Rick Perry tells protesters that fossil fuels are good because they prevent sexual assault

They can't.

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke delivers an update on federal actions to support Hurricane Irma response as Energy Secretary Rick Perry looks on, in Washington, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke delivers an update on federal actions to support Hurricane Irma response as Energy Secretary Rick Perry looks on, in Washington, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said during an interview Thursday that fossil fuels can prevent sexual assault.

At an event sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute put on by Axios in Washington, D.C., Perry was interviewed on stage by NBC’s Chuck Todd and Axios founder Jim VandeHei when he was interrupted by protesters.

The protesters called for him to sign a clean energy pledge and attacked his pro-coal and pro-fossil fuel stance. One of them asked Perry, “Why are you against clean air and why are you against people’s health?”

Perry then launched into a response about American ingenuity and how it can help countries around the world. 

“I just got back from Africa and I want to finish with this. I think I heard a lady say people are dying,” Perry said, though the protester hadn’t said anything about people dying.

“Let me tell you where people are dying is in Africa,” Perry said, “where a young girl told me to my face, ‘One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I’m not going to have to read by the light of the fire and have those fumes literally killing people.’”

But also, Perry went on, “from the standpoint of sexual assault. When the lights are on, when you have lights that shine, the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts.”

“I happen to think [fossil fuels are] going to play a positive role,” Perry said. “I wish we could understand that it’s not just us living here in the comforts of the confines that we’re in. But our role as Americans are about innovation that can change the world.”

Perry is correct about one thing — large swaths of the African continent do need electricity. In 38 of the 49 sub-Saharan countries, at least 50 percent of the population lives without electricity, and in Liberia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad, Sierra Leone, and Malawi, nearly 95 percent is going without electricity.

But fossil fuels are likely not the best — and certainly not the most environmentally friendly — way to bring electricity to those who need it.

And Perry’s suggestion that electricity can prevent sexual assault is rooted in some of the same misconceptions that have made their way into the mainstream in recent weeks following an avalanche of allegations made against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, journalist Mark Halperin, actor Kevin Spacey, former president George H.W. Bush, and others.

It isn’t darkness or clothing or behavior that drives men to assault women. Instead, what research we have about men who rape points to several “risk factors” that make it more likely men will commit an assault. Among those risk factors are a perceived pressure to have sex, narcissism, low scores on measure of empathy, heavy drinking, and a belief in “rape myths.”

UPDATE: The Department of Energy released a statement Thursday regarding Perry’s comments.

“The secretary was making the important point that while many Americans take electricity for granted there are people in other countries who are impacted by their lack of electricity,” spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement. “One person told him about how light can be a deterrent to sexual assault and security in remote areas.”

Additional reporting by Mark Hand.