Now Do You Believe Us?

By Katie Feifer

The case of Bill Cosby, beloved television “father,” comedian, role model and alleged rapist continues to unfold. And as it unfolds, it exposes some of the key issues at the heart of how we think about and confront (or don’t) sexual violence.

The latest: A deposition Cosby gave in 2005 as part of a lawsuit by a woman alleging he raped her has been made public. In it, he admits to giving women Quaaludes prior to “having sex” with this woman, and others.

Q. "When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?" 

A. “Yes.”

The line of questioning was stopped by Cosby’s attorney before he was asked whether the women he gave the drugs to took it freely and knowingly, and whether they subsequently consented to “having sex” with Cosby.

Here’s what we see. So far, 40+ women have accused Cosby of raping them. Most say that he put drugs in their drink, without their consent.  Many of the women who have come forward have been called liars, by a public that believes Cosby would never do something so heinous. This despite the fact that the survivors’ accounts of what Cosby did to them are eerily (but not surprisingly) similar. Sexual predators have an MO. They find what works, and stick with it. As Cosby apparently did, over decades.

So first (false) lesson: A woman is not to be believed. Not even when she has no reason to lie. Not even when her testimony is the same as those of many other women. Their testimony doesn’t count and can’t be “proof.”

From a CNN report

Singer Jill Scott was one of the celebrities who had supported Cosby after the allegations started emerging.

She previously tweeted, “I’m respecting a man who has done more for the image of Brown people that almost anyone EVER. From Fat Albert to the Huxtables.”

But she changed course after learning about Cosby’s deposition.

”About Bill Cosby. Sadly his own testimony offers PROOF of terrible deeds, which is ALL I have ever required to believe the accusations,” Scott tweeted.

When the alleged predator himself is discovered to have admitted to drugging women before “sex”, that’s when a few of the disbelievers change their tune? Judd Apatow spelled it out quite nicely in Esquire.

I don’t think there is anything new here. It is only new to people who didn’t believe an enormous amount of women who stated clearly that he drugged them. We shouldn’t need Bill Cosby to admit it to believe forty people who were victimized by him.... Maybe now more people in show business and all around our country will stand up and tell the people he attacked that we support you and believe you.

The true lesson here? Believe us. Whether it's one of us or 20 or 40 saying it. When we tell you someone raped us, believe us. 

Second lesson: We’re confusing things with the language we use. We often use the word “sex” when we talk about “rape.” The words have entirely different meaning. As Cara Courchesne of Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault so rightly pointed out, “Sex isn’t against the law. Rape is.

Reading “Cosby planned to use drugs to have sex with women” instead of “Cosby planned to use drugs to sexually assault women” prevents readers from fully understanding that we are in fact talking about a violent crime.

When we use euphemisms to talk about horrific crimes that are perpetrated against people, we are diminishing the crime, devaluing the experience of survivors, and removing the distinction between a consensual act and a crime.

Our media frequently describe sexual violence using the language of consensual sex. Even when they talk about children being raped by adults, as in “Roman Polanski had sex with a 13 year old girl.” Sounds a lot different than “Roman Polanski forcibly penetrated a 13 year old girl’s mouth and vagina with his penis.”

Third lesson: Not listening to women when they tell us they have been raped and sexually violated, and confusing rape with “sex” in our conversations, makes it ever so difficult for us to have a clear and true picture of what sexual violence looks like. Yes, there are a few instances when it can be confusing – to both victim and perpetrator – whether “what just happened” was rape or not.

Far, far more often, though, there is no objective confusion. We become confused when we are so sloppy with language that we equate a violent crime with a consensual, mutually pleasurable experience. And when we don’t listen to or believe the (primarily) women who tell us what they know so clearly has been done to them by predators who rape them.

Watch Your Language!

By Katie Feifer

I've written about this before, but the subject is worth talking about a lot, especially when there are new perspectives on the subject of how the language we use when we talk about rape gives power and protection to those who rape, shames victims, and perpetuates rape culture.  One example comes from the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault which recently published a message that calls the culture to task for labeling sex as "consensual sex."

“Consensual sex” is just sex. To say that implies that there is such a thing as “non consensual sex”, which there isn’t. That’s rape. That is what it needs to be called. There is only sex or rape. Do not teach people that rape is just another type of sex. They are two very separate events. You wouldn’t say “breathing swimming” and “non breathing swimming”, you say swimming and drowning.

On the heels of MECASA's message comes another brilliant article by Soraya Chemaly, illuminating many of the ways our use of language around rape perpetuates rape culture and even makes us complicit in the perpetuation. In addition to making excellent points, with many examples, Chemaly's article contains a wealth of links to more information, insight,  and wisdom. Well worth reading and following the links.

What are we talking about? Phrases like "classic rapist" that perpetuate the myth that "real rape" ( or "rape rape" pace Whoppi Goldberg) is perpetrated by strangers jumping out from the bushes rather than the "nice young men" who "simply couldn't control their natural urges." How many times have we read or even talked about "a hook-up gone wrong," "drunk sex," or "grey rape." What about all the reporting in the media about a child who "performed oral sex" on an adult man, instead of calling it what it is: a man forced a child to fellate him.

