Jessica Valenti | The Nation

Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti

Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.

Why Ending the Ban on Women in Combat Is Good for All Women

Women in Combat
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women on the frontlines have always been more about about reinforcing traditional gender norms and holding onto an outdated and sexist model of what a woman should be like, rather than military protocol.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.

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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.

The truth is that women are already dying in service to their country and are already on the frontlines, despite the existing policy.

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.  

No Justice for College Rape Victims

(Photo/Markus Schreiber)

“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.

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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.  

Asking For It

Australians march in a Slutwalk rally in Sydney, June 13, 2011. (Reuters/Tim Wimborne) 

Americans are very confused about rape. In the last few months—in the midst of high-profile cases and bumbling politicians’ gaffes—the national conversation about sexual assault is front-and-center. But instead of inspiring a proactive discourse on how to stop rape culture, much of the response has been centered around trying to “understand” rapists, or explain away why rape happens with such disconcerting frequency in the United States. We dismiss it as the actions of sociopaths, or insist that it’s just the result of miscommunication in an oversexed world.

Rape is a standard result of a culture mired in misogyny, but for whatever reason—denial, self-preservation, sexism—Americans bend over backwards to make excuses for male violence. This refusal to place responsibility with the perpetrator means we need to place it somewhere else—most often, with the victim. And while victim-blaming is nothing new, its pervasiveness serves as a stark reminder of women’s second class status—where we’re not actual people, just catalysts for men’s actions.

For example, while the public response to the widely covered Steubenville case has largely been supportive of the victim—thanks in part to pictures distributed online by partygoers that show the girl clearly unconscious—there has also been the standard victim-blaming. Accusations that the girl was known to be sexual (the horror!) have come out—as have comments that she shouldn’t have gotten so intoxicated, or that we shouldn’t “rush to judgement” against the accused.

Similarly, when hundreds of anti-rape marches called SlutWalks were launched after a Toronto police officer commented that if women want to avoid rape they shouldn’t “dress like sluts,” hostile responses to the protests were commonplace. (Some sample comments from CNN: “I mean we prosecute thieves but we also tell people to lock their doors when they go out.” “Yes you can blame the man who cannot control himself but if he is found guilty you should also be found guilty of being so inviting.”) 

But putting the onus on women to mitigate men’s sexual “desire” doesn’t just happen in rape cases. In Iowa, a dental assistant who was sexually harassed by her boss and eventually fired lost her discrimination case when the all-male state Supreme Court ruled that an employer can fire a woman for being “irresistible.” And a controversy around the dress code in NYC’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School was similarly motivated. Principal Stanley Teitel told a reporter, “Many young ladies wear denim skirts which are very tight and are short to begin with, and when they sit down, they only rise up, because there’s nowhere else to go.… The bottom line is, some things are a distraction, and we don’t need to distract students from what is supposed to be going on here, which is learning.” 

Even abstinence-only education classes get in on the fun. Girls are taught to “watch what you wear”: “If you aim to please, don’t aim to tease.” Another curriculum teaches that “Girls need to be aware they may be able to tell when a kiss is leading to something else. The girl may need to put the brakes on first in order to help the boy.”  

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This widespread cultural message could not be clearer: Men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable and therefore not their responsibility. It’s a fairly insulting view of male morality and sexuality, but it’s also one that allows the culture to put the blame for men’s bad (and criminal) behavior on women’s shoulders. 

But making women responsible for men’s sexuality isn’t just about excusing rape and sexual harassment. It’s a cultural rule that enforces the idea that this is a man’s world—women just live in it.

When Stuyvesant says that women’s dress and bodies are distraction in a learning environment, for example, what they’re really saying is that they’re distracting to male students. The default student we are concerned about—the student whose learning we want to ensure is protected—is male. Never mind how “distracting” it is to be pulled from class, humiliated, and made to change outfits—publicly degrading young women is small price to pay to make sure that a boy doesn’t have to suffer through the momentary distraction of glancing at a girl’s legs. When this dentist in Iowa can fire his assistant for turning him on—even though she’s done absolutely nothing wrong—the message again is that it’s men’s ability to work that’s important.

And when rape victims are blamed for the crime committed against them, the message is the same: This is something that happened to the perpetrator, who was driven to assault by a skirt, or a date, or the oh-so-sexy invitation of being passed out drunk. Women have infringed on their right to exist without being turned on. (Ta-Nehisi Coates describes this centering of male sexual vulnerability quite well.) Our very presence is a disruption of the male status quo.

