Appearances are Everything: Nagasu, Wagner, and Cluelessness

By Maureen Boyd and Pattie Gillett

Over the last few days, the selection of Ashley Wagner over Mirai Nagasu has occupied casual and avid skating fans alike with charges of racism tainting the US Figure Skating Association’s Women’s Olympic Figure Skating team selection.

If you only watched last week’s competition, you saw two-time champion Ashley Wagner fall twice and finish her long program tentatively following her mediocre short program. She did not receive a standing ovation and the crowd seemed to clap out of sympathy, more than anything else.

Fans then saw 2008 champion and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu skate with few, if any, visible mistakes and receive a standing ovation from the crowd.

The evening ended with Gracie Gold taking the gold medal, Polina Edmunds the silver, Nagasu the bronze, and Wagner the pewter (a fourth place medal that is only issued at US Nationals).

At a press conference shortly after noon on the following day, Pat St. Peter, the head of USFSA, announced that Gold, Edmunds, and Ashley Wagner would be competing in the Sochi Olympics. Mirai Nagasu, despite her superior performance, would not be representing Women’s Figure Skating at Sochi.

Fans in the Twitterverse exploded with the hashtag #MiraiEarnedIt. WSJ writer Jeff Yang wrote a scathing commentary that seemed to capture the widespread and quite understandable perception that “with Wagner, silver winner Polina Edmunds and gold medalist Gracie Gold (talk about central casting fantasies!), the U.S.A. will be taking to the ice with a porcelain-skinned, blond-tressed triple-threat, any of whom will unleash a geyser of sponsorship money.”

While USFSA has almost always picked the top skaters at Nationals to make up the US Olympic team they are not required to do so. USFSA bylaws state that the skater’s “body of work” – including performance in events in the previous year – will also be factors in determining selection to the team. Defenders of USFSA’s decision point out that Wagner’s performance in all of these previous competitions surpassed Nagasu’s.

Yet, even this argument seems specious: as one fan pointed out, if one applies the body of work criteria to the entirety of the team, Polina Edmunds should have been bumped by Nagasu, whose body of work was superior to hers.

The decision and circumstances were also unprecedented in the entire history of US Olympic skating. Only four other times have the top finishers at Nationals not been named to the Olympic team: Todd Eldredge in 1992, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, pairs Jenni Meno and Todd Sand in 1998 and Michelle Kwan in 2006. All failed to perform in Nationals because of various injuries, yet were awarded spots on the Olympic teams.

And the leadership of the USFSA, Pat St. Peter and her advisors, clearly anticipated how fans might respond to their radical break with tradition. St. Peter was armed with defensive, tone-deaf talking points that appeared in an even more tone-deaf press release posing as an article on the Team USA website: “We have selection guidelines in place, that are vetted through the athlete’s committee and vetted through the USOC,… This competition is not the only event U.S. Figure Skating considers in selecting the team” and “If you look over the course of the last year plus at Ashley Wagner’s credentials, she has the top credentials of any of our female [single skater] athletes…That is why we made the decision we did, and our guidelines are posted on the USOC site.” St. Peter’s last line, “our guidelines are posted on the USOC site,” reeks of a disdain for public perception that gets to the heart of the matter:

It doesn’t matter what the bylaws say, if Nagasu’s performance was superior to Wagner’s, or if Wagner’s body of work was superior to Nagasu’s. What matters is that it did not even occur to USFSA officials to consider the obvious appearance of racism that would result from their decision to pass over a woman of color for a blonde haired, blue eyed woman. Or, if it did occur to them, they simply didn’t care. In either case, USFSA leadership displayed an astounding level of cluelessness that looks a lot like white privilege.

It’s hard to know what Pat St. Peter’s experience with people of color is, or whether or not she knows what white privilege is. People who unconsciously possess white privilege operate with a blithe certainty in and about the world: they do not experience being passed over for promotion because of the color of their skin, and thus do not concern themselves with what being passed over on the basis of skin color might look, feel or sound like. Because racism is not a daily lived reality for the person of unconscious white privilege (PUWP), the PUWP doesn’t factor in even the possibility of racism into her decision-making process, or if she does, she dismisses it, at some level, as a trivial concern.

Pat St. Peter’s dismissive comments, NBC Winter Olympics television ads already featuring Ashley Wagner prior to the decision, and the USFSA’s ongoing silence about the specter of racism* all suggest that a whole lotta PUWPs are making the decisions at the USFSA. And while the intentions of the USFSA officials may actually be purely based on a calculus of who will win the most medals at Sochi, the effect has been to create a perception, and thus a climate, that can only be perceived as racist by any person of color. When any set of decision-makers acts from a place of unconscious white privilege they necessarily re-create the climate of white privilege they hail from. That’s a climate that will be constitutionally defined by ignorance of, and insensitivity to, the concerns of people of color—concerns intertwined with experiences of racist bias. Perhaps this is why even devoted fans of US figure skating would be hard pressed to name more than two or three African American and Latino skaters to make it into the sport’s top ranks over the past thirty years.

And how does this climate of white privilege in U.S. women’s figure skating impact the women’s community that skaters, their devoted fans, the judges and other women in the sport have come to embody?

In the male dominated sports media the discourse around figure-skating and it’s spangled, make-up wearing athletes is that they and their “crazy” (read: female and feminine) sport have never been legit. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan fiasco, a“crazy” women’s figure-skating conflict that occurred between two white women of very different class positions. Some media outlets are gleefully representing the Nagasu/Wagner controversy as another example of Harding/Kerrigan-style antics that epitomizes the “hysterics” of the sport.

The only way female athletes can successfully combat the sexism that continues to exist in the world of professional sports is through solidarity between white women and women of color. All female figure-skaters– white women and women of color alike– are damaged by the insulting and derisive reduction of this sport to a series of hysterical and dramatic episodes. The clueless decisions of a few PUWPs in the USFSA are perpetuating this stereotype of women’s figure skating and sowing divisiveness in a sport that needs to remember that there are young girls of color out there, dreaming of one day becoming another Nagasu.

*The USFSA has posted a response to Jeff Yang’s story.  While some acknowledgement of fan concerns about racial bias is an improvement, we find the statement defensive in tone. We also think the fact that the Olympics team is 25% Asian American does not negate the fact that the sport as a whole lacks racial diversity.   Jeff Yang posted has also posted a rebuttal.  His rebuttal states that he did not accuse the USFSA of discrimination on the basis of race, but rather made a decision based on marketability that is embedded in racialized ideals of American-ness.


Fast Food Strike: Tired of Living in McPoverty


by Jen Giacalone

People, I promise you, I really don’t normally have a beef with MSNBC’s Chris Jansing.  She usually does a yeoman’s job (yeo-woman’s?) of covering the news.  But when she was interviewing one of the leaders of the striking fast food workers the other day, I was doing an awful lot of yelling at the television.

“So, a lot of teachers only make $16 an hour,” she asked him,  “what makes you guys feel that you’re worth $15?”

