Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"(The Abuser) Was Always Nice to Me!"

My husband loves the TV show Lost. He discovered it in the early days of Netflix when binge watching was new. I hated it. I couldn’t handle not being able to predict what was happening. I even watched the episodes without him so when we watched it together I could pretend I saw it coming. 

I always want to see it coming. I wanted to have seen it coming in The Sixth Sense. I want to rely on my experience and knowledge to tell me why my kid suddenly won’t sleep. I want the lady yelling that my grocery cart is rolling away into the road to know I’m a mother of six and I’ve got it. I want to see red flags and warning signs of abuse and call that shit out. If I know, then I am in control. 

I’m not alone in this. 

When allegations of abuse come to the surface, an abuser confessed or is convicted, people close to the abuser say “(Blah blah blah) pillar of the community! Goes to church on Sundays! Paid my rent when I needed it! Selfless! *Always was nice to me!*"

What we fail to remember is that the world of an abuser is carefully orchestrated. There’s the grooming of victims, but that doesn’t matter if the environment isn’t controlled. Your vic sees you palling around with every person they’d go to for help and they absolutely believe the “you tell anyone and they won’t believe you” routine. Abusers rely on their good deeds to help them remain unpunished. There might be different ways of maintaining the illusion, but just because someone was nice to you, makes great music, or has a way with words on Sundays, it doesn’t mean abuse allegations aren’t credible.

The victims of abuse are not the only victims. We continue to cover for abusers when we look for ways to blame victims for their own assault or sexual abuse or manipulation. It is almost as though we believe that, if we can shift the blame to those that were wrecked by abuse, then we can walk away unscathed. But we don't. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Unknown Wounds

Over the last few months, it is almost as though the air has changed. Once upon a time, I worked with victims of sexual and domestic violence. I also provided community trainings to other helping agencies. I’ve never felt the urgency or the desire to speak up for victims of sexual harassment, assault, and rape the way I do now. It’s difficult. It’s messy. It changes your relationships with the people in your life. It can take a toll on your faith in God, the Church, and in people. 

Over the holidays, we visited family. I was cleaning up a dinner mess one night when part of a discussion in the next room caught my attention. Someone made a comment about recent allegations in the entertainment industry and someone else concurred. I tried to stay out of it. I was going to be the lone dissenter. The only one willing to side with the victims. I knew it would not be a fruitful conversation. I managed to busy myself for a few minutes longer, but then I heard a tween speak up in agreement. I couldn’t stay silent. The urgency was overwhelming.
Those adults defending the reputations of men they’d never met wanted proof. They wanted evidence of intimacy crimes that often doesn’t exist. They wanted to be able to rely on the magic of rape kits (which didn’t always exist) to bring justice for all. It was easy enough to concede that maybe in some cases sexual assault or rape was a criminal offense, but the blame lays with the victims for not reporting. (Assuming those in authority cared.) As I tried to explain there are (perhaps seemingly trivial) behaviors that lead to us normalizing sexual violence (cat calling, harassment, etc.) the debate exploded. 

I gave examples of how I have normalized harassing behavior by glossing over it in my own life.  I told them how one of the first nights I was getting to know my now spouse I was faced with the decision to trust that he, a man I barely knew through a trusted friend, was more safe than the man following me around the party so he could repeatedly grab my ass. This wasn’t a good example I was told, because men get their asses grabbed also. 

I was asked for examples of harassment that are wrong but not necessarily illegal. Once again, my own experience came to mind quickly. 

I told my loved ones about the Thanksgiving night when I was home from college, catching up with one of my two male best friends. I was telling him happily about the guy I had just started seeing, and how I could not wait to get back to see him again. My closest and dearest friend, someone I had never once felt unsafe with and often ran to in times of crisis, took this as an opportunity to climb on top of me. No matter how hard I struggled, no matter how many times his lips met my “No.” “Stop.” he pressed on. 

My loved ones’ response? “Did you report it?” I could only ask “Report what?" I wasn’t raped. He didn’t need to take off my jeans or my sweater to fondle me. “Report it to who?” There is no evidence. Who would care?

