One Man Can, a UN sponsored program of Sonke Gender Justice Network, works to engage men in South African in HIV and gendered violence prevention. (Source: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development)
One Man Can, a UN sponsored program of Sonke Gender Justice Network, works to engage men in South Africa in HIV and gendered violence prevention. (Source: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development)


Last Spring, during a Colorado State Senate hearing on gun control, a rape survivor testified that she believed she could have prevented her victimization if she had been allowed by the state of Colorado to carry a concealed firearm.  A female state senator then rebuked her claims by citing statistics regarding defensive firearm use.  In response to the exchange in the Colorado State Senate, Fox News brought together Zerlina Maxwell, a writer and political analyst, and Gayle Trotter, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, on The Sean Hannity Show to “debate” the issue.  In the course of the discussion, Zerlina Maxwell made the bold claim that “we can prevent rape by telling men not to commit it”.  For the remainder of the segment Sean Hannity and Gayle Trotter belittled Maxwell’s argument and scoffed at the very idea that reeducating men is an effective method for preventing sexual violence.  Indeed, her comments clearly struck a nerve.  In the aftermath of her appearance on the show, Maxwell received a slew of racially and sexually charged threats of violence.

But the reality is that there is a lot of truth to Zerlina’s claim whether we as a society are ready to hear it or not.  Organizations ranging from the local (i.e. Oregon Men Against Violence and the Mobilizing Men Task Force) to the global (i.e. Promundo and MenEngage) have invested considerable time and money into violence prevention work with men and boys.  Not only do these organizations, and many others, work to change the beliefs and behaviors of men and boys, but they do so with a strong theoretical and empirical foundation thanks to decades of work in social and behavioral science.  A continuously growing body of research indicates that the perpetration of sexual violence is far more common among men whose beliefs about masculinity and femininity are rigid (see Gallagher and Parrot 2011 and Reed et al. 2011).  When men believe that it is their role, as men, to be dominant in interpersonal relationships or that they are entitled to access to women’s bodies they are more likely to perpetrate coercive and/or violent sexual activity.

If we are interested in truly preventing men’s perpetration of sexual violence against women (men’s use of sexual violence against other men is important to consider here too but may be related to other belief systems), we need to answer at least two more questions.  First, can we actually change men’s beliefs about masculinity and femininity?  And second, does changing those beliefs actually change men’s behavior?  These are the points that Sean Hannity seemed to want to press Zerlina Maxwell on.

According to Hannity, “criminals do not listen”, and therefore our efforts to prevent rape by changing belief systems is doomed to fail.  But, the data does not support his claim.  A wide range of studies in the last twenty years have shown not only that we can change men’s minds about gender norms but also that when our minds change our behavior follows.  For example, one study found that a rape prevention program based on developing college men’s sense of empathy for victims resulted in the participants’ abstaining from the use of rape jokes and challenging sexist behaviors on their campus (Foubert 2007).  Another study found that 79% of 184 men who attended a sexual assault peer education program reported intervening in situations when they believed sexual assault was imminent as well as changing their own behavior with intimate partners in order to ensure that their sexual activity was mutually consensual (Foubert, Godin, and Tatum 2010).

It may not be as simple as telling men not to commit rape, but at this point there should be little doubt that we can prevent rape by changing what we teach boys and men about sex and gender.

Suggested Readings:

Berkowitz, Alan. (1992). “College men as perpetrators of acquaintance rape and sexual assault: a review of recent research.Journal of American College Health 40(4): 175-181.

Fabiano, Patricia, et al. (2003). “Engaging Men as Social Justice Allies in Ending Violence Against Women: Evidence for a Social Norms Approach.Journal of American College Health 52(3): 105-112.

Crooks, Claire, et al. (2007). “Engaging Men and Boys in Preventing Violence Against Women: Applying a Cognitive-Behavioral Model.Violence Against Women 12(3): 217-239.

Casey, Erin and Smith, Tyler. (2010). “’How Can I Not?’: Men’s Pathways to Involvement in Anti-Violence Against Women Work.Violence Against Women 16(8): 953-973.