A quarter century or so ago, when I was volunteering as a counselor to sexual assault victims in East Lansing, Michigan, the police force in the neighboring city of Lansing was so dismissive of rape accusations that an activist friend said in the newspaper: “My advice to women is that if you get raped in Lansing, crawl to East Lansing to report it”.
But Lansing was not that much of an outlier. Police chiefs and other public officials in many cities made unfunny jokes about rape victims (e.g., “If it happens to you, just lie back and enjoy it”) and suffered no consequence. The women’s movement had become influential in some parts of the country, but many women didn’t bother to report rape because they assumed correctly that the police would not investigate adequately and a jury would be as likely to blame the victim as the perpetrator. This will sound like one of those “In my day…” stories with which the old endlessly bore the young…nevertheless, if you are a young American man or woman you really can’t imagine how widely sexual assault was tolerated in your country.
I am overjoyed to say that I can hardly recognize the world I live in today when it comes to sexual violence. The rate of sexual assault has dropped dramatically. One of the most powerful men in the world is arrested for rape and held at Riker’s island upon the word of a hotel maid. After a British cabinet minister fumbles his words and seems to say that some rapes are not serious, The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition spend question time trying to out-do each other in their public condemnation of sexual assault.
No one factor can explain such sweeping cultural change, but there is no doubt that the redoubtable women of the feminist movement were an essential part of the revolution. They were screamed at, bullied, spat upon and oppressed but they simply refused to relent. They rallied, they spoke out, they comforted the victims and they held perpetrators and their enablers to account. And, of course, they were right.
There are still sexual atrocities committed against women every day, and the work is by no means finished. But that in no way diminishes the extraordinary transformation of the past 30 years. Every woman, everyone who loves a woman, everyone who is raising a little girl or for that matter a little boy, owes feminists a debt for the better, safer and more equal society that we are blessed with today.