January, 2012

Invisible War

(This is a guest post by Holly Kearl. Holly is an activist and non-profit professional whose work focuses on gender-based violence and street harassment. Find out more about her at her website. It was cross-posted on Ms. Magazine Blog)

On January 22nd, I attended both a screening of The Invisible War at the Sundance Film Festival and a survivor- speak-out afterward. I can’t stop thinking about what I saw and heard.

Prior to seeing the film, I knew about the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. I’d read the alarming statistics. The Department of Defense estimates that during 2010, there were up to 19,000 women raped in the military. Twenty percent of female veterans were raped by their coworkers either when they were recruits or as active duty members.  One percent of men in the military are raped each year.

Not only is rape epidemic in the military, but prosecution is low and retaliation against survivors is high.  For example, of the few reported rapes, only 8 percent are ever prosecuted and only 2 percent end in conviction. Since perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders, the lack of penalty means the vast majority of rapists can continue raping – both their coworkers in their military and members of their community when they are home. This is an outrage.

While I knew these statistics, I didn’t know or connect with the stories of the survivors until yesterday.

Intending to make the military their career, during the film most of the survivors featured sadly shared how they left the military after their assaults. Even though they love the military, every one of them said they would not recommend the military as a career to any other woman until significant structural changes occur to make the military safer.

Each survivor described their feelings of betrayal for being assaulted by their military “brothers,” and how traumatizing it was to face retaliation from the military (some of the women were even put under investigation and charged with adultery because their assailants claimed the rape was consensual and were married men). The frustration of inadequate health care, therapy, and support was another common theme.

One of the survivors is Trina McDonald, a Navy officer, was drugged and raped repeatedly by other officers on a remote base in Alaska. During the survivor speak-out, we were horrified to hear that during her therapy at the Veterans Affairs (VA), she was told to record what happened to her in great detail and then play that every day until she became desensitized to the trauma. She stopped replaying her tape when the “therapy” made her suicidal. She asked members of the Utah VA present at the speak-out to please do what they could to stop that harmful treatment.

Another survivor is Coast Guard recruit Kori Cioca. Her rapist dislocated her jaw and the VA has yet to provide medical coverage to fix it. Instead they proscribed an alarming amount of drugs, which Cioca displays in the documentary. During the speak-out, she described how one insensitive doctor questioned why she was there and then tried to pry her mouth open with his hands, jammed a mirror in her mouth and only stopped when she got up and left; her pleas to not touch her falling on deaf ears.

Witnessing the impact the rapes and assaults had on the survivors’ family members both in the film and at the speak-out was devastating. Many of the women were married to members of the military or had fathers serving. Most of the men left once they found out what happened and to this day and their every-day life is forever changed as they work to help their loved ones recover their health, their dignity, their life. It was their tears that moved me to tears. I am not a survivor of sexual assault but I know too well the same feeling of helplessness of trying to make things better for loved ones who are survivors and who are in so much pain. Not everything was sad, however. There were messages of hope everywhere. The film showed dedicated members of Congress working to create and pass a legislative fix. We saw brave survivors, including Cicoca, and their lawyer Susan Burke sue the Department of Defense for violating their constitutional rights. And even though the district court judge dismissed the case last month, ruling that rape in the military is an occupational hazard for which you cannot sue the government, they are appealing the decision. The love the survivors’ families show them was also a positive force throughout the film.

During the survivor speak-out, more hope emerged. Survivor after survivor said that working with film producer Amy Ziering was better therapy than anything they went through at the VA because she actually let them talk and listened to their stories without cutting them off or dismissing them. One survivor from Salt Lake City who was not in the film but simply heard about the event and decided to attend said that 90 minutes of watching the film did more good for her than had her years of therapy with VA therapists.

The survivors said once they began working on the film, it was heartening to know they weren’t alone in dealing with these issues. They now had a band of people who had gone through it too and with whom they could advocate for a better military. The film was a turning point for many of them and also a way to reclaim their voices. They hoped it could be a turning point for all the survivors who view the film.

