On Tuesday, the political analyst, commentator, writer, and speaker Zerlina Maxwell spoke as part of Macalester’s SPEAK Series, Women’s History Month, and Sexual Violence Prevention at Mac. The title of her talk was “From Catcalling to Sexual Assault: How We Can All Work to End Gender Based Violence.”
Maxwell spent the majority of her 90-minute talk explaining and providing examples of elements of rape culture. She provided statistics about reports and convictions of sexual assault, and explained the gap between the legal definition and public conceptions of assault.
“Nobody wants to think of themselves as a rapist. But if you are engaging in intercourse with someone who is sleeping, the law says, ‘You’re a rapist,’” Maxwell said, “and you may get away with it, and you may never be punished, and society may never ostracize you in the way that they should. And then you’re most likely [going to] go on and do it to more people. And I think that sometimes, that’s why people are so resistant to this concept. Because if they actually thought about legal definitions, and [thought] about their experiences, they [would] have some tough conversations with themselves.”
During her speech, Maxwell showed two video clips from news outlets. One was the reporting done by CNN following the sentencing of two teenage rapists in Steubenville, Ohio, following the rape and subsequent public humiliation of a young woman. In the clip, reporter Poppy Harlow expresses sadness for two of the rapists, who had “promising futures.” Maxwell condemned this approach by mainstream media, and encouraged the audience to focus instead on the adversity faced by the victim, who had committed no crime. The second clip showed was from one of Maxwell’s appearances on the Fox News segment Hannity, during which Maxwell countered the idea that women should defend themselves from assault with guns. After playing this clip, Maxwell reiterated her argument, and dissected Hannity’s use of his own masculinity to make a rhetorical appeal to his audience.
Much of the rest of Maxwell’s speech involved the use of a slideshow presentation, on which she featured dozens of advertisements that in some way encouraged rape culture by objectifying women — one advertisement for jeans depicted a woman being gang-raped — or placing responsibility on victims to avoid “risky” behaviors. For example, Maxwell showed an ad sponsored by the state of Pennsylvania which urged young women not to drink too much at parties, so that they would be able to say no.
Maxwell concluded by expressing a desire to “end rape culture,” which she believes can be done by vocally critiquing media, asking for consent, and providing resources and support to victims of assault. Throughout her speech, Maxwell repeatedly emphasized the responsibility of the public, particularly her audience, to default to empathy for the victim of an assault. “I think that if anybody were to come to you and say ‘this has happened to me,’ you should default to: ‘Are you okay? Do you need my help? Can I take you to counseling? Do you want to go to the hospital? Do you want to report; do you not want to report? How can I help you? What can I do to support you?’”
Maxwell is a weekly guest and fill-in host for “Make It Plain” with Mark Thompson on Sirius XM Progress. She serves as a Democratic commentator on Fox News and MSNBC, contributes writing to mic.com, ebony.com, and rhrealitycheck.org, and has been lauded for the political commentary on her Twitter account. The event was sponsored by the Department of Multicultural Life, Student Affairs, SPEAK, Sexual Violence Prevention at Mac, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, the Office of the President, Campus Life, the history; american studies, English, and psychology Departments, the Center for Religious & Spiritual Life, FIA*STARSA, the Institute for Global Citizenship, Health & Wellness, and the Women’s History Month Planning Committee.
“It is up to students to take the lead on [this topic],” Lisa Landreman, the Associate Dean of Students and a major player in bringing Maxwell to campus, said in an email. “We hope that students were interested and intrigued enough by her message to bring it into conversations with their friends and classmates.”