Affirmative Consent: It's Happening, So Get on Board

Jaclyn Friedman has written a brilliant piece in the Washington Post, explaining (again) the beauty of affirmative consent as a model and a practice for behavior, and as policy when considering sexual assault cases.

The idea is simple: In matters of sex, silence or indifference aren’t consent. Only a freely given “yes” counts. And if you can’t tell, you have to ask.

One of the many points Jaclyn raises is that while some older people are all up in arms about the idea of affirmative consent, many young people get it, like it, and in fact are quite relieved to see it becoming the norm.

Why? A couple quotations from Jaclyn's article helps to spell it out. But really, the best thing for you to do is just read the whole article.

By emphasizing that you can’t make assumptions about what a sex partner might want, Yes Means Yes reminds everyone that there is no universal “right” answer to what any of us should want to do in bed. Instead, practicing affirmative consent encourages young people to get to know their own needs and desires and boundaries.
...affirmative consent is, in reality, a gender-free standard: It tells young men that their needs and desires and boundaries matter, too, and that it’s just as important when someone violates them as it would be if they were a woman. And it teaches people of all genders that it’s easy to make sure you’re not hurting anyone during sex: Just show up and pay attention to your partner; listen to what they’re telling you; and if you can’t tell, you have to ask. That’s especially helpful for young men, many of whom are worried that they’ll accidentally violate their sex partners, somehow, just by way of being male.
Of course, asking isn’t so simple when you’ve been raised in a culture that seems to say that talking about sex with your sex partner is some kind of a buzzkill. (It’s not, of course — if it were, phone sex wouldn’t be such a lucrative business.) That’s why the new affirmative consent laws are also a great opportunity to teach the kind of sexual communication that makes sex both better and safer for everyone.

And that's the bottom line to a large degree. Our culture, and the acculturation and socialization many of us who are over 40 and in positions of policy and law making lived through, told us that talking about sex is wrong, bad, and just not done. Sex is "supposed" to happen in the dark, with no real communication. The idea of affirmative consent shakes that belief to the core. And it's about time.



A Campus Rape Risk Reduction Program That “Works” Doesn’t Help Much

By Katie Feifer

Let’s not get too excited and happy about the good news.

A new study done by researchers on three Canadian campuses and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that providing first year students a robust program of “rape prevention”, including self defense tactics, understanding what constitutes consent and sexual assault, and strategies for staying safe on campus significantly reduced those women’s risk of being raped or sexually assaulted compared to a control group only given a brochure about sexual assault.

The New York Times was pleased to trumpet the good news in an article headlined “College Rape Prevention Proves a Rare Success.”  The opening line embellished the point: “A program that trained first-year female college students to avoid rape substantially lowered their risk of being sexually assaulted, a rare success against a problem that has been resistant to many prevention efforts...”

Why are we not so excited, and in fact cringing a little bit at this good news?

Because the study findings, and even more the news coverage of the results, once again put the onus on women to take steps not to get themselves raped. Again we have to remind everyone that the onus belongs on the small number of men who are offenders not to rape women, and on us as a society to stop perpetrators from perpetrating and hold them accountable when they do.

Those who take a course like this can lower their personal risk. Which is fine as far as it goes. That just means that the rapists will find other women to assault. It doesn’t address the cause of the problem, which is perpetrators' impunity to commit sexual violence crimes. As author and activist Jaclyn Friedman notes, quoted in Jessica Valenti’s excellent Guardian article,

Rapes are perpetrated by a tiny percentage of men who know what they’re doing and who rape again and again - they’re just going to find another target”...Friedman, who also co-edited an anthology on ending rape with me in 2008, said: “So just because these girls [who took the training] are less likely to be picked, it doesn’t mean there’s less rape on campus ... This isn’t rape prevention, it’s rape protection.

The findings from the study are encouraging, to be sure. It’s not a bad thing to provide women some tools that can help keep them safe. But we’ll say it again: it’s not enough and it’s not where we need to focus to get to the roots of the problem.

And there are other studies (like one from Kentucky showing a 50% reduction in self-reported sexual violence perpetration in high schools) that occurs when other strategies are utilized. The Green Dot program focuses on bystander intervention to engage the whole community to stop perpetration – and reframe sexual violence as not normal.

Valenti summarizes well:

We need more than just one study and more than just one training to stop rape, not just on college campuses, but everywhere. Small, short-term solutions that work for some women are terrific and I hope we fund a lot of them. But what we need more are lasting solutions for all of us - solutions that don’t just change statistics, but the culture.

 

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 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.

GEAR Up for the Launch of UN Women

By Alisa Roadcup

I’m at the Vienna Café in the United Nations building, nursing a cup of coffee. To my right, a Liberian Ambassador is being interview on the struggle for women’s empowerment in her country. State delegations clad in colorful dress drift by en route to their sessions. It’s day three of the 55th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

Today brings the official launch of UN Women, the UN organization for gender equality and the empowerment of women. I’m here as a delegate for Amnesty International’s Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group (WHRCG), a newly formed committee responsible for advising AIUSA’s Women’s Human Rights in order to promote and protect women's human rights around the world.

With the launch of UN Women tonight, an atmosphere of anticipation saturates the hallways and shared spaces. I’ve encountered genuine enthusiasm and also a cautious optimism in my conversations with delegates, staffers and NGO representatives.

