When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to a rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people.
We bring you this post from Sandi Scroggins, WSCADV’s Executive Assistant.
April 5, 1984. I was 14 and it was 18 days before my 15th birthday. I had transferred to Foothill High School six months prior. I was making some friends, was a member of the band, and was starting to fit in. Then it happened. The thing that you only read about in Stephen King novels. My classmate, Tina Faelz, was murdered. This terrible act of violence changed me but it would take years to figure out the full extent of its impact.
I did not know Tina personally, but I knew who she was. She was a normal girl with normal dreams and aspirations. She was also bullied. In fact, she started taking karate lessons to learn how to protect herself. This was back in the day before “Zero Tolerance.” Some of her classmates would actually throw rocks at her when she tried to get on the school bus. Thus the reason she wasn’t riding the school bus anymore. Thus the reason she was walking home, by herself, that day.
I became sick to my stomach when I found out about Tina’s murder. I was in shock. I cried—a lot. And I was afraid. I had nightmares. Although I have never seen the crime scene photos, my mind was able to concoct horrible images. Those images still haunt me. I was afraid to be alone. I was afraid of the dark. I just knew someone was waiting around a corner to hurt me, or worse, murder me. I was afraid of missing the bus. I became leery of people. I couldn’t understand why I felt this way. And I certainly did not know how to express these feelings. So, instead, I suppressed them and never discussed them with anyone. How could I, a person who was not even friends with Tina, be so affected?
What made the whole situation worse was that we all knew who did it. Another classmate of ours, Steve Carlson. He had bragged about it. But he wasn’t arrested. In fact, no one was arrested. It became a cold case and our lives went on. But I thought of Tina often. I thought of her when I went to our senior ball. And when I graduated from our high school. And when I got married. All the things she never had the chance to experience because her life was stolen.
The total effects of Tina’s murder did not become fully apparent until my son was born. I became THAT mom. The one you would call paranoid. When Joshua was a baby, I was afraid someone would kidnap him. When he went to grade school, I was afraid he would be bullied. When he went to middle school, I was afraid something bad would happen to him. When he went to high school, I was afraid someone he knew would hurt him, or worse, murder him. I was told I was irrational. I was told that things like that don’t REALLY happen. Except they do.
Twenty-seven years later, Steve Carlson was arrested and charged with Tina’s murder. DNA evidence connected him. We were right. He did do it. On October 30, 2014, Steve Carlson was found guilty and he was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison. It had taken 30 years. I am grateful he is behind bars. I hope he is there for the rest of his life.
I still think of Tina often. I still cry when I think of her. And now I know why her murder affected me so dramatically. She was part of my community. Steve Carlson was also part of my community. An act of violence affects the community as a whole. It doesn’t matter if you were best friends with the victim or the perpetrator or if you did not know them. Violence has that effect on people. And it ripples out. The impact of those ripples may never be fully realized. But they will be felt.
This past year, domestic violence was in the news quite often. But lately, I’ve noticed the stories that have really made me stop and think about violence and relationships are the ones that didn’t set out to do so. They are just good stories, with violence woven through as it is woven into all our lives.
This Senator Saved My Love Life is an episode of the podcast Death, Sex & Money. Political reporter Anna Sale tells the odd and charming story of how former Senator Alan K. Simpson and his wife Ann Simpson became sort of relationship mentors to Anna and her boyfriend, dispensing pearls of wisdom about intimacy, sex, and commitment. In a million years, it would not have occurred to me to look to an 83-year-old Republican Senator from Wyoming for relationship advice, least of all Al Simpson. Before listening to this story, my only memory of Senator Alan Simpson was his disgraceful role on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. His open hostility and dismissive attitude toward what he called “this sexual harassment crap” was typical of the all-male, all-white committee. I don’t know how many times I have heard a politician spouting some sexist garbage and wonder how that goes over with the women in his life. Who married this blowhard, and has she told him he’s a total jackass? I finally got the answer from Ann Simpson. She let her husband know what she thought of his performance at the hearings, and it’s still a sore spot for them.
Among the many historic moments of the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas debacle: the first time Ann Simpson tells her husband to shut up.
Nonetheless, after 50 years of marriage, Al and Ann Simpson have a lot of things figured out. They are sweet together. They are clearly proud of their marriage and have worked hard at making it a good one. For me, the heart of the story is in this apparent contradiction: how could this woman be married to the ranting bully I watched on C-SPAN, yet not be bullied herself?