“You should have told his mother.”

In this moment, I remembered why I would remind my clients to be sure the person they chose to disclose trauma to was a safe person. In this moment, I realized the last few months had unknowingly opened a wound I did not know was there. As I walked away, I heard the child say again, “Those women should have spoken up sooner.”

I sat in the downstairs room alone. I wondered if I had mentioned his mother did not speak English, would it matter? If I had told them I begged my dad to take me back to school early, would they see the hurt? If I had told them that I had called our other best friend once I was back at school to confide in him and that he told me he was sure it did not happen the way I had described it, would that help them to see my point? If I marched back up the stairs and explained how the worst twenty minutes of my life up to that point meant I lost both of my best friends, would they understand?

I stayed downstairs. One by one, my young children came down. One by one, I tucked them in, vowing to be the safe person in their lives. 

Speaking up hurts, but it is important work.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Rape Culture

Several years back, there was a comedian that landed in hot water for getting into an argument with a female audience member at one of his stand up gigs. I remember a line from one of his routines where he describes his humor as pushing the limits until there is only one person left laughing, so it came as no shock to me that one of his retorts to this audience member involved rape.

A friend and I debated extensively on the subject. She was rightfully horrified by his comments and I wasn't so much defending him (I did like his TV show at the time) as I was defending morbid comedy. My general position was that my weird, gallows humor would leave me laughing at things that were wildly inappropriate. Things like death. Dead baby jokes. So is it a stretch to say rape humor should be off limits?

Hear me out. I cannot think of a single time I've ever laughed at a rape joke. I can think of times when I was working in sexual and domestic violence advocacy where coworkers and I found humor in our jobs. Humor that would probably be inappropriate outside of our group. I was defending gallows humor.

A few weeks ago, I came across this graphic from 11th Principle: Consent!:

Had I seen this graphic during the debate with my friend, I would have had no choice but to concede.

Incidentally, this graphic feels very timely to current events.

There are many communities that are reeling from various levels of sexual abuse scandals. We're seeing it in politics, entertainment, faith communities... this is nothing new. These scandals are not new. This type of thing has always happened, but what changes is how we approach victims.

As of late, it feels as though victims, survivors, and their supporting advocates are getting louder. These people have nothing to gain aside from sexual predators being held accountable for their actions.

I see disturbing things happening when these stories come to light, particularly in Catholic circles. I want to talk about this, because it is why I started this project. My growing list of concerns include:

1. Concern that is focused on protecting a man's reputation above victims and future victim's rights.

2. The need to blame the victim or their environment.

3. The focus on modesty and chaste living or even being married as protection from sexual abuse or exploitation.

4. A lack of accountability for the accused and minimization of their actions.

Sexual assault and sexual abuse and even rape are not necessarily interchangeable terms. Sexual predators come in different forms with different patterns, different goals, different prey because sexual abuse or exploitation or assault is not about sex. It is about power. Sexual predators know how to find their prey and how to erase their tracks. They have long known how to be the wolf in sheep's clothing. They know how to isolate, manipulate, and control the narrative using a variety of methods. Here's the domestic violence power and control wheel. While it may have been created to identify the various ways an abusive intimate partner works to control their victim, it gives plenty of examples in how a sexual predator coerces victims into "consensual" relationships and into sex.

Not all predators work the long con. If you want more information on typology, click here. Not all sexual predators act illegally. Predatory behavior does not have to be ignored just because there was no illegal action. If we truly want to see sexual crimes decrease, we must demand accountability. Refer back to the rape culture graphic. The things at the base of the pyramid do a nice job of supporting the behaviors that become increasingly heinous because it allows us to minimize and normalize behavior. 

It's easy to just blame something like porn and move on. It is easy to insist that the sexual revolution did this. It is easy to tell our young girls to be modest and chaste and insist that corrects the problem, but the denim jumper with a knitted sweater in a well-lit library during business hours can be assaulted just as easily as the tight micro mini with a tube top at the bar. Clothes do not matter. Different sexual predators prey on women from different backgrounds and with different or no baggage. "Proper religious formation and instruction" cannot protect. We are all sinners and being a sinner is not what makes one an easy target. 

