September, 2011

Sensitivity Training for the NYPD

As many of us are well aware, there is a serial rapist on the loose in South Brooklyn—since this spring, he has succeeded in raping one woman and attacking five others.

The Wall Street Journal reports that police are telling women not to wear shorts or short skirts to avoid being assaulted. Not only is this victim-blaming, but it is false information—anyone can be raped no matter what they are wearing.

This is not the only worrying behavior from the NYPD. SafeSlope, a Brooklyn-based collective formed in response to the attacks, recently chronicled additional worrying NYPD responses, including:

  • Officers following women home at night without communicating with them and showing video of the attacks to residents without warning, both practices that are frightening and triggering to sexual assault survivors.
  • Only providing information about the assaults to women, which sends the message that men and gender queer people aren’t sexually assaulted – a dangerous myth – and that sexual assault prevention is a women’s issue rather than the responsibility of the entire community.
  • Only providing prevention and information materials in English, which prevents non-English speaking members (Spanish, Mandarin) of the community from receiving safety tips and information they need to protect themselves.

These missteps are the latest examples of a police department that is unprepared to responsibly and effectively prevent rape and sexual assault. In just recent history, two NYPD officers were accused of rape – and convicted of official misconduct for repeatedly entering the home of a woman without cause – and another officer was apprehended while committing a sexual assault. Videos have also been circulating of police violence at the Occupy Wall Street protests, adding to public mistrust of the NYPD and its motives, tactics, and actions.

We, The Line Campaign, Change.org, Black Women’s Blue Print, Permanent Wave, Safe Slope, SlutWalk and Hollaback call on Commissioner Ray Kelly to:

  • Immediately order sensitivity training—not just a one time class, but a month-long course– for all officers assigned to work on the Park Slope case, to be completed by October 15th. All officers in all 5 boroughs must be trained by Jan 1, 2012.
  • Trainings must include a broad range of survivors voices, showing that not just one rape victim is the “perfect victim” and all rape cases must be taken seriously and treated with accountability.
  • Male activists working to prevent violence must teach workshops showing other male officers how to be allies.
  • These trainings must include survivors’ voices, professional male violence prevention advocates, and promote a clear understanding that no victim is ever at fault for their assault, using media and materials provided or approved by organizations such as The Line Campaign and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
  • There must be evaluation metrics after the program that show that officers understand victim-blaming, perpetrator behavior, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and commonly held rape myths.

It is time once and for all to prove that rape is not limited to the “bad guy in the bushes”—anyone can be a rapist, and all rapists must be held accountable no matter what the situation of the rape. No victim is responsible for a rape.

 

 

Badass Activist Friday Presents: Aishah Shahidah Simmons

photographed by Calvin Finley

It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire cultural change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.

My interview partner this week is Aishah Shahidah Simmons, documentary filmmaker, writer, lecturer and activist. She’s the producer, writer and director of NO! The Rape Documentary, and she screens her work all around the world. You can follow her and her work at @AfroLez and @InnerLiberation.

Here’s what we talked about:

You’re a filmmaker, writer, lecturer and activist. That’s a lot of hats to wear. Why don’t you start by telling us what your day-to-day works looks like right now?

Yes, it is a lot of hats to wear, which is why I also use cultural worker. That term was taught to me in 1990 by Toni Cade Bambara, who was a Black feminist cultural worker extraordinaire, my teacher, and my Big Sista-friend. Every day is literally a new and different day. However, there are some things that rarely change. I’m a practitioner of vipassana meditation. Part of my practice is to meditatively sit twice a day, every day for an hour at each sitting. I used to be and, at times, I still am very resistant to sitting because I viewed it as a time obstacle to my doing my cultural work. Life experiences, however, consistently show me that sitting is a non-negotiable resource that enables me to do my cultural work. After sitting, I do some form of exercise (walking or swimming are my preferences) and then I’m usually able to begin the external work. I check my email, facebook, and twitter accounts. I also check various blogs and other sites. If I allow it, the aforementioned can very literally consume my entire day and night because it’s non-stop action on the cyber highway.

When I’m not on the road presenting and talking about the issues raised in my cultural work, I juggle between several projects every day: I’m working on an essay for Queering Sexual Violence, a forthcoming anthology edited by Jennifer Patterson. As non-heterosexual people, our sexuality is frequently problematized (oh, that’s why you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender?) both outside and inside of the mainstream anti-sexual violence movement. If we allow it, this type of homophobic, transphobic, and heterosexist thinking and commentary can put us on the defensive or even make us feel ashamed about our sexualities and/or gender identities. As I frequently say, if sexual violence made folks queer, most of the world would be queer. I believe Queering Sexual Violence will be a space where Queer activists/cultural workers/scholars will radically delve into anti-sexual violence prevention, organizing and recovery work without having to defend our right to be who we are. I’m grateful for Jennifer’s courage and vision.

I’m also working on the Foreword for Lisa Factora-Brochures’ forthcoming anthology Dear Sister: An Anthology of Letters and Essays for Survivors of Sexual Violence, Written by Other Survivors and Allies This sacred collection of letters and essays is a powerful offering of love and healing from survivors and allies. This anthology is intentionally meant for post-trauma. Lisa’s powerful vision is a love offering in the form of a healing road map of letters from survivors and allies who already took the journey. I’m really humbled to be a part of this “love-centered” healing anthology.

