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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

New Study on Women

The Obama administration just released a new report on the status of women in the U.S. - you can find it here (pdf). While I intend to disgorge a lot of thoughts in the near future about the recent spate of republican attacks on women, this report has some (generally) encouraging news:
The rate of rape against females age 12 or older, as defined by the National Crime Victimization Survey, declined by about 60 percent, from 3.2 per 1,000 females in 1993 to 1.3 per 1,000 in 2000. Since 2000, the rape rate has remained at these lower levels. pg 58
This is a good thing! Lower rates of rape are great! It would be better if the downward trend were continuing, but this is certainly good-ish news. Of course, we know that rape is drastically under-reported, and seeing that the rate of REPORTED rape is going down doesn't mean that the number of actual rapes is going down - it could mean that we're actually throwing up additional barriers to survivors who need to report. I don't think that's what this number shows, though. I do think rape rates have actually fallen in the past 17 years,with the majority of that work happening in the '90s. It also has some news that, while not encouraging per se, at least indicate that the White House understands how rape happens, factually:
The majority of rapes and sexual assaults were committed by someone known to the victim. In 2008, 63 percent were committed by acquaintances, including 18 percent that were committed by an intimate partner.
While this certainly isn't a good thing, it is positive that government has a clear(er) sense of how rape actually happens. The more real-world data we have, the better policies we can make to combat rape. And of course, there's still the depressing news:
In the five-year period 2004–2008, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 54 percent of females who reported having been raped said that the police were not notified.
It doesn't give us any indication of what percentage of male or non-gender conforming folks reported. I imagine less. The report is cool for a lot of other things, though - education, wealth disparity, crimes committed, etc. Check it out if you have a moment.

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Posted by Dave on 03/02 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Friday, February 04, 2011

Community Conversations

Two distinct rape culture events seemed to happen this week, and even if they aren't related technically, they seem related in my head. Apologies if the linkages between them seem stretched. The first is good news, everyone - the language in H.R. 3 to redefine rape for the purposes of federal abortion funding has been removed. This is a very, very good thing. Even for folks who are figuring out their stance on abortion in general, this redefinition would have had serious shockwaves around the legal system if it had passed. We don't have a definition for 'forcible' rape, and this would have required creating one. That might have filtered down into other facets of the justice system. It would have been very, very bad (I'll get back to this in a minute).

The second event was the long-over due quasi-apology from the Penny Arcade guys about a comic they published last year. For those of you who aren't big gamers or don't spend a lot of time in nerd/gamer circles, this might be new stuff. Here's a basic overview of what happened.

Rape is different than other types of violent crime. In my mind, rape is a lot like a hate crime, targeted at a particular group in order to scare and intimidate them. The reason we punish hate crimes differently than other crimes is because they affect the behavior of more than one person. An assault is always bad; we don't, as a society, condone assault (at least I hope we don't). But an assault perpetrated against a member of a particular community, let's say, or against a person of a particular ethnic background and infused with the intent to intimidate and scare everyone else who shares that background causes a lot more ripples than an assault that doesn't have that motivation. I can be scared of crime when I leave my house, but I'm not afraid that someone will specifically target me because of my gender or race. I don't have to worry that someone, seeking to work out their own misogyny or racism will choose to do violence on my body to satisfy their own issues. If I did, you'd better bet that it would change my behavior. I'd be a whole hell of a lot more careful about what I said, where I went, and how I acted.

