Thursday, January 24, 2013

When Hate Goes Underground

So some of my activist colleagues were on NPR's Talk of the Nation last week. If you have a half hour sometime, you should listen to what they have to say. I love when well-informed people are breaking down rape culture. But what I was particularly moved by in this piece was those who called in. Most of them are on the front lines in working with rape victims and I'm so proud of the work that they're doing. 

One of the callers discussed working with survivors on understanding that what happened was "wrong". The host, Neal Conan, picked up on it, and so did I. The caller didn't say "rape", she said "wrong". And then she explained that she'd found a lot of times survivors didn't identify what happened to them as rape, even when that's exactly what it was. Which got me to thinking about the insidiousness of rape culture and it's ability to shake our foundation so that we don't recognize that a crime is being committed. Or if we do recognize it, we don't want to tell anyone about it because we will become one of "those women". (I'm using "women" here because of the statistically higher number of female survivors, but please note that there are male survivors too and they often have even more to culturally overcome).

Steubenville and New Delhi are all over the news. I've yet to meet anyone who isn't completely horrified by all that when down in those cases. And I am so proud of the strides we've made as a culture in recognizing that both these cases were gender-based hate crimes. That there was never even a question of "consent" or "no means no". In both these cases, women were being punished. For what exactly is still unclear, but I suspect if you really looked, it wouldn't take too long to find cultural precedents for rape or the devaluation of women and their sexuality.

But the media around these two cases also makes me wonder about when this hate goes underground and starts picking away at our foundation (which in truth has been happening all along). We are calling people out and we're holding them accountable...if not in court, then certainly in the media. And we're doing this more and more. So why haven't statistics changed? Why do people still not report rape? Why are offenders still frequently not prosecuted?

In exposing horrifying rape cases, are we indirectly perpetuating non-disclosure because survivors don't identify with the extremity of Steubenville and New Delhi?

Don't get me wrong. Do I think those cases deserve the attention that they are getting? YES. 100% yes. Always. Ever. Tell these stories. But do I wish that other stories were covered too? Stories of a man and a woman in a room, and a woman saying "no" and the man proceeding anyway? Stories of spousal rape? Stories of date rape? Sex worker rape? Prison rape? YES. 100% yes. Because as it stands, we're defining "rape" in the media as something that is not the norm of sexual assault.

I can't help but think of the history of racism in this country. When we got to the point where we started to prosecute Klan members and white supremacists, it's not like suddenly the culture changed. Racism didn't go away, it went underground. When I married Julio, no one was overtly racist about this, it was all subtle. "You and your children may have a hard life." As if a white guy wouldn't make my life hard. There was even seemingly positive racism, "Christa's marrying a black guy, but Julio's just like Theo Huxtable." Theo Huxtable was okay to marry, J.J. Walker (do not EVEN tell me you don't know Good Times) was not. Julio was the "other" of black men, the okay one who grew up middle class and had a college degree. And there were times when I was just as guilty of this subtle racism, going out of my way to immediately talk about Julio's job and general stability because it helped shut down the doubters. Poor Julio, it's a wonder he stuck with me. The point is: we are not above culture, we're in it. We perpetuate institutionalized racism and sexism even when we don't want to or don't think we're doing it.

This is the art project of a high school student

This is an ad for underwear
We ALL are participants in this. We don't live in trees where we're above perpetuating a rape culture. We write and read books where guys kiss girls who don't want to be kissed, but somehow in the midst of this non-consensual kiss, the girl succumbs to the dude's awesomeness. We watch movies where "benign" sexism or "broken and complicated" heroes are not only part of the plot, but are lauded for it. Think of that Jeff Bridges movie CRAZY HEART. He's a broken hero, but aren't we indirectly sending the message that abusive guys just need the love of a "good woman" like Maggie Gyllenhaal to set them to rights? Isn't that indirectly what women in abusive relationships are told over and over again? If you only loved him enough, changed this, helped him with your unconditional love, you wouldn't be abused. You'd save this guy. It's no wonder why it is difficult for an abused women to leave. It's not him, it's her. She should be good enough to save this broken asshole.

The other day, my family was watching HAIRSPRAY. It's one of my favorite family movies (full disclosure: I always skip over the "Miss Baltimore Crabs" song bc I hate the implication that she slept with judges to win a beauty contest...see? we ALL do it...even John Waters). And Julio asked me why I would let the kids watch HAIRSPRAY and not GREASE. My answer, "Because the message in GREASE is that if you don't let your boyfriend grope you at the drive thru, he's going to break up with you and the only way you'll get him back is to dress in provocative clothes that are totally contrary to who you are. The message in HAIRSPRAY is that beauty comes from the inside and that if you want things to change, you need to stand up and say This Isn't Okay."

