Showing posts with label sexual assault. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sexual assault. Show all posts

1.01.2019

what i'm reading: hunger by roxane gay

During the Ontario provincial election, after a hack from the Toronto Sun drew attention to an unpopular view that I had expressed some years earlier, I was the object of right-wing attacks by email and on social media.

Many of these wingnuts referenced my weight in various disgusting ways. This shocked me because, although I am overweight, I'm not unusually heavy, not large enough to be remarkable. No matter. Total strangers mocked me for being overweight, using a whole slew of pejoratives and curse-words. I had never experienced that before.

I confess that even though I couldn't possibly care less what trolls think of me, each time this happened, I felt a brief pang of humiliation and embarrassment. I've always been impervious to right-wing bullying; if anything, I wear it with pride. But these taunts hurt, if only for a split-second. I wish this weren't true. I'm embarrassed to admit it.

I thought of this experience as I read Roxane Gay's powerful book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I imagined what it might be like to feel that humiliation and embarrassment all the time, multiplied a thousandfold, day in and day out, year after year. To experience this so often and so typically that you come to expect it and imagine it, even when it might not be happening. I tried to imagine the psychic cost.

Gay makes it easy to imagine and to empathize, as she lays bare her thoughts and emotions in a way few memoirists dare. She lays open her heart to the reader. Even more than that. She opens a vein. Few writers allow themselves to be so vulnerable, so emotionally naked. It's impressive, and sometimes painful to read. I felt that Gay is asking us to bear witness. That's not comfortable or easy to do; it's not supposed to be.

Hunger and Gay's unsettling candor is not just about her weight. It's about why she first began to overeat, to build an armor between her and the world. When she was 12 years old, Gay survived an extremely brutal rape -- a gang rape, in fact, organized by someone she loved and trusted. The circumstances surrounding the assault -- who the perpetrator was, and Gay's relationship to him both before and after the attack -- add even more layers of horror.

Overwhelmed by shame and self-blame, Gay never told her parents. For a long time, she never told anyone. Her isolation amplified her feelings of worthlessness, and set her on the path of an extreme eating disorder.

Gay is a committed and informed feminist. Yet she carries an overwhelming hatred of her body, and an almost elemental self-blame and self-hate.
It would be easy to pretend I am just fine with my body as it is. I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation. I'm a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals. I believe we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types. I believe it is so important for women to feel comfortable in their bodies, without wanting to change every single thing about their bodies to find that comfort. I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance. I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women's bodies, that is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are two very different things.
I think most of us can relate to a gap between what we know and what we feel. Much of Hunger resides in that gap.

Gay writes about how her size and her self-loathing impact everything in her life -- travel, dining in restaurants, shopping, public speaking, exercise. And of course, her relationships. In short, she writes about what it's like to be very fat in a fat-phobic world -- and by extension, what it's like to be a woman in a world where the female appearance is relentlessly policed and judged.

Some of the best pieces in Hunger focus on reality television, the weight-loss industry, and the culture of celebrity fat-shaming. I'm no stranger to this material, but Gay's analysis is trenchant and bracing.

Her writing is spare, and it is blunt. Where it shines the brightest -- and paradoxically, where it's most difficult to read -- is her analysis of the aftermath and enduring effects of the rape. Throughout, she connects her private struggles to the larger public sphere.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is an important book, both deeply personal and staunchly political.

If you're interested but don't think you'll read it, here are two very good reviews: The New Yorker and The Guardian.

10.28.2018

i need a canada for my subconscious: the kavanaugh hearings and we go on

I avoided the Kavanaugh hearings as long as I could.

I used to take a special interest whenever survivors go public. I'd read everything I could, write letters to newspapers, speak out on social media. Send a note of support to the woman. Find the sisterhood, share the pain. This hurt, but it helped, too. I think most people who have publicly shared private pain will attest to that: it hurts and it helps.

I'm unwilling to do so any longer, or at least I'm unwilling to do it right now. I avoided all of it. I put my head in the sand. But it found me anyway, as my entire Facebook feed filled with news stories, personal essays, memes, and outrage. I could have avoided Facebook, but that felt like punishing myself.

