Scorched Earth

I was thinking about a man I know. He’s a bully and on a scale of one to ten, he’s a solid ten jerk. You know him too.

He’s been married four times. Has many, many children—mostly boys. And now his children are having children and carrying on their dad’s tradition of being irresponsible fathers.

This man is marching through life burning everything in his path. His reach and influence are deadening to those in his inner circle, maddening to those of us sitting a few rings out—and legendary in the community. This man’s thousands of twins (including his brothers in the NFL) have the same impact.

© photo by Johsel Namkung
© photo by Johsel Namkung

I’m tempted to focus on the amazing resilience of this man’s families and the others he has impacted, and broaden that to the resilience of the human body and spirit. After all, what happens after a fire? The wildflowers sprout and the trees re-emerge. Right?

But I’m not going there.

Life calls upon us to be resilient enough with unavoidable  illness, loss, and death. What I’m calling out is all the avoidable illness, loss, and death. All the damage done by bullies, rapists, batterers is damage of their own making—it is all under their control and therefore they can prevent it from happening. So, why don’t they?

In trying to make some sense out of this, I revisited a “fireside chat” that my boss Nan Stoops gave earlier this year. It’s long, but if you skip to 16:30 you get to the meat of a pretty darned brilliant commentary that sheds some light on why the bully in my circle keeps on destroying.

Briefly, I believe Nan’s view is that for better or worse, the gigantic movement of mostly women working to end violence against women developed ideas that focused on women’s victimization, and not on men’s violence. And we placed the responsibility for ending violence on individuals and families, not on communities.

Imagine what would have happened if my bully was required to go to a shelter, rather than his wives and children fleeing. What if rather than putting him in jail, we had every institution guide—and if necessary shame—him when he behaved in arrogant and mean ways? What if everyone, everywhere just said “don’t talk to her that way.” And “How about you join this group and take this class on being a great dad?” What if my bully had to answer for himself over and over again?

If no isn’t an option, yes has no meaning

I am always amazed at what a difficult concept consent seems to be. She asked for it, she started the argument, she was into making out, what did she think was going to happen if she went there/did that …. are all variations on the theme of “she consented” and used to try to confuse our understanding of rape and intimate partner violence.

Most recently, I was shocked and repulsed at Ariel Castro’s gall in asserting that “there was harmony” in his home, and that much of the sex he had with the three women he had imprisoned was “consensual” and besides, the women weren’t virgins anyway. When I heard this on NPR, I began yelling “What the F?” in my car. Fortunately I was alone.

The good news is, it seems like most people reacted like I did, and that was heartening.

How is it that someone can be so confused about what constitutes “harmony” and consent that they can say with a straight face that it existed in that situation. Castro is an extreme case, but I suspect that one of the reasons he was able to convince himself of this is because it is generally consistent with the purposefully confusing and blurred picture men in particular get about female consent.

In other words, it’s not that far out of normal, and that is the scary part. Blurring the idea of consent plays out in all sorts of ways in our culture. And it is useful because it helps the dominant group pretend/ignore/claim that the subjugated group isn’t really being oppressed, but that they actually CHOSE or consented to their situation. This alleviates their responsibility to grapple with what relationships would look like if each person truly had equal value, dignity, and respect.

So in the interest of clarity, let me explain something about consent.

It is really quite simple: if a person can’t freely say no, then yes (or silence) has no meaning. Yes only means something if NO is a real—no negative consequences— possibility, something one can say free of the fear of violence, force, humiliation, murder, homelessness, loss of economic security, the safety of one’s children. If NO is dangerous, then YES is empty. It’s not consent.

Consent-Flowchart

The hidden cost of surviving gun violence

We bring you this guest post from Courtney Weaver, a local domestic violence survivor.

Photo by SevenSeven Photography
Photo by SevenSeven Photography

On January 15th, 2010 I was shot by my boyfriend point blank with a hollow-point .45. He was sentenced to 10.6 years in a federal prison in California. I have had 13 reconstructive surgeries on my face and right arm, hundreds of doctor appointments, and debt totaling at $440,605 as of May 2013. My ex, as is common with many perpetrators, has chosen not to work nor receive money while incarcerated to avoid paying restitution. This in turn has left me financially crippled and unable to rebuild my life.

