Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.
Kris Kitko leads chants of protest at an abortion-rights rally at the state Capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota, March 25, 2013. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)
According to a recent United Nations report, North Dakota is torturing women. Seriously. Juan Méndez, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on torture, has included lack of access to abortion in his yearly report on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Considering North Dakota’s new law which bans abortion after six weeks, it stands to reason that the state is torturing its female citizens.
I’m not trying to be trite—I do believe, as Méndez does, that forcing women to carry pregnancies they don’t want is cruel:
International and regional human rights bodies have begun to recognize that abuse and mistreatment of women seeking reproductive health services can cause tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering, inflicted on the basis of gender. Examples of such violations include abusive treatment and humiliation in institutional settings; involuntary sterilization; denial of legally available health services such as abortion and post-abortion care.
But if you believe abortion is a “convenience,” rather than a human right, saying as much is controversial. To the American anti-choice movement, it’s even laughable.
But how else would you describe laws that are meant to punish women for being sexually active? Sure, anti-choice legislation and activism prides itself on showy pro-woman rhetoric. Women’s Right To Know! Women Deserve Better Than Abortion! But at the end of the day, forced pregnancy is less about protecting women or “life” than it is about punishment and humiliation.
Rape exceptions are the clearest example. While I agree that forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy that is the result of rape is an even further assault on women’s bodily integrity, the foundation of a rape exception is that some women “deserve” abortions and some don’t. The underlying message is pretty clear—a woman who has been forced to have sex has done nothing wrong, a woman who had consensual sex has. (Bill Napoli’s now-infamous example of a “sodomized virgin” comes to mind.”)
Other restrictions and attempted limits on abortion access prove just as transparent. In 2007, for example, legislators in Ohio pushed a bill that would have mandated women get a written not from the father of the fetus before being able to obtain an abortion. If they didn’t know who the father was, they would not be allowed to access the procedure. This is about humiliating women and making the decision to have an abortion as difficult as possible.
A report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, Reproductive Rights Violations as Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: A Critical Human Rights Analysis, points out that degrading treatment is defined as an act “aimed at humiliating the victim, regardless of whether severe pain was inﬂicted.” Anti-choice legislation seems to be written with that exact goal in mind.
Ultrasound laws—frequently called women’s “right to know” laws—are pushed under the guise of making sure women fully understand what they’re about to do. As if women are so stupid that they don’t realize what getting an abortion is. One Rhode Island doctor said a bill mandating ultrasounds before abortions “turned the ultrasound into a torture machine.” And for women whose wanted pregnancies are ending, these laws are beyond cruel. One woman in Texas who was forced to have three sonograms in one day and listen to a doctor describe her doomed fetus in detail called the experience a “superfluous layer of torment” and recalled sobbing throughout the procedure.
Can anyone really argue that Savita Halappanavar was not tortured in Ireland? Despite excruciating pain and the fact that her pregnancy was ending, Savita was denied an abortion because doctors wanted to wait for her fetus’s heartbeat to stop. She died in pain asking for help. It’s the same fate Republicans would have for American women—don’t forget the ironically named “Protect Life Act” that would have allowed hospitals to deny dying women life-saving abortions.
Americans are catching on. The majority of people in the U.S. consider themselves “pro-choice,” and though most support some sort of limits on access, many are wary of punitive legislation like ultrasound laws and laws that allow health care providers or pharmacists to deny procedures or medications. And the more people find out what these restrictions are really about—as they did with ultrasound mandates thanks to media and social media—the more likely, I believe, they’ll be to oppose them.
So perhaps there is progress being made. But the fight won’t end until all women—whether they’re in North Dakota, Ireland or anywhere else—can access abortion without shame, fear, humiliation or government interference. Anything else is cruel—and yes, torture.
Believe that marriage rests on love and compassion? As Tom Tomorrow quips, that makes you a pervert.
Trent Mays, left, and Ma’lik Richmond sit in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, March 15, 2013. (Reuters/Keith Srakocic)
Feminists breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday when two young men in Steubenville, Ohio, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, were found guilty of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl. In a case where social media, texts and video painted a clear-as-day picture of the horrors that happened that night, anything other than a guilty verdict was unthinkable.
But the trial outcome doesn’t change the fact that these two men, along with a party of onlookers, didn’t think anything was wrong—or even out of the ordinary—about sexually violating someone. And as the media and public response to the trial demonstrated, it’s not just the rapists who believe penetrating an unconscious girl is little more than teenage party hijinks. The truth is that for all of our cultural bluster surrounding rape—how awful it is, how it must be stopped—we’re still a country that treats sexual assault as a joke.
On the night of the assault, the rapists and their friends were so sure they were doing nothing wrong that they broadcast their crimes on social networks and kept photographic momentos. Mays and Richmond joked about the rape, sending pictures to friends and sending texts peppered with “LOLs.” Mays even texted a friend that “she was naked the whole time but she was like dead.” Bystanders at the party similarly looked at the assault and humiliation of this unconscious girl not as rape or something to worry about, but as typical party fare.