I’m a member of the Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth Indiegogo fundraising team. Produced and directed by Pratibha Parmar, the prolific and award-winning filmmaker. Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth will be a feature documentary film about the life and times of Alice Walker, a foremost American writer who made history as the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1983 for her ground breaking novel The Color Purple. Pratibha’s films, most especially A Place of Rage, documentary film on African-American women and the civil rights movement featuring Angela Davis and June Jordan have both influenced and inspired me as documentary filmmaker. And, I definitely see my cultural work, especially NO!, as a continuation of the work that Alice Walker and many other Black women cultural workers created in the 70s and 80s. Now, it’s all about the fundraising so that Beauty In Truth will see the light of day in 2012, the 30th anniversary of the release of The Color Purple.

After being on hiatus for over one year, I resumed post-production on Liberation from Within, my forthcoming documentary about the first 10-day vipassana meditation course, held in India, for people of African heritage worldwide. Liberation from Within will explore both how this 2500 year old universal, non-sectarian technique taught by Buddha is being used as a tool for social change; and why African descended people from Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Seychelles, Zambia, England, United States journeyed to India to learn and practice it together, with people from India, Mongolia, Russia, France, Argentina, and Singapore for 10-days. I’ve experienced vipassana meditation to be one (not the only) way to lead to my own personal liberation. Liberation from Within, will highlight the wide range of ethnically and racially diverse voices who participated in this her/historic gathering. Usually, most especially in the West and if one is not Asian, practicing the teachings of Buddha is viewed as a White experience. Too often, unless rooted in Asian communities, many, definitely not all, of the Western sanghas are overwhelmingly White. Definitely over time and as a result of more and more people of Color are getting established in the practices of the teachings of Buddha, there has been a powerful shift in terms of the diversity within the sanghas, but for many people of Color, it’s still a struggle. Once funds are secured for the post production phase, Liberation from Within will document how vipassana meditation is both libratory and transformative for all people, without exception. I’m most interested in the healing and wellness of not only the community from which I come in this lifetime, but for all communities worldwide. It’s my plan to complete this project in 2012.

You wrote and directed the documentary NO! The Rape Documentary, which premiered in 2006. Can you tell us something about what prompted you to make this documentary?

Well, hindsight is always 20/20. When the idea for NO! was conceived in the very early 90s, it was in response to the egregious backlash against Desiree Washington, the young Black woman who accused Mike Tyson of raping her in 1991. I was so horrified by the vitriolic response to Ms. Washington’s charges by many Black men and women. There was this notion that she was a traitor to the Black race because she came forward and accused a high profile Black man of raping her. Prior to her charges, Tawana Brawley accused four White men of raping and sodomizing her; and she was viewed as a heroine by many Black men and women for coming forward. The contrast between the two is so very stark. Desiree Washington was castigated, maligned and thrown to the metaphorical wolves by the community from which she comes, while Tawana Brawley was championed and celebrated.

My goal was to make a documentary, which addressed the collective silence in the Black community when Black women are raped by Black men. Initially, it was only going to feature the voices of Black women. I envisioned NO! as a “speak out” piece, which would include present-day testimonies by Black women survivors, spoken word, and dance. Over time however, I realized that it was imperative that I move from enslavement of African people in the United States until present-day. I understood that before I could address intra-racial sexual violence contemporarily, it was critical to examine African-American her/history in this racist and sexist country. Additionally, men can stop heterosexual rape. Based on this, I included the voices of Black men who are working to eradicate gender-based violence in our non-monolithic communities and worldwide. I also incorporated spirituality, specifically Christianity and Islam. So many women may never ever go to a rape crisis center or call a hotline, but they will go to their Ministers and Imams. They look to their churches and mosques as refuges. Based on this I thought it imperative to touch upon the ways in which religions have condoned violence against women; and equally as important how women have used religion to heal from the violence they experienced.

What were your hopes and aspirations for the project, and to what extent do you feel that you have succeeded so far?

In the early days, I told myself, Tamara L. Xavier, a co-producer and the director of choreography of NO!, and others that I am making this documentary because I want to help Black women who have been raped and/or sexually assaulted. It’s quite fascinating to me because I was looking externally and not internally as an incest and rape survivor. Looking back at that time period, I was in the embryonic stages of my own healing from the trauma that I experienced as a child and young woman; and yet, I wanted to help “Black women who’ve been molested or raped…” I share that to say, in my quest to help other Black women, I very literally saved my life…

In the 1990s’, my goal was for NO! to be seen and discussed throughout Black communities in the US. Because of the atrocious universality of rape, I also hoped that other women, who were not of African descent, would view and discuss NO! in their communities as well. However, at the time, I wasn’t sure if that would happen. I never ever in my wildest dreams envisioned that NO! would be subtitled in Spanish, French, and Portuguese; and viewed, discussed, and used as an educational anti-rape tool in countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, Pacific Islands, South America, and the Caribbean. There is something very powerful to have women, and some men, who don’t share the same ethnic/racial/national history as me and whose mother tongue is different than my own say to me, through a translator “NO! is my story.” This speaks to the sobering global reality of rape, the power of cinematic storytelling, and underscores that my 11-year journey, seven of which were full time, to make NO! was not in vain.

I’m extremely elated to share that this week, I shipped 26-copies of NO! to Althea Hart, Project Coordinator of Project STOP NOW!, an important OVW/USDOJ funded-initiative that focuses on the prevention of violent crimes committed against women at UNCF member colleges and universities. This means that NO! will be available on 26 Historically Black College/University campuses in the US. Words can’t adequately convey how much this means to me for so many reasons and in a myriad of ways. I will blog about this in the near future.

