What young men still don't get about rape

We need to use the recent uproar over U.S. Rep. Todd Akin's remark as a learning opportunity, says Amitai Etzioni.

Story highlights

  • Amitai Etzioni: Todd Akin's comment about "legitimate rape" is not uncommon
  • Etzioni: The extent to which young people do not get what rape means has changed little
  • He says role playing can be an effective tool in teaching people that rape is a violent assault
  • Etzioni: We should use the Akin uproar to educate people about what rape really is

Last week, Republicans and Democrats alike chastised U.S. Rep. Todd Akin for coming up with a highly troubling reference to "legitimate rape," implying that not all rapes were unjustified, like say when a married man forces his wife to have sex. Akin has since corrected himself and said he opposes only "forcible rape." Critics point out that there is only one kind of rape -- a violent one. Rape is, by definition, a form of aggravated assault.

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What all the very justifiable media hoopla ignores is that Akin's view of rape is far from unique. It follows that the educational agenda we all face is much greater and more challenging than setting straight one congressman who claims that he is suffering from a mild case of foot-in- the-mouth disease.

The extent to which young people do not get what rape means has changed little over the years.

According to statistics in the 1988 book, "I Never Called It Rape," by Robin Warshaw, 84% of college men who committed rape claimed that what they had done was not, in fact, rape. One in 15 male students reported that they raped someone or attempted to do so in the preceding year. And "nearly one third of college men said they were likely to have sex with an unwilling partner if they thought they could get away with it."

Amitai Etzioni

A more recent study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 1998 asked students to what extent it was acceptable for a man to verbally pressure or force a date to have sexual intercourse. The responses show that 17% of men considered that using force was an acceptable strategy to get their way.

Opinion: Wake up, it's not just Akin

We need to use the recent uproar over Akin's remark as a learning opportunity.

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A good place to start is with young people in high schools and colleges. Assemblies will do as a starter, especially if one can find rape victims who are willing to come forward and tell what it is like to be forced and the psychological scars that remain for years to come. Open discussions among men and women best follow, in smaller groups.

Moreover, I highly recommend role playing. I used to scoff at role playing, which I considered a gimmicky approach to education. I changed my mind after seeing it enacted.

I saw a husband playing a wife, and the wife acting as if she was the man of the house. She asked her husband: "What did you do the whole day?" and "Why is the baby still fussing and the laundry not done?"

The husband later related that for the first time in his life, he truly felt what it is like to stay home the whole day, doing household work and dealing with children, and then to be treated as if one did not work.

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Asking men -- who after all are 99% of the rapists -- to role play as if they have been raped by a woman is very unlikely to work. However, my colleagues in the psychology department tell me that men, especially young men and those who are not particularly athletic, are very sensitive to the notion that they may be raped by another man.

Role playing in which a man is cornered by someone who pretends to be, say, a football coach is likely to evoke in them what women feel when they are cornered.

I am not arguing that this, or for that matter any, educational device or program will convince one and all that rape is a shameful violent act (and, of course, a violation of the law).

But at least we should use the Akin incident to engender a discussion of what are and what are not acceptable ways for people to proposition each other. Any use of force to gain sex deeply wounds those who are raped and reveals the predator is not much of a man.

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