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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Prevention tips

I received an e-mail the other day telling me how to avoid being raped.  At first, I found this to be a bit ironic, as my work involves raising awareness about primary prevention of sexual violence every day.   But then I thought about what is at stake in circulating “tips” for “rape prevention.”  If those reading believe the tips are helpful and actually apply them, what is the impact of that message? To answer that question, I wrote this post.

First, what is the definition of prevention? According to it is the ‘act of preventing.’  Thank you,, for using the word I am trying to define in the definition! Isn’t that the first thing children learn not to do when defining words?  Redundancy aside, another definition I found for “prevent” is ‘to keep from occurring; avert; hinder.’  According to this definition, the tips emailed to me should keep rape from occurring.  That leads me to the conclusion that if we follow these directives correctly, we won’t be subjected to rape or sexual assault. 

Here are some of the most popular tips I’ve seen in high schools, colleges, in bar bathrooms, on police websites, on flyers, and in e-mail format:

  1. Don’t walk by yourself at night and stay away from isolated areas at all hours.
  2. Walk confidently and with a steady pace. A rapist often looks for someone who appears vulnerable.
  3. Avoid carrying objects requiring use of both arms.
  4. Install effective locks on all doors and windows.  Never leave your door unlocked, even for a moment.
  5. Install a peephole viewer in your door and never open your door without knowing who is on the other side.
  6. Don’t accept drinks from other people, except someone you trust.
  7. Stay sober while on a date.  Remember, alcohol impairs judgment and memory.
  8. Be aware of locations and situations where rape might occur and avoid them.
  9. Avoid putting music headphones in both ears, especially if you are walking alone.

Obviously this list could carry on forever, but I am sure that many of you have read these tips before and I don’t need to write each one.   

These tips, while not mentioning any specific genders, are certainly focused around male perpetrators and female survivors.  They also mainly focus on a 18-30 age demographic. Target audiences are blatantly evidenced by where these tip lists are posted (female bathrooms), the subject lines they are given in e-mails, and when they crop up (after a female has been attacked).  Therefore their use is already excluding a large percentage of other people who experience sexual violence: children, the elderly, trans* folk, and men.

These tips also focus solely on the actions of those who are at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted, rather than the actions of the community or of those who will assault.  Therefore survivors and society are getting the message that the responsibility for the crime is with the survivor; she needs to engage in certain proper behaviors to avoid being raped, and if she doesn’t, then it is partly her fault for not being careful enough.  Instead, the message we should be sending is that a survivor is never to blame, and that both the community and the perpetrator are responsible for the behaviors. 

These tips also focus almost exclusively on incidents of stranger rape.  Many admonish women to never be alone and advise them to take appropriate safety precautions when around strangers.  Stranger rape only accounts for approximately 20-25% of rape and sexual assault.  So why do so many of these tips focus on how to watch out for that ‘man behind the bushes’ or the one who is trying to break into your house? In fact, many survivors who take the usual prescribed safety precautions are still assaulted because of the perpetrator was a friend, family member, or other trusted individual.  Where are the tips for how to watch out for an impending attack from an acquaintance, friend, or family member that represent the other 75% of incidents?    For many it is easier to talk about stranger assaults.  For us to confront the fact that survivors most likely know their perpetrators is to also confront the fact that sexual violence and those who perpetrate it are people we know as well and operate within our communities. Children or people with disabilities are at even greater risk of being raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know, thanks to their social vulnerability and dependence on others.  Most people are taught stranger-danger from a young age--it is certainly an important lesson. Yet it is also important to note that it does not apply to the overwhelming numbers of people who are raped or sexually assaulted by people they know.

The tips about alcohol are also problematic.  One specifies to only take drinks from people you know and trust, again focusing on how strangers will ply you with alcohol in order to commit rape or sexual assault.  While alcohol is a factor in many incidents of rape and sexual assault, these incidents are still typically occurring in settings where the perpetrator is known to the survivor.  These tips also specify that alcohol will impair judgment and memory, which is a thinly-veiled attempt at victim-blaming.   On the contrary, we know that alcohol is used as a tool to facilitate sexual violence.  Perpetrators are aware that a survivor who had been drinking is less likely to be believed, whether by law enforcement, courts, or other powers that be, and therefore purposefully use it as a way to make a person more vulnerable and to make the crime more difficult to report. 