I saved them all. I planned to do one long wmtc post with all the reaction. I found the time, but not the will. I started having PTSD symptoms again. Or I should say, I started remembering them, because apparently I have them a lot but I'm not aware of it.

Really, it all comes down to this: I am so so so so so totally sick of trauma playing out in my life. I can't stand it anymore. I just cannot stand it.

But of course I will stand it. I have to. Millions of people put up with much worse. I'm not feeling sorry for myself. I'm just fed up. And there's nothing for it. I was fed up with the US and I moved to Canada. There's no moving to Canada for my subconscious.

* * * *

the tyranny of the subconscious

my subconscious is an annoying bitch

in which i admit ptsd is forever

3.10.2018

rip barry crimmins: call me lucky to have known him

In late 2015, I blogged about a remarkable documentary: "Call Me Lucky," about the life and times of Barry Crimmins. Barry died last week at the age of 64.

Describing Barry as a comedian somehow seems wrong. He was a social critic who used biting humour and righteous anger to enlighten and to skewer. He was a fierce opponent of any system that furthers war, poverty, and repression, and a stalwart advocate for equality, justice, and peace. He was also a master of wicked one-liners, as his thousands of Twitter followers knew.

Barry was in many ways a cynic and a curmudgeon, but that didn't stop him from being an idealist. He constantly called attention to the mistreatment of children, the kind that happens every day in our own communities. Barry went public with his own horrific story of child sexual abuse. In the 1990s, he became an activist against child pornography, after discovering that AOL chat rooms were harboring pedophiles. As Barry often said, "Child pornography is not protected speech. It's evidence of a crime scene."

In my review of "Call Me Lucky," I noted:
Allan and I met Barry through a baseball discussion list in the 90s, quickly bonding over our politics and, for me, a shared identity as survivors of sexual abuse or assault. We stayed at Barry's place on the Cleveland stop of our 1999 rust-belt baseball tour, and went to a few games together in New York. We lost touch until re-connecting on Facebook. Barry is the master of the political one-liner, and his feed keeps me laughing about the things that anger me the most.
I have mixed feelings about Facebook, but re-connecting with Barry Crimmins is one of the best things I've gotten from social media. We caught his act in Toronto last year, and said hi and exchanged hugs after the show. The world is a poorer place without Barry, but call me lucky to have known him.

Barry Crimmins' obit from Rolling Stone, along with a few video clips, here.

9.24.2017

the strange case of the barney miller rape episode

Watching Barney Miller as my comedy-before-bed sleep aid, I was stunned and amazed by an episode called "Rape" -- Season 4, Episode 15.

A woman comes to the station house, agitated and distressed. Captain Miller, with his usual calm and professional demeanour, leads her to sit down. When he hears "rape," Barney says, "Oh boy" -- as in, oh my, this is serious. He says, "Do you think you can give us a description of the man?"

She pulls from her bag a photograph. There's a brief sight-gag, as the photograph is in a small frame. She says about the photo, "That man is an animal. A degenerate. That man is... my husband." The laugh track booms. Barney rolls his eyes and says, "Oh boy" -- as in "we have a fruitcake."

Barney: "Mrs. Lindsay, are you sure?"

Woman: "What do you mean, am I sure?"

Barney: "I mean, I know you're sure this is your husband. But-- Nick, would you get Mrs. Lindsay a cup of coffee?"

Another crime victim who happens to be in the station house at the time says, "Kind of weird, isn't it? Raped by her husband?"

The woman defends her case to the detectives, and for a while it seems like the show is a lesson about the legitimacy of marital rape -- that the audience is going to learn about marital rape along with the detectives of the 12th Precinct.

"I have some rights, don't I?"
Barney says, "Mrs. Lindsay, we're in kind of a gray area."

She replies through gritted teeth: "What's gray about it? I didn't want to, and he made me."

Eventually, Barney is persuaded to treat the incident as a crime. Detectives bring in the rapist-husband for questioning, and an assistant district attorney appears.

The ADA is a woman, and a feminist. The rapist-husband's defense lawyer acts as if he's never seen a female attorney before. Even Barney is surprised. In 1978 New York City, I don't think the presence of a female ADA would have been shocking.

