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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Rise of Sexting

Not too long ago, I went to a workshop on sexting in Middlesex it was titled: Building a Prevention Framework to Address Teen Sexting Behaviors-wanting to be hip and cool I decided to go since I work with teens and I needed to learn whatever I could about them.  Not fully understanding what sexting was, I went ready to learn about this new world of images and symbols, since basically all I knew was that it rhymed with texting.  I learned that according to Massgov website, sexting is the act of sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit messages or photos, or images via cell phone, computer or other digital devices. This made me think of what I was doing with technology when I was a teenager, and when I think back to that time I realize that all I had access to was a pager. If you can remember those little black square pucks that flashed red when you needed to call someone back. I don’t think you could have even done a ringtone on that let alone a naughty one. Of course, times have changed, but to imagine that that was the access I had at that time is surprising. Someone in my family might have taken a polaroid of me doing something a little risky and then my aunt would stop the picture taking process by saying, “stop acting so fast,” and that would put an end to my flight of expressing myself.  But the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy along with Cosmo did a study in September of 2008 that reported that 90% of teens and young adults are online. That’s a lot, though that doesn’t say anything about sexting, it does show how much time is being spent online by teens. This same study states that teens (13-19) have sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves.

The breakdown looks like this: 20% of teens overall have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves, 22% of girls, 18% of teen boys, and 11% of young teen girls (ages 13-16).  When it comes to how many teens are sending or posting sexually suggestive messages it goes like this: 39% of teens are doing it, 37% of teen girls, 40% of teen boys and 48% of teens say they have received such messages.  Now there have been lots of studies done on the topic of sexting, some studies suggest that sexting is not that prevalent nationally, but have  watched their numbers go up once their definition of sexting was broadened. Nonetheless, all of these studies have shown me that sexting is happening. Some of them are happening within the context of boyfriend girlfriend relationships and a smaller portion is happening with teens randomly posting images or text to Facebook, Myspace, or other social media, but I want to think a little bit more about “Why?”. Why is this happening? I won’t pretend that I know all the answers, but I have picked up some insight since going to the conference which took place in Middlesex, a county here in Massachusetts. 

To help answer this lets go back to when I was a teen…there were beepers and I watched 90210 and I was looking for anyway to express myself. My mom used to make me dress in the ugliest clothes and I remember walking to school thinking that as soon as I got to the bathroom I was going to do a Clark Kent and get out of those clothes, because they weren’t cool and not only that, they weren’t me. It’s the same with teens today, but expressing sexuality becomes even more complicated with the increased access to media.  Some therapists who work with teens would say that the mind of a teenager is like the mind of someone on LSD. Sounds horrible, but it’s true. Mary Pipher’s classic book, Reviving Opheilla says that “…the best way to understand teenagers was to think of them as constantly on LSD…People on LSD are intense, changeable, internal, often cryptic or uncommunicative and of course, dealing with a different reality”    (Pipher, 57). Think about where your mind was when you were a teen. What types of things did you get mad at? How did you handle stress, and moreover how did you handle being sexual? How did you handle wanting to up your bra size, or when you saw that half of six pack peeking through?  Also, how did you want to express it? What was available to you to show all that newness off?  Well, right now it’s not the Polaroid. Combine all of this with the accessibility to cell phones, flip cameras, computers, Youtube, Facebook, Myspace, digital cameras and some other stuff that I don’t even know, you can guess that the likelihood of  something like sexting happening is more than possible with teens.

With that said, it’s important to note that sexting is a serious offense and illegal. Though instances in sexting come from various age demographics there should also be the recognition that each case is complicated and unique. There are laws that vary state to state on this topic and it can affect teens while they are trying to express  their autonomy. Is it realistic to have teens not use their cell phones? Probably not. You can go down the story trail of telling them about your access to pagers when you were young and how you communicated to your friends with upside down letters--that was so clever, or you can help them to think through the responsibility they have with social media. This conference made me think of all these things; I feel like I have some tools under my belt. The conference that I went to also focused on hearing from teens about this issue. It’s really very interesting. They don’t even name this thing. For them it’s not called sexting. When they heard about it being called that they said there is no title for this type of communication. They also knew that some of these things happen under the coerciveness of their romantic relationships. But the thing that struck me about the responses was that teens said that they are more likely to be open to other perspectives on these behaviors when they don’t feel judged or shamed. There’s a lot to tackle in the wide array of sexting, and that makes sense to me and probably the most important piece I got from this conference.


