The Cruel Optimism of Teaching Men Not to Rape

When you see news reports on the effectiveness of self-defense programs for empowering women and preventing assaults, you’ll often see people posting criticisms that we really ought to be “teaching men not to rape.” The comments typically go something like this: How about we teach MEN not to rape women? Women cannot prevent rape. Women are sick of well-meaning advice, which only makes us live in fear and limit where we feel safe to go in public. We resent the implication that we have some kind of obligation to become self-defense experts so that we are not victimized by men.

This refrain by women (and Kurt Cobain, too), who consider themselves progressive, is, however, an example of what Lauren Berlant famously called “cruel optimism.” Cruel optimism is wanting something that is not very likely to happen. Like when a woman, influenced by a romance-novel fantasy, keeps on hoping that her man will become a prince even though he is an abusive jerk. Or like when you use Twitter hoping to have constructive intellectual dialogue.

Berlant describes cruel optimism as a relation that exists “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (Berlant 2011, p. 1). So the optimism comes from the the way in which one’s plan for the future is tied to one’s identity, even though one’s attachment to the desired outcome may take place in conditions that make realizing one’s desire, as our 1970s magic 8 ball would say, not likely. The cruelty comes from being attached to an object, outcome, or scene of desire when this attachment is against one’s interests or undermines the aim that brought you to it in the first place.

There is a fantasy of men having one big collective ah-ha moment where they finally learn not to rape. Yes, it ought to be the case that nobody rapes, or steals, or cheats, or murders, or embezzles, or, according to some of our students on course evaluations, pairs a striped sweater with a flowered skirt, but the continued pursuit of this as the ideal fantasy–to the point of dismissing strategies that are shown empirically to work–is how feminists exhibit cruel optimism.

In the end, as we review in a commentary for the journal Sex Roles (free access can be found here), women’s self-defense (doing it in the moment as well as training to practice the techniques) is effective in preventing and thwarting assaults without resulting in victim blaming or restricting women’s freedoms. Let’s let data, not cruel optimism, steer the sexual assault prevention movement.

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