In fact, we are particularly loathe as a society to label rape and sexual assault perpetrated against children as what it actually is. I get it - it's very difficult to think about, let alone talk about. But there's danger in not calling  it what it is, whether the victims are children or adults. Case in point: Josh Duggar, of 19 Kids and Counting fame, who is said in the media to have "fondled the breasts and genitalia of young girls (his sisters) while they were sleeping." I have not seen any articles - outside feminist press - calling it what it is: sexual assault and rape of his sisters. Incest. "Molestation" is as far as most outlets go. And Josh himself said only "I acted inexcusably." Which God, his parents, and many other people apparently forgive. Would we be so forgiving if we said "Josh Dugger sexually assaulted his sisters?" If Josh had come clean and confessed "I raped  my younger sisters?"

What's the danger? Soraya Chemaly says,

Every time you hear or say these types of expressions, the question should be “Who benefits from not saying ‘rape?’” Who is helped when we refuse to be accurate about rape?

Because it’s certainly not rape victims....

As long as we live in global culture where shame is assigned to the raped and not the rapists, the only people allowed to use euphemisms should be survivors.

Writing last year, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Jacob Lief, and Sohaila Abdulali explained, “Rape is utterly commonplace in all our cultures. It is part of the fabric of everyday life, yet we all act as if it’s something shocking and extraordinary whenever it hits the headlines. We remain silent, and so we condone it.”


How CAASE Empowers Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation

By Caleb Probst, CAASE Education Outreach Associate

I was asked to come into a high school in Chicago to work with their 9th grade boys. The school indicated that they were troubled by the behavior exhibited in the halls by some of the boys toward some of the girls, and thought the boys would benefit from going through our program. At the start of the first day, I asked the boys to write down words they would use to describe “a prostitute.” The majority of the responses were words like, “slut,” “hoe,” “THOT” (That Hoe Out There), “easy,” “nasty,” “dirty,” and “worthless.” Many of these words were the same words that the administration reported hearing directed at the girls in the school. At the end of the 4-session program, the boys had a new perspective. They really understood how different the realities of prostitution were from the myths they were accustomed to hearing and how many prostituted people endure violence, poverty, and trauma. They also learned about about how society frequently shames and isolates people in prostitution.

As these young men went through our 4-session program, they had an opportunity to examine what they know about “being a man” and think critically about how those shared perceptions influence their own decision making. They also had a chance to consider how their behavior, and the behavior of their peers, can impact their community. One student wrote, “I’ve learned that men treat women like crap, they use them as an object… I know that this puts girls in danger of becoming a prostitute.” He and his classmates began to see that objectifying women and degrading them with words like “slut” can have serious consequences. When asked how girls end up in prostitution, many responded with “they had a traumatized life,” “they had a rough childhood,” or “[society says] they have less power.”

Now, not every girl who is objectified and degraded will end up being commercially sexually exploited, and these young men acknowledged that. But as one student said, “we [never] know her story.” At the end of the final session, I asked the young men if there was anything that they would do differently now, based on what they had learned during the program. The two most common responses were “I will stop saying words like ‘thot’” and “I am going to respect women more.”

School is out for the summer now, but there's hope yet for these young men who have just begun their journey to better understanding and respect for their female peers.

Language Matters: A 9 year old does not have a "career" in prostitution

By Katie Feifer

Language matters when we speak about sexual violence. Using language of consent to describe crimes of violence is one of the ways we do a disservice to rape victims and continue to reinforce damaging messages about rape. One example: a child victim of Jerry Sandusky was commonly referred to in press accounts as “having sex with” Sandusky when in fact, the victim was forced to orally copulate the older man.

We continue to focus on language because until we talk about sexual violence in a truthful, accurate way, we as a society will not think about and accept sexual violence in a truthful, accurate way.

Today’s case study centers on the language we use to talk about prostitution and prostituted and trafficked girls and women. Many consider prostitution a victimless crime, a choice that women make, and certainly not a form of exploitation or abuse or violence. The reality is far different. (It’s a much bigger issue than we’re tackling in this post but you can read more about it here.)

The AP filed a story by Ramit Plushink-Masti about Houston’s efforts to rehabilitate people in prostitution. And in their opening paragraph, they referred to a 9 year old prostituted girl as someone who “had a full-fledged career in prostitution...” And the article went on to use more damaging language to refer to prostituted women and girls as "street walkers" and "hookers."

First, almost no 9 year olds have “careers”. But a 9 year old who has been trafficked and exploited by her mother and others, raped and abused by men who buy sex from her????? We continue to minimize and to soften the horror of the crime and the trauma its victims are subjected to when we use language like this, when our words make legitimate and commonplace what is ugly and awful.

As the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation says in its blog post,  This is a giant failure by the Associated Press and Plushnick-Masti to recognize that Tricia Chambers is a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Instead, they continue to stigmatize her and others who are in a program trying to exit prostitution, by calling them “hookers” and “streetwalkers.” This is incredibly offensive and harmful, and reinforces the cultural norm that people in prostitution are to blame, when many are actually crime victims.”

We are joining CAASE in asking you to Tweet @RamitMastiAP and @AP and tell them they got it wrong. A child in prostitution is a victim of a heinous crime. They must do better in deepening reporters’ understanding of these issues and work to not re-victimize survivors of sexual assault and trafficking. They must edit this story and show that they will do more to educate reporters about the realities of sex trafficking.”

