Giving voice to survivors of sexual assault

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College TownMissoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You’d have to be living under a rock this year to avoid stories of entitled, young male athletes sexually assaulting young women and serving little or no jail time for such crimes.

Missoula, Montana may not be unique in the number of young women who are vilified or simply not believed when they step forward naming their assailants. Jon Krakauer gives those young women who’ve survived rape a powerful voice, one we should all listen and respond to.

Whatever we are teaching young men, it shouldn’t be that they can get away with rape. From prosecutors to communities, we all have a responsibility to clearly and definitively say, ‘this is not okay’. Perhaps, we’ve woken up in the wake of cases like Brock Turner’s outrageously light sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman. Judging by the reactions and words of his father — diminishing rape to a mere ‘20 minutes of action‘ — as well as some of the reactions and character assassinations all too common in Missoula and elsewhere, we have a long way to go.

Whilst Krakauer pens a particularly difficult book to read given the understandably horrendous descriptions and details throughout, it’s an incredibly important read. We need to listen to those who come forward after being sexually assaulted. We need to approach their assaults from a place of belief and seeking truth and justice rather than giving their attackers the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, the shame and guilt and fear each woman experienced in the immediate aftermath of their living nightmares will never heal. They will never find peace.

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Day 38: Proekt 365 (Solidarity)

Day 38: Proekt 365 Well played, Google!

Day 38: Proekt 365
Well played, Google.

I’m tipping my hat to Google today. They deserve it. As do all those who stand up to oppression.

I’m sure that there will be loads of posts about this today. And, that isn’t a bad thing at all. If anything, more agencies should be voicing their concern and dismay at an incredibly bad policy with very real consequences.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Russia enacted a law in June last year which essentially makes life incredibly difficult for its country’s LGBTI citizens and residents. (I’ve already written at length about my own thoughts on this elsewhere.) There has been loads of coverage about this insane law given that the Winter Olympics in Sochi are starting this week. Most of that coverage is focused on what it means for those who will be competing and spectating, with far less devoted to how it affects LGBTI community. There has been plenty of outrage voiced from various countries and ‘VIPs’, but not nearly enough and certainly nothing on an organised, large scale. And, far, far too little action, IMHO.

A few days ago, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on participants to promote equality and non-discrimination during the games (I’d say, why not extend this to the host country, but…nevermind). And, today, the Google Doodle makes a statement loud and clear. I like these statements and I applaud them.

Yet, the (most expensive) Olympics are continuing. Violence against LGBTI in Russia goes on unchecked.

Borrowing from Google, I’ll end this post with the bit of the Olympic Charter we all need to be reminded of during these troubled games:

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

In solidarity…

Where an ‘I love you’ text is a crime

A week ago, a man in Cameroon died. Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was only 34 years young, died of complications and lack of treatment for a hernia. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, Roger died needlessly and senselessly after having to live in hiding and knowing that his family wanted to remove the ‘curse’ which plagued him. Why?

Because he was gay.

Roger was jailed under Cameroon’s anti-gay legislation in 2011 for sending a text message to a man which read, ‘I’m very much in love with you’. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and later released on medical grounds. He lived in hiding upon release and some reports suggest he was barred from receiving medical treatment. Even his family said that it would be better to just let him die.

Because he was gay. Because he loved a man and declared that love.

There are far, far too many countries in which individuals who do not fit the ‘norm’ face criminal charges for simply declaring an emotion which should bring joy, happiness and hope. Depending upon how you classify both country and legislation, a total of 83 countries (84 if you count Russia) have laws which place strict limitations on the human rights freedoms to those citizens who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender. That’s 84 too many. Imagine living in a place where you cannot declare your love for another human being. Where you cannot show your love for another human being. Where you are not free to love and show that love for whom you wish.

