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?"

Start by Believing

By Katie Feifer

A new public awareness and education campaign developed by End Violence Against Women, International entitled "Start by Believing" fits quite well with the mission of CounterQuo: to challenge and change the way our society responds to sexual violence. "Start by Believing" is premised on the notion that every step a rape victim takes on the path to healing, and every step our authorities take to hold rapists accountable for their crimes, is predicated on people believing the victim, and acting accordingly. When someone doesn't believe - when, for example, a police officer doesn't believe and refuses to conduct an investigation, or when a victim's friend doesn't believe it was "really rape" and tells her it wasn't a crime and she just needs to "get over it", we fail. We fail to support victims. We fail to get rapists off the street - which means more crime, because we know that the "average" rapist attacks six times.

So, "Start by Believing." Know the facts and share them. And recognize what are, indeed, facts and what are merely opinions and myths about rape.

For more on that, read Roger Canaff's blog on the "Start by Believing" campaign. Among the many facts he cites (and sources with real, credible research - unlike those who would claim otherwise) "... in the vast majority of cases, there is no reason to doubt the victim making the allegation. Further, even if one believes the victim, blaming her for "her part" in inviting her victimization is both wrong-headed and counter-productive."

We can't say it enough, and we invite you to keep saying it too, using the facts at your disposal through Roger's blog and the "Start by Believing" campaign, as well as through the resources here at CounterQuo.org.

Though Notre Dame Would LIke Us To, We Haven't Forgotten Their Shameful Response to Lizzy Seeberg

By Katie Feifer

On December 1, we wrote about the tragedy of Lizzy Seeerg, a college freshman who accused a Notre Dame football player of sexually assaulting her. Days after making her prompt, thorough report and cooperating with authorities, she died. Notre Dame and the local police did next to nothing to investigate. Notre Dame, in particular, showed great insensitivity and disregard for the young woman's charges, failing even to bench the football player while they looked into the charges against him. Much was written on this case, by us and others. Today, five months after Lizzy Seeberg was traumatized by the Notre Dame football player's assault, CounterQuo member Roger Canaff updates us on the case and reminds us to continue to advocate for women like Lizzy, calling universities like Notre Dame to make their actions live up to the promises they make on paper and the values they claim to endorse.

"Boys and Men Healing"

By Katie Feifer

Male child sexual abuse happens. A lot. We don't know exactly how prevalent it is because, even more than with female child sexual abuse, victims are unable or unwilling to speak about what was done to them.  Estimates are that 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused. Male survivors of childhood sexual abuse need our support and understanding just as much as female survivors do. When male survivors do speak out, giving us a glimpse of what they've gone through, it's a gift for all of us - an opportunity to learn.

Roger Canaff, a founding member of CounterQuo, has recently called our attention to a film done by Kathy Barbini and Simon Weinberg, called "Boys and Men Healing." The 60 minute documentary focuses on the stories and journeys of three men who were sexually abused as children. One of those men, David Lisak, is one of the most important and insightful researchers in the field of sexual violence. 

Roger's blog on the film and the issue of male childhood sexual abuse, titled "Vertigo" is beautifully written, and a compelling read.

The film, "Men and Boys Healing" is well worth seeing. And fortunately, you can buy or borrow it (for free!) from 1in6 - itself a valuable resource for those interested in the issue of male sexual abuse.

Julian Assange's Arrest Prompts Another "Rape Apology Day"

By Katie Feifer

When Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, was recently arrested on charges of rape, the media had a field day. Not surprisingly, given the rape culture in which we live, only a small part of the chatter and discussion focused on the seemingly politically-driven timing of the arrest. Far more prevalent in the media were wrong-headed opinions masquerading as fact, continuing our long-standing practice of blaming rape victims for being raped and denying them any semblance of sympathy for having been victims of a traumatic crime.

Jaclyn Friedman uses this latest example of a celebrity rape case to explain - once again - where we go wrong when we talk about rape  in The American Prospect,"What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape." She notes the emergence of "...Rape Apology Day, on which every way you can imagine to blame or discredit a woman's allegations of sexual violence is not only fair game but celebrated."

The ritual has become commonplace now. And this fact requires even more of us to demand that it stop by vociferously objecting to the falsehoods pervading our media coverage about sexual violence and letting people know the truth. Sharing articles like Jaclyn's and making its points your talking points is one way to make a dent.

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.

"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.

Shedding Light on Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking in New Delhi

By Samir Goswami

For the first time India is playing host to the Commonwealth Games, a major sporting event for countries once colonized by Great Britain. The Games are held every four years to commemorate continued friendship and collective progress. During my visits to New Delhi, my home city over the past few years, I've been awestruck by its dizzying rate of growth and development. Talking with my Delhi friends while wandering through bazaarrs, visiting temples, or while at the many fancy restaurants and clubs the city has to offer, I have been consistenly impressed by the sense of optimism for prosperity that they profess. Sadly, the organizing of the Commonwealth Games have shed light on an underbelly of labor and sexual exploitation, and corruption that still plagues my country, sixty years after we became a democratic republic. 