We know about the attitudes of perpetrators (.PDF; quote is from page 7). We know this is basically what they want to do. It's not hidden:

Sexually aggressive behavior is typically part of a belief system that views women as sexual objects to be conquered, coerced and used for self-gratification. Undetected rapists are much more likely to hold stereotyped beliefs about the "proper" roles for women and men in society, and to rigidly adhere to those beliefs. They adhere to "rape myths" that both justify their aggressive acts and foster them. Their adherence to rape myths and rigid stereotypes frequently allows them to distort their perceptions of their victims' behavior. For example, because they tell themselves that "women say no to sex even when they really want it," they can disregard their victims' obvious signs of terror and resistance. emphasis mine

See, here's how I look at the work that BARCC does, or at least the work I get to do at BARCC: We're trying to find all the ways we can to make the scary perpetrator in the room more obvious, more glaring, to everyone else. We want to make that perpetrator look like an easily identifiable criminal and not like, say, the common dude. On Wednesday, Tycho said, "The only people who are pro-rape are rapists." I would love it if that were true, because then I wouldn't have a whole lot to do with BARCC. But it isn't true. If you've got the guts for it, look through this and tell me if you can tell the guys who hold "stereotyped beliefs about women" and "adhere to rape myths" like Lisask's research mentions below apart from the guys who are just being assholes (trigger warning, yo). Can you? Is it easy? If you were trying to figure out what someone who WAS a perpetrator would say about women, would it sound like these things? How would you act around guys who say stuff like that? Imagine that these are the things that every guy is saying. How would you tell the potential perpetrators from those who aren't?

BARCC stresses, over and over and over again, the role that bystanders play in perpetuating rape culture. Using a community like the gaming community as an example, how quickly would the misogynist language stop if it didn't have the weight of community support behind it? How quickly could we make those dudes who hold the severely anti-woman, domination-based mindsets that perpetrators often have super-visible if they didn't sound like everyone else in the community? What if it was obvious that their perspective was not shared by the greater mass of people with whom they associated?

Here's a (surprise!) metaphor I keep in my head to get a sense of how this looks in the real world: have you ever been to a party where it was clear that one person didn't know ANYONE else? They sort of wandered around and didn't know who to talk to or what to talk about? Or if you're a sports fan: have you ever watched a game with a bunch of other fans, and one person who isn't a fan? How clear was it that this person didn't get the standards and norms of the community? How easy was it to notice them? To make this set of metaphor more related to the Penny Arcade situation and relatable perhaps to my fellow gamers: have you ever been in an RPG group or, say, a gaming convention with someone who didn't really play these types of games? How quickly could you point them out? How many Dr. Who references did they need to miss before it became clear that this person did not share your background or community values? This is my beef with what happened at Penny Arcade: this is a community that drips with confusion and bystanders allowing perpetrators to shroud themselves; we had the opportunity, as a community, to have a more productive discussion about ways not to do that anymore, and we dropped the ball. At least there was an apology and the eventual attempt to have a conversation, though.

Now, back to H.R. 3, and its relevance here. Let's take the conversation we just had about Penny Arcade and the nerd/gamer community, and expand it big-time, to the entirety of the country. What kinds of discussions are we going to have such that the perpetrators in all of our communities are easier to spot? How are we going to frame our debate about rape so that the perpetrators of a felony offense are easier to find and deter?

Apparently, according to the supporters of H.R. 3, we're not. We're going to actually muddy the water some more, because we're already targeting too much behavior. Ignore what we know about perpetrators of rape and sexual assault - that they commit a huge number of other violent offenses including domestic violence and assault (see Lisak's pdf above) and that making them more visible would help reduce not only rape but a whole host of other seriously destabilizing crimes - and instead, let's focus on making sure that women know exactly who the government supports. Let's be clear here - this was a bill that very clearly told women that they would not qualify for governmental assistance - medical assistance - if they didn't get raped the "right" way. It also told men - a whole lot of scary dudes - that a substantial chunk of their government doesn't have a problem with them continuing rape culture. The government (well, a chunk of it, anyway) just told rapists that they're cool with everything short of jumping out of the bushes and attacking people. Congress just told a bunch of perpetrators, who already have this mindset, that it's OK! The US FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AGREES WITH YOU.

