Sexual Assault and Battles Beyond: Inside Grlcvlt’s Secret Feminist Club
Grlcvlt says its campaigning won’t end with unseating the judge who provoked outrage when he sentenced former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to just six months in prison.
“Every single one of you has your Brock Turner story, and every fucking day you have to tell it!” shouted Jill Soloway, creator of the Emmy award-winning show Transparent, in front of a rapt crowd at a Los Angeles nightclub on Saturday.
She was speaking at a “Fuck Rape Culture” fundraiser for the campaign to recall Aaron Persky, the judge who provoked national outrage when he sentenced former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to just six months in prison after he was convicted of sexual assault. Adding insult to injury, Turner was released on good behavior after three months.
Soloway called on women at the fundraiser to “fight for your right to be a subject and a protagonist” in a society dominated by white cisgender men. Even as the director and showrunner of a wildly successful TV show, she claimed she still has to fight the patriarchal bogeyman every day at work.
A woman in the audience who was softly sobbing suddenly cried out: “When’s it going to stop?”
Soloway was worked up now, too, gesticulating and speaking in run-on sentences and upping the ante of her message: don’t read books by “them,” meaning cisgender men, and don’t let “them” weigh in.
“Keep telling your truth over and over again,” she went on. “Keep an eye out for the voice that says, ‘You’re not good enough!’ That comes from growing up as an object in a patriarchy, from the moment when we’re sexual and we’re looked at as something for men to use. We’re fighting just to be humans, to be the ‘the’ instead of the ‘that!’”
It’s been less than two weeks since Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women in a leaked Access Hollywood tape from 2005, then dismissed it as “locker room talk” and insisted he’s never actually acted on his words.
Since then, ten women have come forward and countered that dismissal with stomach-churning stories featuring shockingly similar details: Trump kissing them on the lips and tongueing their throats without their consent; Trump groping their breasts and butts and plunging his tiny hands up their skirts.
Between the light sentence handed down to a convicted student rapist at an Ivy League school and the Republican Party nominating an alleged sexual predator for presidential office, it’s no wonder feminists are speaking out, supporting each other on social media and congregating at “Fuck Rape Culture” events.
Of the 100 people who came out on Saturday night, a majority were women in their 20s and 30s—many of them dressed in statement feminist tees (“My body is a battleground”)—though there were more than a dozen men of all ages. One twentysomething man said he was friends with a musician who had been billed for the evening, “but yes, fuck rape culture and fuck the patriarchy!” Enola Fall, an Australian indie rock/pop band, introduced themselves with the disclaimer that they may be “white cisgender men” but they were still feminists.
Unsurprisingly, the male voices at the event were drowned out by women who cheered and clapped and cried while Soloway spoke to the crowd.
“People get very emotional at these events,” said Remy Holwick, who runs the New York chapter of an underground feminist group called GRLCVLT. Holwick organized the fundraiser with Stanford professor Michele Dauber, who is spearheading the recall campaign.
Near the door, other GRLCVLT members sold “The Future is Female” and “Fuck Rape Culture” t-shirts. There were tote bags, too, featuring a woman in her underwear with a banner draped across her body that read, “Still not asking for it.”
Some smoked outside the back of the venue and comforted the woman who cried during Soloway’s speech. She said she’d just gotten out of an emotionally abusive relationship.
“I came home one day and found that he’d smashed the vanity in my bedroom, and all of my favorite trinkets were broken on the floor. Luckily I had taken my tarot cards with me before he destroyed everything,” she told me, smoking emphatically.
A graffitied mural of a hissing blue cat, its fangs bared like the image that has become a viral feminist meme since the news of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, was lit up behind her.
“He’ll text me and say I miss you, but I know what he really means is that he misses my pussy.”
GRLCVLT formed in L.A. in 2012 as a spin-off of a larger networking group on Facebook. “A lot of us had become friends and wanted to get personal and silly in the group,” Holwick said, “so GRLCVLT started as a group for those of us who were holding up our shirts and saying, literally, ‘What do you think of my boobs?’”
Holwick, a 34-year-old photographer and former model, has led the group’s New York chapter since 2014.