One of the most insulting realities survivors like myself grapple with that most people are unaware of is how little victim compensation programs actually pay for. For instance, I was shocked and dismayed when I was left to clean up my own crime scene. Not much is more degrading than having to scrub my own dried blood off my kitchen floor 3 weeks after the shooting. Also, my landlord informed me I would have to pay for the damages caused by the bullet holes in my apartment or I would not get my security deposit back. Unfortunately that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the injustices I have faced as a survivor of such a horrific act of violence.

There is a very large discrepancy between how much compensation is allotted to a victim of a violent crime versus how much the perpetrator of that crime receives annually in state tax dollars. The numbers are very surprising and also telling of how society and the system supports the abuser while re-victimizing the victim. For example, my compensation was limited to $70,422 by the state program. The perpetrator on the other hand is given approximately $47,000 a year of tax payer dollars, $12,442 of that being in healthcare alone including mental health care. To date the taxpayers have spent over $141,000 on the man who shot me. By the time he is released in 2019 tax payers will have spent $498,000 rehabilitating this violent offender. Is his life more valuable than mine as a victim? What if victims received the same amount of financial support as the assailant?

Red flags are not a road map

As teen dating violence awareness month comes to an end, I have been thinking about red flags—those behaviors that are warning signs for abuse. Most of the lists I have seen leave me wondering: what am I supposed to do if I spot a red flag in my relationship? Do I flee at the first sight of red, or should I talk to the person I’m dating about it? If I’m uncomfortable, do I have to wait to see if things turn abusive before calling it quits? And if there are no red flags does that mean my relationship is golden?

Red flags tell us something is wrong, but for this information to be useful we also have to know what to do next. With this in mind, I set out to make a flow chart that answered my questions. Click on the image below to get this to a readable size and let me know what you think!

Red-Flags

True grit meets beloved community

I’m just back from our smashingly successful annual conference, entitled Beloved Community. We had a great vibe—lots of joyful tears and laughter—new ideas and thoughtful conversation. 2012 might have been our best conference so far.

Buried in the stack of junk mail when I walk in my front door is a thank you card from my neighbor for her birthday present, and a long thin envelope. From the minister of my church. Explaining the church’s position on, and the current status of, our music director who is under investigation for possession of child pornography.

Nothing like going from all the warm fuzzies of beloved community to the true grit—where the rubber meets the bumpy beloved boulevard.

Me personally? I have men in my life who have perpetrated horrid acts. And I struggled for years to figure out where to put John (my brother-in-law/murderer) and Joel (my long-time-and-still-good-friend/pedophile) in my world view. And, more importantly, in my heart. I bet anything that you too have people you care about who have done terrible things.

Let’s face it. We do not have a sophisticated way of dealing with this. And I am NOT talking about a criminal justice response—or rather ONLY a criminal justice response.

Beloved community calls upon us all to respond in a much broader assortment of ways—to every street harasser, rapist, and batterer—whether the criminal justice system ever touches them or not. To be kind, assertive, and persistent. To see it through until the victim is made as whole as possible, and only then attending to the perpetrator and seeing that he is made as whole as possible too.

Beloved community can be messy and demanding. So I guess we’re just going to have to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Lessons from Penn State

We bring you this guest post from our sister coalition, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.

As many of you know the jury reached a verdict in the Sandusky trial on June 22, finding him guilty on 45 of the 48 counts related to the sexual abuse of ten victims. This outcome would not have been possible without the brave testimony of the survivors in this case. We are humbled by their courage and their willingness to share their stories in order to hold Sandusky accountable and prevent the victimization of other children.

In a press conference following the verdict, Pennsylvania Attorney General, Linda Kelly, stated that “one of the recurring themes of the victims’ testimony was ‘who would believe a kid?’ And the answer is, ‘we here in Bellefonte, PA will believe a kid.'” We hope that this powerful message is heard by children and survivors in all communities. We will believe.

Do you know about the Ashley Treatment?

Was your first thought a beauty treatment? Did a celebrity cross your mind—say Ashley Judd? Maybe some Ashley Judd outrage is a good idea, but it’s not what I’m talking about today. The Ashley Treatment actually consists of these steps: 1. Being given hormones at age six to stunt your growth so you will stay permanently small and easy to care for; 2. Have your breast buds and uterus removed so you can’t get pregnant or be sexually abused (How does this prevent sexual abuse??); 3. Have no say in this because you can’t give permission or even be asked if this is okay with you.

