When someone you love does horrible things

Bill_Cosby_(2010)Like most children of the 80s, I grew up with Bill Cosby. I loved Fat Albert and Picture Pages. I adored The Cosby Show and sometimes wished I were a part of that family. I probably identified most with Vanessa, but I always wished I were more like Denise, cool and rebellious. I also grew up with family members who were racist, and I’m quite sure that Cosby played a part in me rejecting that racism. It’s not a stretch to say that he helped change the way white Americans viewed black Americans (though that in itself was also problematic).

Those who know me would say that I never lack for an opinion and I frequently talk about various issues of the day that have me all riled up. But I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet about this latest airing of Cosby’s dirty sexual assault laundry.

It’s not that I don’t believe the accusations. I do. Rather, I find myself overwhelmed with sadness and anger in a way that I wasn’t expecting. No one close to me has committed violence (that I’m aware of) so this is the first time I’ve had to face the reality that someone I’m fond of could do terrible things. My thoughts of Bill Cosby are inextricably entwined with laughter and warmth and love…and now also with betrayal and anger and hurt. It’s hard to know how to talk about that.

It helps me understand how people can be in denial about abusers. That doesn’t mean that the denial is acceptable, but I think I now have more compassion for the people who defend abusers or refuse to believe it. No one wants to believe that someone we love or respect is capable of such things. It’s too awful to accept, too painful. I understand that, and I also know we have to move past that and start holding abusers accountable.

In this situation, with a far-removed celebrity, there’s not much I can personally do, other than using it as a way to talk about the issues of sexual assault, a sexist culture that refuses to believe women, and the power of fame and fortune to override justice. But if and when it hits closer to home, I hope I move quickly through my instinct to deny and instead focus on what matters: believing and supporting survivors, seeking justice, and creating change.

Yes! No. Maybe?

Many people equate BDSM with abuse, but in fact that community can teach us a lot of great lessons about healthy relationships. You might be shaking your head in consternation right about now. But playing with power dynamics or intense bdsmphysical sensation is not the same as being abusive, violent, or controlling.

In one of my previous lives, I worked for several years as a sex educator for a feminist sex shop. While I was relatively open-minded, I had a lot to learn. Because even if I wasn’t particularly interested in something for myself, I had to be able to speak knowledgably and non-judgmentally with customers, many of whom were trusting me with vulnerable information. In any given week, I might help a 70-year-old woman who’d never had an orgasm or a 40-year-old man struggling to open up to his partner about his desires to explore role play.

I learned a lot, not just about sex but about communication and boundaries and consent and exploration and healthy relationships. All things that you need to engage successfully in BDSM.

Most people, especially when playing with a new partner, have a get-together where they chat about their yes/no/maybe list. The “yes” list is filled with all the activities you know you enjoy, the “no” list is all about the things you do not want under any circumstances. And the “maybe” list can include things you haven’t tried yet but might be interested in or things that might be okay in certain situations.

This list is one of my favorite tools, and anyone—any gender, any sexuality—can use it, regardless of what kinds of sex they like to have. It’s a great way to think about what your own desires are. And when you do it with a partner, you get to see where your interests overlap, where you might do some new exploration, and where the hard boundaries are. This is just one way to get to that “enthusiastic consent” that so many people are talking about right now.

Or you can do a yes/no/maybe list about other kinds of physical and emotional affection. “Holding hands in public—yes! Hand on my neck—nope. Deep kisses—maybe, but only if we’re in a private place.” For survivors of abuse, this can be a useful bridge to regaining ownership of their bodies and their desires. Being explicit about what is and isn’t okay can help avoid triggering incidents and make them feel safer.

Using the list might seem a little silly or even boring, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. If you find yourself tongue-tied when talking about what you want, it can be a great way to lay your cards on the table ahead of time, when you’re more able to think clearly. Give it a try!

Giving degrees the third degree

I recently came across this article about a woman who had lied on her resume about her education. Of course lying about such things is not ethical or wise—but I think this is an excellent opportunity to look at the misplaced emphasis our society has on college degrees.

job-descriptionAccording to the article, she did her job quite well and was well-liked and respected. She made significant improvements and added value to her workplace for almost thirty years. So, does that one lie mean more than her good work?

