Beyond the Breakthrough: Fighting the Roots of Rape Culture at the Intersections of Race, Gender and Class

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified several important strategies to stop sexual violence and begin to reverse its devastating impact on our communities. STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence specifically notes that providing opportunities to empower and support girls and women is key to the solution. 

It will take all of us to end sexual violence, and the National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) is a model for how we can all rally behind this important effort. NSAC brings together nearly 1800 participants across 23 issue-focused tracks, nearly 150 workshops and over 200 speakers. Rounding out this event are the incredible exhibitors and sponsors who play a role in organizing a national conference—including Philadelphia’s WOMEN’S WAY, a nonprofit organization empowering support for equal opportunities for women and girls and taking action in promoting gender equality for all.

WOMEN’S WAY is a champion of strengthening economic supports for women and families and providing leadership opportunities for girls. This year, the organization is providing scholarships for participants to attend the conference. 

Diane Cornman-Levy, the Executive Director of WOMEN’S WAY, sat down with RALIANCE for a conversation connecting the dots between economic access and an inclusive fight to end violence—and highlighting the roots of rape culture.

What does it mean to remove the financial burden of accessing professional development and community? 

Nationally, women and children are now 73 percent of the poor. Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate, 25 percent, among the 10 largest cities, and the largest group living in poverty is women between 25-34 years old. Most of these women are working one or two jobs, and many are trapped in both work and home environments where they are experiencing some form of sexual assault. Yet they do not have the financial means to attend conferences on issues that directly impact their lives.

Those most impacted by the issues that we are addressing are often left out of the conversations due to financial barriers.

Like many women and girls in our region, non-profits that are working to prevent and end sexual violence are also under-resourced due to biases from some funders and donors who find “funding programs and organizations that work to prevent and end sexual violence too controversial.” As such, most of these organizations do not have the resources to pay for their staff to attend professional development conferences.

As we work on creating transformative solutions to prevent and end sexual violence, we must create equitable opportunities for those on the ground working on this critical issue and those most impacted by sexual violence to attend regional and national conferences. This year’s conference is deeply committed to including all voices and ensuring that these diverse voices, especially those most impacted by sexual violence, are co-creating the solutions to prevent and end sexual violence.

How has our conference theme, “Beyond the Breakthrough,” inspired new thinking and ideas for your work in Pennsylvania? 

“Beyond the Breakthrough” acknowledges the monumental shift in the public awareness about sexual harassment, abuse and assault led by the #MeToo Movement.

Giving victims of sexual violence a worldwide platform on which to speak about their personal experiences accelerated the movement to end sexual violence at an unprecedented speed. As more women and girls spoke up and created a new, shared narrative about the prevalence, causes and impact of sexual violence, the power balance between those abusing their power and their victims started to shift. No longer could perpetuators of violence against women be ignored. No longer could the general public deny that sexual violence was not only traumatizing the lives of millions of women and girls, but that it was a systemic problem and deeply rooted and ingrained in our culture—in our norms.

The conference theme, “Beyond the Breakthrough,” inspires WOMEN’S WAY and our more than 80 partners to tackle gender-based violence through addressing its historical, systemic and root causes. We are not interested in serving problems any more; rather, we need to solve the systemic problem of sexual violence by convening all of the stakeholders that both contribute to perpetuating this epidemic and to ending it.

As such, we have invested in, and currently partner with, Shared Safety, a citywide collaborative to address the systemic causes of sexual and domestic violence. In addition, we understand that to help prevent and end sexual violence, we must improve the economic status of women and girls and close the women’s wealth gap. WOMEN’S WAY is doing this through the Women’s Economic Security Initiative (WESI), whose mission is that all women will attain economic well-being for themselves and their families in the Philadelphia region.

With the understanding that no one organization or sector alone can solve this deep-rooted issue, WESI brings together government, nonprofits, philanthropy, business, and women with the lived experience of economic insecurity around a common agenda and aligned activities. Since its launch in October 2017, we have convened over 120 individuals from 88 organizations.

Central to this work is changing the public narrative on the root causes of economic insecurity that are grounded in racist and sexist governmental and institutional policies and practices implemented over the course of our country’s history. Through the #MeToo Movement, we have witnessed the power of a collective and unified voice that speaks the truth. WOMEN’S WAY and its partners will coordinate and raise our voices to build on this dynamic and powerful narrative and advance the movement to end sexual violence in one generation.

What other topics do we need to talk about to end sexual violence in one generation? 

Sexual violence and intimate partner violence are deeply linked to gender inequality. Men not only have greater physical power, they are more psychologically aggressive and have more economic power due to a deep gender income and wealth gap that exists across our country. Rigid social gender norms—socially constructed ideals, scripts and expectations for how to be a woman or a man—drive both the gender income and wealth gap and the pervasive prevalence of sexual violence between men and women. We begin learning these rules from birth practically everywhere: family, schools, religious institutions, courts and, of course, the media. 

According to Riki Wilchins, author of Gender Norms & Intersectionality, research has shown that a stronger belief in traditional masculinity is linked to higher rates of partner violence and women who internalize traditional codes of submissive and obedient femininity may be even more accepting of partner violence. In addition, gender norms act to “push young women and girls away from economic opportunities and towards … a smaller range of jobs with lower entry barriers, less stability, and lower wages, continuing a vicious circle of inequality.” These gendered attitudes and beliefs “often show up as negative power, as absence: doors that just don’t open, choices that just aren’t made, or actions that just seem off-limits.”

If we are serious about ending and preventing sexual violence, we must engage in what Geeta Rao Gupta, a leading expert in gender, calls, “gender transformative” work. This entails highlighting, challenging and changing rigid masculine and feminine belief systems that are harming women, girls, men and boys.

The World Bank CARE, PEPFAR, UNAIDS, USAID and the World Health Organization (WHO) are investing millions of dollars in “gender transformative” approaches to advance the health, safety and economic status of women and girls across the world. In the United States, philanthropic attention to this type of work has largely yet to engage. If we want to end sexual violence in one generation, then it is time for the philanthropic sector to join the movement to end sexual violence and invest in gender transformative work until all women and girls are free from violence. Ending sexual violence in one generation requires all of us to work together towards this common goal. 


Julie Patrick is the National Partners Liaison for RALIANCE and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Her work focuses on changing the conversation about sexual violence through efforts with the news media as well as advocates, allies and survivors. Prior to RALIANCE, Julie served for over a decade as the Senior Special Projects Coordinator with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, VA and managed the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse & Exploitation.