There’s a lot of work to be done to dismantle rape culture—but a simple first step is to stop focusing on making the world more comfortable for men, and instead make it safer for women.

For more on the contradictions of American sexism, read Dave Zirin's take-down of the big men of Notre Dame. 

America’s Rape Problem: We Refuse to Admit That There Is One

The same week that a leaked video out of Steubenville, Ohio showed high school boys joking and laughing about an unconscious teenager in the next room who had just been raped—“They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson!”—House Republicans let the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expire. They opposed an expanded version of the legislation that had increased protections for the LGBT community, immigrants and Native American women.

This week we’ve also seen mass protests in India after a woman was brutally gang raped and died from her injuries. American media covering the Indian protests have repeatedly referenced the sexist culture, reporting how misogyny runs rampant in India. The majority of mainstream coverage of what happened in Steubenville (click here for a primer), however, has made no such connection. In fact, the frequent refrain in discussions of Steubenville in comment threads is that these boys are “sociopaths,” shameful anomalies. We’d rather think of them as monsters than hold ourselves accountable as a nation and tell the truth—these rapists are our sons.

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It’s not just the parents of the accused rapists or the boys who made jokes who are complicit—it’s not just Steubenville, a town criticized for putting their prized high school football team above the law and justice for a young woman. Steubenville happens every day in the United States, and we’re all responsible.

We live in a country where politicians call rape a “gift from God” and suggest that women regularly lie about being raped. Where a group of young men in high school think so little of sexual assault that they thought it was fine—hilarious, even—to post pictures online of a passed out rape victim, and to live-tweet the rape, joking about the victim being urinated on. We live in a country where media as revered as The New York Times finds it necessary to describe an 11-year-old gang rape victim as “wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.” Where a woman can be fired because her boss finds her “irresistable” and a woman’s rape case falls flat because she isn’t married.

It’s time to acknowledge that the rape epidemic in the United States is not just about the crimes themselves, but our own cultural and political willful ignorance. Rape is as American as apple pie—until we own that, nothing will change.

Undocumented women are some of the most vulnerable to sexual violence. Read how the GOP has left these victims with even fewer options. And don't miss anything from Jessica Valenti, by signing up for The Nation's weekly Feminist Roundup.

Our Walking Hearts

 A mourner attends a candlelight vigil at Ram's Pasture to remember shooting victims, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Last night I received an e-mail from my daughter’s daycare about the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. It outlined their emergency preparedness and evacuation plans, as well as a new “age appropriate lockdown drill…that will become as familiar as our classroom naptime routines.” My daughter is 2 years old. This is not the world I want for her.

Logically, I know I shouldn’t be afraid for Layla. The chance of her being hurt by violence like the kind visited upon Newtown is incredibly small. But logic doesn’t mean much when it comes to the fear of losing our children.

When I was pregnant, an early blood test indicated that my daughter might have a serious chromosomal abnormality that would have meant early death, if she survived the pregnancy at all. As I waited on the results of my amniocentesis, my husband and relatives consoled me with statistics—she had about a one in twenty chance of having the disorder, so numbers were on my side. But to me it felt like 50-50—either she was going to be fine or she wasn’t.

That’s how I imagine a lot of us feel now. How many of the parents in Newtown ever thought that their beloved first graders would be the unlucky, tragic few? Either your child will be fine or they won’t. It’s a terrible, out-of-control, heart-stopping fear.

It very well may be the fear of a parent—I don’t remember feeling like this over past national tragedies. Maybe it’s because I’m older, maybe it’s because I have a daughter. Maybe it’s simply because it’s children—so many children—who were the bulk of the victims. All of us, parents or not, instinctively feel how unnatural it is to lose babies in this unspeakably horrible way.

When President Obama gave his speech at the vigil in Newtown last night, I was glad that he repeated the saying likening parenthood to having your heart walking around outside of your body. It’s a quote I’ve thought of often since having my daughter—an especially apt sentiment when thinking about the incredible lack of control we have over what will happen to our children.

But if it’s fear that drives us to end this culture of violence and death, so be it. We should all be afraid, every day. Because until all kids are safe, none are. Until all children in all neighborhoods are protected—not just from mass shootings, but from all gun violence—we should not feel at peace.

As President Obama said last night, “We come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours.” We feel comfortable sending out children out into the world because the social contract tells us others will step in when we can’t. That’s what the teachers at Sandy Hook did. Maybe we’re afraid because we’re not holding up our end of the bargain.

If it’s fear that’s our initial motivator, though, let it be love that gives us the strength to put a stop to all of this. Because while fear is fleeting, love is not. And if we keep the love of our children at the front of our minds, maybe then we can remember that other children are just as fiercely loved—that they’re all our responsibility, our walking hearts, exposed and in need of protection.

