Sunday, October 30, 2011

Silent Male Survivors and the Stigma of Victimhood: Archive Sunday

This post originally appeared last October. To see the original comments, click here.

I certainly didn't expect to stumble upon this topic when I started researching trauma theory for my Women's Lit class. Like any other grad student, I started my research at EBSCO, typing in some pretty generic terms, such as trauma, to see where it would lead me. And one of the first studies that showed up was from Journal of Loss and Trauma, a study by Ramona Alaggia, titled " Disclosing the Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse: A Gender Analysis." Since one of my favorite ways to apply a feminist theoretical lens to literature is to look at it through the lens of the social sciences, I figured this study would be helpful.

But the study was also surprising - it raised some surprising issues about how gender can impact a survivor or victim as he or she decides whether or not to disclose the traumatic experience. While the study used a relatively small sample (30 adult survivors of childhood abuse, 19 of whom were female and 11 of whom were male) and shouldn't be generalized to describe the experience of all survivors of child sexual abuse, their findings merit further discussion, particularly what they found about which factors prevent male survivors from disclosing their experiences and which factors prevent female survivors from disclosing.

While there were a lot of consistent factors, such as how close the survivor was to the perpetrator and to other adults who may have been able to help, Alaggia found a few key differences. The three main factors that prevented men from disclosing were a fear of being viewed as weak and effeminate, a fear of being seen as homosexual (since many of the male victims were abused by men), and a fear of becoming (or being viewed as) an abuser.  For women, the main factors preventing them from disclosing were a fear of not being believed and/or being blamed, and a conflicted sense of who was responsible for the abuse. 

While each of these factors is a serious issue, worth full discussion in its own post, let's hone in on the male fear of being seen as weak or effeminate. Sometimes people tell me that I shouldn't be a feminist, because I should be concerned about the problems that face men, and not just the problems that face women. But I cannot express enough just how much men are hurt by the policies and beliefs that hurt women. Female infanticide? It deprives men of daughters, sisters, brides, and friends. Unequal wages? It hurts male dependents of female bread winners. Devaluing women? That stigmatizes every male who aspires to a vocation or personal trait that has been labelled feminine. 

So we can't devalue women and femininity without hurting men in the process. If being seen as a victim makes a person seem weak, then boy, do we ever have some sorting out to do. An abuser is the one who's weak. The person who survives abuse is typically left with some damaging scars, but he or she is scarred because of the Hell that is abuse, not because he or she is inherently weak. Nobody, no matter how strong, survives abuse without some deep scars.

One question I have after reading this study is whether victimhood is stigamatized by femininity, or femininity is stigmatized by victimhood. That is, between the two characteristics, which is the most stigmatized?
Chances are it's a combination of both factors, but I think it's pretty easy to start thinking more highly of the conquering or privileged group, simply because they appear to be strong, smart, and successful - why wouldn't they, when they've had the luxury of defining intelligence, strength, and success? And we even see this rhetoric echoed in pop culture

But the hammer-and-nail dichotomy Simon and Garfunkel provide in this song is a false one - as they may very well have intended when they wrote these lyrics. Not being on top doesn't mean you're on the bottom, and even if you are on the bottom of the social hierarchy, that fact in no way makes you less worthy than the people at the very top of the social hierarchy. 

So please, for the sake of men and women alike, don't think of victimhood and survivorhood as a "weak" or "feminine" thing.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Allies in the Aftermath, Part One

After my last post, a Not Another Wave reader asked me what someone can do to support a friend or loved one who's been sexually assaulted. The question surprised me a little because, as an advocate, supporting someone in that position is (literally) my life's work and I've come to take the knowledge and skills associated with my job for granted. It occurred to me that the things I know to do, the things I understand before I walk in the room, aren't common sense to everyone. I thought that a good way to answer this reader's question would be to start by giving some background information about victimization before writing a to-do list for the next post, so that we can all be supportive to those who need it.

Before beginning, however, I'm going to reemphasize what I said in my last article: rape and sexual assault are never, never, NEVER the victim's fault. I don't care if the victim was making "stupid" choices; the perpetrator/offender is the one who ultimately used those choices as an excuse to commit a crime. We need to place blame on the appropriate person, which is the person who violated someone else's rights.

Let's start by looking at sexual assault as a crime. For the most part, sex assaults are committed by someone the victim already knows and feels at least some trust for- a partner, a friend, a date, a new acquaintance at the bar- and not by some stranger in a dark alley. Most offenders "groom" their victims before committing the assault. In the case of new acquaintances, for example, offenders follow the same pattern that people follow when trying for a consensual hookup: they look for a person who's out with friends (more relaxed), they ingratiate themselves with the group, and they slowly push boundaries (i.e. stroke the target's thigh). They then try to get the target alone. So far, nothing amiss, right? The crime occurs when they go for something sexual (a grope, a touch, a kiss), the target doesn't say yes, and they keep going anyway. The victim might fight back; but then again, the victim might not. Everyone's different. After the crime is completed (i.e. penetration), the offender continues to groom. They may cuddle their victim. They may make excuses (i.e. "You got me so turned on, I just had to"). They may make threats. Whatever they do, they will do whatever it takes to make their victim confused about whether consent was given and whether anything wrong took place (because rapists don't cuddle, right?). And because the things that happened in front of other people are a normal part of consensual hooking up, it's often hard for the victim to find validation that anything seemed out of place before the two were alone together. Hence the very reasonable fear that "no one will believe me."