Language matters.

Serena Williams and the Apology That's Not

By Katie Feifer

Tennis star Serena Williams is a phenomenal athlete. She is unique in her talent, rare in her dedication to her sport. However, she is a lot like many women and men when it comes to (mis)understanding the circumstances in which rape occurs. And unfortunately, because of her fame, her grossly insensitive and misguided opinions on the subject become national news, reinforcing myths.

On  June 18, Deadspin dished on some of what Serena is quoted as saying in an upcoming Rolling Stone issue. As the tv showed news about the Steubenville rape case, she said to the reporter,

"Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don't know. I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: don't take drinks from other people. She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different."

USA Today picked up the story. A by now predictable firestorm of criticism erupted as Serena was called out for being insensitive, inappropriate, just plain wrong. And then she issued an apology.

“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.

I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”

But y’know what? The apology grieves me more than her initial statement. What Serena said to the Rolling Stone reporter is, sadly, no different than what many think and say. Victim blaming, suggesting it was less of a crime (or that the victim was more ‘deserving’ of rape because she might not have been a virgin), sympathy for the perpetrators of a crime, letting them off the hook for the responsibility they have – all that and more is part of the cultural fabric we need to re-weave into something closer to truth. Serena’s a unique athlete but a normal person. Okay.

The apology, though… It’s an apology that really isn’t. The words suggest that she – or possibly her publicist – pulled some apology mantra out of some playbook and threw it out there to appease an outraged public. And that’s sad. Because it demonstrates that Serena really didn’t get why what she said was hurtful. And she didn’t use the occasion of her apology to rectify some wrongs, to use the opportunity to educate (since she has the spotlight), to show that she really did think and learn some.

In Serena’s apology, she speaks as though she views the crime as something akin to an accident: “To be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy!” Well, it’s way more than just a tragedy. And it’s not an accident, or an act of God, or a surprise, which is the note her apology sounds. “To be killed by lightening, and at only sixteen!” that’s an act of God, an accident, a tragedy. In Steubenville, there were agents (young men) involved who perpetrated the crime. How about, “For several young men to have raped this girl, at only sixteen, is a horrible crime and violation of her.” Doesn’t that sound more like someone who gets what the perpetrators did to the girl in Steubenville?

In her apology, Serena demonstrates again that she sees the perpetrators as victims here, too: she’s equally saddened for the families of the victim and the perpetrators. Her statement subtly equalizes their situations - and their culpability, where there should be no equivalence. The girl was a victim of a crime perpetrated by young men who chose to assault her brutally.

And finally, Serena does the apology dance where she avoids owning up to what she said and believed. “What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.” Oh but Serena, you did say those things. Here we see another case of the “If I said that, I’m sorry” approach to apology. Avoiding ownership makes her apology insincere, and shows that she hasn’t actually learned anything other than to be more careful when talking to reporters. Apology not accepted.

How great would it have been, if Serena had apologized by saying

“What I said was insensitive and hurtful. I’ve talked to some experts about sexual violence, and I now realize that I was blaming the victim for a horrific crime that she did not cause. I now understand how comments like the ones I made perpetuate myths. They're the kinds of comments that keep too many rape victims from reporting the crimes that were done to them, comments that keep too many rape victims silent, unable even to reach out to others for help and support to heal from sexual assault. I’ve fought all my career to support women. And I will continue to do so, now armed with a better, truer understanding of some of the realities around sexual violence.”

Now that’s an apology I can accept.

A Model from Maine for Working With Media

By Katie Feifer

The Bangor Daily News in Maine published an op-ed about sexual assault every single day during April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month. You can read the op-eds (and share them) here. The result was a giant step forward in raising awareness and educating about the realities of sexual assault and domestic violence. Additionally, members of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault trained staff reporters in how to report on sexual and domestic violence in a more enlightened manner.

One of the prime movers behind this effort was Cara Courchesne, a member of CounterQuo. We asked Cara to share the story of how this month of positive media attention and media training came to be, because it is surely a model that others of us can emulate. Cara writes:

 

"As advocates, it is difficult to read news stories that don’t talk about sexual violence the way we’d like. It’s easy to get angry, to fire off an email listing all of the article’s issues, and write off the media as ignorant and continuing to perpetuate the cultural supports of sexual violence.

In order to change this dynamic, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault(MECASA) and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence (MCEDV) are partnering with the Bangor Daily News (BDN), a statewide news organization with the largest audience in Maine. The project is designed to increase the BDN’s attention to domestic and sexual violence, and to increase the skills of reporters and editors with regard to reporting on these issues.

The crux of our success came from building relationships with BDN staff. MECASA’s work with the BDN began last summer, when a local service provider and I met with their Editorial Page Editor, Erin Rhoda. We asked to meet with Erin because of the BDN’s reporting on a local child sexual abuse issue, none of which included resources for how survivors could contact their local sexual assault support center. We met, talked about how the BDN could have better reported on the issue, and promised to be in touch.

