Untangling Kevin Spacey’s Apology

Amid the deluge of high-profile disclosures of sexual assault and harassment experienced at the hands of the upper echelons of Hollywood come more stories of sexual misconduct from Kevin Spacey. Many of these disclosures come from male-identified actors, some of whom were minors at the time of the assault. In his response to the first disclosure against him, Spacey offers a vague apology and then shifts the conversation to coming out as a gay man, conflating the issue of sexual assault and sexual orientation in a deeply problematic way.

Perhaps Spacey hoped to draw attention away from the allegation by offering details about his personal life. In his response, Spacey says: “This story has encouraged me to address other things about my life…I have loved and had romantic encounters with men throughout my life, and I choose now to live as a gay man. I want to deal with this honestly and openly and that starts with examining my own behavior.” What Spacey seems to suggest with this statement is that his sexual orientation is connected to his predatory behavior, which is not only a false correlation but also incredibly damaging and hurtful to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, of which he now publicly claims to be part.

The LGBTQ community has faced constant discrimination throughout U.S. history, which manifests through different stereotypes. One of the more unfortunate and prominent stereotypes against the queer community is the idea that a gay man (or a lesbian woman, or someone with any other non-heterosexual orientation) is more likely to commit child sexual abuse. There is absolutely no factual evidence to suggest a correlation between non-heterosexual orientation and perpetration of child sexual abuse, much less causation. However, there is ample research evidence showing that LGBTQ people are victims of sexual assault at higher rates than straight people.

Looking at Spacey’s response as if it were meant to be a distraction brings up other concerns. If Spacey meant to offer this tidbit about himself a morsel of juicy gossip, it is an unfortunate reminder that we still live in a time when coming out of the closet is a spectacle for onlookers to revel in, pore over, and pick apart. LGBTQ people are not caricatures for consumption nor fodder for conversations; they are people deserving of respect, honor, discretion and privacy.

Although Spacey does not outright deny the allegations against him (he states he does not remember the interaction), he attributes his actions to “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior,” which seems like he is trying to relieve himself of responsibility because alcohol was involved. While alcohol is often a factor in sexual assault, it is likely to be used as a weapon use by perpetrators to disarm their victims, but is never an excuse for premeditated violence. The presence of alcohol neither absolves the perpetrator of responsibility for their behavior, nor does it make it acceptable to place responsibility on the victim for drinking.

What this shows is that conversations around sexual violence continue to be misdirected and misleading. Rather than recognizing the impact of a perpetrator’s actions and working toward some degree of accountability, conversations continue to revolve around gossip, power differentials, and red herrings that distract from the issue of sexual violence. Do not be duped by these distractions. Let’s keep the spot light right where it belongs— illuminating the reprehensible violent acts of perpetrators until they can no longer evade accountability.

Natalie Ziemba is the Hotline Supervisor with MESA, and originally started as a MESA volunteer. She enjoys reading, baking, and nuanced discussions of social justice issues.

Title IX 101 – What’s All the Fuss About?

Title IX has received a lot of attention recently. Since the law impacts educational institutions and students across the nation, it is worth taking a closer look at what Title IX is, how it has been used in the past, and what has changed under the new administration.

The Education Amendments act of 1972 included language in Title IX that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In the early years after this legislation was passed, much of the discussion focused on equality between men’s and women’s athletics. More recently, this legislation has been the center of investigating gender discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence on college campuses. Both conversations focus on universities, but Title IX applies much more broadly than a university setting.

Any educational institution, K-12, public or private, that receives any amount of federal funding is obligated to follow and enforce Title IX. Funding may come in the form of governmental assistance for public schools or school lunch programs, or it may come in the form of students attending a private institution with the help of federal student aid. All educational institutions receiving federal funding have an obligation to ensure an environment that neither excludes nor denies educational opportunities on the basis of sex. Title IX protects student, staff and faculty who are victimized by other students, staff or faculty on or off school grounds, as well as visitors on school grounds who are victimized by students, staff or faculty. Victims have access to support and protections, and those found to have committed sexual harassment or assault following a school investigation may be subject to sanctions. If students, staff or faculty feel the school has mishandled the investigation, they can file a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights.

The broad language of the 1972 law has been through various interpretations, the most well-known of which are the 2011 Dear Colleague letter issued under the Obama administration that was repealed in September 2017 and replaced with a Q & A on interim guidance. Highlights comparing, contrasting, and noting significant changes are outlined below.

Similarities

Both sets of guidance emphasize equal opportunities for both the reporting party and the responding party to present evidence and witnesses in support of their cases. Additionally, both parties have the right to receive notifications equally about the investigation at various stages throughout the process, including the final outcome of the investigation and what, if any, sanctions have been imposed.