This is what happened to Ashley X and possibly 100 other children (so far). How can this happen? Because we view people with disabilities as less than human. People with disabilities rarely sit on ethics committees of hospitals. They rarely get to give input on whether to withhold, deny, or impose treatment on children and adults with disabilities. The hospital that performed the procedures on Ashley later admitted that her civil rights had been violated and agreed to make changes, including adding a person with a disability to their ethics committee and requiring a court order prior to doing this type of treatment.


What people with disabilities think about the Ashley Treatment

Disability Rights Washington and The National Disability Rights Network just released a report that uses the Ashley X decision as a case study. It asks how we can make medical decisions that “uphold the constitutional rights and inherent dignity of people with disabilities.” Everyone has the right to choose what will happen to their body—including people with disabilities, battered women, young women and men who want access to birth control. We have to believe that people are experts of their own lives and have the right to make their own decisions―even those who can’t speak for themselves.

What would our community look like if we all had the curiosity and willingness to listen to what has worked for people who’ve had experiences we haven’t had? How would things be different if people with disabilities had a leadership voice in our hospitals, schools, and communities?

Stand your ground?

Marissa Alexander fired a “warning shot” into the wall of her abusive husband’s house because she feared for her safety. She was charged with 3 felony counts of assault. She argued that she was protected by Florida’s “stand –your- ground” law, but the judge and jury disagreed. She was arrested the day of the incident and is now serving 20 years in prison.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Alexander

People often say things like, “there ought to be tougher domestic violence laws,” or “why doesn’t she just call the police,” or “she should get herself a gun for protection.” Marissa’s story is the sad reality of why those things don’t always work. And it’s exactly why those of us who do this work get so frustrated with that kind of advice.

It’s pretty clear that Marissa Alexander was abused. Even her husband admits that he was abusive on multiple occasions. She had good reason to fear this man. And she was angry. Apparently, this anger is what got her convicted. The jury couldn’t reconcile that she could be angry AND fearful when she fired that warning shot. The lack of understanding about domestic violence in this case is shameful.

But this story also highlights how even laws that seem clear, can be interpreted in different ways. Even though no one was hurt; even though she had been threatened; even though she thought she had the right to “stand her ground;” Marissa was charged and convicted of felony assault.

The systems that we have in place to address domestic violence do not always work. We cannot rely on the police to always do the right thing. We cannot rely on a jury to serve up justice when they don’t understand the dynamics of domestic violence. The problem is messy and the solution is not cut and dry. Yes, improving our domestic violence laws is a good thing, but what’s really going to help women like Marissa is for us all to realize domestic violence is our problem to solve―not the police, not the justice system, not the women being abused.

The world I live in

Recent conversations with friends and colleagues have me thinking about the world of human trafficking out there. Now I’m wondering, how can we develop a curiosity and care about what’s happening right here, right now?

Let’s consider the very small snapshot of runaway youth in Seattle. According to YouthCare, a local Seattle program, many youth run away from home due to abuse, neglect, and rape. Within 48 hours, young women are approached by pimps. And once they are in “the life,” inevitably they experience more sexual exploitation, criminal charges, and isolation from friends and family. Such is this world we live in. It is the world where my parents come from, it is the world where I come from, and it is the world that exists down the street from me.

Human trafficking calls for urgent action.

As Barbara Ehreinreich puts it, “the challenge is: could we stop meanness, the relentless persecution of people who are having a hard time? … We’ve got to stop kicking people when they are already down, and move toward reaching out a hand.”

We need to stop with our judgment and bias, and start being curious about how laws, policies, and attitudes impact poor and homeless people, young people, immigrants, women and children … right here, right now. Because that is the world I want to live in.

Will you be abused?

I just came back from the Abuse of Elders and Adults with Disabilities Conference. Did you know the first federal law focused on preventing elder abuse passed just last year? Surprised this didn’t already exist? I was.

As our guest blogger, Phil Jordan, pointed out, our focus on violence by an “intimate partner” generally leaves out elders and people with disabilities being abused by a family member or caregiver. But these trusted relationships
are certainly intimate in their own way: someone has access to your body, your home, your money. And with that comes control and the possibility of abuse.

Folks 80+ are the fastest growing segment of our total population. Ask anyone who has reached that “certain age” and they will tell you about an experience of feeling invisible and less credible. We’re all headed there. Whether you will be able to live in your own home, a facility, or become homeless, we are all going to keep aging. And this makes us vulnerable to be trapped in an abusive relationship.

You might manage to have great relationships through your whole life. But when you get older, you’ll be entering into different kinds of intimate relationships and you may have a lot less choice about who those people are. If they start controlling you, where will you turn?

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