Women of the Twin Cities Defying Rape Culture

Joy McBrien is the founder of Fair Anita, a social, fair trade enterprise investing in the power of women by working with artisans from impoverished communities around the world who design and create products by hand.

But it was Joy's story. Her story of surviving rape that inspired her to help and empower other victims of sexual violence. As a senior in high school, she was raped for the first time by a man she worked with. For two years, she kept this secret to herself. "I didn't identify it with rape right away. I think that's an issue a lot of women struggle with."

It wasn't actually until a seminar at the University of Minnesota as a freshman where they straight up defined rape for me where I understood that's what it was.

After overcoming her sexual assault, she traveled to Peru with intentions to start an organization to work with women to overcome sexual violence, but ultimately went a different direction. Instead, she saw economic opportunity to help battered women. "While I was meeting with these women and hearing their stories, I just heard over and over again, 'That's nice, but what I really need right now is a job. If I had a job, I could potentially leave an abusive partner. I can take care of my family and children.' After hearing that enough times, I realized, 'how do we create jobs?" explains Joy.

Named after a woman she had met in Chimbote, Peru, today, Fair Anita works with 8,000 women in 16 countries. Joys says, "At Fair Anita we provide steady jobs to women. We pay at least three times the minimum wage in the different countries. We also work with them to provide healthcare, to provide education opportunities. This steady form of income has allowed women a chance to feel powerful again."

As the executive director of the MN Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA), Jeanne Ronayne works with sexually assaulted women from all over Minnesota to give back their voice and end rape culture. She says, "All of us should be able to live free from sexual violence."

Rape culture, a terminology of the 70's defined sexual violence being normalized while victims are blamed for their own assaults. Jeanne says rape culture has had an immense affect on survivors of sexual violence.

Their experience is minimized. It's minimized by others and sometimes it's even minimized by themselves because they're apart of that culture too and they've taken on those messages too and those messages can leave to self-blame and confusion and also by others, that they're not believed or they're not taken seriously. Rape culture also affects those who might perpetrate sexual violence in a way that it minimizes or normalizes that behavior.

Today, more women are stepping forward to challenge rape culture by sharing their experience and exposing their perpetrator. "When one woman is sharing her story, you can see tremendous impact that it has on so many others," says Joy.

So is the American community finally having an open discussion on rape? Jeanne says she thinks we have. "When that issue of sexual violence was raised at our Presidential debates there was a lot of conversation about what's okay and what isn't as far as what language we use to speak about women and what language men are going to use and whether it's okay or not okay. Will it be tolerated? I think there's generally agreement that it's not okay."

Joy says over the last seven years she has seen the reaction of people change when sexual violence is brought up in a conversation. "Before it was like, 'well I never told anyone about this before.' Where as now I'm seeing young girls talk about it on Facebook."

While it is horrible that there are so many stories to share, it's really wonderful that women are feeling empowered to share those stories.

A University's Devotion to Defy Rape Culture on College Campuses.

Nearly 1 in 4 women experience sexual violence while in college, according to a recent study of students at nine schools around the nation by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sadly, the majority of these cases go unreported.

The prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses across the nation leads to one question: what is it going to take to convince our country that this is a serious problem?

That’s why last summer, Halimat, along with a group of students and faculty blasted the toxic rape culture at the University of St. Catherine, a campus where 97 percent of the students are women. "Current students and I think some past students that recently graduated were saying 'yeah, I was sexually assaulted when I was at St. Kate's and the way that the administration handled it was not okay. I felt like they pushed me off campus.' That was the generally vibe that a lot of us saw and felt," explains Halimat.

The protests were sparked by a reaction to survivor Sarah Super. Her attacker's family owns a local event organizer and had longtime ties with the University of St. Catherine.

In 2012, Sarah's boyfriend at the time, broke into her apartment and raped her. He is now serving 12 years in prison. "It changed by life completely," says Sarah. "Everything I was and the person I was before I was raped, I am bringing all of those things and all of that knowledge and that experience to who I am today."

But it has changed the way I view the world and I think it has really opened my eyes to something horrific that happens very often.

Sarah is telling her story to empower other victims of sexual violence to break their silence and hold perpetrators accountable. "Six weeks after I was raped I called the Star Tribune to tell my story. And by doing so and having my story run, many, many people from Minnesota, many wrote to me and shared with me their stories or that they were a survivor. Often times saying 'you're the first person I'm telling this to or I've never talked about this before.' Watching my own experience play out, I could tell my story and the people in my life who have never been sexually assaulted actually started to care about the issue of sexual violence because they cared about me," explains Sarah.

Now, almost a year after the protests, Halimat has joined the University of St. Catherine’s Title 9 Task Force to evaluate current policies surrounding sexual assault on campus, as well as policies of forward thinking. "We're building a framework right now so we know what other schools are doing and what we are not doing. Now we are asking [administration], what would a survivor do if she came back to campus, how will she be treated and what are the things she would need?"

As a senior, Halimat hopes she has laid out a solid foundation for the current and future students of the University to carry on the policies she helped create to protect victims of sexual assault and dissolve rape culture.

Empowering Victims of Sexual Violence to Break the Silence

In 2014, survivors took to twitter to explain what rape culture is. The movement prompted millions of survivors and supporters to share their stories tweeting 'rape culture is when you were asked if you were drinking'; 'it's when people say she asked for it'; 'it's when you come forward and are asked what you were wearing.' Three years later and it's still an issue.

So how do we decrease the frequency of rape in America if the culture itself is reenforcing the concept that it's not so bad? Jeanne says the key is starting with primary prevention. "Some of the leaders in prevention would say things likes, 'Just because that's the way it is or always been, is not to say that's the way it should be.' Sometimes when we hear things like, 'boys will be boys' and we just brush it off. There's a growing intolerance for that. This is not okay and how can we change the culture norm where that is the case?"

Through her work, Sarah is changing the cultural norm by building the very first memorial in the country dedicated to rape survivors. "The actual memorial itself isn't something to look at, but rather, it's meant to be a place where people can sit in a circle and have conversations and talk about experiences and tell the truths that have gone untold for so long," says Sarah.

Today, Sarah holds truth-telling events, called Break the Silence, inviting people to come forward and identify themselves as sexual survivors. "One of the things that we are doing is teaching people how to offer trauma-sensitive choices and even thinking how to offer someone consent in a trauma-sensitive way. It's been a unique way of challenging rape culture. There are so many survivors that surround us and most often we don't know who they are. So we could start living our lives a lot differently in the context of offering people choices."

Joy has shared her story over a thousand times, saying it is part of her healing process. "Having to be able to recreate [my] narrative has been really powerful." For now, Joy will continue to travel and spread her message through her social enterprise Fair Anita in some of the most impoverished communities around the world. "As I am traveling and meeting these women, you just see the enormity of these issues and things that women are facing everyday in lots of different countries. What can we do to empower these women to live their best lives and change their community? Ultimately, I think practicing empathy is one of the things we can do and I think the most important way to do that is by listening," says Joy.

Survivor voices are so powerful. It's because we are just speaking from our own human experience and that takes so much courage. By having survivors speak out, it's creating a community that didn't exists before," explains Sarah.

Sarah holds a few Break the Silence events throughout the year at disclosed locations to protect survivors. For more information, please visit

To learn more about Joy's organization, Fair Anita, go to