No, Chris, no.  First of all, this plays right into that old Jay Gould chestnut, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”  Second of all, it ignores the bigger systemic issue with not only income inequality in general, but the gender-based pay gap and the troubling matter that so many women “choose” to go into low paying fields.  One wonders if the fields pay so little precisely because so many women are drawn to them.

The guest, to his credit I suppose, didn’t get sucked into pitting the value of fast food workers against that of teachers, but he also (frustratingly!) missed the opportunity to point out that, actually, teachers generally also ought to be valued more highly and paid better than they are.

The income inequality in America is getting to be so bad that even that bastion of socialist thought, The Wall Street Journal, is saying, “Hey guys… maybe this keeping all the money for ourselves isn’t such a great idea after all because it’s like, causing instability or something.”  It’s been said, but bears repeating, that if minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since the Johnson administration, minimum wage would be about $20/hr.  Cast in that light, the $15/hr the fast food workers want doesn’t sound like so much.  A girl could pay her own bills on that.  Probably.

But oh, the hue and cry!  And I’m not even talking about from the Stuart Varneys and other Right Wing Business News “spewing-heads” of the world with their disregard/disdain for humanity.  I’m talking about other lower wage workers.  I recently had an argument with a dialysis technician who, in her current job, with something like seven years of experience, does not yet make $15/hr.  And rather than looking at the organizing fast food workers and thinking, “Hey, that’s a good idea,” she looks at them and thinks, “Hey, who are they to think they should get paid more than me for flipping burgers?”  There’s no making the point that maybe the fast food workers getting paid $15/hr is good for her, because it strengthens her case.  She can say to her employers, “Look, the burger flippers at McDonalds are making $15, you have to do better by me or I’m going to leave to go flip burgers at McDonald’s.”

When I pressed her about this, she said, “Well, when I became a dialysis tech, they told us we weren’t going to get rich doing it, it was something we were doing because we loved it.”  Now look, there’s lots of professions you can say that about.  If you are a jazz musician playing in a club, fine.  If you are an anthropology graduate assistant living your dream of studying the mating habits of the wild Bortok Igorot tribesmen of Polynesia, fine.  If you hold people’s lives in your hands… uh, no. You should get paid as if you hold people’s lives in your hands.

There is a systematic undervaluation of professions where women are heavily represented: whether it’s fast food work (skews female by 13% among adult workers), teaching (70% women) or nursing (over 90%), the pay is often not enough to really live comfortably on, or accurately reflect the value of the work.  And we tolerate it.  When I say we, I don’t refer to myself.  I’m fortunate enough to be extraordinarily well paid for what I do.  I mean “we” as women, and “we” as a society.  We say, “That’s the way it is.” In class-obsessed, status-conscious America, people can often be caught in the trap of determining their worth as a person according to what they are paid.  It’s a natural consequence then, that someone looks at a less-skilled job and resents those workers for having the nerve to ask to be paid better.  Case in point, the dialysis tech I was arguing with; but you see this attitude reflected all over social media, even from supposed “progressives.”

It comes to this:  every last low-wage worker, in every industry, should be cheering the fast food strikers, but most especially women in these kinds of underpaid, under-appreciated but deeply vital fields.  It’s the first step to demanding human dignity and, in our class-obsessed society, respect.  Get it together, ladies.  The fast food workers are striking for you, too.

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I Don’t Want to Hear About Your Domestic Violence. Oh, Wait, Are You Famous?

by Jen Giacalone

Zimmerman-wink-300I promised myself I wasn’t going to talk about George Zimmerman.  The sight of the guy’s face generally makes me near-apoplectic, and that’s on a good day.  How you shoot an unarmed kid in the chest and walk away with nothing, not even a month’s community service picking up trash by the freeway, is beyond me.  But this other problem has been burning in my brain since we shared the story of his most recent brush with the law.

To recap briefly, his current girlfriend called 911 during a dispute with him, in which she says he smashed her coffee table and then pointed a gun at her.  A shotgun.  Nothing says I love you like a twelve-gauge to the chest, I suppose.  This scene quickly escalated into dueling 911 calls, in which he appears to sound calm and reasonable, explaining that he didn’t really point anything at her, and that she actually broke the coffee table, not him.  The world is full of miserable relationships between crazy people of various genders.  Of course none of us were there, so we don’t really know, but if this were a dispute between any couple in the world that didn’t have the baggage of George Zimmerman, we’d probably be more hesitant to hazard a guess.

But it wasn’t any other couple.  It was George Zimmerman and his girlfriend.  It was the guy who was, only a few months ago, picked up for allegedly pointing a loaded gun at his wife and father-in-law.  He claims the father-in-law attacked him, and again, we’ll never know.  In any other situation, with any other people, with the limited information that we get as “the public”, it would probably have been hard to tell.

But here’s the thing:  we don’t hear about many of the other situations.  We hear about George Zimmerman’s domestic abuse raps because he’s a famous killer.  That’s what the press finds interesting about him.  He killed an unarmed kid in what surely looked to my untrained eye like a racially motivated attack.   He’s either lionized or demonized for that act depending on who you talk to.  That’s what makes him so fascinating to the people who decide what’s news.

He had a very high profile trial, he walked free when a lot of people felt he should have done time for what he did, and now the media is obsessed with his every move and using every idiotic scrape he has with the justice system to continue to stoke the outrage around him and fuel the speculation over whether his trial was botched or not.

But as we prepare to relive that outrage one more time, it’s also worth remembering that the only reason his domestic violence stories are worth the press’s time is because of who he is.  Because he’s George Zimmerman.  And when we hear about his speeding tickets, or how he gets caught with weed in his glove box, or waves a gun around inappropriately, or whatever insane, stupid, bench-ticket-worthy offense he may commit, that coverage is sucking time and attention away from domestic abuse situations that DON’T involve George Zimmerman.  The literally thousands of domestic violence situations every single day that don’t involve George Zimmerman.

Of course I’m outraged that this guy is still allowed to walk around, still allowed to own a gun, still allowed to enjoy the life and liberty that he stole from Trayvon Martin.  Of course.

But I’m also just as outraged that someone like him, of all people, is what it takes to get domestic violence talked about in the mainstream media.  You have to be famous, or infamous, for people to care.  And even then:  Saatchi choking Nigella Lawson in a restaurant earned him a “warning” from the London police (“Stop!  Or I’ll say stop again!”), and the long list of scary ways Charlie Sheen has terrorized women seems to get a shrug from, well, everyone.  A lot of people conveniently forget Mel Gibson’s history with terrorizing and verbally abusing his girlfriend, or else chalk it up to him being a “a little nuts”.  Chris Brown still has a career.  It’s another day in America.  We don’t have an organization at the national level advocating for this cause, the way that, say, breast cancer does.  So not enough people with serious clout are working the media on it.  Nobody’s feeding them the real stories, or explaining to them how to handle it.

