In January 2015, a Stanford freshman raped a woman behind a dumpster. In June 2016, a court sentenced him to six months in jail plus probation.
You’ve read a dozen headlines and articles about the “severe impact” jail would have had on the assailant. You’ve yelled back and forth with a hundred Facebook friends about it. The media has produced thousands of thinkpieces on it. Reactions to reactions are starting to hit the internet, family members and friends are getting interviews, and the machine is starting to wind down.
And this is all pretty standard. As a society, we’re just now rounding third on this entire ordeal, and are bringing the whole awful thing home. In a week, this will be out of our news cycle, we’ll go back to talking about the election, and rape will go back to being a “women’s issue”.
We will continue to avert our eyes until the next rape case gets enough press to be thrust back into our newsfeeds. We’ll warn our daughters to make sure they party with trusted friends, to make sure they don’t wear anything too revealing, and to never let their drinks out of their sight.
And when a friend of mine makes a joke about a woman getting too drunk, I’ll go back to not calling it out while calling myself a feminist.
When I was a kid, I was picked on in nearly every social context I found myself in. At school, at youth group, and on sports teams, people in nearly every social group would put me down to elevate their own status. I was bullied a lot by people I considered friends, and for the longest time, I thought it was my fault. I held it against myself, as if I had something to be ashamed of, or that there was something about me that I needed to fix.
With a few exceptions, it wasn’t until the end of high school that I met people I could actually call friends. They offered me a basic level of respect and genuinely liked me. Granted, we gave each other a hard time occasionally, but when it counted, they had my back, and I had theirs.
Upon finding out what friends actually were, I realized that the people that used me to elevate themselves weren’t friends at all. I dropped them like a bad habit and spent time with people that valued me and had my back. My life immediately improved.
I don’t say all this to elicit sympathy (it’s been years since then, and I am very happy with my friends and social circle today), nor do I say it to equate being raped with being bullied.
I say all this to communicate a truth I realized late in high school: Friends and allies are people who have your back. They don’t watch you get stepped on and say nothing. They don’t put their own social status above your well-being. They speak on your behalf when they’re in a position to.
If I got blackout drunk, to the point that I couldn’t prevent others from doing whatever they wished with my body, the worst that would happen is my phone and wallet would be stolen. Maybe I would lose some nicer articles of clothing, depending on the context of the evening.
But my body remains my own when my mind isn’t present.
When a woman gets blackout drunk, to the point that they can’t prevent others from doing whatever they wish with their bodies, they get kidnapped, raped, and sometimes murdered. Their bodies are used and discarded when their minds aren’t present. Their lives are ruined.
It’s not about social justice, it’s not about how long the “action” took place, it’s not even about feminism at its core. If you’re in a position of power, and you have the ability to raise your voice in the defense of the powerless, you have a responsibility to do so. That’s what “rape culture” is about. Hell, it’s what Spider-Man is about. Power and responsibility.
Terrible things — like rape — will continue to be trivialized and shrugged off as long as people think no one will call them out on it.
When your friend makes a joke about getting a woman really drunk, say something. When you see a woman unable to stand on her own, say something. You know more women who have been sexually assaulted or raped than you realize. Say something.
I want women in my life to know I am their ally. I want them to know I have their back. But more importantly, I want the men in my life to know I will no longer put “bro code” before the health and well-being of a woman. Any woman. And I expect them to do the same.
So I’m committing to saying something, and I want to use this essay to start it. I will no longer stay silent when a friend of mine makes a roofie joke just so I can avoid a potentially awkward situation. I will no longer step on a woman’s right to feel safe in public to elevate or maintain my own social status. If I do, then I’m letting it happen.
The health and well-being of our mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, girlfriends, coworkers, and neighbors need headlines, articles, and thinkpieces. They need legislation. They need attention.
But for real change to happen, for us to actually be able to save women’s lives, we — as men — need to change the way we talk about this. It’s not enough to not be a rapist. We need to make sure the other men in our lives know that rape makes them lesser men. It is shameful and it’s not something to laugh about. We need to stop warning the women in our lives about rapists while applauding our bros for banging blacked out, drunk chicks.
We need to stop thinking this is a “women’s issue” and start seeing it for what it is: evil triumphing while good men do nothing. We have the power, we have to do something.
This essay originally appeared on Medium and has been reprinted with permission.