This sounds hopeless, and I get why so many feel the need to place blame on what is easier to change (such as a victim's behavior or age, or the community) rather than blame those responsible. It is more difficult to change a sexual predator's behavior because they are able to hide behind our hopelessness. They can issue half-assed apologies, or disappear and reemerge in a new community and find new ways to cover their tracks. But we can stop this by calling out their behavior. By believing their victims. By placing the blame squarely where it belongs: with those that did the hurting.

Rape culture is real. If we truly want to fight against rape, molestation, and violence, we must look at that pyramid graphic and stop allowing any of it, illegal or not.

The next time you feel compelled to comment on a breaking sexual abuse/assault/violence story, think about what you post. Do you want to support the victim? Say "I believe you." Do you want to hold the perpetrator accountable? Say "I am not okay with this and he/she/they needs to be held accountable."

If you need a list of things not to say, message me. I'd be happy to fill your inbox with examples.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Sexual Assault is in the News Again

Every time that there is a scandal involving sexual assault front and center, we are told to wait. Wait for more information. Wait for the evidence Law & Order and CSI has promised us. Wait for a judge or jury to tell us how to proceed.

Wait to ruin this man's reputation until we know it needs ruined.

There is rarely concern for those that come forward. There are many questions: Was there a rape kit? Why is she crying? Why is she not crying? Why was she there? Is it worth going into that line of work? Shouldn't she have thought that through? What is she gaining from this?

There is rarely concern or a desire to help those with stories of the most intimate of crimes to heal.

Instead, we wonder aloud and in comboxes how long a man must repent before we believe him. We wonder how this will devastate his career. We accept the standard apology and use the sliver of good and the false pillar of the community reputation to defend our continued support. We latch on to any good thing we've ever heard about the accused because we don't want to know.

We tell young girls that the boys pull their hair and hurt them because they like them.

We tell young girls to be pretty but do not explain.

We say that boys will be boys and caution our daughters about locker room behavior. We teach them to ignore cat calls and to smile. We tell them, if they are polite enough, it will all be okay.

We ignore that predators are very skilled at knowing their environment. We ignore that they know how to make grandiose gestures that make them seem an unlikely predator. We ignore that we laugh off their fondness for young girls or their tendency to get too handsy. We tell women about their patterns and then say "Don't say we didn't warn you."

We do not hold sexual criminals accountable.

As friends, family, and advocates for victims and survivors of sexual assault (both make and female alike) it is not our job to determine the legal 'guilty' or 'not guilty' verdict. It is our duty to listen and believe. It is our duty to be supportive and to help survivors heal. It is our duty to tell predators that we know and they must change and be held accountable.

Why do victims not report? Why do they wait years before coming forward?

They are told no one believe them and then they see no one believing others. They see the high esteem in which their attackers are held. They are ashamed. They need to heal.

Why doesn't every survivor get the needed evidence by submitting to a rape kit?

Because they are costly and victims are still sometimes responsible for that cost.

Because they don't always get tested.

Because they are not always available.

Because they do not know where to go.

Because in the immediate aftermath of being violated so intimately by a person you likely trusted, they only thing that makes sense is to wash it away to make it go away and rape kits can feel like the opposite of that.

Because pressing charges puts your career and other things you hold dear at risk.

Because sometimes DNA evidence doesn't matter.

As friends, family, and advocates standing against these crimes, we need to support the survivors in any way we can and demand the correct treatment for the accused. We need to expect personal accountably and blame where it belongs: with the predator. We need to expect a sincere apology that includes taking responsibility, a focus on the wrong that was done, appropriate punishment and treatment.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins are My New Lady Crushes

The seats reclined. Be jealous.

I am a mother who last had time away from her loud lovely children three years ago. As excited as I was about heading to South Bend (See previous post) for nearly four days, I was on a mission to do a few other things:

- have a beer
- eat my meal at a restaurant while it was still hot
- find a Target and walk around by myself
- catch Wonder Woman on the big screen

Check, check, check, and let me grab a drink or five while I spend an entire night telling you all about  it.

