On one day in early May, two stories caused outrage across social media and beyond. In the first, a New York bus driver pled guilty to raping a 14 year old girl who he met through his job. He also provided her with alcohol. Despite admitting to these crimes, he received no jail time for the offense. According to the judge, the sentence of 10 years of probation, and a total of $1,375 in fees is appropriate because the defendant had no prior arrests and there was only one victim.
On the same day, a Georgia man was set free after serving just eight months after he kept a North Carolina teen in a dog cage and tortured her for more than a year, including forcing her to have sex with him. He pled guilty to first degree cruelty to children caused by “excessive physical pain during sexual intercourse” and interstate interference with custody. He receive a sentence of ten years, but was released from prison under the terms of a plea deal that allowed him to serve the remaining nine years and four months on probation.
These stories rightfully caused fury among the general public, who were angry that two adult men could seemingly get away with sexually assaulting (and in one case, physically abusing) children. Yet in many ways, it isn’t surprising. Judges across the country, in small towns and large cities, have handed out sentences like this to offenders for decades. It is the result of rape culture, an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.
In a rape culture, a judge decides that because an admitted rapist “only” had one victim and doesn’t have prior convictions, he doesn’t have to go to jail for raping a 14 year old girl. In a rape culture, a district attorney decides that it would be too hard to prosecute a man for locking a 16 year old girl up in a cage and holding her captive for a year while also requiring her engage in sexual activities with him.
But rape culture doesn’t start with these sensational stories that make national news. It begins with everyday people like us, who may do things like blame victims of sexual violence for being assaulted (“if only she hadn’t been drinking/wearing that/out at night...”). It starts when we watch shows and movies that make sexual assault a primary plot point. It begins when we don’t object when others tell rape jokes in front of us. It starts when we shame girls for how they dress. It begins when we are more concerned about the fate of the abuser than of the victim. It starts when we focus more on teaching women and girls how to avoid being raped than on teaching boys and men to not rape. It begins when we defend people who touch others without their consent, rather than insisting that no one should be touched without their permission.
Ending rape culture won’t be easy. It will require a concentrated effort from each and every one of us. But if we want to see fewer stories where perpetrators of this kind of violence walk out of the courtroom with just a slap on the wrist — or better yet, fewer acts of sexual violence overall — then we have to devote our time and energy towards changing our society. We can do it. We just need your help.