Friday, October 30, 2009

From Erica: oh, Catholicism

In light of the recent news that the Pope is extending a relatively warm welcome to disgruntled Anglicans and their clergy- a reaction to the Anglican Church's ever-warming attitude towards female and openly gay clergy- I think it's time to talk a little bit about faith life, disappointment, and hope.

I make no secret of the fact that I'm a practicing Catholic. I was born to parents who are Catholic, who baptized me when I was three months old, and I've attended Mass on a relatively regular basis for the vast majority of my life. At age 9, I wrote a letter to the Pope demanding that he allow women to become priests so I could be one. At age 16, I made the choice to be confirmed in the church, and have stuck with that decision in spite of the numerous differences between my personal politics and the many professed politics of the global Catholic community.

The thing that's been challenging, at least for me, is the fact that many people- especially in the feminist community- completely fail to understand how I could espouse the politics I do and continue to participate in an organization that, to them, is entirely oppressive, backwards, and wrong. At best, I'm delusional, and at worst, I'm a hypocrite. To be honest, this logic is the reason I left the Feministing community in Fall 2008 and started Not Another Wave a few months later. Not that Feministing didn't have other, equally troublesome biases going on; but this was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I think the most bothersome thing about such polar thinking- either you're with them or you're with us- is that it shows a complete lack of understanding of how identity works. Identity isn't an all-or-nothing process, and it's not a static thing. Group membership hardly ever functions on the notion that all members believe identical things at all times. Look at American politics- most of us, for better or for worse, accept the identity of American, but that identity means very different things to each of us. And the identity's meaning will not only vary from person to person, but also from location to location, and situation to situation. There have been times in my life when I've been extremely proud of my national identity, and many times (especially since 2000) that I've been utterly ashamed of it. Ambivalence, I would argue, is a hallmark of the identity process, no matter how much you can argue that your identity is a choice.

Let's get back to the example of Catholicism. For me, there is a lot of shame associated with the broader politics of the Catholic Church. I spent a lot of time being enraged about Pope John Paul II's refusal to reconsider the church's stance on birth control, even in light of the incredible influence that Catholicism was having in regions of Africa that were being stricken by HIV and AIDS; the fact that my sex and gender identity meant that, at age 9, I was told by my mother that I couldn't use the priesthood as a means of effecting social change still upsets me; and the church's stance on abortion rights makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Even more than that, there are many individuals- clergy and non-clergy alike- who would read this post and what else I'm about to say and tell me that I'm a sinner, I'm going to Hell, I'm not really a Catholic, I'm a bad person, etc. These are people that I'm supposed to feel in community with and feel an ability to confide in. This is the part of the church, and of my Catholic identity, that I despise with the most bitter loathing I've ever experienced.

But, by way of contrast, let me tell you about the church in which I grew up and came of age. It's a relatively small community- about 700 folks from a broad geographic area in New Hampshire- and very close-knit. Many of the members were there when my parents first moved to the area in 1984, and will be present at my wedding next summer. When my parents went through medical crises, the community was there. When my sister left school to work for the Obama campaign, the community- even the members who were McCain fans- supported her. Whenever I walked the 3-Day for the Cure, the community supported me with warm wishes, thousands of dollars, and offers for rides, training, and help fundraising.

The priest in my church for many years was Fr. Daniel St. Laurent- or, as we call him, Fr. Dan. During his decade with us, he connected us to an incredibly impoverished community in Honduras- San Francisco de la Paz- and got our communities networking to begin Project Eden, which is a grassroots project in Honduras that simultaneously prevents soil erosion, provides sustainable farming for the community, and raises money for local students to go to school. Fr. Dan's example of how to be a Catholic- how to recognize the problems of poverty and inequality in our world and how to respond to them ethically- extended to many of the other members of our community as well. When I was preparing for confirmation, my sponsor- a woman who had spent years doing education with incarcerated women- brought me to my first Habitat for Humanity project and volunteered alongside me. The man who will be officiating my wedding is a former priest (his wife is a former nun) who provides pastoral counseling in a local hospital and, on the weekends, co-facilitates support groups with my father at the federal prison.

Growing up, it was instilled in me that being a good Catholic and, more importantly, being a good person meant dedicating my life to social justice, equality, and the freedom and empowerment of all. My particular career choice (social work) has nuanced and shaped those values, but the overall themes remain the same as they were when I was a little girl at St. Thomas More parish. In my community, abortion wasn't the problem- the social conditions that made abortion desirable, such as rape and a lack of social and medical support were. Sexuality wasn't the problem- the ostracization of sexual minorities was. And while no one actively encouraged sex before marriage, or abortion, or queer relationships, no one prayed for the restitution of those folks' souls. No one preached about those folks' sins. For us, the church was about loving kindness. And this is the part of Catholicism that brings me a deep pride and joy, and that I see as consistent with my politics and choices.

Over the years, I've gone from insisting that "I'm not THAT kind of Catholic" to learning to distinguish between the values I support and the values I reject. Instead of seeing the perfect church as being taken over by evil conservative zealots, I see the church for more of what it is- a faith body with incredible flaws and incredible virtues. Given its role in shaping the justice-seeker I am today, and given the peace I gain from many of its rituals, communities, and prayers, I could no more leave it- in spite of the pain it often causes me- than I could leave feminism. So instead of turning my back on it in frustration and sorrow, I choose to remain with it and advocate for its change. Audre Lorde had a point about social change when she wrote that "the Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house," but I also think that ignoring or denying the "Master's house" isn't any more effective in bringing it down. Belonging to an institution that has so often been anti-feminist and anti-progressive is an incredible challenge. But it doesn't make me ignorant or a hypocrite.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

From Emily: Modern Black Face?

I just saw “this photo of Obama” on facebook.

Anyone disturbed by the similarity to “black face”?

I have no problem with people expressing their view that Obama is a fascist (no matter how misguided that particular view seems to me). But this kind of photo is unacceptable. I don't care if they're really trying to say he's acting like a clown, or just that he's wearing a mask. It's insensitive, and it perpetuates racism, whether they know it or not.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

From Emily: How to Help Survivors and Victims

About a year ago, a good friend of mine sent me a message on facebook. She said she was having a hard time knowing how to help a lot of her friends. She said that many of her friends were survivors of abuse, and that it bothered her to see how depressed those friends were, that they didn't seem to see the beauty in life. She also said (and this is the point where a red flag went up for me) that she couldn't convince some of these friends to forgive their former abusers, that she couldn't convince them they were only giving the abuser more power over them by staying angry.

My response then, and my response now, is that you have to be extremely careful how you talk to victims and survivors. Seriously - be very careful. Here are some informal rules I'd recommend you follow:

1. DO NOT criticize the victims/survivors. In general, these are people whose sense of self worth is struggling, and who are having a difficult time trusting others. If you start telling them "you're wrong, and you need to change," you run the risk of destroying the trust they've established with you (and they must trust you at least a bit if they're confiding in you). Also be aware that many victims/survivors do, indeed, learn to blame themselves for the perpetrators abuse. If you start telling them how bad it is for them to be unforgiving, you run the risk of reinforcing a mistaken belief that the situation is or was their fault.

2. Accept Victims and Survivors as they are, no strings attached. You're not their counselor, you're their friend. So be a supportive and accepting friend. Don't threaten to cut off your friendship (or in other words, to punish them) if they stay with the abuser. That may seem like an excellent way to help them, but what you're doing is adding to the controlling nature of the abuse. Express your concern about the abusive behavior of the perpetrator, but don't make the situation worse by manipulating the victim. Tough love works wonders in some situations, but helping out abuse victims is not one of them. I promise you, a listening ear and accepting nature will do a lot more good for the victim or survivor in the long run.

3. Recognize that forgiveness is a process. And part of that process requires a victim/survivor to recognize the abuse for the abuse that it truly is. If a person has spent years blaming him- or herself for behavior that he or she was in no way responsible for, he or she may need awhile to get used to the idea that a) the abuse was not his or her fault and that b) it was indeed wrong. So if you're around a survivor who suddenly wants to talk about how wrong the abuser was to do all the things he or she did, don't freak out. Don't judge him or her. Accept this as part of the cycle of forgiveness. After all, if a person doesn't first recognize that a wrong has indeed been done, how can he or she forgive the perpetrator of that wrong?