I think my personal favorite is ‘be aware of places where rape may occur and avoid them.’  Seriously?!  Is there a special feature on Google Maps where I can pinpoint all of these dangerous locations? Is there an app for that?  It would be awesome if you could plan a route with no tolls and no rape areas, especially if you were travelling alone.  All sarcasm aside, the majority of rapes and sexual assaults (2/3) occur in the home of the survivor or in the home of a friend or family member.  Are people really expected to avoid their homes and the homes of those they love?   

I think it’s safe to say that these tips are not actually preventative in nature.  I think that they could be called risk reduction techniques but only insofar as stranger rape is concerned.  It is time that these tips are replaced with information that correlates to the actual statistics and incident rates of rape and sexual assault.  Further, it is crucial that this information focus less on the behavior of the potential survivor but rather the behavior of the perpetrator or even the societal norms that encourage rape culture

What do you think could be included on future lists or tips that focus on prevention?

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Posted by stacey on 10/31 • (1) CommentsPermalink

Friday, October 25, 2013

Shout out to all my colleagues and BARCC volunteers

I wrote a blog many months ago about the intersection of sexual violence and the history of wedding traditions.  It was part of the research that I did to figure out what traditions I wanted to keep, what I was tossing, and what I wanted to tweak a little bit.  I am happy to report that both the wedding and the honeymoon were a great success.  We greatly enjoyed being able to spend a day surrounded by people we love and care about and then having three weeks backpacking and camping through Europe with just each other.

While I was glad to be away for so long, I can say that I honestly and truly love what I do and working with BARCC.  When I describe my work and the organization, I get the traditional responses of: “Isn’t that hard?”, “How could you do that everyday?”, etc.  However, the more I talk about it, the more people realize that I love coming to work everyday and that the environment is a positive one.  After these realizations, I typically get comments like “You’re so lucky that you love what you do, not everyone has that.” or “How fulfilling it must be to do work you are so passionate about.”.  And you know what?  I am and it is.

When our trip was coming to a close, I was sad that we wouldn’t be able to traipse across Europe anymore but I was also excited to be able to come back to work, see my colleagues, and address the issue of sexual violence.  I recognize that not everyone has those reactions when a vacation is ending; in contrast, my partner was dreading his first day back. However, I was also nervous to come back to work as one of my goals during vacation was not to talk or read about sexual violence.  It was harder than you might think but I was successful most days.  I was nervous to come back and be in a position where I had to think about, engage with, and confront violence each and every day.  I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle it anymore and that I’d have to go get a new job that blissfully ignored all violence, prejudices, and oppression.

Luckily, that didn’t happen.  I have been back for almost a month now and while it was a hard readjustment at times, I am still excited to get up every day and come to work.  I have been in other positions (volunteer and paid) where I have done anti-sexual violence work.  And therefore I know that it isn’t just the issue that inspires me to get up and come to work every day.  The environment and the people in it are just as important as the work I am doing.  And therefore, I owe all my colleagues and volunteers at BARCC a huge thank you for their many contributions each and every day. 

I think that we often focus on the great services that we are offering to survivors, their significant others, other providers, and communities.  And, without a doubt, that is amazing and extremely gratifying work.  However, we forget that we also offer great services to each other. We are a community and the fact that we can support and turn to each other for help is extremely important.  While we are all passionate about the work we do, we also recognize that it is hard and can be draining.  Therefore, we encourage each other to set limits and practice self-care.  It can be hard to take one’s own advice but we are looking out for each other and trying to ensure that we are all avoiding the burn-out and vicarious trauma that can sometimes come with this type of work.  We strive to celebrate the big and small accomplishments of each other.  Whether that is recognizing which volunteer took the most shifts in a month, having a piece of legislation finally be signed, facilitating your first engagement, or completing a giant project.  We value the work and effort that the people around us are doing and we take the time to let them know that.

