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.
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.
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.
Director, We End Violence
Tags: Culture, Media
Narrative engages us
Most of us feel strongly that sexual violence is wrong, but the messages from popular culture about sex, gender, relationships–and especially consent–are confusing. Stories can help us sort through the mixed messages and connect our language and behavior to our beliefs. From the time we are children, it is the stories we are told that teach us what our culture believes and what behavior is acceptable. This is why We End Violence chose a narrative format for the online prevention program, Agent of Change.
Yale University agrees.
Yale is now using fictional encounters to explain disciplinary policies on sexual misconduct. Thomas Conroy, a spokesman for Yale, told the New York Times that “scholarly research and the experience of other schools like Duke University indicated they were an effective tool for communication.”
According to the article, the Yale scenarios describe fictional students in a variety of situations which are meant to help clarify the meaning of non-consensual sex. A member of Students Against Sexual Violence at Yale said her group wants to work with Yale administrators to develop more of them.
Narrative is effective for teaching because it is engaging. This is particularly important for topics laden with emotional and cultural baggage. A lecture about sexual violence statistics, or the damage sexual violence does to individuals, will not engage those who believe it only happens to other people and therefore does not concern them. But a story about characters who are grappling with these hard issues from different points of view will create involvement. A story can mirror reality, model behavior and language, and allow us to explore alternatives.
Students in the first-year experience class at the University of California at Santa Barbara played Agent of Change last spring. Here are a couple of their comments about the use of narrative:
“Compared to other trainings, this course provides social interaction about relevant problems in our college society, while
other programs do not. I enjoy the real life examples because it allows me to immerse myself into the situation and use
problem solving skills. Other courses are easy to bypass through the information and not take it seriously, but this training
makes sure you listen and soak in the information that is being presented to you.”
“Instead of just stating facts about rape, stalking, and violence the characters talked about them in normal conversations that
were extremely realistic.”
The majority of the students said the program was helpful. Many of them said they learned new ways to deal with difficult situations.
Agent of Change accomplishes this by illustrating to students that their actions can and do make a difference and have an impact (motivation); that effective actions can be simple and safe (ability); and that there are numerous common opportunities in everyday situations to take action (trigger). Compelling the student to make a choice reinforces the lesson that each individual has an effect which can be positive or negative. Their choice is embedded within the narrative so they are shown a model of how and where their action can occur.
To read more about the theories used to develop Agent of Change, click here.
To see the independent evaluation that found Agent of Change is successful in challenging students to re-evaluate preconceived ideas surrounding sexual violence, click here.
If you would like to experience the program for yourself, send us an info request form here.
Director, We End Violence
I Know You Want It: Objectification, Music Videos and Consent
Talk about getting blasted,
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must want to get nasty.
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke, T.I., Pharrell
I’ll admit it: I hadn’t heard this song until I watched some of the many parodies of it that have been floating around the internet. I knew that it was the “Song of the Summer,” but I tend to not listen to new music on the radio, and I miss out on most pop music until it becomes passé. After viewing some of the parodies, I knew that in order for me to get the joke, I needed to watch the original. So I did. Then I wished I hadn’t.
The video is, what has sadly become, a pretty typical example from that genre; a lot of nudity, objectification, and questionable lyrics. It was more graphic than most, but still within the realm of what has become normal. So I wasn’t too surprised. However, once I started reading what Robin Thicke was saying about his song, the video and feminism, I lost my cool.
When asked about what “blurred lines” mean in the context of the song, Thicke answers that he wants to show how “women and men are equals as animals and in power.” Yet, his video shows exactly the opposite.
In the two different versions (one “clean” and one not), women are treated as props: they are all scantily clad (or nude) while the men are fully clothed, the women are controlled by having their hair pulled, one’s back is used as a track for a toy car, and they are shown in compromising positions as their male video co-stars sing and move around the set like the women are scenery and not people.
As if that wasn’t enough, Robin Thicke has said in a recent interview that his song is “a feminist movement in itself.” I’m extremely curious to hear what branch of feminism he most closely identifies “Blurred Lines” with.
Most troublingly, is that Thicke knows it’s derogatory and thinks the video is a joke about old men cat calling young women. He says that he deliberately chose to be as offensive as possible in both versions. It works. Women are treated as animals that need to be controlled, or they are being disrespected by having smoke blown their faces and being shot up with giant needles without their consent.
By obviously engaging in such behavior, and without showing any repercussions from such, I don’t think he’s successfully making a joke about sexist behavior here. If anything, he’s being rewarded for his bad behavior with support from his peers, Pharrell and T.I. If someone ever needs a visual representation of rape culture, this video is great place to start.
It’s not that I don’t like pop music (full disclosure: I listen to an embarrassing amount of Lady GaGa and Katy Perry), but I do take issue with music and imagery that treats women as objects, or worse yet, for whom consent doesn’t matter because they’re animals. The “I know you want it” line repeated constantly makes that pretty apparent. It seems to me that the ever-present “asking for it” trope isn’t too far off. Thicke’s argument that it’s a part of the feminist movement is really just the gross icing on the rotten cake.
Yet, the thing is so damn catchy. To be honest, I caught myself singing it as I wrote this piece. If there hadn’t been such controversy surrounding the song, I might not have really listened to the lyrics, and would have bounced around to it when I heard it at parties. Now I know better (you do too, by the way). Even if the beat makes me want to nod my head, which it really, really does, I’m not going to engage. When I hear it next, I’m going to turn off the radio, ask to hear something else, or share why I’m not getting my groove on. I won’t condone such an obvious ode to rape culture, and, if you agree, you shouldn’t either.
Thicke says that he’s seen the articles comparing his song to rape culture and that they’re “ridiculous.” Is he joking like he says he is? “Sometimes a bad joke goes a long way,” indeed.
What do you think? Let us know on our Facebook page or in the comments below.
 BBC2 Interview, July 8, 2013.
Written by Meredith Donin, Social Media Manager, We End Violence
Tags: feminism, objectification of women, pop music
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.
Tags: Culture, pop culture, sexism, Violence