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Fear: Why sexual violence is a social justice issue

The young woman said she was living in fear. She was chatting with me in a matter-of-fact way. She wasn’t in crisis and not particularly distressed.

She told me she didn’t become aware of living in fear until she was 16. She was a child of privilege and she knew it. She was white, her parents were educated, had good jobs, and they loved her very much. She grew up feeling safe, secure. It was when it was time for her to go out in the world that she began realizing all the ways she had been told to be afraid. This realization happened because of all the things she couldn’t do, all the places she couldn’t go.

She said, “Not because it was forbidden, but because it was too dangerous, and girls get hurt when they do those things, go to those places. Girls get raped. Since I’ve been in college, I have learned enough to know that my level of fear probably doesn’t come close to that of people of color or queer people, but still, it has constrained my life.”

She had never been sexually assaulted or in an abusive relationship. She had never been stalked. She had been taught that she was responsible for avoiding all those violations. She had been taught to be afraid. And that fear permeated her life.

This is why sexual violence is a social justice issue. Sexual violence is a social problem, a human problem. It limits the ability of people to live fully, to contribute to our world, to feel safe.

The majority of sexual violence is committed against the most vulnerable in our society: people with disabilities, young people, people who don’t fit a stereotypical gender norm, women. These groups are the most vulnerable because of systems embedded in our society that dictate who should be in charge, how we should all behave, and who is not worthy of respect. All people are not all equally at risk.

Being sexually assaulted is not merely a matter of bad luck, or behaving badly, or doing something stupid. It is not caused by miscommunication. It is power-based, and gender-based. Using a social justice approach allows us to recognize that women are more likely to be violated than men and to use that knowledge to seek solutions without excluding male victims or ignoring female perpetrators.

Sexual violence is committed primarily by one individual against another individual and that fact leads us to treat it as an individual crime. It steers us toward thinking it is bad people who do this and if we punish them, we have reacted appropriately and we are taking care of the problem. Yes, it is quite often a criminal issue, and yes, we need to react, and continue to try to find appropriate reactions. But, the criminal justice system is designed to follow, not lead. Reaction doesn’t solve the problem, and it certainly doesn’t prevent it.

By looking at gendered violence as a social justice issue, we don’t get trapped looking for individual solutions. Although they can seem well-meaning, ideas for individual preventions are an integral part of the oppression. This is what the young woman realized. This is how she had been taught to be afraid. Social justice means a better world for everyone. The messages she received have a companion piece—messages that tell young men they should never be afraid, they should take charge, and they aren’t men if they don’t follow those rules. The system of oppression constrains their lives, too. We are all constrained by the message that some of us should be in control and some of us should be controlled.

We will end sexual violence by understanding why it happens, and how it is a part of a larger system that includes many other forms of oppression. This is the goal and the promise of social justice: freedom from fear.

 

______________________________

Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

Creating a Culture of Consent: Portraying Rape Culture in How to Get Away with Murder

*This post discusses the How to Get Away with Murder episode 01.13 aired on February 19th, 2015. It mentions various kinds of assault. If you think this will upset you, please do not read any further.*

In an episode that covered just some points of the multi-headed Hydra that is rape culture including: incest, female perpetrators, false accusations, and child assault, I was frustrated, saddened, and pleasantly surprised. It was an hour that tried to show multiple shades of gray that can be involved in sexual assault and rape culture and was hard to watch at times. The added surprise of the nod to consent at the end of the episode made the medicine go down easier.

Shonda Rimes is not known for treading lightly on controversy, and this ep was no different. Admittedly, I was angry the court trial plot was concluded by disproving a sexual assault allegation made by a male patient and levied at his female nurse. Despite the gender swapping, I got upset. As if switching the traditional gendered expectations of assault would make a difference in how the accuser’s false allegation came across to viewers. When this situation is portrayed in the media, it can often give life to the worn out argument that people who accuse others of assault are only doing it for attention, money, or defamation of the accused, etc. I’m tired of it. For the most part, it’s rarely true, and casts doubt upon the multitudes who do step forward to tell their stories. Yes, it happens, but no more so than with any other crime. We don’t doubt people when they’ve been robbed, we shouldn’t doubt survivors when they say they’ve been assaulted.