Differences

Interim measures

  • 2011: Recommended minimizing the burden on the victim, and emphasized the accessibility of interim measures for victims until an investigation was completed. Measures may include changes to class schedules or residence, course accommodations, and orders to stay away.
  • 2017: Such measures must be equally available to both victims and perpetrators.

 

Standard of evidence

  • 2011: Schools were required to use a preponderance of evidence standard (more likely than not that something happened) instead of a clear and convincing standard (highly likely that something happened).
  • 2017: Gives discretion to the school as to which standard of evidence to use.

 

Appeals

  • 2011: Recommended that schools provide an appeals process after completion of an investigation.
  • 2017: Schools have the option of whether to provide an appeals process after the investigation, and schools additionally have the discretion to decide whether the appeals process may be available to only the perpetrator, or to both the victim and the perpetrator.

 

Informal resolutions

  • 2011: If both parties voluntarily agreed, informal resolutions like mediation could be used in cases of sexual harassment but were deemed inappropriate for cases of sexual assault.
  • 2017: Allows the use of mediation in any sexual misconduct case.

 

Timeframe for investigations

While both 2011 and 2017 guidance recognized that there were multiple factors at play to determine a prompt response from the school,

  • 2011: Suggested investigations be completed within 60 calendar days.
  • 2017: No recommendations for how long an investigation should take.

 

Anonymity

  • 2011: Schools provided the option for victims to remain anonymous when filing a complaint with the school.
  • 2017: For an equitable investigation, new guidance recommends that schools provide sufficient details about any complaint of sexual misconduct to the perpetrator, including the name of the victim and the specific conduct in question of violating the school’s sexual misconduct policy. This information would be shared after the school decides to open an investigation about the conduct, not necessarily upon the initial report.

 

While some protections and processes remain the same from 2011 and 2017 guidance documents, some changes have drastically shifted the playing field. Victim advocacy and support services will continue to play a significant role in helping victims through the process of reporting sexual violence, though some of the recent guidance presents additional obstacles for victims.

Natalie Ziemba is the Hotline Supervisor with MESA, and originally started as a MESA volunteer. She enjoys reading, baking, and nuanced discussions of social justice issues.

Sexual Harassment in the Media: What is Silencing Victims?

silencing-victims

With the recent exposure of high profile celebrities and executives being accused of sexual harassment and abuse, the topic of harassment in the workplace is at the forefront. Celebrities and other influential figures have opened the conversation for those who have been dealing with this issue in silence, with the movement #metoo. This movement has also shined a light on how many people from all walks of life have been affected by harassment or abuse. It’s important to talk about the silence and what is helping victims and survivors step out and share their stories without fear. Let’s not let this be a passing movement.

How Common is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment happens more often than we think, a 2015 survey showed 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18-34 say they have been sexually harassed at work. Meanwhile, the number of sexual harassment complaints filed by men in the U.S. has more than tripled in recent years. We tend to forget this issue is affecting more people than we think because the only times we hear about sexual harassment in the news is when people in powerful positions get accused.

Some reports focus on the aggressor, but when victims or survivors are mentioned they are met with scrutiny, victim-blaming and accused of false reporting, thus turning away from the real issue at hand. But once the controversy gets old and a new news cycle begins, we forget that people are dealing with sexual harassment as we speak. Questioning and second guessing a victim’s story is silencing, but speaking out is not as simple as it sounds.

Reporting Sexual Harassment

A 2015 survey showed that 71% of women don’t report sexual harassment, and even fewer bystanders report harassment they have witnessed. Despite the recent reports against a top Hollywood producer, Uber’s CEO and other top executives at Amazon, the number of sexual harassment claims have actually gone down by more than one thousand, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

There are many reasons why victims remain quiet, and a Harvard business review article focused on some of the most common reasons why an overwhelming amount of sexual harassment cases go unreported. The article found three reasons; fear of retaliation, the bystander effect, and a toxic masculine culture that permits sexual harassment.

According to California sexual harassment lawyers, retaliation happens when an employer takes action against you after filing a claim against them. You could get demoted, get salary reduction or face exclusion from staff activities. The bystander effect, a social phenomenon by which witnesses are less likely to help a victim when others are present, is further confounded when a harasser holds a position of power. Bystanders tend to keep quiet with the same fear of losing their jobs or other types of retaliation. If they see no one is taking action, they might think it’s best not to intervene. Although a bystander might want to report what they witness, they may feel that help from just one person won’t make a difference.

shadowed-figure-reaches

In many cases, sexual harassment also goes unnoticed. For women, inappropriate comments and unwarranted flirting is something we are used to dealing with on a daily basis, so when it happens at work, we could easily ignore it or not see it as anything important. This is why speaking on the reasons that keep victims and survivors quiet is so crucial.