While there are some things that didn’t happen, including a national broadcast of NO! on either public or cable television (I’m still disappointed that that never happened!), I would say that in so many ways, I surpassed my original hopes and aspirations.

At the Line Campaign, we talk a lot about enthusiastic consent. Where do you draw your line? How has your personal definition of consent changed over the years?

Hmm. These are complex questions for me. I really draw my line at consent. I believe consent must be the fundamental and non-negotiable foundation between any individuals who are engaged in sexual activity. It’s important to be explicitly clear that consent is not coercion. If there is any doubt whatsoever, or any covert or overt pressure, then it’s not consent. And, there cannot be ANY consent between a child/adolescent/teenager and an adult. At the very least that’s statutory rape.

*Non-sequitur* While it’s grotesque that it has taken Roman Polanski 35-years to finally admit that drugging AND raping a 13-year old girl was wrong, I hope ALL of his supporters will reconsider their disgusting (my words) defense of Polanski.

My personal definition of consent has really deepened over the years. While I wasn’t raped as a child, my 10-12 year old body was fondled, touched, and kissed, against my will, as a child, by my grandfather. My introduction to my own sexuality didn’t include consent. Shortly after the molestation began, I told my divorced parents what was happening and very unfortunately, they never took me out of the situation. As a result, and in spite of what I was verbally told by both of my parents about consent being my right, through their inaction, I experientially learned that I didn’t have a right to consent with my sexuality, if it’s a “trusted” family member. I do not share this to demonize my parents. Quite the contrary. I share this because we’re all so very complex human beings. Yes, my grandfather molesting me for 2-years and my parents never taking me out of the environment was torture, to say the absolute very least. At the same time, that is part of the story, and a huge one, which has impacted my life in horrendously profound ways. However, it’s very rarely all bad or all good. It is. I’m not nor will I ever condone what happened to me. It’s too much to go into in this interview but know that I will be writing about all of this and more, in my future book project on the making of NO!

In college, I had very consensual and pleasurable sex with my first boyfriend one year before I was raped, at 19, by an acquaintance in Mexico. Let me tease this out a little further because with all of us there are so many layers to our her/histories. I was raped one night; then the next day, I met a new guy. In my quest to reclaim my body and my voice, I had consensual sex with the new guy I met. There was a time, when I would tell my story of being raped and stop with the rape because I was ashamed that I had consensual sex the day after my rape. I was afraid that people would think I was a “slut,” a “whore,” and/or a “lose” BAD woman. And unfortunately that is what I was called by some (feminist minded, I might add) Black women and men. Also, I was afraid that people wouldn’t believe I was raped because I had consensual sex 18-24 hours after my rape.

Present-day, there is no shame. And the words “slut” and “whore” don’t silence or shame me at all. Yes, I believe I used some poor judgment, but I’m no longer ashamed to tell my story in full detail. I’m willing and open to talk about my judgment, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I could’ve prevented my rape. Most importantly, my actions in 1989 will never again be used as weapon to impact how I think about 19/20-year old Aishah. It took a lot of hardcore work and years for me to get to this place, but I’m here now.

Post the ending of a relationship in June of this year, I’m intentionally and indefinitely (not to be confused with circumstantially) celibate. I’m not wearing my celibacy as a badge of honor or a statement that I’m better or less than folks who aren’t. This is not about purity or reclaiming my 2nd (very, very long way from that, thank Goddess!) virginity either. In fact, I don’t subscribe to any of those notions because I believe they are entrenched in patriarchy, misogyny, shame, and blame. My celibacy is about how I choose to reclaim my psychic, emotional, mental, physical, and sexual space on my terms.

I share about my being celibate because I believe there are two spectrums where societal norms encourage people to feel shame about their actions (or lack thereof). One is, if you’re a non-monogamous or polyamorous woman. The other is if you’re an intentionally celibate woman. I believe it’s really important that there are safe, sacred, and consensual spaces for all of us to BE in our diverse sexualities. And, yes, I believe celibacy is a part of sexuality. I get tired of how shame is used as a weapon to get people to conform to what is viewed as “normal,” which always depends on who’s the reality definer of the moment. As a Black feminist lesbian, I’m usually outside of most societal definitions of normalcy. However, even within my communities, there are norms of sorts. I’m not interested in conforming to them if they’re not healthy for my psychic, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and sexual well-being.

What has been on your mind lately? Any blogs, newsworthy events, pop cultural items or deep thoughts you’d like to share with us? We would be happy to hear!

This past week alone has been so intense. I feel like I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster. Palestine’s quest for Nationhood, Troy Davis’ murder by the state, the ongoing SlutWalk(s) controversy continues ~ BlackWomen’s BluePrint released their Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk (if you’re not on Facebook, you can read the Open Letter here) and AF3IRM released their AF3IRM RESPONDS TO SLUTWALK: THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT IS NOT MONOCHROMATIC statement; and the physical transition of Wangari Maathai.

I’m struggling very hard to find the words to express both my deep pain and sheer outrage about the plight of Palestinian people who have been and are living in an Apartheid State for decades. It’s kind of dated, in this fast paced information highway, however, I firmly believe “Justice for Palestine: A Call to Action from Indigenous and Women of Color Feminists,” is an important read. I also stay on top of Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Democracy NOW!