Zimmerman’s a celebrity of sorts, his antics are click-bait, and I get that if you are a media outlet, you have to get eyeballs to pay the bills and keep the lights on.  I’m not saying the press should never report on the abusive behavior of famous people; that would amount to enabling.  But it’s deeply problematic when that’s the only time you hear about it.  Domestic violence then becomes this salacious thing that happens to celebrities.  So, if I could say one thing to the wizened grey heads at say, CNN, it would be this:  if you care about domestic violence as an issue, how about covering it like journalists?  There are plenty of tabloids to chase dirt.  Why not devote some space and time to the other hundreds of thousands of people who are suffering with this anonymously every day?

It’s just a thought.

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Why Identity Politics Works (Except When It Doesn’t)

Guest Blogger Dave Thomer explains how he picked a candidate to support in the PA Gubernatorial race.  (Hint: It's NOT this guy, current Governor Tom Corbett)

Guest Blogger Dave Thomer explains how he picked a candidate to support in the PA Gubernatorial race.
(Hint: It’s NOT this guy, current Governor Tom Corbett)

I’m a Philadelphia resident who teaches in the Philadelphia public schools and has been married to WRUN Admin Pattie for the last 14 years. So you are probably not surprised to hear that I am rather eager to see Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett defeated in 2014. I am optimistic that the Democratic nominee will be able to defeat Corbett, but first there is the significant issue of choosing said Democratic nominee. I spent a large chunk of today trying to decide if I would donate to any of the candidates before the July 31st filing deadline, and wrote about that process at my site, This Is Not News. I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss how gender factored into my decision. All things being equal, I would like to support a female candidate for the nomination. But at this stage of the campaign, I found myself unable to do so.

Let me tackle both parts of that process. Why did I go into the process hoping that I could find a woman to support? Part of the answer is pure political calculation. There is usually a significant gender gap in support of the Democratic and Republican parties, and I believe that a qualified female candidate could widen that gap in the Democrats’ favor. In the specific case of Corbett, his position on reproductive choice and his comments about women closing their eyes during trans-vaginal ultrasounds might not be the primary reasons for his low approval ratings. But they are certainly not helping, and a strong female candidate should be able to vividly demonstrate how absurd and out of touch Corbett’s positions are. As I mentioned, I really want to see Corbett defeated. So if a woman gives the Democratic Party a better chance to do that, I would like to pick that woman.

The larger reason, however, is that when we vote for someone we are not selecting a policy automaton who will make political decisions based on some set of formal algorithms. We are electing a person who is going to make judgment calls, and sometimes that judgment is going to be based on the personal experiences that make each one of us different. I have written before about how important empathy is for a functioning democracy. It is important for each of us to try to look at the world from another person’s point of view, and understand how our choices will affect them. It is important that every citizen believe that the people in their government are trying to understand the consequences of the policies they they propose.

In order for empathy to really work, we have to be exposed to as many different perspectives as we can. With all the good will in the world, I can not imagine the perspectives and experiences of others who come from different backgrounds. I need to listen to them when they speak. I need to read them when they write. I need to spend time with them in order to know them as people so that my imagination has something to work with when I try to be empathetic. It is a lot easier to hear and learn about different experiences when there are leaders who have had those experiences. It is a lot harder to avoid hearing and learning about them as well. I would point to President Obama’s comments about Trayvon Martin as an example.

On the flip side, empathy only goes so far. There are things that I understand at a deeper level because I experienced them. So when you have a job like the governor, which can only be held by one person at a time, it is inevitable that there will be some issues and concerns that the governor understands at a personal level and some that he or she does not. As long as the governor is trying to reach beyond his or her own experiences, that is fine. But what can be harmful is if one governor after another has the same basic background and perspective. The government will wind up institutionalizing that one perspective, and others will be lost. There have only been a total of 36 female governors in the entire history of the United States. There are currently only five in office. Pennsylvania has never had one. So in the abstract, before I look at individual candidates, I can see a strong reason to want a governor who can bring a personal experience of the issues facing women to the office.

Some people might question me generalizing that women and men have different experiences, such that I would assume that a woman has understanding of something that I assume a man is lacking. Don’t those assumptions work against the idea of equality? Wouldn’t it be better if I just took a bunch of resumes, biographies, and policy statements, then stripped them of all reference to gender, and picked the best one? Well, besides the fact that such a process is practically impossible, I believe that equality requires recognizing and affirming differences. From a pure biological standpoint, women and men will have to deal with health issues that are not identical. I think that’s a relevant difference when you think of the impact that a governor can have on health care policy.

Beyond that, as much as I would like to say that we live in a world that is free of gender stereotyping (as well as stereotyping based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on), the truth is that we do not live in that world yet. Lots of people treat men and women differently. That means that men and women will experience the world in different ways.

Here’s a personal example. When our daughter was born, I was in graduate school working on my dissertation. Pattie had a full time job that provided the bulk of our income, not to mention our health insurance. So Pattie went back to work and I stayed home to watch our daughter while I did my research and writing. At work, many of Pattie’s female coworkers assumed that she was going to quit her job as soon as possible in order to be a stay at home parent. Meanwhile, I took our daughter with me to take care of some paperwork at the university, and a couple of people made comments like, “Oh look, Daddy’s taking care of you for the day!” We each fought against the expectations people had based on our gender, and I’d say that Pattie had the more aggravating fight to deal with.

If you want a more substantial example in the policy world, look at what people are saying about Janet Yellin and whether she has what it takes to be the chairperson of the Federal Reserve. Men can and should be empathetic to that kind of stereotyping. But we should also have leaders who have faced and overcome it personally, to help create a new culture where the next generation of leaders will not have to face the same obstacles.

So that’s why, all things being equal, I would like to support a woman to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor. (Feel free to bookmark this post, come back in 18 months, and do a search-and-replace to change to “governor” to “president.”) And yet, at the end of the day, I’ve chosen to support John Hanger. How can I do that in light of everything I have just written?

Well, that’s where the “all things being equal” comes in. Background and biography are important, but they are not a blank check. I have to have the sense that the candidate will use that background to try to implement policies that I support. Hanger has just done so much more than the other candidates to define his positions that the other candidates look much poorer in comparison. I absolutely love former environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty’s resume and biography. But she barely mentions education at all on her campaign website, and even her environmental policies are vague. I want her to step up her game. If by January, she’s laid out proposals that are even close to Hanger’s on the critical education and economic issues facing the state, I will happily change my support.

In the end, I think that this shows where “identity politics” factors into my thinking. It’s important to evaluate candidates based on their qualifications and proposals. But when deciding between candidates who have cleared that bar, establishing greater diversity in government is a virtue that can legitimately push one qualified candidate ahead of another.