I wrote about what India's failure to turn Delhi into a "world class city" for the Commonwealth Games can teach us all about progress, illusion and collective responsibility in "Let the Games Begin."

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. 

Violence Against Women Matters: A Story From One State That MIght've Been Written From Many

By Samir Goswami

On February 3 2010 Scott Lee Cohen won the Democratic primary to become a candidate in the general election for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois. On February 4th, Chicago’s news media flooded the airwaves and newsprint with revelations that he abused his ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend. Since then, Scott Cohen has dropped out of the race; however, this would not be the first time that a political figure in Illinois has been in trouble for violence against women.

Blair Hull, a candidate for U.S. Senate was arrested for domestic battery. Mel Reynolds, a U.S. Congressman was convicted of sexual assault of a minor. Scott Fawell, chief aide to former Illinois Governor George Ryan, exchanged government contracts for lobbyists and arranged visits to prostituted women in Costa Rica. Alexi Giannoulias, currently Illinois’ State Treasurer and Democratic nominee for Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat authorized loans from his family run bank to a convicted pimp.

As the nation has amply witnessed, much media and public attention is focused on public corruption in Illinois, little on how elected officials treat women, which is a disservice to Illinois voters. Violence against women, whether it is domestic battery, sexual assault or the exploitation of women in prostitution is as pervasive among politicians as it is in the rest of society.

Do we want our elected officials to simply disregard, and in some cases perpetrate acts of harm against women? Do we want these men to run our state and represent us? How does that affect their votes on legislation about women’s safety, health and well being? What message does that send to young boys throughout the state? These are key questions that voters of all political backgrounds should ask because the answers matter.

In the 2010 Illinois budget funding for domestic violence programs was cut by nine percent, funding for sexual assault programs was cut by 19 percent and no funding was provided for preventing abused children from being further victimized by pimps and traffickers. Each percentage point of funding that is cut means that hundreds of women will not be able to flee abusive partners because they have nowhere to go. Hundreds of victims of rape will not be helped and thus their rapists not prosecuted and taken off the streets, and more children will have to suffer and endure child abuse in silence.  A state’s priorities are reflected in its budgets. These are not the actions of a state that prioritizes addressing violence against women in any meaningful way.  

How did we get here—how did we get to a point where an issue that affects one in four women in Illinois gets such little investment? We got here by willfully ignoring the many, many stories about abusive men that stare at us in the face every day. Actually, Scott Cohen told Illinois voters in the very beginning of his campaign that he had been arrested for battery. Despite this revelation by a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the fifth most populous state in the nation, Illinois’ news media did not adequately cover the story, his opponents did not make an issue out of it, and apparently the few voters who voted in the primary did not think that his propensity towards harming women mattered.

Violence against women does matter. It is the news media’s duty to adequately report it, it is all of our duty to work against it, and it is our civic obligation to ensure that our elected officials, rather than being perpetrators themselves, champion measures to end sexual harm. We have gotten to a point in Illinois that the message we send to a victim is that the violence that was perpetrated against you, the horror that you had to endure, is only important if it serves a higher political purpose.  And that is simply not acceptable.

Samir Goswami is a 2010 Chicago Community Trust Fellow and a Chicago Foundation for Women “Impact Award” winner.

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.

Holding NFL Stars Accountable for Bad Behavior

By Katie Feifer

A recent New York Times article on NFL star Larry Johnson's signing with the Cincinnati Bengals discusses the troubling message that signing sends. Johnson was released from the Kansas City Chiefs after a long history of what might charitably be labeled "bad behavior" - including separate accusations that he assaulted women, and pleading guilty to disturbing the peace at a Kansas City club.

Johnson landed with a much better team, and stands a good chance of being in the NFL playoffs. He's getting another chance to make good. But is his new team making it clear that they will not tolerate bad behavior off the field as well as on? Or is the message he (and we) are getting that if you're a football star, you can be excused from acts of violence and abuse? We fear it's the latter, and it will become another example of talented athletes - role models for many boys and men - being lionized and rewarded in spite of (or even because of) their abusive, violent treatment of women and others.

Neil Irvin, CounterQuo founding member and the vice president of programs for Men Can Stop Rape, urges "If you absolutely believe that this is the person for your franchise, you should have a clear expectation that there is a zero tolerance for any kind of bad behavior."

Unfortunately, there's no evidence from the Bengals or the NFL of zero tolerance. In fact, quite the opposite is happening. You beat up women? Welcome to the team! We're glad to have you.

Read the New York Times article here. Please let the writer know your thoughts, and add your comments here as well.

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.