Hardcore Feminists: No One Is Safe Without Them

A terrible court ruling in Los Angeles and a spate of horrific rape cases underscore America’s need for unfettered social justice activists.

Women protest outside the Indian High Commission in London
The global epidemic of rape has finally come to the media forefront, but is not news to organizations like NOW. (Photo: Paul Hackett/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

The story is almost too absurd to believe: After he notices her boyfriend leave, a man enters an 18-year-old woman’s bedroom and proceeds to sexually assault her. At first, the girl does not resist, thinking the man is actually her boyfriend. When she realizes she is being attacked, she puts up a fight. She later presses charges for what seems an obvious case of rape. Instead, her assailant’s conviction is overturned on an arcane 19th-century law.

It’s the kind of enraging travesty of justice we typically associate with forgotten, distant backwaters—Pakistan, India or Afghanistan—the kind of places where, unlike in America, progress stalled out centuries ago.

But this case of rape being ruled not rape occurred in California last week. A Los Angeles-based 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that the ordeal the woman endured was technically not rape, due to an 1870-era law dictating that a man who impersonates another man in order to commit a sexual assault has committed a crime only if the victim is a married woman.

MORE: Congress Decides Violence Against Women Act Not Worth Renewing

Legislation to prevent just such a literal judicial reading of the law was shot down in the California State Senate months before the ruling was delivered. AB 765, as the legislation was called, sailed through the state assembly, but died in committee in the senate last spring.

In killing the law, legislators cited the increased burden it would have placed on the state’s jail and prison systems.

“How many rapists have been let free because no one has changed this law?” Patty Bellasalma, President of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), asks TakePart. “Or has it been read more liberally than interpreted by this court? We don’t know the answer.”

The Los Angeles ruling comes amid news that local police in Steubenville, Ohio, may have covered up the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl by members of the town’s renowned high-school football team.

Even if the dream of a post-racial world that abides by tenets of gender and sexual equality does come to fruition, that utopia will come with no guarantee of permanent stasis. Social justice and equality require constant vigilance.

In another prominent rape case, brought to light days after the ruling, two Los Angeles police officers are alleged to have used the power of their badge to threaten numerous women into providing them with sexual favors.

This confluence of horrific stories of sexual violence tells us what should have been obvious for quite some time: The fight for gender equality is far from over.

For years, conservative and echo-chamber corporate media have perpetrated a culture war battle against groups like NOW, labeling them “militant feminists” or worse, “Feminazis,” for pursuing equal rights for women. As one result of that rhetoric, instead of marshalling its resources to dig up and rectify antiquated rape laws, women’s rights groups are forced to spend a significant chunk of time justifying their very existence.

Toxic rhetoric bears a cost, and we’re now seeing the results.

“Once we knock down the obviously discriminatory legislation, it’s difficult to talk about the institutional changes that need to happen and the legal reforms we need to take,” says NOW’s Bellasalma. “If you’re constantly telling women, you’re already equal, just imagine how hard it is to stay afloat. Hopefully these cases will wake people up that everything isn’t equal.”

A similar case can be made for the wider struggle for social justice and equality in America. Whether it’s the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in the supposedly post-racial world of Obama’s first term, or the numerous instances of suicides due to anti-gay bullying in schools, despite the power of the so-called gay mafia lobby, Americans are told repeatedly that the fight for equality—excluding the occasional isolated incident—was resolved long ago.

Nothing to see here.

Even if the dream of a post-racial world that abides by tenets of gender and sexual equality does come to fruition, that utopia will come with no guarantee of permanent stasis. Social justice and equality require constant vigilance.

The spate of horrific rape cases across America isn’t only proof that the battle to stop violence against women in our nation has a long way to go, it also reveals that the struggle for equality will never be over. There are voices out there who would dismiss periodic incidents of social injustice as regrettable outliers.

But countless others feel that one rape—legally sanctioned or not—is 100 percent too many.

How far do we have to go to achieve gender and racial equality, and what will it take to get there? Leave the answers in COMMENTS.

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