Speaking Truth to Rape Culture

It can happen to anyone. Violence against women is a hate crime. White supremacy controls who is believed. I was your wife, not your property. It could be different if someone had believed me. I’m not what’s broken. I survived through sheer force of WILL! Never a victim, forever a fighter. Leave the past, you decide, take back your power, choose the future. You are strong, you are valued, you are not alone.

These words of anger, resistance, inspiration and strength—written, painted and stitched onto red fabric—blanketed the National Mall in Washington D.C. this past weekend at the Monument Quilt’s National Mall Display, organized by Baltimore-based FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture.

“The quilt was always intended to end on the National Mall,” Hannah Brancato, the co-founder of FORCE, told the Washington Post, “to blanket the National Mall and occupy our nation’s capital with survivors’ stories.”

Thousands of people wandered among the 3,000 stories by survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence and their allies throughout the weekend, marking the culmination of 49 displays in 33 cities across the U.S. and Mexico over the last five years.

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The quilts were arranged for a birds-eye view of an epidemic, spelling out “You Are Not Alone” and “No Estás Solx.” Together, they were a powerful refusal to be silent—a collective shout of #MeToo. 

“We want folks to understand that they’re not alone and they’re part of a community,” organizer Kalima Young told Huffington Post. According to RAINN, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime—one person every 92 seconds. “I want people to understand that we are in a crisis point,” Young said. “I want people to feel the urgency and to self-reflect on the ways that they have participated or colluded with a culture of rape.”

She also made a point of including marginalized voices that are often excluded from conversations about gender-based violence. “We hear you, we see you, we believe you and you are not alone,” she said. “And that’s what we hope people experience when they see the quilt.”

With the Capital looming in the background, I could not help but think about how much lawmakers need to hear these stories. The failure by Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act has left shelters and hotlines across the country without the necessary funding for the critical services they provide to survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. The Department of Education’s recent rollback of Title IX sexual assault protections for students put survivors’ rights at risk. The Supreme Court could be poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, potentially upholding Alabama’s new law that prohibits abortion for rape survivors. And then, of course, there’s the sexual-predator-in-chief residing in the White House.

Are Republicans in Congress looking out the windows of the Capital building at the Monument Quilt? Has Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seen the thousands of quilted expressions of survivors’ pain? Has Brett Kavanaugh noticed the blood-red quilts blanketing the Mall? Did Donald Trump, whose administration has associated with child molester George Nader and supports Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who as a U.S. attorney cut a lenient deal for convicted child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, stop to read the stories on his front lawn?

Speaking Saturday afternoon at a Survivor Policy Convening hosted by FORCE, domestic violence survivor Marissa Alexander—who spent time in prison after being denied use of the Stand Your Ground defense for firing a warning shot after threats from her abusive husband—urged listeners to think about how sexual violence “affects our overall capacity and evolution as a society and in the world.”

“If we’re ever going to combat this problem,” Alexander declared, “we have to talk about it, we have to be open about it. We have to be receptive to what it does.”

Whether Washington, D.C. was ready to do that doesn’t matter. Survivors are—and they’re raising their voices even louder together.

WATCH: The Ms. Live Q&A with Monument Quilt Leader Kalima Young

Further reporting on the Monument Quilt will appear in the Summer 2019 issue of Ms. Become a member today to get it before it hits newsstands!


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.