One teen who testified took a cell phone video of Mays digitally penetrating the victim in a car, and also saw Mays try to get the girl to perform a sex act on him but “she didn’t really respond to it.” Another witness walked in on the girl being raped by Richmond, did nothing and left the party. When asked why he didn’t stop the assault, he said he didn’t realize it was rape: “It wasn’t violent… I thought [rape] was forcing yourself on someone.” This same teen has taken keys away from a drunk friend earlier in the night. He knew that driving drunk was dangerous, but not that there was anything wrong with penetrating an unconscious girl.
Even in the days after the rape, text messages show that the seriousness of the assault—or the idea that it was an assault at all—was lost on Mays. He wrote to a friend, “I shoulda raped her since everyone thinks I did.” Mays even texted the victim that she should have thanked him for taking care of her.
This attitude wasn’t limited to students—text messages also indicate that football coach Reno Saccoccia led the young men to believe what happened wasn’t a big deal: “Like, he was joking about it, so I’m not worried.”
Even once the defendants were found guilty, the fact that they had committed rape still seemed to escape them—Mays apologized for taking pictures of the assault, not for the assault itself.
Since the verdict, the teenage victim has been attacked on social media—she has been faulted for drinking too much, for agreeing to get into a car with boys and for “ruining” the lives of her rapists by bringing charges. The harassment has gotten so bad that two women were just charged with threatening the victim on Facebook and Twitter.
CNN’s coverage of the verdict—which consisted largely of bemoaning the lost “promising” lives of the rapists—was so outrageous it bordered on parody. (Literally: a much-criticized segment sounded suspiciously like this Onion video.)
This kind of response, sadly, has come to be expected. It’s a continuation of the same old story—a narrative that started long before Steubenville. A story that says everyone is overreacting, this isn’t a big deal, this is PC-ness run amok. It’s a common story in a country that doesn’t have a real understanding of what rape really is.
Decades of feminist work on rape awareness may have changed policy, but it has done little to change the culture. In fact, the legislative progress we’ve made on sexual assault often provides a rhetorical shield for those who don’t want to admit we live in a rape culture: How can that be possible?! Rape is illegal! No one condones it!
But are we really that surprised that these two young men didn’t think their actions were wrong?
Videos of young men running up to women they don’t know just to grab their ass or stomach and run away are played for laughs on shows like Tosh.0. (The show is run by a comedian who garnered tremendous support after he “joked” about a woman in his audience being gang raped.) A “funny” montage of women’s breasts shown at the Oscars included rape scenes. We have handfuls of qualifiers—date, legitimate, forcible, gray—that we throw in front of “rape” because we want to know if an assault was a “real” rape or one of those non-rapes Republican politicians keep talking about.
And it’s not just rape that’s the joke—it’s women. Our very existence is presented to young men as fodder for sex and laughs, our humiliation and pain as goalposts for their masculinity. Basically, we’re anything other than people deserving of respect and humanity. While mainstream culture fools itself into thinking that Americans take rape seriously, most women know better. We get the joke. We’re just tired of being the punchline.
Unless jock culture changes drastically, Steubenville-type incidents aren’t going away anytime soon, Dave Zirin writes.
Activists protest the cover-up in the Steubenville rape case at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio. (AP Photo/Steubenville Herald-Star, Michael D. McElwain)
Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman are the editors of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.
Editor's Note: The two Steubenville, Ohio, teenagers charged with raping a 16-year-old girl this summer were found guilty on Sunday. We'll have more on the case in the coming week. In the mean time, read Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman's take on what we can learn about consent and rape culture from the case, below.
If a woman doesn’t say “no” to sex—is that the same thing as saying “yes”? That’s the question at the center of the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial that began this week. The defense for two high school football players accused of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl will focus on issues of consent, specifically what “consent” really means. To defense attorney Walter Madison, who is representing one of the accused men, consent is not an affirmative “yes.” He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that what happened wasn’t rape because the young woman “didn’t affirmatively say no.”
But the absence of a “no” is not the same thing as the presence of a “yes.” And until American culture and law frames sexual consent as proactively, enthusiastically given, there will be no justice for rape victims. It’s time for the US to lose the “ ‘no’ means no” model for understanding sexual assault and focus on “only ‘yes’ means yes” instead.
It’s already true, under most state laws, that a woman doesn’t need to say “no” in order for her assault to be considered a rape. But our cultural understanding of rape is so muddled with “only ‘no’ means no” doctrine that lawyers often only need to suggest to juries that the victim didn’t object, or didn’t object loudly enough, in order to secure a not-guilty verdict.
When the University of Montana football player Jordan Johnson was acquitted this month, for example, an alternate juror told the press that the victim had given “mixed messages and comments to friends” about the assault. The young woman had admitted she didn’t scream during the alleged rape, and wrote a note to a friend expressing guilt that she didn’t fight back hard enough. The jury interpreted her lack of a clear “no”—here linked to common signs of trauma—as evidence she could have wanted to have sex.