Written by: Claudia, Youth Sexual Violence Prevention Mass- Promise Fellow

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Posted by stacey on 02/29 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Friday, February 24, 2012

VA Proposed Legislation Effects on Survivors

There are days when I wake up and feel completely rejuvenated in the world and believe that we are making significant progress in providing services to survivors to sexual assault and nudging society away from myths and victim blaming and towards real information on sexual violence and prevention efforts. There are so many people who put in an effort each and everyday to create a better world for survivors, significant others, and, let’s face it, everyone. They do this because a world without sexual violence would be a marvelous world to live in.

Despite the fact that the change is slow, there is still so much to be excited about. There are new campaigns  that focus on what people can do to change the environment around them to prevent sexual violence rather than just telling people what to do after they’ve been assaulted. There is new research  that has been evaluated and is effective at reducing incidents of sexual harassment in middle schools. The FBI recently changed its definition of rape to be more inclusive of the many victims and survivors it affects each year. Teenagers are speaking out against the dangers of slut-shaming and victim blaming . Documentaries are being made to show the effects of media  and the epidemicof sexual assault in the military . Change and the push for change are happening on so many different levels so it’s easy to get excited as an anti-sexual violence advocate.

Maybe all this positive energy, change, and complete lack of a scary New England winter has made me too hopeful…too expectant that society is shifting for the better. I am quickly snapped back into reality when legislation, such as the one in VA mandating a trans-vaginal ultrasound for women who are seeking an abortion, is proposed and then passed by the House and Senate. What does this legislation mean exactly? It means that any woman who wants an abortion must have a trans-vaginal ultrasound, which is very different from a sonogram that is done on the stomach. The Reproductive Health Reality Check does a great job explaining what this procedure entails (WARNING: Graphics used).

The new definition of rape from the FBI is the penetration, however slight, of any bodily orifice by any body part or object without consent. This new law on the table in VA is the mandatory penetration of a woman’s vagina without the need for her consent or a doctor’s recommendation. It is not medically necessary, nor is it optional based on the situation at hand. It is required for every woman who wants to obtain an abortion. While it can be traumatic for any woman who wants to practice body autonomy, it can be especially traumatic for rape and sexual assault survivors.

Rape and sexual assault cause the survivor to lose power and control over their body. Sexual violence can cause a variety of emotional, psychological, mental, and physical trauma to survivors. It can be daunting and challenging for survivors to seek general medical care in the years afterward. This medically unnecessary procedure also takes away a woman’s power and control over her body and medical choices. It takes away the voice of the woman and the doctor to make appropriate choices and decisions for themselves. Being in a medical appointment creates a clear power dynamic between the doctor and patient, which can be intimidating for survivors. Also, patients can feel exposed by the robes they wear or the needed positions to complete a medical examination. These challenges can be prohibitive for a survivor to seek standard medical care if they want to avoid feeling vulnerable. As we know from research and decades of interactions with survivors, these feelings and thoughts aren’t just present immediate post-assault. It can be challenging for a survivor to seek care years after the assault. State-mandated laws, such as the one proposed by VA, can make it impossible for rape and sexual assault survivors to seek abortion care.

In a study, it was found that approximately 5% of rapes result in pregnancy, which translates to approximately 32,000 pregnancies each year due to a rape. Of these pregnancies, approximately 50% of them result in an abortion (Holmes, Resnick, Kilpatrick, Best, 1996). The vast majority of abortions (90%)  are done within the first trimester of pregnancy. For a survivor of rape, this means that she will have to experience a medically unnecessary trans-vaginal exam just 12 weeks after the first rape. It is inconceivable to verbally write out the amount of stress and anxiety that can cause a survivor such a short time after the initial assault. However, one survivor shares her perspective . This law will make abortions even more inaccessible to survivors who have recently been assaulted.