So my call to action is: be aware of your choices, the things you say, the things you consume every day in your life. Recognize your participation and make steps toward reconfiguring the lens so that we don't benignly perpetuate messages of sexism, racism, etc. When hate moves underground, we have to be ever more vigilant about it because the chance for infection is all that much greater. We don't even see the sickness because it isn't obvious. This is where we are all bystanders. We justify and we allow it to exist because frankly, it's damn tiring sometimes fighting against it. And because we're sick of being the pissed off people. 

But I do believe that change can happen. If we open our eyes and start asking difficult questions, if we look at our own culpability, if we challenge our friends, our family, our partners. Maybe if more of us did it more often, we'd all be a little less pissed off and tired. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Shout Out To The Nice Guys

Do you know that when I first watched the Steubenville video, one of the first things that I noticed was the guy in the background saying, "Dude, shut up, I have a 14-year old sister." And later, "What if that was your daughter?" The fact of the matter is that the dudes I know, and frankly, most dudes in the world are good guys. They support ending sexual violence. Guy friends and friends of friends post about my blog, they tag me in FB links, they tell people about my upcoming book. The real truth is that we are inundated with good guys. The other real truth is that no matter what that guy said about his sister, he was at a party where a girl was being carried around unconscious and he didn't do anything.

I have this 17yo boy beta reader named Ricardo. Ricardo plays soccer, he also plays the violin, performs in school musicals, is applying to Ivy League schools for college, and teaches Sunday school with me every week. Even when he's super tired because he was out until 2am on Saturday night, he shows up for Sunday school. Ricardo is a good guy. He's a great guy. But even knowing this, knowing him, seeing him interact as a rockstar example to 5th graders every week, I did wonder what Ricardo would do when faced with a situation like that in Steubenville. What would he do if he were a bystander at that party? Would he come forward and stop it? Would he call the police? I would like to hope that he would. The reality of the situation is that it's sometimes damn difficult to step forward and be "the other" or the one guy saying, "hey, this isn't okay." It's hard for us as adults, for teens where a good chunk of every day is spent worrying about fitting in, I imagine it's close to impossible.

Part of the reason that I wrote Fault Line from Ben's perspective was that I wanted a young adult book about rape where dudes aren't vilified. I wrote that book for Ricardo and everyone who knows someone like Ricardo (which is frankly all of us). I want guys to read that book and connect with Ben, the good guy. Ben makes mistakes, but he's a nice guy. There are way more guys in the world like Ben than there are perpetrators. We know this. And I also want people to read that book and wonder what Ben could have done differently as a good guy. Because there's room for improvement in all of us.

Almost all of what Knight Sec has uncovered about the Steubenville case has been a result of people coming forward and giving it to them. The only thing that they hacked was one guy's email account. The controversial video was sent to them, not stolen by them. So basically, this group of anonymous people created a community where people could go and do something. Imagine if you're one guy faced with THAT coach and THAT football-loving town. Even if you're the most upstanding guy with a heck of a lot of integrity, being one voice of dissent probably feels like an exercise in futility. So my guess is that the community of "Anonymous" ended up being a God send to some people because it represented a way of coming forward to people that could do something to stop the "Rape Crew."

So here's what I said to Ricardo yesterday, "I will be your 'no questions asked' person. If you text me because you're in a dodgy situation or someone you know is in a dodgy situation, I will come and try to help you, no questions asked. I know that it isn't always easy to go to parents. So call me or text me and I will do what I can to help." I'm not trying to replace his parents or teachers or professionals, I'm trying to replace the option of inaction. I don't know if this is the right thing to do or not, but I know given the choice between him doing nothing or him texting me to ask me for help, I'll take the latter. He may never use that number, but he has it.

This, of course, was motivated by Steubenville, but I think it can apply to lots of stuff. I wonder how many fewer teens would drive drunk if they had a "no questions asked" person. I wonder how many possible out-of-hand parties where people and property were destroyed could have been prevented if there was a "no questions asked" person on the end of a phone. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting you sign on to be an enabler who becomes a drinking teen's "designated driver", I'm suggesting you sign on to be a better option than doing nothing. Because if we don't face the very real situations that teens come up against every day, things like Steubenville will keep happening.