But this kind of logic doesn’t fly in real life sexual interactions. Are all women really to be considered willing sexual participants unless otherwise stated? If we flirt with someone, or even kiss them, does that give them permission to do whatever else they want to our bodies until we strenuously object? Is this the kind world we want for women—or for sex, for that matter?
The only way to know that sex is consensual is if there’s a freely and clearly given “yes.” This may sound radical to the uninitiated, but don’t we all want to make sure we’re only having sex with people who are actually interested? Ensuring enthusiastic consent requires only the most basic respect we all owe our partners in the first place: paying attention to how they’re doing, and asking them if we can’t tell.
It’s not that difficult. But even if it were, it’s the only way to ensure a genuinely equal world in which women’s bodies aren’t presumed to be available to men until otherwise stated. Without an affirmative consent model, rapists will continue to go free based on outrageous arguments about whether or not their victim didn’t want it enough. Current research demonstrates that most rapists already know they don’t have consent. It’s the rest of us who are confused. Affirmative consent removes this confusion.
Late last year, the Connecticut State Supreme Court overturned a sexual assault conviction for a man who attacked a woman with severe cerebral palsy, who according to court documents has the “intellectual functional equivalent of a 3-year-old.” Because of the way consent is defined in state law around rape and physical incapacitation, the court said because the woman was capable of “biting, kicking, scratching, screeching, groaning or gesturing,” she could have communicated a lack of consent. But why should she have to? Is her body considered free property unless she bites hard enough? In the absence of a law built on affirmative consent, her rapist remains free to strike again.
Similarly, the Steubenville defense attorneys say the teenage girl in this case was not “substantially impaired,” the Ohio standard for being unable to consent to sex. Despite widely circulated pictures of the young woman’s limp body being dragged by the two accused, the defense insists she was conscious enough to say “no” because after the alleged assault she was able to give someone a passcode to unlock her phone. Remembering a habitually used four-digit number is not a “yes.”
But in a culture that insists women prove they didn’t want to have sex, anything becomes “yes.” A passcode. The fact that the young woman got into a car with a group of boys willingly. Even the victim’s silence becomes a “yes”; Madison told the press, “The person who is the accuser here is silent just as she was that night, and that’s because there was consent.”
There is something seriously broken with our system and our culture when a teenage girl who is so incapacitated that her peers mocked her as a “dead girl” could actually be considered—even for a moment—able to consent to sex.
We’ve already made strides in reframing the way we think—and prosecute—sexual assault. It was just last year—after many years of work by activists—that the FBI changed its archaic definition of rape from “forcible” assault of a woman to penetration (of any gender) without consent. It may take some doing on all our parts to make this next shift, but if we’re serious about preventing the next Steubenville, it’s time to get serious about affirmative consent. Only a “yes” can mean yes.
The Occidental College administration broke its promise on reporting sexual assault cases—and students are speaking out. Read more in this week’s “Dispatches from the US Student Movement.”
Zerlina Maxwell. (Fox News)
Of all the feminist ideas that draw ire, one would think that “don’t rape” is a fairly noncontroversial statement. It seems not.
Last week, Zerlina Maxwell, political commentator and writer, went on Fox News’ Hannity to talk about the myth that gun ownership can prevent rape. Maxwell made the apt point that the onus should not be on women to have to arm themselves but on men not to rape them:
I don’t think that we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there…You’re talking about this as if it’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone you know and trust…If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.
And with that, the floodgates of misogyny opened. Right-wing media outlets like TheBlaze oversimplified Maxwell’s comments, writing that her call to teach men not to rape was “bizarre.” Online, Maxwell started receiving racist and misogynist threats—including, ironically enough, threats of rape.
The reaction to Maxwell’s comments, while horrific, are not entirely surprising. Women who speak their mind—especially women of color—are often targets of harassment and threats. But what I find most telling is the incredulousness people are expressing over the notion that we teach men not to rape. Crazy talk!
Here’s the thing—when you argue that it’s impossible to teach men not to rape, you are saying that rape is natural for men. That this is just something men do. Well I’m sorry, but I think more highly of men than that. (And if you are a man who is making this argument, you’ll forgive me if I don’t ever want to be in a room alone with you.)
And when you insist that the only way to prevent rape is for women to change their behavior—whether it’s recommending that they carry a weapon or not wear certain kinds of clothing—you are not only giving out false information, you are arguing that misogyny is a given. That the world will continue to be a dangerous and unfair place for women and we should just get used to the fact. It’s a pessimistic and, frankly, lazy view on life. Because when you argue that this is “just the way things are,” what you are really saying is, I don’t care enough to do anything about it.
Do people making this argument really want to live in a world where we just shrug our shoulders at epidemic-levels of sexual violence and expect every woman to be armed? (And little girls, do we give them guns too?)
The truth is that focusing on ways women can prevent rape will always backfire. Not only because it’s ineffective—what a woman wears or what she drinks has nothing to do with whether or not she’ll be attacked—but because it creates a culture in which women are responsible for men’s actions. Because when you say there are things women can do to prevent someone from raping them—owning a gun, not walking in a certain neighborhood—you are ensuring that rape victims who don’t take these steps will be blamed.