4. Focus on behavior patterns. As Erica said the other day, you should focus on your concern about the behavior of the perpetrator when you're talking with a victim/survivor, rather than simply criticizing the perpetrator. Let me share an anecdote that I hope will help illustrate this: last year I was living with a couple of very good friends. We had a bit of a falling out, and my then friends/roommates essentially ganged up on me. They constantly criticized my character, blamed me for everything that went wrong in the apartment, and even justified not giving me a say about anything that happened in the apartment by insisting that bad things about me negated that right. When I confronted them about how they were treating me, they insisted that their behavior was my responsibility, and explained why in great detail. If you've been following along this week, you'll probably recognize this as a classic description of abuse. (If you didn't think roommates could become abusive, think again).

A lot of people that I told about the situation just said, "they're jerks," or, "something is wrong with them," or my personal favorite, "they sound like poison." But that kind of feedback left me feeling guilty about complaining. After all, these girls had been my friends for years, and I didn't want to think poorly of them. However, when I told Erica about the situation and she recognized that what they were doing was emotional abuse, she was able to emphasize how dangerous their behavior was and stress her concern for my emotional well-being, without criticizing them. Her emphasis on how dangerous and wrong their behavior was allowed me to recognize that I could forgive them, but that for my own emotional and psychological well-being, I couldn't remain in contact with them.

Look at it this way: if you've been close to a person for years, you know both their weaknesses and their strengths. You know they can be a jerk, but you also know how wonderful they can be. Even in the midst of abuse, a perpetrator will occasionally be nice or sweet to a victim. So, if you depict the abuser as all evil, the victim is going to know it's not true, and you will now sound misguided, judgmental, and wrong. The victim may not know how to accept your advice if you seem so confused about the "true" nature of the perpetrator. When you focus on specific behavior patterns, though, you can emphasize that those behavior patterns are dangerous, despite whatever good behavior patterns are still going on. Your emphasis on behavior patterns will also show the victim how well you understand human nature and make him or her more likely to trust you.

5. Validate the victim/survivor's perspective. While you should emphasize behavior over general criticisms of the perpetrator, be understanding if the victim or survivor doesn't. Do not, do not, do not tell the victim/survivor he or she is wrong about how bad of a person the perpetrator is or was. In addition to everything else a victim/survivor is struggling through, he or she may have a very difficult time trusting his or her own judgment. In many cases, a victim has spent years with an abuser who insists "you're stupid, you're wrong, you're not worth anything," and any number of other lies. If a victim/survivor says, "I think my abuser was evil," let him or her know how much you empathize and can understand that perspective. If you respond with, "Well, I don't know. I mean, evil's a strong word," you're just reinforcing the idea that the victim/survivor cannot trust his or her own judgment. So, always validate the emotion, even if you disagree with the statement.

6. Above all else, be a reliable friend.

Hopefully those guidelines are helpful. For more tips, check out Erica's post on this subject.

From Laurel House: A guest post on the impact of Farrah Fawcett

NB: This post comes to us from the blogs of Laurel House, a non-profit domestic abuse organization in southeastern Pennsylvania where Erica spent a year doing counseling with survivors of domestic abuse.

With the passing of Farrah Fawcett yesterday, it's easy to remember her for the 70s icon that she undoubtedly was. But it is her later work, first in the play Extremities and the 1984 groundbreaking movie The Burning Bed that is significant.

Her portrayals of women affected by violence and domestic abuse allowed others to become educated and aware of the signs of domestic violence.

This was in a time when domestic violence was talked about in a whisper, if at all. The Burning Bed was a controversial movie for the heavy issues contained within.

It was a role that many other actresses might not have felt brave enough to take on, but which Farrah did. And by making a contribution to erase the stigma of rape and domestic abuse, she became a champion for women whose voices were silent. Finally, they were beginning to be heard.

They were heard on the hotlines, and The Burning Bed was reportedly the first such movie to include a toll-free domestic violence hotline at the closing credits, that of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which continues to be available for people in crisis at 800-799-SAFE. Farrah later became a board member of NDVH, and identified with the issue of domestic abuse.

There's no way to measure how many women Farrah touched by her portrayal of a battered wife. But if she saved only one life, or inspired only one woman to seek help and find her way out, then Farrah becomes more iconic in a way that deserves our remembrance, honor and gratitude.

Monday, October 26, 2009

From Erica: How to Help

The question of how to help a friend, family member, or acquaintance who's dealing with intimate partner abuse comes with a lot of answers, not all of which are necessarily wise or effective. When I used to talk to adolescents about this, for example, their first suggestion was always to tell their friend to dump their abuser or to punch the abuser in numerous unpleasant places. Their suggestions were usually funny, but effective? Not so much.

"Why isn't that effective?" you might ask. "They're in danger and their abuser's evil. They need to leave." That is often true, but think back to how a victim often perceives their abuser- someone who does bad things, but truly needs and loves the victim in spite of all that. When you tell a victim to just leave, it can sound a little bit like you don't understand what's going on and are insensitive to the needs of the victim and their abuser.

"Okay," I can hear you saying, "if you're so smart, what are better ways to keep my friend safe?" Well, I'm glad you asked! Here are some tips and suggestions for how to support someone who's being abused.

Criticize behaviours, not the person. Instead of calling someone's abuser a jerk or an asshole, consider discussing particular behaviours that concern you. Telling your friend that it worries you when their partner won't let them go out with friends, or that you're scared for their safety because the abuser says threatening things, is going to go a lot farther with your friend than straight-up insults. Remember that your friend loves their abuser to a certain extent, and also bear in mind that the abuser might've been spreading rumours about you to your friend.

Reassure your friend that you believe them. A common tactic of abusers is to tell their victims that no one will believe them if they seek help. If you can reassure your friend that you believe their story, that's a great first step to breaking the cycle of abuse.

On the same lines, reassure your friend that the abuse isn't their fault. Many abusers blame their victims for the abuse, and over time that becomes difficult for victims to disbelieve. Helping them to gain perspective on who's to blame for abuse is another good step in helping them break the cycle of abuse.

Listen to them. Remember that, as dangerous a situation as your friend might be in, they might not be ready to leave. This can be extremely difficult to deal with as a friend of a victim, but it's a reality that you need to be prepared to handle. Don't stop making sure your friend has access to hotline numbers, but don't put undue pressure on them to leave if they're really not ready.

Get informed! Over the past month we've offered you some information about abuse and the legal and social organizations that deal with it, but there's always more information out there. We can't encourage you enough to check out the website for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

A few don'ts:
  • Don't deal with the abusers directly, if at all possible. It might feel gratifying to yell at the abuser, threaten them, or tell them you know what they're up to. But it's a really bad idea! Not only does it put you in danger, but it also increases the likelihood that the abuser will use your behaviour as an excuse to hurt your friend even more.
  • Don't offer to let your friend stay with you unless you can be sure that the abuser won't come looking for them there. The last thing you need is an angry, dangerous person showing up at your home, looking for your friend. A better idea? Offer to help your friend get to a shelter or a safe drop-off point.
  • Don't become your friend's advocate. By "advocate," I mean the person who assists them in navigating the legal and social barriers to safety. If you call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, they can connect you (and your friend!) to local advocacy services that will guide your friend through the legal system. Not only does this mean that your friend is working with people with a lot of experience in this area, but it also means that you can take a step back and do what you're good at- being a good, supportive friend.
So this brings us to the end of our formal Domestic Violence Awareness Month posts. Later this week we'll have a spotlight article from the Laurel House, a domestic abuse organization that serves Southeastern Pennsylvania

As always, if you are experiencing intimate partner abuse or know someone who is, please contact your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for information, referrals, and safety-planning. To keep yourself safe, always remember to clear your browser history and, if using a cell phone, your call history.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

From Erica: in the news this past week

Here are a few more items I found in the news this week that had me intrigued, critical, thoughtfully upset, and enraged, respectively. Here they are, for your enjoyment!

The first item is an article from the Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, that discussed the meltdown of "supergirls"- the middle-class, White, seemingly ideal adolescent females who find themselves struggling with all kinds of psychological problems as they deal with the enormous pressures of their lives. I find it intriguing for several reasons, my personal experiences with such meltdowns notwithstanding. One worrisome trend I've noticed in anti-oppression work, from theorists and activists of all sorts, is the tendency to minimize or deny the very real problems that privileged folks can (and do) have. And while it's important to acknowledge the fact that some problems might appear to be objectively more pressing or serious than others, a complete denial or de-legitimization of someone's distress is unhelpful and wrong.

