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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

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Deep Freeze

When people speak about reactions to trauma or crisis, they routinely offer up ‘fight or flight’ as a way to describe human response.  In actuality, this is an incomplete phrase.  Science tells us that the full phrase is “fight, flight, or freeze,” but somewhere along the way, most folks drop freeze from the list.  However, all three responses are biological in nature, and an individual doesn’t have control over how their body will respond in a crisis situation.  The brain (and thus the body) responds in a way that seems the likeliest to preserve its life. 

Many people who've come to BARCC have experienced this freeze response and explain that they were incapable of moving during the assault, let alone fighting off their attacker or fleeing the scene.  Despite the fact that freezing is a normal biological response, it unfortunately often causes a lot of self-blame and guilt.  People who've frozen during an assault wonder why they didn’t react, and further, they wonder if by not reacting, that somehow implied consent. Some might even ask themselves if they are partly to blame for the assault since they didn’t “assert themselves enough.”  It can take a lot of therapeutic work to understand that a freeze response is not a choice, but rather a biological response beyond conscious control.

In media reports and in casual conversation, people often talk very differently about these responses. We often hear a lot of praise for the strength and courage of people who "were able to fight off" or "managed to flee" from an assailant. This response is often much more about self-protection and feelings of relief from people who are hearing or repeating those details: it makes others feel as though we could make those same choices in a similar situation. 

Unfortunately, the negative impact of those reactions exists in two forms. First, it can serve to minimize the harm suffered by people who experienced the terror of someone trying to hurt them. Second, it implicitly (and often explicitly) casts blame on those surivvors who experienced the much-more-common freeze reaction.

Biologically, freezing comes from a person’s body recognizing that there is a the potential for injury and that it is life threatening.  The hormones that are dumped into the bloodstream at this time prime the body for survival, and therefore a person’s ability to have rational thoughts is significantly impaired.  In other words, a person with an activated sense of danger cannot biologically carry out logical thinking. 

Someone who would normally be able to think: “If I do X, then Y will be the outcome” as a way to leave a situation will find themselves incapacitated.  Additionally, other chemicals released by the brain can block any pain (physical and emotional) as a survival technique, which leaves many survivors with a flat affect during and after the assault.  Society needs to start recognizing that the freeze response is both a perfectly legitimate and biological way to survive an attack.

While many of us believe that we know how we’d respond in specific situations, it is actually impossible to know how you will respond to a traumatic event like sexual violence. Even people who work as advocates for survivors and who talk regularly about different ways to respond are affected by their biological response to trauma.  A recent post by Jen Corey, a board member for Collection Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), discussed a sexual assault she experienced on the DC Metro. 

CASS regularly writes about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on the metro and in public spaces in DC, and also advocates for better environments, policies, and responses.  Despite the prevalence rates in this area and others, many people continue to downplay their experiences or what happens to others.  Even though Corey’s own work focuses on ending sexual assault and harassment, she too froze on the train when she was assaulted.  She even describes trying later to convince herself that there wasn’t enough evidence and having to remind herself that it wasn’t her fault and that she had a right to make a report.

Another thing we know from research is that trauma can impact people for a long time depending what age they were, the experience, and the duration of the violence experienced, in addition to a host of other factors.  An individual’s brain chemistry and structure can actually change, especially if the violence occurred during the young and formative years.   For those who experience chronic trauma, heightened levels of stress hormones in the body sometimes don't go away completely or decrease over time.  The Adverse Children’s Childhood Experiences (ACE) study demonstrates that children who experience trauma are more likely to experience adverse effects later in life.  These impacts include social and cognitive impairments, disease, adoption of risky behaviors, and early death.  The more trauma that a child experiences, the more adverse effects can occur. (The CDC's Veto Violence site has some interesting interactive infographics on this.)

The experiences of trauma in childhood can impact the way someone responds to trauma as an adult.  While anybody can freeze up during an act of violence, it is a more common response for those who experience violence or abuse as a child.  As we said before, our bodies will react in a way that will preserve physical life.  Therefore, if a method has worked in the past to achieve this end, it is more likely to be used again.  Children do not have the same independence, autonomy, or rights that adults do, and therefore the act of freezing up may be the only thing that their bodies know how to do to protect themselves.

Both the immediate and longer-term impacts of neurobiological changes in survivors is something that survivors and advocates have seen personally and anecdotally for decades.  Unfortunately, we haven't usually given those narratives the weight they deserve. With improvements in brain imaging technology and the ability to share data, the hope is that we'll see an increase in understanding for survivors and a better response from formal systems and society.

If you'd like to hear more about the specifics of the neurobiology of trauma, Dr. Rebecca Campbell of University of Michigan presents all of this information and more in a webinar that is accessible and easy to understand.

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Posted by stacey on 09/13 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Unplugging from Technology

One of the things that I really enjoy about BARCC is how we check in with each other to make sure that we are practicing proper boundaries outside of the office.  For instance, when I sent an e-mail to a co-worker at 11pm on Tuesday she commented on how I should not be working at that hour when she responded the following morning.  She's probably right but I also have been exercising poorer-than-usual boundaries between work and home the past few week.  However, I do justify these poor boundaries with the reason that I am leaving for a vacation (read: wedding/honeymoon) this afternoon and won't be back in the office until Oct 1 so there is a lot to accomplish.

This afternoon, two co-workers checked in with me to make sure that I was going to turn off the e-mail from my phone while I was away and travelling.  I assured them that I was taking it a step further and actually completely deleting both my personal and work e-mails from my phone so that I couldn't even be tempted to check e-mails while I was away.  I recognize that one of the main issues I struggle with is turning things off when I leave the office.  It is just so simple to send a quick e-mail or response rather than wait until the next day.  However it is so important to set these boundaries for the purpose of self-care and to ensure that work life does not become 24-7.

