One of the things we have to fear is fear itself

sandy-hookPart of the experience of parenting these days is the constant background noise of worry. News and social media, endlessly fascinated with danger, feed a steady stream of warning about the perils waiting for our children.

After the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, that low hum of worry turned up to full-volume fear for parents across the country. I felt it too, the gut wrenching, full body chill that comes with imagining the worst. But honestly, I was not afraid for my kids’ safety. I know that violence in schools is very rare and that by most measures kids are safer now than ever.

What I did genuinely worry about is the impulse to react to our fear and vulnerability with ever-increasing “security measures.” Armed guards in schools, more locked doors, fingerprints and background checks for parents.

I’m not naive about violence, but my experience has shown me that we can’t keep danger on the other side of a locked door. I know my children live in a world with abusers and rapists. I know that some people do terrible things to children. I know that I can’t tell by looking which man in the park or on the bus would hurt one of them if he had the chance. Just like I don’t know which guy at the gym or which little league dad is beating his wife at home. I live in a neighborhood where it is not uncommon to hear gunshots. Yet I believe that most of the violence is committed inside locked doors by people who belong there.

When it comes to protecting kids from harm by the people they trust, increased “security” is worse than useless. It actually makes our kids—and all of us—less safe. Tight security undermines connection and community—the very things that are most important to kids’ safety, health, and happiness. This letter from a mom to her child’s preschool points out how. My kids’ school, like many, held a meeting for parents about students’ safety in the days after the Sandy Hook shooting. Some of the concern, of course, was about school security, sign-in procedures, etc. But I was grateful that most of the focus was on how to re-commit to strengthening our connection as a community. Resisting fear, breaking isolation, looking out for each other—safety from the inside out.

This is what masculinity looks like

Perhaps ill-advisedly, I spent last Sunday afternoon at a dance performance with two of my sons. It was an unusually busy weekend, there was laundry and homework to do, and frankly neither of the boys was wild about the idea of sitting quietly in a theater for two hours. But I persisted, and we went.

The show was Men in Dance—a festival held every two years showcasing a wide variety of dance from classical to contemporary. All of the performers are men and boys. What I love about watching these dances is the sheer range of expression and styles. Some performances are tender and romantic, some funny, some bursting with energy and power.

It is tricky raising boys to be men in a culture that tolerates and celebrates men’s violence, and in which that violence does so much damage. One of the challenges is this: how do we teach boys to be conscious of and critical of violence, and at the same time to love and be proud of themselves, when the culture teaches them that violence is something essential about who they are?

I think what moves me about watching these dances is that it feels like a glimpse of liberated masculinity, what men can be outside of the “man box.” And I don’t mean just because men are defying macho stereotypes by dancing. That’s true, but it is only the surface. The dancers embody masculinity that stretches into a wide expanse of human experience, far beyond that narrow range of emotion typically recognized as manly. It is a celebration of men and male bodies. A display of strength and beauty without domination or objectification. Athleticism and skill without winners and losers. I want those models of manliness for my sons, but they are not easy to come by.

I’m leaving my boys for a few days later this week to join in a series of conversations about healthy masculinity. The Healthy Masculinity Action Project envisions a world where “Every man can be strong without being violent. Every man can make the world a better place.” Rejecting violence is only a first step. The conversations I hope to have are about how we get beyond that to a kind of masculinity that is worth celebrating. How we embody it an authentic way, recognize it in each other, and make it accessible to everybody. I know what it is like to grow up with no visible image of the kind of man I wanted to be, so I know it is possible to make it up on your own. I don’t know yet how to make that vision real for my boys and all of our sons, but I am excited to be with other people trying to figure it out.

Reproductive justice

We rarely talk about unintended pregnancy as one of the consequences of domestic violence. But of course it is. Rape and coerced sex are a very, very common part of survivors’ experience. Most of us assume that pregnancies are either intended or “accidents.” But that doesn’t account for the kind of rape that happens in abusive relationships, or the host of tactics batterers use to control when and how their partners get pregnant: forcing her to have unprotected sex; pressuring her to get pregnant; refusing to use condoms; sabotaging her birth control.