A poem from Adrienne Maree Brown, love letter to the babies/they are all ours, has been playing over in my mind recently, this section in particular:

and then you came. from other wombs and other stories, but i knew you were also mine. i held you in my arms for the first time, felt your weight upon my chest, the shape of your whole fluttering life becoming solid in my hands. and i realized my ideas and theories would never come to life soon enough. to love a child is to know the limitations of time, and the horror of being in a particular moment of time, a hollowed out age where babies are collateral damage for borders and egos, among other things.

everyday the world reminds me that i cannot protect you. i don’t know if protecting children has been possible yet on this earth. i just believe that what we do, or allow to possibly be done, to our babies, in this world, at this time—that is the measure of our humanity.

It’s natural that we want to protect our own children. But it’s imperative that we seek to protect all of them. Only then will we have nothing to fear.

We must implement sane gun policies to protect our nation's children. Check out Sasha Abramsky on the gun control laws our country needs

Kasandra Perkins Did Not Have to Die

Photo via Instagram

A good person. Genuine. Pleasant. Nice. Hard-working. A family man. The media has used all of these terms to describe Jovan Belcher after he murdered Kasandra Perkins, shooting her nine times. In fact, these glowing descriptors are all from just one article in The New York Times. But don’t worry, there are plenty of pieces sharing lovely sentiments about the man who killed his girlfriend, the mother of his barely 3-month-old daughter.

While mainstream media and supporters of Belcher have no problem spouting off flattery, most are hesitant to call what happened domestic violence. They’ve gone out of their way to suggest that Belcher murdered Perkins—who friends called ‘Kasi’—because of sustained head injuries or because of alcohol or drug abuse. A police officer, Sgt. Richard Sharp, has even suggested that Belcher committed suicide after killing Kasi because “he cared about her.”

“I don’t think he could live with himself,” he said. What a romantic.

It’s horribly offensive to laud a man who murdered his girlfriend and left his daughter parentless. It’s also irresponsible. When the media reports domestic violence murders as random tragedies—or when individuals say the perpetrator must have “snapped”—they enable a culture of violence against women. Because when you don’t contextualize this violence as part of structural misogyny, you give credence to the myth that there was nothing anyone could have done to stop it.

Insisting that this murder or others like it are “unthinkable” or “shocking” is another way of saying that no one could have predicted it. (He was such a nice guy! A family man!) It’s a dangerous lie that allows us to wash our hands of responsibility when it comes to the violence that is perpetrated against women. Because the truth is that murders like this are predictable.

As Casey Gwinn, President of the National Family Justice Center Alliance, wrote,

Relationships do not go from healthy, happy and functional to murder-suicide overnight. It never happens. There is almost always a history and there is always a pattern. Over time it will be clear that friends, family, and colleagues knew things and saw things and did not take action.

Indeed, it has now come out that Belcher had a history of violence and controllingness in relationships with women. While at the University of Maine, campus police reports were filed when Belcher punched his fist through a window during a fight with a woman and again when police were called to break up an argument he had with his girlfriend after she failed to check in with him at a designated time. Belcher’s relationship with Kasi has repeatedly been called strained—so much so that the Kansas City Chiefs provided the couple with relationship counseling. (Which is actually not the right move, according to domestic violence experts.)

Reports indicate that Kasi was leaving or had left Belcher with their daughter. Women are most likely to be killed by their abusive partners when they try to leave—in fact, victims who leave an abusive relationship have a 75 percent higher risk of being murdered. Pregnancy and childbirth exacerbate violent relationships and young black women are eleven times more likely than white women to be murdered while they are pregnant or in the year after childbirth.

This is not rocket science—we know how women die when they are killed by their partners. We know what precedes it and we know what the relationship looks like before it happens.

We also know the excuses that are made for the men who kill. When University of Virginia student and lacrosse player George Huguely V beat his ex-girlfriend (she had just left him) Yeardley Love to death, he insisted it was because of an alcohol problem. Articles said he snapped. I’m sure his friends liked him. People were shocked. But in the weeks leading up to her death, Huguely sent Love an e-mail threatening to kill her, and witnesses had seen him physically abusing her.

There is a pattern that makes murders like Kasi’s and Love’s predictable and preventable. The only thing that seems to be questionable is the public responsibility and response to this violence.

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In the wake of Kasi’s murder, Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn said, “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?”