Currently the law is in a holding pattern as there has been a lot of negative media coverage and societal pushback. It has passed both the House and Senate in Virginia and, initially, Governor McDonnell said that he would absolutely sign the law if it came to his desk. However, he has recently held emergency meetings with other Republican members to discuss the ‘true implications’ of this bill and states that they did not originally know how invasive the procedure would be. These assertions are completely untrue as there were several attempts to take out the trans-vaginal ultrasound requirement and use a sonogram. These proposals were rejected by the Republicans each time, therefore they were given plenty of opportunities to recognize the invasiveness of the procedure they wanted to require. Rachel Maddow does a great job outlining several of the attempts on her show on Feb 22.  (As an aside, if they truly didn’t understand the ramifications of the bill – why are they passing the law??)

It is extremely disheartening that the law was able to pass through so many layers and that it would have been signed by the governor of Virginia without a second thought. I appreciate the hard work of advocates across the country to raise awareness about this extremely dangerous piece of legislation. There have been several silent and not-so-silent protests in VA about this legislation where hundreds of people have showed their dissent. Amy Poehler returned to SNL this past weekend to do a Really!? segment about the transvaginal ultrasound law. John Stewart also focused on the invasive and unnecessary procedure on the Tuesday episode.  Hopefully there is enough pressure to keep Governor McDonnell from signing the legislation. We need to keep in mind the many women and survivors who will be directly impacted by this law. Their voices, choices, and autonomy should be respected and treated with dignity.

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Posted by stacey on 02/24 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Condeming Liz Trotta’s Reaction to Military Sexual Assault Response Program

This weekend was a mess of disappointing news and clips for anti-sexual violence creators.  If you haven't read Meg's blog post about Weiss and Barstool sports, you should definately check it out.  On another note, Fox news featured Liz Trotta in one of the segments to talk about new proposed legislation to allow women in more frontline positions.  Instead the conversation downward spiraled into a conversation about sexual assault in the military, that women should expect to be raped, and that the Department of Defense should be spending its money on the war rather than on responding to the sexual assaults that are occuring. 

This is an extremely disheartening and offensive message to send, both to the troops and society.  Troops, both male and female, deserve to be treated with care and dignity and to have resources if they have been sexually assaulted.  Sexual assault in the military is extremely high for both women and men.  There have been many responses to this segment already.  I would like to direct you to the one composed by Media Matters as they offer a pretty comprehenisive and thoughtful reaction to the segment.


Written by: Stacey

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Posted by stacey on 02/16 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Monday, February 13, 2012

Rape Joking Our Way to Social Change?

Background: Barstool Sports is a site whose commentary has always included such charming features as “Rate the Latest Sex Scandal Teacher”. Barstool has been hosting blacklight parties at various venues nationally, which they’ve christened “Blackout Parties”.

Upon criticism, David Portnoy, the site’s creator and chief author, who runs the site out of his basement, opined

Just to make friends with the feminists I'd like to reiterate that we don't condone rape of any kind at our Blackout Parties in mid January. However if a a chick passes out that's a grey area though.

(NB: Portnoy is doing his readers a serious legal disservice. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, sexual activity with someone who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol is rape. So, I suppose the first baby step would be to at least make factually correct rape jokes?)

In response, a group of students and activists have been gathering at events like that hosted by Barstool at the Boston House of Blues to protest the rape-supportive sentiment that frequently finds a home on Barstool and similar websites. It’s also worth noting that, in response, the management and staff of the House of Blues, the Boston Police Department, and the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission Enforcement Division has made a particular effort to ensure that these are safe events for attendees. 

In an opinion piece in the February 12th Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss speculated as to whether Portnoy was, in fact, visionary for his use of rape jokes to combat people who are serious about making rape jokes. (I believe this is the sort of rhetorical device Audre Lorde had in mind when she said, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.”)

Let me say, by way of a little explanation, I am the funniest person that most people who know me, personally know. This is not a piece about whether I, or anyone else who’s ever said, “Hey! Rape jokes! Knock it off!”, has a sense of humor, understands the literary definition of satire, or is familiar with or enjoys any of the more notable mid- to late-20th century boundary-pushing comedians.