According to the CDC, 1 in every 21 women in the U.S. has had a partner try to get her pregnant against her will. Women and teen girls with abusive husbands or boyfriends are five times more likely than other women to get pregnant when they don’t want to be. These are not accidents—there is no better way for an abuser to secure the financial and legal bonds that make it much more difficult to leave safely and nearly impossible to leave completely.

Recent political conversations about “legitimate rape” are willfully ignorant not just of medical science, but of women’s experience. Women choose abortion for many complex reasons, among them rape and battering. For some women, ending a pregnancy is the safest and most life affirming choice they can make. Access to abortion and emergency contraception is fundamental. But it is not enough.

Reproductive justice means defending women’s control over their own bodies and at the same time fighting for the resources communities need to support families. A woman can’t truly have free choice without the conditions that allow her to raise a child with dignity: relationships free from violence and coercion, quality health care, economic opportunity, access to education, safe and affordable housing, strong neighborhoods, clean water and air. We should channel some of our anger over politicians’ comments about rape into demanding policies that value all women, children, and families.

Let’s raise the bar

Lately I have been thinking about efforts to get men and boys involved in working to end domestic violence and sexual assault. There is a lot of good work happening now, but I wonder how many of us—of all genders—really expect men to be full partners in ending violence against women? How many of us still are surprised when a man speaks up against a rape joke, or shows empathy for a survivor of domestic violence? Can we imagine a world in which it was not just expected but obvious that most men would do these things (even when no women are around)?

I expect men to care about ending battering and rape for pretty much the exact same reasons women do. Because rape violates victims’ basic human rights. Because the threat of violence constricts women’s freedom and creativity and joy. Because men and boys’ fear of each other gets in the way of real intimacy. Because battering and rape are spiritual poison to people who batter and rape. Because violence at home tears communities apart. Because we can’t achieve any other kind of justice while women are silenced and terrorized.

Because men are human beings. Because women are human beings.

Simple enough. But talking about men’s work to end violence is not so simple. Too often I hear messages that tell men we should not rape and batter because “real men” don’t. Because men are meant to be powerful — protectors and providers for women who can’t (or shouldn’t have to) protect and provide for themselves. Those expectations might inspire men to stop hurting women (I have my doubts), but meanwhile they reinforce the idea that men are in control.

On the other hand, the bar is set so low for men it’s embarrassing. When it comes to being involved in anti-violence work, men are congratulated just for showing up, and called heroes for doing just about anything more than that.

What do you want to say to men and boys about ending men’s violence? What do you expect from men? What do you hope we can achieve together?

No safety without sovereignty

The debate in Congress is still raging over whether to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). One of the major points of conflict between the champions of the bipartisan Senate bill and the deeply flawed Republican House version is over the power Indian tribes have to investigate and prosecute domestic violence crimes.

The Senate bill would restore Indian tribes’ ability to prosecute non-Indians who assault their Indian spouses or domestic partners. Dating back to the much-criticized 1978 Supreme Court case Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe, only the federal government can prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians on tribal land. The decision was a disaster for tribes’ ability to protect their communities.

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The vast majority of violent crimes against Native women are committed by non-Indian men, and current law leaves a gaping hole in accountability for abusers and protections for victims. Tribes do not have the authority to hold these offenders accountable, and the federal government does not have the resources or the will. Federal authorities decline to prosecute 46% of assaults and 67% of sexual abuse cases in Indian country.

Violence against Native women is at epidemic levels, and has been for many years. A new CDC study shows that 46% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have been raped, physically assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner. In Washington State, Native women are killed by husbands and boyfriends at nearly three times the rate of white women.