Even for those who do report, getting a conviction is like winning a very painful lottery. Sexual assault forensic exams (SAFEs- please don't evercall them "rape kits" again!) require excruciatingly close examination of a person's body, including plucking hairs (head and otherwise) for DNA evidence and taking photographs of your body. Police interviews, even when done by the most compassionate of officers, require telling and retelling of the incident- including the embarrassing details- and being willing to answer questions that might feel victim-blaming. All of this is for the chance that the offender might be prosecuted and thus might be convicted, which also requires telling and re-telling the story in the public venue of a hearing. Most of them aren't. Evidence isn't sufficient to counter the claims that "it was consensual," the offender strikes a plea bargain, the victim can't take it anymore and refuses to testify...the list goes on and on. It's a wonder anyone reports in the first place (see statistics here).

Regardless of whether or not someone makes a report, they have to live with what was done. For everyone, this means something a little different. I could rattle off common trauma reactions- recurring nightmares, fear of encountering the offender, being hypervigilant, drastic changes in your reactions to otherwise-normal occurrences- but these things don't mean a whole lot until you live them. I can say nightmares, but that doesn't help you understand that some victims spend months avoiding sleep because every time they close their eyes they're reliving the rape. Sometimes victims lose their partners because they can't have sex anymore- or because they have sex with too many people, to try and "overcome" the assault. Some victims run ten miles a day; others down Jack like there's no tomorrow. Some will panic because the person who assaulted them is someone they loved, cared about, and/or trusted- and now they're scared that they can't trust anyone ever again. Some will tell you they're fine. Some won't.

The thing to understand is that everyone, eventually, has to deal with their experience in some capacity. Healing from a sexual assault isn't like healing from a cut or a scrape, and it's not an event- it's a process. Commanders here at my job like to give victims a few days off work, but then expect them to come back in a week later as though nothing ever happened. That's not how this goes. Trauma- including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD- can take a lifetime to heal. A person might be a wreck one day and seem their usual self the next. Someone else might appear to be recovering nicely, only to lock themselves in their house the day they have to face their offender in court. There's anger, depression, sorrow, self-blame, not in any linear fashion, and not in a predictable pattern. Counseling can help, but not everyone wants that. Regardless, the aftermath is often hellish to live through and has no definable end.

So what can you do to be an ally or a supportive friend or loved one? Expecting a victim to return to the person they were before the assault is insensitive and unrealistic, and yet we want to be hopeful that the people we care about aren't irrevocably taken from us by the offender. Tune in next time, and I'll give you some places to start.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Violence Against Women and Culture - A Symbiotic Relationship: A Guest Post from Danielle

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and today's guest post addresses this issue from a different angle. This article was originally posted at  Go Girl Magazine, and Danielle is also the author of last week's guest post.
Culture is the reason why violence against women exists. Unique to ethnic, linguistic or geographical groups,  defines what is acceptable and what is not. Cultures the world over condone violence against women in numerous forms and to varying degrees. Acid burning would not be tolerated in the US, but domestic and sexual violence is. Yet there are individuals the world over, working to re-define unquestioned customs that result in harmful practices to women. The following video is a powerful example of a change-maker; a courageous woman who dared to defy a standard cultural norm and shift her group’s  entirely.
(Video Source: Phil Borges, Social Documentary Photographer & Film maker)
As seen in the video, in order for culture to change, culture must be included in discussions on violence against women and women’s rights. To leave it out is to ignore the foundation upon which women’s rights frameworks exist around the world (plural intended). The cultural context of each group needs to be considered when such conversations occur. Indeed, the challenge in our work as activists is to hold the space locally for the work on a micro (individual) level simultaneously with the macro, bigger systems change work we do both locally and globally.
As someone who works with survivors of  on a daily basis, I wouldn’t be truthful if I said I carry this balance perfectly all the time. Frankly, I sometimes lose my perspective and fall into a myopic trap, only seeing violence against individual women with whom I work. The rage I feel towards the perpetrators boils up within and it is only in debriefing with colleagues or taking a break that I can successfully “zoom out” and see the bigger picture: the cultural constructs of the United States that continue to provide space, messaging and freedom for violence against women. In our culture, myriad oppressions exist simultaneously in a framework that works to keep the dominant group(s) in power and the marginalized populations marginalized. I see effects of sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism or any constellation of these daily.
Danielle's photo from Cambodia trip with Phil Borges for UN Women project
Yet if I were to only focus on these injustices (including the ones I know about going on around the world), I would send myself into a clinical depression, effectively eradicating my own voice from the cause that is my purpose in life: to work toward ending violence against women. I speak from experience.
In order to abate the relatively easy slide into The Overwhelm, I have constructed points of perspective, anchors of cultural change, to hold onto. The movement I work for started 30 years ago. Grassroots in its origins, it was inspired and buoyed by other movements for social justice such as the women’s, LGBTQ and civil rights movements. From volunteer-operated crisis lines out of someone’s basement, we’ve established an entire professional field to help survivors of domestic violence. From a “private family matter” we’ve pushed it into the culture’s consciousness resulting in legislation, laws and federal protections for survivors. Think: VAWA. Domestic violence is now considered a human rights issue and increased education and identification of this pandemic are nowadays the rule, no longer the exception.
Photo from Danielle's trip to Cambodia in June 2011
In these 30 years we have shown that cultural change is possible. This creates a bud of hope within my heart that over the next 30 years domestic violence – in the United States and around the world – will no longer be tolerated to the degree that it still is and that perpetrators will not experience impunity but rather be held accountable not only by the legal system, but by their families and communities as well. Indeed, without families’ and communities’ presence and commitment to hold abusers accountable, we’re in this for the long haul.
Herein lies the challenge: those in positions of power, those with the loudest voice, usually men, dictate the trends of culture top-down. We need more women in powerful positions within our government (women make up just 17.2% in Congress), within the Fortune 500 (only 15 women are CEOs) and of course, we need more women at the top of mainstream media (the big 6 media conglomerates are all owned and run by men).
From the bottom up I’m aware of a lot of movement both locally and around the world to engage men in the process of eliminating violence against women. Most of these grassroots efforts, however, are led by powerful women. I’m proud to site the recently named Nobel Peace Prize winners as examples of influential women spear-heading cultural change directly related to women’s rights to be free from violence: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian Women’s Rights and Peace Activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemenese Women’s Rights Activist and Journalist Tawakkul Karman.
Photo: Pewee Flomoku, "Leymah Gbowee - Photo Gallery". 15 Oct 2011
While imperative to have people of specific cultural groups speaking out on behalf of and for members of their own group, I also believe we have a lot to share between ourselves as activists around the world. I am profoundly inspired by these three Nobel Peace Prize winners and feel that the recognition of their work reinforces the work I do in the US as well as the work of my global sisters. During my recent volunteer trips to Cambodia and South Sudan in which I volunteered for projects focused on violence against women, I emphasized an exchange of issues and solutions with the women I met. I wanted to hear what was relevant, important and necessary for their processes to create cultural change as well as share, if asked, what is necessary for our own here in the US. When I left each country, I was positively transformed and more deeply connected to the people and the cause.
Cultural change to eliminate violence against women needs to be a coordinated effort from the top down as well as from the grassroots to mainstream. I do see this happening. There is progress. But there is also substantial work to be done. Violence against women does not happen in a vacuum, but rather exists within cultural norms that define acceptable behavior. Until most countries, including the US, make a paradigm shift away from patriarchy we will be busy. And active. And loud. Moving the movement forward.
After receiving an M.A. from the University of Amsterdam in International Development Studies with a focus on Sub-Saharan African women's migration experiences, Danielle relocated to her home town of Seattle. She remains dedicated to women's issues both locally and globally, working for a domestic violence organization by day and, in her free time, blogging or volunteering for a project dedicated to gender equality called Stirring the Fire. Over the years, Danielle has volunteered in South Sudan, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Germany and New York in varying capacities with the same purpose: to work toward her global sisters' empowerment, equality and right to be heard. Though fiercely committed to women's rights, she's also an experienced Barista, English teacher and, most recently, amateur tri-athlete.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Strife in the BlogHersphere