I am not the only one who struggles with managing online vs. offline time.  Ever since the creation of Facebook, smartphones, and remote desktops, there have been countless articles about how it is increasingly difficult to separate these two worlds and to encourage people to leave the office at the office.  However, the younger generations aren’t used to this separation of worlds and are very acclimated to having a strong online presence at all hours of the day and night both in a personal and professional way.  So much of our world has shifted to the technology we use and therefore it can be more difficult to avoid certain things when we’re already connected and logged in. 

Many of my Facebook friends have recently posted about how they are going on a Facebook or social media fast for 2 weeks or 30 days.  Unplugging can be an excellent form of self-care and a great time for people to reflect on how they can have better strategies for when they do log back in.

For me, Facebook and Twitter are as much a news source as they are ways to keep in touch with friends.  I am linked to countless feminist media and organization pages and am able to keep a pulse on the news and actions around the globe through these pages rather than going to individual sites or digging through pages of newspapers to find the issues that I truly care about.  In fact, many times the stories and issues I care about aren’t even represented in mainstream media sources.  The downside about this is that I when I do feel overly-stressed from work, news, life, etc logging into Facebook and seeing more new stories about sexual violence or discrimination can cause even more anxiety. 

So what are some strategies that we can use in order to ensure that we are practicing appropriate self-care and boundaries with technology? 

I have asked people to hold me accountable when I do send those e-mails at inappropriate times or if I am at the office too late.  My partner is fantastic at doing that when I am at home.  And, as already mentioned, BARCC co-workers are really great about doing that in the office.

Schedule a specific amount of time to be on things like Facebook or Twitter or the myriad of other sites when at home.  Once the time is up so is the time online.  This can also encourage you to stay focused rather than be distracted by 1,001 videos or pictures of cats.  I had a friend who would unplug her laptop and she would only get the amount of time it took for her laptop to die.  Now with the tablets and newer laptops, that might still be 5 hours so perhaps a different strategy may be needed.

Leave your phone at home.  Gasp! (I know, I struggle with this one ALL the time). But since I know I practice poor boundaries about checking e-mail, articles, and posts I will intentionally leave my phone at home if I am going out for dinner or a similar activity.  Alternatively put your phone on silent and put it away so that you cannot see if anything comes in. 

Remind yourself that you are able to check things at a later time and that everything doesn’t need a response within 5 minutes. 

Changing habits can take some time and building these self-care strategies can be tough.  These are just a few short strategies that could work but of course everyone is different and therefore we’d love to hear your tips, strategies, and challenges in the comments!

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Posted by stacey on 09/05 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Friday, August 30, 2013

Short Overview of NSAC2013

Perhaps, like many of us at the BARCC office, you weren't able to make it out to the National Sexual Assault Conference. For weeks,  CALCASA has been talking about both an impressive program and line up of speakers and performers.  It is truly one of the best places to make connections and build relationships with organizations across the nation who are also focusing on sexual violence.  However, thanks to social media, we can be a part of the conference by following the twitterfeed, Facebook, or instagram and searching for the #nsac2013.  So many organizations are live-tweeting the discussions, what they've learned, and who they have met. 

Perhaps it feels a bit overwhelming to sort through the thousands of tweets that currently exist.  I have been following the tweets the past couple of days and wanted to share a few of my favorite quotes, thoughts, and insights.  Day 3 is today and there is sure to be plenty more amazing work shared and conversations had.  What have been some of your favorite tweets you've seen?  You can quote or link to them in the comments below.
















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Posted by stacey on 08/30 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Friday, August 23, 2013

On Getting Some Help

Something that comes up often from people who call or come to BARCC is a feeling of uncertainty about whether the services available from BARCC are really for them.

Sometimes they worry that their experience was so long ago that the hurt they're feeling today must be less important than the hurt of someone whose experience was more recent. Other times, people who are the parents, or partners, or friends of someone who's been harmed wonder if they deserve to get services. Countless people who haven't figured out the words that feel right to describe an experience ask us if it's OK to be calling with questions.

Ashley, over at Blog a la Cart, wrote a post about seeking support after a trauma in her life.  While her experience was not of sexual violence, it beautifully articulates some of the struggle and relief that can surround getting help:

I’ve found people’s reactions to my candor about seeking mental and emotional counseling and support troubling. Many act surprised (appalled?) that I’m so comfortable openly talking about my need for therapy and even the support of pharmaceuticals to manage the anxiety and fear that took hold of me in the aftermath. Others tell me how “brave” I am to have gotten myself help so immediately. People shouldn’t be surprised. They shouldn’t think I am brave. I sought the medical help I needed when I was not feeling safe. When I was not myself. Just like I would for a broken limb or a sore tooth. My mental and emotional health is tied up in my physical well-being. There was no way I was going to let my anxiety get control of me, and impact not only my everyday, but my family’s, my children’s.

I deserved to feel safe. I deserved to get help.

We all do.

And we shouldn’t be fearful. And we shouldn’t shame those that need the support of mental health services, whatever the reason. And we shouldn’t judge or cast doubt on those that recognize when they are struggling and make use of the resources at hand to feel more themselves. To feel better. Safer.

I am so grateful that I no longer wake up in the night screaming. That I no longer relive flashback after flashback. That I’m not consumed by What Ifs. While the experience has changed me forever, I am feeling more in balance. I am finding my way back to me. And I know, with continued help and support, I’ll get there.

What we always say is, there's a very wide circle of people who are harmed when sexual violence happens, and sometimes the hurt or the disruption from that harm continues for a long time. And anyone in that circle deserves to feel better. Even if what we have to offer isn't quite the right fit, we're always happy to connect you with something that might work better.

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Posted by Meg on 08/23 • (0) CommentsPermalink

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