With all of the attention Russia and President Putin have been quite rightly getting given the upcoming Olympic games, perhaps we can also shine a spotlight on all those other countries in which LGBT men and women face prison, discrimination and stigma on a daily basis simply for being who they are. This includes Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and 35 other African nations (although the Ugandan law has not been signed by the president as of this morning). These are only the countries from one continent in which laws exist making it a crime to be gay. Let’s not forget the Americas, Asia, and, yes, Europe. As we in the developed North applaud the steady march towards marriage equality in the United States, the spread of laws which criminalise homosexuality continue and with them stigma, discrimination and hatred become more common and, in a way, legally sanctioned and institutionalised.

Despite Putin’s claims that the Sochi games will be welcoming to all athletes and free of discrimination in any form, what about the remainder of Russia outside the Olympic bubble? Actions, and in this particular case, legislation speak infinitely louder than words. So loud in fact that 27 Nobel laureates and Sir Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf) have penned a letter asking President Putin to reconsider the anti-gay propaganda law. Once the Olympic torch is extinguished, I’m dubious that anything will change, and suspect that things for Russia’s LGBT community may in fact become more grim.

But, what of those other countries in which the laws are even harsher? What of those countries who punish their LGBT citizens with decades long or even life prison sentences? What of those countries where being gay carries the death penalty? Where is the outrage? Where is the international support? Where are the protest letters from those 27 Nobel laureates and knighted actors?

In some parts of the world, undoubtedly we’ve come a long, long way towards making it safe and legal for all to love whom they love, openly and without fear (or, as it should be). But, as the senseless and tragic case of Roger Jean-Claude Mbede illustrates all too cruelly, we still have a very long way to go.

The Anti-Gay World (pinched from Buzzfeed)

The Anti-Gay World
(pinched from Buzzfeed)

Come on, Texas. Really?

I’ve written before about my connection to that most unique state, Texas. Today’s post sadly isn’t one which fills me with state pride.

Since seeing the tragic news a few days ago about Marlise Munoz, a 33-year-old brain dead woman who is forcibly being kept alive to serve, quite bluntly, as an incubator, has me speechless. Ms Munoz by all accounts is unable to live without full life support and will not recover. Her husband and parents want to take her off of life support and have wished to do so since learning that there is no brain stem activity. She herself had previously said that she did not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state. So, why is she now on life support against the wishes of her family and her own living will?

She was 14-weeks pregnant when she collapsed.

In Texas, life-sustaining treatment can not be withdrawn or withheld from a pregnant woman regardless of how far along she is in her pregnancy. As of 2012, similar strict laws surrounding end-of-life care for pregnant women existed in 12 states in the US, according to a 2012 study by the Centre for Women Policy Studies. (These states are Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.) Thus, even if an advance directive exists stipulating that a woman does not wish to remain on life support if she is considered brain dead, the state has the right to keep her on life-sustaining support if she is pregnant. Her wishes for a dignified death are unimportant and she is essentially rendered an incubator. This is precisely what has happened to Ms Munoz.

Had she been further along in her pregnancy, I might find this more understandable. But, she was still in her first trimester when she was classified as ‘legally’ dead. She suffered from a lack of oxygen for an extended period of time, which most likely also affected the foetus. But, nevermind that.

What really gets me is the medical bills. Since it is the hospital’s decision to keep Ms Munoz on life support , you would think that the costs would fall on the administration. No. The bills will ultimately go to her family. With an average cost of US$4004 per day, already the bill is quite steep (~US$170 000 already at least). And, that’s just for the intensive care unit bill. But, this does not necessarily include the costs of the ambulance, emergency room and other various services and service providers, specialists, etc. undoubtedly used since she first collapsed on 26 November. All of these add to that already hefty bill and in the absence of a national healthcare system. For what?

My understanding is that, currently, the hospital is waiting until the foetus has developed further to determine if they will keep Ms Munoz on life support further and what additional actions they will take. Should tests reveal that the foetus is brain dead, what next? Who will be responsible for providing long-term care to that foetus/infant? The family? Or the hospital? Or the state of Texas?

