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It’s hard to imagine, but less than 50 years ago, having breast cancer was a shameful thing. In my grandmother’s generation, women suffered – and died – alone, keeping their cancer a secret from family members and friends. The treatment available was crude and painful, and diagnosis almost always came too late. Prevention was unimaginable, and the word cure was rarely uttered among professionals in the medical and research communities.

Other cancers that impacted men were equally taboo. There was virtually no discussion about prostate or testicular cancer, two cancers that take the lives of too many men, both young and old.

Today, we can’t imagine a world without the pink ribbon, the yellow Livestrong bracelet, or hundreds of cancer walks, rides, and runs each year in small towns and big cities across the country. Private foundations, individuals, companies and the U.S. government invest billions of dollars in awareness, prevention, detection, treatment, and the possibility of a cure. Tens of millions of Americans rally for cancer patients and survivors, creating a powerful and hopeful circle of support, courage, and resilience.

It’s exciting to think about how this kind of change and movement is possible.  It doesn’t take long to build momentum, awareness, and real investment that can transform a stigmatized, hopeless social issue into a powerful and hopeful movement.

It’s time to bring this energy and focus to the

movement to end sexual violence.


Sexual violence is as common, if not more common, as many types of cancer. One out of four women and one out of six men will be impacted by sexual violence in their lifetimes. Yet the movement is still the cancer movement of my grandmother’s generation. Survivors suffer – and sometimes die – alone, keeping their experiences secret from family members and friends. Many survivors cannot find adequate pathways to justice or healing, and we are only just beginning to understand the things we as a society can do to prevent this horrible crime from happening on our own soil.

Each and every one of us the price for sexual violence. Rape costs our country $127 billion per year; more than murder, more than drunk driving. And this figure excludes the economic impact of childhood sexual abuse.

At the same time, investment in sexual violence lags behind many other pressing and costly social and public health issues. For example, take the Violence Against Women Act, the premier piece of legislation that addresses and funds sexual violence prevention and intervention. The most recent reauthorization of this bill, which was hotly contested, provides $660 million each year. The National Cancer Institute, the principal agency in the U.S. focused on cancer research, has a 2012 budget of about $5 billion, of which $865 million is set aside for breast and prostate cancer.

Private investment in cancer is expansive. According to Guidestar, the Susan G. Komen Foundation raised over $150 million from private sources in 2011 (excluding government grants), while the combined fundraising of RAINN, Futures Without Violence, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault – four of the largest anti-sexual violence organizations in the nation barely raised $8.5 million from private sources in approximately the same time period.

This isn’t to say that we should spend less on cancer or give less to cancer.  Obviously, the investment we are making in this critical issue is paying off tenfold. But when we wonder why the movement to end sexual violence hasn’t achieved the same visibility as the movement to end breast cancer or testicular cancer, it’s not because the issue is significantly trickier, more shameful, or more stigmatized.  It’s because there isn’t a funded movement behind it.

So how do we build that movement?

How do we get from our grandmother’s generation to today?

Healthy, strong movements possess a number of elements:

  • Leadership: The breast cancer movement has multiple organizations and voices from across sectors ranging from the Avon Foundation to Susan G. Komen to Angelina Jolie.  The testicular cancer movement has Lance Armstrong, Doug Ullman, and Livestrong. Both are supported by organizations like the American Cancer Society that not only have affiliates in almost every community across the country, but are also supported by professional events, fundraising, and marketing and media teams. The anti-sexual violence movement consists of mostly small organizations without centralized professional support and big national partners.
  • Framing: The gay and lesbian movement includes straight people. The cancer movement includes friends and family members.  Sexual violence has long been framed as a women’s issue, which is not only false, but it inhibits our ability to see it as an issue that impacts everyone. Men, women, boys, and girls are directly impacted by sexual violence at comparable rates, and every victim is part of a family or community that includes both women and men. As long as men, sexism, and patriarchy remain the stated enemies, this movement cannot claim fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands as allies, which many of them in fact are.
  • Investment: Rape crisis centers are in crisis.  According to a recent funding survey released last week, 75% of rape crisis centers have experienced budget cuts in the last year. One-third are forced to create a waiting list for basic intervention services. These organizations do not have the time and resources to participate in movement-building, fundraising, or marketing – they are just trying to survive so they can help survivors in crisis. At the same time, very few private foundations, corporations, and individual donors provide financial support for sexual violence prevention, intervention, or recovery. A 2008 review of private funders found that only a handful of funders identify sexual violence as a key focus area, let alone make grants to support it.

The Enliven Project seeks to elevate all of these elements by creating a platform that will engage new leaders, allies, and resources with the anti-sexual violence movement and connect them to the cash-strapped organizations supporting survivors. The graphics that you see here were designed by its Design Council, a group of talented designers committed to lending their skills to end sexual violence. They are designed for use by the field and the movement, not for a single organization.  That’s why any anti-sexual violence organization can go to The Enliven Project website, download a template, and customize it with their logo and contact information.  Our hope is that lots of organizations can use these tools to raise awareness, resources, and partners to advance their work and the movement at-large.

Movements all have their moments.  For breast cancer, it was when Self Magazine covered the idea of the pink ribbon, which was then picked up by Avon and supported by Carol Cone, a pioneer in cause-marketing.  For testicular cancer, it was Lance Armstrong’s public and courageous battle with testicular cancer that brought the issue into the limelight.  And for AIDS, it was when Ryan White and his family broke the silence about disease and its impact by making their story public. These moments don’t happen randomly though; they happen when individuals and organizations work to create them – again and again – until one sticks.

The rumblings of a movement have already begun. Between the uproar over rape in India, Syria, and Steubenville to the revelations of abuse of children at elite private schools and places like the Boy Scouts to the media attention of Title IX on college campuses, our anger at the human indignity of sexual violence has outweighed our fear of shame and stigma. Campaigns like Project Unbreakable and NoMore are popping up every day. We can no longer be silent, but many of us do not yet know what we can do.

Movements can start with a single idea, a single request, a single champion. Then we can link them together. We need to stop thinking about our stories and our organizations in isolation. We need to stop responding to crisis, and start advocating for prevention and change.

It’s time for a movement.

“Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again and they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know you who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.”

Excerpt from The Low Road by Marge Piercy

Excerpts from this post first appeared on The Good Men Project.