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Helen Aarli: 2nd Wave Feminist and Pioneer of Chicago Anti-Rape Movement

3 Aug

Saturday night I had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with 85-year-old Helen Aarli, a pioneer in the anti-rape movement circa 1970 and a true inspiration!

Helen Aarli (Photo from http://www.cityofmadison.com/citychannel/shows/seniorbeat/)

Helen invited my girlfriend Amy and me to her apartment to talk about feminism. When we arrived, she hugged us warmly and welcomed us in to her home. Our refreshing summer meal consisted of tuna salad, quinoa, tossed salad and spicy corn bread. “I subscribe to Cooking Light,” Helen told us, “And I try to make a new recipe each week. I play games with myself like that.” Helen has more energy than many adults half her age, which I’m guessing has something to do with her extreme positivity and zest for life. Although long retired, she keeps busy with projects like hosting and producing a show on public television called “Senior Beat”, engaging in political activism, and learning all she can about topics that interest her. (Her current curiosity is memory and Alzheimer’s.)

Helen co-hosting Senior Beat with guest Tammy Baldwin!

Helen, who has two masters degrees and was an inter-generational communication program director, kicked off discussion with questions about the . (The Third Wave refers to the current generation of feminists. The refers to the feminists behind the “Women’s Liberation” movement which we think of as happening mainly from the late 60′s through the early 70′s. Activists from the Second Wave helped pass (1973), protecting a woman’s right to make decisions about her own reproductive health, as well as which protects women’s rights in education. They also pioneered the , making important institutional changes, teaching the first women’s self-defense courses and coining the phrase “No means no.”) I told Helen that my generation was born out of the 80′s in which there was a severe backlash against feminism that is still felt today, so many young women hesitate to even identify themselves as feminists. Recently, what many are calling the “War on Women” has energized young activists.

Rally supporting Planned Parenthood

I was surprised that Helen had not yet heard of Slutwalks, and I was excited to tell her the story. When I reached the punch line– that thousands of women have taken to the streets in protest of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, some scantily clad and almost all holding clever signs, in Slutwalks all over the world– she laughed and laughed! Her eyes sparkled and she exclaimed, “Oh! To throw it in their faces!” Her demeanor suggested that she thought the whole thing to be cute, fun, and perfectly appropriate for the issue at hand. She immediately connected the concept to when she first heard her gay friends starting to reclaim the word “queer”, which one could easily argue was as strongly associated with violence as the word “slut”. She remembered being shocked also by the use of the upside-down pink triangle to show safe spaces for LGBT people,

Do we remember today where this triangle came from?

because as a Jewish woman, she of course knew that it was to identify homosexuals for persecution. As someone who has been educated to conclude that we can’t reclaim hateful words, I was secretly embarrassed to be reminded that “queer”, a term I use freely to describe myself as a bisexual woman and to generalize about the LGBT community when my tongue tires of acronyms, was and still is used as a homophobic slur. As someone who always thinks she is right, I started to think I should hang out with much older people much more often.

Helen asked what my issue was, and I told her it was sexual assault prevention. She asked about how things were going in that field and I told her I didn’t think all that much had changed. Her face darkened and she said, “I’m very disappointed to hear that.” I asked her what her issue was. “It was the Anti-Rape Movement.” I was immediately struck both with a deep sense of humility and a feeling that I had just put my foot in my mouth. Oops.

My girlfriend brought this magnet as a gift for Helen but of course she already had one from her daughter on her fridge!

Helen told the story of her participation in the movement in Chicago, from when she lead consciousness-raising groups for self-defined “older women” (she was in her early 40′s at the time) to when she saw a passionate anti-rape speaker smash a misogynist record over her knee on stage and felt she had found her issue. Together with a group of other activist housewives, they hit the ground running. She and her sisters used space in a church to staff a rape crisis line. Two women always worked together, and in the snowy winters they would wait to make sure that both of their cars would start before leaving, in order not to leave the other woman stranded alone at night.

Helen's favorite 2nd Wave poster by her friend Estelle Carol of the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective which distributed thousands of feminist posters world-wide.

They decided that the institutions that needed to change were 1) the hospitals, 2) the police and 3) the courts. One Chicago hospital refused even to admit rape victims. Helen let the hospital’s name slip to the press and they changed their policy the next day. The activists (who were viewed by professionals as “just housewives”) took it upon themselves to go into the hospitals and train staff on compassionate care, insisting that a woman be present in the room rather than having only a male doctor who launched into an internal exam on a traumatized patient. They also trained hospital staff in collecting physical evidence to be used in trials.

I told Helen about the program used in Wisconsin hospitals as well as many other states and she was pleased to hear what a long way care for rape victims has come.

