November 9, 2012
It can be easy to believe that what we say, or how we say it, is inconsequential. But the recent election cycle delivered a message loud and clear: make no mistake about it, language matters. Public statements about rape made by several politicians leading up to this month’s election generated extensive coverage in the media. The good news is, there was a loud and immediate backlash against each of these ignorant statements. Even if it took as little effort as reposting someone else’s analysis on their own social media page, people all over the country were speaking out against these offensive comments about rape.
But even more revealing is the action that was borne out at the polls. As many feminist media outlets were quick to report, the majority of the candidates who made inappropriate statements about rape leading up to the elections did not win their races. Maybe it’s because sexual violence is such a horrifyingly common occurrence; according to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men in the United States have experienced sexual victimization other than rape in their lifetime, in addition to the 22 million women and 1.6 million men who have experienced rape. That represents a whole lot of potential voters who have personal experience with these issues that politicians are speaking about in such unfortunate terms.
The elections are over, and with any luck offensive comments about sexual violence will fade out of the media spotlight. But we can use this experience to learn from what happened to the politicians. They spoke, what they said mattered, and their words had a tangible effect. This is an important lesson we frequently teach in the sexual violence prevention field. A commonly-used exercise among prevention educators (and one that is popular among students) is one where you have the audience list all the negative words we use as insults for men and for women. Seeing the demeaning terms typically applied to a specific sex highlights the inherent misogyny embedded in our culture and borne out in our everyday language. This opens up the opportunity to begin a discussion: How come the worst thing we can call a man is “woman”? (Don’t be a girl, pussy, b*tch…) Why are the insults we reserve for women tied to their sexuality? (You’re such a ho, skank, slut…)
Unraveling these complexities reveals the layers of implied meaning and sexism in things we do every day without thinking about the bigger implications. The truth is, language does matter, and by throwing around synonyms for woman as insults, we are reinforcing the idea that you do not want to be a woman, because women are less than. As we’ve written about before, that type of sexist thinking can be a stepping stone that leads to viewing women as less than full human beings, as objects that exist only for the benefit of others, and eventually, to sexual violence. Of course it is not a direct link, and just because someone calls their classmate a pussy does not mean they are going to rape someone on the way home from school. (If causation was that easy, we could simply outlaw name calling and *poof* sexual violence would be gone.) But it is the language, attitudes, and behaviors that contribute to a culture that allows sexual violence to take place, and that is why it’s important to examine these issues. Just ask the politicians who are not currently in office: what you say matters.
September 11, 2012
Prevention and Safety Tip Lists. They’re so handy! Such a nice, tidy presentation that helps us hit all the main points in a workshop. Plus, we can print it out and have people stick it in their wallet. It’s such a simple tool that can help our audience remember all about that day we came in and talked about sexual assault.
The problem is, sexual assault is not a tidy public health problem. It doesn’t have simple solutions, and it can’t be solved by handing out a list of ways to stay safe. Don’t get me wrong—lists can be great. They just don’t work well for sexual violence prevention. Here are 5 Reasons Tip Lists for Sexual Violence Prevention are Often Problematic:
- They perpetuate the message “don’t get raped” instead of “don’t rape.” For too long, the anti-rape movement has put the onus on the potential victims. We’ve taught young people that the world is a scary place, and they need to operate on a “rape schedule” in order to stay safe. This sends the message that there are always going to be bad people, and our job is to avoid them so we don’t get hurt. Speaking optimistically, wouldn’t it be nice to instead focus on raising our youth to believe that it is their responsibility not to hurt other people? That way, instead of trying to figure out what we can do to avoid the “bad guys,” we can live in a society that doesn’t see raping someone as an option.
- They blame the victim. Providing a handy list of thing to do to not get raped actually sends the message that if someone did get raped, they might have done something wrong. If they had obeyed all the tips on the stay safe list, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Some of the very same victim-blaming messages we work so hard to dismantle in the court system and in news media are actually reinforced through these safety tips. We explain to juries that walking alone at night does not mean a person is “asking for it,” yet we hand out safety cards that say “be sure to travel in groups.” It is a well meaning attempt—we don’t want anyone to get hurt—but in actuality, these lists can be interpreted as saying that if you did get raped, you did something wrong. Let’s instead stick to messages that reinforce one of the main tenets of the sexual violence field: No one asks to be raped.
- They don’t keep us safe. The point of prevention lists is to explain ways to keep something from happening. As such, a list for preventing sunburn will include things like wear sunscreen, use clothing to keep covered, and stay in the shade; things that limit exposure to the sun’s harmful rays, which is the major risk factor for sunburn. To reduce your risk of anything, you need to reduce the thing that causes it; in the case of sexual assault, the cause is people who perpetrate it. There are groups of individuals at higher risk of victimization—college aged women or individuals with disabilities, for example—but we would never tell people “don’t go to college” in order to keep them safe from rape. Instead, we need to address the risk factors for perpetration of sexual violence and reduce those. To me, the scariest part of prevention tip lists is that they offer false security. You can follow every tip on the list, but as long as there are rapists, you can still be sexually assaulted.