Over the next few months, other BDN reporters reached out, and our reputation as subject matter experts grew. Ultimately, the paper proposed a new project about domestic and sexual violence. With Margo Batsie from MCEDV, we responded with a list of ways the BDN could proactively address these issues. Because we had already started relationship building, we felt like we were in a good place to make a specific ask. These specifics included more attention to DV/SV during awareness months and a training for reporters and editors to better report on sexual and domestic violence. 

We got what we asked for. Erin requested four op-eds from community members for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. After Erin received those four op-eds, she wanted more – as in one for each day of the month of April. After picking myself up off the floor from (excited!) shock, MECASA staff considered the range of issues we could address, from prevention to intervention, and asked community leaders and stakeholders to discuss the issues most closely related to their area of expertise.  

At the end of April, Margo and I trained all reporters and editors at the BDN over two days. The training was mandatory for staff; the BDN’s commitment to changing the way the paper reported on domestic and sexual violence was clear. The trainings were full of thoughtful conversation, great questions, and of course, pushback. However, even the pushback was a learning opportunity for us, and helped us to consider how we can talk more effectively to members of the media. 

The only way we’re going to change the media is to both write for and utilize various media platforms and successfully engage with members of existing, more traditional media. As the advocacy community seeks to increase this work, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned this spring.

  • Meet members of the media where they are. Members of the media don’t think about how to talk about domestic and sexual violence all day – they just do it (and sometimes, it’s not done in a way we’d like to see). The media cover a huge range of issues and most reporters don’t realize that when they call a reported sexual assault “alleged intercourse,” they’re helping perpetuate cultural stigmas we’re actively working against (or making the understatement of the week). Honestly, they’re just trying to make sure Grandma doesn’t choke on her cornflakes while she’s reading the morning news. Supporting them in their effort to be more neutral about their reporting starts with realizing they didn’t write the story with malicious intent. Like everyone else, they are susceptible to all of the cultural issues at play when we talk about sexual violence.
  • Think about where they’re coming from. Given our 24 hour news cycle, reporters and editors are pushed to get as much information as they can and get the story out. Sometimes, this results in less attention to language than we’d all like. The media doesn’t report on domestic and sexual violence with a lens similar to ours – their job isn’t to believe or not believe survivors, it’s to report on criminal justice stories. They have to be neutral; the key is to help them understand that you’re not asking them to become a victim advocate – you’re asking them to be more neutral. Helping them understand the difference is crucial.
  • What’s in it for them? There are ways you can demonstrate to members of the media tangible outcomes for their efforts. Many reporters and editors are unsure of where to find a good subject matter expert, or what hotline to include. By providing this information for them at the outset, and by continuing to provide them information when they ask, you are demonstrating your utility to their news organization. Also, by pointing out more neutral language for them to use, chances are, you’re helping them solve language issues they struggle with fairly often.
  • Realize you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need! Members of the media come from an entirely different place than we do. You’re going to have different opinions about specific phrases and what is appropriate for a reporter to write about and what isn’t. Having thoughtful conversations may help sway a reporter, and it may help you understand what is happening with a specific story. You may not reach a common understanding, but you’re building the relationship needed to get there.
  • Praise what they get right. Like most people, reporters and editors respond well to praise. It’s important for us to note what good reporting looks like so we can provide examples for other reporters and editors. When we see great work on sexual and domestic violence reporting, let’s say so!  

It’s not easy to work with the media. It involves dedication to relationship building and work on dicey language issues. It’s time consuming and doesn’t always coincide with your free time (because we all have so much of that!). But if they’re going to get it right, we have to be willing to help them get there. Their job is to report on the news – our job is to help them do it better. Working with the media means that we work together to change culture and the way we talk about sexual and domestic violence – one story at a time."

Hiding Perpetrators of Sexual Violence with Our Language

By Katie Feifer

We are passionate about ending “victim blaming” for sexual violence. We are insistent that we focus on the perpetrators when we talk about rape and hold them accountable for the crimes they commit, emphasizing their actions rather than the victims’.

Yet we continue to do ourselves a disservice when we absent the perpetrators from the way we describe rape. We set our efforts back every time we refer to sexual violence like we do “acts of God” that we can’t control or prevent. 

When perpetrators are invisible in our descriptions and only the victim is present, we are at worst inadvertently placing responsibility for rape on the victim, or at best not holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. And when we speak of sexual violence as we do earthquakes and floods – events that simply happen without agency – we are again letting perpetrators off the hook.

Consider the differences between the following pairs of statements:

“A woman was raped at knife-point while she was hitchhiking.” vs “A man raped a woman at knife-point after he picked her up in his car.”

“A rape occurred last night in a wooded area behind the high school.” vs “An unknown assailant raped a woman in a wooded area behind the high school.”

“I was raped over 20 years ago.” vs “Steven Kaczmarek raped me over 20 years ago.”

It can sound and feel awkward at first when we shift our language to make a perpetrator the subject of a sentence rather than the victim, and when we speak of rape as a deliberate act rather than as something that just happens. The awkwardness some feel may reflect the discomfort we have with accurately describing sexual violence. It is necessary, I believe, to get over that awkwardness if we’re to make a difference in how our culture thinks about sexual violence.

Thanks to Claudie Bayliff, CounterQuo member and Project Attorney for theNational Judicial Education Program at Legal Momentum for raising consciousness about how the language we use can help us hid perpetrators from accountability for sexual violence.