The elements of teamwork and support are also extremely integral to our working environment and one of the reason I greatly enjoy being a part of this organization.  I never could have left for three weeks unless someone was able to pick up my job responsibilities for that period of time.  The volunteers also were incredible at filling the engagement requests and quickly! Many of the September engagements were already booked before I even left, which made it easier for my supervisor to cover all my job duties.  These examples are certainly on a grand scale of how we help each other out but it certainly happens on the day to day as well.  If we’re having a tough moment or need a quick brainstorm, we can always find someone to chat with.  We know who stashes chocolate and other goodies and these individuals are always willing to share.  We ask for help with clients, workshops, office coverage, etc and rarely ever worry about whether someone will be able to assist (the one exception being that Friday afternoon office coverage because we all want to start our weekends!). 

I don’t believe the support and work that we do for each other can be recognized enough, but I would like say THANK YOU to all my colleagues and BARCC volunteers for making this an organization that I am truly proud and happy to be a part of.


And to close....

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Posted by stacey on 10/25 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lyric Epiphanies

Despite how aware I am of rape culture and the effect that it can have on our lives, I am sometimes woefully slow to pick up on the violence that is prevalent within much of the music that I listen to.  Most of the time, I have it on in the background while I am reading, working, driving, crafting, or any other activity.  I am quick to pick up the words, melody, and beat of a song, and I am often singing along before I realize what the song is about.  This kind of unconscious consumption can show how pervasive rape culture can be—it happens as a matter of course, and even those of us who should know better can miss it.

In full disclosure, I danced and sang along to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” for weeks before I realized what all the lyrics were.  I didn’t want to know the lyrics because I knew that the song was extremely problematic .  The hook is insanely catchy, and I was definitely dancing along and listening to it while I drove.  However, since it is has come out, there have been many blog posts discussing the lyrics.  BARCC even composed a new version of the song that was more consensual and posted a video of the song on YouTube.  Robin Thicke claims that the song is a parody and feminist , but can we really be so sure about these claims when such stereotypical sexist ideas are put forth in the song and the music video too?

The song’s chorus constantly repeats “I know you want it,” a haunting refrain when one considers that many survivors hear these exact words during or after an assault as perpetrators try to justify their actions.  Thicke also refers to the object of his desire as an ‘animal’. Research amply shows that violence (of all kinds, not just sexual violence) often depends largely on dehumanizing the person being attacked, making it easier to commit and then justify assault.  This song begins that process  by reducing the person to an animal rather than recognizing her as a full individual.  When we watch the video, we see women posed as sex objects scantily clad next to fully dressed men, a typical pop culture technique that emphasizes the full personhood of the man while reducing the woman to a sex object   Futher, throughout the video the women are put into submissive positions and are objectified as they become footrests or roads for cars to drive down.  Despite Thicke’s belief that he achieves high-level satire, there is nothing progressive, feminist, or healthy about this song. Predictable utilization of women as objects is so ubiquitous and ingrained in culture that merely repeating these images is not enough to satirize them, as rape culture accepts their existence as normal.  Satire requires a higher level of signification—repetition with a meaningful twist—which the song never approaches.

One recent song that did outrage me on first listen was Justin Timberlake’s “Take Back the Night.”  I heard it introduced on the radio one day as his new single and was speechless when I heard the name.  Take Back the Night (TBTN) has been an international movement since the 1970s to speak out against sexual violence and rape and to reclaim space.  How could no one on Timberlake’s no-doubt massive marketing team have figured that out?  Evidently they don’t Google-- it is the first thing to pop up when typing in “Take Back the Night”.  Justin’s response was that he has taken the time to learn more about TBTN and considers it to be an important movement and that he hopes his song’s title helps to bring additional attention to the issue.  For a couple weeks, the song was the first thing that came up during a Google or Wikipedia search.  However, now the TBTN Foundation and SV movement is back to the top.  Hopefully that is the work of activists, Justin, Google, and Wikipedia to ensure that a decades-long movement is not cast into a shadow by a song that will last a couple months. 

