How Teaching Men Not to Rape Can Work Long-Term

**Trigger warning. This blog is about sexual violence.**

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been thinking about the Steubenville rapes for a while now. You’ve seen the horrific details of the crime, the multiple sad excuses for journalism, and the even more disturbing public outrage when the rapists got what they had coming. You’ve tried to boost your ever-depleting faith in humanity by clinging to superfab feminist responses like this one that cringes over the sickening media coverage of the trial, this one addressing rape culture, or this one about teaching our sons not to rape. But possibly my favorite feminist response to this atrocity came from political analyst, Zerlina Maxwell.

In case you missed it, on March 5th, Zerlina Maxwell, a rape survivor herself, appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. The segment was centered around the idea that the solution to rape is simple – just give women guns! *Facepalm* Maxwell disagreed, and instead made one of the most obvious (and brilliant) arguments about the kind of rape prevention we really need in this country. Here’s what she said:

“I think that the entire conversation is wrong. I don’t want anybody to be telling women anything. I don’t want men to be telling me what to wear and how to act, not to drink. And I don’t, honestly, want you to tell me that I needed a gun in order to prevent my rape. … I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there with prevention.”

This is what I like to call a “duh” moment – you mean we should direct rape prevention toward rapists? Who would’ve thought! (Obviously not Sean Hannity, if you watch his response, or the droves of people who sent Maxwell rape and death threats after the show).

Lots of people seem positively astonished at the idea that men could be taught not to rape. But what does the research show? Well, to start with, ad campaigns like the ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ campaign (see the picture here) in Vancouver have cut sexual assaults by unheard-of amounts. But Maxwell’s message could be taken even further – what if men could actually take a class that teaches them about rape and how to prevent it?

Sound outlandish? For sure. The crazier thing, though, is that research shows it works.

Researchers John Foubert, Eric Godin and Jerry Tatum[1] decided to stop rape at the source – the men who commit rape or stand by and do nothing to stop it. First, they took a close look at a rape-prevention class male college freshmen were required to take. The class started by showing the men a DVD that detailed a male-on-male rape experience. Focusing on a male victim helped the men in the class start to imagine how being a victim of rape might actually feel. Once the men started to feel empathy toward rape survivors, they were told to close their eyes and imagine another horrific scene: a woman close to them has had too much to drink and is raped while someone stands by and does nothing. Just imagining your mother, sister, girlfriend or grandmother being raped hurts a lot – and this exercise helped the men feel even more empathy toward rape survivors. After the thought exercises, the men were given the chance to brainstorm about ways they could intervene if they saw a rape about to occur. They were also taught other valuable skills like how to spot true consent, how to support a rape survivor, and how to confront others who tell jokes about rape, demean women, or brag about abusing women.

I know what you’re thinking. “Sure, this all sounds great, but I bet those men forgot all they learned faster than my heart beats during a True Blood finale.” But it turns out the men who participated in this program were still affected by it years later! So, how could a program that only lasted about an hour work so well for so long?

Well, one of the most important parts of this particular training program was its emphasis on alcohol. Most of the rapes on college campuses involve alcohol,[2] so talking to men about alcohol-related situations is crucial. Years later, when the researchers asked these men about how their attitudes or behaviors had changed because of the program, nearly half (46%) talked about how they’d started to be more careful about sexual activity when alcohol was involved.[3]

But that’s not the only reason this class rocked the boat and stayed afloat. This program worked because it met men where they are. Most rapes are committed by regular guys, not scary-dark-alley-evil-monster-men-in-ski-masks. But most men don’t see themselves as potential rapists. So, what to do? This program tapped into something most men do think about themselves – that they have the potential to help others and to intervene in dangerous situations. Basically, it let men feel like heroes! Add to that the ways the program helped the men to imagine the pain and agony that accompany rape, and presto – a new squadron of rape-preventers is born.

Zerlina Maxwell isn’t crazy. She’s not out of touch or making things up. In fact, as the research shows us, she’s right on the money. The last thing women need is one more victim-blaming tool: “Oh, she didn’t have a gun with her, she must have wanted it.” Real rape prevention addresses the toxic rape culture that encourages men to view women as objects, to cover up reported rapes, and to laugh about this inexcusable violence against their sisters. And most importantly, real rape prevention really works.


[1] Foubert, J.D., Godin, E. E., Tatum, J. L. (2010). In their own words: Sophomore college men describe attitude and behavior changes resulting from a rape prevention program 2 years after their participation. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(12), 2237-2257.

[2] Lisak, D. & Miller, P. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17, 73-84.

[3] Foubert, J. D. et. al. (2010)

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