We have a moral obligation to take responsibility for the people in our lives, in our families and in our communities. Kasi Perkins did not have to die. We have to stop pretending that her murder and those like it are a shock or “random” tragedies. It may give some comfort to believe as much, but it’s not the truth. And don’t we owe her at least that much?

For more from Jessica Valenti, check out “She Who Dies with the Most ‘Likes’ Wins?” And sign up for Feminist Roundup, The Nation’s weekly newsletter, here.

She Who Dies With the Most 'Likes' Wins?

When I started blogging in 2004, I responded to every comment no matter how nasty the reader was. I was generally polite, believing that these critics would be so charmed by my professionalism that they would see the error of their misogynist ways and swifty run out to read a bell hooks book. Ha!

When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a TED talk in 2010, one of the issues she talked about—and later expounded on in her 2011 commencement speech at Barnard—was likability. “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” she said. This isn’t news to feminists, so what I can’t figure out is why—despite deep knowledge of this pervasive double standard—so many women still insist on being likable, often to their own detriment.

For me, it was wasting countless hours arguing with people on the Internet—giving equal time to thoughtful and asinine commenters—because I thought somehow it would show me to be fair and open-minded. It pains me to think of what I could have achieved if I had that time back.

Women’s likability is something feminists use as proof of inequity—he’s a boss, she’s a bitch—but not something we’ve put on par with standard feminist fare like reproductive rights or pay inequality. Because there’s no policy you can create to make people like successful women. There’s no legislation to fight for or against, or even a cultural campaign that would make a dent in such a long standing double standard. Besides, being likable seems like such a small thing compared to larger injustices—why would we spend a lot of time thinking about it?

But the implications of likability are long-lasting and serious. Women adjust their behavior to be likable and as a result have less power in the world. And this desire to be liked and accepted goes beyond the boardroom—it’s an issue that comes up for women in their personal lives as well, especially as they become more opinionated and outspoken.

One of the questions I get asked most often from young women who are just discovering feminism is how they can maintain relationships when the people in their lives see feminism as so confrontational. How can they talk about the issues that matter to them when they are constantly seen as the bossy bitch at the family dinner table? How will they ever have a boyfriend if they object to the sexist movie he wants to go see on Saturday night? How can they get their roommate to stop telling jokes about man-hating and Birkenstocks? What they’re really asking is how is it possible that they will be understood, liked and loved when the world is telling them that they’re actually a huge pain in the ass.

My answer generally consists of tips on how to strategically talk with people without putting them on the defensive—ask them their stories, meet them where they’re at, find entry points in a conversation that will resonate. I still believe this advice is helpful, but I wonder if I’ve been doing these young women a disservice by not telling them the full story. Because if I had to choose between being likable or being successful, I’d choose the latter every time.

Yes, the more successful you are—or the stronger, the more opinionated—the less you will be generally liked. All of a sudden people will think you’re too “braggy,” too loud, too something. But the trade off is undoubtedly worth it. Power and authenticity are worth it.

And in a world where women are told to be anxious about everything—that we can’t “have it all” but will forever be searching for it—saying that ambition and success are actually pretty great can be a radical message.

Besides, being liked is overrated. Wanting to be liked means tempering your thoughts as to not offend. Wanting to be liked means not arguing vociferously with a female peer—something that could improve and add to your ideas—for fear that they’ll be insulted or that they won’t want to be friends. Wanting to be liked means agonizing over every negative comment in an online thread, even if they’re coming from people you don’t care about and don’t think much of.

Wanting to be liked means being a supporting character in your own life, using the cues of the actors around you to determine your next line rather than your own script. It means that your self-worth will always be tied to what someone else thinks about you, forever out of your control.

And truly, living in a constant state of self-deprecation is no way to be. Humbleness does not protect you from sexism—it just makes the slights harder to see.

Asking women to do away with being liked may seem like a small sacrifice, but it’s not an easy sell. We’re brought up to believe that our worth is tied to what others think of us. This is especially true for younger women today, whose every thought and action is made public on social media—literally waiting to be “liked,” commented on, reblogged and affirmed by the world. Telling women to push all that aside—even if it is for long-term success and happiness—is no small thing.

The truth is that we don’t need everyone to like us, we need a few people to love us. Because what’s better than being roundly liked is being fully known—an impossibility both professionally and personally if you’re so busy being likable that you forget to be yourself.

The answer, of course, is bigger than the individual—we need to shift the broader culture so powerful women aren’t automatically seen as bitchy or undeserving. There are structural inequities that impact how realistic abandoning likability is for different women depending on their identity and circumstances. But we can’t change the culture if we’re not changing ourselves, too.

