Salamishah Tillet | The Nation

Salamishah Tillet

Salamishah Tillet

Where race and gender meet, where politics and pop culture collide.

Sexual Harassment Is Not a Disease, But It Surely Is an Epidemic

Sand Diego Mayor Bob Filner. (AP Photo)

This is part eight in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women, mobile apps to end sexual violence, and a review of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.)

The storyline has become all too familiar: a well-known politician is accused of sexual harassment by several women; he first plays defense (a public denial), then goes on the offensive (a public apology), and finally, admits to past behavior and pledges to get “help.”

That’s been exactly the path for San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. Recently, seven women, ranging from a retired Navy rear-admiral, a dean at San Diego State University, and the head of the Port Tenants Association, have publicly come forward to accuse the mayor of sexual harassment.

During his press conference last Friday, Filner said, “I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and…at times I have intimidated them.” His solution: two weeks of intensive therapy at a behavior-counseling clinic starting on August 5.

Though he acknowledged disrespecting women, Filner stopped short of admitting to sexual harassment. Instead, he deflected our attention away from the psychological and social harm that sexual harassers inflict on their victims to understanding his sexual harassment as something for which he can recieve medical help.

Though Filner has yet to disclose having an actual disorder, his rehab stint suggests that he believes his behavior can be medically diagnosed. This too conforms to another pattern of high-profile sexual harrasment claims. Just this month, show biz CEO Richard Nanula resigned from his post as chairman of the boad at Miramax after a co-worker claimed sexual harrassment. His defense: he was previously treated for sex addiction.

But even that is a deeply flawed rationale, because the debate over whether sex addiction should be diagnosed as an official disorder still looms large. According to a recent study conducted at UCLA that measured brain waves in self-reported sex addicts, “the brain response of these individuals to sexual images was not related in any way to the severity of their hyper-sexuality but was instead tied only to their level of sexual desire.” In other words, the scans did not indicate addiction.

Similarly, author of The Myth of Sex Addiction David J. Ley told The Huffington Post, “When [people] assert that sex addiction is like these disorders, they ignore the many ways that sexual behaviors are not like alcohol and drug use. Drugs and alcohol introduce a foreign substance into the brain.”

He went on to say, “We excuse people for diseases—we have destigmatized alcohol dependence so that people can get treatment. Maintaining [sex addiction] as a disease makes it more acceptable to people, and allows people to use it as a justification for…unhealthy choices.”

Taking it one step further, a medical diagnosis (whether it is sex addiction or not) can also be used to justify harmful and often illegal sexual behavior. Sexual harassment at work, on the other hand, is unwanted and unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other physical conduct or offensive or abusive remarks about a person’s sex or gender. Like the Filner scenario, power differentials are often at the heart of such allegations, and because men have more power in our society than women, the vast majority of sexual harassment cases involve female workers who have been harassed by male co-workers or supervisors.

The American Association for University Women reports that for “many victims of sexual harassment, the aftermath may be more damaging than the original harassment. Effects can vary from external effects, such as retaliation, backlash, or victim blaming to internal effects, such as depression, anxiety, or feelings of shame and/or betrayal.” According to data complied by Equal Rights Advocates, victims of sexual harassment lose $4.4 million dollars in wages and 973,000 hours in unpaid leave each year in the United States.

Politicians who are serious about ending sexual harassment must move beyond the disease or moral decay defense. Instead, as founder of Stop Street Harassment Holly Kearl told me in our online interview, “They can set a good example in their own life and treat everyone they encounter with respect and always ask for consent before engaging in any sexual conversations or activity. And they can set a respectful tone among their own staff and supporters and call out sexual harassment when it occurs.”

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On a policy level, they should make sure that workplaces comply with the federal and state laws, but also, Kearl suggests, “mandate sexual harassment education in local schools, and work with administrators at schools and campuses to ensure the enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 as it applies to sexual harassment complaints.”

It would be nice to believe that Filner, after his two weeks of therapy, would come back to work and lead the charge to end sexual harassment—in the schools, the streets and the City Hall of San Diego. But he probably won’t. And this is not just because 60 percent of San Diegans surveyed over the weekend believe he should be recalled if he does not resign. He seems to be unaware that to sexually harass women is far more dangerous than a pathology or breach of public trust. It is part of the larger epidemic of violence against women that preserves our system and social practice of male dominance and gender inequity.

And let’s be clear, that’s something that can be controlled and cured.