Dave Thomer is a teacher, adjunct professor and blogger from Philadelphia. He blogs at www.notnews.org


Where the Action Is: A Primer on State Legislatures


“Tonto! Someone in Virginia is receiving oral sex! Quick! Round up the braves!”

by Admin Jen

I was chatting recently with a friend who runs a rather large & popular liberal-leaning Facebook page. I asked her who her state representatives were. She named her Congressman and United States Senator. I said, “No no, your state legislators. The people who vote on stuff in your statehouse, that your governor has to sign.” She had no idea. And this was someone who is pretty passionate about politics, and really pays attention.

But she pays attention only at the national level, and it’s a common mistake. Now, it’s not that national politics don’t matter. After all, it’s not going to be your mayor declaring war on Afghanistan or authorizing bailouts of collapsing foreign governments. But that stuff is half important, half dog & pony show, and half Coliseum blood sport. (I realize that’s three halves. That tells you more about our national politics than it does about my brain, OK?)

The real action is in your state legislature. In case you were unsure, your state legislature is the gang of people that make and pass the bills that your governor signs into law. This is an entirely different gang from the one that marches off to Congress and the U.S. Senate, to argue and mostly not pass bills for President to sign into law.

State legislatures are often vastly more entertaining than Congress and the Senate. They are home to a great deal of really loopy legislation, probably because they think nobody’s paying much attention. And they’re right. Our totally unscientific WRUN poll showed that half of you have no idea who your state legislators are. It almost seems like they count on this: note how many legislatures are tucked away in the middle of nowhere, far from the large cities with lots of actual people in them (Harrisburg, PA? Albany, NY, anyone?). This is how you get real “put-your-feet-up-and-have-some-popcorn” type fun, like Kentucky’s law, “One may not dye a duckling blue and offer it for sale unless more than six are for sale at once.” Or Tennessee’s HB1783, which makes it illegal to share your Netflix password. Until recently, in Montana, if seven Native American Girl Scouts approached you trying to sell you thin mints, it would have been legal to shoot them, because more than six was legally considered an Indian raiding party. Kudos, Big Sky State, for catching up to the 19th century!

But don’t get lulled into the false sense of security that your state legislatures are all fun and games and Indian raiding parties. State legislatures are also, as Jon Stewart referred to them, the “meth labs of democracy,” wherein crazy people are able to run amok on issues that actually matter. North Dakota recently went wild with a sort of “Tough Mudder” style obstacle course of anti-abortion legislation; banning abortions at six weeks, banning abortions for sex selection and genetic disorders, banning them again at 20 weeks just in case you somehow made it past the other bans… while also defunding sex education for homeless teens. Because nothing says “it’s important to prevent abortions” like refusing to teach kids how not to get pregnant in the first place.

Members of North Carolina’s legislature recently tried to establish Christianity as the state religion, in total defiance of that pesky First Amendment. Texas, in its zeal to reduce abortions, cut off funding to any clinic that even looked like it might have ever had anything to do with Planned Parenthood, and in the process, cut thousands of low-income rural and urban women off from their contraceptives; they are now scratching their heads in puzzlement a year later as their tab for Medicaid births goes through the roof. Arizona gave us the “show us your papers” law (which was challenged and partially struck down by the Supreme Court), not only making racial profiling mandatory, but making it possible for the citizenry to sue the police if they didn’t feel the police were being racial-profile-y enough. That was a few years before the law that made it totally legal and fine for a doctor to lie to his pregnant patient about her pregnancy if he thinks the truth might cause her to abort. Genetic abnormality? Non-viable fetus? Potentially deadly tubal pregnancy? Too bad.

Michigan’s legislature handed the governor the authority to toss out any duly elected official of a financially troubled municipal body (that could be a mayor, a school board president, etc) and install a person or CORPORATION of his/her choice. Then they gave the world “right to work” (or, “legalized union-busting”) laws, and the baffling decision that you need a tax credit for a fetus but an actual born child… eh, not so much.

Meanwhile, Virginia has legislated against all sex except that between men and women, in the missionary position. I’m not sure you’re even allowed to have the lights on; you’ll have to check with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

And Wisconsin? I can’t even talk about Wisconsin. Just go google “horrible laws passed under Governor Scott Walker” and try your best not to stab your eyes out.

Now, it’s not all bad news. Some lawmakers in places like Texas and South Carolina are trying to introduce laws saying that sex education classes have to contain actual correct information. I know, please try to contain yourselves. South Carolina’s is still too new to know what will happen (we’re hopeful as it was introduced by two Republicans), and Texas’s attempt at this didn’t pass (#headdesk), but still, you kind of have to applaud the effort. Enough state legislatures have decided to recognize marriage equality that it sort of qualifies as a movement. Washington and Colorado have legalized marijuana for recreational use. I’m still trying to figure out why we haven’t moved there yet.

And with all that, still, at least half of you have no idea who’s representing you in matters of everyday importance in your state. So, for Pete’s sake. Find out! Show up and vote in those races. Find out who your state senators and/or assemblymen are and write them, call them, or stop by their office and tell them what you want from them. They probably have one in your neighborhood, by the very nature of the job, and they have to listen to you. You’re a constituent, and they need to know what you want in order to do their jobs properly. Otherwise they’re just left to their own devices.

And I think we’ve seen enough about what kinds of shenanigans go on when that happens: racial profiling, defunded sex education, and illegal blue ducklings.

Please. Find your legislators here, at this link:

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Feminist Fact Friday – 5 Ways To Get Girls Inspired About STEM

Everywhere you look these days (and especially if you work in education) people are talking about STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM careers, STEM job creation, STEM college majors… And with good reason. Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math tend to be in high demand and provide lucrative compensation. They have also tended to be male-dominated. Many people argue that the gender-wage gap is at least partly a result of the under-representation of women in these fields.


Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American woman in space.
Photo credit: NASA

If we going to close this gap, part of the solution will be attracting more girls and women to these careers. But how? One major tactic is a take on the adage “If you can see it, you can be it.” Dr. Mae Jemison, former NASA astronaut and the first African American woman in space once wrote that she was inspired to apply to NASA by seeing actress Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. These days, girls are lucky that they don’t have to limit their sources of inspiration to fictional characters. There are already many smart and successful women working in these fields who can inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Here are 5 cool ways women are working to get girls and young women excited about STEM:

Women@NASA – Formed in conjunction with the creation of the White House Council on Women and Girls, this program’s website contains essays, bios, and videos of women working in various divisions at NASA. They tell stories of how they were inspired to work in their fields (most of which are science-related), what obstacles they faced, and thank the people who mentored their careers. They are single mothers, former political refugees, women who left other careers after discovering their passion for science later in life, PhDs who moonlight as musicians, athletes, and more.  Not all of these women attended elite universities. NASA’s outreach now includes recruiting male and female employees who started their education at community college STEM programs (as one of the scientists on the Mars Rover team did). Women@NASA is a great tool for skewering the perception of what a “typical scientist” looks like and it’s worth sharing with any child who shows an interest in science or the space program.

