March 18, 2011

Violent games

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:14 pm by sacetalks

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day. While its original purpose is linked to a popular figure in the history of Christianity, it has now become a holiday to celebrate the Irish, drink green beer, and pinch people who choose not to, or forget to, wear green on March 17.

For me, the pinching part seems more from my days in Elementary and Junior High School than my experiences as an adult. However, sometimes even adults pinch their friends, co-workers, brothers and sisters, etc for failing to wear green clothing. While this might seem like a light-hearted game, it involves potentially painful physical aggression towards a person who may not voluntarily agree to being pinched. I know. I’m a party pooper.

Which brings me to the real intention of this post – there are a lot of behaviors, attitudes and ways in which people interact with each other that are harmful, painful, derogatory and violent, such as name calling, hitting, discrimination based on race, sexual harassment, etc., that we minimize with phrases like, “Oh, I was just having a little fun,” “It’s no big deal,” “It’s just a joke,” “I’m only racist when I drink,” “Why do you have to be such a prude?” Those phrases are used to both minimize the harmful and negative consequences of words and/or behaviors as well as cut down the voice of anyone who chooses to speak out in resistance to their minimizing tactics. If I say pinching people on St. Patrick’s Day is a way to normalize violence as a game, and someone calls me a prude, that is their effort to make what I’ve just said less legitimate.

There are a lot of words we can call people to de-legitimate what they have to say and what they choose to do. Some include: prude, stupid, lame, idiot, snitch, frigid, bitch, gay, faggot, freak. They represent one of the ways language has so much power to distort and create the meaning we make of our lives by de-legitimating the voice and perspectives of certain people.

And they have central roles in how groups of people can justify violence.

For example, in a environment like a Junior High School, boys pinching girl’s bottoms can become a game, something that is fun, and anyone who questions it is a prude, stupid, lame, a snitch, frigid, a bitch, gay, a faggot. Those words help minimize the reality of sexual harassment and distort that reality into a game in which the only participants who matter are the ones who enjoy the game. People who speak out, who refuse to participate in the game, face name calling tactics that take away the power of their resistance and legitimate the violence that is being done to people in the act of sexual harassment.

Sometimes, we think that these words are harmless and we’re just using them in good fun. It’s important to realize that they have a powerful impact in dictating how we interpret the world around us, potentially transforming a violent world into one we see as frivolous fun. In the use of those words, we lie to ourselves, cover-up our misdeeds and silence the opposition of those who suffer from violence.

by Meagan Simon


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March 11, 2011

Sexual assault and Intervention

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:22 pm by sacetalks

For anyone who hasn’t watched A&E’s Intervention, it’s a reality show that follows the addiction and intervention of a person with an addiction.  The show begins by informing the audience that the subject of the episode has been told they are being interviewed for a documentary on addiction.  The person is then asked many questions about the addiction, filmed taking drugs, and documented as s/he explains what s/he feels is the root of the addiction.  Throughout the documentary, friends and family members of the person in question are also interviewed on how the addiction has impacted them, on the childhood of the person with the addiction, etc.  At the end of the show, the “subject” is told they are going to their final interview.  In actuality, their friends and family have planned an intervention for them in which they all read letters outlining how the addiction has negatively impacted their lives.  They give the person with the addiction their “bottom lines” in order to coerce the person into going to a rehabilitation clinic (presumably sponsored by A&E).

The show is problematic (at best) on many levels.  Of course there is the question of whether or not a person experiencing an addiction can give informed consent to participate in a programme that will be aired on national television; of whether or not the family and friends are being exploited as they worry for the life of their loved one; and that’s not to mention the question of whether or not interventions are at all helpful for someone experiencing an addiction.

All that aside, the interventions tend to have a common theme: the person experiencing the addiction has often also experienced either child sexual abuse, adult sexual assault, or both.  Research has already documented the strong link between child sexual abuse (and other types of childhood trauma) and addictions in adulthood.  Therefore, the relationship doesn’t come as a big surprise.