- They focus on the individual. Most prevention tip lists focus on things an individual needs to do to avoid being raped. In addition to focusing on preventing perpetration instead of avoiding victimization, we also need to look beyond the individual factors that we can affect to prevent sexual violence. Looking at the socioecological model, we know that beyond the individual, we can address risk factors at the relationship, community, and societal levels too. For example, we can work to help youth feel safer at home and school by working with parents, caregivers, and school staff. By helping the adults engage more with youth’s lives, the youth can feel more supported and connected, which lowers their risk of perpetrating sexual violence. This is a strategy for sexual violence prevention that allows an entire community to be responsible for preventing violence.
- They simply aren’t enough. When we hand out a safety tip list, an audience member might put it in their wallet. When they’ve misplaced their Dunkin Donuts gift card and are emptying out their wallet, frantically searching for it, they might catch a glimpse of the tip list and think about our presentation. But one presentation with nothing but maybe a hurried glance when someone is trying to fight off a caffeine withdrawal headache is not enough to make our message stick. For prevention messages to be truly effective, they need to be repeated often, in many different forms, in many different settings, from many different people. It might be great that once a year we have the attention of a whole classroom all focusing on sexual violence during the one hour presentation from the rape crisis lady, but if our message is going to sink in, the youth also need to hear it the other 364 days of the year. They need to hear it from their math teacher, their student council adviser, their French club leader, their basketball coach, their parents, their clergy leader, their supervisor at their after school job, and every day through the words and actions of their peers. Only then will we see a shift in the norms that currently allow sexual violence to occur, and then we will be practicing true prevention.
March 23, 2012
With Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month right around the corner, we are wrapping up the voting for our logo. Tell us which one you like, because the polls are closing soon!
This year, 2012, is NYSCASA’s 25th Anniversary. Hip, hip, hooray for 25 years as New York’s Strongest Voice Working to End Sexual Violence!
As part of the celebration, we’re thinking about a new look, and we’re interested in your opinion. We’re considering changing our logo, and came up with a few designs. Let us know what you think by taking our poll!
Option 1: Keep the current logo
Option 2: Go back to a previous logo
Option 3: A new logo with graphics
Option 4: A new logo with words
Option 5: A new logo with words and graphics
Tell us what you think!
October 27, 2011
It’s Halloween, which means it’s time for scary things like ghouls, groups of barely supervised children with sugar highs, and offensive costumes. The standard for women’s costumes has become predictably monotonous: think of a costume, remove most of the fabric, add a pair of thigh highs and heels, stick the word “sexy” in front of the title, and ta da! The only options left for women have become so predictable, I was surprised that some of the ideas still surprised me this year. Somehow, “Sexy Nemo” and “Sexy Watermelon” still caught me off guard.
But this isn’t another piece bemoaning the lack of creativity or highlighting the absurd perversion that was once a child’s holiday. We are supportive of those taking one step back from the madness of Halloween costumes to point out the problematic trend. True to the mission of this blog, we want to move two steps out and examine why this trend is so harmful. Yes, the new narrative for Halloween costumes is absurd and offensive, but why does that matter?
As Ohio University’s Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) highlight in their “We’re a Culture, not a Costume” campaign, it is not OK to represent an entire group of people by “borrowing” a few aspects commonly used to portray a negative stereotype of that group. Appropriating, or temporarily taking on, elements of an oppressed culture by someone outside of that group is frequently a racist action. This is why an “Indian Costume” is not a positive portrayal of a culture, but an offensive stereotype.
The sexy costume norm shares some similarities with the racist costume theme about which STARS is educating people. Beyond offensive outfits, both are about reducing a group of people to a single option. By offering all women only one role to fill, that of sex object, we are limiting their potential and reinforcing the stereotype that women are only good for one thing. This type of thinking leads to a systematic acceptance of male superiority, gender stereotyping, and a devaluation of women, all of which are societal risk factors for sexual violence.
When we see someone from a certain group as only one thing, we do not value them as human beings, and it is easier to perpetrate violence against them.
August 1, 2011
As published online in the Troy Record on 7/20/11:
Recent media coverage of the sexual assault case involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn has served as another chilling reminder that too many of us would rather believe that rape doesn’t actually happen. We’d prefer to think that women can avoid rape by being virtuous, and we unfairly scrutinize sexual assault victims to identify the flaws in their judgment or character so that we can blame them for what happened or simply not believe them (and say it’s not really rape). This is the kind of magical thinking that allows us to feel a pseudo sense of security (i.e., “I’m safe because I would never . . . “) when all we’ve actually accomplished is to teach victims that they should not come forward and to teach rapists that they will get away with their crimes, especially if they assault someone who is less than perfect.