Aspire 2 Inspire and NASA GIrls/NASA Boys – These two related programs from NASA aim to extend the reach of the Women@NASA program into communities and homes. First, Aspire 2 Inspire (A2I) created a series of short films about the most innovative work being done in STEM fields at NASA and elsewhere to give students an idea of what these careers are like. Secondly, A2I provides age-appropriate materials to schools, museums, and other local groups so they can recruit science-loving kids to work on projects together, building their skills. NASA Girls/NASA Boys pairs middle school students of both genders with NASA employees for a five-week mentoring program conducted via Google Chat or Skype. (Admit it, grownups, you wish you could apply. Sorry, grades 5 through 8 only.)

Sally Ride Science – Founded by the late Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Sally Ride Science offers a variety of educational programs designed to engage middle school girls. They run one-day science festivals in different cities each year, annual summer science camps for girls, and provide classroom materials on science-related topics such as climate change and space exploration.

Danica McKellar’s Math Books for Girls – Readers over a certain age may remember Danica McKellar for her role as Winnie Cooper on “The Wonder Years.” While navigating that tricky transition from child actor to adulthood, McKellar graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a degree in mathematics. She then set about finding a way to get more girls interested in this field to counter what she calls “damaging social messages that tell young girls science and math aren’t for them.” The result was a best-selling series of books targeted at middle school and high school girls: Math Doesn’t Suck, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss, Hot X: Algebra Exposed, and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape.

I have to admit that from reading the titles alone, I was worried that McKellar was trading in the same gender stereotypes she was aiming to dispel. I really didn’t think much of these books…until I showed them to my middle school-aged daughter and her friend one day in a bookstore. I had a hard time getting them to look at anything else once they started reading those books. They are both fairly good at math already but they absolutely loved the format and the language. Math books that girls can’t put down? OK, you have my attention. Both said they liked that the books didn’t talk about math as something they were supposed to hate. That comment in particular made me rethink both my preconception of the books and the way that I personally talk about math around my daughter.


STEM-related badges for Girl Scouts.
Photo credit: Girl Scouts of the USA

Girl Scouts – The Girl Scouts aren’t about to be left out of any conversation about expanding opportunities for girls. Brownies and juniors now can work towards such STEM-related badges as Naturalist, Digital Art, Science and Technology, and Innovation. In addition, they’ve partnered with the National Science Foundation and several U.S. technology companies to provide mentoring and financial sponsorship of Girl Scout teams in local and national science, engineering, and robotics competitions.

Know about a cool way to get all kids interested in STEM? Tell us in the comments here or on our Facebook page.

-Admin Pattie

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Why Expanding VAWA Mattered: A Survivor’s Story


Author Carissa Daniels after speaking at a Press Conference about domestic violence with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) on April 2, 2012.

My name is Carissa Daniels. I am a mother, a student, an advocate and an activist. I am Cherokee. I am also a survivor of domestic violence. Fifteen years ago this May, I was forced to take my daughter and leave my home because of domestic violence. We spent four months homeless, living underground in the system of domestic violence shelters where victims move every 28 days to stay safe from someone who has threatened and/or tried to kill them. The same someone who said they loved them.

Nowhere in my dreams of happily ever after did it ever mention mental and emotional abuse, put-downs, physical and sexual violence. But I lived through all of those and more.

People ask why victims stay. A much better question would be “Why does someone who says he loves someone hurt that person?” As to why victims stay, I can tell you that in my case, I didn’t know that what I was living with was abuse. It’s hard to recognize because it occurs in so many different forms, and happens so gradually, you don’t even know what is going on until it is nearly too late.

I was disabled in a car crash years before meeting my ex, so I had very little income. Some abusers keep victims from working at all, or they take all the money, so she has no way to get out.

This is why renewing the Violence Against Women Act was so vital and why it was so important to not compromise on which victims receive services and protection and which don’t. VAWA helps to fund programs to support domestic violence victims who want to get safe. It enables them to have a place to go, temporarily, without cost. It gives them a roof over their head, and food to eat while they work on getting things in order and contemplating their next steps.

VAWA provides a victim with a legal advocate to help with things like an order of protection, divorce and child custody and support issues. Sometimes, when the situation is most serious, and the victim qualifies, the legal advocate can even help the victim find an attorney to help them. In my case, I nearly lost custody of my daughter because he had a significant income, while I did not. He could, and, did spend a lot of money on attorneys in an effort to take my daughter from me. If it hadn’t been for the legal advocacy program, I would have been alone while enduring four years of terrifying court battles, all in an effort to take my daughter from me.

Until now, this would not have been the case, if I lived on a reservation. If I had been assaulted on Native American lands, much of the help that is available to other victims of abuse would have been far from me. Getting an order of protection on a reservation would have been much more difficult if the House version of VAWA had become law. The Republican plan would have made it harder for the courts to issue civil orders of protection on the reservation because all applications for an order of protection would have required tribal courts to get approval from a US Attorney General. This is the current procedure for prosecution. It would not have changed under the new bill. This is part of the problem. If this hasn’t worked for prosecution up till now, why did they think it would work adding civil protection orders?

I felt a cold chill when I read this portion of the House GOP proposal because it meant even more people would die. Many abusers knew that their crimes could be committed with impunity on the reservation if you were not a tribal member. Eighty-eight percent of these crimes on the reservation are committed by non-Natives. Seventy-seven percent of people on the reservation are non-Native people, exempt from prosecution under Native law. Native women are currently two and a half times more likely to be assaulted, and more than twice as likely to be stalked, than non-Natives. Indian nations, which have sovereignty over their territories and people, have been the only governments in America without jurisdiction and local control they need to address the epidemic of domestic violence. We have given power to state and local governments to deal with domestic violence but until now we had not done so for Native American territories. The House GOP version of VAWA removed some more of the few tools the tribal courts have. While federal agencies have exclusive jurisdiction over these crimes, the U.S. courts are located hundreds of miles from the reservation, so they often decline prosecution. In any other foreign nation, they have the right to prosecute someone who commits a crime on their land. Not so with non-natives on Reservation land.

I cannot help but ask, when we see how effective VAWA has been in other areas, the number of lives saved (incidents of domestic violence are down 63% since 1994). And in the first 6 years of its existence, VAWA saved $14.8 billion dollars in net averted social costs. Why would we not support a bill that protects ALL victims? The new portions of the Violence Against Women Act have been created after months (and in some cases, years) of research and consultation with constitutional lawyers and the tribal authorities. Constitutional experts and the native organizations have come together, working to find a solution that maximizes the help for victims while controlling the costs. They agree that it can be done without any negative impact on the rights of Non-natives. When a discussion is made about if a non-native can get a fair trial in a tribal court, the answer should be a resounding yes. The jury of their peers… their neighbors, their community are called to hear the case. Instead of displaying ignorance and prejudice, squabbling over “if” we should do it, we need to ask, “How we can make it happen?” We already know it is costing many lives, and money to do nothing.