The House Tries to Redefine Rape: Act Now to Protest

By Katie Feifer

H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion" Act currently before the House with 173 co-sponsors, is a horror for women and children and for all those who care about them. We urge you to learn more about this bill, and to share your concern and outrage with friends, family and your elected officials.  We strongly believe this bill must not become law. You can read more in columns in Mother Jones and Salon. But here is a brief outline of what the bill seeks to do, and why we believe it is so harmful.

 Under current law, federal funding for abortion is unavailable except for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The proposed law denies federal funding unless the pregnancy results from "forcible rape" or in the case of a minor, incest. The horrors of this bill are both practical and symbolic.

First the practical. The only federal standard for "forcible rape" exists in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. That definition is considered by many, including many states’ law enforcement, as very narrow. It does not reflect what most state laws include in their definitions of rape. Since the 1970s, states have (rightly) defined rape around the issue of consent, rather than whether force was used in the crime. States have different definitions of “forcible rape”, and some have no definition. How is one to define "forcible rape?" Let alone who is to define "forcible rape."  Passage of this bill would mean that "every rape survivor who finds herself in need of abortion funding will have to submit her rape for government approval." (Sady Doyle, Salon)

Children who are raped by someone not their father or grandfather would have no support under the proposed legislation unless the rape was "forcible." So the 13 year old girl raped and impregnated by her father's friend who attacked her while she was sleeping? No funding to help her terminate her pregnancy.

Studies have shown that most rapes do not utilize what the FBI's Uniform Crime Report defines as "force."  Rapists coerce, threaten, prime with alcohol and drug their victims. They rape women and girls who are sleeping. They take advantage of women and girls who are mentally, physically or developmentally disabled. Roughly three quarters of rapes would not qualify as "forcible," based on research.

And which women and girls would be most harmed in practical terms? Those who are most vulnerable already. The poor, many of whom rely on Medicaid for health care. Native women, whose health care is often covered by a federal agency - Indian Health Service. The wealthy among us would have more options, like privately funded abortions.

And what of the harm itself? Quoting from a statement issued by the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, "Every area of a victim’s life is affected by sexual violence whether it is a child sexually abused by a family member, a teenager coerced into sex by an older man, a college student drugged and assaulted at a party, or an adult raped by a stranger or by her ex-husband. Advocates at 1300 rape crisis centers across the United States bear witness to the trauma of sexual violence every day and see the torment caused by the loss of power and control over one’s body—one’s most intimate self—that is at the heart of sexual violence.

We know that at least 1-5% of sexual assaults results in pregnancy. In 2008, the Supreme Court of California upheld that pregnancy resulting from rape constitutes great bodily injury. Most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to face that pain."

Symbolically – but with very real ramifications,  the proposed legislation is a heartbreaking move to un-do women's hard-won rights not to have to demonstrate "utmost resistance" in order to be considered a "real" rape victim. Either inadvertently with careless use of language, or very deliberately, the bill's sponsors are attempting to re-define "real rape" back to standards that existed in the 1600's, which we presumed we'd ridded ourselves of 40 years ago.  Although the language appears in a bill about abortion funding, its impact will be widespread. What the law now defines as "rape" - and what we know as survivors, advocates and caring people -  would, with casual ease, mostly be erased.

We cannot allow this to happen. What can you do? Educate yourself, call your legislators, share blogs and articles, and sign a petition. One of several we like was drafted by MoveOn.org. Please act now.

Will the Real Men Out There Please Stand Up?

This was originally published in HumanGoods, dedicated to understanding today’s global slave trade, by Samir Goswami.

On August 24, actor Ashton Kutcher went on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote his new role in the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. For those of us dedicated to the anti- human trafficking movement, this in itself was an interesting career choice for Kutcher. He’s replacing Charlie Sheen, who played the role of a hapless womanizer who often frequented strip clubs and paid women for sex. As in real life, on Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen was a John.

Over the past few years, Kutcher has explicitly pronounced himself a “real man,” which he publicly defines as someone who does not pay for commercial sex because prostituted girls are victims of human trafficking. He doesn’t believe that girls should be bought and sold for male gratification.

In his interview with Letterman, however, Kutcher admitted to enjoying “the live thing” when asked whether he preferred “strippers or porn stars.” It is not controversial to state that strip clubs and pornography commodify the female body; in fact that is their commercial purpose. However, Kutcher’s professed preference for “the live thing” should raise some eyebrows.

Kutcher is a co-founder of the DNA Foundation, whose mission is “to raise awareness about child sex slavery, change the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem, and rehabilitate innocent victims.” For the past few years, Kutcher and his wife and co-founder of the foundation, actress Demi Moore, have been raising funds and awareness about human trafficking.  Together they have made numerous appearances on TV and at forums, particularly denouncing child sex slavery—and men’s demand for it—as part of their stated efforts to “change the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem.”

Kutcher often tweets about the issue to his million plus followers and was a driving force behind the foundation’s “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” PSA campaign, an effort to discourage men from buying sex. “The ‘Real Men Don’t Buy Girls Campaign’,” the Huffington Post noted, “contains a message he [Kutcher] hopes people are willing to pass around; one that specifically addresses the male psyche, while also being entertaining and informative. ‘Once someone goes on record saying they are or aren’t going to do something, they tend to be a bit more accountable,’ says Kutcher. ‘We wanted to make something akin to a pledge: ‘real men don’t buy girls, and I am a real man.’’