We must abolish the death penalty state by state until it is no longer existent in the United States. Troy Davis’ legalized murder is really reprehensible. So many organizations and individuals have weighed in on his murder; and the egregious racist flaws of the Criminal (In)justice system in this country. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness is a must read. Judge Mathis’ video commentary on Davis’ execution, is powerful and really gets to the heart of the matter. Rahiel Tesfamariam, Founder & Editorial Director of Urban Cusp, is behind the vision of Where Do We Go From Here? In Memory of Troy Anthony Davis a powerful collection of 40+ reflections from ministers, leading scholars, activists, artists, journalists, students and parents who came together to create virtual community to explore how do we move from ‘Chaos to Community.’

Since May 2011, I’ve been engaged in numerous dialogues and even debates, with a wide range of racially and ethnically diverse women, about SlutWalk. It’s exhausting to say the least. While so very necessary, struggle can be exhausting to say the least. What is very fascinating about this specific struggle is that in spite of the intense dialogues and some times heated debates about SlutWalks, there usually is a foundation of a shared common goal of ending all forms of gender-based violence. It’s really about the paths that we choose to take in doing this work.

Before I share my thoughts, it’s very important to note that in the spring and early summer Morgane Richardson, Creatrix Tiara, Harsha Walia, Andrea Plaid, and Erica Lorriane Williams all of whom are women of Color based in Canada, Australia, and the United States have raised concerns while also supporting the concept.  Their writings, and in the specific case of my sister co-conspirator/friend Andrea, our voice dialogues, have been a lifeline.

This week, @Alicia Fiasco said in one her tweets “It’s the SlutWalk, not the Slut Pride Pride.” I couldn’t agree with her more. Additionally, my sister/comrade/colleague Vickie Sides’ commentary that both the critiques of and the support expressed by a wide range of very diverse Black women signify that it’s a “‘Both/And,’ not ‘Either/Or,’ Period.” deeply resonate with me.

Speaking at SlutWalk Philly was a very empowering experience for me. It marked the second time in my life that I publicly went into all of the details of my molestation and rape. I’m very painfully aware of the egregious, vicious and atrocious history of the word “slut,” which is rooted in the most barbaric forms misogyny/patriarchy/sexism. I know how it has been used and continues to be used as weapons against all, but most especially African, Arab, Berber, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latina, Indigenous, Roma (Gypsy) women, children, gay men, and trans people often without too much recourse in North America, and around the world. The words “slut” and “whore,” or their equivalents in so many languages, have been used and are being used to condone Enslavement, Genocide, Militarism, Human Trafficking, Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, Sexual Assault, Femicide, Domestic Violence, Prostitution on and on an on.

In my own work with screening and discussing NO! both in this country and internationally, I frequently see and hear how those terms are used, even by the those who say they oppose gender-based violence, to shame and blame non-monogamous and polyamorous women, teenage “fast” girls, sex workers, and queer people. Based on this, I’m not going to run from the word “slut” and again, this is not about my reclamation.

Sister/comrade/colleague Stephanie Gilmore really said it best during her SlutWalk Philly speech, when she said “The word “slut” does not have feminist origins or meanings, and it does not belong to me or my people. So when it comes to the label “slut,” take it or leave it. It isn’t mine to give, accept, or reclaim. But I am reclaiming my body, my space, my own sexuality, my NO’s and my YES’s. And perhaps simply doing that makes me a slut. I commit myself to fight with each and every one of you – in this fight against rape and sexual violence, you will never be alone.”

I believe that when it is no longer acceptable to rape, beat, molest, murder, enslave and/or traffick the “sluts” and “whores” (however they are defined and by whomever is defining them) in the world, then and only then will it no longer be acceptable to rape, beat molest, murder, enslave and/or traffick any of us. It is not until the margins of the margins of all societies are centralized that we will be truly liberated and free.

I definitely have critiques of SlutWalks (which is not a monolithic group), most especially as it pertains to representation and participation of people of Color. In North America, the voices and perspectives of women and trans people of Color have been relatively speaking very low. We must move beyond Whiteness being viewed as universal with one or two tokens of Color. It is the height of racism to expect or even want people of Color to feel like it’s their march too if there isn’t representation not only on stage but most importantly in the planning and organizing stages. And, if there isn’t engaged (not tokenized) representation, the statement shouldn’t be “We reached out, but ‘they’ don’t come.” The question is “Why aren’t ‘they’ coming?” And, there should be unanimity about not moving forward with any planning, until there is an answer and a solution to the lack of engaged representation of people of Color. I don’t know, but perhaps if these types of steps were taken months ago, there might not be so much controversy amongst a wide range of people, many of whom have a demonstrated track record of working to end all forms of gender-based violence both across North American and globally.

Finally, I want to say Rest In Power to the Spirit of Wangari Maathai. A founder of the Green Belt Movement, Dr. Maathai was a Kenyan environmentalist and women’s rights activist. A ground breaker and trail blazer in so many areas, she was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. An author of several books, Dr. Maathai was also featured in the documentary film Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai. She will be terribly missed by many throughout the world. I am most grateful for her powerful legacy, which, among many things, is a call to action to replenishing the earth.

