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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Get it Straight: It’s Rape and not “Sleep Sex”

The Star, one of Canada and Toronto’s largest online news sources recently published the following question in their Ellie’s Advice column:

Q: My husband said that while I was fast asleep one night he had intercourse with me. He thinks it’s acceptable since I’m his wife. I feel it’s almost the same as rape. It’s my right to go to sleep and know nothing will happen to me. I should be able to feel safe.
To do that without a person’s consent while they are unaware surely can’t be right. What do you think?
A: If having “sleep sex” with your husband feels so unsafe, you have bigger marital problems going on. This is what you should be dealing with, more than this one incident.

I am assuming this question was written by a woman as the majority of other questions are submitted by women.  It is possible that it is a man, as same-sex marriage was nationally recognized in Canada in 2005. 

Let’s be clear: this incident is not “sleep sex” as the columnist suggests but is in fact rape.  It is rape based on how the woman is feeling about the violation and according to the Canadian Criminal Code.  Curious explicitly said that she did not give her husband permission to have sex with her while she was asleep.  She explicitly states that since she has found that out she feels unsafe and that it isn’t right to do while she is unaware.  Based on this information, the columnist should be focused on providing Curious with information on how to address this trauma such as a hotline number to a local rape crisis center or suggestions like counseling.  Since 1983, marital rape has been outlawed in Canada.  Based on this fact, the columnist can also recommend making a police report.  Instead, the columnist decides to downplay Curious’s feelings and her husband’s crime.  First she refers to it as “sleep sex”.  Secondly she states that Curious must be having bigger marital problems if this is upsetting her.  I also think that Curious may be having other marital problems—I am wondering if her husband abuses her in any other way.  I don’t think that this is what Ellie was referring to though.

I think it is deplorable that despite how clear Curious and the Canadian Criminal Code are, this columnist is still so wrong, rude, and careless in her response.  The fact that Curious’s husband does not believe he needs her expressed consent because they are married is extremely troubling.  It took much longer for the category of marital rape to be recognized as a crime and to make it into the criminal code, both in Canada and countries around the world.  Traditional beliefs did not recognize rape within marriage because it was thought that the woman’s body was literally owned by the man and therefore it was not feasible to commit an act of rape against one’s wife. Marriage vows were considered to be a blanket of consent for all sex within the marriage.  It is still one of the most contested aspects of the definition of rape and criminal code and spouses who are raped have a difficult time in having their charges taken seriously.  Despite these traditional values and patriarchal history, the man does not own the woman and he is not entitled to sex whenever he pleases.  The element of consent is required no matter the relationship status between the two people.

This answer is also troubling for the implications it can have past the influence it has on Curious.  As The Star is a widely read news source throughout Toronto and Canada, this opinion can also be read by scores of other people.  These people may have similar experiences to Curious and rather than believe it is a crime they may believe Ellie’s reference, “sleep-sex”.  This terminology could lead people to believe that they are overreacting to their experiences rather than acknowledging what is happening.  There are so many barriers to reporting a rape or sexual assault, especially against someone who you love and trust like a spouse.  Downplaying acts of rape in a popular news source can be detrimental to those who want to report because it could cast doubt in their mind as to whether they’d be believed and supported. 

Written by: Stacey

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Posted by stacey on 12/28 • (2) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fashion for BARCC

A new t-shirt was designed exclusively BARCC by the women-owned apparel company, Mer+ge.  Mer+ge works to promote self-expression and unity through their clothing designs.  The company wants to create “political, social, and biological messages to demonstrate that gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc are things that do not necessarily define us, but are rather just one part of who we are.”  Their CEO, Victoria Johnson, used BARCC’s mission of Healing and Social Change as inspiration for the current design.  According to Ms. Johnson, the design was to reflect the necessity of each individual “being heard and understood [and] in order to be heard, you have to have two lines of communication.  One ready to speak and the other ready to listen.”


Here at BARCC, we try to exemplify this ability to speak and listen throughout the work we do and the volunteer programs that we have.  The message and necessity of two lines of communication runs through our three volunteer programs, Hotline, Medical Advocacy (MedAd), and Community Awareness and Prevention Services (CAPS).  All three programs provide very different services but are interconnected through BARCC’s overall mission. 