Safety for victims of violence and sovereignty for tribes go hand in hand. Some VAWA opponents are using misinformation and scare tactics to try to minimize the extent of violence against Native women and deny tribes the tools to confront it. Tuesday, June 26th will be a National Day of Action to support the real VAWA and its long overdue protections for Native women.  Make sure your representatives know where you stand.

Thank you Mr. President

President Obama is finally out of the closet. Last week, after years of dropping hints, he became the first president to declare his belief that “same sex couples should be able to get married.” New clarity and leadership is especially welcome as North Carolina becomes the thirtieth state to adopt a constitutional amendment banning marriage between same sex partners. So it seems like a good time for a refresher on why gay marriage matters (not just for gays!), and why Washingtonians should be paying attention.

  1. For better or worse (get it?), marriage is a really important civil and cultural institution. Denying GLBT people access to the civil right to marry cuts deeper than the rights themselves. It communicates that GLBT people are not equally valued or protected by law. And that makes us more vulnerable to violence at home and on the street.
  2. The anti-gay agenda is not just anti-gay. In North Carolina and 19 other states, the marriage amendment not only bans same sex marriage, but any type of civil union that is not marriage. Among other lost benefits, domestic violence and stalking protections may no longer apply to unmarried partners, gay or straight. When Ohio passed a similar amendment, courts denied domestic violence protections to survivors for two years until the state Supreme Court settled the issue.
  3. We’re all being played. Strategy memos from the National Organization for Marriage don’t mince words: “The strategic goal…is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies.” This isn’t just about defeating gay marriage; it is about using homophobia and racism to keep people divided from each other and politically weak.

Marriage equality is likely to be on the ballot in Washington State this November. We have the chance to be the first state to defend marriage equality by popular vote. I’m ready for us to make history.

Building dignity

My introduction to the domestic violence movement was as a volunteer in a battered women’s shelter. It was founded in 1976, just a few years after the first battered women’s shelter in the U.S. It was a product of its time. We were explicit about our feminist politics. We saw our work as part of a larger agenda for justice that took on patriarchal power, institutional racism and state violence, and all forms of oppression and domination.

The shelter itself was a hundred-year-old house, with every available nook and cranny made into space for another bunk bed or more towels or canned food. We were scrappy and resourceful. We didn’t turn anyone away.

On the other hand, it didn’t occur to me back then to think about how our physical space set up survivors to have very limited control over their lives day in and day out. Multiple stressed-out families sharing bedrooms, too few bathrooms, and one small kitchen inevitably led to conflict, and then rules intended to manage the conflict, and then conflict over the rules. Not exactly a recipe for liberation.

Advocates in Washington State have been thinking about how to change shelter for the better. The result? Building Dignity: Design Strategies for Domestic Violence Shelter, a web-based tool-kit for making shelter spaces that help support our mission.

For me, watching this work unfold was a kind of revelation. The kind where you hear an idea for the first time and it instantly seems completely obvious. Shelter is a life-saving refuge. But our hope and vision has always been that shelter is more than a place for women to flee from danger. It is also a launching pad into a life after abuse. A place to restore dignity, reclaim choices, and rebuild relationships that have been eroded by violence. Building Dignity is chock full of creative and practical ideas to make this happen.

Seeing pink

When the news broke last week that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation would stop funding cancer screening at Planned Parenthood, the internet ran pink with shock and outrage. Outrageous, absolutely. But shocking?

Much has been made of the fact that the decision came shortly after Karen Handel became Komen’s Senior VP for Policy. Just a glance back at Handel’s unsuccessful campaign for Governor of Georgia takes the surprise out of the Komen decision. What should be shocking, outrageous, and frankly unthinkable is that an organization dedicated to women’s health would choose a leader with a political agenda that undermines that work. Handel “doesn’t support Planned Parenthood’s mission.” Have you read Planned Parenthood’s mission? It has to do with “the fundamental right of each individual, throughout the world, to manage his or her fertility, regardless of the individual’s income, marital status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, national origin, or residence.”