This is part eight in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women, mobile apps to end sexual violence, and a review of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.)

It's So Not 'Oz': Netflix's 'Orange Is the New Black'

This is part seven in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women, and mobile apps to end sexual violence.)

[Warning: This contains very minor plot spoilers from the series.]

From Marissa Alexander’s twenty-year sentence for firing off a warning shot to stave off her batterer to the forced sterilization of nearly 150 women by doctors in a California prison, the unfair treatment of incarcerated women is slowly making front-page news.  

It is also the subject of Netflix’s hit new series—from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. The series explores Kerman’s experiences as a white, upper-middle-class Smith graduate who was found guilty for money laundering and drug trafficking for her former girlfriend six years prior to her serving a thirteen-month sentence in 1998.

Because of its daring topic, tone and setting, the show is frequently compared to Showtime’s Weeds and HBO’s Oz. Like Weeds, Orange Is the New Black also wrestles with the causes and consequences of women’s roles in the drug trade. But I must admit that I stopped watching Weeds after two seasons because I found the representations of Heylia and Vaneeta James to be caricatures of blackness rather than complex African-American women characters.    

Not so much with Orange Is The New Black, for while the show appears to traffic in tired stereotypes about race, class and sexuality, it also, episode by episode, tries to challenge some of those assumptions by filling in the women’s stories through flashbacks and empathy. Sometimes it is successful, and sometimes it is not.

Moreover, there is something to be said that the most racially and sexually diverse show of 2013 is set in a women’s prison. When Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) enters prison, she is surprised by how racially segregated the women’s lives appear to be. The irony is that she seems unaware that her outside life (her friends and family) is even more racially homogenous.

The majority of incarcerated women alongside Piper’s character are also white (reflecting the real demographics); however, African-American and Latina women disproportionately populate the show and America’s prisons.  

This is striking because, even though the main character probably had to be white and college-educated for the book and then show to be picked up, each episode focuses on another character’s backstory—often a woman of color—and offers the viewers some insight into the limited opportunities and restrictive relationships that plague these women inside and outside of prison’s walls.

The highly acclaimed show Oz differed from Orange because it provided a sustained critique of structural power. It did so by: (1) using narrative realism; (2) depicting prison as hyper-violent; and (3) setting it in “Emerald City,” which is both a play on the omnipresent wizard in The Wizard of Oz and a visualization of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of “panopticism” in which a highly sophisticated, diffuse and seemingly anonymous system of discipline and surveillance maintains the order and control of prisoners (and these days most Americans).

”The problem with TV violence, it’s a lie,” said Tom Fontana, who writes most of the show’s episodes and was one of its executive producers, to The New York Times in 1999. ”People get shot and don’t bleed. They get hit and walk away. If you have to do it, you have to do it as horrifically as it really is.”

Part of the project of Oz (for better or worse) was to show how prisons systematically relegate people to the status of both animals and non-citizens. In Orange, all of the incarcerated women are guilty of making bad choices and the crimes for which they are sentenced. Its social critique is also tempered by its humorous representations of bureaucrats of the state (the warden, correctional officers, and prison doctors) as boorish and buffoons.

The show itself is also intentionally less violent. In a recent interview in Entertainment Weekly, the show’s creator Kohan said:

…women’s prison’s are different. It’s not Oz. I was talking to the warden at Chino, and he’d worked in women’s prisons and men’s prisons, and I said “What’s the difference?” and he said, “Women are communal. Men are out for themselves and they’re animals and they’ll kill. But women will form packs and try to be a family.”

Orange insists on showing how women—through wile, wisdom or wit—find solace in each other as they negotiate their constant invisibility and vulnerability in the prison system.

And it is here that the show succeeds and disappoints. Since Kerman was placed in a correctional facility (versus a maximum state penitentiary), we should not necessarily expect that same form of violence as Oz (or Alcatraz and The Wire for that matter).

But, it shows violence against women in prison as fleeting: when Piper is confined to the Special Housing Unit of the “SHU” for engaging in “lesbian activity” or another character is taken to psychiatric ward, strapped to the bed and forced to take anti-psychotic drugs.

Most troubling is its treatment of sexual violence.

Recently, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission reported that staff members rather than other prisoners commit 60 percent of the alleged acts of sexual abuse. Because incarcerated women cannot legally consent to sexual activity with prison staff member, all sexual interactions between them and guards are sexual assault.