I have had similar moments with other recently popular songs. Take “We Are Young” by Fun .  There were a few lines in this song that I really liked because they were (excuse the lack of creativity)… fun. A feel good jam about youth and ‘burn[ing] brighter than the sun’ is awesome to hear cranked up in the car.  However, there are undertones of abuse throughout the song.  Mentions of a scar that the singer caused are repeated throughout (whether it’s emotional or physical is not specified, but we of course know that abuse comes in a variety of forms).  This combined with lyrics wherein the singer offers to carry the person home if they’re too drunk, could be read as potentially sexually aggressive.  After thinking about these ideas when listening to the song, I went home and watched the video.  There are lots of ways that lyrics, much like poetry, can be interpreted.  However, music videos often give some insight into how the band or artist interprets their work, and they usually have some creative control over what is portrayed.  It is a rather disjointed video featuring a confused, sometimes frightened, and visibly distant woman sitting alone in a bed carving an apple for the full four minutes.  I am rather confused about the apple , but it is a symbol that frequently refers to the biblical story of Eve and original sin.  These images only add to my suspicions of violent undertones, taking any of the innocent youthful joy of the song out of consideration.

Another song that took me a little while to figure out was “The A-Team” by Ed Sheeran.  The first few weeks of listening to it, I focused on the gentle and sweet melody and soft-spoken words.  Then I started putting the lyrics together: “white lips, pale face, breathing in snowflakes” and “sells love to another man” was two indicators of the song’s subject.  Despite how comforting the tone and melody sound, it is actually about a woman who relies on prostitution to pay for drugs and eventually dies. 

Despite the sweetness available in the confines of a pop song, prostitution is nothing to romanticize. Last year, BARCC hosted a training by the founder of My Life, My Choice, an organization that focuses on girls who at high-risk for being pimped out and forced into prostitution.  Among other things, we learned that the average age for a young girl to begin prostitution work is 12.  She does not choose this life, but is forced into it as a means for survival or through the coercion of family members, boyfriends, and others.  These young girls begin using drugs after entering prostitution as a way to cope with the countless rapes they endure on a nightly, weekly, and monthly basis, since those who are sexually exploited experience rape at a significantly higher rate than the general population.  Further, they are also less likely to report, receive support services, and be believed.  One of the missions of  My Life, My Choice is to remove the glamour culture associates with The Life, as they call it, and to give girls the opportunities, skills, and self-esteem that will provide a buffer between them and those who seek to exploit them.

There is a real dissonance between the musical composition of Sheeran’s song and the realities that many people face when in prostitution.  Sheeran describes in his song that the subject of his tune has “been this way since 18,” perpetuating a misleading assumption about prostitution as a merely another life choice made by a legal adult.  This belies the statistical reality of forced underage sex work.  Sheeran’s song is not reflective of reality, as further evidenced by his lyrics “sells love to another man”.  In actuality, there is little love in the world of pimping and prostitution.  In this song, all the focus is on the woman in question and her seemingly poor choices rather than the reality that a pimp, society, oppression, and poverty all play roles in how women become involved in sex work.

Featuring sexual violence in a casual and offhand manner is not a new  phenomenon in pop music.  The Rolling Stones’ song “Brown Sugar,” written in the 1970s, features the rape of a slave. However with its catchy beat and music, many people overlook the incredibly disturbing images and messages beneath the musical veneer of the melody.  In reality, people of color experience higher rates of sexual violence and are also less likely to report these crimes and be believed by those they tell, and much of the reluctance to report to formal networks is based in America’s history of racism and white colonialism.  When it was legal to own slaves, the concept of rape was inconceivable, since slaves were property, bearing no human right to consent or self-determination. The song Brown Sugar minimizes the violence that slaves endured and the long-ranging effects of this violence in American culture .  Additionally the Rolling Stones, and similar songs, take autonomy away from women of color to tell their own stories and stories of their ancestors in their own voices.

