sexual violence

Dear Men

Hey guys.

I know things have been tough lately.

Weinstein. Franken. Levine. Batali. Rose. Thrush. Simmons. Tambor. Zimmerman. Kreisberg. Lauer. Louis C.K. Piven. Halperin.

And on and on and on. The list seems endless.

Probably because it is.

In the past month, I’ve had many men in my life who I care for and respect, many of them frequent allies, express horror at the seeming deluge of sexual misconduct and assault cases bubbling to the surface lately. How, they wonder, could this possibly be so common?

Welcome to our world, fellas.

It’s one where we walk to our cars with keys carefully gripped between our knuckles, just in case.

It’s one where we stay vigilant as we make that walk, or any other, picking up the pace when it seems like a man is following too closely for too long, crossing the street when need be.

It’s one where we remind each other to text when we get home so we know everyone is safe.

It’s one where we watch each other carefully at the bar, knowing full well that one moment without full awareness could mean something slipped in a drink.

It’s one where bathrooms become confessionals, places to plot escape routes from scenarios primed to go very wrong, where women exchange code words with strangers designed to elicit help.

It’s one where we know that even the men we trust can’t necessarily be trusted, because it’s the men we know who are most likely to try to hurt us.

It’s one where we know the word “no” to be dangerous to our careers, relationships, and very lives, and that wielding it is no guarantee of respect should that danger be outed.

Think we’re paranoid? If the news lately has rattled you, consider this: it is highly likely there is not a single adult woman in your life that has not had to walk another woman through the fallout of an assault, if she isn’t a survivor herself.

And yes, before you go there, this is personal.

Because I have lost count of how many times I’ve had those conversations, consoling traumatized women and reassuring them they did nothing wrong, were still whole and worthy.

Because strangers still think they’re entitled to grope me regularly, and it rattles me even now.

Because I’ve taken business meetings where the shape of my body was clearly of greater interest than the shape of my analysis, underscored by attempts to close a very different kind of deal by the end.

Because I haven’t left the house without being catcalled since I was 14, hearing in vivid, scatological terms the commodification of my own body, even while holding my small, confused daughter’s hand.

Because when my 9 year old asks me each morning why she has to wear a training bra, I choke, unable to find the words to explain to my child that there are men who sexualize such otherwise carefree little lives.

Damn straight it’s personal.

For some of you, the horror you’re experiencing is genuine. The fact that it’s taken you this long to get to this point after centuries of women screaming at the top of their lungs is frustrating as hell, but if it means you reflect and adjust and start calling out unacceptable behavior in your day to day life – including when women aren’t present to hand you a cookie for it – I am willing to take a deep breath and say thank you. Better late than never.

But if your focus right now is on saying “not me though,” you’re missing the point. I’ll give you a second to consider that. If you’re too busy defending yourself, you’re centering yourself in the conversation again instead of actually listening.

See, what’s hard to get past in all this is that there are others for whom this horror is something else entirely. The acts are heinous. Maybe they admit that. Maybe they don’t. But the real fear stems from the fact that those committing these acts are FINALLY facing a tidal wave of consequences. Not enough in some cases, frankly, but consequences nonetheless.

Hell, even Roy Moore couldn’t carry a blood red state.

The problem is that there is an unspoken question behind some of their reactions. They don’t support the behavior, they’ll say. But did he have to lose his job? But did he really have to resign if he apologized? But why did these women wait so long? But how do we know they’re telling the truth?

But but but NOTHING.

These reactions are as old as time, but our patience for them is waning. It is particularly hard to stomach within circles which pride themselves on intellectual vigor. I get it. Questioning claims is how we’re wired. At some point, though, as claims and corroboration of assault and misconduct mount, your need for a scientific proof doesn’t make you a skeptic. It makes you an asshole who might just be asking questions rooted in thousands of years of patriarchal oppression so you don’t have to wonder if you might be accused next.