Threaded throughout the episode was another story line about assault. The viewer learns that the main character, Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, was molested by her uncle as a child. She blames her mother, Ophelia Hartness, played by Cicely Tyson, for not protecting her, which caused a deep rift between them. Ophelia argues that that’s just what happens, “men take things” and reveals to Annalise a list of assaults that have occurred within their family. It’s crushing to see how the persistence of rape culture normalizes assault to the point where women assume and accept they will get hurt, just for being female.

Especially striking is the difference and expectations between the two. Ophelia assumes and accepts that it’s human nature that men will hurt and that women will get hurt. It’s been her experience, and many generations back experience, and she sees no reason for why it would change or how it could be any other way. Annalise refuses to accept rape as her payment for being female, and is shocked to learn about the brutal history in her family which is dropped by Ophelia like an atomic bomb into their argument. She also bristles against her mother’s assertion that women’s roles are that of creators while men are the destroyers. She tries to disprove her mother’s argument of essentialism by highlighting her own lack of nurturing characteristics to Ophelia who doesn’t agree and won’t listen.

Their relationship is rife with hurt, distrust, and borders being abusive. It explains so much about what we know of Annalise’s marriage to her now-dead husband, and about Annalise herself, her secrets, her brusqueness, her way of being in the world. Later, she and her mother reach an understanding when she learns that Ophelia protected Annalise as best she could. It’s a heart wrenching scene, but it leaves me with hope. In the short amount of time between her mother’s generation and her own, Annalise has moved past her mother’s acceptance of rape culture and strict binary definition of gender and can see that something better is possible.

Another sign of hope in the hour comes at the very end. A sober Connor is putting his very drunk on-off-on again love interest Oliver to bed. Oliver tries to seduce Connor, and while Connor has expressed his interest in Oliver before, he refuses his advances, promising that it would be better when they’re both sober. It’s an important scene and gives reassurance that despite Ophelia’s pronouncement, we are able to move past our base natures to create a culture of respect and consent. You can take off your drunk boyfriend’s shoes, say thanks but not now, kiss him, and walk away.

We are all affected by this culture but we have other options besides hurt and get hurt. Like Annalise, we can go beyond rape culture and work on creating something better.

—–
Meredith Donin, Manager
We End Violence

State of the Union, Indeed

The President of the United States is talking about ending sexual violence.

Let’s take some time to think about that.

The President is talking about a topic that has been considered shameful for all of human history and whispered about in most social circles. Astounding. When I started my work as an activist and educator in the mid 1980s, we had to beg people to let us come talk about sexual violence. And now the President is talking about it on YouTube.

President Obama called sexual assault an issue that affects and involves all of us. He called out men to step up and model behavior for boys. But the biggest leap forward may be contained in what he didn’t say. He didn’t try to convince his audience that women don’t lie about being assaulted. He didn’t say that sexual assaults would not happen if girls would stop drinking and wearing revealing clothes and partying. He didn’t say the way to prevent sexual assaults was for women to learn how to say no.

He leaped over all that, expecting a level of understanding beyond victim blaming, beyond the myths and misunderstandings about sexual violence embedded in our culture.

Rape is about power, not sex. This is the mantra that feminists have repeated for 50 years and when you talk about a rape case that makes the news, something so awful that most of us have no trouble calling it awful, then yes, most people agree with that mantra. A case in which a man puts a gun to a woman’s head, tells her to drive to a secluded spot and rapes her—OK, that’s not about sex; that’s clearly violence, abuse of power. But a college man out for a night of partying who meets a college woman out for a night of partying, and then assaults her is a case many people don’t understand because they think that’s what sex is.

Some version of that is portrayed as sex in movies, on TV, in magazines, books, the Internet, and in everyday conversations. The confusion is further complicated by the gender role stereotypes for women and men such as the trope of women “asking for it,” when they go out and the assumption that men are “doing what men do.”

The President leaped over the mountain of cultural baggage confusing the issue. It is all right that he did. Dismantling that mountain is a job for the rest of us.