Ann and Al talk very frankly about struggling to find a balance of power in their relationship. They describe a defining moment, one night early in their marriage.
Al was furious with Ann after she spent the evening dancing with another man at a political event. He recalls how self-righteous he was, how sure he was that she would be wracked with guilt, and how Ann was having none of it:
Al: “She said ‘Look…I’m not going to be under a glass lid just because of your jealousy. And I love to dance. And I will do that. And I’m not going to jump in the sack with somebody, so I think you better get over it.’ Which really pissed me off.”
Al goes on to describe how the shock of realizing that Ann did not feel the least bit guilty led to a critical moment of clarity. Still stewing, he stayed up late into the night, reading Shakespeare, and suddenly recognized his own jealousy in Othello’s murderous rage.
“I thought, Jesus, this is one sick son-of-a-bitch. This is not me. This is totally destructive and has nothing to do with her.”
There are moments in this story that we might recognize as “red flags,” warning signs that point toward domestic violence. But the story does not take that path. A red flag marks one moment in time. What happens in the next moment makes a difference in how the story turns out.
Surely Al could have done a lot of damage if he had chosen to tighten his grip on control, if he had resented Ann’s resistance to his demands instead of admiring her for it. And if Ann had molded herself to accommodate his ego, he may have been another man who bullies everyone in his life because bullying has always worked.
Instead, when he tries to control her, it doesn’t work. And they each play an equally important part in that:
- Ann stands her own ground, and does not shape her behavior around Al’s attempt to shame or control her.
- When Al’s bullying doesn’t get him what he wants, he decides to do something different. Ann doesn’t make him stop. He decides for himself that is not the way to get the relationship he wants. Looking back, he recognizes Ann standing up to him for the gift that it was. One piece of marriage advice he has sums this up: “The secret is, you both try to control each other, and you both fail. And it’s critical that you both fail.”
We often say we want to stop domestic violence before it starts, but what does that moment look like? The stories we most often hear take place much farther downstream, when the course is set and the stakes are high. Much earlier, somewhere around the first red flag, there are many possible endings.
There’s much more from Al and Ann. Listen to the whole podcast here.
Being grateful for chosen family
We bring you this post from Penny Lipsou, our Policy and Economic Justice intern.
However you observe the holiday season, this time of year is traditionally designed for family togetherness over delicious food. Holidays can be a beautiful time to connect with our loved ones, but they can also be overwhelmingly stressful and anxiety-provoking. In this emotional maze of expectations and celebrations, I want to express my gratitude for non-traditional support networks, specifically for my chosen family.
There are many outrageous wrongdoings we simply do not have control over. Whether it’s violence against people for loving a person of the same sex, hate crimes against people who dress outside of their assigned gender, cyberbullying against people who don’t fit a certain standard of beauty, or other kinds of abuse, there are cultural norms that pressure us to not show up as our true selves in the world. This is certainly an issue survivors face as they struggle to safely gain some control over their own lives. In an emotionally abusive relationship, this can look like a change in focus from your partner’s needs to standing by your own emotional boundaries.
There’s a quote that has stuck with me since I first read it: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” When you think about this quote, you can go many ways with it. From discussing how social environments can normalize unhealthy behaviors to noticing how friends can help us feel confident—the people who surround us matter.
“Friends are the family you choose.” And when it comes to living from a value-centered place versus living from a place of fear and anxiety, our chosen family is critical in helping us cultivate power and staying true to our inner voice. In my life, I’ve been both intentional and lucky to have a chosen family who loves, supports, and doesn’t give up on me through all the highs and lows. I’m the average of their fierceness, emotional brilliance, wit, and wisdom. They are my lifeblood and I’m eternally thankful that they have chosen to share their life with me. During this holiday season, it is my hope that all people, especially survivors, find the empowering support they deserve.
News you can relate to
Some news stories that caught our eye this week:
In an interview with Debbie Reese, Colorlines explores how the representation of Native people in children’s books perpetuates problematic stereotypes.
Tuesday was Equal Pay Day—the day for women across the country to mark the outrageous reality that it took us working into April of 2014 to make the same amount that our male counterparts earned in 2013.
Our friends at the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center and the Seattle Mariners have teamed up with Macklemore on a new anti-bullying campaign. Check it out!
Boys will be boys?
Recently, my friend’s 9-year-old son came home sad and confused. He had gone to the park with some boys he did not know well.