Many organizations automatically require a four-year degree for every job (even the ones paying minimum or near-minimum wage), often for no particular reason. There have been jobs I’ve been disqualified from despite having the exact work experience needed, simply because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. I can understand the temptation to lie, the frustration of not being able to get your foot in the door despite your qualifications.

Requiring college degrees bolsters inequity and discrimination. Think about who does and doesn’t have access to college. For instance, we know that abuse is a huge disruptor to domestic violence victims’ lives, including their attempts at education or getting a better job. Abusers may actively sabotage victims’ efforts to study or attend classes. And for victims who’ve had to take the extreme measure of obtaining a new identity, they may not be able to even acknowledge college degrees, if they have them.

My friend Laura Pritchard Wirkman runs Sharehouse (it’s like a food bank, but for furniture and household items) so job access and economic justice are already on her radar. She’s managed to revise the job descriptions there: “I try to talk to other management-types about this as much as possible and always encourage them to question the education requirement for any position,” she says. “If it’s not a specialized position that literally necessitates a degree or license, then the next question should always be: ‘Does direct or related experience make up for (or even outweigh) a degree?’”

If you have any authority over job descriptions at your workplace, talk with your colleagues about your standard requirements. Look at each job and actually think about whether applicants need to have a four-year degree. You could be weeding out qualified candidates and inadvertently discriminating against domestic violence victims and other marginalized groups of people.

Boys do cry

I want more men crying. On television. Particularly straight men. Not because I’m mean-spirited, but because I don’t want to be so surprised when I do see it. It bums me out that in our culture as a whole, men’s grief and other vulnerable emotions are undervalued and even mocked.

mancryingWhen something tragic happens to a male character—like their wife dying or their girlfriend breaking up with them—I want to see crying portrayed as the normal response. Think about it: when you’re watching any sort of television drama, the husband/boyfriend of a murder victim is sort of slightly sad, at most.

We regularly see women on television crying or being emotional when horrible things happen. Don’t men deserve the same full range of emotion? The rare times we do see a man cry, it’s generally used to show that he is weak. The show may even go so far as to portray him as laughable, effeminate, or worthy of derision by the other characters. The end result is that when we see men crying in real life, it can make us uncomfortable.

As I was writing this, I Googled “men crying.” The results are pretty telling: the top five all reinforce the idea that a man crying is unusual at best and unnatural at worst.

google

It hasn’t always been this way: tears are as influenced by culture as they are by biology. Other time periods have been much more accepting and even celebratory of men’s emoting, according to historian Tom Lutz.

When musician Pharrell recently cried during an interview, it made headlines and prompted hundreds of blog posts. And why shouldn’t he cry? He was discussing the success he’s had in his life, the importance of his grandma who helped him get there, and the impact of the song “Happy” on people all over the world. Those are a lot of complex, overwhelming emotions and I loved seeing him express them.

So here’s to more images of men crying! When we value the full range of emotion in all people and recognize that masculinity and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive, we set people up to have healthy and fulfilling relationships.

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Catalyst for change: Shirley Chisholm

“At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.” – Shirley Chisholm

471604-01-main-270x350The late, great Shirley Chisholm was recently commemorated with a stamp, so I decided an in-person trip to the Post Office was in order. As I placed my order at the counter, the woman next to me asked who this Shirley Chisholm was. I’m always surprised at how few people seem to know about her. So I’m taking the opportunity to spread the word here.

It is often hard to wholeheartedly admire a politician, but Chisholm is one that I do. When I watched the 2005 documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, I was captivated by her dynamic presence and unwavering vision. As I learned more about her, I couldn’t help but wish that we had more politicians and leaders like her.

She represented New York’s 12th Congressional district for fourteen years, prioritizing issues of poverty, education, and women’s health and reproductive freedom. She deliberately hired women for all of her office positions, half of whom were black women. She was whip smart and had the ability to incisively cut to the heart of the matter; at the same time, she was also known for being warm and kind, with a great sense of humor.