Progress comes in unexpected ways. Barack Obama didn’t speak about sexual violence exactly like Andrea Dworkin, or bell hooks, but the concepts, the reason he is talking about this issue, and the ways he is talking about this issue, come from their work, and the work of thousands of educators and activists, mostly women, over the course of many decades.

The support of the President is huge but, of course, doesn’t solve the problem. Let’s celebrate, and get back to work. There will be backlash, and turf wars, and thoughtful, sincere disagreements about the best next steps.

How can we better evaluate our prevention efforts? How can women and men work together in a way that doesn’t reinforce sexism? How can we use the power of law and policy without losing control of best practices and guiding philosophy? How can we hold perpetrators accountable while protecting the right of survivors to control and confidentiality? These are a few of the immediate questions. We will all approach them in different ways.

I won’t attempt a prediction about what happens next, but I’m looking forward to it.

 


Carol Mosley
Director, We End Violence

Ten Years After Kobe: Sports, Sexual Assault, and the Media

The current sexual assault case involving Jameis Winston has brought back memories of the Kobe Bryant case. They are both famous, elite athletes who are lauded for their physical ability. They have fans who will defend them beyond reason; in Bryant’s case, literally to the point of threatening death to his accuser. The media coverage of the Winston case, especially sports media, has been extensive. As the case progressed, I started thinking about differences and similarities in how the cases are reported and discussed, and whether anything has changed.

Ten years ago, Kobe Bryant was arrested for sexual assault. The ensuing media coverage and widespread discussion had a huge negative impact on sexual assault survivors, on advocates who respond to survivors, and on educators talking to the public about the problem of rape and sexual assault. The most damage was the silencing of survivors who were surrounded by media discussions and common conversations questioning the validity of the report and the integrity of the survivor.

The overarching theme from that coverage was Bryant’s fame and ability as an athlete. That’s why the case was important. That’s why the enormous amount of coverage and discussion. The same is true of the Winston case. It’s only important because his team was ranked number one in the country, and he was a Heisman trophy candidate. Students at Florida State University who agreed to be interviewed after the announcement that no charges would be filed were relieved because now he could get back to playing football.

The sports media emphasis was, in both cases, on legal technicalities. Reporters and commentators interviewed legal experts who know very little about sexual assault cases. They rarely interviewed anyone knowledgeable about these issues or these cases. Although there seems to be more recognition in the Winston case that these are difficult cases to investigate and prosecute, there is virtually no informative discussion about why they are so difficult, including no conversation or commentary about consent, which is the heart of the matter as well as the most common and effective defense.

Sexual violence is not a problem that can by solved by lawyers, and sexual violence isn’t really the topic in these cases. The important questions for mainstream sports reporters and the majority of fans commenting on those reports are: will he be kept off the basketball court or football field or baseball field and will he receive Heisman votes?

In the ten years since the Bryant case, the use of comment sections after articles and blogs has increased so it’s possible to spend many hours reading opinions. However the current level of discourse isn’t encouraging if you’re looking for signs of a deeper understanding of sexual assault. Here’s some succinct examples from the comment section following the Daily Beast article:

Michael Christensen: Ok let me explain how it works. If your a high profile athlete, you can get away with rape and if your lucky sometimes murder. Its been proven over and over. I not saying this guy did it. But look at big Ben. [sic]

Jacob Fisher: Also if you are a high profile athlete, you get targeted by people looking for “hush money”. Im not saying she did it, but look at Kobe. [sic]

During the Bryant case, Charles Barkley said star athletes are in a position to be maliciously, falsely accused. He didn’t point out that stardom also surrounds them in a sphere of entitlement. I have had a few chances to talk with young men accused of sexual assault. Several of them couldn’t believe it, were convinced they did nothing wrong even though they admitted to behavior that was clearly an assault. Why? Because they think that what they did is what every man does; they think that’s what sex is, and what women—or some women, THOSE women—are for.

Images and ideas that merge sex and violence, something that happens often in the world of sports, contribute to the confusion about what is sex and what is sexual assault. Think about the language that little boys hear early in their lives as athletes. Sexual terms are tied to scoring, to overpowering, to winning, and they’re all used to define a real man. That’s the only sex education some boys ever receive.

