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What's It Going to Take to Get Men to Stop Raping Women?

From the Steubenville teens to Sean Hannity to Adam in "Girls," the conversation about consent is far from over

“I wouldn’t say she was completely passed out but she wasn’t in any state to make a decision for herself.”  That’s what one of the witnesses in the Steubenville, Ohio, trial told police of the 16-year-old girl at the center of the case,  according to ABC News. Perhaps that witness was one of the three football players who have not been charged but are expected to testify for the prosecution in the trial, which began Wednesday.

Since it still needs to be said, not being “in any state to make a decision for herself” meets the legal definition for rape across the U.S. So here’s a question for that guy: What did he do to try to stop it?

According to the prosecutor’s opening statement Wednesday, these witnesses saw one of the defendants, Trent Mays, try to force oral sex on the girl, but her mouth wouldn’t open. They saw the other defendant, Ma’Lik Richmond, digitally penetrate the girl while she was passed out on a couch. Though the girls’ friends apparently tried to prevent her from continuing on with the boys, so far there’s been no indication the witnesses intervened with the boys who no one has disputed were capable of decision-making. And preliminary research shows that the intervention of such bystanders could make the difference in preventing rape.

Last week, an inexcusable torrent of abuse was  hurled at commentator Zerlina Maxwell after she appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and sensibly pointed out that arming women is not effective rape prevention tactics, for multiple reasons. (“If firearms are the answer, then the military would be the safest place for women,” she said.) It was her message of “tell men not to rape” that seemed to most inflame the trolls. Hannity found it self-evidently ridiculous: “You think you can tell a rapist to stop doing what he’s doing? He’s going to listen to an ad campaign to stop?” He also said, “Knowing there are evil people, I want women protected, and they’ve got to protect themselves.”

It was a clash of ideas of who commits crimes in the world. For Hannity and his ilk, rape is committed by “evil people,” an immutable fact that can’t be educated away, that isn’t about social norms. For feminists who are weary of victim-blaming — including blaming women for not just shooting their rapists in the moment — and who have for decades been pushing against the idea that rape is only committed by strangers lurking in the bushes, this is tantamount to giving up the fight. Or, as Jessica Valenti recently  put it, you’re “saying that rape is  natural for men. That this is just something men  do. Well I’m sorry, but I think more highly of men than that.”

But the problem with saying “tell men not to rape” is that the majority of rapists probably won’t listen. That’s because the majority of them are repeat offenders who don’t care about consent. Research consistently shows that while any kind of man can be a rapist, not every man is one.

David Lisak, a leading forensic researcher who has done research on sex offenders in Boston and specializes in “undetected rapists,” has  written that such men, whose behavior falls into what’s still commonly called “date rape,” are “accurately and appropriately labeled as predators. This picture conflicts sharply with the widely-held view that rapes committed on university campuses are typically the result of a basically ‘decent’ young man who, were it not for too much alcohol and too little communication, would never do such a thing. While some campus rapes do fit this more benign view, the evidence points to a far less benign reality,” of serial offenders. He continued, “Prevention efforts geared toward persuading men not to rape are very unlikely to be effective. Lessons can be drawn from many decades of experience in sex offender treatment, which have demonstrated that it is extremely difficult to change the behavior of a serial predator even when you incarcerate him and subject him to an intensive, multi-year program.” He has argued that bystander programs tailored to specific contexts — say, a military base — hold more promise in stopping those predators in their track, by encouraging others to recognize the signs.

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