The second item, from CNN, looks at the mixed reception to Mattel's latest line of African-American Barbies. The dolls were created by an African-American designer who wanted to offer African-American girls the chance to play with mainstream toys that more accurately reflected their own appearances. The dolls have thus been designed with fuller lips, curlier hair, and other features that are typically defined as African in origin. The controversy now a-brewing is that the dolls aren't viewed as being "Black enough" by some folks, mostly because the dolls retain a lot of Caucasian-influenced features (especially, as one person described it, "long, straight hair"). My two cents? African-American children (and children of Colour in general) grow up in the US with fewer toys available that offer them reasonably accurate, culturally flexible, and positive representations of themselves and their identities. This needs to change. That being said, it's not like Barbie's always been a positive representation for White children, either. While White kids can expect to buy a Barbie with their combination of hair and eye colour, they can also expect to buy a Barbie that idealizes and fetishizes the female form into some gross parody of humanity. Bottom line, Barbie's problematic. As usual.

The third item comes out of Australia, where the government is considering what to do about a proposed ban on Uluru climbs. Here's the background: Uluru, also known as Ayer's Rock, is a monumental...well, rock in the Great Australian Desert. It's a popular tourist site, but more importantly, it's a sacred space for the Aboriginal groups who live in the desert. For a long time, the Australian government has permitted tourists to climb Uluru in spite of Aboriginal protests, and this ban would seek to restore the sanctity of the space from its current tourist status. I'm highlighting this controversy for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the all-too-common story of struggles between original inhabitants of an area and current dominant groups using the area for their own purposes. I visited Uluru when I was seven, and even at that age it was impressed on me by my parents- who tried to balance our tourism with a respect for the sacredness of the space in Aboriginal cultures- that, no matter how much money we paid for our tickets to be there, we were guests of the Aboriginal groups who valued Uluru, not the Australian government. Since I know not all tourists tried to strike that balance- and it can be argued that being a tourist there eliminates all possibility of balance- I would argue that a climbing ban, out of respect for the traditions of the Aboriginal people who live there, is completely reasonable.

Finally, again from the UK, we have a story about a Muslim woman who was denied entry to Burnley College because she wears the burkha. As usual, the readers of the Daily Mail felt compelled to comment on the article, or rank the comments in accordance with "agree" or "disagree," and overwhelmingly their opinions were bigoted, narrow-minded, and ignorant. Between cries of "go back to the Middle East!" and "you should just adjust to Western life!" were other remarks about how no self-respecting woman could choose the burkha, how her choice of dress is a safety concern because of what she could be hiding "under there," and how we can blame liberals (especially Prime Minister Gordon Brown) for this issue. I suppose this makes another victory for hate-mongering, Islamophobia, and a bipartisan view of the world. How depressing.

That's it for the news of the past week, at least as far as I felt like bringing it in. Tomorrow will be our final Domestic Violence Awareness Month "how-to," and we'll bring in a couple of extra posts on the side for that. We're also looking forward to bringing in a guest contributor sometime in the next few weeks as well. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

From Erica: genital restructuring survery for survivors of female genital cutting?

This morning, I woke up to an email from my partner with this link included. The article, published by Newsweek, talks about a doctor- a doctor who happens to have undergone genital restructuring surgery herself as part of a male-to-female transition- who has started working to adapt the procedures used to "create" the labia, clitoris, and vaginal openings for use on women who have (often forcibly) undergone female genital cutting.

Of course, there are some problems with the article- for example, the prevailing assumption (both from the writer and from the article's main interview subjects) that a person needs the full complement of normative female genitalia in order to be a "real" woman- but it also did a wonderful job of highlighting the myriad of roles that genitalia and sexuality play in broader human experiences. Whether it's in attaining a genital look and feel that have been taboo in one's culture, or whether it's changing the body to match one's expectations of gender and sex identity, the possibilities for effective genital restructuring surgery are broadening.

So too, as the article mentions, are the ways in which cultures can respond negatively to those feelings of empowerment that (may) come with newly restructured genitals. The article discusses the possibility of rejection that their interview subject might experience as a result of stepping away from the cultural tradition of female genital cutting; of course, negative judgement isn't limited to "Other" cultures, and while people in the United States are likely to respond positively to this particular person's surgery, trans folks in America get the short end of the stick when they pursue similar procedures.

As always, it's an interesting world out there.

Monday, October 19, 2009

From Erica: Domestic Abuse and the Law

Apologies that this post is going up late...this week has been a very hectic one!

So part of what's made domestic abuse a unique issue, particularly in the last 20 years, is that it hasn't been legally recognized as a problem in its own right. Prior to 1994, when the Violence Against Women Act was passed and signed into law in the United States, abuse-related problems such as stalking, partner rape, and manipulation were considered individually by the courts instead of as a whole. This is partially due to the fact that there were no interventions for domestic abuse at the grassroots level, either- the first domestic abuse shelters didn't open in the US until 1970.

What this post is going to do is take readers through the four basic components of domestic abuse law that tend to affect the most victims. I'm going to point out some of the biases beforehand, just to get them out of the way. First, many of these laws presume that couples are heterosexual, and are more difficult to enforce when the victim and abuser are the same sex, genderqueer, or otherwise sexually marginalized. Second, some of these laws are only applicable to marital partners or people who share children, and thus might not be anywhere near major concerns for other victims. And, of course, many of the laws presume that the victim in an abusive situation is a woman.

But, shortcomings aside, here are four basic legal areas to be familiar with!

The Violence Against Women Act
VAWA was originally passed in 1994, with subsequent revisions and renewals in 2000 and 2005. You can find a comparison of the three versions here, in PDF format, which illustrates what has and hasn't changed over the last 15 years. The initial legislation is impressive in and of itself, given the fact that nothing of its sort had really been passed before. Among other things, VAWA
  • Created funding for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and subsequent state coalitions
  • Developed training programs for law enforcement personnel who respond to domestic abuse calls
  • Developed special advocacy programs for child victims of abuse
  • Implemented community education programs for adults and youth
  • Permitted immigrant women who were abused to file for resident status independent of their partners (husbands at the time)
  • Made marital rape a crime
Since then, in its subsequent revisions, the scope of social research that VAWA funds has expanded. It has also been changed to grant immigrant victims of partner abuse an automatic legal resident status, and offers a legal resident status for victims of trafficking. More restrictions have been placed on perpetrators of abuse as well, including restricting who can apply for a spouse's green card and making it a felony to cross state borders to commit an act of intimate partner violence. VAWA has also been updated to be more queer-friendly as well, although the implementation of queer-friendly policies is still variable.

In short, VAWA has made anti-abuse efforts what they are today, and has made it possible for individuals to leave abusers and have the protection of the law. While it's not a perfect piece of legislation, and certainly needs more funding, it takes us a far cry from where we were 15 years ago.

Divorce Law
Divorce laws are rather tricky to talk about in general terms, because they're set on a state-by-state basis. Many states distinguish between fault and no-fault divorces (i.e. when a divorce occurs because of infidelity vs. when a divorce occurs because two people are no longer happy together), and the presence of abuse in the relationship can affect that.

The most useful thing to say about divorces in relation to domestic abuse is that victims must often be prepared for protracted legal battles. In many states, the process begins with a petition for divorce, goes through an investigative period, undergoes divorce mediation (where it can end if everyone agrees about the settlement), and, if all else fails, will be decided in divorce court. A more thorough description can be found here; particularly where abuse is concerned, however, remember that the abuser often does not want to relinquish control of the victim in any way. The abuser might fight the original petition, or may drag their victim's name through the proverbial mud in an attempt to avoid alimony. They might make the legal battle go on for years, just to keep the victim from being able to start a new legal relationship, and often exploit as many legal loopholes as they can in the process.

Many domestic abuse advocates are trained in divorce proceedings, and while they aren't lawyers, can give victims state-specific information about the process and can offer support as victims go through it.

Custody, again, is determined on a state-by-state basis, and it is best to seek a lawyer or legal advocate when beginning the process. The proceedings may happen in conjunction with divorce proceedings, or may happen when unmarried parents are separating or when a parent (often the father) wants custody rights that zie doesn't yet have.

For many states, when deciding custody cases where abuse has occurred, the deciding factor about custody or visitation will be whether the children have experienced the abuse themselves. Someone who abuses their partner but not their children will often get visitation or partial custody rights, often regardless of whether the children have witnessed the abuse. This is a tricky situation for victims to find themselves in, and is unfortunately very common. There are legitimate concerns on the part of the victim that the abuser will continue to abuse and manipulate the victim through the children, or will switch the abuse to the children themselves. Furthermore, in cases where the victim is afraid for hir own safety, there isn't always a safeguard in place for keeping the situation safe while the children leave one parent and go to visit the other. Some states such as Pennsylvania have programs that provide safe visitation sites, but it's not a universal in the US.

