To call Zerlina Maxwell’s talk on solutions and best practices for combatting sexual assault timely is an understatement.
A political analyst and one of the leading voices in the movement against sexual assault, Maxwell delivered the closing lecture of the Clayman Institute’s “Breaking the Culture of Sexual Assault” (BCSA) series this fall. With BCSA, the Clayman Institute invited leading scholars, researchers, and activists in the field of sexual assault education and prevention to Stanford University over the past two years in order to create space for dialogue and find solutions.
“When I started doing talks like this on campuses years ago, I had hoped people would reframe the conversation and believe women, finally,” Maxwell stated. “And I think we are in a moment in which that might be happening.”
Maxwell’s bold, incisive commentary examined how rape culture permeates politics, popular culture, and the media, and coincided with the floodgate of mainstream discussion surrounding systemic sexual violence opening up in American culture. Throughout her lecture, Maxwell poignantly remarked that the work of today’s anti-sexual assault activists stands on decades of feminist activism—the shift we finally seem to be witnessing has been achieved through this sustained, multigenerational fight for recognition and justice. However, although recent national events are encouraging, Maxwell recognizes that all social justice movements, especially the feminist movement, are susceptible to backlashes. She called upon society to confront whether we are truly seeing the beginning of a cultural shift in how we uplift survivors and hold perpetrators accountable, or may be in danger of sliding back.
Maxwell’s lecture provides an impetus to reflect upon the BCSA program’s history. The solutions and best practices she outlines in her talk addressed issues raised previously in the series: the centrality of intersectionality and diverse voices, as well as the importance of fully supporting survivors of sexual assault.
Beginning in the winter of 2016 with the theme “Masculinity & Men,” Dr. Jackson Katz, educator and co-founder of Mentors in Violence Protection, kicked off the series with his lecture “More Than a Few Good Men: American Manhood and Violence Against Women.” Dr. Katz demonstrated how problems relegated to the label of “women’s issues” are directly linked to actions and attitudes of men and boys, which are ultimately rooted in the larger structural forces of patriarchy and sexism. As Maxwell reiterated in her lecture, “It takes one rapist to rape, but it takes a village to create an environment where it happens over and over.”
University of Southern California professor Michael Messner followed Katz that March, speaking on “Male Allies and the Politics of Feminist Accountability.” In his talk, Messner, author of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women, elaborated upon the ways that men can actively engage in the fight against sexual violence, from adopting a “bystander approach” to talking to other men about masculinity and gender stereotypes.
On the program’s theme of “Primary Prevention,” Maxwell clarified that her goal “is not to throw all rapists in jail, but to preemptively stop the crime by raising consciousness in a way that people don’t rape in the first place.” In response to how universities balance maintaining their public images while complying with the judiciary system, Maxwell said, “a lot of schools’ go-to defense is that they’re ‘not on the list’ of Title IX-violating schools, which are currently under investigation, by doing just the bare minimum to stay off this list. Well, in that case, maybe they should put all schools on this list, and your goal is to implement programming that takes your school off the list.”
Eleven faculty members from Stanford and other prominent universities who endorse this sentiment convened in April 2016 for BCSA’s following event, “Preventing Sexual Assault on Campus—A Faculty Perspective.” All actively involved in addressing and eradicating cultures of sexual assault on college campuses, the panelists shared important information, everyday strategies, and potential solutions. The following May, BCSA hosted the “Affirmative Consent Panel,” wherein Carley Flanery of the Stanford Office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse moderated a discussion between Lily Zheng (Stanford ’17), University of Georgia professor, and former Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow, Justine Tinkler, and California Coalition Against Sexual Assault staff member Shaina Brown. Offering legal, research, and activist perspectives, they discussed the goals and limitations of California’s affirmative consent law in promoting a culture of respect on campus, and probed student understanding on affirmative consent.
Additionally, Maxwell’s talk focused attention on simultaneously interrupting other systems of oppression that collude with and uphold gender violence, resonating with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 2016 Jing Lyman lecture. Last October, for BCSA’s “Intersecting Identities” event, the renowned scholar-activist discussed #SayHerName, a social media campaign that makes visible police brutality against black women and girls, and the interactions between race, class, gender, and social justice more broadly. Given society’s inclination not to believe women, especially black women and other underrepresented women of color, incorporating race and class into the foundation of our analytical framework is critical in making discourse inclusive of all women. Considering the disproportionate media coverage of white female survivors over women of color survivors, Maxwell urged us to fix our blind spots on both the level of national news, and in our everyday, interpersonal interactions.
“My story is just as valid as the person standing next to me,” Maxwell said, “regardless of what I look like and what she looks like.” This perspective undergirded the event featuring Columbia University faculty members Shamus Khan and Jennifer Hirsch, who presented their innovative ethnographic research on sexual assault and consent on an elite, urban university campus, “The Lived Experience of Consent.” Their research examined how consent practices are shaped by multiple identities, reinforcing the necessity of improving consent education and how the concept is influenced by intersecting forms of oppression and inequality.
Maxwell concluded by urging the audience to incorporate small acts of dismantling rape culture into their daily lives, and to keep these conversations open and strong either in person or through social media. She also believes it critically important that our “default” is “to believe and support” survivors. Maxwell strongly advocated for reframing the entire conversation around sexual assault to one that scrutinizes only the actions of the perpetrator. “There’s nothing you could have done differently,” she said, addressing survivors. “That other person [however] could have done a lot of things differently,” including asking for consent and respecting others’ bodily autonomy.
Through this, she hopes that a more foundational cultural shift will take place, and there will eventually be no need for lectures such as hers at all: “Feminists like me are one in a long line of other feminists that have given this talk in the past forty years. And we hope that in the next forty years, we do not have to have anyone on stage giving this talk. I want to put myself out of business.”