She organized the first “Fuck Rape Culture” event in Brooklyn last June to protest Turner’s sentence. One thousand people showed up and signed letters calling for Judge Persky to be unseated, and Dauber—with whom Holwick was connected through a mutual friend—Skyped in to speak to attendees.
“Our only goal at the event in June was to get as many letters to Santa Clara County as possible,” Holwick said when we first met back in August at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. She had just organized a second event in Williamsburg, this time to raise money for the recall effort. Actresses Rose McGowan and Amber Tamblyn were guest speakers.
In the four years since it was formed in L.A., GRLCVLT has evolved into a “secret” collective that adheres to the tenets of intersectional feminism. (“Because the group is a safe space, it has to be a secret space,” Holwick explained.)
Having grown up a racial minority in Hawaii, Holwick was conflicted about racism when she joined the group. She quickly learned from other members that “while it sucked for me growing up, reverse racism isn’t real and in the greater culture the fact that I’m white has handed me a lot of privilege,” she said, noting that the group frequently discusses cultural appropriation and race issues.
“An article about cultural appropriation might fall flat, but when someone who just gave you parenting tips the day before says that she’s experienced it and was hurt by it, then that’s an entirely different ball game,” she said. “And I think that’s why the group has been so successful.
“We value highly the role of primary voices, so if you’re a woman of color and you share your experience from that perspective, we could never question that. We’re not going to debate how you feel because how you feel is not up for debate.”
Despite its focus on inclusivity, GRLCVLT is not for everyone. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, for example, would not be welcome. Prospective members are nominated and then vetted by other members.
When Holwick first teamed up with Dauber, who appointed her an honorary co-chair of the Recall Judge Persky campaign, she was hesitant to work with someone whose feminist views differed from hers.
“It ended up being such a fruitful dialogue,” Holwick told me. “I’m confident in my feminism now whereas before I was defensive of it.”
For all the hair-splitting principles that divide second wave and intersectional feminists, the message of Soloway’s rallying cry on Saturday echoed ’70s radical feminists who believed the patriarchy was the oldest and most universal form of oppression. (It also echoed her “topple the patriarchy” Emmy acceptance speech.)
Soloway said that we were on the verge of a feminist revolution, and that Brock Turner’s victim set the precedent for Trump’s downfall, particularly for women voters. (The first live-caller national survey after the leaked “grab ’em by the pussy” tape showed Trump dipping further behind Clinton, in a poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.)
By telling her story so articulately and in painstaking detail, Turner’s victim elevated our national conversation about sexual assault. Her victim impact statement was read aloud in Congress and praised by Vice President Joe Biden. The mainstream media vilified Turner, and many turned on Judge Persky too.
“I think this gave birth to what’s happening to Trump right now—that we’re all going fuck this!” Soloway said to more cheers from the crowd. “Everyone’s fucking talking, finally! [Trump] is the last gasp of a monstrous system where guys can rate women on whether they’re hot or not. This is all fucking old patriarchal shit!”
It’s hard to argue with her, when establishment conservatives like House Speaker Paul Ryan are sticking by Trump even as he’s been accused of sexual assault and misconduct. A popular meme since Trump’s accusers have come forward goes like this:
Women: men are scary
Men: not all men.
Donald Trump: grab ’em by the pussy!
Women: he’s scary.
Men: that’s how ALL men are, Sweetie.
Dauber has raised $300,000 from big and small donors since launching the Recall Persky Campaign in late June and is confident that she’ll raise $200,000 more before the end of 2016 (the campaign needs $500,000 by the end of the calendar year and 20 percent of registered voters’ support to get the vote on the ballot for the recall election in November 2017). GRLCVLT alone has contributed $8,000 through fundraising efforts, though its goal is to raise $100,000 by next November.
“We’re more than halfway there, and we raised that money while competing with a national election cycle,” Dauber told me at the fundraiser, straining to make her voice heard over the live music (activist-musicians like Madame Gandhi and Lucy and La Mer performed). “We have strong support from groups like Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women, and from start-up women’s organizations like GRLCVLT and individual donors, which are the ones that excite me most.”
She also believes that millennial women who have donated to the recall campaign are learning more broadly about electoral politics and political donating in the process.