Then there’s the question of immigration issues: Because of controversy over this, Senate Democrats removed the section in their bill that would have granted more visas to undocumented victims of domestic violence. They did so to try to compromise with the House. Rather than being willing to compromise, however, Republicans in the House removed sections these sections as well as those would have protected LGBT victims from discrimination in applying for services.

Lastly, the House GOP proposal left out of their bill updates that would protect college students. The Leadership conference on Civil and Human Rights said it well when they said that “Even in today’s polarized climate, we should be able to agree that when we send our daughters and sons to college, they should be protected from stalking, violence, date rape and sexual assault.”

My point: These omissions would have cost many lives! The more inclusive VAWA that passed last week has significant cost savings, without yet another huge loss of services to those who need it most. In fact, it will reach more people and have a significant impact on future generations, while saving money… The choice was clear. Congress needed to do what was best for victims, and stop grandstanding. Thankfully they did so in the end. If we are to make a significant difference in the fight to end domestic violence, we need to have the tools to do so. That is why, yesterday when I saw the House passed S. 47, I cried. For those who will live and one day make our world a better place. If all of us do what we can, we can make a difference in the lives of victims!


In Stunning Last-Minute Move, Congress Does the Right Thing For Once

by Admin Jen

Well, the House finally found a way to vote on, and pass, the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act.  It was the most convoluted, face-saving way possible, but they did it.  And as it turns out, most of our representatives don’t like domestic violence.  Pop the champagne, people.  The House has managed to sit down together and get enough of its members to agree that wife-beating is bad that they could pass something about it.  I realize this is a low bar, but we have to start somewhere and if we are really going to entertain fantasies of bi-partisanship or progress in this relentlessly, depressingly divided country, it’s a satisfying enough place to begin.

I’m not kidding.  The significance of VAWA’s passage can’t be underplayed.  It gives a glimmer of hope that we might see a more reasonable Republican party in the future.  As I’ve said elsewhere on this page, I would love to be having a spirited conversation with my conservative brethren and sistren about the role and size of government, the best way to spur economic growth, foreign policy, just about anything else than whether domestic violence should be treated as the serious crime that it is.  This really is a big damn deal.

Why do I say this?  Well, if you recall, the bill that originally sailed past the Senate last year contained expanded protections for underserved, hard-to-reach groups; namely Native Americans on reservations, illegal immigrants, and LGBT victims.  And the bills that were coming out of the House committees were conspicuously missing these expansions.  Multiple Republican House members said the expansions in the Senate bill made it “impossible” for them to vote for it, because of gay immigrant cooties or something.  America had the distinct impression that the House Republicans felt that immigrants, gays, and tribal women weren’t really women.  That they didn’t deserve the same protections as “regular” women.  By resoundingly passing the Senate’s bill, it gives the lie to all of that.  It codifies a simple recognition of the humanity of these groups.  A significant number of Republicans, in voting for this act, voted in favor of the notion that these groups are people too, and that their shared humanity matters.  It’s an encouraging thought.

Now, virtually all of the “no” votes were still Republicans… But there were lots who voted “yes”, including my own Pennsylvania congressman, Mike Fitzpatrick, a mushy moderate in a purple district who is nonetheless a Tea Party darling.  The partisan in me sometimes sits back and laughs when the rhetoric from that side of the aisle grows too sick, too sad, too hateful and misogynistic, because it clearly hurts them with women voters and, you know… decent people.  The evil voice in my head (who sounds suspiciously like Kathy Bates in “Primary Colors”) says,  “Go ahead, guys, keep giving yourself that rope, you saw how well it worked out for Richard Mourdock.”  But the truth is, I don’t want to live in that world.  I want to live in a world where the opposition is sane.  Where we really do share the same desire for the same ends, and the wrangling comes in trying to achieve them.  Where we can agree that all people are worthy of love and respect, deserving to live in a world that is as sane and safe as our loony species can manage.  (Again, a low bar, perhaps, but we can still try to raise it.)  I count a few conservatives among my friends, and they’re good people.  I promise you, they don’t sit around on their rooftops wearing hoods and taking potshots at their gay neighbors with a .22.  They aren’t Minute Men.  They really don’t deserve to be stuck with the reputation made by the louder, angrier, more reactionary cousins in their extended partisan family.  This vote brings the country one step closer to internalizing that truth.

Now, it’s not clear whether this seemingly sudden turnaround was politically motivated, motivated out of simple human decency, or some combination of the two.  It’s possible that the support for the Senate version had been there all along and the gamesmanship revolved around something else entirely.  Be assured, we’ll be researching the matter more, if only to satisfy our own curiosity as to what changed and when, and we’ll share everything we learn.  But there are two reasons to feel a glimmer of hope for the future.  One, because, after months of our own campaigning and encouraging you all to call and write your representatives, we finally have a Violence Against Women Act that reaches that many more women.

And two, because it might, just maybe, represent a tiny step in the direction of sanity for us as a people.

A girl can dream for just a minute.  Now give me the damn champers.


Foley’s Friendly Firearms Shop

by Admin Jen

mossbergThe first thing that I noticed was that I was the only woman in there. The young guy working the counter was helping a customer, but he perked up noticeably when I walked in. I was a little nervous. I’d never seen this many guns at one time. Also, I was worried that someone would figure out the Elantra in the parking lot with the Obama bumper stickers belonged to me, and would spot me as the interloper I was.

I spent a few minutes meandering along the counter and looking at the various firearms: a wall of hunting rifles and shotguns, a glass display case with Glocks and revolvers, and another display case with what looked to my seriously untrained eye like collector’s items: antique-looking six-shooters, Colt 45’s with pearl handles, and another very small, very old looking gun with a price tag that read almost a thousand dollars.

The clerk finished with the customer and introduced himself as Frank. I told him I’d moved down here from New York City a few years ago. Never owned a gun before, but was wondering if I ought to. “Yeah,” he said, “we’ve been getting a lot of that lately. Guns flying off the shelves, all first-time buyers.” “Since the Connecticut thing?” I asked. He nodded. “Yeah, kind of before that, like since the election. But definitely way more since the Connecticut thing.” “Connecticut thing,” of course, sounds much better than “the mass shooting of 20 first graders”.

“So what do I need in order to buy one of these?” I asked, gesturing at the case of handguns. “Like, a permit or a license or anything?” Not unless I wanted a concealed carry. Just show my drivers’ license and pass a background check and I’d be good to go. No waiting period? No. There used to be a five day waiting period, but they replaced that with the PICS (Pennsylvania Instant Check System.) “So, what do they look for in the background check? What if I got busted for turnstile jumping?” I asked coyly. Frank laughed. “No, they just look for felonies and uh, domestic misdemeanors.” “Domestic misdemeanors? So, if I broke a plate over my husband’s head, I’d be out of luck?” At this point, two other guys who’d been eavesdropping decided to chime in. “Only if you did time for it,” the younger, more clean-cut of the two offered. “And if it was less than nine years ago.” Everyone chuckled a little.