The other problem with custody laws that many victims fail to consider is the fact that many violations thereof are often civil matters, not criminal. An abuser who fails to pay child support isn't committing a criminal act, and neither is the abuser who fails to show up for visitation. However, failing to return children to the primary guardian on time can lead to criminal charges, especially if there's documentation of the arrangement; the same is true of arrangements to take children out-of-state if both parents reside in the same state. It is of utmost importance that any irregularities in the custody arrangement- any decisions to bring children to visit relatives in a neighbouring state, or decisions to leave children with their non-primary guardian when it's not the usual time- be documented and signed by both parties if possible. Charges of kidnapping might sound ridiculous, but can be brought under these circumstances under the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act.

Restraining Orders
As with the other two areas of law we've discussed so far, restraining orders ave a state-by-state component to them. In New Hampshire, for instance, victims need to file for restraining orders either on the basis of stalking or on the basis of domestic abuse. At this point, most states recognize that restraining orders are valuable resources for people who are experiencing abuse, but who may not be being abused by an intimate partner. Therefore, many restraining orders are available to victims of abuse by current partners, former partners, sexual intimates, other parent of children, or family members, and a marital arrangement is not a necessary condition.

Whether or not someone gets a restraining order is, of course, not nearly as straightforward as the law would make it seem. For most states, petitioners for restraining orders have the burden of proof, and must be able to demonstrate that their circumstances meet the minimum legal criteria to be eligible for the order. These criteria involve evidence of physical harm or a reasonable threat of physical harm, a reasonable fear for the victim's safety, and the relationship criteria mentioned earlier. Many states also allow for psychological abuse in restraining orders, and include criteria such as threats of suicide, stalking, the use of coercion, or harassment.

To have the best odds of winning a restraining order, victims should gather as much evidence as possible of their abuser's behaviour. Phone records, medical records, photographs, the testimony of neighbours or other potential witnesses, and police records are all acceptable forms of evidence that can help victims. Many states offer temporary restraining orders for victims who call the police in immediate danger, and these can also be used as credible evidence that a threat to the victim's safety exists. Victims should keep in mind, however, that defendants are allowed to counter-file for restraining orders; victims who have fought back against their abusers might be surprised to find that their abusers have also been documenting the psychological and physical harms that have been done to them. Not all judges will recognize (or be able to tell) the difference between abuse and self-defense.

This has been an incredibly brief overview of some very complicated topics, and I strongly encourage all readers- whether experiencing abuse or not- to do more research on the subject. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (at 1-800-799-7233) isn't just there for victims! It can refer callers to the legal resources they need for further information, and can connect callers to state coalitions for state-by-state information.

As always, if you are experiencing intimate partner abuse or know someone who is, please contact your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for information, referrals, and safety-planning. To keep yourself safe, always remember to clear your browser history and, if using a cell phone, your call history.

Friday, October 16, 2009

In the news...

Here are some stories that have been making the news recently:

First, in Louisiana, a judge refused to sign a marriage license for an interracial couple, saying he was "concerned for the children" of such a marriage because "most interracial marriages don't last." He then went on to assert that his decision isn't racist because he is willing to do "ceremonies for Black couples right here in [his] house." News flash, Judge Bardwell: being willing to marry People of Colour but not interracial couples doesn't make you non-racist. It just makes you a eugenicist.

Then we've got the "Rape-Nuts" issue. Seen in this clip, Jon Stewart discusses the shocking news that 30 Republicans want the government to have the right to do business with companies that require employees to sign away their rights to sue over gang rape.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

I'm almost speechless over this issue, especially since New Hampshire's very own Judd Gregg was one of the congress members to vote against the bill. This kind of hypocrisy just underlines the disjoint between how we respond to crimes that involve money and crimes that involve the types of abuse we associate with "domestic disputes." Frankly, I think it should be illegal for a company to place that kind of clause in their contracts in the first place. If the company was in any way responsible for the gang rape, they should be held accountable for it. But this bill wasn't even trying to prevent companies from creating these kinds of contracts - it was just trying to prevent the government from doing business with them if they choose to practice such unconscionable methods.

Then, finally, we get the deliciousness that is the GOPs recent attempts to revamp its image in America- especially its image with African-Americans and other racially marginalized groups. Not only did they mistakenly list Jackie Robinson as a "great Republican" and then fail to address their continuing stances on projects that act to the detriment of marginalized Americans (i.e. maintenance of the current health care system; laissez-faire approaches to education and the economy; idealization of a heterosexual, two-parent family format), but they do so in a way that clearly aims to recruit as many young, marginalized people as possible- sick of your "old white guy" image, Republicans? Snappy website design isn't enough to fix your problems.

We'll be back, I'm sure, with more news as it happens.

From Erica: Meet the Garcias

There's a new documentary a-brewing from CNN, according to syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. Called "Latino in America," the documentary seeks to explore the variety of lifestyles and cultural mixes that people of Latin, Hispanic, Mestizo, and Chicano/a heritage live in the United States. For Navarrette, the point of the documentary:
For those of us in the Latino community who worry that those of us in the media are missing the best and most nuanced stories about America's largest minority because we're too busy harping on stereotypes and accentuating the negative -- "I'll take an order of high school dropouts, with a side of gangbangers and mix in some gardeners and housekeepers" -- there was a concern that CNN would blow the assignment.

At least the cable network had the courage to take it on. Many of its competitors -- ABC, NBC, CBS, etc. -- still broadcast in black-and-white and haven't grasped the absurdity of producing Sunday morning talk shows where journalists and pundits gather for roundtable discussions that touch on Latino issues without a single Latino at the table.

He goes on to articulate a strong desire that the documentary illustrate how,
following the script laid out by the Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews who came before them, Latinos are learning English, having smaller families, starting businesses, moving to the suburbs, joining the PTA and sending their kids to college. Many of them are just -- like the Irish, Germans and Jews who came before them -- trying to find ways to do all that while still preserving their culture and heritage.

In the meantime, many of them are in a kind of holding pattern. They're considered too Mexican or too Cuban or too Puerto Rican to be Americans. And yet at the same time, were they to visit their ancestral homelands, they'd be considered too American to be Mexican or Cuban or Puerto Rican.

So the documentary- which deliberately gave all its characters the last name "Garcia"- aims to illustrate, as realistically as possible, the positives and negatives of life as a person in a society that hates your heritage.

I'm interested to see this documentary, which was produced by Soledad O'Brien, and see how it tackles the question of assimilation in particular. For Navarrette, who described the moment as "time to exhale," the documentary apparently did a decent job of representing the ambivalence of assimilation for the folks who have chosen that route. And I'm glad that he, and hopefully the documentary, brought up the historical connection between majority America's current witch-hunt for Latinos and majority America's treatment of just about any large group of people with a particular heritage.

I find it worth asking though, in advance of the documentary, what the socioeconomic (and geographic) influences are on a person's decision of how much to assimilate. Given the high amount of pressure for Latinos to have smaller families, learn English, and behave like mainstream majority middle-class Americans, I would imagine that the decision to assimilate is in part determined by the amount of social and economic power one wields. A person who's highly respected in the majority eye- who probably has done their fair share of assimilating to be there or to stay there- might have a better chance of assimilating and being "allowed" to do that without harassment than the person who has to work two full-time jobs in order to survive. I would imagine, too, that geography plays a role in assimilation choices, given that overt acts of racism and exclusion (particularly "round-ups" for deportation) are more common in certain areas of the country and are generally targeted at Latino/as who don't meet majority definitions of "American."

Regardless, I'm looking forward to this documentary, and I'm interested to hear about the responses it will get from the folks who view it. At the very least, I hope it begets a positive change in the way people of Latin descent are portrayed in majority (especially White) culture.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Erica: here, queer, and apparently invisible

So on October 11, 2009, there was a 75,000-person rally held in Washington, DC to promote the rights of LGBTQI individuals to serve openly in the US military. This is the first I heard about it:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Queer and Loathing in D.C.
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

That's right. The first I heard about it was on a comedy news show the next day. Not only on a comedy news show in general, but on a segment on that comedy news show that was poking fun of news networks (particularly Fox) for failing to give the event any coverage at all. And three days later, neither Google searches nor searches on individual news websites turn up anything more than a few short articles or minute-long video segments about the march (I'm looking at you, ABC, CNN, and Fox).

