Widgets Magazine

Q&A: Zerlina Maxwell on rape culture and sexual assault

On Tuesday, Zerlina Maxwell, the director of progressive programming for SiriusXM and former director of progressive media for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, visited Stanford to speak on sexual assault for the culminating event of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research’s “Breaking the Culture of Sexual Assault” series. Maxwell has written and spoken extensively about the topics of sexual assault, victim-blaming, race and gender inequity and domestic violence.

The Daily spoke with Maxwell about her views on the pervasiveness of rape culture and the need for consent education.

Daily reporter Surbhi Sachdeva talks with Zerlina Maxwell (Courtesy of Marcie Bianco).

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What is the unifying thread between hashtags such as #RapeCultureIsWhen, #YesAllWomen and the recently popularized #MeToo?

Zerlina Maxwell (ZM): I think they’re all connected in a way. I wasn’t the first person to come up with a hashtag related to rape culture. I created #RapeCultureIsWhen essentially to illustrate the pervasive nature of the problem in the world around you. This includes asking the victim what they were wearing, whether they were drinking or any other form of victim-blaming. In this sense, hashtags are a way to lay it out for people who hadn’t thought about it earlier.

Another example of such a hashtag is #SurvivorPrivilege, started by my good friend Wagatwe Wanjuki in response to George Will writing a column about how survivors of sexual assault on college campuses enjoy certain “privileges.” Wanjuki responded that her perpetrator received his degree and got away scot-free, whereas she dropped out due to the trauma and was left with a huge student debt.

Similarly, #YesAllWomen also came up in response to #NotAllMen, in order to emphasize that sexual harassment is experienced universally by women. Not every woman is a survivor of sexual assault, but every woman encounters sexual harassment. #MeToo demonstrates an evolution of this conversation that I, along with several other feminist activists, have been trying to initiate.

 

TSD: In your experience, how much traction can these kinds of social media campaigns gain?

ZM: These hashtags, started by survivor activists like myself, act as a physical space for people to share their stories. We don’t have to be scared or silent anymore. They often help to create the protection people need in order to feel less vulnerable. Even though one doesn’t have to bear the pain that comes with sharing such traumatic experiences, there’s still something powerful to this form of expression.

 

TSD: How, in your view, should convicted perpetrators be treated? Are you more in favor of a deterrent or a rehabilitative approach?

ZM: I feel prison, as an institution, is problematic. It doesn’t rehabilitate people and often incarcerates poor people. There is also the major issue of sexual assault within prison itself. And if we look at the numbers, most rapists aren’t sent to prison anyway. My goal here 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.

On college campuses, it’s complicated because it’s a dual process in dealing with the administration and then possibly [with] the judiciary. I think there’s some weight in the idea of at least suspending the rapist from school, given the seriousness of the accusation. The vast majority of people are not lying about such testimonies, which is often the narrative built in mainstream media. Though incarceration is a short-term solution, I’m more in favor of restorative and rehabilitative justice.

 

TSD: In a speech in January, you mentioned the importance of “defaulting to empathy and belief” when listening to a survivor’s narrative. What about the perpetrator’s narrative: How is one to respond?

ZM: In the case of the survivor, we have to be careful not to act as the jury by interrogating them or demanding evidence. A statement as simple as “I’m so sorry, how can I help?” can aid in supporting the already traumatized survivor. We always try to put ourselves in the shoes of the jury or the prosecutor, instead of a friend, co-worker or family member, which is what we are in that moment.

As for the perpetrator, “guilty until proven innocent” or even vice versa are faulty paradigms, as “guilty” and “innocent” are legal terms … The court is a separate sphere from the real world, and we often mistakenly conflate these two things to the detriment of the survivor.

 

TSD: You’ve written extensively about consent education and the need to humanize women instead of viewing them as sexual objects. What should be the first point of contact for such education?

ZM: Honestly, your parents and your family, right from the time when you’re a toddler. We do teach kids “good touch” versus “bad touch,” but we never teach them to ask or answer the question “do you want to be touched?” If we ingrain this sort of mindset from the beginning, then it’s not something we have to bring up during orientation in the first week of college, when it’s too little and too late to be as beneficial.

 

TSD: Speaking of orientation, do you think that providing consent education during that one week is sufficient for universities to be able to communicate the message?

ZM: I feel the education needs to be ongoing; it should be every month. I don’t even remember what they taught me during my orientation. It’s always such a flurry of sessions, where they’re telling you about financial aid, courses, clubs and somewhere in there they throw in this bit about consent. With the whirlwind of classes and parties and homesickness that follows, it’s easy to forget what you were even taught, so it’s important to increase the frequency and continuity of such events. It’s such an extensive issue because it goes beyond assault into emotional abuse, stalking and cyber-bullying, all of which can be interwoven into sexual violence. There’s a lot more unpacking of this issue that we have to do during our time in college.

Additionally, there might be situations you might encounter after orientation that give rise to new questions. In such cases, further education is required about intervention strategies in the future. Also, ensuring that young men know how and when to ask for consent, and encouraging them to communicate throughout the act, is crucial. We need to help people adopt this mindset, as opposed to, “I’m going to get this girl very drunk” as a goal for the evening, which is an unhealthy, predatory approach.

 

TSD: Given the notoriety surrounding Stanford University regarding the Brock Turner case, how would you recommend it positively channel the culture and conversation on campus?

ZM: 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. Stanford almost has an opportunity right now, as this high-profile case has attracted a lot of media attention. It can use this platform to recognize the problem and become a model school that sets a precedent for improvement.

 

Contact Surbhi Sachdeva at surbhi3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Surbhi Sachdeva

Surbhi Sachdeva, a writer for the University/Local Beat, is a sophomore from New Delhi, India. She’s potentially majoring in International Relations, along with an extremely undecided minor (or two). She enjoys debating, writing, finding jewellery in the oddest of places, and Rick & Morty; but only finds true solace in procrastination. For the past 5 years, Surbhi has been actively challenging the claim that the human mind can remember and identify 10,000 scents by smelling nearly everything that she encounters. Contact her at surbhi3 'at' stanford.edu