Some of the spouses of survivors spoke at the session too, and they said how cathartic it was to be part of the film. One husband of a survivor said, “It’s hard to know where you can make a difference in the world” but that the film showed him how he and his wife can: by speaking out and advocating for changes.

You don’t just have to be a survivor or the loved one of a survivor to make a difference. If you want to do something, please:

It will take all of our voices to ensure that the military does the right thing.




Rape is Rape: Lebanon Edition

(Originally posted here.)

In Lebanon (or at least, in Beirut) the joke is that it is equally likely to see a woman in a mini skirt as it is to see a woman in a hijab.

In Lebanon (or at least, in Beirut), European tourists feel at ease that the Lebanese still speak a post-colonial French, and let Beirut be called the Paris of the Middle East.

In Lebanon (or at least, in Beirut), tourists and Lebanese alike flock to the beaches and the nightclubs, openly drinking alcohol, smoking hookahs, and belly dancing to both popular western and Arabic music, creating a strange moment that many see as cultural influence, and many others see as cultural infiltration.


Spotlight on Consent: What IS Consent, anyway?

One of the most important and most tricky issues when it comes to sex is what we mean by consent. The notion of consent is often used to explain the difference between kinky sex and abuse, for example. And it’s almost always part of the conversation when we talk about how to tell sex and rape apart.

When I talk with people about what I think consent means, I usually use a three part definition:

  • You have to say yes. Giving consent means that you have actively taken action. Consent is more than not saying “no.”
  • You have to be able to say no. If you don’t have the freedom to say no without repercussions, you can’t actually give consent. A gun held to your head, whether literal or metaphorical, means you can’t truly consent.
  • You have to understand the consequences of saying yes or no. If you’re too drunk or wasted, if you lack the mental capacity, if you don’t understand what you’re agreeing to, it doesn’t count. [As an aside, I don’t know when kids are able to consent. Different jurisdictions peg it at different ages, although I know some 15 year olds who are more able to do it than some 40 year olds. All I know is that kids are usually ready after they think they are and before their parents think they are.]

Although this definition of consent isn’t 100% complete, and it certainly leaves room for ambiguity, debate, and discussion, I’ve always thought that it covered most of the more important issues. At least until I read this article one the Kinsey Institute’s website, discussing the research article Sex without Desire: Characteristics of Occasions of Sexual Compliance in Young Adults’ Committed Relationships. They had 63 18-24-year olds in heterosexual relationships keep a journal of their sexual activity and 17% of the events were rated as “sexually compliant” (which was defined as “willingly engaging in sexual activity that one does not desire”).

Contrary to what some might expect, they didn’t find any gender differences in reports of sexual compliance. But both the men and women they studied said that men were more likely to initiate sexually compliant experiences, which means that guys are initiating sex even when they were complying. I suspect that there are a lot of reasons for that, including thinking they should have sex, or thinking that their girlfriends wanted it, or buying into a performance model of male sexuality.

Sometimes, people complied with sex in order to maintain the relationship, just as we might comply with doing the dishes or running errands. Other reasons included feeling low sexual desire and having past experiences of being pressured. And although it wasn’t among the themes that the researchers identified, I also wonder about one’s self-esteem, history of sexual assault, vocabulary around sexuality, and ability to set boundaries in other aspects of the relationship.

I also wonder about the relationships between sexual compliance and resentment. Doing something that we don’t really want to do in order to please a partner can easily fuel resentment, which is a great way to kill a relationship, and I’d be curious to see research that tracked couples over time to see how their level of sexual compliance influenced their relationship. I’m pretty sure there’s a strong correlation.

I’m glad to see research beginning to explore the nuances of consent. After all, consent doesn’t necessarily imply enthusiasm. And while I’m a fan of the BDSM community’s standard of Safe, Sane, and Consensual (and the more recent version, Risk-Aware Consensual Kink) , there’s clearly more to it than consent. I’ll be curious to see further work in this area.