I asked John Winer, an attorney at “Winer, Mckenna & Burritt,” a law firm in Oakland California, the most commonly asked questions and answers about sexual harassment that could help victims and survivors speak out. His answers follow below:

What do you need to file a sexual harassment suit?

“Before pursuing a civil suit under California law, you should file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It is important that the complaint specifically identifies the harassment and the perpetrators. If an employee files with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, he or she can ask the agency not to investigate the claim but, rather, immediately issue a right-to-sue letter.

Generally speaking, a plaintiff must file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within one year of the harassing conduct. A plaintiff must file a claim with one of the governing entities before filing a lawsuit. If the sexual harassment has occurred over a long period of time, the plaintiff can sometimes rely on the continuing violation doctrine. Under this doctrine, if it is found to apply, the sexual harassment complaint is timely if any of the discriminatory practices continues into the one-year limitations period.”

I’m scared to report the harassment because I fear that I will be retaliated against or fired. What should I do?

“The California law protections against retaliation for reporting sexual harassment are even stronger than the laws that prevent the harassment from occurring. The law strictly prohibits an employer from retaliating against anyone who has opposed practices of sexual harassment and/or discrimination or has filed a complaint, testified or assisted in any proceeding involving sexual harassment. If the employer retaliates, the employee has yet another cause of action to sue the employer. There has been a recent trend in California cases for employees to receive stronger verdicts for the retaliatory conduct of the employer than for the original sexual harassment.”

Why don’t victims report sexual harassment?

“The main reason is fear, and the fear emanates from many different sources:
● Fear of not being believed
● Fear of retaliation
● Fear of being shamed
● Fear of credibility being attacked
● Fear of being ignored
● Fear of being ostracized in the workplace
● Fear of being accused of “asking for it”
● Fear of the past being exposed
● Fear of losing a job
● Fear of getting another job if it becomes public that they have brought a sexual harassment action.”

What would help victims come forward?

“By far, the most significant factor is a feeling that they are not alone. That there are other victims willing to come forward. That there are witnesses willing to support them. Also, if there is evidence, such as text messages, photos, videos or emails, it emboldens victims to come forward.”

Do you think the current media coverage on sexual harassment is helping victims speak out?

“Yes. There is clearly a movement that has arisen out of the high profile celebrity cases. The women who do come forward are believed; are supported by other women and supported by the media itself. The fact that high profile victim’s such as successful and famous actresses and TV personalities have come forward is empowering women everywhere. I think the feeling is that if these famous women, who have these wonderful careers are willing to risk everything to end sexual harassment, it sends a powerful message to everyone throughout America. It helps women to overcome the 10 fear factors. And other than Donald Trump, the predator lobby has been silenced and overwhelmed by brave woman after brave woman willing to risk careers to end sexual harassment.”

What is the best way companies could prevent sexual harassment?

“The single most important prevention mechanism is for a company to take sexual harassment seriously and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. Every company has sexual harassment policies, but they are meaningless if they aren’t enforced. A company must have an HR department that low level workers can trust to support them rather than the managers and officers in the company. When someone comes forward with a sexual harassment complaint, the assumption must be that they are telling the truth until proven otherwise. That is very rare. Until recently, anyway, the assumption has always been that the victim is lying. No one will come forward if they are not believed and if people don’t come forward, sexual harassment will go unstopped. Also, it is critical that prompt, swift and appropriate action is taken to discipline the harassers. That a zero tolerance policy really means zero tolerance; not, you get a warning or a slap on the wrist this time and next time and next time. A message must be sent to all employees of a company that sexual harassment is taken seriously and a victim coming forward with a righteous claim is a heroine, not a pariah.”

What do you think of the “me too” campaign which is circulating around social media sites?

“I think it is great, because it forms the very basis of the movement that is afoot. A tidal wave of sexual harassment victims willing to come forward is so much more powerful than an individual complaint. Like everything else, there is power in numbers. And coming forward, can be just so empowering, especially in the current atmosphere. Sexual harassment is like anything else. It can’t be stopped while it is a dirty secret. Once it is out in the open and examined, litigated and explored, the power of the perpetrators is minimized while the power of the victims is maximized, whether it is through large verdicts, companies taking the issue seriously, but most important of all, through society in general concluding that this is a problem that is worthy of our attention and must be stopped and ended.”

 

Written by Stephanie Murguia, a consumer safety and health writer with Safer-America. She holds a Journalism degree from California State University Northridge.