The ADA says to the victim, "I want you to know we're going to do everything in our power to see that your rights as a human being are preserved."

The woman says with feeling, "That's all I want."

Barney tells the ADA that the law is unclear, and questions why she wants to treat this as a "test-case". The ADA stands strong, and the live audience applauds and cheers -- a little. Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) speculates to the husband that in the future, "Rape will be known as committing a Marvin Lindsay" -- a statement that acknowledges that rape has been committed.

Up to now I have found the episode creepy and uncomfortable, because I'm not sure whose point of view the show is condoning. Then it goes off the rails.

Barney appeals to the woman in one of his famous heart-to-hearts. These little chats -- usually used in minor, personal issues -- often persuade complainants to give the other person another chance. The woman, formerly so angry and self-assured that she marched into a police station, says to her husband, "You want to know how to treat a woman? Ask him," pointing to Barney. "Go ahead," she says to Barney, "tell him how to treat a woman."

Barney has a heart-to-heart with the husband. The couple reconciles. He's going to take her out to dinner and buy her flowers. Suddenly she doesn't care that she was forced to have sex against her will. She'll be more willing if he buys her dinner first. The end.

* * * *

The episode aired in 1978, when marital rape was still considered a "private matter" -- a "domestic disturbance", if that. Kind of makes your head explode, doesn't it? It was all in keeping with the legal view of women and children as property. By the way, this is why second-wave feminists said "the personal is political".

Barney Miller, the sitcom, is a man's world. In the first few seasons, there is a rotating spot used for a female police officer, played first by Linda Lavin. The female cops are always very emotional and highly strung, but they are also good detectives, and discrimination against them is often acknowledged. Those characters fade away after a few seasons, and never return. Barney's wife Liz, played by Barbara Barrie, also fades away. The recurring character of Bernice (usually Florence Stanley), Fish's wife, disappears when Fish (Abe Vigoda) retires. And other than that, female characters are either crime victims or criminals, and the female criminals are usually sex workers.

Looking online for references to this episode, I found this discussion on Democratic Underground, from February 2010. Some commenters claim the episode was groundbreaking, airing the issue of marital rape for the first time; others think it's fine except for the laugh track.

But it isn't just the laugh track, and it isn't just the eye-rolling. The worst part of the episode by far is the positive-outcome rape scenario. That's when a victim decides the rape was OK or not really rape -- in this case, because hubby promised to wine and dine her next time. (Incidentally, I expected to find a definition of "positive-outcome rape scenario" online, but did not. Maybe it's called something else now? TV Tropes calls it "when victim falls for rapist".)

A writer on Critics at Large examines the live audience's response, and sees the episode as a watershed -- and as feminist.
For the first half of the episode the fact that the husband is accused of rape is a laugh line, but the raucousness of the audience track is at odds with the script and characters who are responding more with questioning looks (and genuine questions of law) than comical disbelief. And by episode's end – even though the accuser herself has walked back her charge – the audience forcibly applauds the young female Assistant DA's personal conviction to push established legal boundaries forward.
The same writer references another Barney Miller episode that was strongly feminist, which (for me) makes the rape episode all the more strange.
An earlier episode exposes the same, disconcerting dichotomy. Even more restrained in its scripting, in season two's "Heat Wave" a wife (played by Janet Ward) comes to the 12th to report her husband's physical abuse and struggles visibly with signing the papers. The centrepiece of the episode is a comedic but psychologically nuanced monologue where she oscillates between loving memories of courtship and righteous anger and fear, leading to her walking out without signing – throughout all of which the 1975 audience laughs with distressing nonchalance. But in the final scene, after a long beat, the door opens again and with wordless determination she signs the paper that will send her husband to jail.
When the actor Ron Glass died, HuffPo ran a piece arguing that Barney Miller is largely a show about empathy. The value and the challenge of empathy is indeed a constant theme of Barney Miller -- and the writer points to the rape episode as a strange exception.
Barney Miller aired from 1975-1982, so the social mores of the time are obviously much different than they are today. You’ll occasionally see notable examples of this, like an episode where the detectives are flabbergasted at the idea of a woman accusing her husband of rape (marital rape was still not a crime for years after it was a plot point on Barney Miller). However, besides a few exceptions here and there (like the aforementioned marital rape plot, which paid some lip service to the fact that it was, indeed, an actual issue in some cases, but mostly treated the wife’s complaint as frivolous - the wife turned out to just want her husband to be more romantic during sex), the show somehow manages to not really seem all that out of date on most issues when you watch it today.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ever-awesome TV Tropes puts it in perspective, listing the Barney Miller rape episode under both "Black Comedy Rape" and "Marital Rape License".