Although opinions about the efficacy of this campaign vary, Kutcher’s involvement in anti-trafficking efforts has been welcome, celebrated, and seemingly authentic. Before embarking on his advocacy, Kutcher took the time to learn: He read the research, talked to women and girls who had been trafficked, and consulted with NGO and government experts. He has spoken eloquently and knowledgeably about the issue in most of his public appearances. In short, Kutcher used his fame and charm to educate and model positive male behavior that redefines masculinity as respecting women—not commodifying them.

He has positioned himself as the anti-Charlie Sheen.

On his show, David Letterman predictably asked Kutcher a “gotcha question”: “Do you prefer strippers or porn stars?”

After a pause and a chuckle, Kutcher responded, “I have a foundation that fights human trafficking, and neither of those qualify as human trafficking. You know the live thing is nice, there’s nothing wrong with a live show.”

Not all prostitution or other commercial sexual services like stripping, aka “the live thing,” are connected to sex trafficking. However, Kutcher’s foundation recognizes a link in stating, “Men, women and children are enslaved for many purposes including sex, pornography, forced labor and indentured servitude.” The DNA Foundation’s website links to various studies and research reports that document significant connections between human trafficking and “the live thing.” Law enforcement officials throughout the country are increasingly recognizing this connection as they listen to survivors who tell us that, yes—they were indeed trafficked against their will to gratify men in strip clubs, massage parlors, and escort agencies. As a result of this evidence, state governments are clamoring to create public policies that ensure potential victims, wherever they are exploited, have a real opportunity to identify themselves as such.

I am not a famous person. The paparazzi do not follow me. I have never been in a situation where millions watch me as I respond to a “gotcha” question. However, as a longtime advocate for exploited women and girls, I have spoken to many survivors who were trafficked through strip clubs and used in pornography, and I frequently speak about their exploitation at public events. I have often had to defend my own definition of masculinity, one that is not predicated upon the Hobson’s choice of “strippers or porn stars.”

We tolerate, in public discourse, a willful ignorance of the role that men who pay for sexual experiences play in fueling the human trafficking industry. We fear that any condemnation will be labeled anti-sex. It’s difficult to go against this grain and take a principled but unpopular stance—one that contradicts an accepted norm that purposefully makes invisible the real harm done to real people for profit.

But difficulty is not an excuse. I don’t have the public pressures that Kutcher’s fame stimulates and I also don’t have the same opportunities. Kutcher has taken this fame and molded it for the positive, and I respect him for that. He carved out a well-informed role for himself in a movement dedicated to ending slavery.  Although there are many who may not agree with his tactics, most appreciate him as someone who has tried to inform—and inspire—men who are unaware of the venues through which women get trafficked. Kutcher went beyond just talking about the how and the where, but challenged conventional definitions of masculinity itself. That is the tremendous value Kutcher brings to this movement.

And that is why I really wish that when the momentous opportunity presented itself, Kutcher would have stood up as the “real man” he professes to be. I wish that he would have challenged David Letterman for asking a question that trivializes the experiences of many trafficking survivors, whose stories have moved Kutcher to action. I wish he would have explained to Letterman that patronizing strip clubs supports an industry that perpetuates the consumption of women’s bodies and regularly profits from the trafficking of young girls—which goes against his definition of what a “real man” is.

Strip clubs monetize engrained male attitudes toward women by offering men access to them for a fee. Kutcher could have implicated these attitudes, instead of supporting them, by explaining the close connection between men’s desire for (and language about) paid access to viewing and touching women’s bodies, and the millions of women and girls for sale worldwide.

However, Kutcher’s response to Letterman’s impossible question betrayed a troubling ignorance that is not founded in a man who actually has taken the time to listen and learn. No one expects him to have it all figured out, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a modicum of courage to express a higher sense of awareness and sensibility, or at least an honest admission of confusion.

Sexuality is complex and confusing. We are all attracted to and stimulated by other physical bodies for various and often inexplicable reasons. Those of us who profess to be defenders of human rights, and gain considerable attention and favor for it, have to hold ourselves to a high standard of introspection and public accountability. Kutcher didn’t just lower that bar for himself.  He broke it.  Along with it, I suspect that he also broke the trust and admiration of many in the anti-trafficking movement.

Sexual attraction may be challenging and situational. Respect for women should not be.

The Wrong-Headedness of Roy Black's Proposal for "Modest Reforms" for Protection of Rape Victims

By Katie Feifer

Roy Black, a noted criminal defense attorney who helped William Kennedy Smith get an acquittal on rape charges in 1991, recently wrote an essay in Salon.com that began with a good point and then veered so seriously wrong that we were stunned (but not surprised.) And then shocked into responding.

Black's good point is this: there is no justice served in humiliating and convicting men accused of rape before they are tried in court. We do not condone "perp walks" and public smearing of reputations. We want civility and fairness in our treatment of those in the news. We agree that there should be no "rush to judgement" and that rape cases are not well-served when they are tried in the media.  So far, so good.