Rape can be prevented by focusing on men and misogyny. All rapes, ever? No. But creating a world with less sexual violence starts with abandoning the awful idea that rape is an inevitable part of life. That’s not naivete—it’s hope and it’s action. And that’s better than complacency any day.
What does Oz the Great and Powerful owe to turn-of-the-century radical feminism? Read Michelle Dean’s take.
Pro-choice activists stand outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization Inc., Mississippi’s only remaining commercial abortion clinic. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Feminists got two great pieces of news on the violence against women front this week. First, the Violence Against Women Act was passed—and not the watered-down Republican one either! This version of VAWA contained protections for the LGBT community and allows Native American courts to prosecute non-Native perpetrators on tribal land.
Then we learned that Girls Gone Wild—the exploitative porn empire that targets young intoxicated women—filed for bankruptcy. As I said on Twitter, I’m pretty sure a feminist angel got her wings as proprietor Joe Francis signed on the dotted line.
But in the same week we got this great news, a rape survivor at the University of North Carolina was threatened with expulsion for “intimidating” her rapist by becoming an anti-rape activist, there was another attack on Planned Parenthood, a Kansas bill moved forward that would allow doctors to lie to pregnant women in an effort to prevent them for getting abortions and a 9-year-old girl of color—a child—was called a “c*nt.” One step forward, twenty steps back.
It reminds me of a question I get asked a lot when I speak to younger feminists: How do you continue to do this work when it’s just so depressing?
Every day, there’s another piece of bad news. A lawmaker says something egregious about rape. A sexist law passes. A movie or television show or viral video promotes an awful stereotype about women and sexuality. That doesn’t even get into the outrageous number of women across the United States who will be sexually assaulted or had violence done to them by their partners. (And that’s just in this country!)
On top of dealing with the sheer awfulness of the way misogyny operates in the world, those of us who do feminist work—from writers and nonprofit workers to everyday activists—have to deal with the people around us insisting that we’re imagining the whole thing! Lindy West at Jezebel calls it “sexism fatigue”:
I am tired of being called a shrieking harridan for pointing out inequalities so tangible and blatant that they are regularly codified into law. I am tired of being told to provide documentation of inequality in the comments sections of a website where a staff of smart women documents inequality as fast as our fingers can move. Like, you might as well write me a note on a banana peel demanding that I prove to you that bananas exist. I am tired of being asked to “cite sources” proving that sexism is real (that RAPE is real, even!), because there is no way to concisely cite decades and decades of rigorous academia.
I want to be able to tell younger feminists that it gets better, that you don’t mind the emotional exhaustion, the anger and the sadness that can come from doing this work. But I can’t. So this is what I tell them:
Try to feel grateful for the feminist fatigue. A lot of people do this work out of sheer survival—the ability to notice your exhaustion and anger and sadness means you have space in your day and in your head, a privilege not afforded to many. So shift your thinking, and consider how lucky we are to be having this conversation.
Embrace the anger. It’s fine to be pissed off—too often we’re so busy trying to shirk the angry feminist stereotype that we forget how being passionately mad can light a fire under your ass. No one does this better than the inimitable Staceyann Chin in a spoken word piece that should be every online feminist’s manifesto: “Tweet This, You Small-Minded Motherfucker.”
Embrace the joy and find community. The truth is that feminists are some of the most fun people I know. They play drinking games, dance like they mean it, speak satire to power and build communities that will support you when no one else does. This is a movement of bad-asses, and—like me—you may find some of your best friends here.
Spend energy wisely. You already know that your activist energy—be it physical, mental or emotional—is a precious resource. Don’t waste it by talking to brick walls. This will frustrate you and change nothing. Consider doing your work in terms of specific goals. Maybe you can’t take down the patriarchy, but you can change a school policy on sexual assault, get a local pharmacy to carry Plan B, or help a friend. Feminist work is a lot more manageable in small pieces—it allows you “wins” that energize, and chips away at broader structures.
Create something. A blog, a tweet, a zine, a T-shirt, a march—have something tangible to scrawl your energy across.
Above all, don’t forget that this work isn’t just important, it’s necessary. So take care of yourself, acknowledge it’s hard and then get back to it. We need you.
This year’s Oscars were an object study in sexism (and more). Read Michelle Dean’s take.
Oscar Pistorius is led from the Boschkop police station east of Pretoria en route to court for his bail hearing as a suspect in the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. (AP Photo)
Here we go again. Another woman shot dead by her partner, another round of media coverage fawning over the killer. Just over two months ago, it was Jovan Belcher—he was called a “family man” after shooting and killing Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and mother of his newborn daughter. Today its South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, who has been charged with the murder of his 29-year-old girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Just one day after shooting Steenkamp four times, Pistorius has been called “calm and positive” and “inspirational.” (Steenkamp? She’s been called “a leggy blonde.”)
One reporter at The New York Times who spent a week with the double-amputee athlete, wrote that Pistorius was “not as cautious as he always should be…but I didn’t see anger in him.” The headline is “The Adrenaline-Fueled Life of Oscar Pistorius.” He was just an impulsive guy!