Among her many notable accomplishments:

  • She served on the Education and Labor Committee. She worked on a bill to give domestic workers the right to minimum wage, worked to revoke the Internal Security Act of 1950 (a McCarthy-era holdover), and pushed for increased spending on social services, education, and health care. She authored the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which would have implemented a national childcare system; it passed the House and the Senate but was unfortunately vetoed by Nixon.
  • She taught politics and women’s studies at Mount Holyoke and Spelman, after her retirement from Congress.

In her own words, “I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”

Geeks making a difference

One of the things that I love about anti-violence work is that anyone can do it, anytime, anyplace. You don’t need to have special training or education to start addressing the issue (though I’m always impressed by and thankful for those folks who’ve gone deeper in their learning).

Case in point: cons. For those who don’t know, cons are fan conventions, most frequently focused on things like comics, gaming, sci-fi/fantasy, etc. Probably the most well-known con is Comic-Con in San Diego, but we have several cons right here in our own backyard, like Sakura Con, PAX Northwest, and GeekGirlCon (full disclosure: I am a volunteer staffer for GeekGirlCon). Cons are a fun way to connect with others who share your geeky interests, show off your cosplay, and maybe even meet some of your favorite artists/designers/actors/writers/etc.

hollaback-coverUnfortunately, cons—like the larger world—can often feel unwelcoming and sometimes even dangerous to women, to LGBTQ folks, to people of color, and others. A little bit of internet searching will bring up plenty of stories and history that I won’t go into here, because what I really want to focus on is what people are doing in response—actions people are taking to make things better!

HollabackPHILLY partnered with artist Erin Filson to create the anti-street harassment comic book Hollaback: Red, Yellow, Blue. They use the comic in workshops addressing street harassment, as well as starting conversations about harassment at cons and in the gaming community.

Con or Bust helps people of color/non-white people attend sci-fi and fantasy conventions, with the goal of increasing ethnic and racial diversity at these events. While this work may not seem to some folks like it is directly addressing harassment, it actually makes a big difference to have larger numbers of folks who are typically underrepresented.

WisCon, GeekGirlCon, and BentCon all took a slightly different approach: they decided to make their own darn cons, focusing on feminism in speculative fiction, women in all aspects of geekdom, and queer geekery, respectively. This type of DIY convention helps create safer spaces, and the effects of those safer spaces often ripples out into the larger, more mainstream cons.

Author John Scalzi wrote about why he won’t attend cons that don’t have anti-harassment policies. He used his influence as a popular writer to take a firm and principled public stand. Not only that, he opened it up for other individuals and organizations to co-sign on his policy—to date, well over 1,000 people have co-signed.

I know these examples are just scratching the surface; please share any additions (or other thoughts) in the comments below!

It’s National Coming Out Day!

390x420_ComingOutDay-KeithHaringtPerhaps in this age of increasing support for gay rights, marriage equality laws, and the oh-so-popular Ellen, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a need for this day anymore.

But it is needed.

We talk a lot about community and relationships here, on this blog and in the work we do throughout the state. Part of what makes a relationship healthy is integrity, right? If you’re not able to be your full, honest self due to safety concerns or worries about being cast out of your community, what kind of relationship is that? Not much of one, in my book.

Being out actually relates quite intimately to domestic violence. Abusers will often use sexuality and gender identity against their partners and threaten to out them to their families or employers. This is particularly the case for trans women and men: someone who has transitioned may not have told their employers about their past (partly because it’s really none of their business, but also because they may be fired because of it). Additionally, abusers may use their partner’s identity as a way to belittle and humiliate them (“you’re not a ‘real’ woman, no one else would ever want you” or “I know you’ll just leave me for a man”).

When you consider the disproportionately higher rate of unemployment AND higher rates of domestic violence (and all other forms of violence) for trans folks, particularly trans women (and even more particularly, trans women of color), you can see how this would make someone feel trapped in an abusive relationship.

Although the reality is that some people need to remain closeted for their own safety, coming out is still a powerful, vulnerable, and important act. Coming out helps put a human face on issues like  homophobia and transphobia. Coming out helps create a domino effect, allowing more and more people to be an integrated, authentic part of their communities.