Duty Calls
Image courtesy of xkcd

Well, this is probably old news by now, but a storm has been brewing between a couple of my favorite feminist blogs - and a third blog which I'd never read before now. And which I won't be reading again, just for the record.

See, it all started when Feministe posted a link to an article about Call-out culture and how it actually damages online conversations between social activists. The original article is erudite and lovely and really, really long-winded. If, like me, you suddenly remembered you're teaching a more-than-full-time course load, while applying to 10 PhD programs, you probably want to read Feministe's recap of the article. And, like me, you'll probably be substituting three brownies and a vitamin B tablet for today's exercise quota. Brilliant, I know.

If even Feministe's recap is too much (and I'd understand), the basic gist is this: some activist bloggers make their name off of anonymously calling out other activist bloggers (who often have no idea they've been called out) and criticising them for some "problematic" slip up. The use of the term "problematic" is of special concern to the article's author, who sees it as a liberal elitist way of getting passive aggressive. Why the passive aggression? Well, the author suggests that some of these outraged anonymous caller-outers are themselves auditioning to fill the spots of those they depose. Problematic, indeed.

So, anyway, after I read over Feministe's article and skimmed the original, I found myself at once thinking, "Yeah, Womanist Musings! Time to stop hypocritically calling out other blogs for things you do too!" only to immediately recognize my own hypocrisy. Only to realize I still hadn't changed my mind about my love-hate relationship with Womanist Musings. And while I thought about blogging that guilt last week, perhaps nothing would have come of it if I hadn't then encountered another feministe post about a disagreement between Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy and Holly at a blog that I'll only link after giving you due warning. The name of the blog is The Pervocracy, and while the post I'm about to link is PG-13, the rest of the blog gets so racy that after reading one racy post, I have no intention of reading her blog ever again. That being said, you can read the original post here or just Feministe's discussion of it here. Again, I'll provide the reader's digest version: Twisty has criticized Sex Positive feminists like Holly for what she perceives as capitulating to male fantasies and objectification of women. Holly has retaliated by arguing that Twisty not only misunderstands her, but that Twisty is in fact perpetuating sexist attitudes by what Holly refers to as "slut-shaming" sexy women.

Feministe, as a third party blog, manages to keep a pretty level head about the whole thing and remain relatively objective, but then Twisty heard about The Pervocracy's recent article and responded (reader beware, Twisty loves her F-bombs almost as much as she loves her horses). I can't say I blame Twisty, particularly when Holly links to her own former column, "Twisty Faster is ******* Insane" (censorship added), but it doesn't bode well when feminists start fighting each other.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Question of the Week: Should Pornography Be Illegal?

The other night, I watched the new documentary, Miss Representation, a documentary which uses successful women (and men) to discuss how women are portrayed in visual mainstream media today. The documentary raises a lot of worthwhile questions, so a review will be forthcoming on Tuesday. But until Tuesday, I'd like to consider one of the questions the group of us wound up discussing after the viewing.

That question, as you might guess from the title of today's post, is whether pornography should be illegal. We all know Erica's answer to the question - a resounding no -  and you might assume that my answer is an immediate across-the-board yes! but let's not oversimplify the issue. Yes, people should be free to express themselves, and material labeled pornographic by one group is often art or beach wear to another, so there are certainly issues with trying to ban anything pornographic - if I had my druthers, Twilight would be banned as pornographic.

