Five years ago, I was working on a story about efforts to curb violence against prostituted women in Chicago—and to punish those who profit from it. I sat down with a researcher who had spent months surveying men who pay for sex. She was studying their attitudes toward women. I was disturbed, if not surprised, by some answers to the questions about why and how they purchase sex: I order a woman up, just like a pizza; I don't want to hurt my wife when I have to blow off steam; she gave up her rights when she accepted my money.
I asked the researcher if she felt any hope that such entrenched attitudes could ever change in a meaningful way: could such deep-seated, cultural violence really be upended?
“You know, a hundred years ago, we didn’t think it was possible for a woman to be raped by her husband,” she said. “These frameworks do change.”
Today, Valentine's Day, marks a global day of action unlike any we've seen before. Around the world, from Bangladesh to Baltimore, men and women in 203 countries are convening for a day of unified mass action to stand up to violence against women and girls—by dancing.
Conceived by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, and her movement V-Day, the campaign is calling for people around the world to stop what they're doing, walk out of their workplaces, gather in public spaces, and dance together.
"Dancing insists that we take up space, and though it has no set direction, we go there together," Ensler said in a press call. "Dance is dangerous, joyous, sexual, holy, disruptive, and contagious, and it breaks the rules."
The One Billion Rising campaign launched a year ago. The name is drawn from the horrific fact that one in three women and girls will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. In a world of around 7 billion people, that's something like a billion of us.
When she started the anti-sexual-violence group V-Day 15 years ago, Ensler said, she expected it would be "out of business" by now. When it wasn't, she realized it was time to step up the effort.
Whether through V-Day's intensive efforts—a whole year of mobilization of V-Day's global network of activists, outreach to groups in hundreds of countries and thousands of communities, and a media blitz that you can expect to explode throughout the 48-hour cycle of V-Day activities around the world (click here to view The Guardian's global live blog covering events in countries including India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, Gambia, and the United States)—or already shifting cultural frameworks that are hitting a tipping point, the world seems to have meaningfully stepped up in the last year, judging by developments such as these:
- Massive public outrage over the fatally vicious gang rape of a 23-year-old student in India, a country with one of the world's worst sex trafficking and sexual violence problems;
- Highly publicized condemnation of the rape of an Ohio teenager whose assault was recorded and put on the Internet;
- Widespread protest by both men and women over the shooting of a schoolgirl in Pakistan, an act of gender terrorism meant to remind women of their place in one of the world's most difficult countries to be a woman;
- South Africa's moral outrage after a brutal gang rape at a construction site left a 17-year-old girl almost dead; and,
- Mushrooming movements, largely led by radical young women, against sex trafficking in Eastern Europe and Russia.
The story these uprisings tell is not that gang rapes, sexual exploitation, and murder are on the rise, but that people are. The momentum created by people all over the world, and today in One Billion Rising, is an opportunity we can't afford to not take—to force a tectonic shift and change our cultural frames.
The payoff will be in the billions.
For more information on how to connect to a One Billion Rising event near you, and to watch a livestream of events around the world, click here.