 

A Second Look at #MeToo

Part call to action, part show of solidarity, the recent trending of #MeToo serves as a rallying cry to draw attention to the pervasiveness of sexual violence and sexual harassment. The hashtag not only calls attention to the widespread impact of these criminal behaviors, but also builds public support for victims and survivors by showing they are not alone in their experiences (the hashtag was used almost 500,000 times within 24 hours). However, #MeToo is also problematic and potentially even silencing to those it seeks to support.

For some, the public call for disclosures of a personal history of sexual harassment or sexual violence may also carry with it a sense of coercion, which is a key element in experiences of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Forced disclosures may be counterproductive to recovery and healing because it recreates a feeling of disempowerment and lack of control. It is important to let victims and survivors choose when, how, and with whom to share their experiences.

Victims and survivors of sexual harassment and sexual violence are people, not statistics, and their personal stories are not up for public exhibition. No victim ever owes anybody else their story, and no one is ever entitled to hear the stories of survivors. It is a sign of trust, honor, and respect if someone chooses to share their experience with you.

There are countless reasons why someone may not disclose their personal history with sexual harassment or sexual assault. For many, it is not safe. Maybe they still live with their perpetrator and prioritize shelter over emotional well-being. Maybe they are under the age of 18 and don’t have access to support services without parental notification. For others, it may be a matter of feeling securely connected to someone who cares. Maybe they reached out to someone and were met with disbelief or blame. Maybe they were betrayed by their partner and don’t yet feel they can trust anyone else. And for still others, it might not fit the #MeToo rallying call. Maybe they haven’t yet labelled an experience as sexual assault because it doesn’t fit the stereotype of what sexual assault looks like. Maybe they are a male-identified survivor or an LGBTQ survivor, rather than the “women” called upon in the initial tweet.

Whatever the reason, some people may choose to keep their private experiences private, and they have every right to do so. Similarly, those that feel comfortable sharing their story in a public setting have every right to do so. That doesn’t change the long-standing statistics that 1 in 5 women will be raped in her life (1 in 4 will experience rape or attempted rape in a college setting), and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. However, #MeToo brings a personal story into these statistics. People tend to care more when an issue is connected to someone they care about, and #MeToo brings that personal link to the broader issue of sexual violence.

Next time you see a status update about someone’s personal experience with sexual harassment or sexual assault, remember that there is always someone else who does not share their personal experience. Every victim and survivor makes the choice that is best for them and their healing.

Natalie Ziemba is the Hotline Supervisor with MESA, and originally started as a MESA volunteer. She enjoys reading, baking, and nuanced discussions of social justice issues.

Beyond the End of Rape

When a child enacts an undesirable behavior, asking them to just stop said behavior is often dismally ineffective. Instead, if the child is playing with something dangerous, you might offer them a safer toy. We’re more likely to get the behavior change we want by providing appropriate and attractive alternatives and guiding toward the behavior we want to see.

In the sexual violence prevention field, we frame our ultimate goal and message as stopping an undesirable behavior: Men Can Stop Rape, The Project to End Human Trafficking, No More. We are saying ‘Stop!’ We use the anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-violence frame and are crystal clear about what we are against. But how effective are we at communicating what are we for?

This is not splitting hairs. The difference between the negative frame and positive frame is everything. We don’t have people organizing around anti-unwanted-births versus anti-option-to-terminate-pregnancy. Pro-choice and pro-life messaging is much more effective.

Johan Galtung, one of the founders of the field of peacebuilding, developed the concepts of negative peace and positive peace to distinguish between these two frames. Negative peace is simply the absence of violence. A place which is not actively at war or mired in armed conflict can be said to have negative peace. However, positive peace is something much different. According to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., positive peace is not simply the absence of violence, but the presence of justice. To have positive peace, conflicts must be managed and resolved constructively. The needs and interests of all concerned must be legitimized and given respectful attention. Positive peace goes way beyond what is absent, and defines what is present, active, and alive.

The movements for gender equality have done a great deal to raise awareness and educate around issues of sexual violence with the aim of ending the violent behavior. One popular frame to depict the undesirable behavior is the rape culture pyramid, one version of which can be seen here.

rape-culture-pyramid

This pyramid of rape culture shows that explicit violence, including rape, does not appear suddenly from thin air. Rather, explicit violent can and does occur because of the many layers of subtle, normalized violence occurring everyday through language, jokes, humor, media representations, and harassment. When we call for an end to rape culture, we are clear on what not to do; Ending rape culture is our negative peace—stop the violence.

