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Changing Our Culture

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

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

Sexism vs. Sexism

Monday, February 28th, 2011

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.

The Unimaginable

Friday, February 18th, 2011

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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