Here is an unpleasant truth: When you are a person who talks about human rights issues, like the idea that children should live in safe homes or women shouldn’t be raped or disabled people shouldn’t be ripped from their wheelchairs and set on fire, people tend to get upset at you. That goes double when you’re doing that sort of thing professionally in front of large audiences.
There is something about seeing a person say that human beings deserve to be treated with compassion and respect that seems to set some people aquiver with hatred, and they are eager and willing to share that hatred. I’ve been subjected to graphic rape and death threats for everything from criticizing a television show to arguing that the reasons women stay in abusive relationships are complex.
My email, the comments on pieces I write, my Twitter mentions, and occasionally even my phone are perilous places. I never know what to expect. Will it be the pharmacy calling to remind me to pick up my damn meds already or someone who tracked down my number and wanted to scream at me?
Will that email with the innocuous subject line be some innocent reader or a bile-filled, vicious screed that would have left me reeling in my chair three years ago, but now just has me forwarding it to mailbox I use to collect these things and then deleting it?
Commentator Zerlina Maxwell did a brave thing this weekend. She went on Fox News, not exactly a bastion of human rights commentary, and said that if we want to stop rape, we need to educate men on the subject, rather than putting the responsibility on women. She also outed herself as a rape survivor, which is an extremely bold thing to do on national television, particularly on a show hosted by Sean Hannity.
She was responding to a dangerous political and social climate, one in which women are increasingly blamed for their own rapes, a world in which people genuinely seem to think that arming women is a solution to rape.
As a friend (and U.S. Navy veteran) of mine says, insisting that everyone be armed is not the solution, not least because few people are actually ready and willing to pull a trigger. Guns in the hands of people who don’t know how and are not prepared to use them can become weapons used against them. And, of course, many people are uncomfortable with or opposed to guns and shouldn’t be faced with social pressure to carry them in self-defense; this is approaching the problem from the wrong angle.
The issue here is not that women cannot defend themselves against rape (or that women wear short skirts, or that women get drunk at bars sometimes, or that women trust people they think are friends), but that people rape them, and those people are mostly men. If you want to stop rape, it stands to reason that you should probably focus on the rapists, rather than the victims.
For making this radical statement, Maxwell has been subjected to a torrent of racist hate speech, rape threats and death threats. The level of fury being directed at her is in part because she’s a woman challenging social myths about rape, instead discussing the fact that rape is a social issue that requires social action, not an individual one that requires an individual response; writing for Ebony in the wake of her appearance, she outlined five ways to teach men not to rape.
It’s also, though, because she’s a Black woman, and thus many people find her doubly offensive. She is daring to raise her voice on a national platform, she is daring to talk about women’s issues, she is daring to confront the fact that racialized sexual violence is an issue in the United States. This is a country where Black women are objectified to an extreme degree, where the same behaviors from women of two different races are read differently because of their race.
Rihanna is sexual, P!nk is an outlaw.
And Zerlina Maxwell is tremendously brave to take to the national stage to say something that should be common sense. She, like so many women before her, has endangered herself by being willing to speak out on an issue that much of society would prefer remain under the carpet where they think it belongs. Maxwell has dragged this into the light, and the response to her has illuminated the way many people in society think and feel about rape, and women’s right to comment on it.
We live in a world where commentators get rape and death threats — some of which are clear and present dangers rather than idle mouthing off on the Internet — for raising their voices. We live in a world where women are shot in the head because they want to go to school. We live in a world where women are told to stop making themselves into victims by a society that doesn’t want to turn the lens on itself and then wonders why so many women are victims. Perhaps the problem lies not with the women but with the people who attack them.
What is happening to Zerlina Maxwell is horrific and monstrous. It is evil, and the people who are perpetrating it are committing vile acts of misogyny and racism. Most of them will never be held accountable, although what some of them are doing may in fact be illegal.
And it’s also par for the course in the society we live in, which is chilling. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to Emily, it’s happened to Anita Sarkeesian, it’s happened to Kathy Sierra, it’s happened to scores of other people who dared to speak up. And in some cases, the onslaught was so vicious, so terrifying, that it forced the victim to retreat from society altogether, for which she shouldn’t be blamed.
Many people chose to stop making public appearances, to stop writing, to stop speaking, after barrages of hate like the one Maxwell is enduring.
Others of us, and I hope Maxwell will be one of them, kept working in the face of hate, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t affected by it. Some of us get panic attacks, some of us have severely restricted our lives for our own safety, some of us are aware that around every corner lurks a danger and that we are being held responsible for that danger by the rest of society. Because we spoke up and kept speaking, because we refused to back down, we are to blame for whatever happens to us.
But the reality is that this is bullshit: Making your voice heard, having an opinion and voicing it, doesn’t make you a legitimate target for assault. Just as being a woman doesn’t make you a target for rape. And maybe if we scream this from the mountaintops enough times, people will finally get it.
From me and all of us here at xoJane, Zerlina, keep fighting the good fight, because your words matter. You did a brave and great thing, a fierce and wonderful thing. And know that you are not alone in what you are going through. Many of us stand in solidarity with you, even those driven into silence.