When the tea parties were being hosted across the US to protest Obama and his push for health care reform, the media couldn't get enough of it. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is getting some media coverage, but apparently 75,000 queers and allies on the Washington Mall listening to discharged military members speak passionately about the need to reform the government's homo- and bi-phobia isn't enough to get all of us hot and bothered.

We're here. We're queer. But 15 years after the signing of Don't Ask, Don't Tell into law, you still can't stand to let us have our voice.

From Erica: Roman Polanski

As usual, I'm spitting and fuming over the things I find on the Internet, and today's specimen is none other than the comments posted in response to Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic for today. Here's the comic for those readers who don't follow it regularly. I've linked it back to its original location on the Doonesbury website, for those who want to see the storyline from the beginning.

Here's the thing. I've been hearing a lot of opinions about what Polanski did or didn't do, and how much of a crime it was or wasn't. And while the primary evidence appears to be the transcript of his then-13-year-old victim's testimony, which has been posted on The Smoking Gun, the basic facts of the case are as follows: in the 1970s, he had a 13-year-old girl take off her clothes while he photographed her, gave her champagne and Quaaludes, and vaginally and anally penetrated her. Two weeks later, she testified against him, he submitted a plea bargain which was rejected, and he ran away to France.

Since his return to the United States a few weeks ago, a media storm has erupted over what should or shouldn't happen to him. Some celebrities are leaping to his defense, most notably Whoopi Goldberg, who described his behaviour as "not rape-rape." And while others have been advocating for the resuming of his trial, a new trial, or simply forcing him to serve the sentence that the Superior Court judge was probably going to give him, I'm more than horrified at the way the focus has been shifted from Polanski's responsibility for his actions onto the victim and what she should or shouldn't have done (and, more frighteningly, what she did or didn't want).

Here's a relatively representative comment from the boards in response to Doonesbury's storyline:
"And anyone [sic] of you who doesn’t think that a 13-year old can be seriously into sex (not saying that this one was) must never have taken a look at 13-year-olds lately, if ever. I knew a 13-year old when I was in middle school who would sleep with just about anybody. She later became one of the high school’s snooty elite. I talked with her long after the fact, and there was no coercion, no abuse - she just liked sex, period."
Thank you, Farren, for that gross generalization. Clearly, since there are 13-year-olds who like sex, any and all 13-year-olds are out to get some from anyone they meet. Never mind the substances that are introduced to their bloodstreams, never mind the ages of the people they have sex with, and never mind their individual preferences about whether they should be sexually active or not. As another poster put it, "If Roman Polanski committed rape, then does the age of the victim matter? Is raping a thirteen-year-old worse than raping a 33-year-old or a 63-year-old?" (Thank you, DavidDow, who leapt to Polanski's defense repeatedly through the internet flame war).

I'll admit to flaws in my post. First, the internet is renowned for its disproportionate representation of poorly-expressed opinions and its ability to bring out the mean, cruel, or stupid in all of us (and I most assuredly include myself in that category). Second, 20 comments after a comic does not a movement make. However limited my sampling may be, though, this isn't the first time I've heard or read these sorts of opinions being expressed en masse in a public forum, and as such I think I can use them as a small representation of a much broader category.

This whole side of the Polanski affair perpetuates many of the worst stereotypes about sexual assault that anti-oppression activists have been working to correct for years and years, and highlights how little many of us know about our laws and the purposes that they represent.

First: when someone's been given drugs and alcohol, they aren't in a position to consent, no matter how they feel when they're sober. Even the US military- a group not exactly renowned for its victim-friendly policies or practices- holds that one drink is enough to impair a person's reasonable ability to consent to sexual activity. And when you combine alcohol with Quaaludes (also called methaqualone, which is a sedative similar to barbituates), you're talking about someone who's going to be extra-sleepy, extra-out-of-it, and extra-unable to consent.

Second: adolescents are frequently sexualized. That's normal. With all the hormones surging through their bodies, of course they're talking about sex, thinking about sex, and some of them are having sex. Some states recognize this, and have established age of consent laws that protect the rights of adolescents who are sexually active by removing statutory rape charges from situations where the partners are close in age. That doesn't even begin to cover a situation like this one, though, where one of the people involved was three times the age of the adolescent. At that point, it doesn't matter how much she thought she consented: it wasn't her legal right. According to the state, she couldn't consent. Period.

Third: adolescent sexuality may be common, and may lead to situations where the adolescent(s) in question pursue sexual relationships with people to whom they can't legally consent, like Polanski. I don't think that's the case here at all, but I think it needs to be addressed. However, part of the distinction that the law makes between sexual minors (under 18) and those of sexual majority (18 and older) is the capacity to be responsible for one's actions. And with the age of majority comes a maxim of US civil code: ignorance of the law is no excuse. Someone of Polanski's age and experience, according to our social and legal standards, should not be having sex with a 13-year-old.

The idea that Polanski would be overcome by his victim's seductive wiles, as some comments have suggested, is simply a revitalization of the idea that rape victims "asked" for the assault by dressing provocatively, walking alone at night, or going to a party. Whether she could have protected herself better by not accompanying him, or being more forceful in saying no, is beside the point. The fact remains that Polanski is an adult, with adult responsibilities, and he alone is responsible for the choice to violate someone's lack of consent.

Monday, October 12, 2009

From Emily: Surviving Stereotypes about Domestic Abuse

We promised some first hand accounts of survival, and ever since we announced this month's focus I've been debating the best way to bring in my own survival account. You'll probably hear more from me on this topic in the next couple weeks, but for now I want to describe my own experience with false stereotypes about abuse. In a later post, I'll also give some practical advice to keep in mind when you're working with a victim of abuse.

I was a victim of physical, verbal, emotional, and non-physical sexual (yes, that does exist) abuse from my father when I was growing up. My father is in fact schizophrenic, so my mother tended to make excuses for his behavior, and she once even admitted to wondering if I was responsible for the abuse. Shocking, I know, but true. Incidentally, she doesn't remember saying that.

Another thing that may sound shocking is that it has been just as hard for me to get over the way others responded when I went to them for help, as it has been recovering from the abuse itself. While I was still suffering from the abuse, I spoke to licensed therapists, ecclassiastical leaders, immediate and extended family members, not to mention a wide array of friends. Few of them took me seriously, many accused me of lying or exaggerating, and some even accused me of causing the abuse. Here's a brief outline of my experience trying to seek help as a high school student:

1. First I spoke to a family doctor. She recommended I go to a counselor since "the only thing I could control was my own attitude." She said the way my father treated me might be my fault, but not my father's mental illness. She then interrogated me about whether I ever heard and saw things nobody else did, since schizophrenia is sometimes genetic. Needless to say, I did not confide in her again.

2. Next I spoke to a school counselor. She said she couldn't help me out with the situation with my father, but then asked if it was hard for me to be Mormon and have to go to school with people who didn't share my beliefs. I told her of course not! and wondered where the question had even come from.

3. Next I went to a church youth leader. She said she felt bad about what I was going through, but that there was nothing she could do to help me. She compared what I was going through to her experience working on her family's farm when she was growing up. She said it would make me stronger.

4. I spoke to my Bishop (the equivalent of a pastor or priest in other branches of Christianity). He spoke to my mother, referred us to a counselor, and decided, upon counsel from the church, not to report the abuse.

5. I went to the counselor with my mother. He told me I could do nothing about the situation, that it was between my father and mother. I said he made it sound like I was helpless, and he said, "well, you are." He said he was afraid there wasn't enough evidence for a social worker to do any good, so he didn't report the abuse. He kept asking how my grades were. I told him I was at the top of my class, and he seemed to take it as evidence that I was truly ok. I asked him if he'd have done anything if I'd been cutting myself, and he said he'd have put me on anti-depressants.

6. I told family members in my extended family on my father's side, who either told me it was my fault, or that I was lying.

7. I told friends, all of whom were supportive, but some of whom later admitted to thinking I was making some of it up. One friend said "either do something about it, or stop complaining!"

8. I spoke to another church leader, who told me that God must have a reason for letting me go through something like this. She seemed to be pressing for me to confide in her, and she in fact was the one to bring up the subject.

9. One of the friends I told convinced me to go to a feminist organization through UNH. The people at that organization told me they couldn't help me, but that the police could. They all but made me promise that I would indeed go to the police.

10. I went to the police and told them everything. The officer I spoke to asked if I'd feel safer with my father out of the house. I said, "of course!" and he said he'd pull up a restraining order immediately. Then he called my mother and said the state would take action against her if she didn't help protect her children from her husband. She was more than willing, and I later learned she had originally told my father to leave several months earlier. But when he laughed at her, she assumed she could do nothing.