“They feel the efficacy and the investment of giving $20 to this campaign and becoming more politically engaged,” said Dauber. “So they will be more likely to campaign for, say, Kirsten Gillibrand.”
Critics of the campaign, including public defenders in Persky’s Santa Clara County, say it has a chilling effect on judges who consider a number of complicated factors when adjudicating individual cases.
Earlier this month, New York Times legal columnist and practicing lawyer Adam Lipnak argued that judicial elections “make judges more responsive to the will of the people” and political pressure, which, studies have shown, leads to harsher sentences in the criminal justice system.
Advocacy groups say rape is a notoriously under-prosecuted crime. Using the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey statistics from 2008 to 2012, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that only three out of 100 rapists serve jail time.
When Holwick took to the stage to introduce Dauber, whom she credited for “single-handedly changing the news cycle around rape culture,” she also applauded survivors for showing up that night. “In spite of a really traumatic election cycle and some really triggering news stories, you managed to get out of bed and that’s sometimes the biggest thing you can do,” she said, her voice swelling with emotion.
One of those survivors was 29-year-old Elyse Cizek, a tall and strikingly beautiful black woman who joined GRLCVLT when she moved from Milwaukee to Los Angeles several years ago. She wore a jean jacket and wide-brimmed black hat.
“It took me a long time to be able to stand up and say, ‘I’m a survivor.’ I had a lot of internalized misogyny,” she told me.
Cizek said she was raped as a freshman in college. “I was unconscious for a good part of it,” she said, explaining that she’d gotten drunk at a house party. “I wanted to blame myself for so long. People would ask me why I didn’t go to the police or would say that I’d probably consented in some way. So I just forced myself to say, ‘OK, I guess that’s what happened.’”
She confronted her attacker many times and told him she wanted to forgive him, but he never apologized or admitted wrongdoing.
“He’d say, ‘Why do you still carry this shit around with you?’ So for a long time I said, ‘Maybe he didn’t rape me!’ I was like a zombie. But that kind of wound doesn’t heal. I used to be that person who told other women, ‘Well, maybe you said something or did something to invite that.’ Now if a woman says that she was assaulted, that’s what happened to her. We don’t make it up!”
Holwick is also a survivor, though she has never revealed her rapist’s identity or spoken about the incident in any detail publicly because she fears repercussions. Only a few of her closest friends and her mother know what happened, and all of them advised her to keep it that way.
“The fact that I can’t talk about the circumstances is a testament to how badly we need this reform,” Holwick said of the recall campaign. “It’s important as a symbolic step forward and hopefully will lead to reform in the way that rape is handled for the rest of us.”
In addition to the group’s work on the recall campaign, a GRLCVLT administrator in New York is currently organizing an art show in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Members are also developing GRLCVLT Journal, which Holwick described as a “small print-run zine” that will feature everything from poetry to news stories and photo essays. The content in each issue will revolve around a single theme (the first, due out Feb. 17, will be “Power”).
As for the future of feminist activism, Holwick envisions a lot of what Soloway hailed in her speech at Saturday’s event: a movement that operates outside patriarchal structures, enabling women to be more confident and know that their voice matters.
Yet much of what Soloway proposed on Saturday night was simplistic answers to a long list of complicated problems.
Women would be more confident in their voices and less likely to be victims of gender violence in a non-patriarchal society. But her suggestion that every woman’s insecurities can be chalked up to the patriarchy leaves little room for nuance, let alone individuality.
To stop reading books by cisgender men, as Soloway urged the crowd to do on Saturday, would be to live in an echo chamber.
Holwick proposed an equally radical, if softened, future for feminism.
“Feminism has been largely reactive to people who identify as men, and I think the future lies in working not as a response to cis-male life,” she said, noting that when she was young everything she learned from the media and from books was that “a person was a guy, and women were variants on that person. Men wrote history books. The main characters in movies were all men, unless the movies were fairy tales or rom-coms.
“The standard for what we could do was set by men, so the goal for a lot of us was to be one of the guys. But I think we’re learning that there is no standard now. And we shouldn’t aspire to be a guy as a better way of being a girl.”