Fighting H.R. 3 was the heroic work of a lot of different groups. I joined Tiger Beatdown's #DearJohn campaign, and tried my best to get the word out to all of my networks about the resolution to encourage people to challenge it. I wrote to Vice-President Biden, mostly to make myself feel better but also because of his role in helping to pass the Violence Against Women Act. I saw the political and social work of a lot of formal and informal activists coming together to prevent this bill from getting passed in its original state, and it was encouraging that at least when Congress directly threatens rape victims, there's a community response. We need that to fight against rape culture, and we need to keep working to create community standards that push rapists away.

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Posted by Dave on 02/04 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Friday, January 28, 2011

Is this real?

I haven’t had enough time yet to check this out at any depth, but can anyone tell me if this is for real?

The House GOP’s Plan to Redefine Rape.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.” This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith’s spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)

So this is mostly about abortion, using rape as the technique to get at news ways to reduce access to reproductive rights.  Right now, I’m a little speechless.  I sort of assumed that Congress had other things to do right now, like tackle our monumental debt or help create new jobs or figure out what our role was going to be with the new orders appearing in Africa.  Apparently, I’m wrong, though.  What Congress really needs to do is make sure that survivors who don’t John Boehner’s view of acceptable victims don’t get healthcare coverage or assistance.

I’m hoping to have a more coherent response in a day or two, but right now, I’ll urge the usual - contact your reps or senators, tell them this is beyond the worst idea ever.  Hopefully we can think of something creative like Sady’s #mooreandme campaign to get this thing killed before it goes anywhere.

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Posted by Dave on 01/28 • (2) CommentsPermalink

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bad Science…how we hate you

This weekend my roommate showed me an awesome documentary called The Joy of Stat.  It’s narrated by the Swedish professor Hans Rosling, who is hilarious and poignant.  If you don’t mind some math puns, I recommend it for everyone.  It’s only about an hour long, and it’s got a lot of cool stuff in it.

The part of the documentary that stood out most for me, though, wasn’t one of the fun graphics or the catchy soundtrack; it was one of the introductory statements that Professor Rosling made probably four or five minutes in.  He said something to the effect of “statistics can tell us if what we think about the world is true.”  Apologies to all if that’s a little less eloquent than his actual statements.

This isn’t a world-shattering revelation to me; this same roommate who showed me this video is working on his PhD in cognitive psychology.  Another good friend is finishing his PhD in criminology, and I have a whole bevvy of friends in medical school right now.  I appreciate the power of good science to show us what is real, beyond our own experience and assumptions.

As usual, something Holly wrote last week is making me think about this a lot more.  This ability to detect the truth - the way things actually are, and not the way mainstream culture thinks of them - is one of the most powerful tools in the activist’s toolkit.  Science itself doesn’t favor social movements over the status quo, or democrats over republicans, or justice over injustice.  It does, though, give us a flashlight to look at the consequences of our actions collectively, and to let us know if the beliefs we hold as a culture and as a society are actually true.

Science isn’t a thing, of course; it’s a process.  Good science, science done with understanding of its own limitations, with rigorous and well-accepted methodologies, and replicable results can change public opinion about major social issues (although it often takes a while to make it happen).  Science is the credibility of social change movements.  It is the lever that gives us the ability to challenge the status quo when moral arguments alone don’t.

Granted, most of this only applies to GOOD science - there are a lot of ways to make really BAD science, as Holly indicated above, and as we can see in examples like this and this and this.  There are many, many more that I could link to here, but I won’t.  Many researchers either don’t know how to do science correctly, or they intentionally skirt the edges because they have a suspicion that if they really measured reality, their results wouldn’t turn out the way they want them to.

Why does so much bad science get published, though?  Why does so much science that conforms to our pre-determined notion of power structures that already exist get media attention, and little criticism?  Most of the population doesn’t really understand HOW to do good science (I don’t, really - I ask scientists about that).  We read headlines in newspapers, on websites, or see news on TV about studies and reports from journalists who also don’t (generally) know all that more about science than we do, and it’s hard to tell what studies are good and what studies are bad.  We end up getting confused about what’s real, when there isn’t really an argument.  This leads to all sorts of bad policies based on a lot of lousy science.

