I first started working on domestic violence when I was in college nearly 40 years ago. It was shortly after the publication of Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller’s epic book on rape. Just a few rape crisis centers and even fewer domestic violence shelters dotted the landscape of our large country. Through a special program, I did some work in the prison system in Massachusetts — meeting with women who had been abused and with men who had murdered their wives. From there, armed with a graduate degree in feminist therapy and women’s studies I went to work in a domestic violence shelter in Washington, D.C. I have been involved in addressing the issue of violence against women and girls most of my adult career.
So how is it we have reached a tipping point when violence is often something that happens behind closed doors or never sees the light of day? When domestic violence is the biggest secret of families, of cultures, of religions? And when the system is stacked against women – the overwhelming victims of all forms of violence?
This past week we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA has made an incomparable difference to bringing an issue shrouded in darkness, into the light. Ironically VAWA – passed and reauthorized a number of times with bipartisan support – hit a wall of opposition during its last reauthorization in 2012 as part of an overall strategy by Republicans to block all legislation. The uproar that ensued – from advocates and citizens, victims and survivors, national leaders and the media, and most faith organizations – not only ultimately brought Congress together to reauthorize the bill, but it created tens of thousands of new champions, in cities and communities throughout the country, whose citizen-voices would continue to advocate for women and girls. A movement waiting to tip.
Another factor in getting us to a tipping point is the way we address the issue. We have stopped parsing out “violence against women.” For too long we worked in silos – “rape” versus “domestic violence” versus “sexual assault” versus “campus assault.” And even “stranger rape” versus “date rape” when it is all violence with numbers that are staggering in their combination. In the United States, 51.9 percent of women reported experiencing physical violence in their lives. Seven in 10 assaults against women are perpetrated by an intimate partner. One in 13 murder victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Our approach must be holistic wherever women and girls are at risk – violence is violence is violence – whether it’s date rape, or sex trafficking or wife beating.
With a new national awareness about the pervasiveness and gravity of violence comes the NFL storm created by the horrific beating that Ray Rice bestowed on his fiancee and the subsequent debacle in how it was handled by the NFL. From behind closed doors we have moved to open elevators – a perfect metaphor.
Those who found their voice during the cantankerous reauthorization process in 2012 are still speaking and lending power to even more voices. Social media is blowing up with survivors telling their stories. And, I can’t help but think we are witnessing this confluence of events – organizations embracing the issue, individuals talking and listening, raising our collective social consciousness to the point where even the mighty NFL is finally listening to the outrage. To the cries of “No more.”
Date rape is now being understood and spoken about as rape, as violence. And it’s empowering young women to stand up and speak out and cry, “No more.” No more will we accept blame for being raped because we drank at a college party. No more is it okay that a board of college administrators protects our assaulter until the season is over. Now their voice has strength and power and campuses are responding by designating sexual assault counselors for survivors and working with law enforcement.
The language has given birth to the rising bystander movement. We’re getting calls from fraternities, youth groups, corporations asking for help them learn what to do.
This was once a “women’s issue” – and truly, women built this issue, built the foundation for the advocacy, fought for every paltry dime, and did the work to get us to today, but we can’t solve this problem without men.
And now men are beginning to sign on as allies. It’s a paradigm shift that speaks to this feeling I can’t shake – that we are at that tipping point – that we will live to witness great change.
Lori Weinstein is CEO of Jewish Women International.