The Gymnasts and the Judge

 By Donna Jenson

I pledge my allegiance to over 150 women who stood up in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom, found their voices, stepped into the national floodlights of attention and gave themselves an experience in courage; a sparkling courage that is rippling out to us all. What grit! What moxie! What lightning bolts of inspiration is each and every one of them.

Another set of accolades I send out to Judge Aquilina. Armed with her judicial power she fostered an incredibly important act of empowerment in this 21st Century movement for resistance to and elimination of the sexual exploitation that has existed as long as history has been recorded.

Both sides of this equation are absolutely necessary for the eradication of sexual exploitation in all its horrendous forms: Survivors standing tall, with cameras rolling, telling their stories, and a representative of the power base clearing the room, providing unlimited space and time for those stories. Take as long as you need to say all you want to say she told them. Being a woman who survived incest how can I even express the vast importance of that level of validation? It has ramifications – the yet to be seen results and consequences of these acts of courage and use of power. 

How many survivors witnessing these acts are being fed a dose of validation and inspiration? I love that these women are standing – heads held high atop strong spines. Such a grand contradiction to the years my spirit lived well into my thirties crouched in a fetal position doing all she could to hold down my fathers crime because of his oft- repeated threat, ‘You tell anyone and I’ll kill you.’ I’m certain each time a survivor stands up and proclaims their experience a thousand sister and brother survivor’s spirits unfold, take a deep breath and have a good stretch. I wish I could stand before each and every one of these amazing women, look them right in the eye and say “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

The responses Judge Aquiline offered after the victim statements were a grand about-face to the all-too-often victim blaming that happens. She underscored statement after statement with praise, gratitude, and support for the women who came forward. Things like, “The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you” calling them “heroine” and “superhero” and “Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her.’ Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength.” What really choked me up was when she said, “Leave your pain here and go out and do your magnificent things.”

Where, dear goddess, did this cowboy-booted judge with a terrific upsweep hairdo come from? No matter – all that matters is she is here, now. Here for these young women who survived childhood sexual abuse, here for the millions of us like them. Here too, as a shining searchlight for all who have power – to follow her stellar example and use that power for the greater good, in the battle to end this epidemic.

One thing about the man Lawrence Nassar, I believe he wasn’t born an abuser. Whatever brought him to commit his crimes – like all abusers – must be purged from our culture for this epidemic to be stopped. 

We are living not just a #METOO / Times Up moment – it is a movement and the gymnasts and judge are major engines in keeping the momentum going. You can, too. Join by giving gratitude to the doers, financial support to organizations serving survivors and your voice anywhere and everywhere you can use it. Come on along – this is one hell of a ride!

Thanks for reading.

Donna Jenson

Founder, Time To Tell

Author, Healing My Life from Incest to Joy

www.timetotell.org

Rape Culture On Display in a Few Stunning Sentences

By Katie Feifer

The father of convicted rapist Brock Turner (Stanford student, varsity swimmer, sweet, white face) stated the following in a letter to the court opposing his son’s six month sentence (more on that, later):

As his father, he knows that Brock has "never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of Jan 17th.” (Italics mine)

And what were those actions, exactly? According to rapist Brock Turner, in his statement to the court prior to sentencing,

“Being drunk I just couldn’t make the best decisions and neither could she….I stupidly thought it was okay for me to do what everyone around me was doing, which was drinking. I was wrong…. I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life.”

Here are the facts of the case, as summarized by the district attorney in a press release expressing the horror of the sentence:

“After midnight, on January 18, 2015, Turner was seen by two witnesses sexually assaulting the unconscious victim, who was laying on the ground behind a dumpster on Stanford campus. When they called out, Turner ran away. The two tackled him and held him until police officers arrived. Evidence showed that the victim was so heavily intoxicated that she did not regain consciousness until hours later.”

Brock Turner’s victim demolished his pathetic rationalizations for his behavior, and made an incredibly powerful statement about the impact his actions had on her, detailing the events of the night he raped her, and what followed. If you only click on one link today, make it her statement.

In case you can’t quite see the display of rape culture in Brock’s and his dad’s statements, allow me to shed some light.

Rape is inherently violent. The act of penetrating a person without consent constitutes violence. Brock was convicted of penetrating the victim while she was unconscious, behind a dumpster, after they left a party together. Brock’s dad, like too many of us, still believe that it’s not violent if…what? There’s no broken bones or weapon used? This belief is a big part of rape culture.