Give me a break.
Early media reports speculated that Pistorius shot Steenkamp mistakenly, believing she was a burglar. But prosecutors don't share that view. After all, the police had been called to his home multiple times in the past for domestic altercations. We’ve seen this happen before—many, many times before—yet still we insist on lying to ourselves. This murder may have happened in South Africa, but the misogynist response to the crime has become a familiar theme here in the United States.
The national conversation around domestic violence murders is not a discourse as much as it is a fairy tale—a narrative we create to make sense of the madness. After all, it’s more comforting to believe that Belcher had brain damage than it is to admit that someone people so admired was a controlling, violent abuser. It’s easier to think that Pistorius accidentally shot Steenkamp than realize the murder is a foreseeable end to a violent relationship.
It’s why we blame dead women for the unthinkable violence done against them—mostly because of misogyny, but also because it provides a false sense of safety. In the days after her murder, Perkins was criticized for staying out late (the nerve!), accused of trying to leave him and “take his money.” Given the sexualized descriptions of Steenkamp, I’m sure it won’t be long before someone suggests she somehow brought this on herself—she was making him jealous or flirted too much. We need to believe that these women did something to cause the violence, because then it means the same thing would never happen to us. (We’re not like “those girls!”)
Our culture is so attached to this myth making that some are willing to forgo all logic and ignore all facts. In the wake of Perkins’ murder, and now after Steenkamp’s, conservatives and gun enthusiasts insist that if these women were armed, they would still be alive. Never mind that both women lived in a house where guns were available, and yet they still died.
When I was a volunteer emergency room advocate for victims of rape and domestic violence, the first question we were trained to ask women who had been abused by their partners was whether or not there was a gun in the home. Because we knew that women whose partners had access to a gun were seven times more likely to be killed. In fact, women who are killed by their partners are more likely to be murdered by a gun than all other means combined.
Despite this tower of evidence, people will continue to insist that these women could have somehow stopped the violence. (Inaccuracies aside, the idea that women have a responsibility to keep someone from killing them rather than an abuser not to commit murder is baffling.)
The more we tell ourselves and others these lies, the more cover we give to those would do violence against women. We create a narrative where victims are to blame and abusers heroized. And perhaps worst of all, we create a culture where we fool ourselves into thinking these murders are something that just happens—unforeseeable tragedies rather than preventable violence.
The reality of domestic violence murders is stark and scary—but it is still the reality. And no amount of story-telling will stop the killings. Only the truth can do that.
A global movement to end violence against women, One Billion Rising, is taking off. Read Laura Flanders’s primer.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Pistorius claimed he had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar. In fact, early media reports speculated that, not Pistorius himself. The story has been corrected.
It’s generally a real pleasure to have you as a friend on Facebook. I appreciate that I can keep up on what the kids are listening to these days on Spotify and I thoroughly enjoy eyeing pictures of high school ragers. But I’ve noticed that lately your taste in “likes” has changed. It’s out with Bieber, in with Tosh.0.
You’ve indicated that you will be attending “Booty Slap Day” and have started to share videos of young men running up to women they don’t know in order to grope their behinds, run away and laugh—videotaping it all for hilarious posterity.
Now, I hate to get all Aunt Feminist Killjoy on you—but I love you and it’s my job. And I imagine you care about me too, at least enough to read on.
Here’s the thing: those guys running up to women just to grab their ass? Stuff like that happens to women all the time. It’s happened to me. When I was your age, guys—from boys in school to men on the subway—used to grope and touch me against my will too. I don’t know if any of them videotaped it or if they did it as a “joke”—all I know was that it was really scary.
Once it happened on my way to school on the train. I was wearing a dress because it was my seventeenth birthday. The subway was crowded and a man—I never saw his face—put his hand up my skirt and grabbed my ass right over my underwear. The memory of it still makes me feel like vomiting. This was just one incident—it’s happened to me at least a dozen times. The girls you know at school—girls you’re friends with?—I’m betting it’s happened to them, too.
Being touched against your will has become a twisted rite of passage for American females. It’s a reminder that you’re never safe anywhere. That your body is not really yours—but instead public property, there to be rubbed against by an old man or pinched and videotaped by a young one.
I know that a quick click on the “like” button may not seem like a big deal to you—but it scares me to think about the larger implications. I think about the high school kid in Steubenville, Ohio, joking and laughing about the unconscious teen girl in the next room who had just been raped by two of his classmates. That may seem a million miles away from “liking” a video—but it’s all part of the same world, the same culture that devalues women. Even laughing at a joke about rape supports the idea that women are less than and makes rapists think that you are like them. And the more you laugh at this stuff, the easier it becomes to take the ideas you’re laughing at more and more seriously.
Listen, I don’t think you’re an asshole who thinks it’s funny to do something that women find scary. You’ve been raised to think that this sort of stuff is all in good fun. Not by your parents necessarily, but by culture. You’ve grown up in a country where a Super Bowl commercial for Audi suggests that girls your age actually like it when a guy they don’t really know grabs and forces a kiss on them. (Seriously—they won’t like this.) You’ve been raised in a culture that positions women as existing just for sex, for humiliation, for objectification.