“‎We are very fond of blaming the poor for destroying the environment. But often it is the powerful, including governments, that are responsible.” ~ Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940 ~ September 25, 2011)

 

 

 

 

On SlutWalk NYC, Occupy Wall Street, and why on Saturday, my sex work has nothing to do with your capitalism

A recent post by my friend Laura on her feminist blog Sugabutta made me all-too-aware of Occupy Wall Street’s interest in joining SlutWalk NYC this Saturday – and I have to admit that despite my proximity to both movements, this declaration made my stomach sink. Laura articulates, the crux of the matter – ‘Movements often come together and we can have interesting conversations across radical claims. But what is most overwhelmingly troubling about this move by Occupy Wall Street is that unfortunately, it looks a lot like co-optation. Why now? What interest has this movement ever shown in radical feminism/womanism? Where was Occupy Wall Street even last week when SlutWalk NYC has been in the works for months? The interests of both movements are like a Venn diagram: obviously they can overlap, but they are not one and the same.’

 

Although I certainly haven’t been directly involved with Occupy Wall Street, I’m currently attending an MA program wherein my classmates are extremely politically engaged – some are part of the core group of planners over at Wall Street, and have been living, to a degree, double lives, trying to fulfill the requirements of an extremely demanding academic program, while attempting to implement the theoretical notions we’ve discussed on the street, dealing with constant planning in always-contingent situations, suffering through arrests, police brutality, and poor weather. I’m not afraid to say I’m proud of them. Although accusations leveled at Occupy Wall Street often suggest their lack of directed focus in terms of an ‘agenda’ or ‘goal’, the to-the-letter democratic processes of the planning committee demonstrate a commitment to an infinite dialogue between proximal bodies, within a collective of marginal beings, even  if people exist in continuing disagreement. The value of Occupy Wall Street is an admirable acknowledgment, and allowance of differences that can lead to the kind of learning that comes from one-to-one engagement. And yet, Wall Street for me feels far away – feels too much like a gesture, feels like it disavows the less-glamourous, but still, slow and steady forms of change.

 

After all, where, in this vast and loose opposition to big letter Capitalism, is a place for women, who’ve fought long and hard to excavate their unique issues from beneath the banner of larger movements? I don’t doubt that oppressions are intersectional and that solidarity is crucial to any kind of resistance. But Slutwalk is a response to a particular incident, a particular issue that strikes so close to the heart of women all over the country, all over the world, that to place it alongside Occupy Wall Street, a movement that purports extreme inclusivity, to the point of refusing to prioritise its demands, would be pushing Slutwalk back into the proverbial closet.

 

How often have we heard that there are ‘more pressing’ issues that ‘affect us all’ that should be addressed before women’s rights? How often have feminist movements been co-opted, and subsumed? This is not about a competition between movements, or marches, on one particular Saturday, but a fundamental difference between one that radically refuses exceptionality and one whose participants have long been considered an ‘exception’ in a detrimental fashion, whose issues have been long ignored, and who now insist on being heard.

 

Every day, I’m struck by the fact that some people will never have to deal with street harassment, or worry that the way they dress could be interpreted as an invitation for violence. Every day, I’m struck with the sense of fear that accompanies my choice of dress (thigh highs, anyone?). Laura tells me, in conversation, about a friend who was verbally harassed while visiting Occupy Wall Street. Although part of the beauty of the movement is dialogue and mutual learning, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a safe space. On the contrary, it’s almost as it the democratic ideal here leaves allowances for differences in opinion that include homophobia, transphobia etc. Although the planning committee has certainly taken steps to educate participants at Wall Street about such issues, about patriarchy and privilege, even organising open-to-all workshops on the subject, Wall Street is still by no means a safe space, and when every issue is of equal standing, ensuring our safety isn’t a priority.

 

SlutWalk is about safely being heard, about being heard in order to insist upon our safety. Sometimes, being heard requires complicity with regulation. In the case of a movement protesting the attitudes of Police Departments across the country towards sexual assault victims,  it is imperative that SlutWalk remain peaceful. As Laura points out, ‘SlutWalk NYC wants to make a claim to safety in public no matter who you are. Occupy Wall Street may not be deliberately looking for a confrontation with the police, but the possibility that the NYPD will react negatively on Saturday is much, much higher with Occupy Wall Street’s presence, and thus the likelihood that this claim to safe spaces and respect is going to be disrespected is much higher, a risk that is unfair to survivors and activists wishing to be involved in SlutWalk NYC’. I should note at this point that it is unclear as to the extent of Occupy Wall Street’s involvement in SlutWalk, if the marches will happen simultaneously, at different times, or if decisions will be made for both movements to march together. Either way, it is crucial that if Occupy Wall Street teams up with SlutWalk, that people be thoroughly briefed, need to be informed as to how they can most cautiously interact with the NYPD – there are legitimate safety issues at hand.

 

On a more personal note, I can’t say enough how important SlutWalk is to me – particularly as a sex worker, whose chances of being assaulted are much higher, with little to no protection from the state because of my legal invisibility. In fact, the only thing the state is likely to do for me is punitive. For me, SlutWalk is so much more than just a protest against sexual assault and victim blaming – it’s about reconfiguring cultural attitudes about women’s choices about their own bodies, their own sexuality. I’ll be the first to admit that the notion of ‘choice’ in relation to sex work, in more than any other context, is a fraught issue – women get into sex work for a myriad of reasons, none simple enough to boil down to just ‘choice’, but none simple enough to be one of the numerous ‘ills of capitalism’ either. So thinking about the choice to do sex work in the context of Occupy Wall Street and its intentionally loose framework of ‘Capitalism is bad’ worries me more than anything else. Sex work is a form of exploiting and intervening within existing system, capitalism included, and I don’t deny that there’s good and bad that goes along with that. Case in point – I was once asked, as an Asian woman, how I deal with being constantly fetishised by white males – my answer was ‘sometimes I make money off it’ and I was only half joking. However, more often than not, sex work is held up as the exemplum of ‘a choice a girl makes when she has no other choices’, something perpetuated by the commodification of women as well as because of difficult financial situations, both engendered by the mechanisms of capitalism.