While this is repeatedly mentioned by characters on Orange, sexual interactions between guards and prisoners do occur, and in two disturbing contexts: (1) the season-long “courtship” between one young Latina woman and a young white male correctional officer, which results in her pregnancy; and (2) when this same character has sex with another CO, in order to get him fired by reporting she was raped.

The show not only reproduces stereotypes that women in prison are untrustworthy and lie about sexual assault, but also cushions the real violence experienced by women in prison as romance.

Nevertheless, by the end of the season, Piper’s character has deteriorated so much because of her life in prison that she is barely recognizable to her family, friends, or even us the viewer. The final act of violence is both surprising, individualized, and to certain extent, excused.

The show was just picked up for a second season and has already garnered significant attention. At The Washington Post, Dylan Matthews called it “the best prison show ever made.” The Daily Beast gave it high praise for its depiction of Sophie Burset (played by Laverne Cox), a transgendered African-American woman who demands safe and equal healthcare access for all women in prison.

And this is what I think the show does well. The series begins with the privileged perspective of Kerman and slowly but surely, with each episode, I became more invested in stories of women we normally do not “see”: queer and straight women of color and working class women.

So, I will be back next season with hopes that the show provides the “agency” to these women (that critic Yasmin Nair has called for) and a more sustained argument about why they (as opposed to Piper Kerman) have so few life choices and are routinely victims of racially and socio-economically biased legal system.

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Until then, I will simply remain curious about the lives of some of its more novel characters: the misunderstood Haitian lifer, Miss Claudette; the sympathetic pot-selling yogi, Yoga Jones; and the backstories of best friends Tasha Jefferson and Poussey Washington.

This is part seven in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women, and mobile apps to end sexual violence.)

Apps (and Maps) to End Sexual Violence

HarassMap report. (Courtesy of HarassMap)

This is part six in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, and George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women.)

The advent of smart phones and social media has not only ushered in new methods of shaming rape victims but also generated applications, some of them free, used to prevent sexual violence itself.

This is how they work: GPS-enabled phones send data to Circle of 6, OnWatch, Bsafe and other app makers to show your location. Some apps also allow users to receive an emergency phone call from their contacts, call 911, or track them as they walk to their destination).

Many of these apps were submitted in the White House’s 2011 “Apps Against Abuse” technology challenge—a national competition to provide young adults with tools to help prevent sexual assault and dating violence.

Circle of 6 was one of the two winners. “In the fight against gender-based violence, mobile and mapping technology provide concrete tools to connect people to each other and to critical resources,” said Nancy Schwartzman, co-creator of the Circle of 6, an app that is both free and simple to use.

On Circle of 6, you upload six of your most reliable contacts (your trusted circle) to which you can send the following texts: “I’m looking up healthy relationship info,” “call me I need an interruption” and “come and get me” and your location will be immediately sent to them.

I did send the “call me” text to my circle at lunchtime, and the only responses I received were “I am in meeting right now” and two phone calls fifteen minutes to an hour later. My friends seemed to be thrown off by the Circle of 6 verbiage that preceded my “come and get me” alert (at least that’s what they said).

Schwartzman texted me that to avoid such responses, "We usually encourage folks to talk to their friends about the app and putting them in their circle, so it is not a surprise when it happens. It can be of course, but the app is also trying to encourage conversations." I’m definitely rethinking my circle now, not the app. Of all the ones I tested, Circle of 6 was by far my favorite.

The other winner was OnWatch, which customizes alert modes to allow users to contact their friends, your Campus Police, local 911, or all three if they need help via phone, text, e-mail and Facebook. Two exciting features about this app are: the Watch My Back timer countdown and “I’m Here” alert. Since I opted out of the monthly subscription of $4.99 or yearly-one for $49.99, I could only use them during my a one-month free-trial period.

Similarly, B-Safe, the personal safety alarm has a monthly subscription of $1.99 and annual subscription of $19.99. Endorsed by celebrity Jada Pinkett-Smith, B-Safe is has a red alarm button that will automatically alert your “guardians” of a threat and text them a map with your location for help. My favorite was the Fake Call function, which allowed you to select the caller and the time of the call ranging from immediately to ten seconds to ten minutes. Before this app, I would just pick up the phone and have imaginary conversations in order to stave off the jeers from street harassers.  