But what are we asking people to do instead? Where are we guiding them? What are the safer, appropriate alternatives that we offer when someone is acting in a way that is bound to end up hurting themselves or others? If a young boy has sought acceptance and companionship with his peers through homophobic jokes, what alternative do we offer him to meet his needs without oppressing others? If a young woman, in her attempt to find security and self-love, makes fun of a girl that’s far from pop culture ideals of beauty, what options do we give her that won’t reproduce the same culture she is suffering from?

If we do end rape culture, what do we want to replace it with?

In February 2016, Nora Samaran gave a profound, comprehensive, holistic answer to what we want post-rape culture which she outlined in “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture.” Nurturance culture is the positive peace in the gender based violence war.

Inspired by Samaran’s concept, below is a complement to the rape culture pyramid—the Nurturance Culture Circles. These concentric circles, borrowed from the “4 I’s of Oppression Lesson” taught in the Peers Building Justice Program, depict 4 interconnected and overlapping layers: (from outer to inner) Ideological, Institutional, Interpersonal, and Internalized/Individual.

nurturance-culture-graphic

In post-rape culture, in nurturance culture, we craft, foster, hone, and value emotional intelligence, self-care and leadership as individuals. On an interpersonal level, we practice and promote empathy, active listening, dialogue, conflict resolution, and active bystanders. On an institutional level, we systematically integrate and legislate for sex education, gender mainstreaming, equal representation, human-centered design, restorative justice, equal pay, and peacebuilding. On an ideological level, we will live in a paradigm based interconnectedness, fluidity, diversity, and valuing nurturance and compassion.

We must ask for more than an end to the violence. We have been raised in a cultural paradigm based on disconnection, control, power, domination, and violence. For many of us who have never known anything besides rape culture, we need to visualize healthy individuals, relationships, communities and institutions and discover better, more just ways of getting our needs met. To end rape and gender based violence, we must go beyond yelling ‘Stop!’, and start modeling, teaching, and building a culture of nurturance.

Written by Sarah Dobson, the Prevention Specialist of Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), a program of Mental Health Partners

“What Do You Do?”

“So what do you do?” This seems like a straightforward, get-to-know you question that ideally leads to further conversation, and has even been recommended as a networking strategy because follow-up questions along this line give the other person the opportunity to elaborate on their strengths, skills and passion for their work. I try to avoid this question because my strengths, skills and passion are more likely to shut down the conversation in most social settings. I have been in the anti-sexual violence field for over a decade, and have yet to figure out how to work this topic smoothly into conversation at any given dinner party, much less as part of small talk while waiting at the check-out counter. I usually hem and haw at first, hoping people will accept my vague references to social work and move on. When they ask for, and I share, more details, I usually run into one of three standard responses:

“Wow, that’s such difficult work! I could never do that.” Yes, this work can be emotionally taxing, but because this work also plays to my aforementioned strengths, skills and passions, it is usually not overwhelming for me (if I keep up with my resilience strategies and support networks). I love it. “Hard work” means something entirely different to me than what I do on a daily basis.  I have yet to discover the perfect response to such statements, so I usually mention something about how amazing all the people are that choose to do this work and how much I learn every day.

“……” or “Well that’s nice. Have you heard about…” This response both easier and harder to handle. It’s easier because people tend to quickly change topics when they feel uncomfortable, and I am relieved of the responsibility to dismantle rape myths, victim blaming, and systems of oppression during the conversation. It is harder because then I am left knowing that I could have done more to make people aware of the issue. Their discomfort makes me uncomfortable and sometimes I take the easy way out because social norms call for it, and this cultural conditioning is tremendously difficult to overcome.

“That happened to me.” Whether I am the first person somebody has ever told or the thousandth, by stating my profession I also declare my identity as a supporter, advocate, ally and safe person. Visibility is important, and by making public this piece of my life, I tell everyone around me that I am available to talk about this taboo subject. All of us have the responsibility to help each other, and these responses are moments when I can set an example for sharing compassion.

While the first two responses are problematic because they dance around the issue of sexual violence without actually addressing it, they stand in contrast to the third response which is asking for validation and recognition. The first two tend to avoid the topic, while the third centers the conversation around it. It seems to me that these are also the default responses at the societal level. Until we can accept the uncomfortable reality that some people do bad things to other people who then must struggle through negative outcomes, we will continue to gloss over the issue of sexual violence and move on to more palatable topics, leaving survivors to find their own path forward with minimal support (if any).

The one exception to that is when I have a dinner party with the amazing people who have chosen to do this work. We share a similar perspective, understanding, and language for discussing sexual violence and these conversations come as naturally to me as any “regular” conversation I might have in my daily life. I feel invigorated and inspired despite overwhelming obstacles, and hopeful that societal conversations will change. Maybe all my dinner party conversations will feel that way one day.