If you find yourself thinking such things, then maybe you should wonder. And ask yourself why you’ve made choices that would make your wonder in the first place. Then do something about it. Make amends. Stop making choices that make women feel unsafe or objectified.

Because making an allegation of sexual assault is not a small or easy thing. There are significant consequences in the personal and professional lives of survivors for speaking up, often compounding the original trauma. There are good reasons false allegations are statistically exceedingly rare, even relative to other major crimes.

Add into the mix having to deal with jerks more concerned about asking these sorts of questions to shield their own ego and yeah, coming forward takes a whole lotta guts.

And gents, if you think YOU feel uncomfortable right now, imagine how we’ve felt for basically all our lives.

Right now is different though. It’s a moment. After we watched a country (including an embarrassing amount of white women with some major internalized misogyny issues apparently) elect a pussy grabbing traffic cone with no actual qualifications for the job rather than a woman, we took to the streets. Looking around Chicago during the Women’s March, feeling the rage and determined energy in the air, I knew, without a doubt, that things were going to start changing.

Ladies reading know what I mean. It feels important, like a potential shift in the tide to a life possibly a little more empowered and a little less dangerous.

I see you. I hear you. I stand with you. There’s this sense of responsibility, like we HAVE to get things right, have to be measured as we raise our voices on a subject that makes us want to scream and cry all at once. It is exhausting.

And yes, to some end, there is a responsibility to every woman who has survived assault and endured harassment to be deliberate and careful in our advocacy. Misappropriation of language surrounding these experiences, directly or implicitly, makes it so much harder to recruit potential allies in this quest for progress and justice, who then in turn make it much harder for survivors to come forward and advocate for themselves. 

I feel it too. I lost count of how many drafts of this I went through. I am still not sure I’m getting it right, but I know that trying to get it right is worth every single moment of effort.

Above all, now is the time to listen. Listen to the stories in the news, yes, but also the other women speaking out without such bright spotlights. Talk to women in your life about experiences they’ve had.

Then think, hard, about whether some of your behavior might be part of the problem in the past or now. Commit to being better. Commit to pushing those around you to be better. Do not allow the onus for propelling change to rest on the shoulders of women who have been abused by people like Cosby and Weinstein and Moore, shoulders that have been carrying far too much for far too long as it is.

And do this, not because there’s a woman or girl in your life you care about, but because we owe it to each other, and to ourselves, to, I don’t know, treat each other as human beings?

Love,

Me

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We Did It For The Likes

“She got caught up in the likes,” he said.

We all know that sentiment in some capacity or another: the ego boost of a well received profile picture, the righteousness of an applauded political sentiment, the satisfaction derived from giggles surrounding a clever meme.

But that’s not how Marina Lonina got her social high back in February. No, she got that buzz from broadcasting the rape of her friend on the social platform Periscope. As the New York Times reports:

The teenager, Marina Lonina, 18, faces a spate of charges as severe as those facing the accused attacker, Raymond Gates, 29. Both have been charged with kidnapping, rape, sexual battery and pandering sexual matter involving a minor.

[…]

On the evening of Feb. 27, all three were gathered at a residence in Columbus where Mr. Gates pinned the 17-year-old down and raped her as Ms. Lonina used Periscope, an app owned by Twitter, to live-stream the attack, the authorities said.

A friend of Ms. Lonina’s in another state saw the video and contacted the authorities.

Both defendants pleaded not guilty on Friday.

The defense is arguing that Marina is just as much a victim as her friend. She’s only 18 years old, after all. He was ten years their senior, after all. He had plied them with vodka, after all. And as she told the police, she was simply trying to preserve evidence.

Bullshit.

Was Marina herself being exploited by an older man? Arguably yes. But was she an innocent bystander as her boyfriend raped someone she called a friend? Not remotely.

You don’t live stream an assault to stop it. You have a phone that’s capable of live streaming in your possession? Good. Then you’re probably also in possession of a phone capable of calling 911 or texting someone in search of immediate help. You don’t broadcast the assault to an audience in no position to intervene. It took the actions of someone in another state for the authorities to become involved. That the police were eventually contacted doesn’t matter. It certainly didn’t matter to the young girl being raped at that moment. It didn’t stop a thing.