The Chicago Police were the toughest and scariest crowd she had to address. She told us of the first time that they went to the sexual assault department and she saw that over the department sign they had hung a gigantic pair of pink ladies’ bloomers. Tears came to her eyes as she recounted the memory. “It was a big joke to them,” she said. When they returned with an undercover investigative reporter, they had taken the panties down. She described the police as extremely insensitive to the issue. Once she came in with a victim as an advocate (although the police assumed she was “just the mother”) and the officer said, “If you’ve been raped, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” She asked the police, “Isn’t it true that you have a manual that instructs police, when dealing with a rape victim, to first question whether the rape actually occurred?” The officer replied, “There is no such manual.” As she was leaving, someone who worked behind the scenes pulled Helen aside and said, “That manual he just said doesn’t exist? Here is a copy.” The next time she brought it up in front of the press and the police denied the manual’s existence, she pulled it out. “Oh, they did not like me very much,” she said seriously. “I was afraid of them.” A friend of hers had warned her that the police would probably see it as a big joke to rape the women who came in to the station as advocates.

Although I think the police still have some ways to go, I was happy to tell her about who works closely with the and trains law enforcement on how to sensitively interview victims and follow up with investigation of the perpetrators (rather than the victims).

When dealing with the legal system, Helen and her fellow feminists attempted to train lawyers in how to address rape cases with sensitivity. When speaking with one lawyer, she said, “He asked, ‘Are you a lawyer?’ and I said ‘No.’ I thought he was going to hit me! Who was I, a woman, who was not even a lawyer, to tell him how to do his job?” She remembered in one case, an African-American woman named Paulette who “had dared to go into a bar alone to dance and have fun” was gang-raped by several men in the bar. When the case was brought to court, the judge said, “Boys will be boys.” Helen stood up, shocked, from her seat and was immediately surrounded by security who instructed her to sit down or be removed from the courtroom. Helen told this story to TV host Lee Philips who was inspired to make the film The Rape of Paulette.

Helen and the film Paulette's story inspired are featured in this book

Another time, a group of 7 African-American women told Helen they wanted to speak with her. She went to meet with them and, one by one, they each recounted their experiences of rape. (Trigger warning) They told her that one of the women wasn’t there to tell her story herself. She was at a bus stop holding her baby, and the attacker raped her at knife point in front of her baby and then slit her throat, leaving her for dead. Fearing for her life, she fled with her baby. One of the women could not bear to tell her husband what had happened to her, but she walked her daughter to school every day afterwards. They were all brought together by something they had in common: they were all raped by the same man. They knew his identity, but he kept getting off on mistaken identity when he was brought to court. There was a law that did not allow multiple charges to be brought against the same person and Helen asked the courts, “Can’t you get creative and find a way around that?” She shook her head, “They did not like me for saying that!”

Helen and her group called themselves Chicago Legal Action for Women, or CLAW. One woman suggested they should make their logo a big claw, but they decided to downplay it instead. “Like we didn’t know,” Helen laughed, “Like we were just innocent little housewives.” Together they wrote and printed a comprehensive handbook for lay advocates. “I don’t know,” Helen shrugged, “We just figured we were experts based on our experience on the ground. We just thought we could do it.” So they did.

Helen with CLAW Handbook! How cool is she??!

Helen showed me the materials she had saved from that time, including  business cards from the rape crisis line they staffed, the CLAW handbook and brochures, a 1971 “Stop Rape” handbook that included (of particular interest to me) an article called “Fighting Back” by Cate Stadelman, which included some of the earliest self-defense tips for women, and– I almost died when I saw this– the second printing of Our Bodies Our Selves by The Boston Women’s Health Collective. 35 cents. It was a thick pamphlet. I asked her, “Did they have any idea then how big these things would become?” Helen shook her head, smiling, “Oh I don’t think so.”

Second Wave Literature, probably printed with mimeograph (never seen one myself!)

Thinking back on my idiotic statement from earlier in the night that things had not changed, I told Helen, “You know, I think what happened is that the institutions changed, but the culture has not changed very much.” I cited statistics that show the majority of college-aged men (84%) who commit rape do not identify their actions as rape and the majority of college-aged women (88%) who are raped do not recognize themselves as victims. “Somehow,” I told her, “People still don’t get the most basic message of ‘No means no’.” She was very interested and surprised to hear that. I guess I’m surprised too.

*NOTE: Although I’ve written this based on Helen’s stories and experiences as an individual, she would not want to be viewed as a “one-woman wonder.” “We prided ourselves on being made up of collectives,” she said. “Part of second wave feminism was ‘shared leadership’ as opposed to the male model of the one person in charge and the rest somehow subordinate.” I hope my readers will recognize that sisterhood fueled feminist collective actions during the 2nd wave, and Helen was one of many who worked to create changes we benefit from today.