I’m hoping for the day when consent, entitlement, and how we teach young people about sex and gender are part of the discussion any time a high-profile athlete is charged with sexual assault.

 

 


Carol Mosely
Director, We End Violence

Military Assaults (and Solutions) Hold a Mirror to Society

The amount of attention being paid to sexual assaults in the military is encouraging. Acknowledging the reality of these assaults is the necessary first step. Being shocked and angry about that reality is the next. Now the hard work of finding solutions can begin.

It would be a mistake to look at assaults within the military and the response to those assaults as fundamentally different from what happens in the civilian world. Yes, there are particulars about military life that are unique, and some of those factors do contribute to supports for sexual violence and additional barriers to reporting. Those factors need to be examined and changed. But the root causes of sexual violence and the barriers to reporting assaults are pervasive. None of our communities have done a stellar job at either response or prevention. It’s important to note that the military hasn’t been any slower with these steps than any other segment of our society.

While there are some communities, such as the military and college campuses, where the problem seems to be worse, there are no communities where sexual assaults are not committed or where cultural support for these assaults don’t exist. It is helpful to study the particulars but equally important to consider the commonalities.

Sexual assaults are a crime of power. They are rooted in beliefs about entitlement and who does and does not deserve respect. They are supported by rigid gender stereotypes, and fueled by common language that confuses sex and sexual assault. These beliefs and the language used to express them are the main barriers to reporting assaults and a big influence on what happens when they are reported. Survivors of the crime hear this language and wonder if they will be believed and supported. Jurors hear this language; commanding officers and members of military courts hear this language. It affects their understanding of these cases. It affects us all.

The current military struggle to develop alternative reporting options for military personnel who are assaulted is similar to the struggle that colleges face. The institutional structures, laws and regulations that complicate reporting procedures are different but the fact that there are complicating structures that often collide with a survivor’s need for safety and control is much the same. The search for effective prevention is also similar. Telling perpetrators that sexual assault is wrong and they might be caught and convicted is not prevention. Both military and civilian citizens need basic information about why sexual assaults are committed, what they can do to help prevent them, and how they can support survivors. Perpetrators will not stop until a critical mass of people around them call them out on their behavior. One of the bright signs in the work being done now by the military is some willingness to look beyond long-held beliefs about prevention that obviously aren’t working.

During the past year, We End Violence has collaborated with a number of Air Force bases on prevention efforts where the involvement of base commanders has been evident. In his presentations, director Jeff Bucholtz has used the straightforward approach–including humor and popular culture analysis–that has been successful for many years with college students. Jeff challenges stereotypical assumptions and pushes the audience to think critically about the causes of sexual violence and how we are all responsible for both positive and negative contributions to that violence. This approach has been welcomed by commanders as well as the base staff devoted to sexual violence response and prevention.

The military clearly has a big problem and they are being pushed hard to solve it. Perhaps this will be the segment of our society that leads the way.

by Carol Mosely, Director,
We End Violence

Changing Our Culture

Sexual violence is often called interpersonal violence because it is committed by a person who has targeted another individual. The most direct harm is to that targeted individual, and the punishment—if any—is of the perpetrator. But it is a societal problem, not an individual problem. We are all responsible, and we all suffer. Preventing sexual violence is about us. It’s about the stories we tell, the language we use. Individuals commit the acts of violence but the community around those individuals raises them, teaches them, supports their behavior, rewards them, excuses them, and punishes—or doesn’t punish—them.

The Steubenville rape case is known for many reasons. Among them is the sympathy toward the offenders expressed by a CNN reporter in response to the guilty verdict. Her statements were jarring, but her sentiments were compassionate. They were well-intentioned comments, just focused in the wrong place. What is sad is not that the young men were receiving punishment they deserved; what is sad is they were raised in a culture that taught them it’s acceptable to assault a drunk, young woman, then brag about it and laugh.