Men, you have the bridge

patrickstewartStar Trek: The Next Generation began when I was twelve; always a sucker for fantasy and sci-fi, I remember watching it, and the spin-offs, avidly. Twenty-five years later, the writing can often feel heavy-handed and stiff (not to mention sometimes downright offensive), but I still enjoy the shows—and Sir Patrick Stewart’s acting chops (especially as compared to most of his cast mates, bless ’em) as the fearless and capable Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

I’ve known for a few years now that Stewart identifies as a feminist, and that he has spoken out about issues of domestic violence, due in part to his own family history. I’ve written before about the role of men in ending domestic violence, and Stewart is an outstanding example of this. He is not just talking the talk, he is walking the walk. He uses his considerable celebrity in service to domestic violence organizations in his own country, and he doesn’t hold back when it comes to discussing the issues publicly whenever he can.

With this video, my sci-fi-world and my domestic-violence-movement-world collided, in the best way. At the Comicpalooza convention in May, an audience member commended him for his work on domestic violence and asked him what he was most proud of achieving, other than acting. In his response, he eloquently makes connections between his personal experiences, the need for safety for survivors of domestic violence, the role men must play in ending violence, and the lasting impacts of war and PTSD on soldiers. It’s well worth the seven minutes—if you’re anything like me, you may find there’s something in your eye, probably more than once. Sniff. And big kudos to the survivor who asked him the question and shared her story!

Keeping pets safe keeps people safe

A few weeks ago, I shipped one of our In Her Shoes training kits to an animal shelter in California. In my year and a half of doing product sales, I’ve never seen an order from an animal shelter. As a big-time animal lover (seriously, don’t ask me about my dog unless you want alllll the details), I was curious. Turns out they have a special program (the Animal Safehouse Program) for fostering the pets of domestic violence survivors, giving their furry friends a safe place to stay so their human can get safe. The animal shelter is planning to use the training with other shelters and animal control officers, who often witness domestic abuse. Many studies have shown that dogshelterabusers also abuse pets as a means to control, punish, and frighten victims.

This warms my heart to no end. Many domestic violence shelters do not allow pets—which is understandable—but that’s often a deterrent for someone worried about their pet. When I think about the connection I have to my dog, I know there’s no way I could ever leave him behind.

If you love animals and want to help support survivors, you can do something to make a positive impact in your community. Does your local domestic violence shelter allow pets and/or work with animal shelters to coordinate services? Does your local animal shelter or veterinarian have a temporary foster program for survivors of abuse? Find out and get involved!

Where are the men?

menarerapists

One of my tasks at WSCADV is to compile all the feedback we get at our annual conference. I actually look forward to it—I love reading both the praise and the critical feedback. I love that people care enough to let us know what they really think, even when it’s not always positive. After our last conference, one comment made my briskly typing fingers pause: “Where are all the men?” She went on to list her concerns that she believed she’d gotten involved in a movement that hated and devalued men (I’m paraphrasing here), which was not what she’d signed up for.

My knee-jerk reaction was dismissal. How ridiculous! Everyone working in this movement knows and loves men somewhere in their lives—it felt like she was trotting out that tired old saw about man-hating feminists again. But then I paused and thought about it: it’s actually a really great question. Where are the men? Our conference attendees reflect people working in domestic violence programs across the state. While there are men working in these organizations, advocates are overwhelmingly women. But if we have any hope of real, lasting change and eradicating domestic violence, men have to be involved—deeply. It just isn’t possible any other way.

To that end, I want to highlight just a few men and male-led initiatives that I’m aware of. This has been a pretty rough time with all the violence in the news, and I think we need to hear stories of men—and everyone—who are doing good work in their communities.

  • Tony Porter and A Call To Men: I first heard of Tony Porter through his engaging, powerful appearance on TED Talks. I love the way he challenges us to envision new ways of “acting like a man.”
  • Men Stopping Violence: Part of their mission is to “dismantle belief systems, social structures and institutional practices that oppress women and children and dehumanize men themselves.” In other words, they are focused on getting to the root of the problem.
  • Men Against Rape and Sexism: There isn’t one core national organization, but versions of this exist on many campuses across the U.S. The group at the University of Minnesota was my first exposure to men who were actively working towards ending violence against women.

Please feel free to list others in the comments, and to share your thoughts on how men can be allies to the movement to end violence.