 

Natalie Ziemba is the Hotline Supervisor with MESA, and originally started as a MESA volunteer. She enjoys reading, baking, and nuanced discussions of social justice issues.

Ending Racism is Necessary to End Sexual Violence

The work of ending sexual violence is fundamentally connected to the work of ending racism because both share the same foundation: privilege and oppression. Before digging into this topic a bit deeper, it might be helpful to define these terms first.

  • Privilege – a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantage of most
  • Oppression – the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner

Privilege consists of all the unearned ways that make day-to-day life a bit easier for certain people. It is experienced both at the individual level as well as the systemic level. At the individual level, that may look like the number of books in the residence (house, apartment, shelter, etc.) in which you grew up. At the systemic level, it may be the school district you enter as a child and whether they have programs to provide breakfast in addition to lunch, resources to teach you in your first language, restrooms designated for your gender, and teachers and curricula that reflect your cultural background, in addition to high-quality and accessible extracurricular activities. (I’ll give you a hint: the more those examples applied to you, the more privilege you have).

Oppression exists both in the broad systems and structures of a society such as culture and laws, as well as the individual interactions among people within the same society. These disparities show up in everything from wage and leadership gaps in the paid workforce, to the less tangible and more pervasive attitudes that perpetuate harassment in the workplace and  on the streets. Oppression conveys the notion of which people, bodies and identities have value, and how much value they do or do not have.

So how do anti-sexual violence issues and anti-racism issues overlap? That depends on how you look at these issues. If you look at the issue of rape only through the lens of racism, it may not seem obvious. Racism deals with the color of skin, whereas rape deals with unwanted sexual activity. Layering these lenses broadens our understanding and helps build connections. Both rape and racism are products of our cultural and social history as a country founded on colonialism, slavery, and entitlement. As just one example, slaves were regularly raped and abused in addition to being legally defined as property instead of people, and countless lynchings occurred due to unfounded or downright false allegations of Black men raping white women. Racism and sexual violence have always been intertwined and continue to be so, as seen by higher rates of sexual violence committed against people of color.

Approaching social justice problems as a single-issue problem does not work. At best, a single-issue approach divides the resources, people, and energy striving to create a better future. At worst, it is complicit in the violence and destruction by sowing silence because there is no perceived overlap between “their problem” and “our problem.” It’s on us to be the voice, energy and vision creating a better future in which the intersection of all types of oppression and all types of violence are called out, held accountable, and addressed.

Whether the violence impacts you directly or indirectly, it is important to maintain awareness of the harm done and work to counter the negative impact. This is especially important if the violence impacts you indirectly (I’m looking at us, white allies!). Whereas those directly impacted by the violence have already expended enormous emotional energy toward anger and grief, those who are indirectly impacted have less to lose and more energy to spend on the emotional labor of calling out oppression, raising awareness, and holding people accountable. Moreover, white people are likely safer when taking such actions, and may be more listened to by people in positions of power.

Whether your social justice work focuses on racism or rape, take a moment to think about how one impacts the other. Take another moment to think about how it impacts all other forms of oppression. All social injustice is connected by the underlying oppression that leads to unequal distribution of power and resources, and pits identity groups against each other. We must work together to move forward together, all of us.

Natalie Ziemba is the Hotline Supervisor with MESA, and originally started as a MESA volunteer. She enjoys reading, baking, and nuanced discussions of social justice issues.

Policing the Female Body: The Dress Code

From pre-K to the working world, our bodies are guided and governed by an ever-changing but ever-present set of rules: the dress code.

When students are as young as kindergarten, around six years old, they are already told what they can and cannot wear, and the code—both sanctioned and unspoken—doesn’t ever go away.

When I was 18, I started a job at a grocery store chain. During employee orientation, the trainers handed out nicely-bound rule books and policy manuals. In the section on the dress code, there were two paragraphs: one outlining rules about ponytails, spaghetti straps, and nail polish and a second on armpit hair and body odor. I couldn’t help but wonder why the company decided to organize the list of rules this way. They could have written the rules in one long paragraph. They could have been broken up based on clothes and hygiene. Instead, there were just two paragraphs…and it certainly seemed like one of them was targeting my gender and the other wasn’t.

Aside from the assumptions embedded here concerning what an average man and an average woman look like, there was something else that got my attention … One paragraph was twice as long as the other one!

There were twice as many rules in the section of the dress code that seemed to be regulating women’s appearance as the rules that seemed to apply to their men coworkers. Here are a few examples:

No visible armpit hair.
Limited facial piercings.
Limited visible tattoos.
Hair always pulled back neatly—no wisps or locks falling out!
Straps on all shirts must be “three fingers” wide.
Shorts must reach the bottoms of the fingertips.
No excessive makeup.
No excessive body odor.
No yoga pants; bottoms must have belt loops and back pockets to be considered acceptable.
No fingernail polish.

