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As I was teaching the first weekend of a 9-month journey around sexual agency, confidence, skills and empowerment to a group of women committed to being more powerful and sexually free this past weekend in New York, a woman who was brutally raped on the ground while unconscious behind a dumpster at a Stanford University fraternity house was being dealt a pathetic version of justice.                            

The woman who was raped at Stanford was denied justice, like so many women, over so many centuries.

Her case went to trial because the rapist, Brock Turner, refused to settle out of court, and rather, drag her through a trial, even though there were witnesses and a rape kit amounting to clear evidence that he raped her.

A jury of peers unanimously found Turner guilty on three felony counts.

In California, sexual assault has a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in state prison. Judge Aaron Persky gave Turner a mere six month sentence in county jail because he was a star swimmer and, according to the people in his life, a good person who had a promising life ahead of him. He was also a white privileged student at Stanford. All of that influenced his light sentence. His father wrote to the judge and said his son should not pay such a “steep price … for 20 minutes of action.”

This is what rape culture looks like: violent rape gets dismissed as “20 minutes of action”—the most horrifically damaging 20 minutes of this woman’s life. To call it “action” is absurd and calloused and supports rape. A judge who diminishes the charges or the punishments to protect the perpetrator—even when found guilty. Men who vehemently protect other men, like Turner’s swim teammates who posted this on Facebook when they thought the rape charges were dropped (they weren’t): “Score one for the good guys! He’s still being tried for some minor stuff that actually happens all the time at parties so it’s definitely nothing to worry about. Suck it haters!” 

Rape culture uses the idea of “promiscuity” to discredit women who are assaulted. There is no such thing as “promiscuity.” That word is one of the most sexist words in the English language, always used to describe a woman whose sexual appetite, proclivities or actions others are judging. One of my mentors used to say that “promiscuity means someone is having more sex than YOU are.” It’s completely subjective.

In this case, I see no reason why a word that judges a woman’s sexual experiences is used at all because she was not trying to have sex with this man or pursuing him. So is it Turner who is promiscuous? Is he calling for men to be held accountable for their promiscuous sexual appetites? This event was hardly about sexual prowess. It was violent, nonconsensual sex. So let’s just release that one from our lexicon.

Rape culture is upheld when men in power protect other men from facing consequences and even excusing their behavior, women are put on trial for their sexuality and brutally dragged back through already traumatic experiences over and over, and we fail to address the very real issues of gender, sexuality and violence that continue to perpetuate a place where women don’t feel safe.

Carole S. Vance wrote the renowned title essay in her compendium Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality in the early 80s and yet the thesis of that piece continues to be relevant today. She talks about the idea that in fully exploring and honoring women’s sexuality we cannot just talk about pleasure and not also address the danger women experience around sex—and we cannot only focus on danger without talking about pleasure. To focus solely on one would be reductive and would not allow us to discover and address the fullness and breadth of women’s sexual experiences. I hope one day we can drop the danger part, but it seems we are nowhere close for women still live in a great deal of fear for our safety.

This is why I do my work as a sexuality educator and sexual empowerment mentor. This is why I got into this work to begin with as a young activist fighting for women to have the sexual information they need, the skills to define ourselves and to have the beautiful, powerful, pleasurable sexual lives we deserve.

When I was teaching sexuality at Bushwick Outreach High School in Brooklyn in the mid-90s, it became clear that many of our students had dealt with sexual assault and the school staff and administration wanted to address it. I thought, “Great!” I knew it was very much needed because the students had shared with me many personal stories. And really, when is sexual assault not an issue? We had a staff meeting, and the proposed plan was announced: We would pull all of the girls out of class to teach them how to avoid assault. I asked, “What are we going to do with the boys?”

“Nothing—they’ll just stay in class. We don’t have enough male staff to do anything with them.” Read: We don’t know how to address the boys and so we will avoid it.

I was outraged. The responsibility for sexual assault was being put squarely on the girls with no regard for the role boys play.

Sexual assault is a gendered issue and we have to address the gender roles that perpetuate it—boys being taught to be sexually aggressive, not being taught to talk about feelings or to learn how to communicate on an emotional level, and the pressure to “score”; and girls being taught to be the sexual gatekeepers, yet being taught to follow the sexuality of men without regard for their own sexual needs and desires, women not knowing their bodies and not being encouraged to learn about them, not learning how to speak up for themselves, not having a voice.