I say that because typically, the first response to “Hey! Rape jokes! Knock it off!” is an argument about whether they are “funny” or whether the person objecting to them is too sensitive. So, yes, humor is subjective, it’s culturally specific, it’s a product of our time, we can use it as a lens, and it’s good for establishing in-group/out-group identity. I don’t need to expand on this further, just rent The Aristocrats.

In her piece, Weiss cites the humor of Chris Rock and says

“If Chris Rock makes a subversive, knowing joke about race, and some racist finds it funny for the wrong reason, who’s to blame?”

Except that what Weiss misses here is that this is precisely the reason Rock’s contemporary and one of comedy’s greatest satirists, Dave Chappelle, walked away from his phenomenally successful show. As he said in two interviews, one on Oprah and one on Inside the Actors Studio, he could discern the difference between people laughing with jokes about race, and people laughing at jokes about race, and there were several incidents where his audiences had shifted to laughing at those jokes, which made Chappelle profoundly uncomfortable.

Which leads us to the second most common response to, “Hey! Rape jokes! Knock it off”: “Well, I’m not raping anyone, so what difference does it make if I make rape jokes?” and the corollary, “So, if I make a rape joke, it’s going to cause somebody to go out and rape someone?”

Let’s work through this cause/effect argument to talk about the role of rape jokes. Jokes, like alcohol, are not magical spells that cause people whose behavior has never been inappropriate nor who have any inclination toward being abusive or inappropriate to become so. But here are some things we know about risk factors for sexual violence perpetration: many men who offend have

  • coercive sexual fantasies
  • a preference for impersonal sex
  • hypermasculinity traits (that is, valuing the exaggeration of stereotypically “male” behavior)
  • a tendency to wrongly interpret neutral attention from women as a sign of sexual interest and negative responses from women as aggressive or hostile
  • relationships with sexually aggressive peers who support these ideas
  • communities with a general tolerance for sexual violence
  • communities with weak community sanctions against people who perpetrate sexual violence

We also know that individuals who sexually offend are both very good evaluators of their social group and the environment around them, and look for cues from those social groups and environments for reinforcement and validation of their thought errors and boundary-crossing behavior.

So, an individual who has many risk factors around sexual aggression might crack a rape joke and go, “AmIright?” Now what do the others around that person do? Do they laugh, and add their own? Does someone flag their behavior as inappropriate and ask them not to do that anymore? Environments matter.

Think back to your middle school cafeteria: how did you figure out what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, what shows to watch? You watched other people who mattered to you and what they did. Whether you wanted to be a part of the larger culture or countercultural, it still mattered what other people did and said, and how they behaved.

That’s why it’s not enough to throw up your hands and say, “Well, I’m not raping people, so what difference does it make if I make rape jokes!” If you’re not saying outright that sexually abusive behavior is not OK in your circle, well,’re not saying it.

Come, do some inferring with me.

All of us know someone who is a survivor of sexual violence. According to the latest data from the CDC almost 2/3 of women (62.9%) and almost 1/4 of men (23.6%) have experienced some type of sexual violence in their lifetime.

The majority of survivors are sexually abused or assaulted by someone they know. This is true across all age groups and demographics, but is especially true of children, adolescents, and folks in a college setting (and elders and folks with disabilities, but for the sake of this piece, I’m not certain they are the target market of either Barstool Sports or blacklight parties.)

Thus, it is more likely than not that we also know someone who has been sexually abusive or inappropriate.

In talking about why it’s unacceptable for people around me to make rape jokes, I used to say, “Well, even though I know that none of my friends would hurt anyone, I don’t know who’s listening to our conversation and how they’re using that to gauge what’s acceptable.”

I stopped saying the first part, though, about my friends, not because I have concerns about their behavior at this time, but because I was guilty of exactly what Joanna Weiss, David Portnoy, and anyone else who makes or is an apologist for rape jokes is guilty of : abdicating my responsibility for creating a safe, fun environment by thinking, “This is the awesome table in the middle school cafeteria of life! Everybody here is just like me and really gets it! Those sexually aggressive folks are someplace else!” If we are going to accept the reality of the data and the truth of others’ lived experience, then we can’t keep waiting for someone else to do something about their friends and family with problem behaviors. We are the someone else. Those are our friends and family.