I'd be shocked if any sitcoms today used marital rape as a punchline. Wingnuts would say this is an example of censorship through political correctness. I'd say it's an example of the power of feminism to change our world.

1.08.2017

what i'm reading: four realistic youth novels

Young-adult publishers' mania for series, with the emphasis on fantasy, has finally ebbed. There are still plenty of fantasy series to go around, but the new crop of youth novels is chock full of individual titles in the realistic mode. (In YA land, "realistic" means the opposite of fantasy: set in the existing world with real humans only.)

I've recently read four such novels. I chose three of them because the titles and covers intrigued me, and one based on the author's previous novel. Here are my impressions.

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
On the ever-expanding LGBTQ youth bookshelf, Girl Mans Up appears to be the first book to feature a butch lesbian, and I must say it's a welcome addition. All the other female gay protagonists I'm aware of are written in the "just like everyone else, but gay" vein, people whose orientation would not be guessed if not already known. Not so for Pen.

Pen is butch and a little bit genderqueer. Her old-world European parents don't understand her. Her guy friends accept her -- as long as she conforms to their expectations. Her brother is her rock of strength and unconditional love. But in order to be fully herself, she'll have to "man up".

The best thing about Pen is that she's comfortable in her own skin. She has no doubts about her identity or gender. Her problems arise from other people's expectations or intolerance. Her problems also stem from her best friend -- who is a jerk, if only Pen can see him clearly.

One could say this is a book where nothing much happens. Life happens. Regular, ordinary, everyday life, as lived by a teen in the process of finding her place in the world. For some readers, this is enough. For me, it's a welcome change from the conveniently placed life-tragedy that yields wisdom, a staple of youth fiction. For many readers, though, it will not be enough, especially clocking in at 384 pages. One thing is certain, you will love Pen.

The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle
Quinn, the main character of Tim Federle's first youth novel, is coping with the aftermath of his sister's death, and his mother's subsequent depression. He's also gay, and that's not a problem.

Up to now, Quinn has been hiding in his room, wrapped in his love of old movies. When his best friend Geoff convinces him to take a step forward, Quinn meets a hot guy and falls for him.

Quinn is a fun narrator, and his friendship with Geoff is more important to the story than his new crush. Not a lot happens, but enough happens to make it interesting. Things play out realistically, which I appreciate.

If you're well-versed in contemporary youth fiction, the plot, the themes, and even the voice of The Great American Whatever may seem cliched and derivative. The dead older sibling. The parent with serious depression. The parent who walked out. The wise-cracking male narrator. We know them all. But if you're new to realistic youth novels, or just can't get enough of this type of book, TGAW may seem fresh, breezy, fun, and meaningful.

What Light by Jay Asher
Jay Asher is the author of the 2007 blockbuster youth novel 13 Reasons Why, which explores a teen suicide -- its causes and its aftermath. The book, widely promoted and popular at the time of publication, is now seeing a second life with the current interest in bullying. The publisher has released a 10th anniversary edition, a rare honour in the YA world.

It would be a lot to expect Asher to live up to the promise of this earlier, but I did expect a book with some weight and significance. I was very disappointed. What Light is a sweet, fluffy Christmas romance. The characters are flat and lifeless. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are described in excruciating detail. Girls think about boys, shopping, and who gets to own the title of Best Friend.

Of course, many readers love Christmas romances, and there's no harm in that. But there is harm hiding in this snowflake of a book. Sierra falls for Caleb; Caleb has a big secret, something shocking from his past that he is afraid to share with Sierra. The secret turns out to be a violent episode, in which Caleb was completely out of control. Only because of someone else's quick thinking, the episode did not end in tragedy.