Jay-Z, the “B-Word” and Double Standards Among Fathers

An article posted  on the music news website NME reported that Jay-Z has vowed to stop using the word ‘bitch’ in his songs. The article reported that he made the vow in a poem he wrote to his newborn daughter, Blue Ivy. Looking at how widely used misogynistic language is within Hip-Hop and Jay-Z’s high profile within the world of Hip-Hop and pop culture, this is huge.


New Year, New Bloggers: Jamie Hagen

(Jamie has actually been with us for a few months, but she hasn’t had the chance yet to properly introduce herself. So, it’s high time we make up on that. We’re so glad to have Jamie on the team!)

Hello readers!

I’ve been a writer for The Line Campaign since August 2011 when I saw the call for bloggers and jumped at the opportunity to blog with such an awesome team working to empower young leaders to end sexual violence in such a creative and participatory way.


Salamishah Tillet: Badass Activist Friday

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.

Today’s Badass is Salamishah Tillet. Dr. Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the forthcoming book, “Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination.” She is a rape survivor and the co-founder of the nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to end violence against girls and women. You can follow her on Twitter.

Let’s hear what she says about her work!


Awesome Video: Slut Shaming and Why It’s Wrong

I know that everyone on the Internet has reposted this video, but that’s just because it’s so freakin’ awesome. If you haven’t seen it yet, where have you been?? Check it out:

If that doesn’t make you feel positively giddy with hope, I don’t know what will.

New Blogger Ethan on being a Man in the Feminist Movement

A debate started on the Internet about two months ago on the website The Good Men Project. While I am not going to go into the specific details of the argument (a summary of which can be found here), I want to talk about some points brought up that I think are especially relevant to male feminists.


New Year, New Bloggers: Ruwaida Shaikh

(We’re back with another look at our awesome new crop of bloggers!)

Hey everyone! I’m Ruwaida and I’m an ardent human rights advocate, emphasizing on women and LGBT rights. It feels great to finally be a part of a revolutionary campaign such as this, as the Where Is Your Line blog’ focuses on sexism, feminism, rape culture, and sexual consent – all of the causes I’m concerned about.


2011: The Year in Rape Culture

(We asked brand new blogger Marina to talk about what she thought was the most important topic in 2011, and why. Here’s what she had to say!)

Rape culture is ever present in our society.  We have created it and sustained it, and it is plastered into our lives repeatedly by the people around us, the media, and our courts. 2011 was no exception to the perpetuation of rape culture as demonstrated by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the Penn State scandal, and a new  pop-cultural icon.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn had one of the most powerful positions in, arguably, the world.  He was arrested on May 14, 2011 and charged with several first-degree felony counts, notably a criminal sex act, attempted rape and sexual abuse when hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo reported that he had tried to rape her. When novelist Tristane Banon came forward with an accusation of sexual assault it gave Mr. Strauss-Kahn a history of sexual assault. Then, DNA evidence of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s was found on Ms. Diallo’s work clothes, making the case certainly not in his favor. The questions at the beginning of the scandal were ‘how could we let a person like this have such power?’ How could Mr. Strauss-Kahn call rape merely “an error” and “a moral failure he would regret?”

But as the case was further investigated, we forgot those questions because Ms. Diallo seemed less and less credible based on the lies she had told officials. The forensic evidence was ambiguous and Mr. Strauss-Kahn had resigned from his position at the I.M.F. yet maintained his innocence in the face of criminal charges.  Ms. Diallo’s case deteriorated as the “prosecutors no longer believed much of what she had told them about the circumstances or about herself.”