So please understand that I don’t blame you for partaking in the only kind of culture you’ve ever known. At least, I don’t blame you yet. Because here’s the thing—if you didn’t realize before that this kind of stuff is harmful and hurtful to women, now you do. So think of this as a chance to make a decision about what kind of man you’re going to be.
As you continue to grow up, you’re going to have plenty of opportunities (too many) to laugh at women’s pain, embarrassment or the sexual harassment and assault we face. These moments will define you. Will you laugh along? Share a video, like a status, laugh at a joke? Or will you say “no,” tell a friend that’s a fucked-up thing to say, and walk away?
Yes, if you choose the latter—the undoubtedly more difficult path—your friends may give you a hard time. They could laugh, call you a “pussy” or accuse you of not being able to take a joke. I’m sure that will be a pain. But it’s still the right thing to do. And you can be secure in your decision to stand with women—to stand with me—because you’ll know that you’re better than all that. Media, sexism, misogyny—all of these structures are depending on the idea that you won’t think deeply about the messages that are sent to you, that you’ll just accept them without consideration or critical thinking. But you’re better than the culture says you are. You’re smarter than that and you’re kinder than that. I know you are.
So please, the next time you’re considering sharing a video or laughing at a joke or saying something unsavory about a female peer—take the action seriously, think about what it really means. And consider your Auntie Feminist who loves you very much.
Read Jessica Valenti’s address to staff and supporters of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston.
On January 28, Jessica Valenti delivered a keynote address about anger, activism and reproductive rights to the staff and supporters of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, in Houston.
I’m honored to be in a room with such incredible activists and supporters of the wonderful work PP Gulf Coast does—so thank you for having me here.
Given that there’s news on women’s reproductive rights every day (most often none of it good), when I was thinking about what to say today, I had a hard time narrowing it down.
It’s really difficult to articulate the nuance and the complexity of issues like activism, women, politics, bodily integrity. Then I was reminded of this protest sign that I saw a picture of, and I wanted to share it with you because I think it perfectly captures the sentiment of this particular moment in the fight for reproductive rights:
There’s something about it—it’s simple, it speaks to all generations. And this is actually a picture from a demonstration in Virginia when the state was trying to mandate transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions—a mandate I know you all know very well because Texas was also on its way to passing one when this protest occurred.
So I wanted to show you this picture because its funny, but I also wanted to share it because there’s a story behind it.
I had posted a picture of this sign and a few others (and maybe they had a few more curses on them)—and I got an e-mail from a young man who asked me a question that I get asked a lot: Why are you so angry?
I imagine a lot of us in the room have been asked some iteration of this question. It’s a common one when you’re a feminist. Calm down, why are you so worked up? You seem so pissed off. And it’s a stereotype, really, of feminists—that we’re all angry.
So I was thinking of how I could respond this young man…and this is what I came up with, and I wanted to share it with you.
It’s not that I’m angry. I’m exhausted. The war on reproductive health and autonomy feels absolutely never-ending. In 2011, there was a record number of anti-choice laws enacted across the states and in 2012, we saw more than forty new state laws restricting women’s access to abortion.
The restrictions ranged from TRAP laws and ultrasound mandates to waiting periods and mandatory counseling—all of which end up hurting the most marginalized women in the US by making legal medical care more costly and harder to get. So while I’m thrilled that we’re celebrating Roe’s fortieth anniversary—if women can’t access abortion, then it’s not really legal for all of us.
If the Hyde Amendment still exists, then Roe doesn’t mean anything for the woman who can’t afford care. And if one woman in Texas can’t get the care she needs, then Roe isn’t fulfilling its promise.
I’m exhausted thinking about the fact that I’m still fighting a battle that my mother marched for. That so many years later, we’re working so hard to hold onto the rights we already have, that creating a proactive—rather than defensive—agenda seems like a pie-in-the-sky dream.
So it’s not that I’m angry. It’s that I’m shocked. Shocked at the extreme lengths some legislators will go to to limit women’s reproductive freedom.
One provision in Arizona allows doctors to withhold medical information from a woman about her pregnancy if they think it might compel her to get an abortion. So if your pregnancy is in danger, if your fetus has an abnormality—a doctor could keep you in the dark and that would be absolutely legal.
I’m shocked that given all of the ridiculous things said about rape recently, that a New Mexico law-maker thought it made absolute sense to propose a bill that would make it a third-degree felony to have an abortion if you were raped. A rape victim who had an abortion could go to prison for three years for “tampering with evidence.”
I’m shocked that when Ohio tried to pass their anti-choice heartbeat bill that would outlaw abortions as early as six weeks, they had a fetus “testify” by giving pregnant woman an ultrasound in front of the House. The pregnant woman didn’t speak, appropriately enough—only her fetus was allowed to make an appearance.