The reader is repeatedly told that this incident was a one-time event, that Caleb is a good person who only needs a second chance. I thought Caleb might be dangerous. But apparently with the love and understanding of a nice girl, the past can be left behind and everything can be forgiven.

The audience for this book is almost exclusively female, and I am concerned about what messages they will take away. No matter what's in a guy's past, if he's charming enough and really sorry, you can overlook it. Warnings from parents and friends can be ignored. And if a guy has a problem, a smart girl can fix it. Sierra is a bland, blank character brought to life by her desire to fix Caleb, throwing herself into the project almost immediately after meeting him. It disturbs me that anyone writing for youth in the 21st century thinks this is appropriate.

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
I've saved the best for last. The Female of the Species is searingly honest, powerfully frank, disturbing in all the right ways, yet ultimately hopeful in a realistic way.

Alex Craft's older sister was abducted, raped, and murdered. (Dead sister, absent father, depressed mother.) In response, Alex has locked herself in mental and emotional armour. Also in response -- this will sound like a spoiler, but isn't -- she has murdered her sister's assailant.

In addition to Alex, trying not to feel, there is Peekay, trying not to be perfect, and trying to get over a broken heart. Good-looking and gifted Jack is trying to create a life with more meaning. Jack simultaneously pursues sex with the classically beautiful Branley and is ashamed of his shallowness. He craves something more lasting and authentic, and finds himself drawn to Alex. The gorgeous Branley, envy of all girls and object of desire of all boys, is collapsing under a self-worth based entirely on beauty and sexual availability. Adam, Peekay's ex, is sleeping with Branley. All are haunted by the memory of Anna, Alex's sister, but rape is not only a memory. Rape is an ever-present possibility.

The Female of the Species is about violence -- the violence and the threat of violence that hangs over every female in our society -- and the coping strategies we employ to deal with it. The violence runs the gamut from washroom graffiti and street harassment to roofies, rape, and murder. Many reviewers have noted that the book is about rape culture, which is true. But Alex and Peekay's volunteer work in an animal shelter show that the violence is not limited to women and girls. It is perpetrated, every day, on the powerless, the very creatures it is our responsibility to protect.

I had two problems with this book, but I'm guessing teen readers won't be bothered by either of them. First, the story is told from three different perspectives -- Alex, Peekay, and Jack -- but they all sound exactly the same. It's a challenge to write in different voices, but as an author, if you're giving three different first-person perspectives, you've accepted that challenge.

My second, more significant problem was that I found Alex's abilities hard to believe. As a revenge fantasy, it totally works. But as reality -- a teenage girl who literally gets away with murder, in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else's business -- it strains credulity. None of the reviewers on Goodreads mention this, so I might be the odd reader for whom Alex's revenge didn't seem real.

Despite this reservation, I can say this is an excellent, hard-hitting, honest and gripping story. It's one of the few youth novels to bring an unflinching eye to violence and the society that has more than enough of it to go around.

9.19.2016

what i'm reading: the evil hours, a biography of post-traumatic stress disorder

The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an outstanding book -- meticulously researched, but written in a compelling, accessible style, and with great humanity and compassion.

Author David J. Morris unearths the social and cultural history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the US. He surveys the potential treatments. He explores the role of social justice in our understanding of PTSD.

But above all, Morris confronts the meaning of trauma, in society and in his own life. Morris was a U.S. Marine stationed in Iraq. After narrowly escaping death, he returned home questioning everything he thought he knew -- and eventually having to face the reality of his own trauma. Morris' dual role as both researcher and subject give this book a unique power as history, social science, and personal essay.

People have known for centuries, for millennia, that traumatic events produce after-effects, but different cultures in different eras have explained those effects in different ways. The modern history of trauma is linked to the carnage of 20th Century war. And our current understanding of PTSD owes everything to the Vietnam War, and the experience of returning veterans who publicly opposed the war.

In this way, the history of PTSD encompasses a history of 1960s and 1970s peace activism, especially of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group that began a sea-change in the culture of the United States. As a student of peace, I found this part fascinating.

Taking this even further, Morris links PTSD and social justice. Powerless and marginalized people are more likely to be traumatized by one or more of the four principal causes of PTSD: war, genocide, torture, rape. Taking a social and cultural perspective forces us to confront a world that causes these traumas. In this view, PTSD is not so much an illness as a moral condition brought on by the worst of human society.