7 Self Defense Myths

10 Jul

My job as a women’s self defense instructors is widely misunderstood. This is partially because there is no really credible certification system for teaching women’s self defense, so many people teach it without a complete understanding of what they are teaching and give people the wrong idea. Why should you believe me over them? Not only have I grown up studying martial arts since I was old enough to walk at a school owned by my mother, a now 7th degree black belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate (a self defense based mixed martial art), but I have spent several years educating myself about violence against women through research, volunteer work and activism. Most self defense teachers understand one or the other– fighting back or what you’re fighting against. I strive to understand both sides.

These are some of the most damaging myths about self defense:

1. You need to learn how to protect yourself if someone attacks you when you are walking alone at night, because nobody you know would attack you, and if they did you would know what to do.

About 90% of violence against women falls under the category of sexual assault, and within that we know that about 85% of sexual assault is committed by someone the victim knows: a friend, acquaintance, family member or intimate partner. Most women don’t believe someone they know and trust could attack or sexually assault them, which is why their guard is down and they usually have not thought through what they would do in such a situation. A good women’s self defense class teaches more than martial arts– it teaches how to navigate dangerous social situations.

2. Women are targeted to be victims based on how they look and/or what they wear.

Attackers choose their victims based on what they think they can get away with. Who won’t tell? Who wouldn’t be believed? Who can they overpower with the least amount of struggle? This is why the majority of sexual assault victims are minors. To suggest that a woman’s appearance has anything to do with her attack is called victim blaming and it is extremely damaging.

3. Perpetrators of sexual assault and other violent crimes are sick and different, so they are easy to spot and avoid.

Most perpetrators look and act just like anyone else. I would even go as far as to say that many simply do not know better than to commit sexual violence. In a poll of college aged men whose actions fit the legal definition of rape, over 80% said their actions were “definitely not rape.” This is why it is important to talk about these issues and educate people to change our culture.

4. Self defense is mainly a set of physical skills plus screaming “NO!” and “BACK OFF!”

Self defense is first about recognizing and avoiding dangerous situations so you hopefully never have to use your physical skills, and second about recognizing that we as women are just as strong and capable of fighting back as any man. Although the material is serious, a good women’s self defense class should feel fun and empowering!

5. The hardest part about physically fighting someone off is that they are probably bigger and stronger than you and they may have a weapon.

Probably the biggest obstacle that most survivors report is the “fight, flight or freeze” response to trauma. Many women report that they didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late and then they were in such shock they were unable to think clearly or act in the way they would have thought they should. If you know how to fight back, it doesn’t matter how big or strong your opponent is. What matters is your reaction in a moment of high stress. That is why martial arts classes are great preparation– because they train your body to react to unexpected attacks with physical defenses, and because they teach how to communicate clearly while working in close quarters with other people’s bodies.

6. Women who don’t leave abusive relationships are different from me. I could never end up in a situation like that.

Any person is capable of ending up in an abusive relationship. I know many intelligent, strong, powerful women who have ended up in psychologically toxic or physically abusive relationships. If it were obvious, nobody would go there! The are so subtle and complex that the best thing you can do to avoid it is to understand and HEED the by getting out before you are too emotionally invested.

7. Pressure points and grappling are the best defenses for a woman who is not trained in martial arts.

UGH this one annoys me. Let me put it this way: most self defense classes are from 2-12 hours long. I have studied martial arts since I was a small child and I STILL have trouble using pressure points effectively. My first choice for physical defense? HIT ‘EM IN THE FACE!!! As for grappling, it’s so trendy right now with the surge in popularity of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA. The thing is, joint locks are great (although too complicated for a beginner), but if you are smaller than your opponent you do NOT want to go to the ground with them. Yes, there are ways to defend on the ground but no, they are not easily accessible for someone untrained in martial arts.

Men Who Want To Protect Women

15 Jun

Most fathers, brothers, boyfriends and more are good men who respect and care about the women and girls in their lives. Many of these men feel protective of these women and girls, and I can understand why. The world is not a very good place for women in a lot of ways. 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

I’m concerned, however, that some men may have some poorly informed ideas about how to best support the safety, comfort and happiness of the women and girls they love.

Threatening, intimidating or fighting bad people doesn’t help women.

Often it’s just a joke, but sometimes it’s more serious. The sentiment of “If anyone messes with you I’ll mess him up!” is not only misguided, but could cause more harm than good.

1) Telling a woman that she essentially needs a bodyguard sends her the message that she is a victim who can’t take care of herself and is deeply disempowering, not to mention insulting.

2) Violence and posturing are the problems here, not the solutions.

3) Often the best way to stand up for someone is to help them stand up for themselves. My mother recently moved to Texas and several women there told her, “Oh I don’t need to learn self defense– my husband has a gun!” Her response: “Where is your husband right now?”