Even after the facts of that evening were well known, the young men were supported, not just for who they are, but also for what they had done. They will probably continue to be supported for the rest of their lives by people who believe it was her fault, that the guys were acting like any young male might. Because they were. They didn’t behave that way because they are sociopaths. They behaved that way because the dominant messages they had received for their entire lives taught them that kind of behavior was acceptable.

Basic media education easily points out these dominant messages, such as emphasis on rigid gender roles, rewards for sexually aggressive men, and disrespect for girls and women who don’t conform to a narrow definition of feminine. It’s not the fault of the media, however. Media messages reflect us and our beliefs. Pay attention to the everyday language around you and you will hear common phrases about “boys being boys” and “what do girls expect when they dress that way.” Media messages will not change until the society that creates and supports those messages has changed.

Prevention of sexual violence has historically focused on the individuals most targeted. Girls and women have been told for centuries what they should and shouldn’t do to prevent being assaulted or abused. Prevention instructions are heavily gendered, rooted in sexism, and one consequence is that when males are victims, they are invisible. Another consequence is that when a woman is assaulted or abused, the ingrained first thought of many people is, “Why didn’t she prevent it?”

In another recent high-profile case, football players at Vanderbilt University were dismissed from the team after being arrested for the sexual assault of a female student. Just weeks after being charged with five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of sexual battery, one of the players, Jaborian McKenzie, transferred to Alcorn State University and joined the football team. Here are two ways to think about this. One, he has not been convicted, deserves a hearing, and to use his talents as a player. The other, the campus should have waited until after a hearing and should not welcome him as a prominent student if he is possibly a dangerous perpetrator. Either way, the focus is on one individual.

What if the conversation was about us, not him?

What if we talked about why too many boys grow up thinking it’s OK to sexually assault a drunk woman, and too many others of all genders and ages silently let them continue to think this way? It wouldn’t solve the disagreement over whether McKenzie has the right to play ball for another team, or whether his presence on campus creates a hostile environment. It wouldn’t answer the question about what we should do with sexual predators. It wouldn’t change the complication of our unbalanced obsession with football or the racism embedded in everything that happens in this country.

This is what changing the conversation would do: it would get us closer to the heart of the matter. It would help us focus on real solutions rather than handwringing about the inevitability of sexual violence. It would help us all begin to understand that our everyday words and actions have an impact either positively or negatively. We can learn to recognize those moments when saying something as simple as “I disagree,” or “That’s not right,” will make a difference. When enough of us begin to make these statements, the collective impact will move us toward a future where girls and boys grow up knowing that respect for one another is expected.

We can all be Agents of Change.

 


Carol Mosley
Director, We End Violence

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On Rape, Alcohol, and Prevention

There is a relationship between sexual assault and alcohol. We all know that, but we certainly don’t agree on what it means or what to do about it. The discussion is not new, but continues to be newly discovered, recently by Emily Yoffe, who has a platform in Slate to reach the masses, and whose daughter is about to start college. Many people concur with Yoffe that it is common sense to tell young women not to drink to excess in order to prevent being assaulted. Many others vehemently oppose this approach because it doesn’t work, and contributes to victim blaming. It is difficult terrain, intellectually and emotionally. It deserves, and requires, passionate conversations.

We have a problem with alcohol and we have a problem with sexual assault, but they aren’t the same problem. Sexual assault is primarily committed against the most vulnerable—women, LGBTQ people, children, and people with disabilities. It is committed when someone exerts power over another by forcing sexual contact, primarily in situations that mask and protect the perpetrator. In the U.S. today, especially on college campuses, there is no better mask than alcohol. At other times and places, sexual predators are protected because their victims are enslaved, poor, incarcerated, or financially or emotionally dependent on them.

The vast majority of assaults against young women are committed by a young man they know and trust. It’s hard to accept that some of our young men are rapists, and especially hard to know what to do about that. It’s much easier to ask the women not to drink. But this admonition does not do what it’s meant to do. The belief that a survivor can control the behavior of a rapist by not drinking keeps survivors silenced, feeling responsible for a crime committed against them, and keeps the rest of us from two important tasks: holding perpetrators accountable and working together to prevent sexual violence by promoting equality and respect in our homes and communities.