On Tuesday, the first official day of the 55th CSW, I had the pleasure of meeting with Polly Truscott, AI’s Deputy Representative to the United Nations. We discussed the issues most pertinent to the WHRCG priorities: I-VAWAIndigenous Rights,CEDAWMaternal Mortality and UN Council Resolution 1325. I discovered how AI is playing an important role in the Global Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign, a global network of over 300 women’s human rights and social justice groups which have been working for five+ years to establish UN Women. Now that UN Women is a reality, GEAR is focused on ensuring that women's rights groups play a role in the future work of UN Women.

Madam Bachelet, former president of Chile and Under-Secretary-General of UN Women has demonstrated real commitment to women’s empowerment. Yet there is still critical work to be done. In the corridors, word is out that planning sessions on UN Women’s global strategy are happening, but no one is clear which women’s groups have been invited to be part of this process. Shouldn't the establishment of UN Women call for a new, collaborative paradigm? Can there be closer consultation with women on the ground, women who are carrying out this work in their communities? Will their voices be heard? In the celebrations of this historic day, let’s not lose sight of what really matters: ensuring accountability, efficacy and collaboration from UN Women.

GEAR is calling for UN Women and all other UN agencies to implement an effective system of consultation at national, regional and international levels because women’s rights groups and NGO’s need to have a voice in the strategic planning process.

UN Women shouldn’t be business as usual. Women are waiting.

For those interested in the official UN Women meetings, webcasts can be found at the following link: http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/index.html

Get involved in the GEAR campaign! Help build a world that works for all women.

 

Alisa M. Roadcup, former Stop Violence Against Women Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International USA and PhD Candidate in International Psychology at The Chicago School for Professional Psychology is a delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women this week. She’s blogging about her experiences for Amnesty International USA, CounterQuo.org and the United Nations Association of Greater Boston.

Compare and Contrast: H1N1 and Rape Prevention Efforts

By Katie Feifer

A recent blog post by Meg Stone in Bitch laid out, in eye-opening clarity, some of the key reasons why our culture fails to treat sexual assault like the pandemic public health issue it is. We're expending much effort to prevent the spread of H1N1 in this country. Widespread, coordinated efforts. Our government and community responses to H1N1 are the way public health initiatives are supposed to work. Media, government, schools, communities - all working together.

She wonders, "What would our media, our public discourse, and our institutional response look like if people cared as much about rape as they do about H1N1?"

The CDC estimates that H1N1 will affect 0.3% of the U.S. population. It reports that sexual assault (defined as any unwanted sexual activity) affected 2.5% of women and 0.9% of men in the past year.

Meg Stone notes "So why is the public health infrastructure working so well? Because it's not being undermined by shame, stigma and denial (you know, the way rape and sexual assault are.)"

Where's our Presidential state of emergency declaration for sexual assault and rape? Imagine if sexual violence were addressed like H1N1. It's a vision we'd like to see.

Sometimes it’s harder to criticize our friends than it is to criticize our enemies. But maybe not this time: Bill O’Reilly and the “It Happened to Alexa” Foundation

By Katie Feifer

In a world that blames, shames and disavows rape victims, how do we as a movement respond to a victim rights organization that invites one of the culture's most public and polemical victim blamers to speak at their fundraising event?

"It Happened to Alexa Foundation" is a rape victim advocacy organization that was founded in 2003 by Tom and Stacey Branchini. Theirs is a worthy group that has done much good in the last few years, which makes their selection of Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly as a headline speaker at the foundation's March 19th fundraiser both shocking and deeply troubling. O'Reilly has a long history of misogynistic and victim-blaming rhetoric, most notably calling 18 year-old rape and murder victim Jennifer Moore "moronic," and suggesting that, because of the way she was dressed, she was "asking for it."  O'Reilly also said of victim Shawn Hornbeck -- who was abducted and allegedly sexually assaulted at the age of 11 and held for four years -- that "there was an element here that this kid liked about his circumstances." Media Matters, a media watchdog group, has compiled a long list of problematic O’Reilly statements about women, minority groups and victims.

Faced with online protests and hundreds of calls and emails - many from survivors of sexual violence - the leadership of “It Happened to Alexa Foundation” stands by their choice. "Bill O'Reilly is still speaking at the fundraiser. We are aware of his comments. We don't have any comment about it. I don't feel as if it would be productive." says Ellen Augello, the group’s Executive Director.

Actually, a public conversation about their choice of O'Reilly as a speakerwould be productive. We need to start talking about how representations of victims in the media shape public attitudes about rape and drive outcomes in the courtroom. We need to be clear about the ways that the words of “talking heads” like Bill O’Reilly have contributed to a culture in which victims of sexual violence are blamed for the violence that has been done to them, and shamed into silence. We need to ask how a pundit at a major news network can continue to express outdated ideas about rape and its victims that have been discredited and de-bunked.

Most immediately, we in the anti sexual violence movement must respectfully challenge any ally who provides a public platform and organizational support for someone with such a long and unapologetic history of hostile and damaging statements. A high profile speaker may be a fundraising draw.  But those who have been wounded by O'Reilly's ill-informed and uncompassionate rhetoric have already paid too high a price.

"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.