But what about child pornography? And where is the line between pornography and prostitution? And where on Earth do we draw the line between art and pornography?

Dear readers, have at it!

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I’m getting really tired of being told that “women aren’t as sexual as men.” A bevy of useless statistics seem to roll around and around, surfacing every few years, suggesting that men think about sex every three seconds while women think about it only once every 24 hours (don’t lie—someone told you that statistic once—funny how it’s a different series of numbers but the same idea).

It’s interesting that this (false) stereotype about women not enjoying sex is running around society; women are always said to be “less sexual” when, in reality, women often enjoy healthy, happy sexual relationships.

There is a theory in the world of sexuality known as, the Kinsey scale. This theory states that perhaps sexuality is not either straight, gay or bi-sexual. Instead, perhaps sexuality could be ranged on a scale, so for instance, straight would be a one and homosexual would be a 7 therefore it would seem that there are varying degrees of sexuality. Maybe most straight people are actually a three, meaning that they occasionally find themselves attracted to a person of the same gender.

During this time period another friend told me about a study done that reported that straight men were sexually aroused when watching straight and lesbian porn, but not gay porn. Women however, were aroused when watching straight, gay and lesbian porn (sorry I’ve been looking for the actual study and haven’t been able to find it, so of course this paragraph is just heresay, but hopefully good heresay). Obviously, there are definite exceptions to these “rules” according to the study and while I tend to think more fluid definitions of sexuality are cool, this study is talking about a generalized population. I think that the important idea here is that women are capable of sexual desire and have a broad spectrum within their sexuality.

I think it’s incredibly ironic that, despite the female drive for sex, it’s still men who come out on top (sorry for the pun) as the supposed and cultural instigators of sexuality. If sex was the board game monopoly, men would own 90 percent of the property and have a dozen hotels on Boardwalk, while women have a couple of cheap properties and the occasional community chest win.

Basically girls, we've been cheated--cheated by the confusion of mixed messages. To demonstrate....

There is a constant joking in society, as well as representation within the media, that women just don’t want sex--normal women that is. Has anyone ever had the gorgeous decadence that is “Better than Sex” cake? (Devil’s food caked, soaked with sweetened condensed milk and caramel for a few hours and then covered with whipped cream). Whenever I would make it (which I’ll be honest is a lot) someone would usually call it, “Named by a woman” cake. The thing is, it’s constant, stupid jokes like this that keep feeding women the message that shouldn’t want sex, that their poor, sex-deprived husbands should have to beg them for sex. It’s jokes like these, that make women like me (who do happen to have a sex drive) feel a little bit uncomfortable in our own skin….I’ve had more than one boyfriend tell me that they thought I was more sexual than them, or even (once), that I was too sexually aware.

Similarly, popular science also mimics this trend by telling women, "sex for you is only emotional" and to men "sex is only physical for you". (How about this world--maybe, sex could be a little bit of both for BOTH genders?)

In contrast to that, current trends in pornography showcase women as loving and demanding violent and aggressive acts of sexual violence; this information comes from the disturbing documentary, The Price of Pleasure, which found that 89% of popular pornography videos exhibited acts of sexual and physical violence against women.

It's CRAZY the mixed messages that women are receiving every single day. On the one hand, girls see super skinny models running around with no clothes, making pouty faces and asking to be spanked; on the other side, women are thrown constant statistics and quippy jokes about how much they hate sex.

Basically, our society tells men, you are a sexual predator, and to women, you should be a sexual victim. When you're a young single woman you should have rape fantasies and love to be dominated, but once you get married, well then, you should give your husband sex even though you hate it, because well, he wants it and that's what men do (seriously, think back to all the sitcoms you've seen in your life).

Sexuality and the body are incredible gifts, and yet for some reason, women still can't own that part of themselves, they can't say, "no I do not want to be dominated" or "yes, I enjoy sex"; a weird mix of the Victorian ideal that sex sucks for a woman and they should hate it whilst simultaneously asking to be dominated, has been lingering in our society for far too long—come on people, let's stop telling everyone that men are sex-crazed maniacs (because that doesn't do anyone ANY good) and that women are hormone-less, sex-less victims and get emancipated.

**For your enjoyment I’m including a trailer to a new movie called Hysteria about the invention of the vibrator and it looks hysterical (haha--aren't I funny). Plus, it has Maggie Gyllenhaal in it and sometimes people say I look like her (although that’s not really important).

Friday, October 21, 2011

News on Erica's gaydar

I had a whole bunch of articles that interested me at work this week, but managed to forget to link any of them into my gmail account before I shut the work computer off and left for the weekend. It didn't help that most of them raised my blood pressure in unsexy ways. After the week I had at work, though- which was a succession of frustrating and emotionally draining situations- I've decided it'd be legitimate to make this week's news post focus on happy, LGBTIQ-related stories.

First, Zachary Quinto has joined the list of celebrities outing themselves. While he's remained mum on the subject of his sexuality in the past, he's decided in light of the number of LGBTIQ adolescents committing suicide after being severely bullied that it's time to demonstrate to LGBTIQ youth that life does, in fact, get better. Now, I do have some issues with the "it gets better" movement- namely that it WON'T get better unless people quit their homophobia and bullying, and we also need to focus on getting those people to cut it the fuck out- but it makes me feel a million times lighter and more optimistic to see how many public figures are willing to reach out to the youth whose lives are being ruined.