Ms. Diallo’s credibility issues ended the case, and all criminal charges were dismissed from Mr. Strauss-Kahn.  This was not the ending everyone was expecting. Not only does this add to the stigma that women cry rape to attend to a personal agenda, but it allows Mr. Strauss-Kahn a literal ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card because while in “[that] encounter, there was no act of aggression or violence,” he does not state that there was no advancement, nor approval of his actions in the encounter. On the contrary he admits “to having made a pass at her and trying to kiss her.” This can be assault depending on the manner it was done in and received in, and that is determined by the victim, who was denounced.

And of course, the Penn State scandal cannot be left out. It is the worst fear of every person, a trusting figure who has contributed countless hours and monetary donations to create a safe space for foster children, turns out to be a child molester. Jerry Sandusky, former assistant coach of the Pennsylvania State University football team was charged with 40 counts of sex crimes involving eight boys, occurring between 1994 and 2009. This would of course be awful enough on its own, however we then discovered that head coach Joe Paterno had knowledge of Sandusky raping a 10 year old boy on the Penn State premises via graduate assistant Mike McQueary, and Paterno did not report to the police.

The issues at play are numerous: Penn State actively employed a child molester and rapist and when he was found out, the police were not notified. These issues have been discussed in a wide array of media, but I think there are other angles to consider. I completely agree that Paterno, and for that matter McQueary, were in the wrong for not intervening on moral grounds and reporting to the police, and I believe this was handled effectively by the courts, albeit 15 years too late. The nagging thing about the Penn State scandal for me is that if it had been young women that Sandusky was abusing, how it was handled would have been completely different.

The gender, social class and history of the victim often (and quite unfortunately) determines how we treat the case and those involved.  If it is a young woman and she is wearing scandalous clothing, and/or she is drunk at 3 a.m., and/or she is walking alone; she should have known not to wear that dress, drink at all, or walk by herself – she was asking for it. The outcome for a sexual abuse case is far more likely to take on a victim blaming stance if it has one of those variables in it.

For instance the Marquette University freshman who was under the influence of alcohol at a Halloween party in 2010, she was sexually abused by several male athletes in one room. She reported the crime immediately. Her allegations were not alone; two other women accused Marquette athletes of sexual attacks. University officials made a non-specific statement that all the athletes charged were punished for disregarding the student code of conduct however; none of the players were restricted from playing on their sports teams due to the sexual assault charges.  A lawyer for one of the women said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that “Marquette administrators clearly thought the law was that you protect your [athletes] if they’re having a good year.”

While some of this ‘protect the good thing you have going’ mentality may have been evident in the Penn State scandal, there is no victim blaming at all (thankfully.) It is infuriating to me that it takes a huge scandal spanning fifteen years, of a high profile assistant coach of a prominent university team abusing young boys for us to treat the victims like victims and the case surrounding them accordingly.

The media has moved all of these stories along, and while the media can be included as part of the rape culture problem, one movie this year has put out a better message. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released during the holiday season this year. It is predominately a mystery but has the backdrop of libel and scandal, love, and a girl with a curious history. It is a great story and it is put into film immaculately.

The heroine of the story is Lisbeth, an incredibly smart and resourceful young woman. She is horrifically raped by her caretaker, in a scene that is depicted in a starkly realistic way, causing discomfort for the audience.  This is one of the few cases where rape or violence is not glamorized, as was intended by the author. Steig Larsson was motivated in part to write these novels as “his way of apologizing” to a woman he saw gang raped by his friends and he did not intervene. According to Larsson’s longtime friend Kurdo Baski, “[Larsson] was too young, too insecure. It was inevitable that he would realize afterwards that he could have acted and possibly prevented the rape.” This began Larsson’s real-life commitment to social justice.

His books are now becoming movies and are more popular than ever. The main recurring theme in the series shares the title of the Swedish version of the first book and film: “Men Who Hate Women.” With the success of his writing and the newfound success of the movie I can only hope that readers and viewers see the real message that Larsson is trying to send: that rape is a dehumanizing form of control which renders the victim powerless, and that it is a real problem in our society.


All Posts from January, 2012