The victim did not make a “decision” or have a choice. To see equivalency in their actions, holding her at all responsible for his actions because ‘we were both drinking and didn’t make the best decisions’ is rape culture in action. And it’s much, much worse that these words convey, when you consider that his attorneys went for a tactic that works surprisingly well in cases where the victim was unconscious while she was raped. In her words:

"I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn't remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me."

 Relatedly, Brock seems to feel that his real crime was getting drunk. “I stupidly thought it was okay for me to do what everyone around me was doing, which was drinking. I was wrong.” I’ll let the victim school us about the fallacy of this belief.

“Again, you were not wrong for drinking. Everyone around you was not sexually assaulting me. You were wrong for doing what nobody else was doing, which was pushing your erect dick in your pants against my naked, defenseless body concealed in a dark area, … Peeling off and discarding my underwear like a candy wrapper to insert your finger into my body, is where you went wrong. Why am I still explaining this.”

 Brock’s statement that he’s starting a program to raise awareness about the dangers of the “campus drinking culture and sexual promiscuity that goes along with that” would be surreal if it didn’t reflect what many in our culture believe: If the victim hadn’t been drinking and wasn’t so ‘promiscuous,’ he wouldn’t have gotten into trouble.  The victim addressed this absurdity best in her statement.

"You realize, having a drinking problem is different than drinking and then forcefully trying to have sex with someone? Show men how to respect women, not how to drink less."

There’s more. Judge Aaron Persky - running unopposed for re-election this year -  rejected the prosecution’s recommendation of a six year sentence for Brock Turner. Instead, the judge sentenced Brock to six months, which means he’ll be out of prison in a few weeks. His reasoning? He agrees with Brock’s father that it would be awful to make Brock feel bad. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him … I think he will not be a danger to others.”

How the judge can know that Brock will not be a danger to others is beyond me. The only way you can judge that he will not be a danger to others is to believe that raping someone is not a dangerous, violent act. Because if sad, depressed Brock drinks too much in the future, around women, it’s entirely possible that his future will look like his past.

And that’s it in a nutshell.

To review the clear evidence of rape culture: rape isn’t violent, because no bones were broken nor were copious amounts of blood spilled. The rapist was only guilty of drinking too much, and his victim is equally (or more?) responsible for his attack on her because she’d been drinking too. (Never mind the fact that she was unconscious when he attacked her.) And God forbid we should punish Brock for his actions or “ruin” his life because, as one reporter noted, “…the ex-swimmer has a record of real accomplishment.”

On the other hand. In all this horror it is important to recognize that very many people behaved well, and by all that I can see, carry the kinds of values we would like to see in a culture that is not a rape culture.

The two Swedish men on bicycles who intervened, stopping the ongoing assault, tackled the rapist and held him for authorities.

By the victim’s account, several hospital personnel were kind to her.

Law enforcement treated her well, and didn’t judge her negatively.

The victim was provided with advocates, who advocated for her and supported her.

And this victim had family members who believed her and stood by her, supporting her in the best possible ways, including provision of chocolate at important moments.

Her boyfriend didn’t accuse her of being a slut. He didn’t abandon her. On the contrary, he, too supports her.

Even her employer appears to be understanding enough to be patient with all the time off she needed to deal with healing and the legal proceedings.

This is what all victims deserve, and too few get.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”


Dylan Farrow Touched a Nerve: Are Women and Girls to be Trusted?

By Katie Feifer

Last year, Vanity Fair published an article that reported (again) Dylan Farrow’s claims that Woody Allen, her mother’s partner, had molested her when she was seven. A few weeks later, Woody Allen was given a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. Mia Farrow took to Twitter to proclaim her disgust that he would be honored in this way. The battle began anew. Is Woody a child molester, a creep, a degenerate (albeit a wildly talented one)? Is Mia a vindictive, manipulative, jealous bitch who just can’t forgive that Woody had sex with and then married her daughter?

And then, the adult Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter, published in the New York Times, in which she testified to the abuse she endured at the hands of Woody Allen. And here’s where it gets really interesting.

Unbelievably – to some – the fact that we heard evidence from the victim, in her own words, from her adult perspective, escalated, rather than resolved the battle. Rather than saying “there you have it; now we know, she said in public what he did to her” many went wild trying to discredit her, and her mother, and to re-frame Dylan’s experiences of trauma and abuse into a case where Woody Allen is the victim, framed and vilified by Mia and her minions, including her children.

We’re living in “he said, she said” land. And in our culture – our rape culture – he and she are just not equivalent. Aaron Bady exposed our cultural bias against women’s truth telling in The New Inquiry: . "...you can’t presume that both are innocent at the same time. One of them must be saying something that is not true. But “he said, she said” doesn’t resolve to “let’s start by assume she’s lying,” except in a rape culture, and if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.”