The BARCC Hotline operates 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and depends heavily on the volunteers to ensure that all these shifts are covered.  In the 2010 calendar year, 2,972 hotline calls were answered which factors out to approximately 8 calls per day.  Hotline counselors answer calls from survivors, significant others, and providers.  They provide crisis counseling, resources and referrals, if needed, to other organizations or to BARCC counseling.  As one volunteer said, “so many times survivors and significant others aren’t heard or understood…our main goal is to provide an environment where the caller is listened to and understood.”  Oftentimes, survivors may not have a support network, have not received a positive response when disclosing to friends or family members, or not disclosed to anyone.  It can be very difficult for a survivor to call a stranger on the Hotline and talk about such sensitive and personal experiences.  Therefore, it is critical for Hotline counselors to be ready to hear what the survivors say so that they know what the main concerns and needs are for each individual and be able to appropriately respond. 

MedAd also operates 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and is dependent on volunteers to respond to hospitals in the Boston area to support survivors who have recently been assaulted and are undergoing the forensic exam.  In the calendar year of 2010, MedAd counselors responded to 338 cases, which is almost one per day.  MedAd counselors provide information about what to expect during and after the forensic exam, who all the different players are, and assisting with emotional and moral support throughout the entire process, which lasts four hours on average.  According to a MedAd volunteer, it is essential to “[meet] survivors where they’re at…[and] to listen to what they tell us about what’s happening for them at that moment.”  MedAd volunteers need to be aware of how the survivor is feeling at that specific moment but also pick up on cues of whether the survivor will be safe when they leave the hospital.  This would not be feasible without intently listening and hearing what each survivor is saying and answering questions and following up on concerns.

The CAPS program provides educational trainings and workshops throughout the Boston area to schools, colleges, DV agencies, youth workers, and other community organizations.  Volunteers facilitate engagements mainly in the evenings and on the weekends.  The curriculum varies from how to respond to disclosures of sexual assault to bystander intervention methods to consent and heavily depends on the contributions and participation of audience members as many of the workshops are interactive.  One of the CAPS volunteers stated “a lot of the work we do in CAPS is about starting conversation…and by listening to one another and having their own voices heard, people can begin to question some of the ways we’re socialized to think about relationships, sex, violence, and power.”  Societal norms and viewpoints do not change overnight but rather require many in depth conversations to identify where misperceptions arise and how they can be addressed.  In order to deliver an effective presentation, CAPS volunteers must be able to listen to the needs and thoughts of the audience and communicate the workshop in a way that resonates. 

Please check out this t-shirt and our new pendant on our website.  Both make great gifts.  Proceeds benefit the services we provide and it’s a great way to show your support all year round!

Written by: Stacey

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Posted by stacey on 12/21 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Musings on the Response to UVM’s “Rape Survey” Story

If you read this blog regularly, or at all, I think you may also already have heard of the “Rape Survey” story at the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity Chapter on UVM’s (University of Vermont) campus in Burlington, Vermont. In case you haven’t, here’s a rundown of what’s going on: last weekend, a student went to university campus life administrators with information about a survey that originated in and was circulating through the frat house - one of the questions on the survey blankly asked “If you could rape someone, who would it be?”. University administrators subsequently notified Sigma Phi Epsilon’s national representatives (the fraternity has 240 chapters nationwide) and campus police, suspended the UVM campus chapter and launched an investigation into the origins of the survey and whether or not it is linked with any criminal acts on campus.