Some of these apply to all genders, and some I agree with. I won’t argue with rules related to basic food safety and hygiene. But some of these rules I have trouble justifying. Why is it important how wide or thin a woman’s straps might be, or the length of her shorts?

While I could just grumble about not being able to find a single pair of “acceptable” shorts, I choose to look a little deeper and question why so many rules exist in the first place. Could it be because my body, as a woman’s, is seen as inherently sexual, and must be covered to preserve my modesty? Perhaps it is my duty, as a sexual object, to do everything in my power to shield everyone from the distraction that is my physical body.

That is the same logic that contributes to rape culture overall and victim blaming.

When a girl is wearing a low-cut shirt and gets catcalled on the street, what did she expect, wearing something like that?

If she is at a party, wearing that same low-cut shirt, and gets raped, did she expect it then? Was she asking for it?

The dress code is just one small manifestation of rape culture. From the age of six, sometimes younger, girls’ physical appearances and expression are strictly regulated, whether informally, in the victim-blaming comments like the ones above, or formally, with a dress code. The dress code, seemingly insignificant when compared to explicit sexual violence, contributes to the same rape culture that regulates the feminine appearance and asserts that women’s bodies do not belong to them.

Written by Claire Cuthbert, MESA Intern and graduate of CU Boulder in Psychology and Spanish

Consent: It’s Not Really as Simple as Tea

Although the popular video urges its audience to think about consent in simpler terms, on a case-by-case basis, the dilemma is much more fraught than we are lead to believe.

Now, the very basic issues of consent are clear to most people. We all know the rules. No means no. Yes means yes. But what happens when a verbal “no” is never uttered? What happens when a yes only comes after alcohol is introduced into the situation? It is easy to understand how the topic quickly gets muddied.

Our widespread confusion about consent is writ large in the US media. Just look at the abundance of public sex assault cases in summer of 2017. Sometimes, it even shows up in our laws. Currently in North Carolina, the law states that someone cannot revoke consent in a sexual encounter once they have given it. It is the last of 50 states to maintain such a provision in its legal code, but it provides some insight into how sex and consent are viewed in the rest of the country, too.

The North Carolina law is based on a legal precedent (State vs. Way) set in 1979 that decided that once penetration with consent occurs consent cannot be revoked. Even at first glance, this seems like a drastic simplification of the intricacies involved in any sexual encounter, or in any encounter, period. Situations change, and so do attitudes—so why write obligatory, assumed, continued consent into law?

To continue using the “Consent is like Tea” metaphor to understand the dangers of North Carolina’s law, imagine that someone offered you tea and you said “yes.” So, you take a sip, but it’s boiling hot and burns your tongue. Or maybe it’s a flavor that you don’t like. Or it’s over-steeped and bitter. Or over-sweetened. Or there’s too much of it to possibly finish in one sitting. Or any other million reasons why you don’t want to keep drinking the tea. Are you still required to keep drinking the tea? Of course not—the very idea seems absurd. Why, then, is it so much harder to use this logic when it comes to sexual assault?

Luckily, NC Senator Jeff Jackson has proposed to change this misinformed and outdated law. In April, he introduced Senate Bill 553, which states that if someone continues after consent has been withdrawn, they are committing rape. Several months have passed since Jackson’s proposal and more than 17,500 people have signed a petition against the original, archaic law, but the bill is still sitting in committee.

Short of changing laws like Senator Jackson aims to do, how can we honor affirmed, informed, continued consent before it becomes a criminal case in court? Part of the reason that consent—when it regards sex—is so complicated is because honest and open discussions about sex are considered a taboo. How can we talk about consensual sex if we can’t even talk about sex?!

It all begins with communication. For you and the person or people that you’re with… Try starting a conversation with some questions like: What are you okay with? What are your boundaries? How do you express when you like what’s happening? When you don’t? What do you need to feel comfortable trying something new? What will you do or say if you want to stop?

If imagining this is uncomfortable as hell, that’s totally normal! It may not seem like the most important thing when all parties involved are on the same page, but that mutual understanding can change pretty quickly. And when it does, most of us do not have the tools to talk about sex or consent. So, it’s awkward.

But you know what’s worse than an awkward conversation? Sexual assault. And the difference between sex and sex assault lies in consent. So, be brave and have honest conversations about sex. Consent may never be as simple as tea, but it will be a lot easier if we move past our fears and discomfort and just start talking to each other.

