According to Malcolm Gladwell, a tipping point is the moment a social trend passes a threshold and starts to spread like wildfire. The Stanford rape case is a tipping point in our understanding of rape. The circumstances of this case have converged in a way that many people in this country now understand that women have the right to be free from sexual violence. An unnamed victim’s searing statement brought the reality of her experience to everyone who read it. The statement by the rapist’s father that callously referred to his son’s “20 minutes of action” perfectly articulated the reality of rape culture in which a man’s entitlement to enjoy a steak – or a woman’s body – outweighs a woman’s right to bodily integrity. A judge’s sentencing decision that showed more regard for the rapist’s future than for the seriousness of his crime embodied the judicial system’s inadequate response to an act of severe violence.
Because of the way that these events have come together and, most importantly because of the victim’s powerful words, we as a society are starting to turn our attention from what the victim was wearing, why she was at a frat party in the first place, and how much she had to drink. We are beginning to focus on the only thing that matters: the actions of Brock Turner, her rapist. While haters will continue to defend Turner and blame the victim, the groundswell of outrage is drowning out the voices would preserve a system that values men’s hegemony over the rights of women to be free from violence.
While the rape at Stanford may be a tipping point it is far from an isolated incident. We have been building to this moment of clarity through the actions of many extraordinary survivors of rape. These young women are leading us into a new world for women and girls – where violence is no longer tolerated. Rape victims are telling the graphic details of the assaults that shattered their lives. They will not be shamed, blamed or silenced. Their excruciating stories are creating a new understanding of the reality of rape and how the response of the community can either contribute to their trauma and perpetuate sexual assault or can support them by sending a message that rape will not be tolerated.
These young women have internalized an important message about women’s human rights to be free from violence. This message has been delivered more and more effectively over the last two decades, a period that coincided with the formative years of women who are now in their twenties. That message, “Women’s rights are human rights” and violence against women is a human rights abuse, was first articulated in the United Nations about the time these women were born. While the message may seem obvious to us now, without it we could not have reached a point in which women claim the right to express their outrage at being the victims of sexual violence. By contrast, friends who were raped in the 1970s and 80s when they were in their 20s and 30s, were silenced and shamed, because the world had not yet assimilated the meaning of women’s rights.
These young women’s confidence in their human right to be free from violence not only drives their demand for justice, it emboldens them to expose the particulars of their rapes. There is no more effective catalyst for change than the baring of the most personal pain and the sharing of the unwanted knowledge that can ensue only from that pain. Their personal stories educate us.
The Stanford rape victim described the probing by the hospital nurse as she found pine needles and dirt in her vagina. This is imagery that transforms. This detail allows a new and better appreciation about punishment and sentencing of rapists that truly is proportionate to the crime. Young women are demanding accountability not only for their rapists but from everyone around them who contributes to our rape culture – including families and friends of the rapist who testify to the rapist’s character and judges whose sentences are too lenient.
While the US public may have reached a tipping point in our understanding of rape, the justice system in this country and around the world are lagging behind. Widespread shock and outrage at the light sentence that Brock Turner received has resulted in a campaign to recall the judge that has garnered more than a million supporters. Yet Turner’s six-month sentence is not unusual. In fact it is harsher than that experienced by most rapists, of whom 97% spend no time behind bars. The outrage over Turner’s light sentence must be harnessed to strengthen the response of law enforcement and the judicial system in this country. Global Rights for Women’s work around the world has taught us that a change in public opinion is only one step in the systems change – passing and implementing laws and policies – that will ensure that women’s human right to be from violence is not just an aspiration but a reality.
The victim blaming and lack of response to sexual violence we have seen in other countries is even more extreme than we have experienced in the US and there is no tipping point in sight. When we conducted training on sexual violence in Moldova last year we learned that according to attitudes of the police and judiciary in that country, it is “impossible” for a young woman between 16 and 25 to be raped. The reason? She must have done something to provoke the attack.
With one in five young women subject to sexual assault on college campuses and an epidemic of sexual assault in the military we still have a long way to go in this country to keep women safe from sexual violence. But the attention that is finally being paid to these crimes is making a difference. Just as we are sharing more than 40 years of experience in addressing domestic violence with the rest of the world, we can also share the lessons we are learning about combating sexual violence with our partners in other countries.
The good news is that we have reached a tipping point. We have reached it in part because of the bravery of young women who are breaking the silence and insisting that their rapists and the system that perpetuates rape be held accountable. At Global Rights for Women we honor them, we support them, we learn from them and we share the lessons of their courage so that it will spread like wildfire throughout the world.
Written by Executive Director, Cheryl Thomas and Program Director, Helen Rubenstein