This discussion does not mean to suggest that singing about rape and sexual violence is completely off limits, but it is important to recognize that the messages put forth in these songs have cultural impact..  Much like making jokes about rape, it is important to focus on the social structures and inequalities that allow sexual violence to exist, the people who are perpetrating sexual violence, effects on survivors, or the use of music as a healing tool for survivors.  For example, Korn’s Jonathan Davis wrote a heart-wrenching song about how a family friend raped him and that he wasn’t believed when he told his family. This kind of disclosure can be an outlet for other survivors, especially males, to recognize that they aren’t alone and that it is possible to heal.  The Pixel Project also compiled a list of 16 songs that are empowering, focus on strengths of survivors and how violence is a community problem . 

Note: I purposely used only white artists and song writers when creating this post.  I believe there are many posts and articles that are quick to talk about the degrading language and violence in the music of people of color while failing to mention how prevalent it is in music created by white people.  While it is a problematic topic regardless of the writer and artist, it is important to recognize the implicit racism that is present when we only focus on sexual violence in the music created and performed by people of color .

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Posted by stacey on 10/16 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Whose Stories Matter: A Look at the Responses to Chris Brown

As I am sure many of you have read or seen on social media, Chris Brown discussed his first sexual experience in a recent interview with The Guardian.

“He lost his virginity when he was eight years old, to a local girl who was 14 or 15. Seriously? ‘Yeah, really. Uh-huh.’ He grins and chuckles. ‘It's different in the country.’ Brown grew up with a great gang of boy cousins, and they watched so much porn that he was raring to go. ‘By that point, we were already kind of like hot to trot, you know what I'm saying? Like, girls, we weren't afraid to talk to them; I wasn't afraid. So, at eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it. You can be the best at it.’”

As an anti-sexual violence advocate, I was extremely disheartened when reading the responses and noticing the complete lack of responses.  What we saw in the blogosphere and news media outlets would have been very different if this story came from a star of a different gender or race or from one that didn’t have a history of abusive behavior.

Many posts breezed right over Brown’s comments about his early childhood sexual experiences.  Others didn’t note any concern for Brown over what he disclosed or outrage that an 8 year old boy was taken advantage of and instead notated it as a vaguely traumatic past experience.  Another message was that this experience certainly would not have an impact on Brown so many years down the road. The coverage of the story in this manner can be detrimental for men, especially men of color, who have had similar experiences and attribute these experiences to sexual violence.  We already know that men encounter a lot of barriers to identifying their experiences as sexual violence and to then seek services.  The messages that these individuals are receiving from this most recent story on Brown—and the countless ones that came before it— are that their experiences aren’t as important or traumatic, their need for support services or resources aren’t as serious, and that they are expected to bounce back from the trauma that they endure. 

The response we have seen about Brown’s story has as much to do with race as it does about gender and masculinity.  Societal stereotypes and expectations purport that men of color are supposed to be more sexually active and voracious than white males.  We also learn that it is normal or expected for men of color to experience violence or trauma and therefore the impact is not as great as it is for other people.  These stereotypes and misperceptions hurt those individuals who are directly impacted as disclosures from men of color often aren’t taken as seriously by legal or justice systems and they have a difficult time accessing support services.  These misrepresentations also impact our reactions to stories regarding sexual violence and men of color.

Another aspect that disappointed me was how several  news sources and blogs that came right and told Chris Brown that he had been raped.  Here at BARCC , like many other sexual assault agencies around the world, we operate under the empowerment model.  We are never going to define someone’s experience for them and we are never going to tell them how they should or should not be reacting.  That is going to be up to each individual, their experiences, their support networks, and other contextual factors.  Whatever language someone wants to use is what we are going to mirror back to them as their advocate.  We have found through decades of work with survivors that it doesn’t help to name their experience or to tell them what words to use.  There is a lot of social stigma around words like survivor, sexual assault, and rape.  For that reason and others, many individuals never use those words even when seeking resources.  It is not up to the news source, media, bloggers, or social media to define what happened to Chris Brown.  It is up to him to define the experience and the impact that it has on him. 