Instead of saying, “I’ll protect you,” try things like, “I”ll stand by you if you need to tell that guy off” and “No, you’re not overreacting. He has no right to treat you like that.”

Warning women or girls to distrust men or to live in fear detracts from their quality of life.

Women don’t need to change how we dress or where we go in order to protect ourselves. Over 90% of violent crime is committed by men. Those men are the ones who need to change their behavior.

Rather than warning women or girls “what guys are like” or “how some guys think”, men who care about women should spend that time and effort talking to other men about how to respect women and how not to commit sexual violence.

Women: Expecting the men in your life to protect you is dangerous for everyone involved.

While women and children are most often the victims of sexual assault, men are much more often victims of violence in general. Women are taught to avoid conflict in our society, while men are taught that “a real man doesn’t back down from a fight.” That’s how a lot of men get hurt.

I would not want or expect any man in my life to take a punch for me, any more than I would want to take a punch myself. I write mainly about keeping women safe, but honestly one of the biggest social lessons a man can learn to keep himself safe is to avoid conflict. Repeat after me: “Hey man, I don’t want to fight.”

Tips for everyone to protect your loved ones:

-Don’t laugh at sexist, hateful or. If you can, confront the joker about why it’s not funny.

-If someone you know feels unsafe, don’t brush off their feelings. Encourage them to get out of that situation in their own way.

-Understand the warning signs of and .

-Recognize that nobody “asks for it” when they are raped or sexually assaulted. , including children.

-Empower your loved ones. Don’t let them underestimate themselves or put themselves down. Build their confidence by believing in them even when they don’t believe in themselves.

SlutWalk Chicago Highlights

7 Jun

The Women’s Movement is BACK, baby! What an exciting day.

For those of you who have not yet heard about SlutWalk events popping up all over the world, these are marches protesting sexual violence and particularly the use of slut-shaming and victim blaming to justify sexual violence, rather than holding perpetrators accountable. Yes, there has been some controversy. See my previous post or Jessica Valenti’s wonderful Washington Post for more information on the debate around SlutWalk. See this for more on the ideology behind the Chicago event.

Ok, so while the weather reports warned of thunderstorms, thousands of protesters of all ages, races, body-types, backgrounds and genders gathered in Thompson Plaza in Chicago on Saturday, June 4 to march against sexual violence, against victim blaming, against slut-shaming and FOR women’s rights. The weather stayed sunny– and HOT– and it made me wish I was as scantily clad as some of the other activists around me. Yes, some were in lingerie, bikinis, and short skirts– people were dressed in all different ways, including at least one woman who marched in a hijab. I wore jeans (a very sweaty mistake) and a t-shirt reading “ASKING is the first thing I do with my mouth”. Others used bare skin as their message board to the world, writing things like, “This is not an invitation to rape me” or, more simply:

This woman was very nice. We chatted about sunscreen after the march.

Here are some things that I found really exciting about SlutWalk Chicago:

1) Holy MEN, Batman! There were tons of them, and they led cheers in booming voices that went a little something like this: “Gay, Straight, Black, White! All unite for women’s rights!” Heart-warming.

2) We ran into the Avon Walk For The Cure and sisterly love abounded!

We loved each other! Sisterhood!!

3) There were kids at the march.

Her sister's sign read, "I DARE U TO CALL ME ONE."

4) I wish I had caught this on video: A bus driver saw us, read our signs, beeped a funky rhythm and fist-pump danced at us until her light turned green. We fist-pumped right  back. It was awesome.

5) Most polite protestors ever. Sample conversations:

“Oh, excuse me! I didn’t mean to invade your space!” “You’re fine!” *warm smiles*

“May I take your photo? I love your signs!” “Sure!” “Thank you!” “You’re welcome!”

Speaking of signs, there were some great ones! I give you the beautiful, strong messengers of SlutWalk:

Blurry but I love it: "Just because I have BIG TITS doesn't mean I want to FUCK YOU!" Say it, sister!

Chanting: "Hey hey! Ho ho! Sexual violence has got to go!"

Powerful. "Nobody asked me what my rapist wore." This sign struck me the most deeply.

Haha I LOVE this one! Summing up the sex-positive messaging in SlutWalk.

Yeah, we've had ENOUGH!

No more victim blaming!

After the march we heard speakers, slam poets, and even a (hilarious) ! (My frequent readers know how I love female comedians…)

Other highlights of the speeches, for me, were from the Chicago Metro YWCA with her “chat-sy about consent” which we could start practicing now “or, you know, forevs” as well as an organizer (whose name I didn’t catch- did you? Let me know!) from the . Emily’s talk was empowering, silly and sexy as she discussed my favorite topic: consent! From SWOP, I learned a lot about how sex workers face additional challenges from law enforcement in reporting rape, and also that many cities have or are considering creating laws that would allow law enforcement to assume a person was soliciting based solely on what she is wearing and where she is standing. Alarming!