It’s rare that such an explicit symptom of deeply embedded rape culture surfaces in such a public way, but I have to say that I’m not surprised that this happened, especially on a college campus and behind the walls of a fraternity. Due to the newness of this investigation, it’s difficult to determine the context of the specific question - whether it was asked with specific, criminal intent or in the spirit of the “rape is funny” attitude that permeates everyday exchanges, sitcom banter, and woefully ignorant/insensitive/cheap/unfunny online humor forums. Either way, consider the facts: this “rape survey” was created by young people during a time in which:

- one in five women at college will be sexually assaulted; 
- a victim-blaming lens continues to frame dominant discourse on sexual violence in the media - take, for instance, the Pennsylvania Control Liquor Board’s newest ad targeting teen drinking (TRIGGER WARNING); 
- the language used to describe sexual violence and survivors across media frequently omits the use of the word “rape” or “assault” and is often confounded with language used to described consensual sexual encounters;
- law enforcement officials feel it’s excusable to neglect to investigate over 400 cases of alleged sexual assault to focus on enforcing other laws; and
- college students riot when a beloved football coach is fired for his role in not preventing child rape.

This list could go on for miles, of course. The point is, this specific incident is but one highly visible tree on a broader cultural landscape that tolerates, and even encourages, the act of rape.

With all of that being said - and hear me now, rape culture is still alive and thriving - I am surprised by the gravity of the consequences for the Sigma Phi men thus far, and how this deplorable act is being handled by university administrators, law enforcement, and the national headquarters for the fraternity. We’ve all heard about the tepid, inadequate responses college administrators have had to allegations of sexual assault on their campuses in the past. So, the fact that the UVM Sigma Phi Epsilon members have been indefinitely suspended by UVM administrators and subjected to investigations of the university, campus police and the fraternity’s headquarters is, to me, an important first step and one that defies my conditioned expectations of how these institutions normally deal with rape culture on campus. Additionally, it’s important to note that a student felt empowered to come forward with this information to college administrators, and that this survey, in and of itself, was deemed enough of a threat to campus life and security to require redress. Beyond the UVM campus, this story has also quickly generated a firestorm of media coverage and pushback, echoing across national headlines and prompting a number of responses from UVM professors, students and even a petition created by “Feminists at UVM” to shut down the UVM Chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon. 

I’m sort of in awe of how much attention this survey has generated I can’t help but feel like the visibility of anti-rape activism and dialogue throughout 2011, from the NPR investigation of rape on college campuses that spurred a response from the Obama administration, to conversations for and against SlutWalk, drew enough attention to assault on college campuses to at least keep these UVM administrators vigilant and ready to act quickly. I think that suspending these fraternity members and launching an investigation about the origins and intent of the survey is a crucial first step in addressing such a heinous symptom of deeply embedded rape culture within fraternities, and on college campuses more generally. However, it’s definitely not a 100% “win” for the anti-rape movement, and I’d argue that all the collective steps that it took for the rape survey backlash to get to this point - the courage of a student to come forward, how this information was received by UVM administrators, the proportionate media coverage it’s generated, and the fervor with which the investigation is being carried out - would not be possible without consistent, vigilant, mindful advocacy, activism, and pushback. This is why it’s critical to continue to demand accountability - not only when someone is raped or assaulted, but when there are elements of rape culture staring us squarely in the eye.

Written by: Tierney,  Development Associate

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Posted by stacey on 12/15 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Blame it on the Rapist

NOTE: this blog post is about a particular type of male-to-female sexual assault. In it, I explore why societal messages directed mostly at straight, cisgendered men and women are one of the most effective tools for promoting this kind of assault. By it’s nature then, this is a pretty heteronormative post, so please treat this as full disclosure, and feel free to add your own voices and perspectives to the conversation below.

Buzzfeed recently posted a list of 7 popular songs that are “too rapey”.  There are several classic choices listed - Lionel Ritchie’s stalker anthem, “Hello”, as well as the cheery-yet-undeniably-date-rapish holiday tune, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Buzzfeed is a pop culture criticism website, so it’s nice to see them unabashedly approaching the issue of rape culture, and doing it with a sense of humor. But what really stuck out to me were the comments below (I know, I know. I should stop reading comments if I want to maintain some semblance of faith in humanity, but alas, I always end up reading them anyway, like a moth to a patriarchal flame). While many of the commenters got into the spirit of the post, offering up their own examples of disturbing pop songs celebrating various forms of rape and sexual assault, there were also some who took issue with the assertion that songs like Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It On The Alcohol” had anything wrong with it. “Girls play hard to get…The ‘too rapey’ thing is too harsh,” says one commenter. Another: “Brown Sugar, Little Girls, and Hello are the only 3 you can say something about…the other ones have absolutely nothing perverted about them”. As internet commentary about issues of rape and sexual assault goes, this is actually pretty tame. Despite that, I found it interesting that what most people took issue with were the songs that refer to (and glorify) what is commonly known as “date rape”.