What is surprising, however, is when the intervention counsellors blame the survivor’s addiction – rather than the offender’s behaviour – for the sexual assault.  For example, in Season 8, Episode 5, Amy, a woman who self-harms, abuses alcohol and has an eating disorder, discloses that she was sexually abused when she was 8.  She began drinking heavily as an adult, despite her sister’s “warnings.”  One night, as Amy explains, she was date raped.  She told her sister Jennifer, who told her that she shouldn’t have put herself in such a risky situation.  Of course, as a tearful Amy explains to the camera, she never told anyone else because she was afraid of being blamed again.

In another episode, a young woman named Lana abuses various drugs, including alcohol.  There was one time in which she went on holiday with her friends.  A year after she returned, the police contacted her; they had a video in which she was being gang raped by a group of men while she was passed out, drunk.  The police forced her to watch the video.  During her intervention, as Lana was minimizing the impact of her drug and alcohol abuse, the interventionist told her that her addiction resulted in her being raped.

It is important to make one thing very clear: addiction does not lead to sexual assault.  Alcohol does not lead to sexual assault.  Drugs do not lead to sexual assault.  The only thing – the only person – that leads to sexual assault is the offender.

 Some will argue that when people experience addictions, they put themselves in “risky situations” which heighten the risk of experiencing violence.  Let’s think this through for a second.  Does our culture promote drinking?  Well, if we look through a magazine, watch television, or even observe billboards on the side of the road, it would be hard to argue that it doesn’t.  We are constantly bombarded with messages telling us that drinking is fun.  How, then, can someone that’s so much fun be suddenly seen as “risky” when someone is sexually assaulted? 

Of course, drinking alcohol and taking illegal drugs are two different stories.  In all honesty, I understand the need for people to take personal responsibility.  And really, we are responsible for what we do.  For example, Amy is responsible for the $5000 she stole from her parents to pay for alcohol.  Lana is responsible for treating people in her life badly.  Neither Amy nor Lana, however, are responsible for what other people to do them – regardless of the situations in which they find themselves. 

Shows such as Intervention do a great disservice to sexual assault education.  People watching these programmes often believe the counsellors on the shows are experts and believe everything they say – including information that is not only misleading, but outright harmful.  Addictions are not responsible for sexual assault; offenders are.

I don’t know if there’s any way for a show such as Intervention, given its premise and its inherent exploitation, to be free from problems.  I do, however, think it’s possible for it to avoid contributing to myths surrounding sexual assault.  People who have experienced this trauma need to be reminded that they are not to blame; that it is not their fault; that it is a good thing they told.  They do not need to be shamed, guilted, and humiliated – they do a good enough job of blaming themselves already without other people adding to this misplaced responsibility.

-Pragya Sharma

March 4, 2011

Manitoba Judge fails at Sexual Assault Prevention

Posted in Current Events, Myths, Rape Culture at 6:14 pm by sacetalks

Whenever I speak to people about sexual assault, I usually cite two main ways to prevent it from happening. The first, really the only logical solution, would be for everyone to stop sexually assaulting people. Simple. Make sure every sexual partner you have consents for each sexual activity you engage in and if that person has a change of heart, respect this and stop. Simple. Know the consent laws. Simple.

However, for many people this suggestion does not seem so simple. It seems laughable, making a second prevention strategy necessary: changing our attitudes that make the first strategy so laughable.
Asking people to stop sexually assaulting others seems laughable to some because it holds offenders of sexual assault accountable for their behavior (you did something wrong, don’t do it), which is against the normative way of understanding sexual assaults: the victim is to blame. In that line of thinking, offenders are not responsible for their behavior, maybe because they “just lost control in the moment,” so there is no reason to ask them to stop. Thus, making a second strategy necessary, one that demands personal accountability and recognizes that offenders of sexual assault are always responsible for their behavior. It’s one that isn’t so simple. It is an attempt to change some people’s behaviors through a shift in everyone’s shared knowledge.

