An open letter to Kurt Cobain, in response to his oft-cited quote about teaching men not to rape:

Dear Kurt Cobain,

First, my sincere condolences on your untimely death; second, I understand that, seeing as you are no longer with us, the likelihood of your reading this message is fairly slim.  However, given the number of people who place classified ads and post Facebook messages to those who are not longer with us, I feel it is worth a shot.

According to internet lore, at some point you said, “The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves.  What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape.  Go to the source and start there.”   So I write to you under the assumption that you did say that, and if you did, I say, “Not bad, Kurt, not bad.  You got it half right.”

I am all for teaching men not to rape – for teaching EVERYONE not to rape, actually, but since all of our data suggest that men are the overwhelming perpetrators of rape against both women and men, both boys and girls, I am comfortable with that framework.  I am delighted that you said this, given that your coolness factor as a rock star is far greater than mine as a feminist academic, and so I suspect that your saying this means more to the masses than my saying it.

But I take exception with your second sentence:  “The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women how to defend themselves.”  If only, Kurt – if only!  While there are many individuals, groups, and organizations that work to educate women to defend themselves – physically and verbally – against rape, sexual assault, and all forms of interpersonal violence, there are far more that do not, and in fact, many that advocate AGAINST women defending themselves against rape, due to their (false) beliefs, NOT supported by the data, that somehow attempting or enacting resistance strategies will either make things worse or will somehow not reach men on that whole not-raping pedagogy you (and I) espouse.  There are a number of studies now where the data clearly indicate that resistance is effective in reducing the likelihood of an assault being completed, and that resistance does not “make a situation worse”.  If you can access any academic journals where you are, look up Sarah Ullman at the University of Illinois at Chicago – her work on the effectiveness of resistance is great.  It’ll blow your mind.

But more importantly, Kurt, why make it either/or?  I don’t have to choose between peas OR carrots, or better still, cheesecake OR crème brulee.  I can have both.  And, in fact, have, on more than one occasion.  I am in full support of attacking the horror of rape from as many angles as we can think of, and in as many ways as possible.  So there is no need for anyone targeted for rape to sit down and wait for the men to stop raping.  I can teach men not to rape, AND teach women, and others, to use any verbal or physical strategies available to them to thwart a rape in progress.  We can multi-task, Kurt.  And we should.  Besides, if you are in touch with any God(s), Goddess(es), wise ancestors, or spiritual presence(s) well-versed in feminist theory, I bet they would be happy to dialogue with you about how changing the gender script for women ALSO teaches men not to rape.  Recognizing women’s strength, and willingness to enforce their own boundaries, can give your average date rapist pause.

I believe, if you were here to have this conversation with me right now, that you would agree.  I don’t think you would want Francis Bean to have to wait it out if someone tried to rape her.  And I bet she could learn a mean knee to the groin.

All the best,

Jill Cermele

PS.  Loved “Nevermind”.  Great album.

10 responses

  1. I hate the “teach men not to rape” approach. Little boys are not born rapists and we should not treat them as such.

    1. An excellent point.

  2. […] is attributed to Kurt Cobain, and while I understand that some may take issue with the first part of his statement, the second half hit me like a punch to the gut. The thing is, […]

  3. I completely agree with this. However, I think the “teach men not to rape” approach is more of a way to say “stop blaming the victim.” We tell women not to wear revealing clothes, not to leave drinks unattended, not to walk alone at night, and then we tell them to carry a weapon, to take self-defense classes, to take precautions even when they are inconvenient and that implies that if we get raped, it was somehow our fault for not having pepper spray or for wearing a low-cut top. Yes, we should continue to fight it at all angles, as long as we are never blaming anyone for being a victim. Because the rapist is ALWAYS the only one to blame.

    1. We agree, and we certainly agree that no one should be blaming the victim. However, as self-defense scholars and advocates, we argue that training in or using self-defense – which we believe should be an option available to all women, not something that women have to or “should” do – is a very different approach to thwarting sexual assault than all the avoidance and victim-blaming “strategies” that you mention in your comment. Rape and sexual assault are NEVER the fault of the victims; advocating for empowerment self-defense training is not victim-blaming either.

      1. I’m late, but fuck, I wholeheartedly agree with your comment. I would add that (most) boys by way of family, community, media ARE taught it is acceptable to take (from a girl/woman) as much as they can get away with. More is being done to counter/change those long standing societal norms however I believe men being outspoken and stopping in their tracks the comments alluding to rape or abuse, disrespect of women would make a huge impact and prevent sexual assaults/and rape. We are all so impressionable. How many times I barely escaped a male trying to force himself on me I cannot count. Not counting the boy(s) that grabbed my body parts as I walked passed (first time the day of my bat mitzvah at synagogue). I do know the number of boys I did not escape.

  4. […] assault”.  Right.  But to say “women shouldn’t have to defend themselves” ala the Kurt Cobain meme is really just an excuse to deny women the right to defend themselves.  And they do have the right […]

  5. […] worry, you will not lose your job if you also endorse women’s self-defense training.  As we have said to the late Kurt Cobain, both-and! You can both insist that we train men not to rape AND train women to resist any men who […]

  6. I think he means teaching the concept of consent & personal boundaries to boys so they grow up to respect girls & women. And I say good for him. Those traits aren’t innate–they’re taught.

    It goes without saying that women need to protect themselves against rape & other forms of violence. We’re generally smaller & weaker than 50% of the population (the male half). Plus, we’re fed this fear from our parents, the news, billboards & PSAs from an early age. Nobody else needs to say it. What Kurt said–especially at the *time* he said it–was not being said by anyone, let alone any macho rock stars.

    One of my biggest issues with today’s brand of feminism is the picking apart of every positive message put out by those who try to espouse feminist values. The fact that he spoke out against rape at all is huge. A man who uses his white male celebrity privilege to call out other powerful men is not something that comes along every day. Dude wasn’t perfect but at least he made an effort to exclude racists, homophobes & sexists from his fanbase. That’s more than Axl Rose or Kid Rock can say.

  7. […] refrain by women (and Kurt Cobain, too) who consider themselves progressive, is, however, an example of what Lauren Berlant famously […]

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