I grew up around comics, DC and Marvel alike. I grew up with scantily clad women superheroes drawn in poses that are laughable. I loved these characters, but this film has simply outgrown that vision.

I want to talk about the wonderful world we get to see on screen when you have a female director for a female superhero film.

An island of women. There is no wrong or right way to be: they are women. They love. They fear. They fight. They care and nurture. They long and feel arousal. They mourn. They seek purpose and run towards it.

On this island, women are warriors. They lead and they train. They create clothing that honors the movement of their bodies, allowing for limbs to move and bend with purpose. The clothing is beautiful with purpose, not sexualization.

A man appears and a woman saves him. There's no hesitation or competition, it's just the right thing to do.

We are transported to this island, and to a place where a confident, self-aware, has never had a reason to doubt herself woman first comes in contact with a man and what happens?


Diana did not have to grow up distrusting. We see a man hit on her and she merely puts her hand out to refuse and we hear a firm "No" without fear or repercussion.

A particularly moving scene for me was seeing Diana experience attraction. She was capable of expressing her interest and in this world, she could wordlessly offer consent, be aroused, and act on those feelings. We see a woman uninhibited by the restraints our broken world has placed on women and it is damn beautiful.

We see men respect her and show their loyalty to her because of her fierce drive to do good and carry out her purpose. We see Steve willing to be an equal partner.

This film is not a simple comic book spin on superheroes and myths. It truly explores the "what if" of feminism in a beautiful way. In this instance, we have a female director that doesn't thrust men down to empower women, but instead they are equals. We see the growth of genuine love, not gratuitous sex. We have costume design that makes sense, not sex, showing the strength and power of a woman's body.

We are given a female hero that is feminine and a warrior. Diana says 'no' to power and 'yes' to good (*ahem* Mary). She's comfortable in her own skin. She has opinions and plans. She's a leader with purpose. She fights injustice. She feels. She protects and loves the innocent (and guilty?). She mourns and shows fear. She is a sexual being. She persevered. We were given a female hero that shows us a well-rounded example of feminine genius.

While the film is in no way meant to be theological, we see social justice themes. Sacrificial love abounds.

I want to be Diana. Or Gal Gadot... I'll get back to you on that one.

Early in the film, young Diana wears a determined smile. It's a smile I want to see on the face of my daughters. Maybe me as well.

Pretend this is a photo from the film, used with permission.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Trying to Say 'God' Post Mortem

Ladies and gentlemen, I am struggling. These are lean times for the faithful like me. There's much in this world that reminds me to cling to belief in God and the beautiful Catholic community here on earth. Unfortunately, there is much that makes me want to throw in the towel. If you are feeling like this, hold on to your butts, and let's chat. You are not the only one.

I have a difficult time with those that hate Catholics, but I have a difficult time with Catholics that are prime examples of why people hate Catholics.

I know better. I know we are better than this.

I know there are many wonderful priests. I know there are many wonderful Catholics that want nothing more than to be the faithful that can help lead more to Christ so he can do the heavy lifting. But this last year has left me with some fairly terrible examples of the worst in Catholics and it sucks.

This weekend I attended the Trying to Say 'God' conference that was wonderfully put together by Sick Pilgrim. I was absolutely blown away. I'll try to put it into words for you, but I know you can listen to some of the panels yourself on Soundcloud and I really suggest you do just that. I'm not a podcast or an audio file person, but I will most likely go back through and listen to all of them again. There are some really special things happening in my spiritually blocked heart right now because of this conference (and Wonder Woman, but that's another horse entirely).

This weekend I met my people. As was described by Jessica Mesman Griffith, the conference was mostly filled with faithful, devoted Catholics that live "on the edge" of the faith bubble. I love God. I love Jesus. I struggle with how to do this in the gray areas because my life is filled with people that are not Catholic or maybe not practicing their faith, and I love them. I love these people and I believe God loves them also, and they are hurting (often due to the words and actions of others claiming the title of Catholic). So I am sitting on the edge. I'm fully immersed in my faith and duty as a Catholic, yet I cannot be in a Catholic bubble that keeps me from people that are not or cannot be where I am.