 

I really, strongly, feel that SlutWalk marching with Occupy Wall Street might encourage the kind of talk about sex work in the context of capitalism that completely undermines the statement sex workers in particular want to make in relation to the safety we deserve. Slutwalk is a way of allowing me to feel out and proud about my own choices despite the danger I have and will continue to experience – I can only hope that our actions will one day be enough to ensure both visibility and protection for sex workers – Slutwalk is an important step. I didn’t wear a short skirt as an invitation for you to rape me. Being a whore isn’t an invitation for you to rape me either – you’re only allowed to do what we agreed upon. Taking your money is not an invitation for you to take whatever you want. This has nothing to do with capitalism.

 

Slutwalk is about my choices, however complex they may be, feeling good about my agency, and insisting that I deserve to be safe. It is not about a bunch of other people telling me how capitalism might or might not have made me do it in the first place. As much as I admire and support the tenacity, intellectual vigour and inclusivity of Occupy Wall Street, it has no place alongside Slutwalk, a movement fighting for the constantly sidelined exception, even if Occupy Wall Street is a movement that purports to be a space of exceptionality within our capitalist society.

New TV Programming Featuring Women: Progressive Shift?

This fall has given us a lot to talk about with new leading ladies in shows such as “The Playboy Club”, “Pan Am”, “Whitney”, “2 Broke Girls” and “The New Girl”. With these shows comes much opportunity for empowered, humorous, intelligent roles for women.  In the New York Times  article “Retrofitting the Feminine Mystique” Alessandra Stanley argues television is now mostly shows for women by women and these shows reflect this power shift in TV programming.

But what women relate to these characters, and why? Revisiting history with today’s feminist lens, and for entertainment no less, is tricky business.

Take for example the response to NBC’s “The Playboy Club” which takes place in Chicago’s Playboy Club and follows the lives of the employees or “Bunnies” in the 1960s. The series has received criticism from Gloria Steinem asking, “Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward?” Steinem has called for a boycott of the show, and at least one former playboy bunny wrote in the Huffington Post of the many inaccuracies in the portrayal of life as a bunny. Begging the same questions is the show “Pan Am” which is another period drama set in the 1960’s focusing on the flight attendants and pilots.

Writing about “The New Girl” for Autostraddle I learned that many readers agreed with my thoughts that the show’s premise of portraying a girl in need of help from male roommates to find a man and learn to dress was a bit tired.  On the other hand, the show definitely highlights gender performance between both the male and female characters in a way that may allow for comical and interesting critique.

I do think it’s meaningful that there are so many sitcoms with leading ladies.  And I do think we’ve come a long way since the days portrayed in “Pan Am” and “The Playboy  Club”. However, as Gloria Steinem notes, these show’s story lines must actually dig into issues such as women in the workforce, rape, access to abortion and the struggles of those from the LGBTQ community living in the closet to be called empowering or progressive.

 

SlutWalk: Why I Am Marching

Dear Friends,

This Saturday, the International SlutWalk movement finally comes to New York City. After thousands of women marched along the streets of hundreds of cities around the globe, we will gather in New York City’s Union Square together. At The Line Campaign, we recognize that there have been many valid concerns and contentions over the name— primarily that it doesn’t speak to many women of color, or others who are offended or who aren’t in a position to parade under a “slut” banner.

“Slut Walk” as a name began as a challenge the notion that what might fall under a contemporary description of “sluttiness”—revealing clothing, flirting, drinking—does not equate consent, and never justifies rape. However, somewhere along the line it became about re-appropriating the word “slut” into an empowering term, something that many women of color have expressed feels dangerous and counter productive to combating a problematic history of racialized sexuality.

SlutWalk was never meant to be divisive—but its controversial name was both a blessing and a curse, gaining media attention, but inciting a politically theatrical debate that veered the movement off course from a universal struggle against victim blaming and started dividing women along race lines.

SlutWalk is a grassroots movement, often spearheaded by young people organizing for the first time. Every movement has its growing pains, and we hope that SlutWalk can work through these contentions and mature into an inclusive and ground-breaking movement that inspires conversations and further organizing that lead to real change.

At The Line Campaign we see the SlutWalk Movement as a tidal wave against rape culture and victim blaming, something that women of all backgrounds need one another’s support in resisting. Women have organized across the world, from Toronto to Buenos Aires to Mexico City, Kyrgizstan, and Morocco under the universal agreement that we, as women, have had enough. I hope that you will continue this movement by joining us to march from Union Square at 12 noon sharp; I will be speaking along with representatives from Radical Women, Red Umbrella, Queers for Economic Justice, Domestic Workers United, STARR, Sex Worker Outreach Project, International Socialist Organization, and other independent activists.

In Solidarity,

Nancy Schwartzman, The Line Campaign

For more about critiques of SlutWalk, read this article.

Becoming What We Are Called: We Are All Sluts. Period

SlutWalk NYC is happening this Saturday, and we’re very excited to be standing with thousands of NewYorkers against victim-blaming and rape. To set the mood, let’s take another look at Salamishah Tillet’s speech from this summer’s SlutWalk DC.