We’ve made it far too easy for perpetrators of sexual violence to harm people without consequence. Public response and widespread media coverage of rape cases have provided a virtual “checklist” of who rapists can victimize without much, if any, fear of being held accountable for their horrible actions. Based on media depictions of sexual assault victims, perpetrators can feel assured that they will likely never be brought to justice for raping women who are in this country illegally, women who wear certain clothing, women who have made mistakes in their past, women who have mental health issues, women who have consumed alcohol, women who are encountered in “unsavory” places, women who are poor, and women who don’t act the way we think they should. By no means is this a complete list, but you get the point: any woman can be raped and portrayed as flawed.
The bigger point is that we must recognize the ways in which we allow sexual assault to continue and put an end to our complicity. The media has a responsibility to report information that is relevant to sexual assault cases, and there’s only two pieces of information about a victim that determine whether or not she was raped: (1) whether she was able to freely consent to the sexual activity; and (2) whether she actually did freely consent to the sexual activity. The media also has a responsibility to protect the identity of the victim by keeping her name and any other identifying information out of its coverage of the case; otherwise, lots of victims will not report what has been done to them and lots of perpetrators will remain free to assault others. As consumers of media, we have a responsibility to expect and support media coverage that is factual, upholds principles of social justice, and promotes community safety. Every time we buy one of these salaciously presented rape cases, we contribute to a chain reaction of degrading victims’ rights, weakening appropriate sanctions for offenders, empowering perpetrators to sexually assault without consequence, and eroding the safety of our communities.
Yes, our actions do support sexual assault because we do not hold perpetrators adequately accountable. Though we may not intend to aid rapists, that is what happens when we choose to focus on the victim’s behavior instead of the perpetrator’s behavior, when we choose to hold sexual assault victims to a different standard than other crime victims. Nobody deserves to be raped. Until our actions convey that we are not okay with sexual perpetrators raping anybody — period — our behavior will actually keep victims from coming forward and empower rapists to continue assaulting human beings.
Joanne Zannoni, MSW
New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault
March 21, 2011
Everyone knows that sex sells. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have near-naked bodies promoting perfume, suggestive placement of hard alcohol bottles, and scandalous camera angles selling us fast food. The examples are endless, as are the instances of backlash against over-sexed ads.
While many of us may have signed email petitions demanding that ad execs pull commercials that use shameless nudity to sell their product, do we stop to think about what, exactly, we’re protesting?
There are oh-so-many very good reasons that feminists, health advocates, mental health counselors, anti-violence groups, oppression awareness organizations and youth workers (to name a few) get upset when, for example, the newest sneaker commercial deserves an NC-17 rating. Repeated messages that beauty is narrowly defined leaves young people who don’t fit that limited description thinking there must be something wrong with their own bodies. Airbrushing that glorifies unattainable body types can give young people self-esteem problems and lead to eating disorders. Seeing women in only one role (sex object) can limit the aspirations of young girls looking for role models and can also narrow the expectations of everyone around them.
Objectification. Using sex to sell products objectifies women. When a half-naked lady dances across a screen selling us soft drinks, we aren’t supposed to see the woman. All we’re supposed to see is some thing that’s nice to look at (usually from the point of view of a straight, white, rich man). We aren’t supposed to think about the person, or how hard she practiced to learn the dance, and certainly not about why a naked dancing lady has any place in a soda ad. Take away the thinking, breathing, feeling, real person behind a titillating image, and all that’s left is an attractive sex prop.
Objectifying women gives people permission to disregard all their human characteristics. Do we say “excuse me” when we bump into our kitchen table? Do we apologize to a book when we throw it on the ground? Of course not, because these are just things. And once a person is reduced to an object, it’s much easier to treat it with disrespect, to stop caring about what happens to it.
Objectification makes way for sexual assault. Maybe it seems like this argument is waaaaayyyy over the top—until you read the horribly offensive e-mail from a fraternity at the University of Southern California. (Major trigger warning for sexual content, graphic language, extreme misogyny, violence against women, and more.) It’s not necessary to read the whole letter, and really it’s sickening, so maybe you shouldn’t. In a perfect example of objectification, this letter from one student to the rest of his frat brothers says, “I will refer to females as ‘targets’. They aren’t actual people like us men. Consequently, giving them a certain name or distinction is pointless.” Describing one type of woman, the letter reads, “Loop n’ Doop: A target that is very easy to take down. All she takes is a good amount of liquor (loop) and she will be good to go for you to f*** her (doop). Be careful with loop n’ doops, because too much loop and they will get sick and be useless entities.” Since an intoxicated person cannot consent to sex and is often unable to stop unwanted advances, the behavior encouraged by the letter’s author has a legal name: rape.