Written by Claire Cuthbert, MESA Intern and graduate of CU Boulder in Psychology and Spanish.

How Many Victims Does It Take to Convict a Celebrity Rapist?

Apparently, more than 50.

One of the big questions around sexual assault and rape culture is the following: Why don’t victims report? Why do they remain silent?

There are many reasons that contribute to the decision not to report, but there is a common thread that connects many of them. Victims and survivors remain silent because we, as a society, are silent. When it comes time to uphold justice and indict criminals, we are silent. When it comes time to speak out against rape culture and all the ways it manifests itself, we are silent. When we see victim-blaming or predatory behavior before our own eyes, often, we are silent.

And our silence speaks louder than any campaign—louder than “It’s on Us”, “Take Back the Night”, “He for She”, or Sexual Assault Awareness Month (every April).

Let’s consider the Bill Cosby trial. On June 17, 2017, the case surrounding Bill Cosby’s sexual assault of one woman, Andrea Constand, was declared a mistrial. This represents only one of a long list of famous men accused of similar crimes who never spent a day in prison: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, R. Kelly… The list goes on.

Now, a mistrial is not the same thing as acquittal; in fact, the prosecution in the Cosby case has announced that they plan to set another court date within 120 days. Constand, one of the many women who accused Cosby of sexual assault and the only woman who the trial focused on, announced that she felt a new resolve, a new desire to push forward and seek definite answers.

Another important consideration is that, although Cosby has been accused of sexual assault by more than 50 women, Constand’s accusation was the only one that fell within the criminal statute of limitations—the amount of time after a crime is committed when the case can still be prosecuted. Therefore, 49 of those 50 cases could not be considered in court.

Some who have been following the case may ask, “How is it possible for more than 50 women to speak out against the same man, and for him not spend a single day in prison?” Others are caught up in other questions. “Why didn’t the women speak out earlier, before the statute of limitations for their cases expired?”

The issue of reporting assaults years after they occur and of not reporting assaults at all is something that is brought up frequently, usually to question the validity of the reports that do get filed. However, for those working to end sexual assault, it is not all that puzzling why so many people decide to say nothing.

The hung jury in the Cosby case gives us an indication. To come forward, to bear the brunt of skepticism and victim blaming, to be thrown into the spotlight for one of the most terrible moments of your life and to see no traditional justice served at the end of the long ordeal—that’s (one of the many reasons) why.

Imagine that someone close to you has been sexually assaulted by a person who has a great reputation. They are a leader in the community; maybe they are even famous. To report, this loved one may face police officers that are skeptical at best as to “what really happened.” They may have to remain resolved in the face of questions about what they were wearing. Did they they lead the perpetrator on? How much did they have to drink? Then, time passes. From the date of a major criminal accusation, it takes at least a year for a case to go to trial. For Andrea Constand, it took more than ten. Then, your loved one finally goes to court. They might hear the defense speak about their character and their private sexual experiences in front of a room full of strangers, not all of them friendly. And then, finally, nothing. No resolution. No verdict of guilty or not guilty. All the time and energy spent are not denied, but rather put on the back burner, left to cool and collect dust.

For many people, this is not just some imaginative exercise. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), of every 1000 rapes, 994 rapists will walk free.

When we see this repeated failure to convict perpetrators of sexual assault, to believe victims and survivors, to deliver justice, it is not so hard to understand why so many people—between 60-80%, according to studies done by organizations like RAINN and The National Research Council—find it simpler, smarter, and safer to say nothing at all.

Our institutions are still poorly equipped to provide survivors with support and justice. But, there are grassroots organizations around the country pushing for changes in law, policy, and compassionate care for victims and survivors of sexual violence. Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), which serves Boulder and Broomfield counties, is just one of the countless rape crisis centers that provides confidential case management and in-person advocacy for survivors as well as implementing prevention education programs with youth to teach about consent, healthy relationships, bystander intervention, and healthy masculinity.

While the voices of the 50 women who stepped forward to accuse Cosby did not convict him this time, it does seem like the tide of public opinion is turning. With each new story and harrowing case, it gets that much harder to let the next perpetrator of sexual violence walk free.

So, let’s not question why victims and survivors of sexual assault don’t report. There are complex and varied reasons. Let us ask ourselves instead: “What are we doing to make our community safer? How do we get justice and support for those who have been harmed? What are we doing to hold the people who have committed violence accountable?”

When victims and survivors speak out: listen. Believe and stand by them. And when they choose not to: feel compassion for their choice. Keep standing, speaking out, and moving to end sexual assault.

Written by Claire Cuthbert, MESA Intern and graduate of CU Boulder in Psychology and Spanish.