During my training as a BARCC CAPS volunteer, a group of fellow volunteers did a presentation on popular songs that deal with the issue of rape and sexual assault. One of those mentioned was Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It On The Alcohol”. Full disclosure: I hated this song before I knew the lyrics; autotune is not my thing. But reading the lyrics at that presentation shed a whole new light on my dislike. Lyrics like “Just one more round and you’re down”, “couple more shots you open up like a book”, and “Shawty got drunk thought it all was a dream”, are so blatantly celebratory of rape that it’s almost shocking how much play this song gets in clubs (or not, depending on your familiarity with the pervasiveness of rape culture). Two of the other songs on the list deal with similar themes, namely “Tell Me More” from Grease (“tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?”) and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (notably “say, what’s in this drink”, and “the answer is no”, followed by more pressure and pouring of alcohol from the man in question). And while some people - i.e. commenters on websites like Buzzfeed - insist that we’‘e reading too much into these lyrics, they shed light on an incredibly prevalent theme in our society. Namely, women don’t want sex (“girls play hard to get”), and have to be persuaded into it by any means necessary.

The blatancy of this message varies across cultural touch-points. I went to a Southern Baptist high school, where the sex ed consisted of analogizing sexually active females to dirty lollipops, and the directives we received were less about using condoms and other forms of birth control, and more about women a) not dressing in sexually suggestive clothing, so as not to tempt men, and b) not allowing ourselves to get into any remotely sexual situations with men, because “they have a harder time controlling themselves”. The message was clear: women were not inherently sexual beings, and were therefore in charge of keeping men’s sexual impulses under control. In other forms of media, this message is perhaps a little less blatant but still unmistakable: in the song “Blame It On The Alcohol”, for instance, you can find the following lyrics: “She say she usually don’t, but I know that she front cause shawty know what she want, but she don’t wanna seem like she easy”. The implication being: of course she wants sex, but she doesn’t want to seem like a slut, so you have to get her drunk first to get rid of those pesky inhibitions. After which point, “no telling what I’m gonna do” (seriously, this song should be put on the sexual predator watch list). You find the same message in multiple films and television shows - women must be convinced into sex, any way possible. The message this reinforces with young men is, don’t look for a yes, because you’ll never get it. Just try to get past a no, whether by dulling a woman’s ability to voice “no” with drugs and alcohol, or just ignoring her because let’s be honest, you know what she wants better than she does.

Here’s why I reject those notions, besides the obvious reason that women have their own sexual agency and should be allowed to exercise it how they see fit: perhaps less obviously, I reject these messages because what they say about men. I don’t believe my Southern Baptist school when they say that men are no better than beasts, unable to control their basest impulses. I don’t believe Jamie Foxx when he asserts that the best way to get a girl into bed is to get her drunk. I have more faith in men than that. The men I know and love are able to treat the women around them with respect. They treat sex not as a power struggle but as a consensual act that both partners should be enthusiastic about (hence the term “enthusiastic consent”). These men (including many of those with whom I volunteer with at BARCC) give me hope that together we can continue to combat rape culture in our communities.

Just one more note: it’s not a crime to have enjoyed any of the songs listed here. I myself am still somewhat heartbroken about the barely hidden messages in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, mostly because Zooey Deschanel’s version is so adorable it makes my teeth hurt. Rape culture has become so pervasive in our society that it is barely noticeable to many people. So this holiday season, don’t condemn your friends and family if “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is featured on their playlist; use it as an opportunity to start a conversation (because who doesn’t want to discuss rape and sexual assault at a holiday party!).   

Any thoughts on messages you’ve been receiving lately from pop cultural mediums about rape culture, whether positive or negative? Leave them below.

Written by: Alison, a CAPS volunteer

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Posted by stacey on 12/07 • (1) CommentsPermalink

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