One thing we do for clients who call our hotline or seek services who wonder whether their experience was a rape or sexual assault is to provide the legal definition for them.  Even if their experience fits within the legal definition, they still don’t have to use those words if they don’t want to.  If it falls outside the legal definition, they can use rape and sexual assault if it fits how they interpret what happened.  Providing the legal definition is not the end all and be all of explaining sexual violence but it provides a good starting point for many people. 

I do want to be clear that regardless of where someone grows up, their race, gender, orientation, class, etc. an 8 year old child is not legally allowed to consent to having sex.  According to research on adolescent and child development, youth brains are more focused on immediate gratification, emotional decision making, and the benefits to themselves.  Youth are not focused on the how their decisions could impact their future, other individuals, or negative consequences of their behaviors.  Adults are there to assist in helping the child or adolescent in setting and enforcing boundaries, making responsible and appropriate decisions, thinking of others, and talking through what the consequences or results of the choices they make are.  These adult-child interactions are essential to the youth’s development and growth. 

I have also read and heard responses that diminish Brown’s experiences because of his abusive behaviors to his ex-girlfriend, Rihanna.  His abusive behaviors and lack of accountability afterwards are inexcusable.  He has a lot of work to do to rectify the harm he caused to Rihanna and also to fans who looked up to him.  Because of these actions, people are quick to cast him into a demonized role or ‘bad person’ category and therefore not deserving of compassion or assistance.  However, we cannot wipe away the former trauma or violence someone experienced simply because we do not like their current behaviors or personality.  These experiences and actions are intertwined and we have to give each one the appropriate attention and services they need. 

I understand that there are many things influencing people’s responses.  However, that does not give us the right to steamroll through a story, label someone’s experiences, or diminish what happened.  We need to start taking advantage of teachable moments and conscientious of the messages we are sending when educating and reporting on sexual violence. (For more on that see Meg’s post on SV and journalism). It’s not healthy for society, communities, or individuals to continue pretending sexual violence doesn’t happen or that silence is the best way to assist survivors or reduce its prevalence.

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Posted by stacey on 10/10 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What if this is how we reported on sexual violence?

**Trigger alert: The video clip below contains a news story with graphic descriptions and depictions of animal abuse. The blog post itself references the incident in the video, but does not contain the specific details.**

If you had to guess, when we get calls from journalists and reporters to comment on assaults in the media, what would you say are the most common dynamics of those incidents?

Well, spoiler alert: It’s what we might call “stranger assaults”. More specifically, men who are strangers to young adult women, and who assault them on the street.

I have a few theories as to why this makes up the biggest chunk of our media inquiries. For one thing, our name is the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. The dynamics above are what Whoopi Goldberg and Todd Akin might describe as “rape rape” or “legitimate rape.” We’re a natural next call.

I often joke in trainings (and if you’re ever sitting in one of my trainings and I make this joke, I’d like to ask you to please laugh like you’re hearing it for the first time), that if we were the Boston Area This Thing Happened to Me Awhile Ago and I’m Not Even Sure If I Should Even Be Talking To You But I Think About It A Lot Center, we’d be inundated with contacts from folks who are out there now but, because of our name, aren’t sure if what we have is appropriate for them. (It is.)

The name is one thing, but the proportion of news stories covering situations where a male assailant assaults a female stranger to stories of situations of sexual abuse within families or social groups creates a feedback loop: the more we hear about one kind of assault, the more we come to associate those dynamics with assault generally and the harder it is for us to think about the whole spectrum of things that constitute sexual violence.

And I’ll be honest: one of the most challenging interactions that I have with journalists is being asked to comment on these stories. I have to believe that it’s a frustrating experience for them, as well. I would liken it to wanting to talk to someone about oranges, and calling a place called "The Orange Coalition" to do so. Everything starts off strong, until you realize that one of you is talking about the fruit and one of you is talking about the color, and they are both orange, but...well...