In case you’re wondering, the Pennsylvania Instant Check System sounds like a great idea, and for circumstances like gun shows, it’s probably very useful. Their hotline is open 7 days a week, even on holidays, and about 60% of those attempting to purchase a firearm are approved in minutes, according to their website. But what if I’d caught my brother having sex with my dog and was so enraged that I decided to shoot him? I have neither a brother or a dog, but let’s pretend. I have no criminal record, and Pennsylvania’s adherence to the notion of putting folks on a do-not-sell list for mental health is statistically nonexistent, so even if I’d been on anti-psychotics or something in the past, there’d still be no need for me to have a few days to cool off before marching into Foley’s and marching out with a semi-automatic weapon to rain destruction on my hypothetical sibling.

Frank brought us back to business. “So, what do you think you’re going to use it for? Would you want to carry something on you? Or more for your home?” I hadn’t thought that far into my lie. Just for my home, I decided. He took a shotgun down from the wall rack. It was a twelve-gauge, shorter than a lot of the others it sat next to, with synthetic wood grain on the stock. He handed it to me. It wasn’t an “assault weapon” but it was still heavy, and plenty “scary” looking. It felt substantial, powerful. Frank was enthusiastic about it for me, because it was relatively light, and you don’t need to be a good shot to use it because it fires a round that is about as big as a film canister. At only $375, it was a great deal. Plus, he said, “they’re never going to ban these.”

The two eavesdroppers weren’t convinced about that last part. “They’re not gonna be happy till they get rid of everything,” the older guy declared. “They’re gonna make us trade these in for a Teddy Ruxpin, so when someone busts into your house, you press the button and he’ll say, ‘Please don’t shoot me’.” More chuckling as he mimed brandishing a Teddy Ruxpin doll at an imaginary intruder.

His younger friend chimed in, “Look, if this is for home defense, you need something where you can just mow the guy down in one shot, so that if you have to go to court, you can claim self defense without it having to be a “he said-she said” thing.”

I didn’t understand.

“If the guy’s still alive then it’s your word against his, but if he can’t testify… well, you were defending yourself. Easy enough to say when you only fired one shot. It’s a lot harder if you shoot the guy four or five times.”

It took me a second to process that he was talking about actually killing an intruder.

“Yeah,” the older guy agreed, “but the good thing is, now, in PA, you don’t have to wait till he’s inside the house anymore, like you used to. With the new castle law, you can drop ‘em outside the house now. You just have to be able to say you felt threatened.”

“Yeah, just don’t shoot the UPS guy,” the younger man joked.

“You ever shoot anyone?” I asked him.

He laughed but didn’t answer right away.

Frank interjected. “No, but he has threatened to shoot someone, and sometimes that’s all you need. You pump this thing-” He took the shotgun from me, and pumped it once, and it made that sound –chk-shhck!– exactly like in every movie you’ve ever seen. “-and burglars know what that is, and they get the hell out.”

PIONEER WOMANI took it back for a moment more, pumped it once myself. It made that sound again, chk-shhck! I held it up, probably incorrectly. It felt… well, badass. I had a brief passing urge to say, “Make my day.” I flashed back to Technicolor westerns with stoic frontier wives. I thought, This is why people want these.

I handed it back to Frank and told him I wanted to do more research. I thanked him and left, hightailing out before anyone got a load of my bumper stickers.

Owning a Glock doesn’t make you Chuck Norris any more than owning a Fender Stratocaster makes you Eddie Van Halen, but emulating those guys… that’s why you buy those things. You’re envisioning your own blazing, electric moment. If you’re a musician, you can go through the motions in practice, but those licks you play in practice have to be so embedded in your muscle memory that they happen perfectly, even under the pressure of the spotlight. And much like playing an instrument, gun ownership, if it’s to be what you imagine, is something you commit to in a similar way; buying and maintaining gear, practicing, and so on. So that you can make your hands do what you intend them to do in that moment of truth.

But I didn’t hear about that at Foley’s. If I had wanted to, I could have plunked down $400 and walked out with a shotgun without raising anyone’s eyebrows, regardless of the fact that I would not have the first clue how to handle it. In the time I was there, I didn’t hear a word about safety. Not a word about storage. Not a word about how much practice it takes to get good at shooting. You hear about how great it is that you can defend your home. You hear about which rounds blow the biggest hole in someone trying to break and enter. But the damn thing isn’t much use to you unless you commit to the equipment, the training, the practice, and most importantly, the idea of killing.


What We Need To Do To Have a Real Watershed Moment About Rape

Women in India protest to demand justice for the victim of a brutal gang rape this December. Credit: Getty Images

Women in India protest to demand justice for the victim of a brutal gang rape this December. Credit: Getty Images

If you’ve been paying attention to the news in the past few years, you may have heard references to several so-called “watershed” moments about how various societies treat the crimes of rape and sexual abuse:

  • The brutal gang rape of a woman on a bus in Dehli, India in December was supposed to be a watershed moment for how that country treats women. At least until a virtually identical crime happened in early January.
  • In Britain, the release of a report detailing six decades of sexual abuse by television celebrity Jimmy Savile is being called a watershed moment for how the UK police will handle sex crimes. Many aren’t convinced, though, since the report comes only four years after the police last questioned Savile about the many abuse allegations levied against him. The interview, according to the report, was “perfunctory” and Savile himself set the tone. Savile died without ever being charged with sexual abuse though police now admit that his offenses may number in the hundreds.
  • Back here in the U.S., the conviction of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 charges of child sexual last year was hailed as a watershed moment for how our society views sex crimes against children. Yet large organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church still spend millions of dollars in legal fees fighting efforts to force open their records of abusers to law enforcement.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that it seems to take incidents of immense proportion or brutality to get a society’s attention about crimes that truly happen every day, let’s talk about watershed. A watershed moment is, by definition, a critical moment when a group of people changes course. They stop doing things one way and begin doing it a different way. For a watershed moment to occur in regards how rape and sexual abuse are discussed, prosecuted, and understood in a society, it can’t be because the media decided it should happen – things actually need to change. We can start with the following:

1. Stop Assigning Guilt to Victims:
“What was she doing on the bus alone?”
“Why would she wear that?”
“If she hadn’t had so much to drink…”
Victim-blaming takes many forms. Whether it’s calling a sixteen year-old Ohio girl who may have been gang-raped at a party while comatose a “slut” or telling an Indian woman that she must marry her rapist in order to preserve her honor, it transfers some or even all of the guilt for the crime from where it rightly belongs – the perpetrator – to the victim. Why does it happen? Sometimes it happens to re-enforce cultural or religious norms – such as when Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu reportedly said the following in regards to the first Delhi victim:

“Only 5-6 people are not the culprits. The victim is as guilty as her rapists… She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop… This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.”