But then, in the name of "equality" between rape victims and those they accuse of rape, Black goes off the rails in his rush to judge rape victims as women who routinely falsely accuse men of rape. Utilizing discredited research and playing upon prevailing myths about "women who cry rape" he argues that we ought to eliminate most of the protections for victims we enacted since the 1970s. These were put in place to make it easier for women who were raped to report to police and cooperate in the prosecution of rapists. The idea that more prosecutions would results in more convictions, and that more rapists would be in prison, making society safer.

In Roy Black's world, the only way to protect the privacy and reputationof men accused of rape would be to make it even more impossible than in already is for a woman to bring a rape accusation to police. In Black's world, a woman would have to have corroborating evidence of a rape taking place, which we know seldom occurs. In this world, a woman would have to prove "a clear element of force or the threat of force."  

In fact, the rates of false rape accusations are quite low: reputable research puts it at 2-8% of accusations - a level no different than for other crimes. In fact, the vast majority of women who are raped NEVER report it to the police. Conviction rates are excceedingly low. We invite you to read some of the reputable research reports in our reference materials section.

Also, take a look at how Susan Brownmiller, who in 1975 wrote the groundbreaking book "Against our Will", took Black to task in a pointed response printed in Salon.com. 

We believe that adopting Black's "modest reforms" will only make things more "equitable" for men accused of rape by further depressing the number of women who bravely come forward to accuse someone of raping them. It's so clearly the wrong solution to the problem he poses, it makes us wonder: why would this prominent defense attorney even suggest this?

Because he's a brilliant defense attorney. His Salon.com argument will make it even easier for him to gain acquittals for men accused of rape, because he perpetuates so many myths about rape victims. Decrying the media trial of men accused of rape, he uses the media to put on trial those women who make rape accusations. Sickening, but a brilliant defense strategy. Prosecutor Roger Canaff eloquently argues against the myths and points out Black's fallacies in his blog.

The myths about rape and its victims are among the most resistant to squelch. Perpetuating these myths serve many powerful people and powerful purposes. We continue to fight against these myths, and once again urge our readers to arm yourselves with the facts, and use them to discredit these myths whenever and wherever you hear them.

Our Rape Culture Pervades Even in Victim Supporting Media

By Katie Feifer

It can be difficult to explain to people what we mean when we say we live in a "rape culture." In part, it's because the attitudes and values that define it are so deeply engrained that many hardly notice it. Think of the adage about fish trying to describe water.

However, a recent blog post in Ms Magazine provided two really good examples of rape culture in action, one of which was most interesting for how inadvertent its use was.

The article is a victim-supportive report on a civil suit brought by a rape victim against several men in San Jose. All defendants were cleared of all charges, including rape. The article details many of the victim blaming attitudes that came into play to help the defendants win the case.

The story of the case and its outcome is, unfortunately quite common. Too many people believe that if a woman drinks and flirts with men, she "wants it" and even "is asking for it" despite the fact that at the time of "it" - an attack by several men - she was either semi or unconscious and unable to provide consent to the acts they perpetrated on her.

What struck me, though, was the title of the article itself. Inadvertently (I believe), Ms Magazine participated in a bit of victim blaming, playing on the very attitudes of rape culture that we are trying to change. The title is long: "She Drinks, She Flirts, She Passes Out... Is it Rape?" But even with its length, please notice what's missing: any mention of the men who sexually violated her, or their acts. The title, like our rape culture, focuses solely on the victim and her actions. If we're talking about the crime of rape, we should talk about the rapists and their acts.

Examine how your thinking shifts if I re-title the article like this (n.b., I don't know the specific charges so I'm hypothesizing on the specifics based on the charges): "Several Men Penetrate and Sexually Abuse an Unconscious Teen Who'd Been Drinking and Flirting... Is it Rape?"

"Consent is Not a Lightswitch"

By Katie Feifer

The Supreme Court of Canada is about to rule on a case that centers on the issue of whether a person can give "advance" consent to sex. The specifics involve a woman who consented to participate in a specific sex act with her partner. She passed out; he penetrated her anally, while she was unconscious. She never told him she was okay with anal penetration. Did her consent at one point in time, for one particular act, render her consenting to any and all acts with this partner?

We, like many others, say no, no and again NO. We need to do a lot more educating and awareness raising on this point: consent is not something that, once given, applies to any and all acts for a night, a day, a weekend, or an entire relationship. 'Sex' is not a single thing or act that you say yes or no to once, and then are stuck with being committed to. 

As we know, 'sex' is a series of activities engaged in by two (or more) people each of whom should be enthusiastically consenting to each act or activity s/he participates in. You can't consent if you're not awake. And even if you are awake, consent can be withdrawn even after freely given.

Jaclyn Friedman, writer, activist and founding member of CounterQuo, brilliantly educates us all on the issue of consent - again - in her latest on Amplify: "Consent is Not a Lightswitch."

Spread the word.

Porn on Campus - Where's the Dialog About What Pornography is and Does? It's More Than Just a Free Speech Issue

By Katie Feifer

Last week the University of Maryland made headlines when a student group screened the XXX rated pornographic film, The Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge, on campus.  As expected, the Washington Post and CNN.com highlighted this "controversy" by only focusing on the usual debate about pornography as a free speech issue. The coverage pitted the student defenders of free speech against members of the Maryland State Legislature and their public attempts to "uphold morality."