Good science is like a trump suit in cards - in terms of its actual findings and measurement of reality, a really vigorous study with excellent methodology and scrupulous writing beats any number of bad studies with non-replicable results, poor methodology, and wildly sweeping generalizations that the data doesn’t support.  This doesn’t usually extend past the scientific community, though, and the mainstream culture doesn’t have much of a sense of this.

The study that Holly was bringing down is important for us here because it deals with rape.  As I’ve said before, whenever we talk about gender in this country, we’re not really talking about bodies and beings, we’re talking about all the other meaning we’ve packed into gender as a proxy variable.  Talking about rape in conjunction with this, and using lousy science, can lead most of us in bad directions.  The Slate article actually tackles a couple of them:

Thornhill and Palmer, Malamuth, and the many other investigators studying rape through an evolutionary lens, take great pains to point out that “adaptive” does not mean “justifiable,” but rather only mechanistically viable. Yet dilettante followers may still be inclined to detect a misogyny in these investigations that simply is not there. As University of Michigan psychologist William McKibbin and his colleagues write in a 2008 piece for the Review of General Psychology, “No sensible person would argue that a scientist researching the causes of cancer is thereby justifying or promoting cancer. Yet some people argue that investigating rape from an evolutionary perspective justifies or legitimizes rape.”

The unfortunate demonization of this brand of inquiry is rooted in the fallacy of biological determinism (according to which men are programmed by their genes to rape and have no free will to do otherwise) and the naturalistic fallacy (that because rape is natural it must be acceptable).

If we could be sure that this would be the situation, that this study was done using rigorous methods and wasn’t generalized beyond its findings; that there wouldn’t be an implied justification of rape or victim-blaming of women who are survivors as a result of this study’s publication, then maybe I’d be on board with the authors.  But that doesn’t happen.  What we get instead is the media report of another study (using dubious methods) that purports to tell us that the standard gender roles we have already had slammed into us from a thousand different directions are true, and another reason to twist the knife on survivors: didn’t you know?  Women are evolutionarily adapted to not get raped!  So you are just a broken fool for getting victimized!  Don’t mention anything about the GOOD science we have about how rape is perpetrated; pretend that all we know about the crime is based on evolutionary biology that hasn’t ever ever ever changed and never will.

Aside from this problem here, bad science is a long-term enemy of fighting rape culture.  Bad science almost always reinforced the gender binary, the patriarchy, and undercuts credibility from legit scientists who are learning new things about the patterns of rape and how it actually happens each year.  We are learning that is it not perpetrated by many, many men each genetically pre-disposed into raping at least once in his lifetime.  We are seeing, repeatedly, that rapists, a small group of men, are premeditating assaults and hold very specific, very misogynist and anachronistic views about women right now.  We need our science, our good science, to help punch holes through the bad science that clogs the way forward.  The more information we have about rape and how it actually happens, the more progress we can make towards ending it. 


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Posted by Dave on 01/21 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Social Jenga

I’ve mentioned before that I think that rape, and rape culture especially, are foundational parts of our society.  They are serious underpinnings to the way we determine who gets power, money, respect, social resources, who gets to be important and trusted and loved and protected.  This is a grandiose way of looking at rape, but I’ve taken the idea from a huge number of other writers and thinkers: Susan Brownmiller was probably the first to write it down in a book, but a whole bevy of thinkers and activists have echoed the same thought over the past forty years.  Rape is the tool society uses to keep women afraid of men, afraid to move about freely, and afraid of leaving their “appropriate” station.

This often feels really academic to me, though - I can talk about a lot of things being cornerstones, or foundational components of our social structure.  How does this look in real life?  What does it mean that rape is a foundational part of our culture?  To me, it means it’s the important Jenga block - the one you can’t pull out.  I’ll hope that most of my readers have played the game Jenga at some point in the past, and are familiar with its basic structure, but for those who haven’t, here’s the idea: the players build a tower of little wooden blocks, about an inch wide and three or so inches long.  They layer the blocks in groups of three, and arrange them in stacks horizontally until they’re out of blocks.  The tower is something like a foot tall by that point.  Then, the idea of the game once the tower is constructed is to slowly remove blocks one at a time without making the tower fall over.  The higher up on the tower the blocks are, the easier this is.  Devious players will actually try to remove blocks at the bottom of the tower first, to make the whole tower less stable for their opponents.

