Ending rape culture: Now an international movement

OPINION - With the conclusion of the Steubenville rape case, we find ourselves poised at a watershed moment in our global fight to protect women from being vulnerable targets...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“We don’t raise boys to be men,” said former NFL quarterback turned feminist Don McPherson. “We raise them not to be women, or gay men.”

That brutally honest statement delivered at the March 8th launch of “Ring the Bell” — a bold campaign developed by global human rights organization Breakthrough  to secure “concrete, actionable promises” from 1 million men to end discrimination and sexual assault against women — speaks directly to the entrenched gender roles and expectations that have made rape one of the most pervasive crimes in our society.

Violent words — hit, bang, beat, cut, smash – have been reappropriated to refer to enjoyable, consensual sexual activity, particularly in African-American communities where, not surprisingly, sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. This is a barely-sheathed nod to the reality that for many men, masculinity is defined by the authority — indeed, the right — to objectify, dehumanize, violate and destroy. Some people refer to this as “rape culture,” while many accept it as part of life. If that threshold of so-called manhood must be crossed by penetrating unwilling women, then so be it.

The Steubenville rape case and the sympathetic reactions to the plight of the young men who were found guilty of penetrating an incapacitated young woman shows that this mentality is still very powerful.

But recently there has been a perceptible shift in the zeitgeist, which was prompted in part by the statements of conservative politicians during the 2012 presidential election. Republicans from Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, to Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan made headlines for claiming that there are varying degrees of rape. From “forcible” rapes, to “legitimate” rapes, to rapes that are “God’s gift,” what came to be called the “War on Women” quickly became polarizing in a highly contentious election cycle heavily skewed towards women’s issues and how they intersect with and reflect on the collective society.

It became painfully clear that these leaders understood little of the needs of women, from our needs for reproductive health, to the right to feel safe from being raped – period.

Following on the heels of Rep. Gwen Moore revealing her own history of sexual assault on the House floor in an effort to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, these statements from Republicans rendered the political landscape fertile for change. And these seeds for change have been sown internationally. Rape and sexual violence against women, a quietly accepted fact of life since the beginning of civilization, is finally being attacked with the same force as any aggressor.

When the horrifying gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi exploded in the international news, the sheer brutality of the crime forced people all over the world to pay attention and reexamine the prevalence of violence against women.

The young Indian victim boarded a bus on December 16, 2012 with her fiancé. She was then raped by six men, including the driver. After taking turns with her, and beating her fiancé until he began to lose consciousness, they impaled her with a metal rod that shredded her internal organs before hurling them both from the moving vehicle to die.

This heinous crime prompted members of this traditional culture to vociferously demand justice for women who are victims of sexual violence — demands made on an unprecedented scale. It also led feminists around the world to look closer at rape cases near their own homes.