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.

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.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Uninformed Ally Says What?

Sexual assault isn't exactly a great dinner party discussion. There is rarely a place on the Internet where strangers or acquaintances are able to learn or talk about it.

For several years, abuse and assault was my job. The conversation never ended, never dulled. I would wake up, go to work, then listen to survivors, plan support groups on it, have staff meetings on it, go to seminars and conferences to learn more about how to support survivors. Even the way I went grocery shopping was changed because of my work with survivors.

I'd wager there never is a great time to talk about the subject. Sexual assault is an ugly truth. It's something we don't want to know about. We don't want the experience, and we don't want to be reminded that it is reality.

Sexual assault and consent is messy. Complicated sometimes. It makes us confront our societal failures. Generalizations are easy. It is easier to tell ourselves that people are too sensitive, too careless, too irrational than it is to try to change the perpetrator's behavior or even our own beliefs.

I don't believe we want to hurt others. I don't believe we've all turned into combox trolls. So, this is me, trying to change the world. For those of you that have experienced sexual assault? I see you. I know you are there. The rest of us? We need to do our best to make sure that our words prove we are a reliable ally.

If you want to support sexual assault survivors, don't say these five things.

Because no one talks about their experience or because it hasn't happened to me, it isn't a pervasive issue. 


There are men and women in your life that have experienced assault. That isn't an educated guess, or a projection. Even if you have not, others have.

I was sexually assaulted and I am just fine, so those that are not fine aren't trying hard enough.


Every person in this world comes with their own unique set of baggage and coping skills. We all need different things to heal from trauma. If yours was a smooth ride, that is fantastic. Not everyone will have that same experience.

A spouse cannot rape their spouse.


A marriage vow is not blanket consent for sex.

Men can't be raped. 


Yes. They can. Rape is not simply vaginal intercourse.

If you don't want to be raped, don't do____.


No one deserves rape. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted. No one. We continually focus on the victims of rape because explaining away the circumstances gives us a false sense of control. If we don't do ___ and we tell others not to do ___ then, rape will not happen. But it will, because we are busy reacting instead of preventing.