I was too tired to attend the after party and after-after-party, so I got a Slurpie (7-11s everywhere in Chicago!) and took a nap. It was a sexy fun day, and I ran into some organizers planning to bring SlutWalk to my hometown of Madison! Stay tuned for more info on that as it becomes available.

I’d love to hear your comments/questions! And remember:

“Women’s rights under attack? What do we do?

STAND UP! FIGHT BACK!”

On SlutWalks And Sisterhood

13 May

Slutwalks, Sisterhood and Safety: Divided We Fall

I am relatively new to Twitter, and my head is SPINNING following the discussion around #slutwalks.

The Background: What is a SlutWalk?

In January 2011, a Toronto police officer addressed law students at a safety presentation saying “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this, however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Although he after a massive public outcry, his comments are part of a larger problem—1) That people mistakenly believe that rape has anything to do with what the victim is wearing, 2) That victims are routinely blamed for crimes committed against them while perpetrators are routinely defended and 3) That we as a society have consistently used words like ‘slut’ to shame women and attempt to control female sexuality to ever-changing standards of what is seen by whoever speaks loudest as ‘normal’ and ‘appropriate’.

In response to these issues, activists   on April 3, 2011 in the first SlutWalk, an international movement. Many activists have identified SlutWalk as an updated version of (TBTN) rallies.

TBTN marches (since the first in Philadelphia in 1975) demand an end to rape, so that the streets and the night will be safe for all. Many in the sexual assault prevention field have criticized TBTN as out of date because we now know that the VAST majority (75-85%) of sexual assault is perpetrated by someone the victim knows, often in a home and often involving alcohol use on the part of the perpetrator and/or the victim. The scenario rarely involves a strange attacker jumping out of the shadows.

SlutWalks, in contrast, aim to communicate that rape is part of a rape culture– and that culture needs to change. More specifically, a culture that says that women who dress “a certain way” are “asking for it”. A culture in which the media reports on what an 11-year-old girl was wearing at the time of her gang rape, and adds how difficult the aftermath was for the perpetrators and their families.  A culture that perpetuates the idea that men are animals with no self control who can’t and won’t hear the word no if a woman is ‘dressed like a slut’ because she is too attractive or, more accurately, because she is not worthy of respect.

Since the recent , in which Jaclyn Friedman gave a truly poetic and inspiring which is quickly becoming a part of the history of this movement, there has been a backlash against SlutWalks as a form of activism, including from some feminists.

The Controversy: Why SlutWalks make many people uncomfortable

1)      Some people think SlutWalks are meant to encourage ‘sluttiness’

First of all, that is not the point of SlutWalks. The point, as one protester’s sign put it so well, is that “Sluts don’t cause rape. Rapists do.” The point is, when women get dressed to go for a date or to go have fun with their friends, they shouldn’t have to think to themselves, “Hmm, if I wear this, will people disrespect, harass and assault me?” Rather, they should think, “What do I feel good wearing?” regardless of whether or not their particular brand of personal expression is seen as acceptable by others.

Secondly, this plays into what activists refer to as ‘slut-shaming’, which Jaclyn Friedman denounces so beautifully. “Because the secret truth nobody wants you to know is that, using nearly any definition, there’s nothing wrong with being a slut. Not a thing. It’s OK to like sex … And as long as you’re ensuring your partner’s enthusiastic consent, and acting on your own sexual desires, not just acting out what you think someone else expects of you? There’s not a damn thing wrong with it.”

2)      Some feminists take issue with the word ‘slut’

I don’t think everyone involved in SlutWalks agrees on this point, but some have stated they want to reclaim or take back the word ‘slut’. Many feminists, myself included, do not believe that it is possible to reclaim words in this way, because you can’t reclaim what was never yours to begin with. Slut is a derogatory word with no male equivalent that has been systematically used to justify violence of all kinds. On the other hand, it is a word that gets people all riled up—and hey, there’s no such thing as bad press! Many activists argue that using such an incendiary word brings energy to the movement, and on this point I believe they are correct. How else did the fire spread so quickly? There are SlutWalks being organized all over the world right now. It’s been less than 2 months since the first event was organized and young activists can’t get enough. Some people may be upset, but the point is to raise awareness of the issue and boy, has it got people talking!

3)      Some people think that women only ‘dress like sluts’ because they think that is the only way to get attention and love, because they have poor self esteem, because they have been brainwashed by the media, etc.

This is not about why women dress the way they do. It’s about women’s right to dress however they wish without fearing harassment and violence. Also, I think it would be an incredibly arrogant for anyone to make the assumption that they know about a person’s inner desires based on how they dress.