My call to action: Be a "no questions asked" person to someone you are close with. Be a person who isn't there to judge but to help. This goes beyond being a first responder to rape who knows enough to say "I'm sorry" or "I believe you" or "I'll try to help you". This is being a person to someone before things happen or before they get so out of hand that lives are ruined.

Now is the opportunity to let people in your life know that they aren't alone and to acknowledge that for all that parents are, it is frankly sometimes difficult to go to them. Especially as teenagers. My best friend Rebecca and I have this deal with our kids that if there is anything that they feel like they can't talk to us about, they go to the other one and that person will be a safe person to talk to. I trust Rebecca. I trust her guidance and advice to my kids. And frankly, I know that my kids going to Rebecca is a heck of a lot better than them either doing nothing about a troubling situation or them trying to figure it out on their own.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

On Steubenville and where we go from here...

Warning: This might be triggering. I apologize in advance.

So most of you know that I was a rape victim advocate in hospital ERs in Chicago for almost 10 years. The job of an advocate is to be present for a rape victim to help empower them in what can arguably be a very confusing and re-traumatizing experience in the ER. Sometimes that was just holding their hands and explaining to them what's involved in a rape kit, sometimes it was providing information, sometimes it was helping mediate with loved ones, sometimes it was getting them a drink of water, sometimes it was reminding them that every choice that they made in the ER was "their" choice, and sometimes it was just saying, "I'm sorry this happened." Most people don't know how to be a rape victim so advocates can be really invaluable.

About ten years ago, I saw a rape victim in the ER who was from out of town. She had just moved to Chicago and didn't even have a permanent place to live yet. She didn't know anyone. I stayed with her through everything...including an incredibly painful physical examination where the OB doctor found four D batteries left inside of her.

Months later, I was speaking about this experience and one of the guys in the audience came up to me afterwards and said he was a high school teacher and he was quite certain that if I told that story to his classroom, most of the guys would just laugh and call the girl stupid. I was appalled when he told me this. How could this be true? What guy would hear about batteries being left in a girl after she was raped and laugh about it?

Now, ten years later, I am faced with the twelve-minute Steubenville video. If you don't know the story of the football players who raped the underage girl in Ohio, you should read this. It's important in understanding the culture we live in and in starting a dialogue about where we go from here. Because frankly, that guy in the audience was right. This unconscious girl was dragged from party to party with an ongoing video commentary that included sentences like, "she is so raped her pussy is as dry as the sun right now". This commentary was not from the rapists, but from another guy at the party. And there were quite a few people at the party.

So yeah...that's where we are. And now it is time for all of us to decide where we stand. Because if you don't see this as a gender-based hate crime, I'm not sure you understand our world and the culture of high schools. In the same way that the Penn State cover-up horrified us and set up a system of accountability for colleges, we are now at a place where we must hold each other accountable for shit that is happening around us. You've read my "don't be that guy" blog. I know that most of you don't want to be those guys. So don't be. Tell everyone you know not to be that guy. Pick the side of not being an asshole who has so little respect for another human being that you would treat her like a blow-up doll. Pick the side where you stand up and say something better than, "I guess Rape Me by Nirvana is the theme of the night."

I believe there is compassion in all of us. Even when we're at our most selfish and think the world revolves around us, there are moments when we are given the chance not to be d-bags. Take as many of those moments as possible. Dudes, you will get way farther with a girl as a person of compassion than you will as a d-bag. Remember this. It doesn't take that much energy not to be a dick. It doesn't take that much energy to call 911 when a girl is being dragged around unconscious. If you can't do it, set up a system where you text someone who will do it.

And for those of you who are older, have a conversation with the teenagers in your life. Tell them that you like them and you want them to be compassionate people of the world. Be the example in their life of not letting stuff slide. Make people uncomfortable if it makes them open their eyes and understand more. Listen to teens and figure out a way for them to use you as a resource. I tell my kids all the time, "If you don't want to be the bummer friend with the people you're hanging out with, feel free to throw me under the bus. I am happy to be the sucky mom who doesn't let you do stuff. I don't need to be cool."

Where do we go from Steubenville? Up...please...all of you, there is nowhere to go but up. Keep fighting, keep talking, keep setting an example, and take a hard look at the things that you do that perpetuate this sort of culture. Pick the side of not being an asshole. You could very well save a life.