Jumpoff. Hooker. Hoe. Whore. Slut.

Good afternoon, friends.  Welcome, fellow feminists.  I am honored to take back the street, to take back our bodies, to take back the word “Slut” with you.  I say this, proudly, as a third-wave feminist and as a feminist of color.  I stand here proud and defiant as a woman who is a rape survivor.

I stand here because too many people have been made afraid to share their stories of sexual violence and exploitation.

Because too many women and girls, who look like me, haven’t always been invited to marches like this.  Because during slavery, black women, by law, were considered unrapeable.  And stereotypes about their hyper-sexuality were used to justify their rape, their enslavement.  After slavery, these stereotypes persisted. And were used to justify the rape of black women in the South.  Who were domestics.  Who were considered “Help.”  Black women were America’s original sluts.

Today, our bodies and stories still don’t count.  Crimes against us continue to be ignored.

 Skank. Groupie. Bitch. Bust-it-baby. Slut.

I am here today because the New York Post gets away with calling Nafissatou Diallo, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, a “hooker.” Because the New York Times gets away with describing an 11-year old Texas Latina girl, an alleged victim of gang rape, of “wearing makeup and fashion” like “a woman in her 20s.”

Cause young girls, and especially girls of color, are called Jumpoffs. Whores. Sluts. Almost everyday.  By friends. By strangers. By parents. By police officers.

Cause when I took that long walk home after I was raped, my spaghetti strapped dress, was turned inside out.  And I was afraid to go to the police and be told it was my fault.  Scared of someone telling me that being trapped in a room wearing spaghetti strapped dress with a man who threatened my life wasn’t rape.

Freak. Fast-Asses. Hook Up. Slut.

Today, I am here to take back women’s bodies.  Reclaim our sexuality.  Refuse stigma.  Say “NO” to violence against women.  Fight back against centuries old slut shamming.

I am here to make sure that no young woman, like the hundreds with whom my organization, A Long Walk Home, works, believes it was her fault she was raped.

I am here to make sure that no one ever believes that what a woman wears or doesn’t wear is cause for rape.

I am here to make sure that no boy judges a girl’s worth by what she will or will not do sexually.

I am here to imagine.  To demand.

Today, we imagine that every woman, regardless of clothing or class, race or religion, job or age, lives in a world free of sexual harassment.

Today, we dream that every woman, regardless of clothing or class, race or religion, job or age, lives in a world free of sexual violence.

Trick. Exclusives. Sweet. Bitch. Slut.

Today, we tell the world, the White House, our perpetrators, our parents, our lovers, our friends, OURSELVES, that we are part of a global revolution.  We demand to be sexually free and to be politically equal. We refuse to be silent.  We will not be ignored.

We are Sluts. Outlaws. Bad Girls. Patriots. Bad Freedom-Fighters. Feminists. Survivors.

We are SlutWalk.

It’s not Gender Warfare … It’s Math

Anna Holmes wrote an enlightening article about women in the STEM fields – or the lack thereof.

The gender disparities in the United States’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce are disturbing. According to a report released last month by the Department of Commerce, although females fill almost half of the jobs in the American economy, less than 25% of jobs in STEM fields are held by women. Even worse, female representation in computer science and math — the largest of the 4 STEM components — has declined over the years, from 30% in 2000 to 27% in 2009.

Check out the whole article, where Anna explores some of the reasons for this, and how we may be able to change that in the future.

Badass Activist Friday presents: Audacia Ray

It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire cultural change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.

This week, the wonderful Audacia Ray agreed to speak with us about her work as an activist, writer and sex worker rights advocate. She was the author of Waking Vixen, a highly acclaimed sex blog that was active between 2004 and spring of this year, and is now running the Red Umbrella Project, which aims to make the authentic voices of sex workers heard. But let’s let her tell us about it herself. Here’s what she had to say to us:

On your blog, you describe yourself as a sex worker rights activist. How would you summarize your work, and how did you come to do it?

I work to amplify the voices of people who have experience in the sex industry, whether they arrive at that experience through choice, coercion, or circumstance. My main focus is cultural activism, creating spaces for sex workers to speak up in public forums and through various media production adventures. I started doing this work in 2004, when I was a sex worker and feeling isolated. I was seeking community and wanted to talk to other people who had similar experiences. I found the nascent $pread, a magazine by and for sex workers that was in the process of being launched, and I signed on. I became an editor and was involved with the magazine for about four years. A lot of my projects over the past few years have grown out of that experience.

In your work, you combine new media and outreach by taking advantage of several different mediums (podcasts and blogs, as well as in-person workshops). Why do you think it is important to reach people via these different venues? Do you think that this approach is tailored to your project, or are there ways in which activism in general could benefit from using different platforms?

I think the main thing that I’ve learned about the different mediums is that they are, well, different. When I started it was with the attitude of – I just need to get my stuff out there and then people will know about it! For an activist web project I did last year, I did an exercise of thinking up all the types of people who might come to the site, how they’d get there, and what they’d be looking for, and what we’d want them to take away. It’s a good exercise and definitely made it really clear that there is no “general public” – you have to get more precise than that.

The people who read blogs aren’t necessarily the folks who look for podcasts on iTunes or browse the video shows on Blip TV or hang out with their friends on Facebook. This is a good thing, but sometimes it means you need to make a choice and pick one or two ways to reach out instead of being everywhere all the time. Unless all you do is spend time on the internet – which is definitely where I was at a few years ago, but now I do a lot of work offline, as well, so I have to be more selective about my engagement. 