It is that mission―supporting men and women to make informed choices about their sexuality and reproduction―that is under attack. Last week’s decision by Komen, like the vast majority of the political bullying directed at Planned Parenthood, had nothing to do with abortion. Abortion is the sharp point of the wedge that divides us from the people that ought to be allies; it is the tip of a big, ugly political iceberg. The bulk of the agenda beneath the surface is anti-birth control, anti-sex education, anti-sexual freedom, anti-self-determination, anti-woman, and anti-gay. Whether or not it is explicitly racist and anti-immigrant, it is people of color and immigrants who get hit the hardest.

So Komen quickly reversed its decision in response to the enormous backlash. Good. But I for one hope that it is not so easy to regain support from breast cancer survivors and women’s health advocates. I hope the many thousands of runners and walkers and fundraisers Komen relies on won’t let the foundation retreat into safe, apolitical territory where breast cancer awareness is an uncontroversial brand with a massive pink product line. Because women’s health is political. Cancer is political, and so are toxic chemicals, and the corporations producing them, and those corporations’ money. The collective gut reaction of anger and disgust at the Planned Parenthood decision should remind us to connect the dots between access to health care and sexual freedom and environmental justice and racial justice. And demand that any organization that claims to honor women’s lives does the same.

Girls in sports

I was planning on writing this blog post about the Lingerie Football League and its recent announcement of plans to start a youth league. (In case you haven’t heard of the LFL, yes, it’s just what it sounds like.) I was going to rant a little bit about the mind-bending absurdity of claiming to strike a blow for girls’ empowerment by grooming them to play football in their underwear just as soon as it’s legal. Or how despicable it is that this “league” claims to break barriers for women while dismissing its players’ requests for basic safety equipment.

But then I realized I was falling for the oldest trick in the book. Curtis Cartier at the Seattle Weekly blog got it just right. This youth lingerie thing is a red herring calculated to stir up controversy―a.k.a. publicity―for an organization that really deserves less attention, not more. So, I’m not going to talk about that after all.

Instead, I’ll just say this. Giving girls real, meaningful opportunities in sports is important. Most girls still aren’t taught to develop their physical strength and skill as fully as most boys are. (In fact, research shows girls are actually trained to make themselves weaker.)  As of this morning, the top Google results for “girls in sports” include “hot girls in sports,” “hot Olympic girls,” and plenty of pictures of naked women. In order to change that we need to teach girls to value their bodies’ strength and agility for their own achievement, their own freedom, their own joy―not men’s entertainment or profit.

Something old, something new

This week falls between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  This time of year in the Jewish calendar is focused on renewal, repair, and justice. Drop into any synagogue this week and you’re likely to hear a call to work for “tikkun olam” – a value often translated as “repair of the world” and used to invoke a broad array of social justice work.

I learned something new recently about the origins of the idea of tikkun olam.  One of the earliest uses of the phrase in rabbinic literature is from the 2nd century C.E. These rabbis were addressing a loophole in traditional divorce law that was a threat to women. Occasionally a man would serve his wife with divorce papers, and then rescind the divorce without her knowledge. If she went on to marry someone else, the second marriage would be illegitimate, jeopardizing her legal status and the status of any children of that marriage. The ancient rabbis ruled that a man could not cancel a divorce once the decree had been delivered to his wife, and cited tikkun olam as the reason for the change.  They recognized that this misuse of civil law – though technically legal – threatened the integrity of the system as a whole.

I was astounded at how much this nearly two thousand-year-old legal issue sounds like stories we hear from advocates today. Abusive men are still finding ways to manipulate the legal system to punish their ex-wives. Children suffer when they are used as tools to control their mother. Women are not getting “renewal, repair, and justice” in court.

These are problems that seem as intractable today as ever. Yet our challenge is to continue to bring new energy, creativity, and passion to fixing them.  Where do you get the inspiration to find new ways to right ancient wrongs?