4)      Some people are offended when women are not appropriately ashamed of their bodies and sexuality.

I don’t know what to say to these people other than, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

SO. This is the Twitter storm I have been following for the past week, and I’m getting so dizzy, I feel a little sick. Here’s why.

As well-known young feminist and writer Jessica Valenti asked during the : “Why don’t you spend more time attacking rape culture instead of young feminist activism?”

Indeed, anti-SlutWalk feminists and do seem to be quick to come down on the free expression of other women on this one… While I may agree that Wente and Dines may be missing the point from up there on their high horses—can’t we just agree to disagree?

I understand why activists are bristling at seeing their movement twisted in the media by those who would probably be better off doing some supportive shrugging and saying, “Hey, it’s not my thing and I don’t quite agree with the messaging, but good for them for getting young people engaged in raising awareness of sexual assault and double standards!” What I don’t understand is why the response to opposing viewpoints has often been catty and downright mean.

I’m reading posts and tweets that criticize others for making assumptions in one breath, and go on to make assumptions about that person in the next. I’d like to see some more sisterhood at play here. I’d like to see young activists reaching out to SlutWalk-opposed feminists and say, “Hey, I’m sorry you disagree with our activist expression, but I respect you for working to support women in your own way. It’s a free country and women have been silenced enough without us trying to silence you for disagreeing. Thanks for stirring up debate and upping our press coverage. Peace, sister!”

Because ever since the inception of the women’s movement, women have struggled to stand united. We’ve got more differences that we do similarities, as a group. The women’s movement struggled to include lesbians and women of color and working class women. Now it struggles to include both women who think women can dress however they want and use whatever words they want, and women who think there should be boundaries in how we dress and speak. All these women agree on equality and a woman’s right to live free from violence.

United we stand, divided we fall. Let’s get it together, sisters.

And for those of you in my neck of the woods, join me at on June 4! Stay tuned for photos and more from the event.

Childhood Sexual Abuse

31 Mar

This week the ran a cover story entitled , about a young woman whose father sexually abused her as a child. She and her mother found support through a local child advocacy center called .

We know that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually abused before the age of 18.

Those numbers may seem unreal to you, but those are the facts. If this is such an epidemic, why aren’t we hearing about it? There are many factors contributing to general silence and misinformation around this issue. Children have a hard time reporting their abuse, and when they do, they are not always believed. It is typical upon receiving an adverse reaction that a child will recant, saying they made up the allegations. Many times the abuser makes threats to harm the child or someone they love if they tell, or they convince the child that the abuse is their fault and that they will get in trouble if they tell.

Abusers are most often known and trusted. They look and act the same as anyone else. So how can you protect your children?

is an organization dedicated to educating individuals and organizations about preventing child abuse. They have compiled a wonderfully useful and detailed document that outlines .

April is . If you are able, please consider making a to your local .

Body Language And Consent

23 Mar

Thomas from wrote an excellent explaining new research that demonstrates that a non-verbal no is as clear as a verbal no.

This is particularly important when we consider the trauma response to sexual assault. An assault triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. I know I talk a lot about fighting, as a martial arts instructor, but the reality is that in that moment of intense stress, many victims freeze. Just because someone does not fight back does not mean that they gave consent. It also does not mean they deserved to be assaulted or were responsible for the attack in any way. Yet, in the few rape cases that go to trial, the most common defense is to assert that the encounter was consensual. This defense often focuses on what the victim did not do (ex. fight back, say no clearly or loudly or believably enough, etc.). Unfortunately, what they did do (in terms of non-verbal communication) would be hard to recreate in court. This new research is just one more piece of evidence supporting the fact that victims should be believed and that creepers know exactly what they are doing.

Sexual Assault Victim Advocacy School

10 Mar

I never thought I’d be going back to school so soon…

Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault () hosted the Sexual Assault Victim Advocacy School (SAVAS) this week. I was the only person in attendance who did not work directly with a sexual assault service provider or domestic violence shelter, and I learned a LOT.

This is just a short post with a simple message:

If you or someone you know has been the victim of a sexual assault, please contact your local . No matter how long ago the assault happened, no matter who you are (1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted by the age of 18), these agencies are here to help you. The people who do this work are so compassionate and knowledgeable, and they can connect you to any resources you may need. Even if you think your experience is “not a big deal,” you deserve to be heard.

I’ve really been blown away by the depth of expertise and caring of the women and I met this week. Check back frequently in the following weeks for some posts inspired by this training!

Sisterhood– There’s Safety in Numbers

21 Feb

I wanted to write about sisterhood, because it is very important to me. When I teach women’s self defense, this subject always comes up. Some of the most dangerous situations for women– emotionally and physically– are social situations. Parties, bars/clubs, work. These are the places where women face harassment and intimidation on a regular basis. In a world where women are bombarded with attacks of many kinds (disrespect, invasion of personal space, objectification, unrealistic body ideals, etc.), sisterhood is one of the most dependable defenses we have.