So, we may think it sounds extreme that using a naked woman to sell a sports car can lead to sexual assault, but examples like this repulsive letter demonstrate that the connection between objectifying women and rape is all too real. This is why it’s so important that we teach our youth about media literacy and encourage a shift in our norms and cultural values. By changing ideas about what is acceptable media content, we’re working to end violence against women.
Our colleagues at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault also blogged on this topic, and linked to this post by SAFER, which line by line highlights all the horrible things and why they’re horrible in the USC email.
Reebok owes millions because their ad wasn’t just morally wrong, it was flat out wrong
March 1, 2011
A recent segment on Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell found on cnn.com provided an opportunity for us to respond to a story of surviving a horrendous act of intimate partner violence. The video segment was about Lola Hornoff, a survivor of domestic abuse (Warning: violent imagery and language. Video also embedded at end of post). The story may have been an attempt to expose the realities of intimate partner and domestic violence to a wide audience; however, we felt that the clip did a disservice to audiences and survivors everywhere.
Specifically, the discussion completely left out the role of sexual assault in intimate partner violence. In fact, despite repeated proclamations from the host that she was not blaming the victim, her statements did exactly that when she demanded that abused people take control of their situations. After hearing the Hornoffs’ neighbor describe how Ms. Hornoff’s husband did not allow her to leave the house, and Issues’ own experts trying to discuss the terror involved in these situations, Ms. Velez-Mitchell tells women that the most important lesson to be learned from this story is:
“If you’re in an abusive relationship and you feel like you can’t get out, whatever you do, get on birth control so you do not have children and put them in harms way as well.”
This call to action reflects and continues a serious lack of understanding about sexual assault and domestic violence.
Here are some alternative points the story could have used in order to strengthen its impact:
Abusers use a variety of tactics to terrorize and ultimately control their spouses/partners’ ability to leave the house, run errands, have money, obtain health care, maintain a support network, and access a wide variety of resources. In addition, as described in this New York Times article, studies have found that birth control sabotage is a common tool for abusers. Abusers hide or destroy pills, poke holes in condoms or diaphragms, refuse any method of protection, and pressure their partners to become pregnant against their will. In many cases, the abuser ultimately determines whether the spouse/partner has birth control.
Furthermore, an abuser who commits domestic violence against a spouse/partner often commits acts of sexual assault, including rape, against the spouse/partner. Unwanted sexual activity that results in an unwanted pregnancy and an unplanned child is another way an abuser can exert control over the spouse/partner. Pregnancy increases a woman’s vulnerability, and murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. If a person is being forced into sexual activity through either brute force, coercion, threats of harm, or any other fear-inducing manner, the last message they need to hear is how they should have been protecting themselves with birth control.
Abusers aim to maintain power and control over their spouses/partners, and they employ physical, emotional, psychological, financial and other tactics to effectively eliminate any and all means their spouses/partners might use to leave. The situation becomes infinitely more complicated once an abusive relationship includes a child, even if that child is not the product of a rape. Abusers commonly threaten to kidnap or harm the child to keep the spouse/partner from leaving. A person’s life is actually in the greatest danger when leaving an abusive partner.
While including any of these points would have strengthened the impact of the story, perhaps the most important point we can convey is the need for asking the right questions. Instead of blaming the victim by asking why she stayed or why she reproduced with an abusive partner, we should be asking why her husband was abusive. Better yet, ask why there are people in our country who are violent towards others, who disrespect their partners in the most extreme ways, and who think it is acceptable to perpetrate such terrible abuse against another human being. These are the questions that need to be asked and answered, along with discussing how we can prevent someone from becoming a perpetrator in the first place.
NYSCASA composed a letter to cnn.com and to Jean Velez-Mitchell, highlighting these suggestions as ways their story could have been stronger. Although we have not received a reply, we hope they will think of these points the next time they report on the subject.
We also hope that by putting these points out into the blogosphere, we can all think about what we’re really saying when we talk about abuse.
February 28, 2011
It is easy to complain about what we see as offensive in the media: woman-hating pop culture, news stories centered around victim blaming, objectifying the human body in ads, and uninformed bloggers who say things that support harmful stereotypes until we want to pull our hair out, screaming “this is what’s wrong with society today!”
This blog aims to agree with these cries of indecency, but to move beyond the hysteria and talk about what we can do to change these toxic media trends.
Taking one step back from the madness that is America’s 24/7 media frenzy, we can look at what it is that makes a specific image so awful. We can move from “look how horrible!” to “these are the reasons this distortion is harmful.” This blog challenges its readers to step back even further by talking about how we can change the landscape we find so harmful. It is here, from two steps out, that we finally have enough space to look calmly at the issues and begin to identify solutions.