Soraya Chemaly deepened our understanding of how and why this happens in a brilliant article. “Dylan Farrow is in a situation that thousands deal with every day. In general, people want to look away, muttering some variant of "he said/she said." But, that phrase implies an equivalence where we have a gross imbalance, because "he" is more trusted, virtually always, in every capacity, than "she." “

It’s important to ask ourselves why we, as a society, have such a hard time simply believing the testimony of a girl or a woman. Chemaly and others have used the Farrow firestorm to showcase – again – our society’s deep mistrust of female people. If you care to look, or to think about it, the evidence you need is right in front of us.

Those who are trying to discredit Dylan (and Mia) Farrow have been coming up with all sorts of arguments – “proof” why Woody Allen couldn’t have done such a thing (“He’s claustrophobic! He wouldn’t go into an attic!”), and why Mia was absolutely plotting to destroy Woody (custody battle, woman scorned, etc.).  Why Dylan Farrow’s own account, her testimony, can’t be trusted. (And by the way, for those who claim “there is no evidence” to support the charges, testimony is evidence. Except perhaps when it comes from a female testifying about sexual violence.)

One of the most widely read defenses of Woody/attacks on Dylan was written by a friend of Woody Allen’s, Robert Wiede, in The Daily Beast. And a week later, Woody Allen himself wrote a long and ridiculous (if you know anything about the case and about child sexual abuse) self-defense piece in the New York Times.

On the (somewhat) bright side, as a result of the attacks on Dylan and Mia Farrow, many respected experts on child sexual abuse have weighed in to discred the myths that abound, and in so doing educating those who care about the realities of child sex abuse and its prosecution. If you want to educate yourself, check out the following articles. All well-written, all by experts talking about what they are expert in. 

Roger Canaff.  Legal expert and child protection advocate. He exposed some of the unfair and false notions that are floating around about what “real” child sex abuse looks like, and how to prove it. Among them…

"No physical evidence “proving” the case. Anyone with a cursory understanding of both the typical nature of child sex abuse and pediatric anatomy knows that child cases almost never yield compelling physical evidence, even when reports are immediate. Very few abusers seek to inflict injury and know that doing so will likely interrupt the grooming process and trigger a report. Further, the genital area is blood-rich and heals very quickly even if tissue is damaged. Dylan reported nothing to my knowledge likely to yield physical evidence.” 

Wendy Murphy, who noted in her “Open Letter to Woody Allen,”  

 “In one of the statements from your representative, it's said that the allegations of your adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow… are false because a 7-year-old child cannot be trusted to distinguish between fantasy and reality. This claim makes you look particularly guilty, Woody. See, little girls fantasize about becoming princesses and doctors. They don't "fantasize" about being told to lie face down and watch a toy train go by while being sexually abused from behind. They have no context to conjure up such a fantasy.”

Lisa Bloom. She gave us “Six Reasons Why Dylan Farrow is Highly Credible” and struck at the claim that this was all conjured up by Mia Farrow, lying and conniving as part of a custody battle, and out of general spite, being a woman scorned and all.

“Blaming the mother is a tired, common strategy for those accused of sexual abuse. (Mothers also get blamed when they fail to act promptly in response to a child’s accusation.) A loving, healthy mother will be sickened and outraged when a child tells on an adult for sexual abuse. This is how Mia behaved. She should not be faulted for it.

The claim that Mia Farrow manufactured all of this does not ring true because (i) Dylan reportedly told a babysitter first; (ii) Mia Farrow reportedly gave her daughter multiple opportunities to recant if she wanted to; and (iii) Dylan is now a mature, happy adult who would have no motivation to continue to lie for her mother, twenty two years later, who lives a thousand miles away from her.” 

Natalie Shure, a victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of an older cousin, gave us some compelling insight into how a child deals with what happens when s/he reports being abused - and why young children may not tell what adults consider to be "coherent" accounts - and why that doesn't mean they are making it up.

“Yet there is something inherently imbalanced about a child abuse case. The very secrecy that makes the truth “unknowable” is an instrument of the crime. With no witnesses or credible legal evidence, the “he said/she said” conundrum prevails. The assailant knows this, and he can use it to his advantage. As soon as children make allegations, they enter a world filled with adult concepts—ideas they themselves don’t entirely understand. In order to even tell their stories, they have to learn a new language, putting vague, undefined feelings into unfamiliar words. The whole drama plays out in a grown-up context, which means the grown-up always has the upper hand. Neutrality never even has a chance.”