On that note, Canada has my vote for being the coolest country (yet again). Why? Because its conservative politicians banded together, also in response to a gay teen's suicide, to create an "it gets better" video (which, by the way, is linked in the article). How incredible is that? A political party- a branch of the government- is reaching out to send an official message that we, as a society, need to support LGBTIQ youth. Can you imagine if that were to happen in the States? So many politicians are far too worried about constituencies to care if their message might destroy a life. Go Canada!

And finally, there's been a whole lot of people pushing for a reconsideration of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), particularly now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is officially an embarrassing, but closed, chapter of our history. As of right now, same-sex couples in the US can use military chapels to have weddings, but only in the states where same-sex marriage is legal. Basically, we're encountering the challenges that we knew would happen with the repeal of DADT: you can now have a partner, or a committed relationship, but you can't give that partner benefits or receive your housing pay to live with them. It's really quite stupid. On the bright side, though, that push for the repeal of DOMA has a number of interesting people behind it- including the linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, Brendon Ayanbadejo. Now, I don't believe marriage should be a requirement for a committed couple at all. I think the pressure to get married, for anyone, misses the point that it's the relationship(s) you construct that are important, not the socio-legal structure in which they occur. However, I also believe that marriage should be an available option for anyone in a consenting relationship, and thus DOMA needs to fall.

That's it for this week! I feel much happier just having written this post, and I hope you do too. Until next time!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Domestic Violence in the Legal System - Quiet Tragedies: A Guest Post from Danielle

This post originally appeared in Go Girl Magazine
What does  typically bring to mind?  An image of a physically battered and bruised woman.  While this is an authentic representation of many of the cases,  (DV) has several other facets that are often overlooked in the United States and abroad.
[Caveat: Domestic violence exists in all intimate partner relationships, including LGBTQ.  For the sake of clarity for this article, however, I am going to remain within the hetero-normative framework.]
Having worked with survivors of DV for the past several years, there is an aspect of this power and control dynamic that frequently passes under the radar that I want to highlight: abuse through the legal system.  More than any other of the power and control tactics, this one stymies people not working within the field.
I spent the last year and a half as a legal advocate, helping survivors navigate our complicated legal systems.  While I’m not an attorney and did not provide legal advice, my primary roles included going to court as a support person, signing survivors up for legal clinics where they could receive legal advice, and referring them to other agencies that could be helpful throughout the period of litigation.  Most importantly, I was a witness to their experiences with the legal system and a sounding board when things went right, and wrong.  I followed dozens of survivors through their lengthy and contested cases.  I was there to validate their frustrations, and oftentimes shock, of the courts’ rulings.
Frequently, before initiating a divorce or legal separation, I would sit down with survivors and tell them that this is going to be a long haul; such DV divorces can frequently stretch for years.  In Washington State the minimum period to wait for divorce is 90 days.  I never saw any of my cases resolved in such a short period of time.  DV divorces are always contested because of the abusers’ inability and unwillingness to extend themselves towards compromise.  At the core, abusers’ sense of entitlement precludes their ability to self-reflect and recognize they have deeply rooted issues of power and control because, no matter what, “It’s her fault.”  Abusers don’t think they have a problem.
So how does this look in actual litigation?  Around the time of separation, lethality skyrockets to 75%, meaning that when a survivor leaves the relationship, she is at a vastly higher risk of being harmed or killed.  Within this framework, it takes substantial courage for survivors to file for divorce, especially when children are involved.  The majority of cases I’ve witnessed involved abusive fathers who were mostly absent in their parenting role during the marriage, yet who do a 180 within the court process with claims of dedication to their children and the ultimate request to be the children’s primary parent with sole decision-making rights.  These too-good-to-be-true dads are after one thing: to maintain power and control over their partner even when she has left the relationship by taking control of what means most to her – her children.
Part of the myth that keeps unsafe (abusive) parents in the lives of their children is the father who presents to be so dedicated to his kids that he’s willing to fight to the bitter end to get them.  In our society, gender norms still permit the absence of dads.  So when we see them working so hard to be in their kids’ lives, we want to give them extra kudos which often results in full custody.
Yet as much as the family court system is skewed towards giving abusive fathers’ rights because they show up and say they’re a committed parent, the court system holds survivors, especially mothers, to a double standard.   She needs to look the part of a “victim”, prove she’s a fit mother (textbook statements by abusers that survivors are an “unfit” or “unstable” parent are extremely commonplace), and not stay in the relationship too long, otherwise she is charged with not protecting her children.  This flies in the face what we know within the DV community:  staying in the relationship can be safer than leaving.
Uneven Scales of Justice
Another method of abuse perpetrators use in the legal system is to shatter the survivor’s determination.  What does this look like?  Repeatedly filing motion after motion to drag the survivor back into court, targeting her resources (time, energy, finances), and ultimately targeting her will to continue to advocate for herself.  This latter tactic is strategic and requires patience and calculation on the part of the abuser.  It happens all the time in DV divorces.
The public is generally not educated about the overarching themes of DV, as outlined on the power and control wheel.  Sadly, many of the most influential players within the court systems are not either, including attorneys, commissioners, judges, parenting evaluators, Guardian ad Litems (GALs), visitation supervisors, etc…  These are the people with the power to make decisions that profoundly influence the lives of survivors and their children.  When any of these powerful players lack knowledge of DV it has the following effects:  poor recommendations resulting in disastrous and long-term decisions that impact the safety of the survivor and their kids.  Due to such widespread ignorance, it makes it even harder for survivors of DV, including sexual assault, to come forward and share their experiences and receive justice.
The DV movement has come far in the last 30 years.  We’ve transformed what was once considered a “family matter” in the United States into the public sphere and even into an international human rights issue.  Indeed, DV is a universal phenomenon that happens in every country around the world.  But stopping the cycle of violence requires more education and less tolerance of violence in all its forms.  We still need deep, systemic changes.
For more ways to get involved, contact the National DV Hotline (US) or the Women’s Aid and Refuge (UK) or to find organizations in your area.