In her Barnard speech, Sandberg told the audience of young women to “lean in,” a term that’s also the title of her soon-to-be-released book. She was referring largely to professional ambitions, but I think it’s good advice all around. We need to lean in to who we really are—not who we think people would like most. We need to tell young women that not being liked, as hard as it may be, is often as sign that they’re doing something right. That letting go of “likable” frees them up to focus on who they want to be, and where they want to be, in their lives. And that getting to that place is infinitely better than anything a “like” could bring us.

For the latest from Jessica Valenti, sign up for Feminist Roundup, The Nation's weekly newsletter, here. And check out her recent Nation column, on what the 2012 election says about the power of feminist organizing. 

Justice for Savita

A protester holds a picture of Savita Halappanavar outside University Hospital Galway in Galway, Ireland November 15, 2012. Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

This week, the first American study ever to look at what happens to women when they’re denied abortions was released. It’s a fascinating, but not all that surprising, read. The research shows women who seek out abortions and are unable to obtain them fare significantly worse over time than women who are able to procure the procedure. Women who are denied abortions are more likely to end up on welfare, more likely to stay in abusive relationships, and more likely to be emotionally distressed over their pregnancy outcome.

Women’s lives suffer when they are forced to carry pregnancies. I thought I was angry when I read this research. But then I heard about Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, whose tragic story reminds us of the worst thing that can happen when women are denied abortions.

The 31-year-old Indian dentist, who was seventeen weeks pregnant, went to the hospital with severe back pain. Within hours of being admitted, doctors told her she was miscarrying. The law in Ireland—which only allows for abortion if a woman’s life is in danger—prevented Savita from being able to end her pregnancy and her excruciating pain because there was still a fetal heartbeat present.

As Savita’s condition worsened over the course of three days, she and her husband begged doctors to end the doomed pregnancy. They refused, saying “this is Catholic country.”

Savita countered, “I am neither Irish nor Catholic.” Still, she was denied. That night she vomited repeatedly and collapsed in a restroom.

The following day, the fetus’s heartbeat finally stopped and it was removed by the doctors. But it was too late. Savita was transferred to the ICU where she died of septic shock.

Savita died in terrible pain, over the course of several days, begging for a medical procedure that would save her life. She was killed—murdered by a law that places women’s humanity beneath that of a fetus.

American women would do well not to dismiss this as a tragedy that could only happen in another country. This is what happens when you legislate something as personal and complicated as pregnancy. How do doctors decide when a woman is close enough to dying to give her an abortion? Or to what degree does a woman’s health need to be at risk?

I had a life-threatening pregnancy. I was lucky to be far enough into my pregnancy that I was able to deliver my daughter—had it been just a few weeks earlier, I would have been forced to end the pregnancy to save my life. I went into an emergency C-section with my blood pressure rapidly escalating and my liver failing. If there were a law trumping the rights of my fetus over my own, what would have been considered a reasonable risk for me to take? Undergoing a liver transplant? Having a few eclamptic seizures?

It’s not just our lives and health that are in danger, but our human dignity. Consider the women in Ireland who suffered as Savita did but lived—put through needless torture in the name of “life.” Or the American women who are denied late-term abortions even when the fetus has no chance of survival—forced to carry dying babies. Or the women with doomed pregnancies who—thanks to draconian ultrasound laws—are made to listen to a nurse describe the organs and details of their dying fetus before being allowed to have an abortion.

Where is the compassion—the basic human desire to end suffering and injustice?

I’ve been thinking about why it is that Savita’s story has struck such a chord with so many, and why it’s impacted me. I hear awful stories about women every day, but it is Savita’s that has had me in tears since I first heard of it.

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It’s about her family, the needless suffering and death, and a life cut short. I think about how scared she must have been, how frustrated, how angry. But there’s something else—another reason why so many women are infuriated and despondent about Savita. Savita’s death is a reminder that no matter how far we think women have come, to some we are simply not people. Our lives are worth nothing, valuable only for our bodies and what they can provide men, the state and the culture. Most days—even when there are constant reminders of our second class status through policy or the media—I can put this feeling aside. But every once in a while there is a stark, horrifying reminder of what it means to be considered less than. There is no way to describe the pain of knowing that to so many—to your country, even—you are nothing.

But we are not nothing. Savita was not nothing. She was a person and she was loved—as we all are. If we want to honor Savita we cannot stand by while others enshrine women’s dehumanization through policy.

Savita’s husband told a newspaper, “What is the use in being angry? I’ve lost her. I am talking about this because it shouldn’t happen to anyone else.”