Not all there were Catholic. Not all there were straight. Not all there had children, or were married, or had natural hair color, or were the picture of mental health. There were high school teachers, scholars, moms, dads, a few kiddos, a bishop, writers, artists, musicians, journalists, and more. I was taken aback at first by the sheer number of people that strolled up to me and asked me "What are you working on?" and not "How many kids do you have?" or "You sure have your hands full, are you done having kids yet?" Maybe that was because I don't get out much solo. Maybe it was because I forgot that I am a person outside of motherhood. I prefer to think that everyone there was just as excited as I was to talk about being Catholic and what that means for the arts.

I won't give you the moment by moment play by play (though I totally could and wish you all could have just attended because it was truly something special) but I hope you'll be okay with a few highlights? My blog, so I do what I want. Apologies.

I had never heard of Heather King before this weekend. She dominated her keynote speech Friday night (there were several amazing speakers) and I bought her latest book because I don't want to forget to read more from her. I had the chance to speak with her later as we were getting things set up to have an open mic night (Amazing right?!) and she's just lovely. Lovely. Go read anything that has her name on it because she's wonderful.

In a moment of some much needed introvert alone time, I wandered the bookstore on campus because OH YEAH: I was on the Notre Dame campus. As I sipped my iced coffee and listened to MLBTV,  (let's go Royals, let's go) I found a unique copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. 

I used to be a fiction reader. I mean, I love Poe, so of course I love fiction. Somewhere, I just stopped. Over the weekend, I attended a session about the profane and the spiritual. It was a really interesting look into creativity and our faith. The other half of Sick Pilgrim (Jonathan Ryan) convinced me to go to the next session about Weird Fiction. So I ended up on a fiction high because I got to talk Poe. I went looking for Shelley next and I'm glad I did because look at that cover!

I met many incredibly talented and sweet people. Weird Catholics. People that swear and dye their hair weird colors and love Jesus. Smokers, drinkers, and people that don't get it all right the first time (12th time?) but are still trying because the Eucharist holds them here. People that are "Catholic curious" and people that maybe just aren't. Cradle Catholics and converts. People like me that have had a really rough time with other Catholics and feeling "Catholic" enough just because we are figuring out the gray areas a little differently and questioning how we can best be faithful while showing others love.

The last panel I attended was one that had six or seven women discussing, well, women. The women on the panel were journalists, bloggers, authors with different voices and perspectives and the panel was the brainchild of Colleen Mitchell. When I went to thank her and congratulate her on a job well done, she pulled out a copy of one of her books, signed it, and handed it over. Such generosity.

In sum, incredible. It was such a privilege to meet so many Catholics that are where I am or have been where I am that understand it. It was not meant as a retreat (I don't think) but it felt like one. All my favorite things were in one place: the Catholic faith,  music, art, and literature. To cap it all off, my roomie for the weekend and I went rogue and went to see Wonder Woman. It's all I've thought about since, so it was obviously the best idea I've ever had. Be prepared to hear me gush in the near future, if nap times allow.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Tale of Two Shirts

One lavender top that worked well with my maxi skirt but not so well with a particular pair of jeans that I spent the entire first night of my dream job adjusting and regretting, and I was The Girl With Modesty Problems for the rest of the summer.

Let me back up. I was 19. I was working for a summer catechetical program that I still adore. I was Shut the Front Door level excited to have been chosen not only for a camp team, but then to write the modesty talk. This was me:

So young. Such annoying camera cheese.

Then the first night of our first parish assignment, I changed out of my Sunday best skirt to wear jeans for our first high school night, but I grabbed the wrong pair of jeans so there was a bit of skin when I sat. I was really self-conscious about it and could not focus on my teammate's talk for the night. I even sat in the back row. Which is how the older, former teacher saw it and instructed my team leader to talk to me. A week later, my camp boss let me know he was considering switching me over to the Marian talk. 