Most of our shared frustration centers on what the focal point of the piece ought to be. In all fairness to the many journalists I've worked with, it's a completely reasonable angle to want to stop something bad from happening by offering information that is useful. Where we usually land first is on whether we at BARCC can comment on safety tips, especially for women.

And, to be sure, there are legions of “tips” that get circulated which contain, often in the same list, advice like: “Pretend to talk on your cell phone so as to give a potential attacker the impression that someone would hear if something happened to you,” and “Never take your cell phone out as it’s a distraction.” Or “Never wear your hair in a pony tail because it can be easily grabbed,” and “Always wear your hair in a pony tail because it conveys assertiveness and athleticism.” Meg Stone, Executive Director of IMPACT Boston, wrote a great piece on safety tips, and why focusing on them makes it a challenge to ever get to sexual violence prevention.

We also get asked a lot to talk about the actions of the person who was assaulted. For example, “What should women watch out for when they’re hailing taxis?” or “What should people know about going running alone?” My response is always  this: the behavior we want to be watching out for is the behavior of the person doing the assault. That is, how do the people around us respond when they see someone hailing a taxi, or going for a run, or walking home?

Let me highlight an example of how I think we could talk about sexual violence. (This is where the trigger alert comes in.) Recently, in the Greater Boston area, police and one of the DA’s offices have been looking for the person who very severely abused a young dog. Law enforcement officials have been clear to articulate the strong links between people who abuse animals and the likelihood that they will subsequently harm more animals or other people.

Fox25 Boston did a story on the case and interviewed Jack Levin, noted criminologist at Northeastern University:

Boston News, Weather, Sports | FOX 25 | MyFoxBoston

Here’s the segment that jumped out at me, at 2:08 in the video:

Megan Mahan (reporter): What should folks look out for if you’re trying to find this person, and what other warning signs might be out there?

Jack Levin: Well, you know, it’s interesting about warning signs, and hopefully we’ll catch this person. But we can also use animal cruelty as a red flag for children who feel powerless and are being treated in a cruel way themselves. This is a red flag that means there are young people who are crying out for help, for assistance. So we ought to get in touch with youngsters who are troubled before they become troublesome to others.

Can you spot the differences between the coverage of this story, and the coverage of so many sexual assaults?

Here’s what didn’t happen: we didn’t talk about safety tips for pet owners, we didn’t talk about the risks to young dogs of playing outside alone, and we didn’t see suggestion that bear suits could make dogs less attractive to abusive humans and by not wearing a bear suit, the dog in some ways invites abuse. In fact, to suggest any of those options begins to sound ridiculous, right?

Here’s what did: All of Mahan’s questions focused on why the behavior of the abuser was unsafe and worrisome, and what kinds of abusive behaviors people should look out for.

And I want to highlight two of Levin’s responses in particular:

First, a dog was the victim here, but the concern is entirely focused on the issues of power, control, and dominance. Second, and perhaps more importantly, he’s stressing that we might not catch this particular individual, and that’s a frightening thing to think about, but it does give us a really critical access point for how to address behavior that’s problematic in others, even if they weren’t involved in this specific incident or haven’t yet done something horrible themselves.

That’s where I’d like to get to with sexual assaults. In the same way that people do not all of a sudden snap and escalate from behaving in completely appropriate and safe ways to grievously and intentionally hurting a dog over a long period of time, people do not snap and escalate from behaving in completely appropriate and safe ways to attacking and sexually assaulting someone on the street or in a home.

We often lose sight of the fact that inappropriate sexual behaviors and assaults are not safe behavior for the person doing those behaviors, either. We owe it to our families and communities to make our best effort to look for and stop those behaviors as soon as possible, before someone is harmed by them, and one of the ways to start doing that are to tell stories of behaviors that are concerning. Hopefully, we can count on journalists to help us with these opportunities.

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Posted by Meg on 09/25 • (0) CommentsPermalink

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