Demand justice for Savita. Join the women and men worldwide who are protesting, shaming those who would ensure more tragedy, heartache and needless death in the name of ideology and religion. Let them know this cannot, this will not, happen again.

For more on the tragedy of Savita Halappanavar and what it says about the fight for reproductive rights, check out Katha Pollitt on “When ‘Pro-Life’ Kills.”

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Women: The Silent Majority?

Supporters look on as President Barack Obama speaks, Friday, October 19, 2012, at a campaign event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Women sent an unequivocal message to politicians on Tuesday. The gender gap was a whopping 18 percent; significantly higher than 2008’s twelve-point gap. Women made up a majority of the electorate, and unmarried women were 23 percent of voters.

There’s no doubt that an upswing in feminist activism had a demonstrable impact on the election. From the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy to transvaginal ultrasounds to “binders of women”—the vociferous energy surrounding women’s issues is indisputable. But there’s an argument to be made that women’s silence also contributed to Democrats’ resounding wins on Tuesday.

Despite the media and feminist focus on “war on women” this election season, women remain largely mum around their personal experiences with abortion and sexual violence. Feminists have long fought to end the stigmas surrounding rape and abortion—urging women to tell their stories. After all, more than one-third of American women will have an abortion in her lifetime. More than 600,000 adult women were raped in the United States in 2010. Still, most American women don’t talk about ending their pregnancies or being assaulted. Though this silence is not necessarily the best tactic for feminism or for women themselves, it may have been the final nail in the GOP’s coffin.

Part of Republican’s cultural dissonance around feminist issues is that they drink their own Kool-Aid. When they say it’s rare for women to get pregnant from rape, it’s because they really believe it. When they frame abortion as the sinful refuge of promiscuous women, it’s because they actually think “good” women don’t terminate pregnancies. They don’t even fully trust rape statistics, instead choosing to believe that rape doesn’t happen to women who follow the rules. To them, sexual assault is mostly the unfortunate inevitability when women dress a certain way, drink, have consensual sex or do anything that transgresses traditional ideals of proper femininity.

Too many in the GOP simply cannot imagine that the women in their communities, in their families—or even in their political party—have been touched by these issues. And when women are silent about their personal experiences, it furthers that cultural ignorance. That’s why it was easy for Mitt Romney’s campaign to say—and perhaps believe—that female voters didn’t care about the “war on women.” Republicans certainly underestimated how important these issues are to women’s lives because of sexism and misogyny—but mainstream women’s silence made it a lot easier for them to believe their own hype.

Election results told a clear story, however. A Gallup poll released on Monday showed that women in crucial swing states favored Obama over Romney by sixteen points and that nearly 40 percent named abortion as the most important issue for women in the election. Women’s issues that are seen as “fringe” were actually central. And it may be that women who don’t like talking about how personally these issues affect their lives were not afraid to be loud in the voting booth.

Being silent about how abortion or sexual assault impacts us personally is not a political or personal strategy I recommend—I believe it furthers stigmas and shame, and contributes to a culture that mischaracterizes and dismisses women’s experiences. It’s a mainstream trend that must shift if we want real change and progress on feminist issues. But no matter how women made their voices heard—through activism and speaking out or votes alone—there’s no more denying that these issues matter. The hurdle now is ensuring that we continue to be heard long past Election Day.

Thanks to women voters, rape deniers were handily defeated on Election Day. Check out Bryce Covert’s take

Ending Rape Illiteracy

This week, a DC-based feminist group projected the phrase “rape is rape” onto the US Capitol building. The action was meant to highlight survivors’ stories and bring attention to the way rape is often mischaracterized. The sentiment may seem an obvious one—who doesn’t understand what rape is?—but the message, sadly, is much needed. Tuesday evening at the final Indiana Senate debate, Republican Richard Mourdock explained why he opposes abortion with no exceptions by calling pregnancy from rape "something that God intended"- the latest in a long line of "gaffes" by male politicians about sexual assault. It was only this January that the FBI updated its archaic definition of rape and victim-blaming in the culture and courts runs rampant.

Feminists have done a lot to change policies, but not enough to change minds. Despite decades of activism on sexual assault—despite common sense, even—there is still widespread ignorance about what rape is, and this absence of a widely understood and culturally accepted definition of sexual assault is one of the biggest hurdles we have in chipping away at rape culture.

When Todd Akin uttered his now-famous line that women rarely get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” he didn’t misspeak. This was something he thought was true—both the bizarre logic about pregnancy and the idea that there is such a thing as a rape that isn’t legitimate. Last year, Wisconsin state representative Roger Rivard told a newspaper reporter that “some girls rape easy.” Now under fire, Rivard attempted to clarify his comments, claiming they were taken out of context. 

