Zerlina Maxwell is right, and other thoughts on men and boundaries.

If, like me, you avoid Fox News like it’s the audiovisual equivalent of a plague rat, you probably missed Zerlina Maxwell’s March 6th appearance on Hannity. Maxwell, a Democratic strategist who openly discusses her experiences as a rape survivor, used the appearance to publicly challenge a narrative popularized by gun rights proponents. According to this narrative, guns are the only reliable defence against rape. This narrative attempts to characterize gun rights as a feminist issue, yet it places the onus of responsibility on women rather than on perpetrators of sexual violence. As Maxwell articulately explained, it’s hardly a feminist position. It locates rape as an inexplicable act of violence, rather than as the inevitable consequence of social attitudes on gender.

The backlash to her comments indicates the state of race and gender politics in our national discourse. Since her appearance, Maxwell has received numerous rape and death threats that often reference her race (she is African-American). Gun rights advocates have further characterized her as an aloof elitist (or, alternatively, as an idiot) who places anti-gun ideology ahead of gender equality.  Both accusations reflect the belief that she is guilty of a reductionist perspective.

But here’s the catch: Zerlina Maxwell never claimed that we can end rape by teaching men not to rape. She stated that we’re having the wrong conversation. And the backlash to her remarks is proof of that need. Maxwell’s statements do not universally portray men as sexual predators. She implied rather the opposite: that men are willing to learn about the consequences of sexism, and can work with women to establish healthy sexual boundaries. She bravely spoke about her own experiences to demonstrate a truth supported by statistics: that rape victims are rarely attacked by strangers.

Zerlina Maxwell repeated what many of us already know. Danger does not hide in the bushes and wait to strike. It demands sex until you give in. It insists that it knows what you really want. It stands in the pulpit and offers counsel; it waits for you to pass out. It’s a Nice Guy, a clergyman, the love of your life. It wants the best for you, really, but you can be such a bitch sometimes and if you didn’t drink quite so much you wouldn’t be so easy.

For most of us, that’s rape. The stories I’ve featured on this blog, the stories represented by projects like this one, demonstrate the immediate need for a national conversation on gender roles. If a woman can’t appear on TV and discuss her rape without receiving rape threats in response, the problem isn’t her lack of gun. The problem is that men are making rape threats. That’s a social problem, and it won’t be solved by a bullet. It’s simply too prevalent. It is what we feminists mean when we speak of ‘rape culture.’

We want to educate men not because we are sexist, but because we believe men also suffer when society expects a masculinity that celebrates and encourages sexual aggression. We believe that men are capable of showing respect to their female partners, and that they can fully participate in a dialogue about consent and healthy sexual boundaries. In a world so devastated by sexual violence, this belief often requires extreme faith. I applaud Zerlina Maxwell for the courage she displayed on Hannity, and the courage she displays now as she is threatened with further trauma and abuse.


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