Your main project is the Red Umbrella Project. Can you tell us more about this project? What are you doing, where did the idea for this originate, and what do you hope to achieve?

The Red Umbrella Project reframes the public dialogue on the impact of stigma and discrimination on people who trade sex for the things they need, through the lens of lived experience. We provide training and support to people who wish to engage with media and in public forums to tell their stories about issues that affect them. The main programs are a media training intensive called Speak Up!, which is designed for sex workers to learn the trickery of the mainstream media, plus how to do messaging and interact with hostile/clueless journalists (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between those). I also host a live monthly storytelling series, the Red Umbrella Diaries, which takes place on the first Thursday of the month at Happy Ending in NYCs Lower East Side, but we will be expanding to new cities in the coming year. We’ve also been doing a legislative training for the last few years for sex workers to learn to do advocacy in New York State, and have a few other programs that we’ll hopefully be rolling out in 2012.

You closed your blog WakingVixen earlier this year, after having been online with it since 2004. Can you explain your motivation for closing the blog? You’ve been a pioneer and in the vanguard of online community, advocacy and storytelling. How do you see the field changing? What excites you? What do you miss?What has it been like to move towards an increase in live events, and what motivated this decision?

My relationship to the internet -and of course, the internet itself- has evolved considerably since I started writing about my life on Blogger in 2004. I found that I kept intending to write long personal and/or analytical posts on my blog, but kept not getting around to it, and was instead hanging out on Twitter, reading group blogs, watching videos, and listening to podcasts. With media, you really have to adapt or die, and I felt like I was letting my blog crumble and die. So I killed it, and I adapted. Now I post short stuff on my Tumbler, I obsessively track my reading on Goodreads, I tweet, I host a podcast (search for Red Umbrella Diaries on iTunes) and occasionally produce and post videos. Lately I’ve been doing a lot more listening and learning online instead of always pushing out new stuff. It’s definitely as important to listen as it is to talk.

What’s been on your mind lately? Have you been reading a new blog? Discovered an awesome book? Or is there a news story that really inspired you? Please share with us!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the long-term effects of being committed to doing activism in a deep way, and the ways it’s worn me down over the years. I am coming to appreciate self care and down time more than I allowed myself to several years ago. And I’ve also come to realize that activist work is about taking steps forward and steps back, and that’s the fight. Over a short period of time, it seems like nothing changes, but over the years, there is a shift. When I first started doing activism, I felt like we were just on the cusp of radical change. I don’t feel that way anymore, and I feel a little sad that I’ve lost that. But at the same time, I think I’ve gotten a bigger appreciation for the work that goes into making change, shifting culture. And I’m in it, I’m signed up. It’s just interesting to have my vantage point shift in that way.

 

Thank you so much for those wonderful, thoughtful answers, Audacia!

 

 

Becoming a Survivor: Overcoming Sexual Assault

Last Spring, I dated an emotionally and sexually abusive sociopath, which I always say just that straightforwardly. He assaulted me repeatedly, which I didn’t grasp until three weeks after we broke up, when I saw “The Line,” and the story felt all too familiar. I reported him and engaged in a mediation with him, where I told him exactly what he had done. After the worst semester of my life, I left feeling empowered, strong, and positive. I had also snagged my university’s job as the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) Intern, quickly turning my hardship into activism and service.

I’m back at my university for my senior year, and my job consumes 15-20 hours of my week, my social life, my dreams, and my energy. During SART training, a state expert on sexual assault discussed the effect of sexual assault trauma on the brain. Everything she listed I have experienced at some point: fear, anxiety, insomnia, inability to work, reluctance to trust others… She emphasized that someone who has experienced such a trauma is always healing and may be triggered at any moment, maybe even by something that no one else finds disturbing. Ironically, hearing her bluntly describe a survivor’s behavior immediately threw me into such an anxiety attack, which no one else seemed to find upsetting. I couldn’t breathe, my hands were sweating, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, and I felt entirely unsafe. But because I was there for my job, which forces me to address sexual assault daily, I stayed.

I have been asking myself why this particular part of training struck me so deeply. Now, I understand that what upset me was not the discussion of sexual violence, but the analysis of the pattern of survivors, which matched my own experience. Although I have willingly assumed the label of “survivor” from the beginning, I must admit that I have (very) secretly thought of myself as survived—Done. Healed. Trauma Over. As somehow different from everyone else because I consciously acted, confronted and have already begun to heal my wounds. Realizing that I am not fully in control of my memories and my emotions makes me feel vulnerable and afraid.

But I choose to change the way I self-identify. I am a survivor, which does not mean I am weak, out of control, permanently traumatized, or unable to perform my very challenging job. Instead, I acknowledge that these experiences are a part of me, and I am constantly reflecting, healing and progressing. I choose to serve myself by recognizing what triggers me, and to tread as safely as possible as I move forward. Ultimately, I am learning that as a self-labeled survivor, I am not only surviving, present-tense, but I am also capable of thriving.

What can we learn from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual violence case?

Over on Race Talk, Juhu Thukral and Melissa Sontag Broudo discuss the lessons from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual violence case by setting it side by side with another, similar case. The difference between the two cases? The case of Sontag’s client, “JD”, had a positive result.

Read all about the two cases, their outcomes and the lessons we can take from them here: What can we learn from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual violence case? – Sexual violence and the criminal justice system.

All Posts from September, 2011