Breaking the Silence: Addressing Rape Culture in America

On October 4, I gave the keynote address at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, for “Take Back the Night,” an international yearly march that began in the 1970s to protest violence against women. This is a version of that address.

Good evening. I’m honored to speak with you about violence. And the thing I want to tell you most is this:

The era of focusing on victims needs to come to an end. It doesn’t work. We can talk all day about how the culture of rape and violence has affected our lives, we can share individual stories and we can cite statistics and while this may be informative and therapeutic it is not going to get us where we need to get. It is not strategic.

I’ve always wondered about the slogan “Take Back the Night.” We can’t take back something we never had. What we need to do is Take Down the structures responsible for the criminal climate of fear that we live in; Take Down the structures responsible for the exploitation, humiliation, and degradation women experience everyday.

And in order to do this we need to stop mourning. Stop having vigils. Stop being silent.

The best way we can honor victims of these human rights abuses is to change the way we talk about perpetrators. The efforts to put a human face on the victims of crimes against women has been a success—how could it not be when so many of the fallen are connected to our own lives. But for some reason we have a hard time talking about perpetrators, their lives, where they come from, who raised them, what they learned. We know that people from all walks of life are raped. But few like to discuss how people from all walks of life are rapists. We know about the one in five who are raped or survive attempted rape, but what about the potentially one in 17 who rape?

According to a 2002 study by David Lisak and Paul M. Miller, just over 6 percent (or nearly one in 17) of the male college students they interviewed answered questions that showed that they had either raped or attempted to rape a woman, even when they themselves did not consider their acts to have been unwanted. And this is on the lower end of the few studies that have been done. Another puts the figure of rapists among college students at 8 percent.

We are used to the idea that we know and love and associate with people who have been raped but we ignore the obvious fact that we know and sometimes love and associate with rapists. That we have friends or relatives or coworkers or acquaintances who may be rapists. That one in 17 on this campus, on the street, in your workplace are rapists.

So I am here this evening to tell you it is not enough to remember or cite statistics. And it never will be.

We need to see clearly who the perpetrators are and create strategies to eliminate them and the culture that continues to create them.

We won the right to vote not even 100 years ago. And we did not win through asking, though marching, through commemorating, or remembering the bad things that had happened to our sisters and mothers and aunts and daughters and friends, but by acts of violent resistance, civil disobedience, and sabotage. We did not ask. We took. And we took risks.

One of our greatest risks right now is being coopted and integrated into a system that is hostile to women. To be contented with the everyday freedoms that should have long been the rights of all people; to see piecemeal corrections of criminal injustice against half the population as progress instead of the beginning of restitution and retribution.

Let us not be fooled. It is in no way progress to be granted basic human rights. To believe so is to think from the rapist’s perspective, from the misogynist’s perspective. To be brainwashed enough to do their work for them. I think Malcolm X explained this tricky relationship to the idea of “progress” best. When asked if he thought if progress had been made in the struggle for civil rights, he said, “If you stick a knife into my back 9 inches and then you pull out 3 inches, that’s not progress.”

Women need to remember this.

It’s not progress to be “given” the right to vote. To be “given” the right to choose. Those are simply corrections of crimes that were committed against our gender. And these so called “rights” were not given freely. We had to wrench them from the same hands that are still trying to hold us down today.

I will say it again. The freedoms we fought for and won are not progress but corrections of massive injustice perpetrated against half the human population and still occurring across the globe. As long as there are laws and cultural practices that restrict human rights for women we are all at risk. As long as we are still fundamentally portrayed as existing for the pleasure of men we are all at risk.

We live every day of our lives with risk—but we rarely take risks when calling out the misogyny that’s put us where we are.

Many of us have laid down our lives for men. Men we believed we loved and believed loved us in return, or simply acquaintances, strangers, relatives. We’ve entered into precarious or dangerous situations or been caught off guard by things that were entirely ordinary and banal, but the outcome has been the same. You can lose your life, your basic freedom, your strength, your bravery, and planned future in one mundane night or afternoon or morning. You can be cleanly dispatched from one moment to the next for no reason at all other than being a woman.

Let us not forget that.

We lay down our lives and take risks every day because one in 17 men are perpetrators, and of those one in 17, fewer than 3 percent see a day in jail. But we rarely think it possible or practical, rarely summon the bravery to lay down our lives and to take risks for ourselves and our sisters.

There’s a fundamental flaw in this kind of risk assessment. A fundamental flaw in the cost benefit analysis.

Let’s not be naïve or cowed enough to think that violence against women is random or unstoppable. It is part of an economic and political system. It has been codified and written into the laws of nations. Whole economies are built on the backs of women. Built with the given that half the population will be subjugated. We live in a world where it’s legal in some countries for a woman to have her throat cut or be set on fire for having sex before marriage, where girls have their genitals snipped, where human trafficking and sex slavery are common. And we are always encouraged to measure our freedoms against “hers,” against our sisters in the third world so that we will feel “lucky.”

But we know we are not lucky. Three American women die every day at the hands of their intimate partners. In this country we live with the countless rapes, disappearances, murders and we also live with the sexually exploitative media coverage of these events. The constant titillation of sexual brutality, the continuous stream of dead women in movies and television.

Our path is clear. The history of unpunished violence against women shows that we must be prepared to change our tactics. If there is a risk I could lose my freedom, my sexual autonomy, my life, if I am not considered human but a lesser subset of humanity, then I am going to fight. Not commemorate, not compromise, not defend. But take down those who have raped, molested, murdered, restricted, oppressed, harassed, and terrorized us. Nothing less is required if we are to break free and dismantle this false and violent man-made world.