Last week, Rolling Stone published an article about the gang rape of a UVA student, new allegations arose against Bill Cosby, bringing the number of women who have named him as their assailant to 18, and Jessica Valenti spoke about rape culture at Brown, opposite Wendy McElroy, who claims that rape culture is not real. The news about both UVA and Cosby garnered necessary attention and got people talking: however, some conversations and articles about Cosby’s accusers included victim blaming. Valenti’s appearance at Brown spawned a Twitter conversation between her and a journalist who had published an article in which he claimed that she’d said jokes cause rape—she’d actually said that jokes about rape give rapists license to operate. Had he gotten away with his claim (he didn’t), the article would have contributed to rape culture, allowing his readers to dismiss her point. And that was just the stuff about sexual violence that happened in mainstream culture last week.
After watching the victim-blaming toward Cosby’s accusers even as Valenti was explaining the existence of rape culture and ensuring a journalist didn’t use her words to perpetuate it, I couldn’t bring myself to read the Rolling Stone article right away. When I did read it, I was very glad to see the way the topic was covered, including the focus on institutional power and the protections of wealth and privilege, as well as on research about how rapists operate. While part of me was reading it as a feminist writer and educator, another part of me was reading it as a mother. Of a daughter. Who might go to UVA in about six years—or not. I felt what I always feel as a feminist, as a woman, as a mother: angry, sickened, frustrated at patriarchy, and worried about the impact it might have on my kids. And I knew I needed to do my part to help change it.
Reading news of sexual violence can make us feel powerless—as though those with wealth and power will simply do what they will do, and there is little we can do but watch and wish things were different, keep our heads down and hope it doesn’t happen to us. This, indeed, was the attitude of many of Jackie’s “friends” at UVA, and it is part of the cultural approach we have taken to accusations about Cosby. But each of us can impact culture in positive ways—what we know, what we do and say matter, and help to shape our cultural approach to sexual violence.
Here are five things you can do to help:
- Know the Facts: All conversations about rape and sexual assault need to be informed by the research on it. Here are some facts you can use—click the links to find the source:
- How Rapists Operate: Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. David Lisak, the researcher that Sabrina Erdely references in the Rolling Stone article, has found that most rapists are serial predators who plan their attacks and who are enabled by a culture that misunderstands rapists as “basically good guys” who were confused under the influence of alcohol.
- Campus Assault: One in four college women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. The sites Know Your IX (about Title IX legislation, which protects students at federally-funded universities from sexual harassment and assault) and Not Alone (the White House’s initiative against campus assault) provide excellent information about the legal obligations universities have toward victims of rape and assault on their campuses.
- Military Assault: One in four women in the military experience rape or attempted rape during their time of military service. Their attackers are their fellow soldiers.
- Sexual Violence and Race: Native American women are twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women of other races. The majority of the perpetrators of these crimes are non-Native men. An estimated 21.2% of black women have been raped in their lifetimes. Marginalized women—women of color, poor women, lesbians/bisexuals/transsexual women—are often also the victims of state violence.
- Learn the Lingo: People who study sexual violence and work to reduce it use terms to describe the way our culture approaches it. You can help by learning the terms and using them yourself when discussing sexual violence. Whether sexual violence occurs on a college campus, on the street, in a prison, or in a home, these terms apply:
- Rape Culture: The aspects of our culture that normalize rape and sexual assault, such as movies or song lyrics that glorify sexual violence, jokes about rape, and interrogations that place blame on victims.
- Victim Blaming: The practice of questioning a victim’s behavior and dress, either implying or stating directly that the victim, rather than the perpetrator, was responsible for the crime.
- Consent: Voluntary, positive, clearly communicated agreement to participate in sexual activity. A person who is asleep cannot give consent. A person who is mentally or physically incapacitated, due to drugs or alcohol or for any other reason, cannot give consent.
3. Understand Social Media’s Role: Facebook allows misogyny—including memes that support rape in the name of humor—to run wild. And Twitter, while it does allow people to block and report, is rife with misogynistic attacks, many of them aimed at feminists trying to change rape culture. While most people don’t interact with these aspects of social media, many of us do read or share posts about the news related to rape, and engage in discussions about it. Social media has a huge impact on how we think and interact. Victims of assault are reading these conversations, and either being re-victimized or empowered by each and every word they read about sexual assault and rape.
4. Refuse to Be Silent: Talk about the stats above. Share resources. If someone is questioning a victim’s story, defend the victim. You don’t have to trash the accused—simply stop others from questioning the victim. If you’re a man, and you hear other men discussing women as sexual conquests or telling jokes about rape, call them on it, even if it’s uncomfortable. If you’re a woman, and you hear other women trashing women for their behavior or choices, call them on it, even if it’s uncomfortable. Refuse to simply absorb the shock of this knowledge and instead speak against it.
5. Join or Donate to an Organization: There are some organizations doing great work out there—add your voice, and your money, to theirs. In addition to the national organizations below, there are many local organizations (domestic violence shelters, campus organizations) that would benefit from your support. Whether you give locally, nationally, or both, your time, your voice, and your money make a difference: