Darakshan Raja is a founding member of Falling Walls. As a researcher and an advocate she works on examining criminal justice responses for victims of crime, Darakshan is currently a Research Associate at the Urban Institute where she evaluates criminal justice policies.
The recent series of gang rapes that took place in India are a powerful example of how sexual violence is a universal problem that cuts across racial, gender, class, and geographical lines. While Indians took to the streets to protest, and are engaging in a national conversation on addressing the issue of rape, I wonder when will we as Americans reflect and have a conversation on our rape culture at home, which is a significant problem. In America someone is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will be raped in their lifetime, and almost half of all victims of sexual violence are under 18 (RAINN.ORG). Despite such high rates of sexual violence, whenever the topic of sexual assault is brought up for discussion, society starts challenging the extent of the problem, and even the very notion that rape can ever happen without a victim’s consent. By denying the scope of the problem, we not only shut down meaningful conversations that can help lead to prevention, but we also fail to make improvements to our responses to victims, and work towards the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders.
For me personally the story of the gang rape of a 23 year old who later died of her injuries took me back to my own experience walking home one night after college. What began as an everyday incident of sexual harassment that numerous girls and women face every single day in our society, turned into something far worse. As I was walking home, a group of men in a van had started “hollering.” Like most girls, I just ignored them until someone in the van yelled “Yo just put the bitch in the van,” and the van started following me. Being afraid I started running, too afraid to look back, and just hid between buildings until I couldn’t hear them anymore. While I never saw their faces, I just remember their voices and the language, which was full of hate. To them I wasn’t a person anymore, but some filthy object. This incident didn’t take place in Dehli, but in a place like New York City. What I know now that I didn’t know at 19 was just how common and pervasive sexual violence is in our own backyard. This doesn’t happen over there. It happens over here. Since then I have personally come across hundreds of stories of sexual assaults that take place in this country. Stories like a 14 year old who had been cutting herself with a blade to cope with the pain of sexual abuse, the words of a survivor who said she was left for dead after being raped, and children who came on RAINN’s online hotline to disclose how a caretaker had been abusing them. The perpetrators on the other end weren’t just strangers, but lovers, friends, and caretakers. To bear witness and see the anger, numbing, tears, pain, and the immense strength survivors demonstrate while perpetrators enjoy complete impunity is nothing short of injustice in its purest form.
Injustice that will only be dealt with once we make it clear that we have no tolerance for a rape culture in our society. A rape culture is defined as a society where societal attitudes and norms justify sexual violence by either denying its existence, treating the issue as a joke, and holding victims accountable for their own victimization. A rape culture gives perpetrators the safe spaces to commit violence against someone without any fear of accountability, because society will treat it as an incident where the victim by the virtue of something they did asked for it. It is a culture where women and girls are presented as nothing more than bodies and objects that can be devalued, exploited, and discarded. It is a culture where we socialize boys into believing they are entitled to power and have the privilege to the use of violence to attain power and control.
The only way we can end sexual violence is by tackling our culture of rape. We can do this through institutionalizing and codifying a clear message in our laws that we have no tolerance for sexual violence. It means reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and passing the SAFER Act. Without laws and a clear government stance that there is no place for such violence against anyone irrespective of gender, race, sexuality and immigration status, ending a culture of rape is impossible. We can also get involved in campaigns such as End Violence Against Women’s International’s “Start By Believing” which is a public awareness campaign designed to change the way communities respond to sexual assault and other forms of violence, or take part in Women Under Siege’s call on how we can end rape in 2013. We can also support the work of organizations such as RAINN, the country’s largest anti-sexual assault organization, or the work of organizations such as Men Can Stop Rape, which conducts trainings and events to engage men on how they can play an integral role in creating a culture free of violence.
On an individual level, we all have access to circles of influence where we can raise our voices so we can address this problem. If we focus on strengthening responses to victims who come forward, we will have tackled a significant part of the problem by having adequate knowledge on how to effectively respond to the needs of survivors. Are we aware of hotlines, or our local resources such as counseling and access to medical attention for victims? Are we aware that victims can receive STD/STI, Plan B, and even HIV prevention medication for free depending on the state? Having resources can play an important role in helping the survivor heal and minimize the harm. However crisis responses and laws will not answer the entire problem until we address prevention of sexual violence, prevention that needs to address how we socialize and empower girls and boys, and prevention that needs to be at the forefront of our responses towards sexual violence.