The United States Veterans Administration (VA) sees it quite differently. To the VA, PTSD is strictly a medical condition. And this matters greatly, because research about PTSD is almost entirely funded and controlled by the VA. Explaining trauma as purely medical or biological doesn't address the causes at all. In fact, it does the opposite -- it normalizes PTSD as a natural consequence of unavoidable circumstances.

As for treatment, Morris surveys what's out there and finds most of it useless. VA hospitals and insurance companies prefer therapies that can be "manualized" -- made uniform, with a certain number of treatments and little or no emotional engagement from the therapist. Statistically, these types of therapies appear to be useful -- until one learns that the numbers don't include all the patients who drop out! Talk about cooking the books: everyone for whom the treatment isn't working or, in many cases, is actually worsening their symptoms, is simply ignored.

Morris himself feels that therapeutic talks with an empathetic person with some training goes further than neuroscience can. "What they [the VA] seem to want instead," Morris writes, "is mass-produced, scalable, scripted therapies that make for compelling PowerPoint slides."

Readers of this blog may know that I have PTSD. Much of The Evil Hours brought a shock of recognition -- the feeling that someone else is expressing your own thoughts, saying exactly what you've been thinking all along. Morris perfectly articulates how trauma plays out in one's life, the depths of change it brings about.

Morris writes: "We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness.”

In the immediate aftermath of my own trauma, while trying to write about my experience, this is exactly the image I fixated on. We are, all of us, dancing on the edge of a great precipice, usually unaware of how terrifyingly close we are to that edge. Then something happens, and we understand it, not in some theoretical way, but immediately and profoundly, perhaps in a way humans are not equipped to understand. We talk about "the fragility of life" but we don't know what that is -- until we do. Then we spend a lifetime trying to live with the knowledge.

"One of the paradoxes of trauma," writes Morris, "is that it happens in a moment, but it can consume a lifetime. The choice of how much time it is permitted to consume is usually in the hands of the survivor."

The Evil Hours may be very useful for people who are figuring out how to stop PTSD from consuming any more of their lives. It is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the effects of trauma on the human mind.

4.16.2016

when real life meets the onion: espn wants us to know that rape is traumatic... for the rapist

Ah, the things we miss when we don't follow mainstream media. I didn't even know the sports world was celebrating a rapist.

This week, drinking wine in a hotel room in New Jersey, Allan and I were pleased to discover that the Red Sox were on the ESPN Wednesday night game. A nice treat, or it would have been, if the announcing team (which included one of my most disliked announcers ever) had been able to stop talking about basketball long enough to call the game.

The game was often broadcast in a little box, while we were treated to the important news that hundreds of fans had gathered outside the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. (So many things wrong with that sentence!) Gee, if only ESPN had some other stations so it could broadcast a baseball game in its entirety while still reporting on the earth-shattering news from L.A.

The news that interrupted our baseball game? Kobe Bryant's final game. So I'm thinking, Kobe Bryant, Kobe Bryant, don't I know something else about him... When my memory finally kicked in, I asked Allan, "Kobe, isn't he a rapist?"

Indeed he is. Recapping Bryant's storied career, ESPN made no mention of this, not even to note that Bryant has been "the subject of controversy" or some-such euphemism. Yesterday they remedied that omission. From Deadspin: ESPN Asks How Kobe Bryant Being Credibly Accused Of Rape Affected Kobe Bryant.

That's only slightly sarcastic. From Think Progress:
During the program, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne — who has been spending time with Kobe during his final days as a player — said she had a “strange” and “provocative” take on the rape charges against him. She did not disappoint.

Shelburne said that being charge with rape “freed” Kobe to “tap into the darker side of himself.” He was then able to “channel all of that rage and fear on to the basketball court,” according to Shelburne.

The comments fit a troubling pattern of ignoring the alleged victim and focusing on the impact the charges had on Bryant, his endorsements and his on-court performance.

"It was traumatic for him. I think that is the right word," Shelburne concluded.

"Traumatic for all concerned we should say, not just Kobe Bryant. There was a woman on the other side," Storm reminded Shelburne before quickly changing the topic.
And from the Onion, from some years back: College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed.