After tearing a wooden fence apart, throwing rocks at a squirrel, and announcing to one of the younger boys that his mother was a slut, the older boys turned on M. They asked him if he “had a slut.” When he asked what this meant, they told him a slut was a “girl to f**k.” He wasn’t totally sure what that meant, and he got scared. As he told his mother later “I got the feeling if I didn’t answer right, they would hurt me.”
Being one of the boys in that moment meant being destructive, suppressing any signs of empathy, selling out women you care about, and characterizing females by their sexual availability. The price for not participating in that masculinity is the threat of violence. Like M, boys every day must ask themselves, “What if all that negative, destructive energy pivots from the small animal, the mom, or girls in general to ME?” Better to agree and keep it directed outward, right? Even if it means meekly agreeing that yes, your mom is a slut, before you even really know what that means or how you feel about it.
Too often, boys learn to mask their fear of one another with a camaraderie solidified by expressions of homophobia, sexism, and—for white boys—racism. Too often, boys learn that they must be dominating, unfeeling, tough, and defined in opposition to girls to be accepted. This results in a form of masculinity that pretends to be secure and strong, but is in reality tenuous and fragile. Fragile things have to be protected, shored up, and reinforced. And that results in a great deal of pain, since it requires targets (girls, sluts, sissies, fags) to define oneself against and put down in order to be “one of the boys.”
The stakes are high: participate or risk humiliation, intimidation, or becoming one of those targets. It is a bit of a house of cards, when you think about it: being worried about being judged not “man enough” by other boys and men who are also worried about being judged not “man enough” with the consequence of coming up short being bullied or violence.
So what happened to M? He told the boys he had to get home. He had the presence of mind to know that what was happening wasn’t okay, and he didn’t like it. He had the security to realize these boys’ friendship was not worth the compromises to his own integrity that would be required to seal it. And he knew that at home, he would be accepted, listened to, and protected.
I wish we could all feel that safe and protected in our homes, and in our bodies, however they are gendered. I would like M and all those boys to feel that they are wonderful, and that they are enough, just as they are. That they do not need to “man up.”* When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to this rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people—like my friend’s son.
You’re not alone, Mike
When the video was released of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice hurling vile epithets at his players and roughing them up during practice, the public outrage was swift and nearly unanimous. Sports reporters, athletes, public officials piled on: “frightening,” “medieval”, “unacceptable.”
This should all be reassuring—evidence of our collective intolerance for bullying. But instead, the condemnation left me disoriented. I turned on the news one morning to find out misogyny and homophobia are off-limits in sports culture. What planet am I on?
The fact is we live in two parallel universes. In one, the kind of abuse that Rice dished out is run of the mill. Common, if not condoned. It has its defenders: those who insist that boys need toughening up, and only naive liberals are shocked by coaches using slurs like “c*nts” and “f***ing f*ggots” to motivate their players.
In the other universe, coaches are expected to be upstanding role models, community leaders, molders of virtuous young men. In this world, we are shocked and horrified that such a person would abuse his authority. It is hard to understand why the players didn’t speak up or fight back. We hear a question familiar to any domestic violence survivor: why didn’t they just leave?
Rice’s coaching techniques weren’t exactly a secret before the infamous “highlight reel” of abuse became public. Lots of people attended practices where he belittled his players. University officials had already seen the video that was later leaked. Rice’s sideline rants during games were nationally televised. I have a hard time believing anyone familiar with competitive sports was truly shocked.
Maybe what’s going on here is that we have had a culture shift, but that shift has not yet taken root in the locker room. Maybe most people these days really believe that using humiliation and homophobia to attack players is unacceptable and damaging. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before Rice’s style of “coaching” is truly rare, not just rarely captured on tape.
Or maybe we just want it both ways. Winners at any cost, as long as the cost stays hidden.
The great sports bro debate of 2012
Like many kids, my son likes to dress up. He has a special fondness for very tight-fitting clothes. For example, he yearns for a wrestling singlet. I think his fashion sense is quirky, imaginative, and overflowing with childish joy—as it should be.
So I was not the least bit worried when my son developed a fascination with my sports bra and decided to fashion one for himself out of a cut up pair of boxer briefs. In fact, I was quite in awe of his intuitive skill at working the fabric.
He was so darn happy about his new “sports bro,” that I didn’t even bat an eye the next morning when he chose to wear it under his t-shirt. We did have a short chat on the way to school about the fact that some of the kids might find it unusual, and did he have a plan for what he would say if anyone asked him about it? He confidently and enthusiastically replied, “I’ll just tell ‘em it’s my awesome sports bro!”
