What’s Wrong with Teaching Women to Avoid Rape?

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Last week brought with it some salutary news from the New England Journal of Medicine, which reported without fanfare that “a rigorously designed and executed sexual assault resistance program” had been “successful in decreasing the occurrence of rape, attempted rape, and other forms of victimization among first-year university women.” Overall, the study found, “the 1-year risk of completed rape was significantly lower in” those who had been enrolled in the course than in those who had not. “The 1-year risk of attempted rape was also significantly lower in the resistance group.”

Given how much attention the alleged campus rape “epidemic” has received of late, one would imagine that this news would have been received with whoops of joy. But one would be wrong. Rather, Vox’s Libby Nelson reports, the approach that the NEJM study took is “controversial” in some quarters. “Instead of teaching men to respect women,” critics charge, “the program teaches women to live in a world where sexual assault is an unavoidable reality.” In this sorry line we hear echoes of outrages of times past. Last year, after a group of college students announced that they had invented a nail polish that could detect date-rape drugs, the feminist web exploded with indignation. Summing up the complaint, an anti-rape activist named Rebecca Nagle told ThinkProgress, “I don’t want to f***ing test my drink when I’m at the bar. That’s not the world I want to live in.” And the storm clouds gathered.

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If there is a more naive, self-indulgent, and obviously destructive idea out there than this I would like to be acquainted with it. As with so many quasi-Marxist hypotheses, the underlying presumption of this critique is that human nature is infinitely malleable, that power dynamics can explain all undesirable human interactions, and that re-education can serve not only to change society for the better but to wipe out all instances of immorality or law-breaking and to fashion sinners into Kirk’s “men like gods.” This, let’s say, seems rather unlikely. It is certainly possible that a continued focus on the education of men will do something to lower the number of sexual assaults. Because children are born savages it is crucial that we raise them right. Because our culture affects us all, it is imperative that we attempt to shape it in a virtuous image. Because men need constant civilizing, the nature of their instructions matters a great deal. If the material question here were, “Should we tell men that they should assault other people or should we tell them that they should not,” the latter course of action would strike me as a sensible one.

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The notion that to accept that there are bad people out there is in some way to indulge those people is a peculiar one.

But, alas, that is not the material question before us. The material question before us is, “given that some people will break the law — thereby doing what they know full well is morally wrong — what can we do?” And the answer, rather obviously, is: We can take steps to counter those people. The notion that to accept that there are bad people out there is in some way to indulge those people is a peculiar one, and one that we do not see elsewhere. Presumably we all agree that it would be morally wrong for somebody to assassinate President Obama. That being so, should we remove his Secret Service protection, lest we foster an “assassination culture”? Or is that notion rather silly? Likewise, I imagine that we agree that those who commit home invasions and burglaries should refrain from doing so. Moreover, we likely agree that, ideally, such people would have been raised to respect the rules, or, if they have a checkered past, that they would have recognized the error of their ways. Some of us, perhaps, would even be happy to sponsor programs aimed at teaching people not to steal. In consequence, should homeowners refrain from putting locks on their doors for fear of cultivating “theft culture”? I rather think not.

This way of thinking becomes all the more preposterous when one considers that most sexual offenders are not in fact one-time culprits who have been temporarily corrupted by their intellectual environment, but serial malefactors who have no interest whatsoever in being lectured by the well-intentioned. According to psychologist David Lisak, “the vast majority of sexual assaults on campuses, in fact over 90 percent, are being perpetrated by serial offenders.” These people, Lisak suggests, are not only “prolific” but calculating, too: “They’ve perfected ways of identifying who on campus, for example, are most vulnerable.” That there are men like this running around the United States — men who are happy to kill and to maim and to assault other people without compunction — is a sobering and unpleasant thought. But that it is sobering does not make it untrue. Indeed, even if one buys wholesale the suggestion that we will eventually be able to use education and social pressure to wipe out sexual assault, we would still have to decide what we are going to do right at this moment. Do we embrace reality, or do we attempt to bend the world to our will?

RELATED: Campus Rape and the ‘Emergency’: It’s Always an Excuse for Authoritarianism

Suppose for the sake of argument that I am a 25-year-old woman who is convinced that “teaching men not to rape” is uniformly possible, and who is angry that these lessons have not yet been learned everywhere. In other words, suppose for the sake of argument that we are indeed living in a “rape culture” and that the necessary remedies have not yet been applied. What then should I do tonight if I wish to go out alone to a bar? Should I keep an eye on my drink, perhaps even taking steps to ensure that nobody spikes it? Should I learn some self-defense in case I come across a predator? Should I participate in a course that seeks to inform me where and when I am most at risk? Or should I so vehemently resent that I have to do these things that I elect to steadfastly ignore them? To ignore seemingly effective tactics because in an ideal world one wouldn’t need them strikes me as being ridiculous and suicidal. Is this what feminism has become?


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