At some point, it becomes clear that the entire tower is resting on a couple of blocks - maybe the two central blocks at the bottom, or the one block in the middle of the tower in the third tier.  Trying to remove those blocks is going to end badly.  You can’t affect those blocks in the tower without touching a whole lot of other blocks either directly or indirectly.  Those blocks are foundational to the tower.

So that’s how I think of things like rape, gender roles, racism, capitalism - they are the parts of culture that we can’t touch without poking a whole lot of other things.  As we saw with this Assange case recently, the moment we start talking about rape, we also get dragged into conversations about gender roles, gender essentialism, the criminal justice system, sex and sexuality, distribution of power, and media.  It’s impossible to have a discussion of rape without having these other discussions, because rape is foundational.

Here’s how this looks in real life.  I’m in the midst of a big social justice project for my first year of school.  My classmates and I are putting together a report about homelessness and alternatives to ordinances that criminalize behavior like sleeping in public and panhandling.  In the course of our research, I’ve found a lot of good reports that provide rates, demographics, and causes for homelessness.  Poverty and lack of affordable housing are consistently the top two causes of homeless, according to a variety of different reports.  According to the 5th Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were roughly 1.5 million sheltered homeless in the U.S. in 2009.  Of that total, roughly 500,000 were homeless families; the other million were single individuals.  Of the homeless families, a little less than half (210,000) were homeless adults.

Men make up the majority of the single homeless population (by about three to one), but women make up the majority of homeless adults in families by an even larger margin (about 80%).  These numbers are rough (because the homeless are hard to measure), but the important part for this post is that there are about 275,000 homeless single women, and about 165,000 homeless women with children.  Of all homeless families, women are wildly over-represented, and they are responsible for (i.e., they are the care-takers and parents of, not culpable for) a huge chunk of the children who are homeless.

Homeless women in families are also almost all survivors of trauma

About 90% have survived severe physical or sexual abuse.  Roughly 2/3 of them are survivors of domestic violence, a very close cousin of rape.  The US Council of Mayors reported in their 2009 report Hunger and Homelessness that domestic violence was one of the major causes of family homelessness (see the chart on page 44; although note that there are some very well stated limitations to this study).  A lack of DV services, shelters, and the general inability of the criminal justice system to prevent or punish domestic violence (and the rape that often accompanies it) forces many low-income women and their children out of their homes.

We already know that homelessness exacerbates the already substantial issues of poverty.  We know that it puts people at risk of all sorts of additional health concerns, both acute and chronic, due to lack of food and safety.  We know that the homeless are regularly attacked and killed, although we aren’t doing a great job of recognizing these assaults as a form of hate crimes.  We know that children who grow up homeless are at risk for a host of behavioral issues, malnutrition, health concerns, and social disadvantages.  And we know that a huge, huge chunk of these families are pushed into homelessness because of domestic violence.  Because violent partners (usually men) hurt them, and so little of society takes action to stop it.  We couldn’t solve homelessness by preventing domestic violence, but we sure could take a serious bite out of it.  If we touch domestic violence, we affect a lot of other power structures, including whether this big chunk of half a million people are homeless or not.  That’s foundational right there. 

This is, if not good news, then at least encouraging news for me, and here’s why: reducing rape and domestic violence is really hard.  Doing so takes years of hard, often thankless work, and the results are not always visible.  But budging those rates, changing the reality of rape and DV even a tiny bit is like tugging on a really complicated pulley system: the positive knock-on effects in a lot of other areas are serious business.

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Posted by Dave on 01/04 • (1) CommentsPermalink

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