Forward to that night, when I found out my husband was very worried and strongly believed that our son should not wear it to school. He wasn’t constitutionally opposed to boys wearing anything that resembled “girl” clothing. He wasn’t second-guessing what this meant for our son’s gender identity or sexual orientation. But he was terrified that other kids—and especially their parents—would make those assumptions about our son, and that our son would face terrible teasing and bullying.
I was not bullied as a kid. I definitely wasn’t part of the popular crowd—anyone who knows me now will not be surprised to learn that I was a solid member of the dork crew—but I wasn’t teased or bullied. My son has such a solid self-assurance that I am usually more worried about making sure he is paying attention to other people’s feelings. So it never occurred to me to fear for him and the sports bro.
But my husband WAS bullied and teased growing up—terribly so—and those memories have stayed with him. He knows intimately how life-altering it can be to get teased for how you look or dress.
We did not arrive at agreement about how to handle this. I felt very strongly that we need to live in a world where our son can wear a sports bro and not have it be a big deal. My husband felt just as strongly that we do not yet live in that kind of world, and he was very unwilling to put our young son forward as the trailblazer. We are both coming at it from a place of love. And I think we’re both right.
At the end of the day, the only thing I could really think was, “Sexism and homophobia ruins everything!!”
And that is also true. Sexism and homophobia ruins everything.
Are my daughters safe online?
As a parent of teenage daughters, I worry that being on the internet itself, and especially Facebook, is leading them to make unwise decisions. Like other parents I know, I said “If you want Facebook, I need the password.” But I often wonder―am I understanding what I read? Do I know what is really going on? And when do I talk to them about what I see? I know my daughters crave their privacy even on Facebook, and don’t want any reminders that I am hovering. I want them to have safe, respectful and positive relationships―everywhere they go―is that too much to ask for?
Dr. Danah Boyd studies how youth use social media. I found her recent article “Cracking Teenagers Online Codes” to be both troubling and reassuring. Using social media in and of itself does not put kids at risk — “Teenagers at risk offline are the same ones who are at risk online.” There is a strong fear of sexual predators online, but the reality is that most sexual abuse involves someone our children know, trust, or love. Issues of bullying, homophobia, teen dating violence, suicide, and substance abuse are around, and we need to talk to our children when we see it on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else.
Here is what I found to be most reassuring in the article: “Teenagers absolutely care about privacy . . . like adults, they share things to feel loved, connected and supported . . . teenagers are the same as they always were.” They are using the internet to check out new ideas, see what other kids are thinking about, find someone to relate to. They are trying to relieve the alien teenager feeling. Okay, so even if my daughters’ online lives sometimes feel like a barrier to our connection, I just have to be brave and ask about what concerns me―and keep asking. If I listen with a lot of patience and silence, maybe one or two questions or concerns will slip out, and I will be there ready with love.
What if this was your son?
“When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” — Eleanor Roosevelt
A national resource defines bullying as, “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power or strength. Often, it is repeated over time and can take many forms.” Experts say kids bully because they want to establish a social order, obtain dominance and power, or have control over group membership.
Whoa. That is eerily similar to our movement’s understanding of domestic violence. I guess it’s no surprise that different kinds of violence have similar motives. As I scan through some of the current research on bullying, I see that some of the most common intervention programs, like zero tolerance policies and peer to peer mediation, are now being discredited. It turns out that just as with domestic violence, there are no simple answers on how to get a bully—or a batterer—to knock it off.
And how can there be a simple answer?
Take the recent news story about a father who is facing felony child abuse charges after he was caught on video cheering his teenage son during a fight with a schoolmate who had been bullying him. The father and mother said things got worse after they sought help from the school, and their son eventually came to believe that fighting back was his best option. While the father regrets encouraging his son to “smash [the other boy’s] head into the ground,” he is relieved that after the fight, the bully agreed “to be done.”
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So, wow. This family believes that vigilante violence was the best solution for their son. And while we know that boys especially are socialized to both be dominant and fight back against domination, I’m not convinced that street-fighting is the big solution we’ve all been looking for.
There must be more options for dealing with bullying besides “make the school deal with it” or “duke it out.”
So how did this get worked out in the social circles you were part of as a young person? Was there a way to stop bullying, dominating behavior without resorting to violence?