The line is down the block when I arrive at the LA speakeasy where GRLCVLT’s #FVCKRAPECULTURE event is being hosted in late June. For a party thrown by a secret society, the whole thing seems pretty out in the open. Volunteers hand out clipboards with pre-written letters for attendees to sign. The letters are addressed to the Commission on Judicial Performance — an oversight committee that GRLCVLT hopes will discipline Judge Aaron Persky for his handling of the “Stanford Rape Case.”
“Ten people were talking about getting together at somebody’s house to write some letters,” Annaliese Nielsen, founder of GRLCVT explains, “and then it just organically grew into a bigger idea.”
GRLCVLT itself has a similarly organic origin story. It started as a secret Facebook group — a safe space to post anything from selfies to requests for a cosigner on a car loan. These online conversations soon extended to offline meet-ups, every Friday night at a bar in Los Angeles. A few members rallied together to campaign for Bernie Sanders.
The whole thing didn’t really take hold until Stanford’s Brock Turner was sentenced to only six months in county jail for sexually assaulting a woman while she was unconscious. The sentence was a call to arms and galvanized GRLCVLT’s membership. In a matter of days, they organized events in three cities for engaged citizens to sign letters calling for Persky to be ousted — parties that promised empowerment, healing, and connection.
At the LA-event, I’m joined by a thousand other people who are frustrated by the Stanford case and want to do something more than share our outrage online. When we arrive, we’re given pre-written letters to sign and also encouraged to write personal messages on the back. After putting our letters in envelopes, and writing our names and addresses on them, we get a free drink ticket, and then wait in another long line to get into the bar, Pour Vous. Listening to conversations, it becomes crystal clear that people didn’t show up just for the chance to party.
Attendee Kym Allen feels deeply troubled by the way Turner was enabled. “It really sheds a light on the kind of parenting they’ve [Turner’s parents] done over the years,” she says. “Where he’s never had to accept responsibility for his actions, and he’s just continually excused, and his money and his privilege have allowed him to skate by.”
Allen heard about the event from her roommate, Clare Almand. “I wanted to actually do something,” Almand explains. “More than just share posts on Facebook, something beyond just showing everybody how angry I am.”
Over the course of the evening, I hear this sentiment echoed often. Even for people who are deeply concerned about rape culture, being outraged on social media is a lot easier than taking substantive action. The Turner case seems to have created a shift toward substantive action. In particular, the letter written by Turner’s victim, which she read to her attacker during his sentencing, resonated deeply with GRLCVLT’s members.
“A really sort of interesting, but also heartbreaking thing started happening,” Nielsen explained. “Hundreds of our members wrote similar letters and posted them.”
GRLCVLT has since partnered with Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University, who hopes to gather enough signatures to trigger a recall election for Judge Aaron Persky. Since the recall signatures have to come from Santa Clara County, people at the Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco events are sending their letters to the Commission on Judicial Performance, an oversight committee that could discipline Persky for judicial misconduct.
Nielsen says, “The outrage isn’t even about the individual, but about all people who have been marginalized in similar situations.” Basically, the GRLCVLT and #FVCKRAPECULTURE have become about empowering anyone who has their own “Brock Turner.”
Inside the party, we can choose themed cocktails with names like Sweet Sweet Justice (Jameson, ginger, honey and lemon), ABrockalypse Now (tequila, lime juice and simple syrup) and Male Tears (a Peroni). The drinks are silly on some level, but booze doesn’t make the activism any less legit. It’s grassroots organizing for the internet age, and as I talk to other people at the event, I marvel at the fact that GRLCVLT pulled this all off (in three different cities) in a week with no real central organization.
Later, model and poet Elyse Cizek reads a poem about her own experience with rape, and calls out men who refuse to believe women who report assaults:
For if we were abused
And if our own words are to be believed
They too might realize they too might be guilty
Jessicka Addams, a singer, also speaks to the audience, sharing a visceral story of listening to her mom getting raped during a home invasion. Eight years old at the time, Addams says she locked herself in a room across the house during the traumatic incident. When her father arrived home, the first thing he asked her mom was, “Do you think it was something you did to deserve this?”
As an adult, Addams says an ex-boyfriend raped her. She was only saved when her male roommate pulled him off. Friends convinced her not to go to the police, because he was too famous, and it would ruin her own budding singing career. GRLCVLT has helped her shift that mindset.
“This is the last year I’m giving a fuck,” Addams says. “The statute of limitations of my rape are over, but the fact that you are here allowed an 8-year-old girl to unlock a door and see all of you standing behind it in front of her.”
#FVCKRAPECULTURE becomes particularly poignant as a night of empowerment when you consider how many women are victimized in a party setting. The Stanford victim heartbreakingly described herself as “the wounded antelope of the herd” due to inebriation. The fact that she was drunk was viewed as a mark against her — part of why Turner was able to sexually assault a woman behind a dumpster and then control the narrative about it for as long as he did.
Soon after BuzzFeed published the victim’s letter to Turner, multiple petitions appeared on Change.org to get Judge Aaron Persky unseated, though the means weren’t always clear. One garnered over one million signatures. Since then, law professor Dauber has been leading an effort to officially trigger the recall election for Judge Persky, in partnership with the Progressive Women Silicon Valley State PAC.
According to NBC News, people have rarely succeeded in getting judge recall attempts on the ballot. Bryan Scott, who led an unsuccessful effort to recall an Orange County judge for similar conduct, explained that money was key in “fighting an uphill battle that’s purposefully designed to be uphill.” Dauber and her fellow organizers need to get the signatures of 58,634 registered voters in Santa Clara County. They have so far raised $90,000 for their campaign.
At #FVCKRAPECULTURE, GRLCVLT member Jennifer Johnson read a note from Dauber to the group. It explains how Turner’s privilege played into his light sentence. “If you were a poor or black or brown person who wasn’t a recruited Stanford athlete who committed your crime at a fraternity party, the expected sentence is four years.”
Dauber’s letter also thanks everyone who attended #FVCKRAPECULTURE:
I’m so thrilled that you’re having this party to support us, each other, and survivors everywhere. Today, we live in a society where you can get a longer sentence for tampering with a fire alarm than sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman in the dirt next to a dumpster. It is time for us to say that enough is enough, we’re not taking this anymore, and we’re not accepting this. Thank you.
When the dust settles, 2,400 letters are sent from the three #FVCKRAPECULTURE events in LA, New York and San Francisco. In mid-June, the Santa Clara County district attorney successfully had Aaron Persky taken off another sexual assault case.
In her letter, Brock Turner’s victim described her devastation when the DA explained that her testimony could be viewed as weak, because she was unconscious. Last week, that same DA, Jeff Rosen, introduced a bill that would make sexually assaulting an unconscious person carry the same minimum sentence as assaulting someone who is conscious.
When he announced the bill, Rosen said of the victim: “We’ve read her letter. Now let’s give her back something beyond worldwide sympathy and anger. Let’s give her a legacy that will send the next Brock Turner to prison.” This simple, but powerful statement encapsulates what GRLCVLT is trying to do. Their #FVCKRAPECULTURE event was a step forward for us all.
To help in the recall effort against Judge Aaron Persky, visit www.recallaaronpersky.com.