I’m shocked that in 2012, that there could actually be a controversy over birth control—something that we thought was a done deal decades ago. I’m shocked that in one county in North Carolina, the county board of commissioners unanimously voted to turn down a state grant that would cover birth control. The Chairman said, “If these young women are being responsible and didn’t have the sex to begin with, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
It’s not that I’m angry. I’m incredibly sad. Sad knowing that the people these laws will affect the most are the ones that need care the most—they’re the most marginalized among us: young people, women of color, low-income women, those that can’t afford to travel across the state or to take days off of work to access care.
I’m sad that women’s health and lives have become secondary to their ability to conceive. I don’t think any of us can forget HR358, the ironically named “Protect Life Act” that would have allowed hospitals and healthcare providers to deny sick women life-saving abortions.
I’m sad—heartbroken, really—that a woman here in Texas who found out that her wanted pregnancy was doomed was not only made to carry her sick fetus for twenty-four more hours because of a waiting period, but was actually forced to have another sonogram—her third of the day—and listen to a doctor describe her fetus in detail. When she wrote about her experience in the Texas Observer, she called it a “superfluous layer of torment” and recalled sobbing throughout the entire procedure as the doctors and nurses apologized for what they were being forced to do.
They call these laws a “Woman’s Right to Know.” As if we don’t understand exactly what is happening to us. As if we don’t already know that our well-being and health have nothing to do with laws that are created to make difficult days as awful as possible.
So yes, I’m exhausted and I’m shocked and I’m sad—and you know what? I am angry. I am furious. And I think I have a right to be.
I’m angry that if we use birth control or want our healthcare covered, we’re called sluts.
I’m angry that if we’re worried about attacks on contraception, we’re told to just put an aspirin between our knees.
I’m angry that the government can mandate that women have unnecessary invasive medical procedures, and that if we don’t like it we should just “close our eyes” or “look away.”
I’m angry that forty years after Roe, women are still fighting for recognition of our basic humanity.
So what I told this young man is—the real question is not why am I angry; the real question is, why aren’t you?
We have a right to be angry, we have a right to be sad, and shocked. We have a right to be exhausted. And I know from the battles you are fighting here in Texas that those of you here in this room are all of those things. And that’s OK. That anger, that sadness, it can help us do what we have to do. And I am angry and sad and exhausted with you.
But I also know that what brings us together is more than a confluence of hardships. We don’t do this work because of anger—we do it because of love. We do it because of compassion.
We do it because we know that the women who seek care from Planned Parenthood need help and support, and sometimes the day that they’re there is a really hard and scary day, and we want to make sure that someone is there for them.
One woman who came to Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast wrote to them about her experience of care there. She had previously identified as “pro-life,” and then she found herself with an unplanned pregnancy and needed help—and of course Planned Parenthood was there for her. She wrote:
“The one woman who will forever be a part of my heart was the ‘hand-holder’ volunteer. She was an angel of a woman who held my hand and told me everything was going to be okay. Her strength and nurturing way were remarkable…. Not once throughout this process did I feel judged.”
Sometimes when you do work like this, it’s easy to get lost in the enormity of it all—because these are enormous, important issues—women’s health, our right to bodily integrity; it’s a tremendous responsibility and it can feel incredibly overwhelming.
But at the end of the day this is about changing lives one person at a time. Yes, there are laws we need to fight against and laws we need to fight for to ensure that we can do this work, but what we have to remember is that the reason we do this is to help one person—the one person who is in front of us in a particular moment who needs help now, regardless of how much money they have, or what their gender identity is, or whether or not they call themselves pro-life.
And maybe that seems like simplifying the issue, but I think it’s the most important part of the work that Planned Parenthood does. Because to that one person that you’ve helped, you’ve changed their entire life—you’ve shifted the trajectory of their future, and increased their sense of well-being and safety.
You’ve ensured that on what may be the worst day of someone’s life, in a moment when it felt like no one could help them—you were there.
Sometimes we’re even fighting for a person who doesn’t know she’s going to need help down the line—but we’re there, making sure that if and when she does need support she will absolutely get it.
And that’s why I think the work that Planned Parenthood does is so life-affirming. You’re showing people that their health and lives matter, that their experiences matter. Most importantly, you’re showing them that they’re not alone.
And that’s what I think of when I think of Planned Parenthood and the work that so many activists in Texas and across the country are doing. It’s not about birth control or abortion. It’s about compassion, and community, and the insistence that women be respected and supported. It’s about affirming our basic humanity.
So in spite of the sadness and anger I feel when I think about how women’s rights are attacked, when I’m in a room like this one, what I feel the most is gratitude.
I’m grateful for the generation that came before me who continue to fight and who paved the way. I’m grateful for all of the amazing young activists who fight this fight despite being told over and over again that young people don’t care about reproductive justice—a myth that is very far from the reality I see every day.
I’m grateful to the people who support Planned Parenthood—be it through time and energy, or through their pocketbooks.
And most of all, I’m grateful for what we create when we come together in a room like this. It’s more than just activist energy, it’s community. A community of compassion, of understanding, and a community of non-judgement.
It’s a community I’m incredibly proud to be a part of. And it’s a community I know has lasting power because what we are doing here is not just the compassionate thing to do—it’s the right thing to do.