Without delving into the pro-life / pro-choice debate, this case in particular fills me with sadness for the family of Ms Munoz, but also for Ms Munoz herself. Her dignity as a human and as a woman specifically has been diminished so greatly. She expressed her wishes to not be put on life support should she lose brain function. Her wishes have been ignored completely all for the sake of a foetus which may or may not survive to birth, and may or may not itself be brain dead.

In the words of her father, she is a ‘host’ at this point, not a woman or a mother. In cases like this, it’s hard to see that women are valued within society as anything but incubators when the rights of a foetus are placed so clearly above those of the mother. And, if we can fight so fiercely for the well-being of a foetus before it enters the world, why do we not then provide that same level of care and concern for the child it becomes?

Clearly, medical technology has advanced at an amazing rate, so much so that the ethics of our options have not completely sunk in and we have yet to philosophically ponder let alone come up with solutions / answers which work for all of us given our varied beliefs and moral compasses. Yet, I would hope that we would at the very least put the dignity of an individual, especially when spelled out when one is capable of still making such decisions, above all else.

For now, my thoughts are with the Munoz family. Suffering such a loss is bad enough. Having to relive it each and every day in such a viscous, callous and myopic way is unthinkable. May they be able to finally and definitively grieve sooner rather than later.

What we are taught, part 2

Over breakfast one morning when I was maybe 14 or 15 years old, my grandfather advised me to ‘keep [my] knees together’. To this day, I have no idea what prompted this seemingly random statement.

As an awkward adolescent sitting at breakfast in a restaurant with her family, I was mortified. From the faces of everyone except my grandfather and the choked chortling coming from the wait staff, it’s one of my most vivid memories of my grandfather and one I’d rather not recall quite so easily. The message, however, was as clear then as it is now: my own actions as a girl or woman will be interpreted by others and either invite judgements of virtue or exploitation and I alone hold responsibility over whatever happens. In other words, what happens to me (sexually) is my ‘fault’.

Horseshit, I say, now as I did then. I am of course responsible for the choices I make and decisions I take. But, I am not an object.

Nearly 30 years later and armed with a firm understanding of feminism, sexual justice, and the notion that there is no justification for the subjugation or exploitation of anyone, it’s discouraging to hear what is passing as a project aimed at today’s youth in West Virginia.

Labelled Project Future Two-a-Days, the ‘social media and drug education’ programme launched in August is aimed at high school athletes and guiding them on ‘avoiding trouble on the internet‘. Basically, it teaches young athletes how not to tweet, text or post to social media any evidence which might incriminate them or lead to criminal charges against them.

That is, things happen when you add drugs, alcohol, smartphones and raging hormones. Don’t share it via social media and here’s how you can avoid getting caught.

Maybe, in all this training, we can insert a little bit of guidance on not sexually assaulting young girls? Maybe a little something about ‘consensual sex’ and its meaning? And, hey, whilst we’re at it, maybe we could talk about safer sex? Since the programme mentions drug education, maybe we can also add a little about responsible drinking and drugs behaviour as well?

But, no, the idea is to not get caught — not to not do it in the first place. That it is designed for young male athletes is rather shocking.

News this week has showcased yet another town’s lovely treatment of a pair of young girls who were raped (at a star football player’s home and by him and his friends), one girl being left for dead on her lawn in freezing temps. Despite both physical and digital evidence, despite eye witness accounts from the younger girl and several of the other boys there, and despite what appears to be confessions from the two boys who assaulted the girls, the charges were mysteriously dropped. Instead, the two girls — one 13 and another 14 — were blamed for what happened to them and much of the town stands firmly behind the boys who perpetrated rape whilst publicly shaming the girls.

‘They asked for it’. ‘They deserved it’. ‘Matt 1: Daisy 0’ read one viscious t-shirt — Matt being the star football player, Daisy being the girl left for dead. That t-shirt was worn by another girl.