When I was in college, I was standing outside a party once with some of my girlfriends. We were chatting and sort of dancing to the music we could still hear coming from inside the house. Out of nowhere, this giant drunk creeper stumbled towards me with a creepy look and a “Heeeey…” I was not interested in talking to him and I know how that song and dance goes so I calmly replied, “You know, I’m talking with my girlfriends right now. I’m not interested.” He stepped closer and slurred, “But you were moving your hips…” I put my hand up and stepped back saying, “Yes, I was, and that was not an invitation of any kind.” He looked confused for a moment, then when he realized what had just happened he said, “BITCH,” and turned to walk away. Before I had time to process what he had said, one of my most petite friends busted out of our group to confront him. She tilted her face all the way up to look at him (he was literally 3 times her size) and she full out screamed in his face, “How DARE you speak to her like that?! She was PERFECTLY POLITE to you! You should be ASHAMED of yourself!! GET OUT OF HERE!!!” His eyes just about bugged out of his head and he looked at all of us looking at him and then he took her advice and got out of there. I may have had my physical safety under control, but my sister took care of me emotionally in that moment.

Another wonderful friend of mine moved to New York to teach, and she told me that one of the things she missed most about home were her girlfriends. One night she was out with some of her female coworkers at a bar and she had to brush off a creeper who, on top of the usual creepy stuff, said something really racist to her. Not only did the other women fail to stand up for her, but one of them started flirting with the creeper saying things like, “I don’t know what her problem is.”

What a difference. If my friend had said to me, “Wow, you were kind of bitchy to him,” instead of telling him off, how would I have felt? Unfortunately women still do this to each other. What is stopping us from forming sisterhood?

As I got thinking (and talking with some of my sisters) I realized it can be difficult to put your finger on exactly what sisterhood means. I Googled it, and most of the results had to do with or . These books (later movies) as well as the HBO series do seem to capture that intangible spirit of sisterhood. But that form of supportive female friendship is what one of my friends called sisterhood “with a little ‘s’.” Sisterhood with a big “S” has to do with Sexism with a big “S”. This has to do with systemic structures of inequality, not individual interactions.

Me with some of my fab soul sisters

So what does Sisterhood mean?

I’ve learned a lot about sisterhood from girlfriends like the ones in the stories above. I turned to some of my oldest friends for advice as I was drafting this post, and as usual they had some brilliant things to say. In particular, my dear who taught me not to use the B word questioned making a distinction between the big “S” and little “s”:

To me, they’re absolutely intertwined – the impulse to be kind to a friend or go out to lunch with a group of women IS about solidarity and it does fly in the face of sexist societal structures that tell us we can’t/shouldn’t trust each other, that other women are bitchy and we should turn to our boyfriends for truly fulfilling companionship. I mean, the personal is political, right?

The kind of female friendship represented by Sex and the City or any of those other cultural examples has deep roots in history, and when women carve out a safe physical and emotional sphere together, it leads to systemic change. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were best friends; they spent hours writing letters and discussing strategy while Susan changed Elizabeth’s babies. The consciousness raising circles of the second wave womens’ movement started as bridge clubs and book groups. I talked to a group of 80 year old women from the Dane County League of Women Voters who told me they originally joined the movement because it gave them a chance to talk to adults, to other women, during the day while they stayed home with their kids. So for my money, kinship among women is revolutionary on a systemic level, even more so today when we’re inundated with reality TV depicting “catfighting” and stories of women trying to tear each other down.

The that best describes what I’m after here is:

The solidarity of women based on shared conditions, experiences or concerns.

Now that is interesting. Solidarity. I happen to be located in Madison, WI and working 5 blocks down from the capitol in the middle of probably the largest and most historic we’ve seen here since the .

50,000 people protested outside the capitol

It has brought tens of thousands of people to the capitol day and night for the past eight days (today is day nine). My younger sister, actually, has slept in the capitol every night since this thing started. She’s an organizer. Anyway, people are calling this an “ideological war” or a “war on working families.” It is pretty bad out there. Understandably, people are upset, so they have banded together in solidarity to do something about it. I’ve been to the capitol for the protests, and it is truly amazing to see the sheer numbers.

Protestors at the Wisconsin capitol

Meanwhile, many journalists and bloggers are commenting on a that is happening at the same time. Even worker’s rights in Wisconsin has been called a In other news, the House of Representatives just voted to cut funding for , which, in addition to family planning services, offers preventative health care to millions of women who would otherwise be unable to afford it. (No federal funding goes towards abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or immediate danger to the mother.) It is in the hands of the Senate now.