11. When my father's family learned what I had done, they were irate. They accused me of lying, and they accused my mother of conspiring against him with me. My grandmother (who was Christian, but I don't know what branch she belonged to at the time) called and said my mother and I would answer to God for what we'd done. My father's brothers and sisters all blamed me. One of my cousins, whose father was even more abusive than mine, called in tears to find out if it was true. He had always seen my father as a very good man, as a role model even, and was crushed to learn it wasn't true.

12. My mother's friends and family were excited when they learned she was getting a divorce, but they told her they disapproved of my decision to go to the police without first consulting her.

The saddest thing about it all is the number of people who told me God was letting me go through it for a reason. Some people were so caught up in the stereotype that a victim blames herself for the abuse, that they assumed I couldn't be suffering through abuse if I recognized it as such. By the end of those years I spent reaching out for help, I too believed it was my fault. Not because I thought my father was without blame, but because I was convinced God was putting me through it for a reason. I thought I must be too arrogant, or confident, or bad in some other way, and that God was using the abuse to make me a better person. Crazy sounding, I know, but many of the people I spoke to expressed that belief. They just didn't recognize how disturbing the logical progression of those kinds of beliefs truly would be.

Later, after I was out of the abusive situation, some people even discouraged me from discussing what I'd been through. A few months after I went to the police, my grandmother tricked me into having pizza with her and my father, by promising he wouldn't be there. My older sister got mad when I refused to come out of the bathroom. When I left for college, one friend said, "Come on, your father can't be all bad," and told me I needed to forgive my father. It was less than a year since I had gotten out of the abusive situation, and I was still suffering from a subsequent fear of men at the time. Another friend told me she didn't want to hear about any of it. To this day, I've never said a word to her about it. And many, many others simply acted (and act, because all of this is still ongoing) as if I'm committing a social taboo if I mention the abuse.

To this day, nobody in my extended or immediate family understands why I'm so averse to my father's presence that I refuse to even speak to him. About a year ago, he attacked his own brother and nearly strangled him to death. My uncle refused to press charges, so my father wasn't arrested or committed to a mental institution even then. Even after witnessing this happen, my mother allows and even encourages him to visit and come into the house while she and my siblings are home. Last Christmas, he came by the house every single day I was home with my family. There were days that I spent hours closeted upstairs because he was downstairs visiting the rest of my family, and they "didn't know how to tell him to leave without being rude." They even let him go upstairs while I was up there, because someone was already using the downstairs bathroom. One year he asked for my phone number, and my older sister gave it to him.

The problem with the way others responded to my situation, is that after hearing and seeing all those reactions, it was (and still is, at times) very hard for me not to wonder if I indeed over-reacted and exaggerated about the situation, like so many people have accused me of doing. But, let's be honest - when a father throws a kirby vacuum at his daughter, frequently threatens physical violence, makes sexual comments to her and about her, and even steals her underwear and keeps it in a paper bag in his garage... that's a pretty serious situation.

Bottom line, be careful about how you respond to victims and survivors of any form of abuse. In a few days, I'll post a list of things to keep in mind if you're trying to help out a victim or survivor of abuse.

From Erica: Unseen Victims of Domestic Abuse

Last week, while our posts focused on basic information about domestic abuse, we kept mentioning one thing in passing: victims of domestic abuse come from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all identities, all persuasion, and all ages. Today, I'd like to give more consideration to what that means, both for the sake of changing our stereotypes about abuse and also for the sake of increasing access to services that can help.

First, we'll go back to the stereotypical abusive relationship. Mainstream culture and media, more so than we may think, promote an image of abuse that involves a man and woman in their early-to-mid 30s, married more often than not, who are White, marginally affluent, and have a couple of children. The woman is meek, the man is domineering, and there's a lot of physical violence, especially if the husband's been drinking. The only physical or mental dis/Abilities portrayed are her injuries and his out-of-control rage.

There are so many possibilities and identities missing from this picture, it's hard to swallow. Do some people and situations mirror this image? Of course. Do all? Certainly not, and the problem is that our society, including many of the legal and social initiatives that exist to eradicate domestic abuse, often only accommodates this one.

Let's just take a brief look at who gets left out by this picture:
  • People of Colour
  • Lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks
  • Trans and intersex folks
  • The elderly
  • Men who are abused by women
  • Adolescents
  • People with dis/Abilities
  • Folks who aren't married
  • Folks living at one socioeconomic extreme or another
  • Immigrants, particularly those who don't speak English fluently
  • Folks being abused by relatives other than their spouse or partner
  • Folks from particularly strong religious families or communities
  • Victims with active addictions to alcohol or illicit substances
  • People living with HIV/AIDS
For folks in these and other groups, the barriers to leaving an abusive relationship are compounded by the additional barriers their abusers may throw at them, along with stigmas from others and themselves.

As an example, let's look at People of Colour, particularly those who may be living in a predominately White area. One barrier to leaving an abusive relationship might be fear of "confirming" a negative stereotype about a particular racial or ethnic background. Consider stereotypes about African-American men- that they're highly aggressive, sexualized, and dangerous- and consider how a predominately White community might react to the news that their neighbour is being abused by her African-American husband. Or consider how that community might react if it becomes apparent that abuse is happening in a couple of Middle Eastern origin, given that White society assumes that partner abuse is acceptable in Middle Eastern cultures. Rather than supporting the victim in escaping the abusive situation, the community might defect to the stereotypes and assume that "it's okay for you, this is supposed to happen." It might also happen that the community be supportive, but act in a way that suggests that they're "rescuing" the victim from a bad situation caused by the race or ethno-cultural background of their abuser. Either way, dealing with the racism of the community or society at large- and potentially confirming it by revealing the abuse- can be a significant barrier to leaving.

In a similar vein, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex folk all face barriers associated with community-based and society-based stigma. In an effort to gain acceptance of their relationships, LGBTI folks and their allies have often painted extra-rosy pictures of their day-to-day lives. Coming out about abuse can disrupt this positive stereotype and exchange it for the negative one: that LGBTI folk are incapable of having responsible, healthy relationships. And on the subject of "coming out:" for the LGBTI person who isn't out, the threat of being involuntarily "outed" by their abuser can be enough to keep them from trying to leave their situation, particularly if their families or friends are homo- or trans-phobic or if their employers are likely to fire them shortly thereafter. The latter is especially a concern for trans folks, since gender presentation is not protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the US.

Stereotypes and stigmas are massive barriers for all of the folks on the list above- people with dis/Abilities (they have relationships?), the elderly (they have relationships?), adolescents (it can't be serious, it's puppy love), religious folks (their religions must say it's okay), immigrants (they don't know any better), men being abused by women (he's a sissy or he's lying), people at socioeconomic extremes (they don't know any better or they're rich so who cares?), folks who aren't married (they get what's coming to them), folks with active addictions or HIV/AIDS (they deserve what they get), and folks who are being abused by non-partners (that doesn't count as abuse). And one of the big problems that these stereotypes cause is that shelters, hotlines, counseling services, and legal protections often buy into them as well.

This buying-in doesn't necessarily mean that shelters openly espouse the sorts of views I've described here. Rather, it tends to mean that organizations often forget that there are special barriers for these victims and that they may come with particular needs as a result. For example, neither of the shelters I've worked at was readily accessible for anyone in a wheelchair, and for safety reasons, neither of them permitted victims to bring any caregivers to the shelter. Suddenly, a victim who requires assistance to eat, use the bathroom, bathe, or do any number of mundane activities is unable to go to a shelter because of the fear- on the part of the shelters- that a caregiver is the primary abuser or will be unable to maintain the confidentiality of the shelter location. Many shelters, including those funded by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, don't have space for male survivors of any sexuality, gender-queer survivors never cross their radars, and even trans women will often be asked to leave if they're "outed" to shelter staff- something I've seen happen. Adolescents, unless they're over the age of 18, are rarely accepted to shelters in their own right, because legally they're supposed to be residing with their parents. Folks with active addictions are often turned away for liability reasons. And it can be costly and impractical for shelters to provide resources, referrals, and staff that are competent in many languages and cultures and familiar with immigration laws.

