There was a time when I believed it was up to women to change the legal system. I said women had to keep reporting their rapes because reporting them was the only way to change a broken system. I was wrong.
The Stanford sexual-assault case showed women that our bodies and our lives are meaningless. Brock Turner’s father echoed the chorus of voices who decry how Turner’s bright future was tarnished by “20 minutes of action.” Turner’s sexual-assault conviction was unavoidable because two witnesses caught him in the act. But by giving Turner a six-month sentence (he will probably serve only three), the judge made sure the impact of his conviction was minimal.
The Stanford sexual-assault victim was forced to stand trial and recount in graphic detail the atrocities that were performed on her unconscious body. Instead of being able to focus on her own healing, she had to relive her trauma over and over again. Her words, her trauma and her experience carried only so much weight. Six months for a crime that will haunt Turner’s victim for a lifetime.
In a way, the Stanford sexual-assault victim was “lucky.” Most rapes and sexual assaults never go to trial. When they do go, they rarely result in a conviction. When women are raped or sexually assaulted, we are told it’s our duty to report it. Often, when we report it, we are called liars and whores and told we wanted it. When we decide not to report it, we are called liars and whores and are told we’re making it up for attention or revenge. We are asked to revictimize ourselves in the name of justice that rarely comes. I have reported my own sexual assault and chosen not to report the time I was raped. Both instances resulted in the same outcome for my assailants: no punishment at all.
I’m not suggesting that women give up the fight. But I realize now that no woman can change how little our lives matter in this system. It’s up to the men who created that system — and who don’t see all rape as real and “legitimate” — to create a better system. Women are most at risk from men, and particularly the men they know and love. Men should be appalled by their complicity in a legal system that revictimizes their sisters, mothers and daughters. Men should be lining up in the streets to protest a system that prioritizes their futures over our lives.
There are men who are actively fighting against campus rape culture, but there aren’t nearly enough. Vice President Joe Biden penned a heartfelt open letter to the Stanford sexual assault victim that called for all of us to turn our anger into action. Sociology professor Michael Kimmel heads up Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, where he is attempting to turn traditional notions of masculinity upside down. Kimmel’s efforts to prevent campus sexual assault include teaching college boys to “party with consent,” and a 2015 feature in the Atlantic referred to him as “the bro whisperer.” Other men such as former frat brother Matt Leibowitz have started their own organizations to fight back against campus rape culture. These men’s efforts don’t go unnoticed, but they remain few and far between. For every Biden, Kimmel or Leibowitz, there are many more Matt Walshs who blame women for their own sexual assaults.
Rape culture hasn’t changed because most men don’t want it to. Like Turner, men benefit from the presumption of their innocence. When rape culture tells men that violating an unconscious woman’s body is just another part of college life, it excuses them from those questionable moments in their own college memories. It whispers in their ear that those times she was too drunk, or said no, or tried to back away weren’t rape or sexual assault. Rape culture manufactures gray areas where none existed and hands the power to determine what constitutes rape to the perpetrators rather than the victims.
Most men would probably agree that Turner’s sentencing was too lenient. That allegiance breaks down when men are asked to take a stand against rape culture in their own lives. When men laugh at jokes about rape, call women sluts or push a hesitant woman to have sex with them, they are perpetuating rape culture. Ending it requires far more from men than simply shaking their heads in disgust when they read about guys like Turner; it requires them to actively and wholeheartedly commit to dismantling a system that prioritizes their desires over women’s bodies. Even when it makes them uncomfortable. Especially when it makes them uncomfortable.
Being asked to speak out against rape culture makes men uncomfortable, and that’s understandable. But the appropriate course of action isn’t denial, anger and outrage at the victims; it’s partnering with women to replace a broken system with one that thrives.
Men don’t have to give up their rights in order for women to have theirs, too. Rape victims don’t have to be put on trial to protect the accused’s right to remain innocent until proven guilty. There are real solutions to tough problems, but we’ll never find them if men continue to defend their misbehavior at the cost of women’s lives. Progress requires men to give up some of their power in exchange for a legal system that holds everyone accountable for their actions, not just victims.
There is no reason for a woman to report her rape or sexual assault, and there is every reason for her to remain silent. Instead of demanding that women continue to martyr themselves in a broken system, men need to begin to change the system they created.