Then there is the cultural soup in which we all live: a culture that presents sexualized images of women yet doesn’t teach sexual agency; glorifies violence and desensitizes us repeatedly; is filled with public figures who diminish violence against women by giving fluffy sentences and questions a woman’s history as a way to discredit her; throws vitriol towards women when we are deeply hurt, or for having boundaries at all.

This is not a simple issue and there is not a simple solution.

Many get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it and think nothing will help. I know that there are things that help very much.

Giving all of us opportunities to deal with the realities of sexual pressure, sexual norms, sexual expectations and sexual misinformation is absolutely necessary. I was recently offering a Sex Week keynote at Brown University and a young man was brave enough to ask how he could say “no” to sex when he didn’t want it—acknowledging the intense pressure on him as a male to always want sex. Having a young man do that publicly was profound and we need more spaces for that kind of honesty and reflection.

We have some deep questions to ask ourselves: Why do we continue to protect those who violate, and shun those who have been violated? Is it too painful to empathize with the pain people go through when they are assaulted?

Women are overwhelmingly the victims of assault, and yet it often happens to men and it’s even harder for people to be sensitive to a man who has been violated. Why is that? Why do we glorify violence, guns, force and destruction? Why do we continue to diminish emotions, all things “feminine” and anything considered vulnerable, read, weak? And why do we continually pit women and men against each other rather than acknowledging what a critical problem this is and how much it requires us getting together to address it properly with everyone?

The Heroes Who Apprehended Turner

We cannot address half of the problem.

When I began in the early 90s, I set out to empower women. The longer I did my work, the more I wanted to work with men. I wrote my first book for men and it has helped thousands of people understand how to better respect and approach women sexually.

Men have to show up in this fight. At Stanford there were two young men who witnessed what happened, intervened, chased Turner down and changed everything in this case—it probably would not have turned out as it did without them and they are a powerful example of bystander intervention.

This is what CHANGING rape culture looks like: We can all involve ourselves and care about it. We can all look out for people in situations where they cannot advocate on their own behalf and be powerful bystanders that don’t just stand there–we get involved, we help.

If you don’t help, you are colluding. We have got to take that seriously, as those two graduate students did. We have got to talk about sexual dynamics that set us all up for terrible sexual experiences. We have to address the pressure men feel to always want sex, be ready for it, be seeking it and even aggressively taking it. We have to talk about sexual entitlement and the fact that no one is entitled to anyone’s body whether she is your girlfriend, your wife, a friend or a stranger. That means we all have to learn to communicate far more effectively about sex.

We also must do a better job of educating ourselves and figuring out who we are sexually and what we want. I know my first sexual assault might have been prevented had I actually had a conversation with myself about what I wanted because then I might have been able to articulate it to someone else and to advocate on my own behalf. I also know sometimes that advocacy falls on deaf ears. Ignorance sets us up for violence and assault, for regretted experiences and miscommunication.

Education and self-awareness help us to create an internal baseline of knowledge and sexual definition that we can then follow and build on so we can have the sexual experiences we want and do our best to avoid the ones we don’t. Still, the biggest issue adult women come to me wanting help with is understanding their own desire. By and large, we are still in the dark sexually and we’ve got a lot of work to do.

There has been an incredible swell of public action in this case and the momentum needs to continue. The woman at Stanford wrote a 7,000+ word statement directed at her attacker that she read in court and which a CNN news anchor actually read on her program. That is unprecedented.

People are calling for removal of the judge who gave a lenient sentence because he felt it just wouldn’t help the guy to give him the same treatment as everyone else. Think the fact that he is a star swimmer, white guy and Stanford student has anything to do with that? Read the judge’s statements and judge for yourself. Privilege by nature has power. Students are protesting and scholars are getting involved. Last Year, the President of these United States made a powerful junction demanding more action on this issue.

Until we address sexuality as a natural and normal part of our lives and our wellbeing, we will continue to express it sideways and to violate ourselves and others because we don’t honor it for all it is.

I believe we can change our cultural sanctioning of sexual assault by turning up the dialogue, the education and the investment by all of us to change it and address the problem head on and consistently without leniency.

Power to the woman at Stanford. May she get the healing she needs and come out of this stronger than ever. And I hope for healing of Turner as well, who, so far, thinks the only thing he did wrong was drink too much alcohol. He deeply impacted a woman’s life. She is forever changed. I think we all are changed in some way if we have any shred of humanity in us. Get involved, do something.

Read the woman’s statement here. Please do take the time to read it.

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