After receiving an M.A. from the University of Amsterdam in International Development Studies with a focus on Sub-Saharan African women's migration experiences, Danielle relocated to her home town of Seattle. She remains dedicated to women's issues both locally and globally, working for a domestic violence organization by day and, in her free time, blogging or volunteering for a project dedicated to gender equality called Stirring the Fire. Over the years, Danielle has volunteered in South Sudan, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Germany and New York in varying capacities with the same purpose: to work toward her global sisters' empowerment, equality and right to be heard. Though fiercely committed to women's rights, she's also an experienced Barista, English teacher and, most recently, amateur tri-athlete.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ask a Feminist: A Dialogue on the Sexuality of Hair

My hair used to be this length. Actually, for most of my life, my hair was a good four inches longer than this.

Now my hair is this length:

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a friend who had recently cut her hair short and who was up late, unable to sleep because she was troubled by how some of the men in her life had responded. She wanted to know my opinion as a feminist - particularly in light of the fact that I only cut my hair a year ago. That conversation eventually led to the insightful and wildly popular guest post from Aimee, where she described her dilemma. But the conversation didn't end there - this week's installment of our new "Ask a Feminist" column is my response to Aimee's dilemma and my description of my own experience with short hair.

When I cut my hair last year it was also a big decision for me, and as in Aimee's case, that decision was informed (to at least some degree) by things men had said leading up to my decision to cut my hair. Men have always had strong opinions about my hair. From fourth grade boys who thought it was funny to toss stuff in my hair when I was growing up, to the boy who got in trouble with a teacher for doing something to my hair (all I know is she demanded to know what he was doing), there has always been a man somewhere who cared about my hair. Even if it was just enough to mock my hair. My father often complained that I wore my hair up too often and told me to let it down more. Well, that was more likely to make me pull my hair back, but that's a story for another day.

But it's not just men. A lot of women are fascinated by my hair. Case in point - I was recently talking with some teacher friends, and when someone related a story about a black student in her class who was asked by another student if they could touch her hair, all of my straight-haired and wavy-haired friends were shocked. They couldn't imagine someone asking something so rude. I didn't bat an eye - for my entire life, strangers have wanted to touch my hair. It used to bother me when I was growing up, and I won't deny that I find it terribly invasive when strangers or acquaintances shove their hands into my hair and wriggle their fingers to get a feel for it. Or that I find it rude when they say, in wonder, "It's soft. I thought it would be wiry." But someone asking to touch my hair? That's nothing. A roommate once asked for a lock of my hair to show friends back in Mexico when she moved home, and I didn't even think that was odd.

Men have always been a lot less likely to want to touch my hair. Very few of the men I've dated have seemed all that interested in anything besides the length of my hair, perhaps because there's no way to run their fingers through my hair without their hands getting caught. I've always figured I'll eventually end up with a man who thinks my hair is the hottest thing ever - I certainly do! - but I'm yet to encounter one who does. Still, I'm not sure I ever realized how much the length of my hair could impact my romantic prospects. With my first college boyfriend, I don't think it ever occurred to him I'd do something as crazy as cut my hair (he was quite conservative and couldn't even understand my desire to earn a Master's degree). Then I dated someone I'm still friends with - he comes up on the blog as Carl the Open-minded Chauvinist. While Carl would never have dreamed of refusing to let me cut my hair, he didn't like the idea. I wasn't planning on cutting my hair at the time, but I told him that I'd always wanted short hair, but that the last time it was short it was a nightmare growing it out. He expressed how much he preferred my hair long, I explained how much I hated facial hair on most men, and we made a deal: as long as we were in a relationship, I wouldn't cut my hair short, and he wouldn't grow facial hair. Not long after the relationship ended and he'd left BYU, Carl had grown facial hair. I was still nervous about cutting my hair short, but as time went on, I went slightly shorter with each haircut, always telling myself I was "testing" to see how my hair would respond.

The next guy I dated was black, and he never said anything about short hair vs. long hair. I wish I knew more about how hair length factors into Womanist discussions of hair, but I do know this: because of the nature of their hair, most black women have a very difficult time growing out their hair and in order to wear it long usually need to get extensions. Frankly, Reggie seemed more into his own hair - he kept asking why I didn't want to touch his hair. "Don't white people usually want to touch African hair?" he'd ask. Little did he know, I was used to being the one exoticized for my hair. Another guy I went on several dates with said, when I mentioned that I'd always wanted to cut my hair but hadn't had the courage, "Well, short hair is unattractive on women." I said I was currently thinking of growing my hair out more, and his face lit up. 

Then last year, I finally took the plunge. I'd wanted short hair for a long time, and while I can't recall exactly what was happening in my life, I recall feeling that I was somehow defying the odds and saying "screw you" to the patriarchal values (in the sense of fallen patriarchy that Hugh Nibley wrote about) that made short hair on women seem like some kind of misdemeanor. I had an appointment for a trim, and the night before, I was telling some friends how I'd always wanted short hair. One of them had just gotten a pixie cut herself, and they both encouraged me to go for it. So, I did. And I didn't even feel nervous when the inches came off. I felt relieved.

How did people respond? Women loved it! I got compliments everywhere I went. I was team-teaching a section of creative writing with a professor on campus, and on the same day I walked in with short hair, one of the female students also walked in with newly-cut short hair. Over the course of the semester, another couple female students got short haircuts, and in each case all the women in the class applauded and complimented. But men didn't say anything about my hair. And sure, men don't always notice hair cuts, but this was a very obvious one, and it seemed very telling that they said nothing. I can recall that one male person did compliment my hair. I don't recall who it was, but I remember feeling surprised because he was the first.