I find it hard to believe that these were the only two perspectives that students on campus were debating--especially when the discussion is about pornography. Surely there is room for more dialog that many students on campus would like to have engaged in. 

I asked Valerie Chepp, a student at Maryland, to reflect on the matter. Please read “Pornography Reduxxx” for her very thoughtful insights about the desperate need for a complex debate at her college that this screening represents. Ms. Chepp is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland whose work focuses on feminist and social theory, media and popular culture, and African American studies. 

Giving "Ask Amy" a Little Advice When it Comes to Rape

By Katie Feifer

Amy Dickinson, a nationally syndicated advice columnist wrote on November 27, 2009 responding to a request for advice from “Victim in Virginia,” a young female trying to determine whether she had been raped at a fraternity party. We were deeply dismayed by Ms. Dickinson’s response.

Ms. Dickinson displays an all-too-common ignorance of the dynamics of non-stranger sexual assault, the law and the appropriate ways to advise a survivor of such violence. Because such misperceptions have an effect not only on victims but also on public safety, and because Ms. Dickinson’s widely heard voice is an important one, we are compelled to make several key points.

Ms. Dickinson’s apparent disdain for the judgment of the advice seeker (“Were you a victim? Yes. First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment”) is as painful a display of victim blaming as we have seen in some time.  The first response to this clearly struggling young woman should have been one of empathy, not shame or blame. Even if consuming alcohol, agreeing to spend time alone with a peer, or attending a fraternity party are indicators of “bad judgment,” rape is not a justifiable consequence. Neither do these choices justify shifting responsibility for this crime from the assailant to the victim.  Insinuating otherwise is not only punishing the young woman who is at the center of this case but is problematic from a public education standpoint.

Despite the fact that the advice seeker clearly indicated that she said “no” and was coerced by the alleged perpetrator, Dickinson suggests that what was by legal standards a rape may have in fact been merely a misunderstanding fueled by alcohol consumption. In suggesting that the consumption of alcohol is a great neutralizer, one that morally equates the sexual violence victim and the perpetrator, Dickinson ignores current law and decades of rape education efforts. She also ignores this fundamental truth: alcohol lowers inhibitions that might otherwise prevent behavior that is nevertheless consistent with the desire of the inebriated person (in this case, that of the alleged perpetrator). It does not unleash a heretofore non-existent urge to violate a resisting woman who has protested her attacker’s advances.

Dickinson’s imprecise use of language is equally troubling. She conflates “unwise” sexual conduct with “unwanted” sexual conduct, implying that a victim might choose (because of her attendance at a party and the voluntary consumption of alcohol) to “engage” in either or both. In fact, one does not “engage” in unwanted sexual conduct anymore than one “engages” in being robbed at knife point. Describing sexual violence as a contract negotiation gone wrong sends the wrong message to victims and the broader community, fueling social attitudes that make the world less safe and less just. Indeed, when over 80% of the rapes committed in the United States involve people who know each other – and many of those rapes involve alcohol – the symbolic and practical impact of Ms. Dickinson’s ill-considered advice is potentially quite large.

Most troubling to us was Ms. Dickinson’s assertion that the alleged rapist should be involved in discussions with his victim “in order to determine what happened.” One problematic aspect of this particular piece of advice is the presumption that this young woman cannot know what happened to her – only the accused perpetrator can tell her. From a legal standpoint, such advice is ill conceived and irresponsible: one does not direct the victim of a crime to confront the perpetrator of that crime after the fact, and on her own time.  This is what the legal system is for. From an ethical standpoint, advising a victim to reach out to her alleged perpetrator is cruel, unreasonable, and likely to be traumatic (as well as ineffective). It is also, for the victim, potentially unsafe.

There is a wealth of important information available on rape and sexual abuse — information that we hope might inform future “Ask Amy” columns. Indeed the most helpful and accurate aspect of Ms. Dickinson’s answer was the information that she included from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Now we encourage her to learn more. The website of one of our Chicago-based CounterQuo partners, The Voices and Faces Project (www.voicesandfaces.org), includes the names, faces, and stories of women and girls who have lived through rape and abuse.  Information about the legal response to rape and sexual assault is available from the Victim Rights Law Center (www.victimrights.org). We hope that after reading the testimony of victims with experiences not unlike the “Victim in Virginia,” Ms. Dickinson will be less likely to blame those who have lived through sexual violence for the damage that has been done to them.

"No Means No?" How about "Yes Means Yes!"

By Katie Feifer

"No means no." It's language that is familiar to many high school and college students, and an important part of most anti sexual violence education efforts. What those of us working to end rape have talked much less about is the right to say "Yes." We believe that the freedom to decide whether, when, where, how, and with whom to have sexual intimacy is a civil right that should be upheld in our nation’s laws and culture. Put another way, our right to say "Yes" to sexual intimacy matters as much as our right to say "No."

Jaclyn Friedman and her co-editor, Jessica Valenti, now bring us an important new book that explores these themes. "Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape" calls for a greater understanding of and respect for female pleasure as part of a societal effort to end violence against women.