But while all of these apps are geared towards people that are active texters and high school or college aged users, there is rise of sexual assault mapping by organizations, like HarrassMap and Women Under Siege, that use crowd-sourcing to help people who are locally organizing to end sexual violence or traveling internationally. These maps record every instance of sexual assault and harassment submitted to their site.

In the recent protest in Egypt, HarrassMap has been particularly effective in helping victims of sexual violence. “HarassMap takes a social approach,” said Rebecca Chiao, co-founder of HarrasMap in Egypt. “We do direct interventions to rescue the women, but in our normal, long-term work, we target bystanders to intervene.”

Unfortunately, since 80 precent of sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance rather than a stranger, users are likely to constrained by the same factors—fear, shame, and guilt—that typically inhibit victims from getting help. And because none of the apps can prevent perpetrators from targeting victims, there is a risk that that potential victims are made to feel responsible for sexual assault prevention.

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But, they also do something more. They innovatively engage and redefine the bystander as friends, guardians, survivors of gender-based violence, volunteers and witnesses, in order to reduce the likelihood of individual and collective acts of sexual violence.

As a survivor of sexual violence, it is good to know there is an app for that.

This is part six in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, and George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women.)

Editor's Note: This post has been updated with a response from Nancy Schwartzmann.

Domestic Violence and George Zimmerman's Defense

George Zimmerman. (Reuters/Joe Burbank)

This is part five in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, and rape and social media.)

Last year, when the murder of Trayvon Martin began making national headlines, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that public opinion about this case was divided along racial lines—72 percent of blacks said racial bias was a major factor in the events that led up to the shooting death of Martin, while non-blacks were significantly less certain, with 31 percent saying racial bias was a major factor and 25 percent saying it was not a factor at all. That same racial divide was reflected in surveys conducted in 1995 about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

The New York Times’s Charles Blow was right when he said this comparison was a “bit loaded because the cases are miles apart in the details and circumstances.” But I do think there was one crucial link between Simpson and Zimmerman: both men repeatedly were accused of violence against women well before their murder trials began.

Zimmerman’s attorneys successfully argued that those acts were inadmissible or irrelevant. But these accusations offer us other truths: that violence against girls and women is often an overlooked and unchecked indicator of future violence.

It was well-documented that Nicole Brown Simpson was a victim of domestic violence. In Zimmerman’s case, two pieces of character evidence never made it to the trial. First, a recorded statement from Witness No. 9, Zimmerman’s female cousin, in which she said that he molested her for ten years when they were both children, beginning when she just 6 years old. Second, a report filed in August 2005, when Zimmerman’s former fiancé sought a restraining order against him because of domestic violence.

The latter accusation is especially important because it provided the blueprint for Zimmerman’s own claim of self-defense again Trayvon Martin. According to the Miami Herald, Zimmerman

was also involved in a domestic dispute with his ex-fiancée, hair salon employee Veronica Zauzo. Zauzo claimed Zimmerman was trolling her neighborhood to check on her. At her apartment, they spoke for about an hour when she asked him to leave. He asked for some photos and paperwork and she refused. A pushing match ensued and her dog jumped up and bit him on the cheek, Zauzo claimed. Zimmerman, in a petition filed the next day, painted her as the aggressor, wanting him to stay the night.

In her petition, Zauzo alleged that Zimmerman has previously slapped her in her mouth as well. According to court records, the Orange County circuit judge ordered them to stay away from each other for more than a year, but no charges were filed.

During the bond hearing, Zimmerman’s wife, Shelley Nicole Zimmerman, used the fact that that he filed an injunction against Zauzo as proof of his innocence.

Zimmerman’s pattern for violence had already been established: trolling a neighborhood for his victim, pushing her when confronted, attacking her character, and arguing that she was the aggressor when charges were filed against him. While the Assistant State Attorney Bernardo de la Rionda brought up both testimonies in the bond hearing in April 2012, they were not presented as evidence during the trial. In contrast, the judge did rule that evidence of marijuana that was found in Martin’s system was admissible.

Such differences led many (including myself) to conclude, as Mychal Denzel Smith wrote, that ”Trayvon Martin and Black Manhood Were on Trial.“ But they also reveal a system of power that dismisses the experiences and voices of survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as invisible and untrustworthy.

