All the Rage

Is Arming Women the Cure for Rape Culture?

Lawmakers are pushing to allow guns on college campuses to prevent sexual assault. But is that really a solution?

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Shortly after the turn of the year, my editor asked me if I wanted to write about rape culture.

No, I did not want to write about rape culture. But my editor is a difficult woman to refuse, especially when she jabs me right in my feminist Achilles heel. So I agreed; yes, I’d be perfectly pleased to write about rape culture. I’ll get right on it.

Then two months went by and I couldn’t force myself to get one letter down in a Word document. Ha ha, said the blinking cursor on the empty page. In most situations, this would simply be chalked up to “writer’s block,” but in the context of trying, and failing, to write about rape, specifically, the more accurate diagnosis would be “rage apoplexy.” I didn’t want to write about rape because I didn’t know how to make an inroad into a subject that made me feel both so angry and so helpless. Why write anything?, I thought. Nothing ever changes when you do, except the threatening blowback increases. I could write a 1,000-decibel diatribe and the effect would be the same as a peep in the wind. The futility looped in my head, along with the opening to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:

Our dried voices, when 
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.

My guts knotted, the page stayed blank. But two things happened: My editor kept on me, and I realized that sometimes depression is just anger that needs a nap.

Having read a fair amount of back-and-forth on the subject of rape culture—in other words, you know, culture, I know that in order to head off any cries of “misandry!” and “man-hating wretch” and “disgusting angry sea-hag feminazi bitchass ho-bag,” I must, before I write anything else, affirm my love, affection, and appreciation for the human male. Now hear this, men everywhere. Yes, you, M-E-N. Menfolk. Gentlemen. Lads. Dudes. Fellas. Not-women. Guys. Love ya! Mean it.

According to RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network one out of every six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and in 2003, nine out of ten rape victims were women. The AAUW (American Association of University Women) website FAQ states “A 2007 campus sexual assault study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that around one in five women are targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while they are college students.” To live as a woman contending daily with the threat of such violence is to live under siege. If that isn’t rage-inducing, what is?

The statistics left me longing for a magic-bullet solution, and I admit, a bit reluctantly, that I was pretty pumped when I first read the New York Times piece about proposed legislation to allow guns on college campuses.

The carrying of concealed firearms on college campuses is banned in 41 states by law or by university policy. Carrying guns openly is generally not permitted. But this year, lawmakers in ten states who are pushing bills that would permit the carrying of firearms on campus are hoping that the national spotlight on sexual assault will help them win passage of their measures.

“If you’ve got a person that’s raped because you wouldn’t let them carry a firearm to defend themselves, I think you’re responsible,” State Representative Dennis K. Baxley of Florida said during debate in a House subcommittee last month. The bill passed.

Even this wackadoo quote from assemblywoman Michele Fiore, the sponsor of a “campus carry” bill in Nevada, resonated with me: “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.” Yeah, girl. Fistbump!

This fantastical solution gets punctured by, you know, facts. From the same Times piece: “It reflects a misunderstanding of sexual assaults in general,” said John D. Foubert, an Oklahoma State University professor and national president of One in Four, which provides educational programs on sexual assault to college campuses. “If you have a rape situation, usually it starts with some sort of consensual behavior, and by the time it switches to nonconsensual, it would be nearly impossible to run for a gun.” Whoa! While my inner Valerie Solanas says HELL YEAH, the more reasonable part of me knows better. More guns does not equal more peace, and, statistically and anecdotally, it’s easy to see that they don’t necessarily equal more safety, either. 

We can entertain as many gun fantasies as we’d like, however, the solution for the rape problem lies not in arming women but in changing men. Why, for some men and boys, is consent so hard to grasp? Can we eliminate the murkiness around yes and no without passing the onus for rape prevention solely onto women? Can we improve the institutional response to rape claims so victims don’t feel let down, or downright abandoned or aggrieved, by universities, service academies, law enforcement, and a legal system that are supposed to support them? Can we figure out why the hell some men resent women so much that they can’t even stand to see them agitate for change that would benefit men as well as women? Seriously, how are we going to raise better males?

As dearly departed grunge god Kurt Cobain once said, “Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on Earth and it happens every few minutes. The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.” Which seems so daunting and impossible, I sag at the thought.

Suddenly, I’m presented with the possibility that within the flying wreckage of violent words, absurd proposed solutions, and mislaid responsibility, evolution is occurring. As I sit typing this in the West Point coffee shop, I hear three teenagers at the next table talking. The girls are dressed in regulation teen regalia: Yoga pants, leggings, hoodies. The boy, in jeans and an Academy fleece. They’re having a heated, but happy, discussion about gender and power. At one point, the boy says to one of the girls, “I’m not saying I identify as a feminist—”

The other girl interjects, “But he believes in feminism.”

It’s all I can do to be the nosy lady interrupting,

“Go for it, kid. Claim it! Name that shit. Own it!” I have the distinct feeling that something important is taking place—a young man striving toward consciousness. The discussion would not be taking place had feminists, of all genders, not gotten the conversation started with their testimony and activism. Writing matters. Speaking up matters. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and rape culture won’t be toppled in one, either. Yet every little bit helps. Who knew—hostility, helplessness, and seemingly endless impotent rage may not be my end state, for there is a ray of hope one table over, palming a grande beverage in a cardboard-sleeved paper cup.

Whatever the antidote to the poison of rape may be, I know that we’re better off trying to fix it with words rather than weapons, and that starting small is better than never starting. We begin by raising the quietest of voices, or by pondering the power of a single word. This is the way that rape ends.

This is the way that rape ends.

This is the way that rape ends:

Not with a bang, but a whisper. 

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