Of course, the barriers presented by "buying in" are legal as well; many of the legal protections we'll discuss next week, such as restraining orders and custody papers, are more difficult to obtain when there are stereotypes operating against one's credibility and capabilities. A pernicious stereotype that affects the ability of LGBTI people to get restraining orders, for example, is that abuse between LGBTI partners is just "fighting between friends," and therefore no restraining order is needed. One's ability to express oneself verbally or in writing- in English or in any language- can impact that as well, and having a mental health diagnosis (especially bipolar disorder or schizophrenia) also reduces the likelihood that one's story will be believed.

Later in the week we'll come back to this topic and take a closer look at the social power dynamics that impact marginalized peoples' decisions to leave abusive situations. For now, however, I invite you to check out some of the Domestic Violence Awareness Month activities that are going on around the country, and participate if you are able!

As always, if you are experiencing intimate partner abuse or know someone who is, please contact your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for information, referrals, and safety-planning. To keep yourself safe, always remember to clear your browser history and, if using a cell phone, your call history.

Friday, October 9, 2009

From Erica: Philly AIDS Walk 2009

Dear readers

In one week, I'll be participating in the Philly AIDS Walk, which is an annual fundraiser for HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment in the Philadelphia area. This walk has been a major source of funding for local HIV/AIDS organizations since 1987, and continues to be the primary awareness-raising event of the year for many of them.

HIV/AIDS continues to be a major health problem for approximately 30,000 people living in the greater Philadelphia area, and around the world. Here are some statistics from the AIDS Walk Philly website:


* There are an estimated 30,000 people living with HIV in the Greater Philadelphia Region (Philadelphia Deptartment of Health)


* According to the most recent data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the UN Report on AIDS, there are an estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. – the highest level ever.

* Estimates suggest that at least half of all new HIV infections in the U.S. are among those younger than 25, and that the majority of young people are infected sexually.

* Approximately 25-30% of people infected with HIV do not know it.

* About half of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S. are not receiving medial care.


* By the end of 2005, there were an estimated 38.6 million people living with HIV. Of these, 10 million are young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

* In 2005, AIDS killed about 2.8 million people. 25 million have died since the first case was recognized in 1981.

* According to the UN Report on AIDS, an estimated 4.1 million people were newly infected last year.

* The UN expects global funds for anti-AIDS efforts to reach $8.9 billion this year, “far short” of the $14.9 billion needed to meet the organization’s target.

Part of the goal of Not Another Wave is to connect readers and contributors to a larger network of activists and anti-oppression thinking and change. This walk highlights the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, which has a significant impact on the power dynamics of our country and our world. Think about it: who is often identified as a "typical" person living with HIV or AIDS? While it's often identified as a problem faced only by drug users and people who have copious amounts of unprotected sex, the fact is that many people living with HIV/AIDS do not engage in significantly risky behaviours; many of them are born with HIV as a result of having parents who are living with HIV or AIDS. In order to make a change in the world, we need to tackle not only the misconceptions surrounding the virus, but also have an impact on the funding and treatment options available to those who live with it.

Since I signed up for the walk only a few days ago, I don't have a huge fundraising goal as I normally would. My goal is to raise $100. Every dollar counts, however, and it would be absolutely phenomenal if we could exceed my goal and give more to the organizations who are counting on it.

So are you in? If so, please donate now by clicking the link on my walk page. Any support you can offer is greatly appreciated, and I'll let you know how the walk is!

Thank you so much in advance!

From Erica: Mythbusters time!

Intimate partner abuse has been around about as long as people have been having relationships with each other, but it wasn't until recently that it was talked about openly, recognized as a unique crime, and dealt with in the law. In fact, it wasn't until 1974 that domestic abuse shelters even existed. Between the long years of silence and the caricatures of domestic abuse portrayed in popular media, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around out there. These have all kinds of implications for working with victims and survivors of abuse, from lack of support to outright denial of their legal rights and protections. Today, we present to you:


Myth #1: It's only abuse if someone gets hit.
As we saw on Monday, there are many forms of abuse that occur in unhealthy or violent relationships, and only one of them is physical violence. In fact, most people who have been victimized by abusive partners say that physical abuse was the last form of abuse they experienced, after the abuser had been using everything else. In 44% of abuse cases with female victims, physical abuse doesn't begin until after the victim is pregnant or gives birth. Many victims that I've worked with have said that the emotional injuries of abuse take many times longer to heal than any physical injuries they have.

Myth #2: Abuse is a "family matter," not a public one.
There is a common idea that abuse is a private concern and should not be aired in public. This can keep organizations such as the police from offering much-needed assistance to victims, and can keep victims from feeling that they can or should tell anyone about their situation.

The fact of the matter is that abuse is criminal behaviour and, as such, is never a private concern. It can have long-reaching consequences, from psychological effects on children, to missed hours and days in the workplace, to increased burdens on medical providers, to emotional stress on family and friends. When a person is being abused- is being psychologically tortured, physically and sexually assaulted, and prevented from seeking help- it is not something that we can remain silent about.

Myth #3: Abuse only happens in "problem" families.
The idea of a "problem family," one where so many other dysfunctional factors exist that abuse is hardly a problem, is troublesome and a myth about abuse. As the Outreach Coordinator of a domestic abuse organization in New Hampshire put it: "The idea of a 'problem' family is immediately suspect because it presupposes the existence of non-problem or 'normal' families in the majority of homes. The concept of a non-problem family masks the realty of the statistics on abuse: according to the FBI, one in four women is a victim of domestic abuse...The myth that only 'problem' families experience violence also encourages social service workers, police, and court personnel to look for 'reasons' and family 'problems' to explain away the violence."

Myth #4: Abuse only happens between a man and a woman.
There is no one type of relationship in which abuse occurs. The stereotype is that a man beats his girlfriend or his wife; the reality is a lot more complicated. Abuse can happen in any relationship- friendship, partnership, relatives- in which one person chooses to exert power over another. While women are overwhelmingly the victims of reported cases of abuse, and men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators in the same, it is important that we begin to recognize that abuse can happen between adolescents (approximately one in four, as with adults), in same-sex couples (one million cases of same-sex violence are reported in the US each year), and with female perpetrators and male victims. On Monday, we'll be talking more about victims and survivors whose needs aren't met as a result of this myth.

Myth #5: Abuse only happens because a person is high or drunk at the time.
The myth that a person abuses because they are high or drunk is incredibly pervasive, but not true. Abusers who also use alcohol or drugs will abuse when they are high or drunk, but also when they are sober. Some abusers don't use alcohol or drugs at all. For those that do, promising to seek assistance for substance abuse can be an effective means of maintaining control: as long as their victims believe that it's the alcohol or drugs that cause the abuse, apologies and promises to stop using will sound like the end of the cycle of abuse. Unfortunately, the problem of abuse lies not in being drunk or high, but in making the decision to be abusive. Until that decision is changed, the abuse will continue.

Similarly, many people assume that abusers have problems with their temper and need anger management therapy in order to stop abusing. Again, abuse is a decision, not an effect of a short temper. Abusers are often able to handle frustrating or angering situations at work or in other settings in a calm or reasonable manner, but choose not to do so with their partners. Abuse is a choice, not an accident.

Myth #6: It's only low-income families that deal with abuse.
This is a myth that is particularly prevalent in social service jobs, simply because many of the people who access services such as domestic abuse shelters are financially limited and can't pursue other options, like staying in a hotel or flying to family members in different states. Affluent victims of abuse may face unique challenges to escaping abuse, including pressure to "keep up appearances" of having a perfect life. The evidence shows that people from all walks of life can experience abuse and can be abusers; "certain kinds" of people aren't predisposed to violence.

Myth #7: Abused women are an easily-definable, easily recognized group
If you believe TV and politicians, "abused women" are almost always married to an alcoholic or addict, 20-35 years old, unemployed, mothers to two or more children, religious, and are passive and meek. This is a myth. People who are abused come from every country, every background, every age group, and every sort of identity. Some victims do represent this stereotype, but many more do not. There is no particular kind of person who is more likely to be abused than any other.

Myth #8: Victims of abuse wanted it or asked for it with their behaviours.
This is a particularly damaging myth that holds no truth. Many victims are told by their abusers that they deserve the abuse they experience, or have asked for it by being "disobedient." Many are also told that they provoked the abuse in the first place, because they "know" that their abusers will respond in a certain way. Furthermore, as the Outreach Coordinator says, "many [victims] have been questioned, by those from whom they have sought help, as to what they did to provoke such violence, and have been counseled to look to themselves for reasons and/or blame for violence, and to change their own behaviour in order to avoid abuse. This has encouraged many victims to stay in a violent relationship for years, trying to discover just what they do to provoke attacks. It is erroneous and demeaning to claim that anyone ever deserves the violence done to them."