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Unfortunately, these gender and racial disparities are even further exacerbated by Zimmerman’s non-guilty verdict and the conviction of domestic violence victim, Marissa Alexander, an African-American mother who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing a warning shot in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her. Like Zimmerman, she claimed self-defense and tried to invoke Florida’s “stand your ground” law. The result: a Floriday jury found her guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

In our current moment of post-verdict protests, we should reflect on several moments in which the legal system failed Trayvon Martin. But, as his cousin’s and former fiance’s disclosures suggests, the system fell apart long before the fateful night that Zimmerman profiled and murdered this innocent teenage boy. And I cannot help but wonder if Zimmerman had been held accountable for the violence he had already inflicted on girls and women, that Trayvon Martin might be with us here today.

This is part five in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, and rape and social media.)

This Is What #Rape Looks Like

Trent Mays (l) and Ma’lik Richmond (r) sit in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, March 15, 2013. Both were found guilty of sexual assault. (Reuters/Keith Srakocic)

This is part four in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt and the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California.)

Five years ago, a Chicago jury found R&B singer R. Kelly not guilty of all fourteen counts of child pornography, despite videotape evidence of him allegedly sexually assaulting an adolescent girl. The jurors determined that the tape, which had long gone viral through downloads and bootlegs, was inconclusive. At the time, this was our version of a sexual assault case that had gone viral.

Since then, technology has dramatically reshaped our rape culture.

Our widespread use of social networks, online games and smartphones is two-edged. It has made it easier for perpetrators to target children and teens and to distribute and therefore “virtually” repeat their attacks. But it has also made documenting the ugliness of sexual violence and the guilt of perpetrators easier.

The once shocking story of Steubenville, Ohio, is now a pattern: sexual assault of a minor by two or more young men, filmed on a phone, texted or shared on social media sites, sometimes followed by formal accusations and arrests, almost always proceeded by online threats against the victim.

In two different cases this April, teens Rehtaeh Parsons of Canada and Audrie Pott of California, tragically committed suicide after photos of their alleged sexual abuses were posted online.

“As sexual assaults go viral, people definitely use these new technologies to re-traumatize their victims, often with fatal consequences,” Scheherazade Tillet, executive director of the gender-violence prevention organization A Long Walk Home (and also my sister) told me in an interview.

But, she added, “we also have something we have never really had this way before—unusual insight into attitudes and behavior the perpetrators themselves.”

This understanding is important because public perceptions of rape culture often stem from longstanding myths about rapists and their victims. The image of the rapist as a stranger, driven by circumstance and lack of control, lurking the bushes still prevails. This stereotype directly contradicts what we know to be true: 80 percent of perpetrators know their victims and are intentionally predatory in their actions.

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These video, texts and tweets change the public profile of sexual assailants. They reveal what advocates and victims already know, that the rapists are more often than not the boys-next-door, prized high school athletes, and opportunistic everyday bystanders who either join or do not deter the attack.

This not only gives prosecutors access to evidence that could be crucial to building their cases, but helps understand how we can best work with potential bystanders as well as help the larger society “unlearn” rape culture. By doing so, we can go a long way to reduce public victim-blaming and prevent future assaults.

This is part four in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt and the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California.)

Forced Sterilizations and the Future of the Women’s Movement

An inmate serving a jail sentence rests a hand on a fence. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

This is part three in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here’s my post on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, and on the sexual assaults happening in Egypt.)

At the same time news broke that doctors in California prisons illegally sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010, most of the feminist movement’s media attention and activist muscle have been focused extreme anti-choice restrictions in North Carolina and Texas. That’s typical of a larger problem: even though correctional institutions collectively are the second-largest provider of reproductive health services in the country, most politicians and pundits never mention incarcerated women in the debates about reproductive rights and the war on women.

This is partly because GOP legislators in those states have resorted to sneaking and cheating in order to severely limit abortion access. But, it is also because we are stuck in a hierarchy of traditional reproductive rights activism, which has historically placed abortion as its primary concern, and other issues, like forced sterilization, far below.

Unfortunately, this has everything to do with what types of violence against women spark the most outrage and, ultimately, what kinds of women matter more than others. According to Center for Investigative Reporting, many of the doctors who sterilized inmates who had multiple children or assumed to be likely repeat offenders.

One particularly egregious doctor, Dr. James Heinrich, saw sterilization as good social policy. “Over a ten-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money,” Heinrich said, “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”

“Forced sterilization has always targeted people considered the least valuable in our society,” Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, told me in a phone interview. “In the early twentieth century, that meant white immigrants, by the mid-twentieth century, that meant poor women, black and Puerto Rican women, and other women of color whose bodies were not seen as fit to be protected by the state.”