How many times will this happen? How many times has it happened and gone unreported?

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network provides a depressing answer to that last question: out of every 100 rapes, 54 go unreported. Only three out of every 100 rapists will spend a single day in jail for the crime(s) they commit. Three. I think we can agree that that is appalling.

From RAINN ( Sources:  1.  Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2006-2010; 2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports: 2006-2010; 3. National Center for Policy Analysis, Crime and Punishment in America, 1999; 4. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006; 5. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006.

From RAINN (
1. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2006-2010; 2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports: 2006-2010; 3. National Center for Policy Analysis, Crime and Punishment in America, 1999; 4. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006; 5. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006.

There is no justice figures like these. Whilst these are figures for all rapes regardless of age, given the reluctance of most kids to talk about sex let alone sexual violence and drugs and alcohol with their parents, it’s easy to imagine that most instances of rape in adolescents go unreported to anyone. But, by all means, let’s start programmes which teach young men how to get away with sexually assaulting young girls.

Gloria Steinem may have been speaking on a seemingly unrelated issue when she recently said that we need to ‘change the culture‘. But, that seems precisely what we need to do. Rather than teaching boys and young men how not to get caught and to not post videos or pictures of their friends raping young girls, we have the tools and responsibility to teach them how to respect young girls and how NOT to rape young girls. We should spend a little energy and time imparting upon them that girls and women are not simply sexual objects — young girls are equally important and valuable — intellectually, socially and culturally. Let’s provide young people with healthy notions of relationships of all types.

And, while we’re at it, let’s teach young girls (and young boys) that have been sexually assaulted that they won’t be blamed for the heinous acts perpetrated against them. They will not be shamed by their community simply because the popular, well-connected individual is the guilty party. It is not their fault when a violent crime is committed against them.

The only way we can change the culture of rape and the culture of objectification is to call it what it is and hold those accountable for turning a blind eye. And, we commit further crimes when we blame those against whom such crimes have been perpetrated.

Thirty years on from that mortifying breakfast and I am realising nothing has really changed. But, that doesn’t mean it can’t.

Fact: Child brides exist

A particularly gruesome headline can bring attention to issues which otherwise garner far too little coverage. This morning, one such headline has been on my mind:

Bride, 8, dies of injuries on wedding night in Yemen

There is some question regarding the veracity of the reporting in the wake of regional outrage. True or not, child brides as young as 8 years old exist in many parts of the world. Very few of those lives spark any interest at all and never appear in headlines until tragedy (of another sort) strikes.

Girls Not Brides estimates that each year 14 million girls are wed before they turn 18, the age which is internationally recognised as the point at which a girl transitions to womanhood. One in seven of those 14 million girls marry before reaching the age of 15.

It isn’t just that girls under 18 marry, which is troubling. It’s that the majority of those young girls are forced to do so, and more often than not are greeted with husbands who are much, much older. A rather chilling collection of photographs and a short film (below) by Stephanie Sinclair vividly illustrate the reality of child marriage for many young girls across cultures.

In addition to the horror of rape, many girls who are married off far, far too young face a host of risks to their health and well-being. Most likely already living in poverty, they are more likely to experience complications due to pregnancy and childbirth given their age, and they are at risk for sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Unable to emotionally and physically deal with married life, domestic abuse and violence are also likely making the transition from girl to woman a living nightmare.

For some young brides in Afghanistan and India, their situation is so unimaginably horrendous that self-immolation is preferable to returning to abusive, much older husbands.

Whether the headline of a single 8-year-old Yemeni girl is fact or fiction, the International Centre for Research on Women estimates that child marriage will be a reality for more than 142 million girls over the next decade globally if current trends persist. No continent is immune to this reality, and no single culture, religion, or ethnicity is ‘to blame’. It happens everywhere.

Whether that headline is true or not, hundreds of thousands of young girls have suffered emotionally and physically as a child bride on their wedding nights. Some wedding gift, eh?