Recently, Justice Robert Dewar failed to hold an offender of sexual assault fully responsible for his behavior and therefore, worked against the prevention of sexual assaults in our communities. In a sexual assault case from 2006, Justice Robert Dewar recently convicted Kenneth Rhodes of sexual assault. However, in his sentencing he ruled that Rhodes was not completely responsible, his behavior wasn’t entirely wrong, and instead of the recommended three years in jail, Judge Dewar sentenced him to a two year conditional sentence without jail time. Why did he not hold Kenneth Rhodes completely responsible?

Because “sex was in the air” that night. According to Justice Dewar, Kenneth Rhodes, being as he was a “clumsy Don Juan,” was confused when the person he sexually assaulted said no. Because she was wearing heavy make-up and a tube top with no bra, she obviously “wanted to party,” and as she had hinted at swimming in a near-by lake naked, she created such “inviting circumstances” that such a “no” had no bearing in his “clumsy” efforts at seduction. You see, this is a unique circumstance, an entirely “different case” from other sexual assaults, a “case of misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behavior.”
Each of his statements during his sentencing placed more and more responsibility on the survivor of the sexual assault, citing her dress and behaviors as more relevant reasons why it happened than Rhodes’ “inconsiderate” dismissal of her communicating no. Thank the stars and moons I have a brain, as do many other Canadians, who can and have seen how absolutely wrong his words and behavior were. There was a protest at the Law Courts in Manitoba last Friday, complaints have been made to the Canadian Judicial Review and we are all waiting to see if the Crown’s office will file an appeal.
Since so many others are taking action against his behavior, I would simply like to address two main issues with his statements.

I find it most noteworthy that Justice Dewar contradicted himself in his own statements about the assault. He notes that “this is a case of misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behavior.” Inconsiderate: selfish; thoughtless; insensitive; careless – words to describe a person’s beliefs or actions that do not take into account the personhood, desires, beliefs, and/or choice of others. Using inconsiderate to describe a person’s behavior surely recognizes that they did something that ignored another person’s perspective. How would it be possible in that situation that he also simply misunderstood signals? “I thought she wanted it.” If a person truly thought this, how could one then make a judgment that they were also acting inconsiderately? An inconsiderate act is either not “asking” that other person what they want, or seeing that they want something other than you, but ignoring this and carrying on anyway. In acting inconsiderately, miscommunication isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s that selfish person’s decision not to acknowledge and respond to their victim’s signs of discomfort and non-consent. It is not that Kenneth Rhodes misunderstood what his victim wanted; he ignored want she wanted and forced sex anyway. Judge Dewar knows this, otherwise he wouldn’t have convicted the man of sexual assault or recognized his “inconsiderate” behavior, yet apparently he believes it is not as important as how the person who was sexually assaulted dressed and behaved that night.

Another thing I’d like to draw attention to is how Justice Dewar attempted to justify his sentencing by claiming that this was “a different case” than other sexual assault trials. It is my understanding that a great deal of sexual assault cases involve an accused offender who claims that he or she just didn’t realize that the other person wasn’t consenting. Further, my job at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton as a Public Educator depends on the reality that many people, including apparently Justice Dewar, believe that what a woman wears, her level of intoxication and her implied sexual promiscuity are all reasons for a man to force his penis into her vagina without her consent. This is not an extraordinary case of an offender misunderstanding the intentions of his victim, but a common excuse used by offenders to get away with their crimes.

If we are to prevent sexual assaults from happening, we all need to change our attitudes. We need to put full responsibly on offenders of sexual assault and validate the traumatic experiences of survivors. Even though this is a shared imperative for us all, it is especially true for those of us who hold positions of status and authority in our society because they are the ones who have the most power to instigate change. A Judge has a certain responsibility: communicate to offenders of sexual assault that what they did was wrong, so stop doing it, and communicate to everyone that the only people to blame for sexual assaults are those whose behaviors we deem reprehensible, the offenders.

by Meagan Simon


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