In 2010, African-American and Latina women made up 59 percent of the California prison population.

In our e-mail correspondence, Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association of New York, wrote, “The majority of incarcerated women are from some of the most marginalized communities—poor communities and poor communities of color—that have been historically the targets of racist eugenics programs, and that have been systematically stripped of political power and the supports and opportunities needed for individuals and families to thrive.”

“These issues are just as important as the brutal Republican attack on reproductive rights and their tolerance and perpetuation of rape culture,” Kraft-Stolar told me.

And like those problems, the assaults on the reproductive rights of incarcerated women also have far-reaching social consequences. They not only impact the life of the individual (and too often forgotten) incarcerated woman, but the well-being of her family, her community, and eventually our country.

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Last year, the same North Carolina GOP senators who are now restricting abortion access gave us a warning shot when they rejected a plan to compensate victims of a state-sanctioned mass sterilization plan that targeted mostly poor minorities from 1929 to 1974.

This means that the victims of forced sterilization as integral to the future of the women’s movement as the fight over choice.

The crisis of healthcare in prisons goes far beyond reproductive rights.

Women at Point Zero in Tahrir Square


Opponents of ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, July 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

This is part two in my series on the global epidemic of sexual violence.

Last Wednesday, the world watched an increasingly familiar scene: Egyptian crowds gathering in Tahrir Square to demand social change. Once the army announced it had ousted President Mohamed Morsi, these same streets became host to victory celebrations for some, and violent conflict for others. For over ninety-one women who were sexually assaulted that night, Tahrir Square became what Egyptian women’s rights activist. Soraya Bahgat described as “a circle of hell.”

In many ways, the attack against these women is part of a global rape culture in which women’s bodies are used as tools of war and targets during social unrest. During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, for example, it was widely documented that the Mubarak regime paid men to systematically sexually assault women during the demonstrations.

But this recent wave of rape is part of another frightening reality: women’s bodies are also casualties of “freedom.”

In an e-mail, Rebecca Chiao, the co-founder of HarrassMap Egypt, a group that rescues women being sexually assaulted by mobs in the recent protests, wrote, “Whoever is at fault for paying thugs, no political actors have made a serious effort to punish or prevent mob harassment/assault/rape.”

Régine Jean-Charles, author of Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary, told me in a phone interview that this insidious response is “not new” but consistent with “a global pattern of social movements not including ending gender-violence in their liberatory visions.”

Even in our own Occupy Wall Street movement, women were subject to sexual assaults and misogynist jokes.

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Real social change must include eradicating rape culture. Until then, as women continue to be on the frontlines of protests—be it in New York City or Cairo—with our political brethren, our bodies, our rights and ultimately our lives remain on freedom’s sidelines.

For more Nation.com reporting on Egypt, check out Bob Dreyfuss’s blog for live updates on the clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the army.

The Miseducation of Serena Williams (and the Rest of America)

Serena Williams
Serena Williams at final match at the French Open, June 8, 2013. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

This is part 1 in my series on the global epidemic of sexual violence.

As a lifelong Serena Williams fan and African-American rape survivor, you can imagine my deep disappointment when I read her remarks about the Steubenville rape victim in the recent Rolling Stone profile: 

I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don't take drinks from other people. She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky.

Williams suggests she was misquoted, but even so, her words were disarming to those of us who fight for women’s rights, including of course, Williams, who has demanded equal prize money for male and female tennis players. Rightfully, much has been made of the victim-blaming statements, her subsequent apology about her insensitive and misinformed comments, and her reaching out to the victim and her family.

But, I believe Williams’s comments reveal a far more disturbing truth: they are the logical result of growing up in America’s “rape culture.”

Rape culture is the complex set of attitudes, practices, and systems of power that naturalize and normalize rape and sexual violence in the United States.  Because of the dominance of rape culture – in the courtroom and Congress, in the military and our middle schools – many Americans do not even have a working definition of rape and have Pavlovian response to rape victims.

After years of growing up in a rape culture, our knee-jerk responses are (1) to blame rape victims for their attack; and (2) to sympathize with the accused rapists. 

According to Robert Eckstein, an expert in the prevention of violence against women at the University of New Hampshire, one reason for this reaction is: “We don’t want to believe that people who are our classmates, our teammates, and the people we socialize with are capable of this type of behavior.”  Eckstein says, “People sympathize with them and are willing to give them a benefit of the doubt.”