* * * *

In case you are of the opinion that a rapist is no longer a rapist unless he's convicted in a court of law, please be aware that only the tiniest fraction of sexual assaults are ever prosecuted, and of those, few result in conviction. (For example, see the infographic here.)

In the Kobe Bryant rape case, there was a substantial amount of evidence against the basketball star. The victim/survivor declined to testify, and if you've learned anything from the Jian Ghomeshi case, you can imagine why. The victim did bring a separate, civil suit against Bryant, which (of course) was settled out of court. Bryant's public statement included this:
Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.
And in case you think that media should only focus on Bryant's basketball career, and not mention his rape career, I'd ask you to read or listen to any of the recent media pieces fawning over Bryant and see if they mention anything that isn't purely basketball. I can guarantee they do.

To make the point more eloquently, I give you Deadspin. I thank them for this article, especially the closing paragraph.
When a sports event becomes so big that it produces a flood of coverage, as Kobe Bryant’s season-long goodbye tour has, it’s easy for pundits and reporters to end up in awkward positions simply by virtue of having had to say so much for so long about one thing.

The conversation is even more likely to go sideways when the story in question involves something serious, like a rape investigation. That’s how we ended up with ESPN anchor Hannah Storm and NBA reporter Ramona Shelburne having a very odd conversation on SportsCenter today.

It’s exceedingly strange to suggest that being accused of rape ultimately “freed” Kobe Bryant to become the Black Mamba—a character in Nike commercials and a vicious, selfish shooter—not just because it implicitly paints Bryant, rather than his accuser, as the main principal or victim here, but also because the Black Mamba is nothing more than a branding initiative, a piece of fiction that really doesn’t have any connection to something as grave as a rape allegation.

The Black Mamba comes up, strangely, in the context of Storm and Shelburne talking about how Bryant being accused of rape affected his career and fictional persona. This makes the question of whether or not Bryant raped a woman serve the same function as his rivalry with Shaq, or the development of his post game, and draws a connection between Bryant having been accused of rape and Bryant having, subsequently, come into his athletic prime. As if to heighten the absurdity of the conversation, Shelburne and Storm seamlessly transition from discussing the rape case to a lighthearted bit about whether Bryant will cry tonight.

The fact that Kobe Bryant was accused of rape should absolutely be brought up when talking about him, but it should not be spoken about in vague terms or swept up in the mythologizing of Bryant as a player. Kobe Bryant was once accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in a Colorado hotel room. The criminal case was dropped after the accuser refused to testify. Bryant eventually settled a civil suit with her. None of this has anything to do with basketball.

3.27.2016

a brief thought on ghomeshi (yoko ono was right)

In a country of 35 million
Jian Ghomeshi: was known to be a sexual harasser and a sexual assailant; was employed by the CBC; remained employed by the CBC until public allegations and public outcry forced them to fire him.

Jian Ghomeshi: is good-looking; was a popular radio personality; was immediately framed as a victim by media and members of the public who claimed not to understand why none of this had come to light earlier.

Jian Ghomeshi: was the subject of 23 separate allegations of sexual harassment or assault; was arrested and charged with seven counts of sexual assault, and one count of assault by choking.

Jian Ghomeshi: pled not guilty; was tried; was acquitted on all counts.

Next time you hear about a woman who was sexually assaulted and did not report, think of Jian Ghomeshi. Women put themselves through hell to help other survivors and hold rapists accountable. And this is the outcome. The wonder is that anyone reports at all!

This is like the Rodney King video: witness testimony so parsed and distorted and taken out of context as to lose the reality of its meaning.

This is like an African American on trial in 1960 Mississippi: no matter what the evidence or how great the cause, the outcome is certain. (In this analogy the survivors are the black defendant.)

Women in North America have achieved greater equality than in many places on earth. But even so, Yoko Ono was right: woman is the nigger of the world.

* * * *

Chatelaine: Lucy DeCoutere on the Ghomeshi disaster: The actress and Air Force captain speaks out about the crushing aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi trial.

Also in Chatelaine: What I wish I’d known before testifying in the Ghomeshi trial, an interview with "Witness #1".

