Upon hearing of the high-profile rape cases in the news in recent months (Steubenville, Rehtaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott), many people have condemned the perpetrators (or the victims) and thrown their hands up, resigned and perhaps overwhelmed. To those of us who do anti-rape work, these stories are evidence of how much work we have to do — not just in terms of bringing perpetrators of sexual violence to justice, but also in creating communities that are truly intolerant of sexual violence.
What we are working towards requires changes in three areas: policies, practice, and cultural norms. On the policies front — our laws — much has improved over the past 40 years. There have been significant and important updates to criminal statutes on sexual violence, removing marital relationship as an exception, revising language to be gender neutral and more (though some states still lag behind).
In terms of practice and implementation of those laws, however, our criminal justice institutions struggle. Only a small minority of people who commit sexual violence are ever incarcerated, and there are serious concerns about how those institutions treat victims. In fact, the international SlutWalk movement was born from frustration with victim-blaming by police.
But beyond the laws and how they are implemented and enforced lies the lynchpin of confronting sexual violence: changing cultural norms.
At Rape Victim Advocates, our prevention educators see this frequently, when they are asked in classrooms “At what point is it illegal?” or “What’s the line I can’t cross?” When the question becomes simply about what the line is between legal and illegal, rather than how to treat one another with dignity and respect, our cultural failure to name sexual violence as ethically wrong becomes devastatingly clear.
The truth is that while it is important to know how consent is legally defined, it is also essential for us to treat consent as a necessary part of healthy relationships and sexual encounters. And while that may not change the behavior of someone bent on committing rape, it will certainly create a society that does not facilitate or excuse sexual violence.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month is drawing to a close, but if we are truly going to create change, our work to create a culture intolerant of sexual violence must continue long past April 30.