Contrary to public perception, most assailants plan their sexual assaults by targeting and alienating vulnerable victims.  One way of undoing our conditioned responses is by strategically shifting the blame away from the rape victim and emphasizing that role that we all can play, as bystanders, community members, and third party witnesses, in preventing sexual violence.

Today, several bystander intervention campaigns exists all across the country to empower the public to identify these threatening circumstance and intervene before an attack occurs.

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Unfortunately, most of these campaigns are for college students only and do not reach our must vulnerable populations: middle and high school aged students who make up the vast majority of 44% of all sexual assault victims who are under the age of 18.  

While schools are not the only site of the current onslaught of pro-rape rhetoric, entertainment, and legislation that we currently face, they are one of the primary places in which we are socialized into the gender norms and practices. 

By holding each other accountable for perpetuating a rape culture, we might just be able to beat this epidemic one-generation, and a couple of future tennis players, at a time.

Baby Gender Trouble

“Do you know what the gender is?” is the question people most frequently ask expecting parents, including me. Usually, I give the conventional response: “No, we are waiting to be surprised.” But occasionally I offer up one of my two real answers, “We don’t know the sex or the gender” or “I don’t really believe in gender anyway.”

Eyebrows are raised. And then a series of explanations follow.

Sometimes I go into a long monologue, à la feminist philosopher Judith Butler, about gender being a fiction, consisting of two opposite categories and a series of staged acts that we tacitly agree to “perform, produce, and sustain.” On the most basic level, why is blue is the agreed upon costume color for boys, while pink is the color for girls?

Butler’s groundbreaking 1990 book, Gender Trouble, goes on to argue that we preserve the performance in order to maintain a fantasy of order, rules and normalcy. To break away from these two categories, to actually understand gender, as it really is—unstable, complicated, and multiple—risks harsh social punishments.

It is hard for most people to separate sex from gender. Sex refers to the biological differences, the presence of XX-female or XY-male chromosomes. (Even this is not a hard-set rule, as the Intersex Society of North America reminds us, about one in 1,500 to one in 2,000 babies is born each year with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definition of female or male.)

Gender, on the other hand, is neither biological or chromosomal but social and cultural. The traits we associate with “being a boy” or “acting like a girl” have no grounding in science, but we assume they are natural and normal. For example, in the emotional spectrum, an excessive emotionality from girl children means dolls and princess clothing and hyper-aggression from boy children translates into trucks and knights.

Some parents try free their children from these constraints—their versions of live and let live—by allowing their children to chose their own gender identities. Canadian parents Beck Lexton and Kieran Cooper created quite a brouhaha this past January when the revealed that they decided to bring up their 5-year-old child, Sasha, as “gender neutral.”

Trying to avoid stereotyping and boxing their child into one gender category, they referred to Sasha as “‘the infant’” and kept their child’s sex a secret from all but a few close friends and relatives. As Sasha grew older, “he was encouraged to play with dolls as much as Lego, slept in a neutral yellow room and was allowed to wear both boys’ and girls’ clothes,” reports the Daily Mail.

While I found their decision laudable, some of my Facebook friends responded to my post of this story with shock. On The Today Show, panelists Donny Deutsch and Star Jones suggested that these parents should be locked up for injuring a child.

Lest we think parents of color are more rigid, the Washington Post recently published “Transgender at Five,” a story about Tyler, now 5, who insisted at 2 years old on being a boy. At first these interracial parents thought their daughter was a tomboy, but over time came to recognize that her persistent question, “When did you change me?” wasn’t going to go away. Now, they are embracing Tyler’s gender as his choice.

In utero, gender ambiguity might be socially acceptable or even garner kudos (especially from older generations who like the idea of keeping it a surprise), but it has grave consequences for adults. As Kellee Terrell’s post on TheRoot.com, “No Justice for CeCe,” reminds us, transgender women and gender-nonconforming individuals, particular those of color, are especially vulnerable to vicious attacks and hate crimes.

Terrell points to two recent studies conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs: “According to a 2011 study (pdf) people who were both transgender and of color were almost 2.5 times more likely to experience discrimination and nearly two times as likely to experience intimidation as non-transgender white individuals. A 2009 report conducted by the same group found that of the twenty-two people who were murdered in 2009 because of their sexual orientation, about 80 percent were people of color and half were transgender women; the other half were overwhelmingly men who defied gender stereotypes.”