A lot of middle-aged women complimented me on my "professional" or "adult" hairstyle. Students seem to respect me more now that I have shorter hair, and for the first time in my life people think I look my age, even when I don't wear makeup (which is almost always). But I haven't been asked on a date since I cut my hair, and while my dating life has never been consistent, it's certainly been more active than this - I'm not sure if before now I've ever gone a whole year without being asked on a date. Six or eight months, sure, but never thirteen or fourteen months. So maybe my short hair has hurt my dating chances, or maybe it's the MFA and my current job as an adjunct professor, combined with the fact that most of my romantic prospects are still undergrads themselves. I know plenty of women with short hair who still have dating lives, and Aimee is currently dating the man who initially found her short hair upsetting, so I find it hard to believe that cutting my hair has somehow repulsed every man in Utah.

One thing I can say is that when men very loudly and vocally complain about short hair on women, with short-haired women in the room, that's a problem. No matter how strong my preference for men without facial hair may be, I'm sensitive enough to a man's feelings not to go on and on about how unattractive facial hair is in front of any man, never mind one who has facial hair. And I'm not arrogant enough to assume that my preference for men without facial hair proves that facial hair is inherently bad. So, no matter what, we can at least show each other respect, and be sensitive about what we say in front of those who don't match our taste preferences. Still, this doesn't answer my own questions about how and why short hair factors into my romantic life. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Feminist Question of the Week: Should prostitution be legal?

So my question this week is one that's pretty controversial, I think...Over the past three days I've been involved in a discussion about the legalization of prostitution with some educated (and I would say conscientious) friends of mine. I stood on one side of the issue and my three friends (who are all male incidentally) stood on the other.

The boys argued that the legalization of prostitution would regulate the practice, thereby protecting women (and the occasional male prostitute) from sex trafficking, disease, unwanted pregancy, and violence.

I countered that legalizing prostitution would merely contribute to the continued objectification of women (since I felt it would still reduce women to a sexual/anatomical function). My argument had nothing to do with sex; if two consenting adults would like to share a sexual experience, have a nice time, however I worried about the "selling yourself" part of the whole equation.

Several of my friends countered with the fact that it's an issue of free will and that some women enjoy having sex and think that would be a great career. Here I disagreed, stating that lots of women do (and should) love sex, I just think that reducing it down to an issue of money still allows a man to basically rent a women's body (for me, a women owning her body is paramount--I suppose in my view prostitution seems to invalidate that).

Anyway, you get the idea; we've been up and down and around this position alot the past few days and I'm grateful for the discussion, it's really given me some new perspectives to think about (seriously Steve, it has been a good discussion).

What I'd love at this point though, is to hear your perspective on the situation...what do you think? Should prostitution be legalized?

In case you need a little info or something to give your opinions a kickstart, here is a wikipedia article about the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

News that gives Erica emotional whiplash

Here's a quick taste, readers, of what's been in the news here these last several days. Some of it is wonderful; some of it is worthy of a double facepalm. Most of all, it illustrates NAW's continued insistence that sexism and discrimination continue to be complex issues that we can't let slide. In order from angriest to happiest:

In France, Tristane Banon's criminal case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn for attempted rape has been dropped due to the evidence available. Under French law, the available evidence would support a sexual assault case but not a rape case, and the statute of limitations for the former is much shorter than for the latter. In effect, Mme. Banon's case disappeared because she didn't speak up soon enough. While DSK now faces a civil suit in New York for the incident with Ms. Diallo this year, and possibly faces one in France from Mme. Banon, this is now two instances where someone who at best displayed extremely dubious judgement about sexual behaviour is walking away from any sort of punishment. And please don't tell me that resigning from the IMF is punishment- if he can't keep it in his pants, whether consensually or nonconsensually, he's not in enough control of himself to run such an important organization.

Next in the list comes from the Associated Press via the Daily Mail, which reports on Dr. Pepper's recent advertising debacle. Or at least I'd call it a debacle, though the public seems more curious than incensed. In essence, Dr. Pepper has started marketing another "lite" version of its soda to men- by claiming that "it's not for women," using violence in TV commercials, and creating a men-only Facebook group to celebrate its exclusive new blend. I'm not sure which makes me angrier: that the advertising promotes aggression, machismo, and "hardness" (no more "dainty tan bubbles" - we've moved on to "gunmetal grey packaging with silver bullets"), all to the exclusion of anything remotely feminine, as being the key to manliness; or that this whole advertising scheme had to go through hundreds of people, from marketing specialists to test groups, before it ever hit the public, and somehow no one thought it'd be a bad idea. In fact, the executive vice president of marketing for Dr. Pepper- who is male, shockingly enough- says that "he's not worried that [women will] be offended by the campaign." Oh really? Dear Dr. Pepper: here's my reaction to that. It looks like two middle fingers.

On a brighter note, Amber Miller has challenged public notions of pregnancy, "handicap," and activity by running a marathon during her last hours of pregnancy. While most people in the West probably think that people who are 39 weeks pregnant should be sitting and relaxing- as may be most comfortable!- Miller's experience is just one of many examples of people legitimately getting physical while pregnant or in labour. I say legitimately because Miller had the all-clear from her doctor before running, and while I don't think pregnancy is a disability, I also think we should acknowledge that it can change a person's ability to be active safely (preeclampsia being a very real concern). But what Miller demonstrates is that the physical dangers of pregnancy don't have to dominate a pregnancy experience- we continue to be whole human beings throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood.

