“So, what do you do for a living?”

Whenever I tell someone what I do for a living, I get one of these responses:

  1. they look at me real hard to figure out if I am a crazy raging feminist that they need to be afraid of, or
  1. they say, “Wow, good for you,” or “I could never do that,” or “That must be so depressing,” or
  1. they quickly change the subject.

But lately I’ve been thinking that maybe instead of saying that I work to end domestic violence, I should just say, “I’m an optimist.”

Say what?

Domestic violence advocates envision a world where domestic violence doesn’t exist. We really and truly think it doesn’t have to happen. We believe this so much that we continue to enter into relationships ourselves. You’d think after hearing terrible stories day after day, that all of us would swear off relationships. Not so.

I can’t think of anyone that I have ever worked with in nearly 20 years that has said, “You know what, it’s just not possible. It isn’t worth looking.” Nope. Instead advocates help people pick up the pieces and dream of something better. Then they go home and try to do the same for themselves.

What optimism! I love that we envision a just and loving society. I love that while we see the bad and the ugly, we work for the good and the beautiful. I love that our work is moving towards preventing violence, not just supporting survivors. I believe that we can end domestic violence. I really do. I guess I’m an optimist!

-Ilene Stohl, our economic justice & prevention coordinator

The gay agenda

Last month, I celebrated along with 53% of Americans when New York became the 6th state to legalize gay marriage. But while I cheered the happy gay couples, another part of my brain is ambivalent about the victory. After all, the institution of marriage has a sordid history—from sexist wedding rituals to cultural and legal ties that keep women trapped with abusers. And getting married means more housework for women and less for men.

At the same time, marriage brings benefits that LGBT folks have been denied. And full access to marriage (and divorce) removes one strand from the web of homophobia, sexism, and racism that batterers can use to control their partners. For example:

  • When a couple’s relationship is publically acknowledged and celebrated, homophobia loses its power to isolate LGBT people from the support of their family and friends. This means they have more help—both to have great relationships and when violence happens.
  • We know that child custody issues are a major barrier to leaving an abuser. And for LGBT parents, marriage means that the non-biological parent is more likely to have their parental rights recognized by family courts, schools, and health care providers.

Right wing rhetoric claims that the mere act of gay couples saying “I do” is enough to upend the institution of marriage. If only radical social change was that simple! I’m rooting for a day when we achieve marriage equality and much more—economic justice for women; healthy, equitable relationships for everyone; and public policies that support all families, married or not.

Dude, WTF?

Alright – can we all agree that domestic violence is not going away until abusers knock it off? So the bazillion dollar question is, how do we make that happen?

I think we could create a lot of change by simply challenging abusive behavior when we see it. But some people get nervous, hesitant about how to confront an abuser. And for good reason. I’m not saying you should put on a superhero suit and wrestle the knife out of his hand. I’m not even talking about physical violence. We need to call people out way before things escalate to that point. I’m saying notice and comment on the creepy, possessive, controlling stuff your friend says or does: convey a sense of alarm; describe the bad/worrisome behavior; and tell the person to stop. It’s that simple.

Give one of these a try:

Dude, WTF? She’s a person, not a piece of property. Knock it off and give her some space!

Dude, WTF? She’s not screwing someone else – she’s just stuck in traffic, like she said. Sheesh, you need to knock it off!

Dude, WTF? You’re totally Facebook stalking her. Knock it off.

Dude, WTF? Just enjoy your visits with your kids and don’t worry about what she’s doing. Knock it off and move on.

Living in community

I am Gujarati. As a child, my sense of family and community was really different than what I see here. In my home, cousins were as close as siblings. Aunts and uncles shared decision-making with my parents. Day-to-day life included having lots of people around, cooking together, running the household together, and sharing everything. Many of my friends who are immigrants or were raised in immigrant families tell similar stories.

Even though I have lived in the United States for 11 years now, I am happiest when I am with others who were raised, understand, or have created this type of community—whether they are Gujarati or not. I felt a lot of warmth, love, and affection growing up with my extended family all around, and I miss that.