Something to consider, readers, takes us back to the cycle of violence I described on Monday: the cycle that begins with tension-building, has an abusive phase, and then switches into a "honeymoon" phase where everything seems perfect. While "provocation" is a very loaded word to use, it must be acknowledged that some victims will facilitate an abusive incident as a means of survival. The tension-building phase may have become too intense to psychologically bear, or they want the abuser to be in a "honeymoon" frame of mind for when children come home from school, or they need the assistance of police to escape the abuse and feel they can only justify a 9-1-1 call if an abusive incident is happening at the moment.

Regardless of survival tactics, remember that no one ever "asks for" or deserves the violence that someone perpetrates against them. The decision to abuse is made by the abuser, and is made in lieu of other potential responses to any behaviour of the victim. The abuser is always solely responsible for the violence that happens.

Myth #9: It's not that bad because the victim isn't leaving.
This is a myth that is easier to answer with statistics from the Department of Justice than with discussion:
  • Within two years of leaving an abusive relationship, one in three victims will be killed by their abuser.
  • 75% of fatal attacks by an abuser occur when a victim is trying to leave, or has recently left, the relationship.
  • A victim will try to leave their abuser an average of seven times before being able to leave permanently.
  • In 85% of cases of domestic homicide, the police were summoned to the home at least once before the murder occurred; in 50% of these cases, the police had been called to the home five or more times.
  • Four women are murdered by their partners every day in the US.
Clearly, fear for one's own safety is a significant barrier to leaving an abusive relationship; in fact, the truth of the myth is often, "it must be very bad because the victim isn't leaving."

While the statistics are scary on their own, there are other barriers to leaving that victims must deal with. Among these are financial concerns, particularly if the victim has not been working or been able to have access to personal finances; concerns about moving children, if the victim has any; concerns for the safety of pets; and, of course, the psychological abuse that has told a victim that they don't deserve help and won't be believed if they go anywhere.

Myth #10: Abused women abuse their children, and abused children grow up to be in abusive relationships as adults.
This myth is one of the ways in which we, as a society, attempt to excuse or explain away domestic abuse. If abuse is all that a person knows, how can we blame them for perpetrating it? The evidence, however, point to no connection between experiencing abuse as a child and experiencing it as an adult, and no connection between being a victim of abuse as an adult and perpetrating it on a child. Abusers choose to abuse their partners, and have grown up knowing that there are many ways that relationships function. The decision to abuse is always a decision.

I hope that this has helped clarify some of the myths that we have surrounding intimate partner abuse! For further reading, I recommend checking out this fact sheet that the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence put together, compiling statistics from national studies, the Department of Justice and the FBI, and reports from their own shelters in the 50 states. I also recommend, if you want another perspective, reading the American Bar Association's fact sheet, which gives phenomenal information, demographic statistics, and legal options.

As always, if you are experiencing intimate partner abuse or know someone who is, please contact your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for information, referrals, and safety-planning. To keep yourself safe, always remember to clear your browser history and, if using a cell phone, your call history.

Monday, October 5, 2009

From Erica: Domestic Abuse 101

Domestic abuse. Domestic violence. Intimate partner violence. Conjugal violence. Battering. Wife or spousal abuse. It goes by many names, faces, and types. Its victims are old, young, dis/Abled, Abled, female, male, women, men, transfolk, queer, straight, White, People of Colour, wealthy, economically disadvantaged, addicts, clean, and possess varying levels of formal education. It has numerous levels of severity, from annoying to fatal, and it is dealt with in a number of ways. At times, even for those who aren't living with it on a daily basis, it can be overwhelming to comprehend. I hope this post- and this week of posts in general- will help clarify some of the myths and misconceptions that many of us in the Western contexts often have.

Let's begin with the basics. What exactly is abuse? The shortest, most useful definition is that intimate partner abuse is a pattern of behaviours used by one person to gain power and control over another. This is quite broad, obviously, but also quite functional: since abuse can take many forms, it's a blanket definition that can help individuals recognize when they're dealing with harmful or dangerous behaviours from their partners.

Because the definition of abuse is so broad, here are the six primary categories that abusive behaviours tend to fall into, and some examples of each:
  • Physical. Physical abuse is probably the best-known form of abuse, but is also usually the last to appear in an abusive relationship. It includes any form of manipulative or violent physical contact, including punching, slapping, kicking, choking, hair-pulling, and the use of weapons to inflict injury.
  • Verbal. Verbal abuse includes a range of behaviours such as yelling, screaming, swearing, and even the non-use of words (i.e. the silent treatment).
  • Emotional/psychological. This often overlaps with verbal abuse, although it doesn't have to. Psychological abuse can include things like playing mind games (i.e. "changing the rules" of how things are supposed to be run in the relationship), using constant put-downs to keep a person's self-esteem low, using verbal or nonverbal threats, blaming the victim for the abuse, saying that the abuse is normal or good, and "yanking their partner's chain" by deliberately antagonizing, provoking, or pushing them.
  • Sexual. This can include rape, sexual assault, forced prostitution, the use of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as threat or control measure, withholding sex as a means of getting what one wants, or any other type of unwanted or non-mutual sexual conduct. While there have been some myths about this in the past, rape is a crime regardless of the marital status of the individuals involved.
  • Financial. Financial abuse includes a variety of behaviours that limit a person's access to economic freedoms that are rightfully theirs, including having all mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts, and leases in the abuser's name, forcing a person to turn over all or most of their paycheck, preventing a person from getting a job, and putting a person on a limited allowance.
  • Social. Social abuse disconnects a person from their friends and families, which both keeps a person from reaching out for help and from hearing anything that contradicts the things an abuser is telling them. It can include spreading rumours to friends, refusing to allow a person to see their friends or family without supervision (or even at all), and keeping a person in the house or apartment.
Obviously, there is overlap between all of these categories, and often multiple forms of abuse are used at the same time. What is clear from looking at these is that the goal of abuse is to put the victim under the abuser's control: cutting them off from support networks, convincing them that they're responsible for the abuse and thus deserve it, and making it impossible for them to leave safely.

One of the most common questions that is asked of domestic abuse crisis workers, and victims and survivors of abuse, is why they stayed or why they didn't leave. The stereotype is that a victim is helpless and stupid, and doesn't know any better than being kicked around by their partner. Obviously, this is a myth. We'll explore the reasons people stay in abusive situations later in the week, during our mythbusters post, but one of the reasons is this: it doesn't happen overnight.

Look at it this way. If you went on a first date with someone, and their version of a good-night kiss was to punch you in the face, you'd probably never see them again. You might even call the police. Most abusive relationships start out exactly like non-abusive relationships. Everyone seems charming, friendly, and good-intentioned. It isn't until a few dates later that things start to go wrong, and even then they do so very slowly. Think about the "frog in hot water" metaphor: if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it'll hop right out. But if you put a frog in nice, cool, pond-temperature water, and turn the temperature up degree by degree, the frog will become accustomed to the heat and will boil to death before it even realizes what's happening.

Abusive relationships tend to follow a cycle format. They start with something small, a few dates in- a rude remark, inconsiderate behaviour, or maybe boundary-pushing around sex. The abuser might apologize and make quick excuses- they had a bad day, or you caught them off-guard, or they thought you were "cooler" than that- and things move on. Over time, things get more and more serious. There will be a period where the victim feels like things are getting more and more tense, then an abusive explosion, and then a period of apologies and excuses- excuses that exonerate the abuser, and excuses that blame the victim. The cycle continues and the abuse gets more and more serious. According to research data collected across the United States by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), the cycle only ends when the relationship ends. And when each abusive incident is followed by excuses and promises- "I just lost my temper; I'll get counseling." "You know what I'm like when I'm drunk. You can't provoke me like that." "If you'd done as I asked, this wouldn't've happened." "I'm so sorry. It'll never happen again"- it's understandable that a victim might believe what the abuser's saying, and might hope that this time will be different.

Finally, while we'll be discussing this further when we mythbust, I think it's important to emphasize that abuse is never the victim's fault. It may take two to tango, and arguments may be a two-way street (and every other cliché description), but abusive behaviours are choices made by the abuser alone. An abuser always has the power to choose alternatives to abusive behaviour; even if not during the incident, they always have the power to make good on their promises and actually change for the future. There is no excuse for abuse.

Later this week, we'll have a post that examines some of the more pervasive myths surrounding intimate partner abuse. We'll look into where the myths come from, and what the truths about them are. See you then!