Finally, three women shared some glory during Nobel Week as they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The three- Ellen Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakul Karman- represent efforts made in Liberia and Yemen to achieve equality and justice for women in those countries. There's some controversy around Ms. Sirleaf, who is currently the president of Liberia, but the overall message is pretty cool: women's rights are essential to a lasting peace in any nation. Even better? None of these women represent international aid organizations who are trying to "fix" a given country's attitudes towards women. Instead, they are all fighting to achieve justice in their home countries- something that a lot of Western feminists tend to forget to do. Can you say exciting?

That's all for now, though the news never stops and I generally don't either. Keep your eyes peeled for feminist-related news, and if you have anything that you'd like to see discussed here, please pass the link along to

Friday, October 14, 2011

Love and sex in the middle of the road

Photo courtesy of

Those of you who follow the Feminist GoGirl might've noticed that I have yet to do a post about sex and safety. It's an important topic, I believe, but it's also one that I've been avoiding. Why? The brief explanation is that most articles that focus on sex, safety, and women wind up being treatises on how not to get raped- and to me, that result is so abhorrent that I've been extremely wary of approaching the topic at all. I don't want the things I say here to be construed as blame, shame, or dire warnings; while I have limited control over how readers receive my words, I want to be as explicit as possible from the beginning.

We are sexual beings, and whether we're engaging in a friends-with-benefits road trip or a torrid one-night-stand tropical vacation, this is okay. As long as your behaviour is okay with you- by which I mean your mores, your opinions, your comfort level- and is consensual, you're fine. Please say this to yourself, as often as you'd like, to make sure the message sinks in. There is nothing wrong with being a sexual being.

I feel the need to emphasize that because, all too often in my line of work, I meet people who blame themselves for the sexual assaults they've faced. "I was passed out drunk at a party," they say. "What else should I have expected?" My answer to that has been, and always will be, that we should expect everyone else at that party to put on their grown-up pants and not get down and dirty with someone who's unconscious. It's not that bloody hard, people! It's not like you trip, fall, and wind up naked and sexual. And if they're conscious when you start but pass out halfway through...God gave you two hands. Go use the washroom.

In all sobriety, I'll note that for a lot of people lines are often drawn with a fuzzy marker. As I've said in previous posts, things that constitute clear-cut sexual predation to me are things that don't faze others. If you feel comfortable with the behaviours being thrown your way, then go have fun! Here, though, I'm going to list your rights- your global, human rights- to use as guidelines when getting frisky on the road. This way, it's all fun and no hurt for everyone involved (unless your frisky comes with kinky, in which case pleasepleasePLEASE establish a safeword).

1. You have the right to consent. This means you have the right to give it and to receive it. Consent is not the absence of no- it's the presence of an enthusiastic, rafter-rattling YES. You don't need to sit down with a laundry list of things you'd like to do with your partner, checking them off in a legalistic fashion. Think of fun ways to find out if your partner is comfortable and to say when you want something done differently! Examples: "I'd really like to _____ your _____ right now; may I?" or "Mmm. Do _____ again with your _____." Insert appropriate vocabulary as needed.

2. You have the right to intervene. One of my favourite webcomics did a couple of strips on this a few years ago. If you see something going on that makes you feel squicky, don't be afraid to find ways to put a stop to it. You can pretend to be the long-lost friend, pretend to be a slavering drunk on the person being creepy, call the police, enlist the person's friends to help, or even just check in with the person that you think is being targeted. There are so many ways to cockblock a potential sexual assaultI recommend looking at the Green Dot Project for ideas on how to make sure that your friends, strangers at the club, or whoever you're concerned about is having a good time.

3. You have the right to use protection. I don't just mean protection against pregnancy. I mean protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Take the time to learn what your options are. Hell, bring some with you! Especially if this is a one-night stand, you don't know your partner's history and your partner might not know what they are (or aren't) carrying. Remember that HIV takes approximately three months to show up in a blood test, and antiretrovirals- the medication they give you if you think you've been exposed to HIV- will make you very very sick for the next 30 days. Play it safe. Know what cultural norms are in the area you're visiting, and come up with safe ways to negotiate protection use. And if your partner-to-be refuses to protect, feel free to walk away.

4. You have the right to have backup. This goes hand-in-hand with #2. If someone's super-pushy about taking you away from your friends (or the crowd), take a step back. Text or call a friend if something doesn't feel right. Before heading out for a night on the town, feel free to declare your intentions so your friends know when to intervene (true-life example: "I plan on dancing with EVERY SINGLE PERSON at this salsa club and then leave them drooling!"). Take the number of a reputable cab company with you so you always have a ride home. If something doesn't seem right, let someone know.

5. You have the right to walk away at any time. Tease, slut, virgin scaredy-pants...I don't care what they call you. If you decide in the middle of things that this just isn't what you want, there's no crime in not finishing. Like I said before: your partner has two hands (or some equal capacity to finish themselves off). If you don't feel safe saying something, then please put your safety first. Getting you out of a bad situation safely is more important than anything else.

6. You have the right to call it what you want. Lots of places and people limit their definitions of sexual assault to very narrow concepts (i.e. excluding spousal rape). If you believe that what someone did was rape, even though the jurisdiction you're in thinks it wasn't even a crime, then it was rape. You might not ever be able to put the offender in prison, or even in a courtroom, but that doesn't change your experience. You don't have to call it bad or drunken sex if that's not what your experience of it was, and you can seek out any services (i.e. advocacy) that are appropriate for you. End of discussion.
If you're looking for sexual assault-related resources, RAINN provides a partial list of international organizations.