Let me just be clear, before continuing, that I am not trying to make any sort of political statement about abortion. Planned Parenthood is an organization that focuses primarily on providing information and resources that prevent unwanted pregnancy. No unwanted pregnancy, no abortion. Yes, some clinics do provide abortion services but that is a very small part of what they do as an organization. They educate people to make informed decisions about their bodies, they provide access to contraception, and they provide check ups and preventative health care like STI and cancer screenings. I don’t think I’m being overly political when I say that Planned Parenthood is an organization that has devoted 90 years to protecting women’s health and safety and, as a woman, I like to know they are here for us.

Are women hitting the streets? Are we even our US senators? Do we recognize that even if we don’t use Planned Parenthood’s services, that we have “shared experiences, conditions or concerns” with women who do, just by the nature of being women? Flying in the face of this kind of Sisterhood, I know of at least who is working to tear Planned Parenthood down. Lila Rose is a 22-year-old anti-abortion activist who has led a smear campaign against the organization. I understand being opposed to abortion. I don’t understand throwing millions of women under the bus to further your own ideology. Especially from another woman.

When I was younger I would have hated that woman. Honestly, I have to fight the instinct now. One thing I have learned about Sisterhood is that part of it means not turning against other women, even when they do things you really don’t agree with or understand. That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree or fight for what you believe in. It just means that it’s important to have compassion for other women, no matter how different they may seem, because at the end of the day you and she face a lot of the exact same experiences. I try to have compassion for women with whom I disagree, like Lila Rose. I only wish she would have more compassion for the women and families who will be left with no back up plan if Planned Parenthood is destroyed.

I guess I have to end this the way I started it– with questions. What would the women who fought for our rights throughout history think of us today? Women came together over one issue after another to fight for the common good. When I look at the shockingly high rates of sexual assault against women in this country, I know the fight is not over. But where is the Sisterhood? Why is “feminism” a dirty word? Why do women disbelieve other women who report rape? Why do women call other women words that are designed to keep women down? I’d like to see women come together again around issues that affect us all. Poverty, racism, homophobia, domestic violence, etc.– If it affects some women, it affects all women. Why? Because we are sisters. So let’s act like it.

Keeper or “Creeper”?

23 Nov

85% of sexual assault is perpetrated by a friend, acquaintance or intimate partner. So how do we know who to trust? How can we tell the difference between flirtation and victimization? Here are some helpful guidelines:

1. Flirting feels fun. Creeping feels creepy.

It may sound obvious, but I often see women tolerating flirtation or relationships with “creepers” because they can’t understand why this person makes them feel creeped out.

Reasons we’re surprised they are creepy–

  • They are physically attractive
  • They are friends with our friends
  • They have not seemed creepy in the past
  • They are educated and/or have a good job
  • They do not seem physically aggressive
  • They are charming and complimentary
  • They offer to buy us things
  • Etc.

To put it simply: If it feels creepy, it is creepy. Listen to your instincts and avoid taking this situation further.

2. Respectful people respect what we say with our words AND our bodies.

If someone respects and cares about you, they will not touch you if you don’t want them to. They will listen to what you say, but you probably won’t need to say anything.  Why? A respectful person notices  if you tense up at their touch and immediately pulls away, whether or not you say you feel uncomfortable. Beyond that–they will not make you feel bad or guilty for not wanting to be touched.

Respectful people say:

“Can I kiss you?”

“Are you okay?”

“You don’t have to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Disrespectful people say:

“Come on, don’t you like me?”

“What’s wrong with you? Other women like this. Loosen up!”

Disrespectful touch is often used to exert physical control. Examples of this kind of touch include:

  • Leading you around by a hand on the small of your back
  • Holding you in place with an arm around your shoulder
  • Pulling you along by grabbing your wrist
  • Pushing you up against a wall
  • Picking you up and/or carrying you somewhere

These kinds of touch might look like “play”, but the important thing to remember is the context. Does it feel fun to YOU? If yes, then you are fine. If it makes you feel scared, embarrassed, out of control, belittled, or otherwise uncomfortable, then you can be sure you are being disrespected and you deserve better.

3. Healthy affection makes you feel wonderful about yourself. Unhealthy affection attacks your self esteem.

Sincere and caring compliments sound like:

“You look nice/pretty/beautiful/wonderful/etc.”

“I feel really lucky/happy/honored to be spending time with you.”

“You know what I like most about you? You make me laugh/You challenge me intellectually/You are so caring/etc.”

Unhealthy “compliments” are often degrading or controlling:

“Ooh, lookin’ good! I bet you really know how to work it.”

“You can’t wear that in public! All the men are going to want your body, and I want you all to myself!”

The good news is that there are a lot of wonderful caring people out there who will love you AND treat you with respect and caring. Don’t settle for anything less!

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