Somehow, what has really become twisted in all this, is that communities who celebrate jokes built on violence, lack of safety, and the pain and degradation of others have been allowed to claim the mantle of “fun”, while communities who say, “We love having fun, socializing, dancing, interacting with other people, and yes, sex...and also rape isn’t funny or cool! You are welcome here, but check that rape garbage at the door” are, at best, characterized as the wet blanket. 

No. No more of that. I, you, our communities, this city, have no need of a cleverer rape joke. I’m taking “fun” back. That is the social change we need to see here.

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Posted by Meg on 02/13 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Dangeous Effects of ‘Honest Rape’

In a recent interview between CNN’s Piers Morgan and Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul, the following exchange took place:

MORGAN: You have two daughters. You have many granddaughters. If one of them was raped -- and I accept it's a very unlikely thing to happen -- but if they were, would you honestly look at them in the eye and say they had to have that child if they were impregnated?
PAUL: No. If it's an honest rape, that individual should go immediately to the emergency room. I would give them a shot of estrogen...

While the interview questions were focusing on the issue of abortion rather than rape specifically, the belief of such a think as an ‘honest rape’ is extremely problematic.  What differences exist for Paul between an ‘honest rape’ and a dishonest rape’?  It creates the perception that there are some rapes that are more real than others.  This belief pops up frequently within the media as victims are blamed or sexually violent acts are minimized.

There is a common misperception that rape is only legitimate if it is committed by a stranger or if it involved a weapon or excessive force.  This is repeatedly shown in SVU and other similar crime shows.  News sources will focus on the more sensational stories in order to hook viewers.  It’s important to keep in mind that the goals of these shows (both news and fiction) is to attract viewers which increases profit.  Therefore, they are not motivated to accurately represent how sexual violence is perpetrated and the trials and barriers that survivors face. 

These egregious misrepresentations can be observed outside of the media as well.  The FBI, until recently, only recognized rape when it was forcibly committed by a man against a woman.  While many states have adopted a broader definition and recognize rape occurs in many forms, these are not represented in the annual UCR report.  This definition recognized 84,000 survivors of rape in 2010.  This discounted thousands of rapes that were reported which did not fit under the narrow definition and heavily contrasted with the results of the National Crime Victimization Study which stated that there are almost 208,000 survivors each year!

According to multiple studies over the past few decades, including the most recent by the CDC, the overwhelming majority (70-80%) of sexual assaults and rapes are committed by someone who is known to the victim.  This number increases when you look at specific vulnerable populations such as children, colleges, people with disabilities, or the elderly.  These perpetrators can be intimate partners, friends, family members, acquaintances, co-workers, neighbors, teachers, or a whole variety of other people that we interact with on each and every day. 

People believe that they can trust people in positions of power, authority, and knowledge to give accurate information.  Fact-checking can be long and tedious and why shouldn't we be able to trust an expert?  In the latter part of Paul’s sentence, he advises that a woman can get a shot of estrogen to prevent pregnancy.  Paul is an OB/GYN so why should people question the information that he gives about reproductive health?  In fact, there is NO estrogen shot that is given to women to prevent pregnancy.  There are two forms of emergency contraceptive used in the US - Ella and Plan B - both of which are pills that are taken orally.  However, if you browse the comments section many people reference the ‘shot of estrogen’ that Paul mentions.  Additionally, very few news sources point out the fallacy of this sentence.  Inaccuracies in our media impacts our knowledge and what we believe.

The belief and constant portrayal that there is an ‘honest rape’ has real repercussions on survivors and society.  First, many survivors may believe that since they were raped or assaulted by someone they know that it doesn’t count.  They may blame themselves for not yelling loud enough or fighting hard enough.  They could compare their rape to those that they see on the TV and downplay what happened by thinking that at least there was no weapon or at least there wasn’t any serious injuries.  They could be reluctant to get medical care or make a report because of the lack of physical injuries.  Even those who do reach out, are likely to doubt the validity of their case because of how it doesn’t match what they’ve seen on TV, learned about how rape should look, or the belief that their own actions may have brought on the assault.  This leaves many survivors without the resources and support we need.

Written by: Stacey

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Posted by stacey on 02/08 • (3) CommentsPermalink

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