Rather than policing gender as a biological fact from which people should not deviate, we should recognize that gender is experimental, variant and ever changing.

One of the things I am going miss the most about being pregnant is the freedom to imagine and therefore refuse gender rules. And in the meantime, green and yellow, gray and orange, purple and brown onesies offer far more options than pink and blue to me.

In 'Scandal' and 'Veep', Can Female Politicos Be Powerful—and Sexy, Too?

Picture this. On route to an appearance on Meet The Press, the vice president engages in a sexually explicit conversation with her lover. Her staff, overhearing, blushes at the graphic nature of the conversation and quickly ushers her into the car, switching the topic from innuendo to the hardline immigration stance she will be taking on air.

Welcome to television’s new world of women and politics: that actually happened on HBO, two Sundays ago. This spring, both ABC and HBO launched two new shows, Scandal and Veep, respectively—that portray women in politics as a sexy, powerful and fun. Both are refreshing departures from the real world of politics and even the cloistered asexuality of The West Wing.

In the cultural imagination, female political figures rarely get to be sexy and powerful. This is partly because politics is still a male-dominated world. Data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University show that women currently hold 16.8 percent of the 535 seats in Congress and 23.7 percent of the seats in state legislatures. There are six female governors; of the 100 big-city mayors, twelve are women.

But this is also because the provenance of politics and sexual attractiveness is itself a double standard. For men, sexual appeal, competence and power are seen as qualities for leadership. Think Bill Clinton’s cool pose on the saxophone, Barack Obama’s inaugurating Men’s Vogue, and even John Edward’s golden-boy smile (pre-trial).

But for women in politics, sexuality is often a liability. Unlike for their male counterparts, competence in a woman is a necessity, but often not very sexy. While this might explain (and this is not always a bad thing) why there are almost no scandals involving women politicians, it also means that to be successful in politics, women have to deliberately play down or inhibit those charismatic qualities—call it swagger, sexiness or a winning smile—upon which many of their ambitious male counterparts thrive.

Not so much on television. Scandal is a fast-paced, surreal Shondra Rimes drama about DC fixer Olivia Pope (played by Kerrie Washington), who regularly dons Armani and Valentino while valiantly taking on Washington’s most powerful men. Veep, on the other hand, is an acerbic comedy about one of the best-dressed politicians ever to appear on television, the foul-mouthed, eco-friendly Vice President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

Living up to its title, Scandal is all about forbidden romance and stolen glances. Pope is the African-American woman with whom the married white GOP president, Fitzgerald Grant (played Tony Goldwyn), is desperately in love. She has the White House on speed dial, unabashedly kisses the president in the Oval Office and is DC’s most effective political negotiator (loosely based on real-life Washington strategist Judy Smith). Salvaging the presidency more that once, she is brains and beauty, wrapped in a white Tony Burch trench. Firm in her convictions and keeper of everyone’s secrets, she puts people on edge.

If Pope has too much access to the White House, Veep’s Selina Meyers has too little. She can’t get a single piece of legislation she backs passed because POTUS refuses to coordinate agendas with her. Her ineffectiveness not only comically reveals the limits of the vice presidency but also highlights the gender gaps that most elected women politicians continue to face. Olivia Pope is powerful precisely because she’s not elected. For women, even being elected doesn’t mean they get to be powerful.

This is biggest and most crucial difference between these two shows.

Kerry Washington in ABC's "Scandal"

“Scandal” revels in the fact that “smart power” can be sexy too. But then again, Olivia Pope has never run for office. She is powerful, but was never elected—which reflects the fact that there are so few women of color who are elected officials. Currently, women of color constitute 4.5 percent of the total 535 members of Congress, and there are no women of color serving in the US Senate.

Meanwhile, Ernesto Martinez, the costume designer for Veep who dresses Julia Louis-Dreyfus, said in the New York Times’s “Outfitting the Veep” that for “most politicians, their stab at looking good is not really so great. The idea was to be powerful, but attractive.” Neither Nancy Pelosi nor Kirsten Gellibrand worked; instead, he had to turn to our most famous unelected Washington woman: Michelle Obama.

Ultimately, how well dressed or charismatic a politician is shouldn’t matter. But these shows reveal that women who run for office have to play by a different set of rules than everyone else. And they also give us a picture, if only for sixty minutes, of how fun it would be if there were some more cracks in Washington’s glass ceiling.

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