Don’t mess with Texas women

I am a Texas woman.

There. I said it.

To my Texan brethren, I am a Yankee. Fine. I’m a Texan Yankee. Whatever.

But, I was born in Brenham, Tx, home to the finest ice cream on the planet, and descend from the men and women who defended the Alamo long before Texas was a part of the United States. There is nothing more beautiful to me than a field filled with Texas bluebonnets. Nothing. Texas, as much as it completely baffles me, is still home. And, I am proud of my family’s heritage in the history of that most enigmatic of states. The steaks do taste better. The mosquitoes are gigantic. The TexMex is the finest anywhere (of course — ‘Texas’ is right there in the name!), and the margaritas flow bigger and colder than anywhere I’ve ever been.

All of these things are now things which fill me with a sense of pride at my Texan heritage.

I lost the accent long ago (something about being 3 and sounding incredibly different to all the other kids made that a lightning-fast loss), and I talk faster than a Texas twister I’ve been told on more than one occasion. I was a vegetarian for many years to the utter disbelief of some. Once I became active and cognizant of the political sphere as an undergraduate, I became not just a {gasp} Democrat, but a god-less liberal (resulting in many a family ‘intervention’ at holidays and visits). I do not own a gun, nor do I hunt. When I still had a car, I drove a Japanese car. And, I lived far, far North of the Mason-Dixon line when I last lived in the US.

Perhaps the parts of that heritage which resonate most soundly with me, however, are the attitudes and sass of just about everyone I know there, which rival none. We like our sass as big as our trucks and hats — super sized. The two phrases in my own family which carried the most meaning were ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ and ‘Don’t cross Grandma’. (My dearest darling grandmother, Katharine, to whom I owe much of my own personality now, was the strongest, most intelligent woman I’ve ever known. And, she was Texan through and through.)

Despite the many reasons I am proud of being a Texas woman by birth, yesterday’s utter insanity in the state Senate (along with Texas politics, in general) is a big reason why I am reluctant to shout my heritage from the rooftops.

For those sleeping under rocks or completely tuned out from all news and media outlets, the Texas Senate was poised on Tuesday to pass a sweeping bill which would eliminate 37 of the 42 clinics in the state that provide abortion services to Texas women*. (They are also acting incredibly fast to enact legislation which would make it harder for poor and minority citizens to vote in elections.) This is the state whose Governor refuses to expand Medicaid services with federal funds, despite having one of the highest percentages of uninsured individuals in the country. This is also the state in which spending on family planning services across the board were cut by two-thirds in 2011. Thus, not only will Texas women be unable to access abortion services, they won’t be able to prevent unintended pregnancies to prevent the necessity of seeking such services. Social benefits are hard to come by for poor Texans given the state’s largely conservative mentality.

Despite not living there for a long, long while, as a Texas woman I’d like to thank Senator Wendy Davis for her courageous and sadly necessary attempt to thwart the insanity in the state Senate yesterday. Even if ‘dirty tactics’ by the state GOP circumvent her filibuster, she stood up for all women across Texas and we witnessed the tenacity and bravery of a woman who said ‘no more’. And, she did so with grace, dignity and quiet contemplation. She did so in the tradition of those who fought for Texas Independence at the Alamo so long ago and gave us reasons to be proud of our heritage and state.

State Senator Wendy Davis is a hero among ‘thieves’ (in this case, thieves = Texas GOP politicians), to adapt and borrow a favourite phrase. And, she stood with honour yesterday, and provides yet another reason for me to be proud to be a Texan. And, prouder still be a Texan woman.

I #StandwithWendy and all Texas women, even those with whom I disagree.

I #StandwithWendy and all Texas women, even those with whom I disagree. (Image from Sarah Baker @bakerbk)

*I don’t want to go into the whole abortion debate, which is basically impossible here. To me, it’s no one’s business but a woman’s. What she chooses to do is between her and her doctor and partner. That’s all I’m saying here.