Concern and fear and a wish to stop these assaults from happening should motivate all of us to think about solutions. Telling women not to drink might seem like the obvious thing to do, but why? Why do we focus on the targets of the violence and the method used to violate? Why are we reluctant to focus on the reasons for the violence?

One of the more thoughtful and cogent thinkers on the relation between alcohol, sexual assault and prevention education is Dr. Luoluo Hong. In a 2003 article, for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, she wrote that her instinct as a scholar was to start by reviewing the research literature, but she decided against that because she believes the focus on alcohol has obscured the real problem: the agency of the perpetrator and the gender role expectations which normalize violence against women in this country.

Yoffe does rely on research in her article. Research clearly shows that, especially on college campuses, alcohol use and abuse often occur in conjunction with sexual assaults. Other characteristics of these assaults have also been well researched and documented. The perpetrators are predominantly male acquaintances of the victims, who are predominantly female and sometimes extremely intoxicated. What she didn’t find was evidence that telling young women not to drink would solve the problem. That’s because there isn’t any.

Yoffe is right that alcohol is present in a large percentage of sexual assaults. It is also a fact that alcohol is present in a large percentage of social encounters when there is not a sexual assault. Alcohol has often been used to explain evils of the world, so there is a pattern in place to make alcohol the scapegoat. Sex and alcohol and violence are tightly linked in our culture. Alcohol is an explanation that is much simpler and emotionally easier to accept than the fact that we are raising our children to think violence is sexy and sex is violent and boys are supposed to be aggressive and girls are supposed to be alluring but not sluts.

Further examination of the research Yoffe cites is revealing. The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study investigated perpetration as an “exploratory component.” In a 100 page research report, there are 4 pages about perpetration and perpetrators, including a statement that they are concerned about the validity of the perpetration data, and “doubt on whether researchers can credibly collect data on perpetration of sexual assault via any methodology.” They are concerned because they think some of the males surveyed weren’t truthful about their perpetration, and other males believed that what they did was not wrong. The study has a page of recommendations on educating women to behave in certain ways. At the end of that page are three recommendations for educating men, all of which are about telling men sexual assault is illegal and they are responsible for following the law.

This method is not working. We have been “educating” women to protect themselves from rape and abuse for centuries. Telling men to obey the law isn’t getting us anywhere either. We don’t need more volumes of research to tell us that some men are violent toward women. What we need is the collective courage to admit that we all contribute to supporting, or confronting, that behavior.

Another study Yoffe cites, has some information that Yoffe did not include in her article. “Overall, the characteristics of alcohol-involved sexual assaults and sexual assaults that do not involve alcohol are similar.”

Hong asks in her article: “Do we truly believe that if alcohol were to disappear from college campuses, rapes would cease to occur? The value system which is used to reinforce, justify and sometimes excuse sexual assault on the part of perpetrators – much of it ensconced in our limiting conceptions of masculinity and female sexuality – would still be unchanged.”

I have never met a sexual violence prevention educator on any college campus who refused to tell women that drinking to excess can be problematic. Most campuses devote enormous resources to telling all the students that excessive drinking can be problematic. This is risk reduction, it is not prevention of sexual assault. Prevention is changing the culture so that sexual assault is recognized, understood and no longer accepted.

-Carol Mosley
Director, We End Violence

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Drugging Your Date

Too often in our culture we are exposed to “humor” that suggests drugging someone (which includes deliberately getting them wasted drunk) in order to take advantage of them is, at times, acceptable.  This “humor” is tragic, especially since we know that there are thousand upon thousands of women (and many men) in the U.S. who are raped every year with drugs and/or alcohol being their attackers weapon of choice.

This last week I heard a radio advertisement–undoubtedly designed to be “controversial”–on a popular Clear Channel radio station in San Diego. The ad is from a company called, the Anti-Gym.  They’ve been criticized for MANY of their ad campaigns, several of which refer to overweight people (in particular women) as “cubbies.”

While I find this company and its ads offensive, I think the fact they are running this type of ad reflects a larger cultural problem…namely our beliefs that drug-facilitated rape doesn’t really happen or isn’t serious, that men cannot be raped because they’re men, and that there are some circumstances in which it is acceptable to tease/joke about sexual violence.