What the whole genesis of it was, it was advice to me [from my father], telling me, “If you’re going to go down that road, you may have consensual sex that night and then the next morning it may be rape.” So the way he said it was, “Just remember, Roger, some girls, they rape so easy. It may be rape the next morning.”

Rivard obviously thought this explanation would lessen the damage of his original statement; he assumed his belief that women regularly lie about being raped was a commonly held one. What’s depressing is that he’s probably right.

To too many people, “rape” and “rape victim” are not accurate descriptors but political shorthand—the product of an overblown, politically correct interpretation of sex. As Tennessee Senator Douglas Henry said in 2008, “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse.”

If you’re married, you’ve contractually agreed to be available for sex whether or not you want to. If you’re a woman of color, you must be a liar. If you don’t have as much money as your attacker, you’re just looking for a payday. If you’re in college, you shouldn’t want to ruin your poor young rapist’s life. If you’re a sex worker, it wasn’t rape it was just “theft of services.” If you said yes at first but changed your mind, tough luck. If you’ve had sex before, you must say yes to everyone. If you were drinking you should have known better. If you were wearing a short skirt what did you expect?

The definition of who is a rape victim has been whittled down by racism, misogyny, classism and the pervasive wink-wink-nudge-nudge belief that all women really want to be forced anyway. The assumption is that women are, by default, desirous of sex unless they explicitly state otherwise. And women don’t just have to prove that we said no, but that we screamed it.

Recently the Connecticut State Supreme Court overturned a sexual assault conviction for a man who attacked a woman with severe cerebral palsy. The woman cannot communicate verbally, and according to the court’s documents, has the “intellectual functional equivalent of a 3-year-old.” Still, because of how the state defines rape in cases of physical incapacitation, the court decided that the victim was capable of “biting, kicking, scratching, screeching, groaning or gesturing,” and therefore could have communicated a lack of consent and didn’t. Basically, she didn’t fight back hard enough in order for what happened to her to be considered rape.

This is not just a problem of rhetoric or legalese. The lack of an accepted cultural definition of rape leaves room for mischaracterizations that turn back the clock on progress already made.

Five years ago, anti-feminist author Laura Sessions Stepp popularized the term “gray rape” in her book, Unhooked, to explain the confusion women may feel after they’ve been sexually assaulted, and their hesitance to call themselves victims.

The term took off, and Cosmopolitan magazine featured a cover story by Stepp about this “new kind of date rape.” (If you doubt the cultural relevance of Cosmo, consider that it has a circulation of 3 million readers and—sadly—is the best-selling magazine in college bookstores.)

Stepp wrote in Cosmo that “gray rape” is caused by “hookups, mixed signals, and alcohol” and “the idea that women can be just as bold and adventurous about sex as men are.” She also called it a “consequence of today’s hookup culture.”

A generation ago, it was easier for men and women to understand what constituted rape because the social rules were clearer. Men were supposed to be the ones coming on to women, and women were said to be looking for relationships, not casual sex.

But these boundaries and rules have been loosening up for decades, and now lots of women feel it’s perfectly okay to go out looking for a hookup or to be the aggressor, which may turn out fine for them—unless the signals get mixed or misread.

A few months after this article ran, a student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland was sexually assaulted, forced to perform oral sex on her attacker. The young woman called what happened to her “gray rape,” a term she learned from an article in Cosmopolitan.

“It started happening, and then he, like, twisted his fingers around my hair and started pulling it and being just kind of violent. I started choking because he was just, like, pushing my head. I started gagging and choking and I couldn’t really breathe.” She says she started pushing on [her attacker’s] abdomen to tell him to stop. ‘And he was like, “yeah, that’s right, choke on it.”

There is nothing “gray” about this. There is nothing gray about violence, there is nothing gray about “choke on it,” there is nothing gray about rape. But thanks to this made up definition that isn’t recognized by law, medical professionals or sexual assault advocates—and that puts the blame for assault on women’s sexuality —this young woman and countless others think that maybe the sexual assault that was perpetrated against them was something less than a violent crime.

This is not an isolated example. Every day, the severity, violence and criminality of what rape is—its very definition—is distorted in a way that makes it more difficult for survivors to come forward and for anti-violence advocates to do their work, while making the world easier for victim-blaming and for rapists themselves.

