted me and how that meant I should have sex with him. I said “no, no, no.” And missed my second opportunity to just throw him out of my house and lock the door behind him and never get alone with him again. I rolled over, speechless with frustration, unable to believe that any of this was happening. Thoughts were coming into my brain so fast, I couldn’t think of what to say or what to do next.
He said, “I guess words don’t mean anything” and grabbed me, pinning me against him. I tried to push away but this guy works out and I don’t; he just flexed his muscles and kept me locked in his arms. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Please let me go.” He said nothing. He did nothing. He just held me there.
“Words don’t mean anything.” Clearly, my words didn’t mean anything to him. I thought about my options. There was no one in the house, other than the two of us. I couldn’t get away. I could smash my head backward into his face, or…no, I couldn’t hit his balls from this position but I could jam my elbow into his stomach. But, he had just become so suddenly aggressive that I was terrified of what he might do if I actually hurt him. I remembered a conversation he and one of his friends had had earlier, bragging about how violent he could get when he drank. I remembered that he said he’d been a state champion wrestler, and I knew he could do way more damage to me than I could do to him. I asked him again, “What are you doing?” and three or four more times to let me go. I pushed against him but he just held on tighter. The only thing he said was, “Now you know how I feel.”
My head nearly exploded with rage at that point. Yes, because your violence against me is exactly the same as me refusing to have sex with you. Yes, because you not getting your way is the same as me being in very real physical danger. He’d accused me of wanting “control”… Was that what this was? Did he think being physically in total control of me was going to prove to me that my desire to have my decisions and my body respected was just silly?
I had my phone in my hand and I decided to call my roommate. I dialed and as soon as she answered, he let go of me. He faced me, looking all hurt and patronizing. “You want any relationship advice in the future,” he said, “Any advice about any relationship between a man and a woman, that right there is all you’ll ever need.” I started crying and yelled at him to get out. He knew my roommate was coming home, so he left, but he seemed confused as to why I was so upset.
He definitely overestimated his pedagogical skills, because the experience didn’t teach me everything I’d ever need to know about relationships. But it did teach me to stay away from men who don’t respect me. There was a lot about gender violence that I merely knew before, and now more fully understood.
I feel like I’ve just discovered the complexity of the nexus between sexual and gender violence. The complexity of self-defense. The wisdom of staying out of potentially dangerous situations altogether and of acting on that weird gut feeling you get when something’s not right.
I’m not sure what sort of education would have made him realize that manhandling me was the wrong response to my “No.” But I think that his sense of arrogant entitlement and his patronizing attitude that he had any sort of “lesson” to teach me was partially a product of our toxic cultural constructs regarding masculinity. And I know that by the time I knew I needed to protect myself against this man, it was much too late to go grab a gun (if I in fact owned one).
My experience caused me to understand how necessary the education Zerlina Maxwell advocates for is. Though this guy acted insulted by my attempt to educate him about what was going through my head, about how I had experienced his aggression, he should have realized I was giving him credit. Sarah Jones wrote in her blog about the backlash against Zerlina Maxwell: “We believe that men…can fully participate in a dialogue about consent and healthy sexual boundaries.” Even if that conversation is as basic as, “No means no, and unresponsiveness also means no. Heck, anything short of yes means no.” And most of the men I know have contributed to the conversation about my experience by saying, “If that creep ever shows his face around here again, he’ll regret it.”
Hopefully some of the things I said will stick with him, even though I should have prioritized protecting myself over clearing up his alleged confusion. He thought he was a good guy for not actually raping me, but that’s not good enough. And countering violence with violence on a one-to-one basis isn’t going to be anywhere near enough. I should be educated about how to protect myself, how to use my brain and my body to keep myself from harm, but he should also be educated. He should learn that sex involves two people, both of whom have to fully and freely consent. He should learn the basic lesson that violence is not an okay response when he doesn’t get his way. He should be taught to value respect and empathy over aggression and power. He should be taught to value others’ safety before his own desire for momentary pleasure.
I’m sharing my story because part of the education process is breaking down myths. The myth that sexual and gender violence is a monolithic experience, that the power exerted against women is a simple matter of physical force, that every situation is clear-cut. I know many women have difficulty speaking about their experiences, and I know that mine is on the lesser end of the spectrum. I know that I’m lucky to be safe, lucky that this man is someone I’ll never see again, lucky that no real physical harm was done. But I also know that this is part of the giant jigsaw puzzle of violence against women, and that this story, along with every other, should be told (on the victim’s own terms). This is just one blogpost about one experience, but it’s a tiny, tiny piece of education and I hope that in that sense, it does a little bit of good in the fight against violence.