Is the recording now being used as evidence against the assailant? Yes. And in a world where rapists are rarely convicted, that’s a potential silver lining here. But if you have a phone that’s capable of live streaming, you also have a phone that’s capable of collecting such evidence without broadcasting it for public consumption. It is, believe it or not, entirely possible to record something without sharing it with the world. To be fair, her SD card could have been full from all the nude photos she’d snapped of her vulnerable friend the night before. Was that about evidence, too?

Marina wasn’t trying to stop the rape. She wasn’t trying to collect evidence. She did it for the likes.

There is no denying that social media has become a force to be reckoned with over the past decade, shrinking the world through connection and information dissemination. It can educate and inspire and entertain. It can provide support and solace. When used by a collective, it has the power to do a lot of good, as evidenced by associated movements like #BlackLivesMatter.

But in the never ending quest for attention, it can also be a dangerous drug. Marina is just one very obvious cautionary tale.

Too often, we become obsessed with projecting the “right” image, losing ourselves in the process, losing sight of our self-worth along the way. We do it for the likes.

So frequently, we bypass meaningful conversation on important topics, leaning on one liners and gifs and emoji, losing an opportunity for understanding, losing hope that things can improve. We do it for the likes.

More and more, we collectively shrug at the offensive and ignorant and vile, clicking hide and unfollow instead of calling it out, losing our shot at making the world a better place, losing our chance to do our part. We just can’t sacrifice those likes.

I get it. I’m guilty of it too. It’s a one-click affirmation world. We’re just living in it. And we’re not like Marina, so it’s all good. Right?

But listen: even if you believe Marina was trying to stop the assault, even if you applaud her attempt to gather proof of the attack for an eventual prosecution, you cannot ignore the power of the almighty like in this story. You cannot look past the views and the hearts and the chats that frame this crime. So even if you’re uninterested in discussing Marina’s culpability, let’s talk for a minute about our own, because maybe, just maybe, we’ve been doing it for the likes for so long that we’re missing the forest for the trees.

Face facts. A young woman’s assault was turned into a social experience with an eager audience. A video of a young girl begging the man on top of her to stop and crying out in pain still might not be enough to convict her rapist. It’s an ugly reality, an ugly world. But none of this should surprise you.

After all, it’s a world where our fond memories of a television character outweigh the voices of dozens of women.

It’s a world where our admiration of an athlete’s performance has us dismissing the pain they inflicted.

It’s a world where our love of a man’s musical contributions has us propping up conspiracy theories so we don’t have to face the suffering they’ve created.

It’s a world where our religious institutions are fighting legal reform that would offer justice to traumatized victims because they know it will hurt the Church.

It’s a world where our partisan priorities have given way to a leading presidential candidate who can openly degrade women and still soar in the polls.

It’s a world where our cultural icons advance the idea that young women should be taught to assume their attire, their bodies, and their existence is to blame for the criminal behavior of helpless men.

It’s a world where our media uses sex and rape interchangeably while discussing allegations of assault.

It’s a world where any attempt to discuss these problems, to really expose the depth and breadth of rape culture in our society, is met with derision and laments of political correctness run amok.

Though the headlines might be fresh, none of this is really new. It is, however, made more dangerous by the connective power of modern technology and how we use it. In this sense, Marina was inevitable: the product of a digital era desperate for validation and comfortable with the normalization of sexual violence.

It’s our world. We created it. We live in it. We consume and deflect and accept and tolerate and laugh and promote and share and retweet and reblog and like and like and like and then act surprised when Marina is more interested in entertaining a perverse audience than the safety of her friend.

She did it for the likes. But from where I’m sitting, there’s not much likable about the world in which she did.

