It’s June in Trenton and, as is usually the case, the days are long and the schedules hectic. I have been advocating for sexual violence survivors and service providers for five years, and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the volume of legislation addressing sexual violence moving through the Statehouse is unprecedented. The legislature is working hard to expand New Jersey’s already-robust portfolio of laws addressing sexual violence by introducing packages of new survivor-centered, trauma-informed bills.
Since January 2018 alone, we’ve discussed sexual violence in prisons, the impact of federal immigration practices on non-documented survivors, sexual predators in K-12 schools, sexual violence on campus, appropriate reporting requirements for the Federal Aviation Administration, sexting, stealthing, non-disclosure agreements, and more.
Yesterday was a whirlwind, with over a dozen bills posted between two morning committees. I started my day testifying before the Assembly Women and Children’s Committee, where a group of bipartisan female legislators openly discussed their lived experiences as women and girls in this society and the need to strengthen protections from sexual violence, so we can all move freely through the world without fear. In that committee we advanced three pieces of legislation designed to address rape culture.
Immediately following, I spoke before the Senate Education Committee, where we advanced a package of 10 child-sexual abuse related bills out of Committee. We covered topics including better training for incoming teachers, retention of school video surveillance, and mandatory reporting.
In my comments I said, “This package of bills addresses some core gaps in our current practices relating to the protection of children. The reality is that all of us, regardless of our profession, are products of a society that permits and promotes rape culture. We need increased training about ways to prevent, identify, respond to, and report child sexual abuse.”
To which a male State Senator responded, “We all intend to vote for this legislation and support it. I would just like to comment, briefly, and I totally disagree with your comment, you said that, ‘Society promotes a rape culture.’ I totally disagree with that statement. All of us stand in 100 percent opposition. I’ve yet to meet one individual, in my life, I’m 55 years old and I’ve been in all kinds of organizations that [haven’t promoted] any kind of rape culture. I just have to say I totally disagree with that statement, I think it’s uncalled for. I think you need to be a little bit more selective in pointing out things like that. It’s just unfortunate that you had to bring that ugliness into this, because we’re all supporting this legislation to end this child sexual abuse situation.”
For the good of the order, I did not respond in the moment, but most certainly a response is warranted. This is my response.
this is a teachable moment.
The fact that this Senator has lived his 55 years without once being impacted by or aware of the prevalence of rape culture does not mean rape culture does not exist. Rather, his lived experience has shielded him from the reality of it. His comments were an actual manifestation of some of the parts of rape culture that are so challenging for us to address, mainly the denial of its existence at all.
When we talk about rape culture, here are some of the norms we’re referring to:
- Judges who ask survivors what they could have “done better” to prevent their assault, rather than holding responsible the person who chose to commit an assault;
- The belief that men cannot be raped (over 500,000 men living in the state of New Jersey are survivors of sexual violence)
- Our relative surprise at seeing folks who choose to commit sexual violence being held accountable;
- Twenty-five percent of Rutgers female undergraduate students experience sexual violence before coming to college;
- Fifty-nine percent of men surveyed said that husbands are “entitled” to sex with their wives;
- Dress codes that specifically target girls’ bodies.
Ignoring rape culture won’t make it go away – the volume of legislation that’s been introduced and passed to address the impact and prevalence of sexual violence is evident of a culture where it has been permitted, whether intentionally or passively (as is the case with many cultural norms).
My job as an advocate is to educate.
Educating about sexual violence can be challenging. We live in a society that is squeamish (at best) when discussing topics relating to sex. Add on top of that a layer of toxic masculinity and cultural norms contributing to acts of sexual violence and it’s enough to make someone’s head spin.
the senator and i can agree on this: Rape culture is ugly. but its impact is even worse.
The FBI recognizes sexual assault as the second most violent crime – the first being murder. The traumatic impact of sexual violence has physical, emotional, and financial implications. The CDC estimates the cost of sexual violence to be, on average, $122,000 per victim.
But, the beauty of my work is that I get to remind everyone that sexual violence is 100 percent preventable. Because it is a manifestation of harmful socio-cultural norms, we have the power to create a society free of sexual violence.
I’d encourage anyone confused or offended by my comments, or the term “rape culture” to read this 2014 HuffPost piece. It includes a good explanation of how we’ve all inherited these norms, and some logical steps to defy them. Education is the first step to making informed decisions and comments on serious policy proposals.
Patricia Teffenhart is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA). NJCASA elevates the voice of sexual violence survivors and service providers by advocating for survivor-centered legislation, training allied professionals, and supporting statewide prevention strategies that work to address and defy the socio-cultural norms that permit and promote rape culture.
Patricia is a proud graduate of Douglass College and holds a Masters in Public Administration from the Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration. She has dedicated her career to the promotion and advancement of women and girls, having worked for county-wide, statewide, and national feminist organizations.
Patricia was a Fellow in the Leadership New Jersey Class of 2009 and is a 2014 recipient of the Alice Paul Equality Award. In 2015, under her leadership, NJCASA received the President Ronald W. Reagan Award from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General in recognition of NJCASA’s systems advocacy on behalf of survivors. In 2016, NJBIZ recognized her as being one of New Jersey’s top Forty Under 40 professionals. In 2017, she was a recipient of Senator Menendez’s Evangelina Menendez Trailblazer Award. For the last four years, Patricia was included in the Senate Majority Leader’s New Jersey Women’s Power List. She was recently appointed as a member of Governor Murphy’s Transition Team, and at the height of the #MeToo movement, attended the 2018 State of the Union as the guest of Senator Menendez. The Star Ledger included Patricia in the “Top 25 People to Watch in 2018”.
Patricia lives in Holmdel, New Jersey with her husband, son, and rescue dog and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Women’s Political Caucus of New Jersey, and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence.
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