I spent the next three weeks perfecting my "Thoughts, Words, Actions" modesty talk and figured out I was terrible at a capsule wardrobe. #thingsyoudonotknowatnineteen

I wanted my talk to be different, because things like this were happening in parishes:

Teens were burned out on the clothing talks. They showed up to swim parties and hang out nights covered from fingertip to toes to joke with us. I get it. I've been over it and frustrated with the dress code modesty rules each and every one of the dozens of times I have heard it as a teen and as an adult. 

Telling women to cover and hide parts of their body does not protect men or women. It sets the ground work for assault and victim blaming. 

Look. I'm not here to demand women have the right to walk around nude. I'm not vein-popping shouting that men should look away. I'm suggesting clothing is not the problem, and if we continue to play like it is, we are hurting our sons and daughters. 

I'd love a cultural shift that turns the fashion industry into something that works for women. Women come in all shapes and sizes. I would love to see silhouettes and lines in clothing reflect that in a more diverse way. That's not really where we go with the modesty debate though, is it? Instead, we filter people into the Always Nude Naysayers, and the Flowy Floor-Length Turtleneckers. We decide to focus on clothes, and ask women to take on the pressure of modesty while our men get it together. Then, we ask what sexual assault victims were wearing when a crime is committed against them. 

During the second half of my summer teaching, I was in a better rhythm. I went shopping over the break with my teammate  new-found BFF and found a shirt combo I loved. It was orange! It was long enough to cover my torso! It was in that ridiculous style that I had envied all through high school where you wear a white tank underneath to avoid cleavage! I felt pretty! All things good, right?

We wear our favorite shirt on our birthday.

Then came the week of the high school boys camp. My BFF and I had a modesty debate with a priest. It was heated but probably the most fascinating conversation I had been a part of to date. I was learning. I was experiencing new things. I was enjoying the heck out of my summer, and didn't want it to end. I was on my way to the chapel one night when my team leader again approached me and asked me to change my shirt. He said one of the high schoolers had asked him to ask me to change. My team leader (seminarian) could not have felt more awkward asking, and I was mortified. It was the worst moment of my life to date. I changed and remembered my team leader's words "At least he was listening to the talks?"

I am no less mortified by the moment all these years later, though for different reasons. I wish I had been better at dressing my body. I wish one of my male coworkers had stood up for me. I wish that I'd had a better understanding of modesty and the concept of being brothers and sisters in Christ. I wish that my Catholic education had better addressed the concept of femininity so that I didn't feel so lost. 

I'd always been a jeans and t-shirt kind of gal. I didn't know how to wear the tops and outfits that my peers wore. I didn't know how to dress my body type: I was tall, long-legged, with a long torso and large-chested. (Hence the t-shirt and jeans uniform. ) I was beginning to figure all that out in college. As a grown woman, I see the ways the modesty message I received was flawed. I see the ways I can resolve those issues for my kids. I don't want them to be so stuck on hemlines and custody of the eyes that they don't learn character or the inherent beauty of men and women. 

I was reprimanded twice that summer for wearing inappropriate shirts: One that showed the slightest bit on my back and one that supposedly was meant to draw attention to my chest. Nothing was said about the concert shirt I wore repeatedly. The band has a multitude of songs that are misogynistic, including one called "Date Rape." Looking through the photos, that is the one I regret the most.

I don't want to be *that* woman. The woman that jumps to the most extreme example every time. I don't read the word "modesty" and counter with "RAPE!" I believe it is a good thing to raise our children to care about others. I think it is a good thing to teach our children how to dress their body types, and to dress appropriately for whatever activity is on the agenda. It is good and healthy to help them find things that allow for movement and comfort. I just don't want them to think that a piece of clothing means my daughter is partially to blame for a crime committed against her or that my son would somehow be absolved from said crime because of what she was (or wasn't) wearing. This line of thinking works in more "trivial" situations also: magazines on the rack, sporting events, dances, the mere act of being at school. Women experience various act of harassment often from the very moment puberty hits. It does not matter how modest the clothing. The lack of respect does not come from immodest dress: the push for modesty is meant to address the lack or respect, and it is lacking.