And Maureen Orth, the author of the original Vanity Fair piece in 1992 and a second published last fall, weighed in with 10 "undeniable facts" about the allegations against Woody Allen. All of which should go a long way toward defending the veracity of Dylan Farrows account - which should never require this much defending. 

But still does.

The Power of Survivor Voices

By Katie Feifer

In the wake of the deeply disturbing accounts of how Jerry Sandusky, a coach at Penn State and a boys’ mentor and advocate at (now closed) The Second Mile molested and raped young boys over many years, whose assaults were witnessed and discussed with authorities but never stopped, many are writing about the impact sexual violence has on its victims. And several writers are writing eloquently about the effects of the silence so many victims live with, unable to disclose the harm done to them. Others are writing about the effects many victims live with when they dodisclose the harm that was done to them.

Sexual violence hurts and wounds its victims, without a doubt. Even talking about it can hurt survivors.

Jane Brody, writing in the New York Times about The Twice Victimized of Sexual Assault notes “More often than not, women who bring charges of sexual assault are victims twice over, treated by the legal system and sometimes by the news media as lying until proved truthful.”

On the other hand, not talking about it can hurt survivors. Donna Jenson writes powerfully about this in a Chicago Tribune article Speaking Out About Staying Silent, “My silence had layers. The first layer was fear. The second got formed from believing it was somehow my fault; this wouldn't happen to a "good" child. Another was shame for having come from a family that would abuse and not protect its children."

And Roger Canaff, in a blog post about the repercussions from Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes coming to light noted “Victims are usually never more alone than after the abuse is discovered, whether they purposely revealed it or not. Siblings, non-offending parents, even grandparents are suddenly distant or much worse. The victim, after all, has “torn the family apart,” interrupted possible financial support, brought shame upon the family because of a ‘splash effect’ that will surely color the whole clan, etc, etc. The fact of the perpetrator’s utter and sole guilt for all of these depredations simply gets lost…”

A classic case of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And yet.

We believe that using survivor testimony is critical if we are to change our laws and our culture around sexual violence. When we listen to individuals tell their stories, we can be moved to change even more than when we simply read statistics.

Anne Ream, director of The Voices and Faces Project, was recently quoted in a Chicago Tribune article Shedding Light on the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors: "A story can be a conduit to change people's minds and hearts about public policy, about institutions, about the way we look at victims of sexual violence and trafficking. The only way we can challenge and change the way the world responds to sexual violence is to bring these stories to the attention of the public."

We believe one of the reasons why shifts in attitudes and cultural norms about sexual violence have been so slow in coming is that those who can persuade us best, the survivors themselves, are too often silenced. Those of us who speak out are applauded by supporters for being brave and courageous. And in this climate, we are.

We are also all working toward a time when it won’t require bravery to tell family, friends, and authority figures when sexual violence is done to us. One first step toward that end is for all of us to listen with respect to the survivors who are speaking out and testifying. All of us can meet that challenge by reading and ‘listening’ to articles like the ones quoted here, and to encourage our own social circles to do the same.

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?"

Why We Do What We Do

By Katie Feifer

We advocate. We prosecute. We litigate. We write and lobby for legislation and policy change. We teach and preach, we write and write and talk and talk and talk and keep at it because the cost of not doing so, is people's lives.

The recent suicide of St. Mary's College student Lizzy Seeberg 10 days after she reported being sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player has touched and angered many. We are touched - and heartbroken - because a 19 year old young woman apparently felt so much pain and had so little hope for moving past the horrific pain that she chose to end her life. And we are angered because Notre Dame and local law enforcement agencies were and are callous and cruel and unconscionably wrong-headed in how they responded (actually, how they didn't respond) to Lizzy's allegations.

Two CounterQuo members, Roger Canaff and Jaclyn Friedman, have each written about this case. Jaclyn takes aim at yet another example of our rape culture at work: "the structure of decisions, actions and inactions that protects a football player from even being investigated on a credible allegation." Roger, in a moving "Letter from a Prosecutor to a Young Woman" posted on his blog and at Jezebel, grapples with the ignorance and insensitivity that allows a Catholic university to place greater importance on keeping a football player accused of a heinous crime on the field and stonewalling investigation than taking seriously the word of a young woman who "did everything that could possibly have been asked of you."

We will continue to write and talk and advocate and litigate to change our rape culture and make our world safer from sexual violence. Please add your voice to ours. Talk, write, re-post, share... until we don't need to anymore.

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.

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.