In 2006, for example, a Nebraska judge ordered that the victim in a rape trial not be allowed to use the word rape or sexual assault when describing what happened to her because it would be too prejudicial. The words she could use instead? Intercourse or sex. In Maryland, up until 2008 it wasn’t considered rape if a woman withdrew her consent during sex and her partner kept going. (Who else would continue to have sex with an unwilling partner besides a rapist?) And this month in Oregon, a woman who was raped, beaten and choked by a man she went on a date with was ordered to provide her Google search history. The defense team hoped that if she Googled the definition of rape, it would show that she wasn’t sure if she had really been sexually assaulted.

Even the way that the United States compiles rape statistics has been affected by bad language. After the Department of Justice reported that there were 182,000 sexual assaults committed against women in 2008, a study by the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center showed that their numbers were wrong—thanks largely to the way they talked to women. Instead of asking questions like “Has anyone ever forced you to have sex?”, they asked women if they had been subject to “rape, attempted or other type of sexual attack.” Thanks to the confusion around the definition of rape, and the hesitance of many women to label themselves victims, the actual number of women raped was much higher—the center put it around 1 million.

What feminists should do in response to bad policy and legislation has been clear cut—and successful. When the GOP tried to pass an anti-abortion measure last year that would redefine rape only as an assault that was “forcible,” feminists groups immediately took action. Thanks to national organizations, online activism and a clever Twitter campaign, the language was taken out of the bill. Feminists also won a campaign to push the FBI to change their outdated definition of rape, language dating from 1929 that said sexual assault was “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

But how we change the culture is a hurdle we haven’t properly tackled. Feminism’s major cultural successes around rape have occurred on a micro level—taking on individual television shows or products. And, for the most part, our cultural work has been reactionary—we’re constantly on the defensive, whether it’s trying to fight back against victim-blaming headlines or offensive rape jokes.

This is work is important, but what’s crucial is that we make a shift from targeting pieces of the culture in a reactive way to proactively changing the broader culture in a more lasting way. We need to spend less time worrying about ultraconservative misogynists and extremist politicians and focus on shifting the way we all think about sexual assault and consent. We need to think and act much, much bigger.

Instead of pressuring Facebook to take down offensive groups like “It’s not rape if you yell ‘surprise’ ” (yes, that group really exists), feminist leaders should be petitioning to get in a room with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to brainstorm ways that the company can actively push an anti-rape message. In addition to creating our own alternative media, we need to be working with and within existing mainstream media. I want to see a show do for sexual consent and sexual autonomy what Glee has done for LGBT issues. I want to see a “yes means yes” model in our sexual health textbooks, but I also want to see it on the cover of Glamour magazine. We need a multi-faceted, nationwide campaign so widespread that every person who opens a newspaper, watches television, goes online or just walks down the street knows about it.

The time is ripe for going big. The American public, young women especially, are ready for a new message about sexuality and for a definition of rape that is accurate, strong, progressive and indisputable.

When Vice President Joe Biden gave a press conference last year about the administration’s efforts to curb sexual violence in schools, he laid some groundwork, saying, “No means no. No means no if you’re drunk or sober. No means no if you’re in bed in the dorm or on the street. No means no even if you said yes first and changed your mind. No means no—and it’s a crime…”

This particular section of his speech—a strong message against rape, that called out victim-blaming, and put the blame squarely on the perpetrator—was tweeted and sent around Tumblr and blogs tens of thousands of times. No offense to the Vice President—but can you imagine the impact if wasn’t Joe Biden but Taylor Swift giving this message? Our politicians should be making bold feminist statements about sexual assault, but our pop culture icons need to be talking about it too.

Of course, the most important question to ask is: Is it possible to do all this with a definition of sexual assault that is not only widely understood and culturally accepted—but that is also comprehensive, intersectional and forward thinking? Can we get broad agreement around a definition of rape that shifts the focus away from the victim and onto the perpetrator, advocates for enthusiastic consent, and recognizes and centers structural inequities?

Clearly, this is just one piece of a tremendous battle. A widely accepted definition of rape—even a progressive, feminist one—will not change everything, and it won’t eradicate rape. But it is a necessary step to shift the culture.

The reason we have qualifiers—legitimate, forcible, date, gray—is because at the end of the day it’s not enough to say ‘rape’. We don’t believe it on its own and we want to know what “kind” of assault it was in order to make a value judgment about what really happened—and to believe that it couldn’t happen to us. It’s not because most people are bad, or want to blame rape victims. Americans are simply too mired in misogyny, and without feminist influence, to think any differently.

Thanks to widespread online activism and women’s issues dominating election discourse, feminism is enjoying a moment of real cultural power. Now is the time to use it.

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