However, there is a flip side to all of this. If you are experiencing abuse, and those in your close community don’t see it, acknowledge it, or offer support, it can be incredibly isolating. You can be surrounded by all of these people and yet feel totally alone. As an advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, I’ve heard heart-breaking stories of how immigrant survivors have had to leave their community—and all that love and support—in order to escape the abuse, while others were not able or willing to leave their community and were killed by the abuser.

http://www.mijasrestaurant.org

Recently, I met a group of women that seem to have figured out how to find safety and community. The Mijas are Latina survivors of abuse who have banded together to start their own restaurant where they give each other job training and support. (And they make fabulous food while they’re at it!!) The Mijas have given me hope and inspiration that immigrant communities can and do use the strengths of their culture to respond to domestic violence. I’m sharing their story in support, and with the hope that others can see what is possible.

2 heads are better than 1?

We’ve been at this blogging thing for almost a year now, and it just dawned on me that we’ve been talking a lot about sex and sexual violence. Some might say “what gives?” I thought this was the domestic violence coalition?” (Or that thought might never have occurred to you. If you don’t work in the field, you’d never know that domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy are pretty separate.)

Is it because these issues have recently captured national media attention? Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn, Weiner. Marlo Thomas at Huffington Post wondered recently if Men Behaving Badly is a good thing. She sees a shift in the public response to sexual misbehavior. There’s a lot more outrage and a lot fewer people making excuses for the perpetrators.

Despite her claim that sexual assault is getting more and better coverage, there are a lot of questions—especially among those of us who do this work—about which (domestic violence or sexual assault) gets more attention and accurate representation from the media. Which issue is more main-stream, more understood by the folks who don’t think about it everyday? Are we blogging more about sexual violence instead of domestic violence because we think it is less understood, or more? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: It should not be an either/or discussion. Sexual and domestic violence are inextricably linked. After all, rape happens in domestic violence relationships too, and I’m not sure the separation of these into different specialties has served us well. Maybe our blog’s tag line (“talking about violence and relationships”) has freed us to see past our titles and re-focus on the bigger goal—let’s get all kinds of violence out of our lives.

We’ve got honor, we’ve got pride

We are pleased to bring you this post from guest blogger Nan Stoops, our executive director.

Did you happen to read about the high school cheerleader who refused to cheer for the basketball player who had raped her? Hillaire S. was kicked off the cheer squad and, subsequently, sued her high school in an attempt to get reinstated.

She lost. In its ruling, a federal appeals court found that Hillaire’s First Amendment rights had not been violated. Essentially, because she was a cheerleader, the high school owned her voice and her speech was not protected. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review the case.

I could write more than a blog about the irony, agony, and lunacy of this legal justification. But not today. It’s Father’s Day, and I want to offer a big shout out to Hillaire’s dad, who supported his daughter throughout.

After the ruling, Hillaire’s father said: “My daughter has fought through it all.” Was it worth the $45,000 in legal fees? “Yes. If she had not fought, no one would have known what went on.”

To this dad, to my dad, and to dads everywhere who LISTEN to their daughters, BELIEVE us, believe IN us, STAND WITH us, to dads who know that no one owns our voices but us and that their silence does not protect us; to these Dads, I offer a simple and heartfelt thank you.

Happy Father’s Day!

Aunty-strength advice

It was 97 degrees in Baltimore last week. I was sweating my guts out watching all the beloved high-school graduates tripping down and then back up the aisle. In between, a tad more than too many people gave advice:

It’s okay to fail; explore a variety of career options; and, your parents have never been prouder so now would be a good time to ask for money.

It was lovely and despite the heat, a great joy to see my niece get her diploma.

Days later, I woke up thinking “oh man, they forgot some of the most important advice.” Aunty-strength advice.

Honey, sit down so I can tell you a few things.

First of all, sex is supposed to be fun*. If it’s not, that’s not good sex. If you find yourself needing to get drunk to have sex, then you are missing out. And Jello shots? A really bad idea—here’s why.

When you go to parties, go with your friends and watch out for each other. If you see a guy friend dragging a girl off drunk, yell at him to knock it off. Or just grab her and get her out of there. Ask your friends to do the same for you.

And lastly, are you on birth control? No? Honey, do you think you want to have kids? Is now a good time to do that? Have a baby when you want to have a baby. And trust your gut. If a guy gives you even a little tiny uh-oh, tell him he has to go talk to your aunty.

Aunties everywhere. Figure out what you want to say and speak up! This is what we are for. Believe me, our nieces and nephews want realistic advice and need someone to talk to.

How about it?

*this website appears with a scary warning you have to click past. Fear not, this is a super thoughtful and well written blog.

