This week, I found out that a girl friend of mine was the victim of a vicious sexual assault during college. At a train station, in a seemingly safe public setting no less. Learning the news made my stomach turn with nausea.
Partly because I had said something to make light of it.
It was a Wednesday night last month, and I was at a friend’s house in Coral Gables. The girl friend I mentioned above was with us; my friend’s girlfriend. We were lounging on the living room couch and we had just watched a whitewashing of an NBA game where one team destroyed the other; I don’t remember who was playing.
“Man, XYZ team got raped,” I said.
What I meant, of course, was that ABC team soundly beat XYZ team. By saying rape, though, I did something so subtle, so imperceptible that I didn’t even notice it. Most women don’t either.
The winning team was equated with a strong, powerful (in most cases) male. The losing team was equated with a weak, defenseless (in most cases) female.
My friend’s girlfriend politely asked me not to make the joke. What did I do? I tried to explain it, kind of the way I just did above. But I realized my explanation wasn’t helping, so I dropped it, admittedly feeling a tinge of guilt.
Today, I can’t remember a time when my own words haunted me more intensely.
She shared her story with me after I’d discovered the disgusting open letter written by the father of a Stanford University swimming team athlete, who tried to downplay the sexual assault that his son had perpetrated on a woman at a party.
To make matters worse, my friend’s girlfriend is one of an extreme minority who will ever say anything about a sexual assault of which she is the victim. 68% of victims never report the crimes – and make no mistake, they are crimes.
Why? Shame. Guilt. Or really any other word you can use to describe a rape culture that has somehow made women feel like they’re complicit in their own assaults, whether because they had too much to drink, wore something too revealing or gave a guy ‘signals’ that indicated interest.
(Conversation for another day, but nothing a woman ever does besides saying ‘yes’ should be considered as a fucking ‘signal.’)
RAINN estimates the number of American women who are the victim of an attempted or completed rape to be 1 in 6.
For some back-napkin math, let’s try this. I have 3,500 Facebook friends, so let’s assume half are women. That’s 1,750. Which means, according to statistics, 291 of them have been raped, or nearly raped. That’s basically a sold-out crowd at the Fort Lauderdale Improv, filled with rape victims.
291 people. 1 in 6 means that somewhere between my mother, sister and cousins is a minimum of three rape victims. How many in your family?
Women are the victims – 9 times out of 10, at least – and are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
The sad part is that the numbers are hollow if they sit on the ‘About’ section of a non-profit website. But if they can awaken us to the ‘what the fuck kind of people are we?’ question that too few people are asking, we can get somewhere.
Here’s a start – I learned at far too late a stage in life that I am part of the problem. Making a joke about one basketball team raping another is unacceptable. Cat calling a woman, or watching someone else do it without correcting them, is un-fucking-acceptable. And ignoring an opportunity to step in or speak up when we know someone isn’t acting properly, no matter how small it might seem, is un-fucking-acceptable.
If that sounds like a lot of pressure or too in-your-face for peers who don’t really think they’re the problem, then that’s a problem.
If 1 in 6 Americans were getting punched in the face on a regular basis, there would be some outrage. Parents and peers with any kind of conscience would be telling one another to stop punching people in the face because it’s destroying peoples’ sense of safety and security.
For fuck’s sake, I’ve seen more outrage over the death of a gorilla in a public zoo.
The father of this Stanford University rapist said that his son’s six-month prison sentence was ‘a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.’ Do you know anywhere else where that logic applies, or would even be listened to without immediately institutionalizing the person spewing it?
A murder might take all of five seconds. So Adolf Hitler should’ve done, oh I don’t know, an hour or two in jail?
I’m not an expert on this topic and I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. But I intend to dig. To understand the numbers, the stories and the disappointing factoids – like the fact that more than 100,000 women have taken rape kit tests that have never been evaluated due to backlogs.
And since I’m not an expert, and I’ll consider myself among the majority in what I do and don’t know on the topic, I’ve got a few ways that I think anyone can start to make a difference in the lives of women around us.
1. Stop making rape jokes. Yes, even the small ones that you know you don’t mean, but that hurt some women more deeply than you can imagine, or than they’ll ever tell you.
2. Speak up, even once per week. You don’t have to publicly humiliate someone to make a stand. If you hear someone make a crass remark in your ear shot, politely correct them. You don’t have to be an asshole, but you can still awaken them to the impact of their words. This worked on me.
3. If you see something or know something, speak up or stand up. If you see someone in a situation that looks troublesome, find a way to remove them from it. Be the friend or find the friend who can be there to help look after someone. You might be stepping in to a situation that will never escalate. But you might step in to a situation that actually prevented someone from becoming a victim.
Reducing the rate of sexual violence against women to zero would be utopia, but reducing the rate from 1 in 6 to 1 in 7 would still have a life-changing impact for 3.5 million women. That’s meaningful.
In the meantime, if you’re looking to learn more, or to get involved, start here. I intend to find more resources and share them as I find them.