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The One Thing "Don't Be That Girl" Got Right

07/12/2013 08:15 EDT | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Going through the modern Canadian system of sex education as a young boy is a bit like going through the worst ballet schools as a young girl; when every meal is juxtaposed with outright obesity, and every hint of male sexuality with rape, it's hard not to internalize those associations in a deeply unhealthy way. Both groups are implicitly asked to answer for crimes they've never committed, and forced to associate a biological imperative with its worst possible outcomes. It's not an exaggeration to say that our approach to the budding sexuality of boys seems to try to tinge every half-understood impulse with guilt and panic.

The frustration and resentment this creates over a lifetime can cause the nascent men's rights movement to behave rather boorishly, there's no doubt. They enjoy the loud, cathartic denial of a guilt complex that was planted deep in their psyches. When Men's Rights Edmonton started its deliberately politically incorrect poster campaign, "Don't Be That Girl," was the group simply unaware of how unsympathetic and insensitive their messaging would appear? Of course not. The official interpretation -- universally accepted in spite of the creators' explicit claims to the contrary -- is that it is a "rape apologist" campaign. Rather, it satirizes a preceding effort from the University of Alberta and Edmonton police, using its own unjustifiable tone and implications to highlight those same flaws in its target.

The problem for women's rights groups is complex because, on the one hand, they are absolutely right: rape is a problem, a big one, as is under-reporting of it. At the same time, their rightful, righteous fury at this fact leads them down paths that alienate the one and only group they need to court: men. In their quest to "educate" men, they have adopted a truly hateful attitude toward them. It's understandable -- I'd be hateful too, were I surrounded day after day by traumatized young girls, and their heart-wrenching stories. However, it is simply dishonest to act so totally bewildered by the increasing refusal by men to quietly accept campaigns of advertising and education that portray them as predatory monsters.

Rape education and prevention currently gives precisely no thought to appealing to its actual audience, and approaches men in a way that immediately puts them in a defensive frame of mind that precludes any chance of real consciousness-raising. When warning men to be careful of a girl's level of inebriation, "Don't Be That Guy" portrayed the men involved as leering scum-bags whose every attribute screams rapist. Does this represent a genuine effort to engage with the campaign's only possible audience? Or is it merely a form of catharsis for victims and their advocates?

When every sexual encounter is already accompanied by an internal pang of Catholic-like guilt and worry, subsequently having that very same accusation leveled at you so aggressively by a passing telephone pole is galling, to say the least. Men understandably resent having their ever-more-timid sexuality portrayed so ghoulishly. This is the same reaction men have when pornography is labeled a misogynistic example of rape culture, by definition and regardless of its actual content. It's the reaction anyone would have if every expression of their genuine sexual nature was condemned with such strutting self-righteousness.

In examining how to educate about rape, we must engage in an act that women's groups have long refused to consider: we must separate rapists by type. There are the balaclava guys, the gleefully violent Central Park rapists, who are small in numbers and utterly beyond the teach of these campaigns -- to consider them in any educational initiative is so naïve as to border on negligent. Then there are the serial date-rapists, men who rape while genuinely never thinking of themselves as rapists. These can potentially be reached, but the nature of their crime implies a sociopathy and heat-of-the-moment abandon that makes appeals to the conscious mind also seem somewhat misplaced.

Then there are the rest of men, the majority, the vast masses whose stomachs turn at the mere thought of the victimization of women. These men do rape, we know this, and it almost always comes in some form less overtly villainous than that portrayed in anti-rape campaigns. It's these men at whom the majority of rape prevention initiatives must be aimed, and at whom virtually none are at present.

If a female acquiesces to a forceful advance after a short period of meek resistance, endures an encounter with inner revulsion that has little or no outward sign, this can unquestionably be rape -- and yet, can how can we possibly convince ourselves that such incidents could be prevented with the sort of messaging found in Don't Be That Guy? Over the past decade, we have rightly expanded our definition of sexual assault, but made absolutely no accompanying expansion to our conception what it means to be a rapist. Even if we agree that such an attitude is just, it simply cannot be argued that it is wise.

I think it's telling that the original Don't Be That Guy campaign is constantly described as "successful" -- but by what rubric? If success is defined simply as inspiring similar campaigns from similar groups, then these groups need to seriously examine whether their goals and motivations really are what they claim.

If the quest to curtail rape through education is a practical one, as opposed to purely sentimental, then activist groups absolutely must examine their messaging. Don't Be That Girl is a near-perfect mirror image of the style and content of the original campaign, and if it raises hackles then it has made its point. Just like the police-sponsored template it mocks, the intent is clearly aggressive, not educational.

The assumption among rape-prevention activists is that alarming statistics must be met with more anti-rape rhetoric, more aggressively delivered, started younger, and embedded more neurotically in the brains of men and boys. But the sheer weight of all this well-intentioned shaming is already causing push-back, and not just from the slavering misogynists these activists imagine they are fighting. Perhaps it's time to consider that what we need is not more anti-rape initiatives, but smarter ones.

Don't Be That Girl