So thank you, for letting me be a part of your community today, and thank you to Planned Parenthood for showing the women of Texas that they are not alone.
Incursions on reproductive rights aren’t limited to red states. Read Jessica Valenti’s post on college rape victims.
A Marine recruit goes through basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. (Flickr/Expert Infantry)
Responding to the news that the Pentagon will lift the ban on women in combat, lawyer and former Marine Ryan Smith made an impassioned argument in The Wall Street Journal for why this new policy is such a bad idea: “It is humiliating enough to relieve yourself in front of your male comrades; one can only imagine the humiliation of being forced to relieve yourself in front of the opposite sex.” And here I thought those in combat would have bigger concerns than who will see you go number two.
However silly, Smith’s argument epitomizes why lifting the ban on women in combat is so important—and about so much more than military policy. The arguments against women on the frontlines have always been more about about reinforcing traditional gender norms and holding onto an outdated and sexist model of what a woman should be like, rather than military protocol.
Rick Santorum said women shouldn’t serve on the frontlines because of “emotions.” Elaine Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Readiness—an organization that seeks to limit military service of LGBT Americans and women—says that women aren’t physically up to the task (“they don’t have equal opportunity to survive”) and that mothers shouldn’t be allowed to be away from their children on long deployments. Tucker Carlson thinks women on the frontlines is just another form of violence against women. Some even think the fact that a woman can get pregnant is reason enough to ban her from combat.
One of the most common arguments, however, is that the chance of women being raped is just too high. In a 2007 Washington Post piece, Kathleen Parker wrote, “What kind of man, one shudders to wonder, is willing to allow his country’s women to be raped and tortured by men of enemy nations?” Setting aside the disconcerting possessive language, how is it ethical (or logical) to ban women from spaces in which someone else might commit violence against them? Rape on college campuses is at epidemic proportions, yet no one suggests that we ban women from universities. Or perhaps we should create a law that prevents women from marrying men—after all, there’s a chance they might end up with an abusive husband. It’s for their own protection! This particular argument also largely ignores the shockingly high rate of sexual assault within the military. It’s not always the “enemy” women in the military have to be afraid of.
Arguments against women on the frontlines have done little to protect and support actual women—in fact, they’ve been used to actively discriminate against women. When Phyllis Schlafly launched her (sadly, successful) campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, one of her major arguments was that the amendment would force women into combat.
What lifting the ban on women in combat will really mean is more opportunity for career advancement. The ACLU points out that women will now be eligible for tens of thousands of jobs that were once only available to men.
But perhaps even more importantly, it will start to chip away at the benevolent sexism that clouds our culture and suggests that inequality is just another form of chivalry.
For more on the lies and conceits of American militarism, read Dave Zirin on the NFL’s distortion of MLK.
“Look over the numbers again.”
“The numbers of reports are too high.”
For two weeks, Melinda Manning—a former dean of students at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—was called again and again from school administrators hounding her about the school’s rape statistics. In a complaint filed this week to the US Department of Education, Manning, along with three students and one former student, claim that UNC pressured the dean to underreport sexual assault cases and harassed her when she wouldn’t. Manning also alleges that when she didn’t change the statistics, others did. (Colleges are mandated to report crime statistics to the DOE as part of the Clery Act.)
The complaint also details the way in which rape victims who came forward at UNC were mistreated. Annie Clark, who graduated in 2011, alleges that when she reported her rape in 2007 she was told by an administrator: “Rape is like a football game, Annie. If you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback and you’re in charge, is there anything that you would have done differently in that situation?”
After Andrea Pino was raped at a party—“I just woke up in my bed covered in blood and not knowing what happened”—she applied for medical withdrawal from classes due to PTSD and depression. Officials told her she was just “being lazy.”
While horrific, the actions taken by UNC to cover up the prevalence of rape at the school is not at all unusual. Colleges have become breeding grounds for injustice around issues of sexual assault. Ninety-five percent of campus rapes are never reported, and the small number of victims who do come forward are often stigmatized, harassed and mistreated. They have to live in dorms with their rapists and are made to relive their experience in front of student disciplinary boards who have no training in sexual assault cases.
An investigative report from the Center of Public Integrity also found that schools are able to limit their Clery reporting by directing victims to rape advocates instead of campus police because counselors aren’t required to disclose. They also frequently misclassify rapes as “non-forcible” sexual offenses. The report also showed that the punishment for campus rapists were outrageously minor. Common disciplinary actions included writing a research paper on rape or having the rapist pen a letter of apology to his victims. Perpetrators are almost never expelled. In fact, after one student revealed her terrible mistreatment at the hands of Amherst officials, it came out that the school had only ever expelled one student for rape in its entire history.
We know from tragic cases like that of Lizzy Seeberg—a young woman who killed herself after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault—that the consequences of ingoring the pervasive rape problem on college campuses goes well beyond issues of legal reporting and statistics. This is about women’s lives; this is about justice. And right now, we are failing miserably.
For more on America’s wantonly twisted attitudes toward rape, read Jessica Valenti’s take on victim-blaming.