So here’s the ad.  Have a listen.

http://www.theantigym.com/radio_spots/mp3/AntiGymBeer.mp3

Now I’m not sure how you feel after listening, but I was, to say the least, SERIOUSLY disturbed by the ad.  First, this is just another example of advertisers in the health/beauty industry helping women hate their bodies no matter what their bodies look like (so they can then sell them more stuff to “fix” the bodies they’ve been taught to hate). Yet what REALLY disturbs me about this ad is the way that it makes light of sexual violence.  What in the world is this ad trying to say?  That it is okay for women who can’t afford the Anti-Gym to use drugs/alcohol to rape men?  That it’s okay to support your friend’s body issues even when they tell you they’re considering DRUGGING THEIR DATES!?!?  This ad not only fails to denounce such ideas as negative, illegal, or immoral, it actually suggests that sexual violence is an acceptable consideration when someone is desperate because they do not feel physically attractive or appealing enough.

How many times must we be exposed to the idea that sexual violence is, at times, acceptable?!?!  How many times will our culture repeat the idea that there are some excuses for an act THERE SHOULD BE NO EXCUSES FOR!!!

Now I recognize that at no time in this advertisement does someone say, “it’s okay to rape,” but the idea that drugging someone to facilitate rape (yes, rape, because it’s no longer sex once you’ve drugged them) should be seen as silly, playful or funny, is actually dangerous.  I don’t mean to imply that someone listening to this ad will rape; what I mean is that this ad, along with a culture full of other ads/ideas like it, creates a space where those people who do rape can think that what they’re doing is acceptable, and people who are raped can think that it’s their fault for not “knowing better.”

Bottom line…this ad is dangerous for ANYONE living in a culture where people can hear it, and not be bothered by it.

Change culture.

Together We Can.

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Sexism vs. Sexism

Sexism is a powerful system.  Arguably, it exists in almost every culture on the planet, and facilitates discrimination, oppression, and violence against women all around the world.  The “face” of sexism does change from culture to culture, however, and at times those changes prompt people to examine the differences in sexism across cultures.  That is precisely what happened last Friday night on Real Time with Bill Maher.

On his show, Bill Maher commented on the tragedy of Lara Logan (the journalist who was raped while covering the Egyptian revolution).  Mr. Maher used this as an opportunity to assert that men in Egypt and other Muslim countries were never going to have democracy if they didn’t also have a sexual revolution.  Maher argued, in sum, that the way Arab (he switched between the terms Arab and Muslim) men treat women is worse than the way that American men treat women.

Mr. Maher’s thinking is both a predictable and a counter-productive way to analyze sexism.  While his comparison is not ridiculous—there are clear differences between women’s lives in the U.S. and women’s lives in some Muslim or Arab countries—his argument is basically about which culture treats women LESS badly.  Not exactly a great starting place for a conversation about improving the lives of women.

Tavis Smiley, one of the panelists on Real Time, attempted to challenge part of Mr. Maher’s assertion, reminding Maher that sexism and patriarchy are alive and well here in the states.

Smiley:  I think that it might surprise us to go into our papers in this country every day and to see stories just like this about how women are mal treated in this country every single day.

Maher: That’s such bullshit.

Mr. Maher’s vehement disagreement was based on the notion that Smiley was using a false equivalency.

Maher:  I mean in this country we treat women badly because they don’t get equal pay or someone calls you sugar tits or something like that.

Smiley:  And you think that’s okay?

Maher:  I don’t but I don’t think it’s comparable to cutting their heads off, not letting them drive, not letting them work.

This, is the moment when Mr. Maher failed to support women.  By asserting that women in the U.S. don’t have to deal with beheadings, he silenced and minimized the very real daily suffering of women in this country.  He, in effect, disproves his own assertion that our culture is “better”.  Yes, women can vote here, and that is a SIGNIFICANT difference, but apparently, famous men still feel comfortable joking about the real suffering women here DO experience.  We DO live in a country where women are raped and then made to feel it was their fault. We DO live in a country where women are sexually assaulted while serving in our military, and then reprimanded for THEIR behavior when they come forward.  We DO live in a country where men beat and murder their wives.  Sexism is, point in fact, an issue of LIFE and DEATH in our country too.