In other cases, it may be a subconscious way for others to reassure themselves that such crimes could not happen to them. The victim did something to put herself/himself into the situation therefore, he/she is suffering. I would never wear that/go there/drink that much, etc. Other times, victim blaming occurs as an attempt to maintain whatever status quo existed before the assault was reported. This was case of the 17 year-old victim of Jerry Sandusky who was bullied to the point he had to change schools in the middle of the year. The students bullying him were blaming him for the firing of Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno. Yes, you read that correctly, people actually found a way to blame a child sexual abuse victim for his abuse…and that way involved football.

Whatever the motive behind victim-blaming, it is one of the fundamental reasons why ending sex crimes is so difficult. Victims who believe they will be blamed for their own attacks don’t come forward. Unpunished offenders become repeat offenders. Why wouldn’t they? Why would they feel remorse if others are all too willing to lay the blame elsewhere?

2. Stop Trivializing Sex-based Crimes:
Just as societies are willing to blame victims for sexual assault and rape, they are often just as willing to minimize the seriousness of sexual crimes. Returning to the Jimmy Savile case in Britain, one victim who complained about his actions towards her claims she was told “Oh, that’s just Jimmy. That’s just his way.” Jerry Sandusky managed to elude detection as a serial child rapist by convincing his employers at Penn State that he was “only showering” with young boys. Both adult and child victims can be confused and distraught after an assault and can be very susceptible to the suggestion of others that their experience was not serious or that it was a misunderstanding, or even a misinterpretation of actions that were innocent in their intent.

It also doesn’t help when lawmakers and law enforcement officials create artificial distinctions about rape: “forcible rape” (from Congress in 2012), “legitimate rape” (U.S. Congressman Todd Akin in 2012), “serious rape” (UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in 2011). Such distinctions give victims the impression that unless they are assaulted by the proverbial “stranger in a dark alley” with the bruises and broken bones to show for it, their assault isn’t worth the justice system’s time. Date rapes, acquaintance rapes, assaults where the victim is intoxicated or unconscious – they simply don’t make the cut. The common perception among victims is that law enforcement won’t take the crimes seriously. And often, law enforcement lives down to this reputation. The intervention of the Internet activist group Anonymous into the investigation of the alleged rape of a sixteen year-old girl in Steubenville, OH earlier this month came about due to the widespread belief that local law enforcement were not taking the case seriously.

Regarding child sexual abuse, if the abuse happened several years ago and the victim has just recently worked up the courage to come forward? It’s not unusual for such victims to be asked, “Well, it’s been years hasn’t it? Aren’t you over it by now?” Or worse, victims of child sexual abuse are increasingly accused lying in of hopes to “cashing-in” with lawsuits.
Let’s be clear, all instances of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse are real crimes. Serious crimes. They are as deserving of the time and effort of law enforcement as any other crime. It’s long past time that we treated them that way.

3. Stop Prioritizing the Reputations of Organizations Over Victims:
Late in 2012, the Boy Scouts of America was forced by a series of court orders to begin releasing decades of its so-called internal “perversion files” – records of the scout leaders and other employees who had been dismissed by the organization for inappropriate actions with children. As reported by the Washington Post and others, the records show that in many instances the offenders were dismissed quietly, without being reported to law enforcement. In some cases, the parents of the victims agreed to this method, both to minimize trauma to their children and to “save Scouting” from negative publicity. The idea was that the BSA would flag the offenders in their files so they could not be admitted to Scouting programs in the future. There were two key problems with this plan, the flags didn’t work. Due to inaccurate record-keeping and failures in communication, dismissed offenders resurfaced again and again in BSA programs in different states, often abusing more children. The second problem with the “go quietly” plan was that the dismissed offenders were often men who had access to children through other aspects of their lives – they were teachers, coaches, counselors, and yes, priests. Barred from joining the BSA, they simply found victims elsewhere. By not reporting them, by placing the reputation of the organization above the safety of children, the Boy Scouts of America allowed offenders to abuse again. And again.
There have certainly been allegations that the same “reputation first” existed in the Catholic Church, at Penn State and now most recently at the BBC over the Jimmy Savile cases. Sadly, there are likely countless other well-respected organizations for whom reputation trumps all, even the safety of others.

4. Rethink Sexual Assault Prevention
A lot of sexual assault prevention advice seems to originate from the same school of thought as victim blaming: potential victims put themselves situations where sexual assault is inevitable. They wore provocative clothing. They drank too much. They ventured into dangerous areas alone. This attitude is not only demeaning to victims, it reduces men into immoral beings who are powerless to fight the inevitable urge to rape when they see a scantily-dressed person or a person in a vulnerable situation. Moreover it is ludicrous to assume that only provocatively dressed women get raped. Women in burkas are raped, elderly women in housecoats get raped, wheelchair-bound hospice patients get raped. Men get raped. Sexual assault is about power, not about clothing.
More recently there has been a movement in several countries to rethink how to approach rape prevention. There is now messaging directed at men reminding them about what constitutes consent and assault. One of the first of these was the “We Can Stop It” campaign from Scotland, which featured men making declarative statements about not being a person who would commit sexual assault.

PSA from Scotland's "We Can Stop It" Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign. Credit: Lothian and Borders Police, UK

PSA from Scotland’s “We Can Stop It” Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign.
Credit: Lothian and Borders Police, UK

Similar campaigns have been used in other countries and advocacy groups directed at educating men about sexual assault have formed as well. Among these is the U.S.-based Men Can Stop Rape which directs its education initiatives to college-aged men. This is where sexual assault prevention needs to go if we are to have true watershed moment: we need to teach people not to rape, not simply warn people to not get raped. There can be no real prevention until we acknowledge that the decision to commit the crime is one the offender does not have to make.

5. Value All People, Including Women and Children, As Human Beings:
This isn’t necessarily about offenders needing to see their victims as human beings. Psychiatrists have debated for years about how sexual offenders truly view others. No two sexual offenders are exactly alike and I’m obviously not going to get to the bottom of that question in a blog post. No, I’m taking about how ordinary people treat one another and victims of sex crimes. Why does it take someone saying “What if it were your kid?” for people to care about victims of child sex abuse? Can’t we care about strangers? Why is it OK to speculate that the alleged Steubenville victim is a “slut” only until someone reminds you that she could be your daughter. It seems that the first inclination for many people when they hear about a sex crime is to distance themselves from it. While this is a natural reaction, it can’t be the only reaction. This distancing too often leads people to being comforted by decisions to keep assaults quiet, to not prosecute offenders, and to not think about the fact that if an offender is not stopped, there may be future victims. Those victims may not be people they know, but they are victims just the same. People who deserve empathy.

There are many huge issues that the cultures of the world do not agree on but as human beings, we have to hope that we can at least summon the shared empathy to agree on these:

  • Children do not exist for the sexual gratification of adults; all sexual acts committed on children should be considered crimes.
  • Any sexual act committed against adults who have not fully consented or are incapable of consent should be considered crimes.

No exceptions. That’s valuing people as humans.

If we can agree to these, and have these principals guide our actions, we can have a real critical moment of change about sex-based crimes.

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