… And the revolution starts in the stands, too

I’m not much into sports (unless “So You Think You Can Dance?” counts), but this report caught my ear while stuck in traffic.

Sports commentator Art Thiel weighs in on Rick Welts, president of the Phoenix Suns, and his recent decision to reveal that he is gay. Welts is the first high-profile sports figure to do so. I was happy to hear Thiel call this out as a positive step toward expanding views about masculinity in the professional sports community.

As we’ve seen, everyone loses when we confuse cockiness, violence, and the rampant pursuit of sex (consensual or not) for athleticism and sportsmanship. But while it’s exciting to see this shift in the sports world, Thiel reminds us that the real change depends upon all of us.Basketball wins my heart again

He invites all sports fans to stand up for authentic sportsmanship. In the stands we can respond to hateful trash talk by following Thiel’s simple advice. Let folks know: “I don’t need to hear that. My kids don’t need to hear that.”

The Revolution Starts at Home

What does it mean for an abuser to be held accountable? What does justice for a survivor look like? And how do we get there?

I’ve been studying domestic violence murders for the past 7 years and have seen time and again how the legal system is profoundly limited in its ability to provide justice, safety, or healing for survivors of abuse. But focusing on the failures of the police and courts can feel hopeless, because it is not clear where else to turn. I envision that our own communities can step up to confront abusers and support survivors. Yet it is hard to imagine communities where sexism, homophobia, isolation, and victim blaming don’t get in the way.

A new book, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, is a collection of stories from people who have also wrestled with these questions. The authors are activists working against racism and homophobia. It makes sense that the people trying to figure out how to hold abusers accountable within their own communities are those that have been the least served and most harmed by the criminal response to abuse—LBGTQ folk, people of color, immigrants.

The stories bring to life both the hope and promise of community solutions to domestic and sexual violence, and how painfully difficult this process can look on the ground. In one essay, a grassroots activist group describes how they organized to address abuse by one community member toward another. Their process had all the key ingredients for justice: a focus on the survivor’s safety and healing, treating the abuser with respect while demanding real change, and directly confronting the conditions that allowed the abuse in the first place. And yet, their efforts took years, required massive energy and commitment, and they found it was hard to know whether they were making real change.

Reading this book left me feeling both excited about the creative work being done and overwhelmed with the work left to do. The efforts, aspirations, and even failures in these stories felt like a call to action for all of us working to end domestic violence. As Andrea Smith says in the introduction, “the question is not whether a survivor should call the police, but rather why have we given survivors no other option but to call the police?”

Rape prevention tips

Ten rape prevention tips:

1. Don’t put drugs in women’s drinks.

2. When you see a woman walking by herself, leave her alone.

3. If you pull over to help a woman whose car has broken down, remember not to rape her.

4. If you are in an elevator and a woman gets in, don’t rape her.

5. When you encounter a woman who is asleep, the safest course of action is to not rape her.

6. Never creep into a woman’s home through an unlocked door or window, or spring out at her from between parked cars, or rape her.

7. Remember, people go to the laundry room to do their laundry. Do not attempt to molest someone who is alone in a laundry room.

8. Use the Buddy System! If it is inconvenient for you to stop yourself from raping women, ask a trusted friend to accompany you at all times.

9. Carry a rape whistle. If you find that you are about to rape someone, blow the whistle until someone comes to stop you.

10. Don’t forget: Honesty is the best policy. When asking a woman out on a date, don’t pretend that you are interested in her as a person; tell her straight up that you expect to be raping her later. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the woman may take it as a sign that you do not plan to rape her.

My co-worker recently created this list, inspired by sites like this. As I was reading, I couldn’t decide if I should laugh or be horrified by the reality that violence prevention tips are always aimed at what the targeted person should do (judgment strongly implied) to protect themselves.

In the past two weeks, headlines about rape have flooded the news—CBS Reporter Recounts a ‘Merciless’ Assault, Congo study sets estimates of rape much higher , Peace Corps volunteer speaks out on rape. And, of course, IMF Chief charged with rape. I am glad to see people speaking out about rape. But raising awareness isn’t enough. How do we actually change perpetrators’ thoughts and convince them not to rape?

If you experienced rape as a reporter, a Peace Corps volunteer, a war survivor, a hotel maid, or by your partner, you don’t need rape prevention tips. It is the rapist and the culture around us that excuses, supports, and looks away that we must change.