Mr. Maher is correct in that there are places in this world where women are SO devalued, that throwing acid on their faces seems acceptable practice.  Yet, the fact they are devalued worse should not ever be used to excuse or minimize the way WE devalue women here.  To do so only fuels the system of sexism everywhere, which benefits women nowhere.

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The Unimaginable

I’ve been in the field of violence prevention for 10 years, now, and after a decade, there are a few things I can conclude above all else.  First, our culture is saturated with violence—TV, film, news, video games, music, books—you name it, we’ve got it.  Second, our culture’s history is immersed in violence—the Wild West, World Wars I & II, Columbine, Vietnam, Tucson, Afghanistan.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, what I’ve learned in the last 10 years, is that our culture is GIFTED, utterly gifted at ignoring violence.  When it comes to violence, we’re like that character from the film Memento—you know, the guy who can’t remember anything five minutes after it’s just happened.

In our very recent past, another violent tragedy occurred in Tucson, Arizona.  This violent act was actually just one of thousands that occurred around our country.  From rapes, to assaults, from domestic violence to murder, citizens of our country were subjected to a terrible amount of violence—as they are every week of the year.  What made the tragedy in Tucson special for me, though, was not just that it involved public figures, or that it was a violent mass killing.  Instead, what made it special for me was that with all the violence in our culture, people still responded with pure shock that something like this could actually happen.

In her first show after the tragedy, Rachel Maddow did a brilliant segment about how many different examples there have been of shootings just like the one in Tucson (over the lifetime of the shooter, 1988-today).  Her opening was quite poignant in its demonstration that although we’ve seen this type of violence so many times before, we continue to think of it as unimaginable.  You can watch the clip here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/ns/msnbc_tv-rachel_maddow_show/#41011447

Why do we describe something that has happened so many times as unimaginable?  I understand that this type of violence seems more dramatic and thus more difficult to believe, but this is EXACTLY the problem our culture has with ALL forms of violence (with the exception of gang violence in the inner city—which in this totally NON-post-racial world we seem to accept as entirely predictable).  We believe that violence is rare, unpredictable, and thus out of our control to prevent.  We believe this so much that we create a cultural amnesia—an amnesia that allows us to pretend we don’t all have to participate proactively to stop these daily atrocities.

We cannot stop violence, we cannot hope to prevent it, if we allow our culture to deliberately wipe it from our consciousness every moment it’s not thrown in our faces.  The violence continues precisely because we pretend this stuff doesn’t happen and then act surprised when it does.  The friend reacts with shock when her girlfriend is raped by a man they both know (when, in fact, most rapes are committed by someone the person knows); the sister reacts with shock when she hears her sibling was beat to within an inch of her life by her husband; the Governor of Arizona reacts with shock when an armed man (yes…it’s important to note it’s almost always a man) shoots twenty people.

The tragedy in Arizona, like most of the daily tragedies in this country can seem unimaginable because they are horrific and painful.  However, how many more times will we look at acts of violence as unpredictable, unimaginable, isolated events before we take action in response to the ludicrously obvious reality about our culture: that it is saturated with violence and a DELIBERATE denial about the frequency of that violence and the damage it does?

In the end, our culture has to start to recognize that this IS who we are.  In fact, if there’s one way to prevent violence from occurring in the future it’s to take a hard look at ourselves and no longer deny the reality that we are a culture that both promotes and ignores violence.  Despite all of our advances, and there have been many, we are still a culture that regularly silences the voices of survivors; we are still a culture where people abdicate their responsibility to be proactive in preventing violence and then react in shock when it occurs.

After 10 years doing violence prevention work, I can say with confidence that much like the first steps in ending an addiction, reducing violence will require we openly admit our problem by reminding ourselves and everyone around us that violence IS a daily reality in our country.  Only then can we begin to heal and prevent these daily tragedies.  Frankly, in a country filled with so many people who do care and who want to do the right thing, doing any less would be…well, unimaginable.

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