International Megan’s Law: A Pretty Terrible Idea

In 1994, 7 year old Megan Kanka was brutally raped and murdered by her 43 year old neighbor, Jesse Timmendequas. The news sent shockwaves across their community and the nation as a whole, not just because the crime was stomach churning, but because Timmendequas was a registered sex offender. The event spawned a series of laws across the nation — often referred to as Megan’s Law — requiring law enforcement to inform the public when a sex offender relocates to their community. On the federal level, Megan’s Law was woven into legislation requiring sex offenders to register with the state and inform the state of any moves for a determined or even infinite amount of time. The whole initiative was an effort to allow the public to protect themselves from known sex offenders.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, sex offenders frequently found themselves hard up for work or even housing as people recoiled at their designation, which ironically exacerbated the likeliness of recidivism. That’s quite a feat, given that recidivism among convicted sex offenders is statistically quite low. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of groups who argue that this practice violates the eighth amendment by punishing an individual in perpetuity for one crime. Instead of public safety, there was a rise in public vigilantes. Stephen Marshall, for instance, sought out two men on the registry and murdered them in cold blood. Michael Dodele was murdered by a local father “in protection of his son” after he discovered Dodele’s conviction, though Dodele’s crime had nothing to do with children.

And there’s another problem here: what we classify as sex crimes. There are some crimes that fit neatly in this category: rape, sexual assault, molestation. But some crimes that classify might be as simple, innocuous and stupid as urinating in public or streaking at a football game. In some cases, even the labels we recognize as legitimately heinous don’t make a ton of sense in context. A 30 year old man who forces himself on a 16 year old girl in an alley, for instance, is not the same as an 18 year old senior in high school having consensual sex with his 16 year old sophomore girlfriend, but on the registry, there often won’t be a distinction.

The sex offender registry is not an inherently terrible idea. Even the Association for Treatment of Sexual Offenders concedes that sexual offenders should be carefully reintegrated into society upon release with ample legal oversight. But until laws and the registration process are reformed, the current process is doing no one any favors.

Which brings us to today, as Congress sends President Obama what is known as an “International Megan’s Law.” This law would require that the State Department conspicuously mark the passports of anyone involved in a sex crime that involved a minor to inform other nations of their risk upon entry.

There are a lot of problems with this. We’ve already talked about how the registry conflates crimes by ignoring crimes; this is worse. Teens sexting each other would end up on this list if convicted. But beyond the fact that its application could end up being unjustly applied, there’s absolutely no evidence this would thwart the human trafficking it claims to target. And if people are being discriminated against with their names listed online, imagine what happens to those who use a passport as a form of identification. To add insult to injury, their supposed purpose is redundant. As Reason explains:

[W]hen it comes to those who have committed the most heinous crimes or are the most likely to reoffend, we already have a mechanisms in place to either prevent them from getting passports or notify foreign governments when they’re traveling abroad. The Secretary of State can deny passports to people convicted of certain sex crimes, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) “Operation Angel Watch” already notifies foreign officials when Americans convicted of certain sex crimes are traveling there.

And the reason ICE knows the travel habits of these sex offenders? Because all people on state sex offender registries—regardless of why they’re there or how long ago their crimes were committed—are required under federal law to “inform his or her residence jurisdiction of any intended travel outside of the United States at least 21 days prior to that travel.”

In other words, the only thing this law would do is exacerbate the harms that already exist in the flawed framework of sex offender registry related laws. Nice, right?

But as the legislation crosses President Obama’s desk, it seems unlikely that it would be vetoed, largely because of optics. How would it look for him to reject legislation that’s supposed to protect children from being raped?

That doesn’t mean we should accept its passage. Sexual violence survivors deserve our support, and if anything, the flaws in the current legal regime trivialize their experience. That a person having sex with someone they’re in high school with is put on the level with a brutal rape is unconscionable. That that same kid be treated with the same disdain reserved for violent rapists for potentially the rest of their natural lives is revolting. We can do better, and should.

Until then, let’s hope Obama’s constitutional law background triumphs over PR inclinations.