Leslie Morgan Steiner: Rape - 'perpetrating it and preventing it' - is a 'men's issue'
Bystanders who intervened at Stanford show we all have potential to be heroes, she says
The recent outrage against the lenient sentencing of former Stanford student-athlete Brock Turner – six months instead of the six years requested by the district attorney – is justifiable. We are furious at the judge involved, who cited Turner’s age, character, and the fact that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him…I think he will not be a danger to others.” Not dangerous that is, unless of course you’re an unconscious woman.
We the public are angry. We are angry with the rapist for claiming the attack was “consensual” and attempting to present himself as the victim here, his lawyers for interrogating the actual victim mercilessly about what she wore that night, and his father for denigrating the rape as “20 minutes of action out of 20 plus years of life.”
So where do we go with our rage? Rape is, unfortunately, an old crime. One out of five American women, and one in 71 American men, has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her or his lifetime, according to the latest data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s new about the Stanford case is the widespread societal condemnation of the men who allowed this very serious crime to go so lightly punished. I am thankful for this outrage, because it marks true progress in our country’s fight to end violence against women.
A critical aspect of that progress, however, is getting lost amidst the fury. Believe it or not, there is good news in the Stanford rape case, an encouraging fact that we shouldn’t overlook: two men stopped this rape. Make no mistake – this case highlights the crucial role that men (who, let’s not forget, are often themselves victims of sexual violence) have to play in combating the prevalence of rape. And it has shown us that bystander intervention can make a difference.
The two male graduate students who were cycling across campus when they saw Turner’s assault on the victim in progress noticed something was wrong, yelled at Turner, chased him down, and held him until police came. The victim, in her statement to the court, publicly thanked these men of whom she has no memory: “I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my head to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another. To have…felt their protection and love, is something I will never forget.”
I relate to her gratitude, as I, too, was saved from violence by two men. In my case, it was two police officers who came to my home in the middle of the night. Like the victim in the Stanford case, I don’t know their names. I was a business school student at Wharton whose then-husband had barricaded me in our small bedroom in order to beat me so badly he came close to killing me. I never was able to properly thank the officers. But they showed me kindness and bravery, and in part because of them, I was able to leave my abuser and rebuild my life at age 27.
These two pairs of men – far apart in time and profession – illustrate nonetheless how men are an indispensable part of any effort against sexual violence. And as we process our anger at the outcome of Brock Turner’s trial, we should continue to talk about men. Because my current work involves advocacy against relationship abuse, I often find myself talking to men about rape. More often than not, the subject makes the men I speak with uncomfortable. Their facial expressions and body language become fearful, as if I’m about to accuse them of something. I often feel like, and sometimes do say to these good men, don’t be afraid – I’m not going to hold you personally responsible for the fact that every two minutes, someone in America is sexually assaulted.
But in a way, I should – we all should hold each other accountable. Because if you are a man and can’t imagine stopping a rape, or don’t know how to, you are part of the problem, even if you’ve never hit a women or coerced one into sex. Brock Turner’s victim is right to point to her bicycling bystanders as proof “that we are looking out for one another.” She is right to view those graduate students as heroes. But all of us should walk around with the potential to do what they did.
So what’s stopping us? For one thing, right now rape and other forms of violence against women are often marginalized as “women’s issues.” The reality is that rape – perpetrating it and preventing it – is at least as much a men’s issue as it is a women’s issue.
Men commit the vast majority of rapes. In fact, men commit almost all criminal acts of violence against women. So logically, part of the way we end violence against women in our society lies in acknowledging that men are responsible for preventing violence against women.
I’d like to call upon men – good men who’d never dream of hurting a woman – to empower themselves to become aware of the prevalence of rape, to educate themselves about the apparent normalcy of many rapists, and what it looks like when a woman is vulnerable to sexual attack.
To those men, I say: doing so will be easier than you think.
First, you can talk to the women and girls in your life, who likely already know about the prevalence of rape, the risk factors such as intoxication, and the fact that a small subset of men – friends, classmates, colleagues, relatives – who seem friendly may actually be predators. They can tell you that most rape is “acquaintance rape,” that 81 percent of victims know their attackers, and that young women are disproportionally vulnerable than the general population to rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. (42.2% of female rape victims were first raped before age 18, according to the CDC.)
Second, you can take action of your own. Done right, bystander intervention works. If you see a woman – perhaps one whose age or level of intoxication make her vulnerable – alone with a man who’s not her partner or a relative, do something simple like walking up and starting a conversation to see if everything feels okay. And if it doesn’t, or you see what even looks like a rape being committed, intervene in the safest and fastest ways available to you: with words, actions, or by calling the police.
Third, you don’t have to do this alone, nor should you. In the Stanford case as well as my own, it took at least two men to stop violence. One man alone is often just as vulnerable as one woman alone. A partner, or a buddy, can add to the physical and peer pressure it takes to stop rape. Too often, one man feels too intimidated, too threatened, or even just too awkward to stop a rape or to diffuse a dicey situation that seems like it could turn into rape. There are many resources available to help you learn the best ways to take action – one of my favorites is A Call To Men, co-founded by Tony Porter and Ted Bunch.
Today, according to Justice Department and FBI statistics compiled by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), six out of 1,000 rapists will end up in prison (for any length of time). By working together, the good men in our society – the men who would never hurt a woman – can, and do, stop rape. As much outrage we may all rightly feel toward Brock Turner – or his lawyers or his father – and Judge Aaron Persky right now, we should also hold the two men who interrupted the victim’s assault in our minds as examples of how we all have the potential to be heroes to potential victims of sexual violence.
Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Crazy Love. Her TED Talk on why victims stay in abusive situations has been viewed by over three million people. She lives in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.