Vice: What the Jian Ghomeshi Trial Tells Us About Victim Blaming, Credibility, and Traumatic Memories

11.28.2015

what i'm watching: call me lucky: a hilarious, heartbreaking, inspiring movie

Barry Crimmins might be the most famous person you've never heard of.

In "Call Me Lucky," a documentary tribute to Crimmins created by Bobcat Goldthwait, an A-list of comics talk about the influence Crimmins had on them and their community: Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Margaret Cho, Marc Maron, Steven Wright, among others. Crimmins toured with Billy Bragg. He won a peace award, handed to him by Howard Zinn; the other recipient sharing the stage: Maya Angelou.

In his younger and wilder days, Crimmins was hugely influential in the rising stand-up comedy scene, although the word influential doesn't quite describe it. In Boston, he was comedy's midwife, and his club was its incubator.

Allan and I met Barry through a baseball discussion list in the 90s, quickly bonding over our politics and, for me, a shared identity as survivors of sexual abuse or assault. We stayed at Barry's place on the Cleveland stop of our 1999 rust-belt baseball tour, and went to a few games together in New York. We lost touch until re-connecting on Facebook. Barry is the master of the political one-liner, and his feed keeps me laughing about the things that anger me the most.

Call Me Lucky is a tribute to Crimmins, and a revelation of his personal journey, a glimpse at where his anger comes from, and how he has used his righteous anger to help others. For many people, Crimmins may seem like a paradox, raging at injustice - raging at almost anything! - but simultaneously overflowing with empathy and compassion. But Barry and I are kindred spirits, so I know there's nothing paradoxical about it. Barry is angry in a way I wish more people - especially more Americans - were.

At one point in Call Me Lucky, Crimmins says:
I feel like there's entire nations that feel like I do. There's entire nations. And you know what? That's why I don't give a shit about American dreams. That's who I am. That's the country I am. I'm of the country of the raped little kids. I'm of the country of the heartbroken. And the screwed over. And the desperate with no chance to be heard. That's what country I'm from.
This made me weep with recognition. A similar idea had been at the heart of my personal development, a key understanding of my self and my values. I realized that I had no patriotism, and I didn't want any. I realized "my people" were not others who happened to be born on the same land mass as I happened to be born on, or people whose mothers had been born into the same religion as my mother. My people were the people fighting for justice. In the fields, in the mines, in the malls, in the factories, in the streets, in the prisons. People working with others to advance the cause of justice, if only the tiniest bit. That is my country. I'm lucky to have found Barry Crimmins living there, too.

There's a lot of humour in this film. And there's a lot of pain, too. Don't be afraid of the pain. As Crimmins says, to paraphrase, if people can survive this, surely you can hear about it. You can witness.

It's a great film. Don't miss it. Call Me Lucky: website, Facebooktrailer, Netflix.

9.28.2015

bernie sanders, the pope, and the politics of amnesia

I see a lot of excitement online, in places like Common Dreams and The Nation, and in my Facebook feed, about Bernie Sanders, supposedly remaking US politics, and Pope Francis, supposedly remaking the Roman Catholic Church.

About Sanders, I shake my head and wonder why long-time Democrat voters do not see him and his candidacy for what it is. About the Pope, I wonder why progressive people allow themselves to care.

Sanders is the new Dean

Bernie Sanders has been praised as a maverick, an independent, and a socialist. All of which may have been true at various points in his political career.

Right now Sanders is running for President as a Democrat. He is not spearheading a movement to build a new alternative. He is not refusing corporate funding and appealing to the grassroots. He is not "challenging politics as usual," as headlines in progressive news sites often say. He is seeking the Democratic nomination, which means he will play within the boundaries of that game.

And that game demands that Bernie Sanders not run for president. I suspect it's already a done deal: that in return for firing up progressive voters and helping them to believe that their cause is the Democrats' cause, he has already been offered a cabinet position, should Hillary become POTUS. I'd be shocked to learn that this is not the case.

However, whether or not there is already a backroom deal in place, we can be assured that Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic presidential nominee. No matter the size of the crowds at his appearances, no matter the polls. The nominee is not chosen based on crowds, nor on polls.

Just as we have always been at war with Eastasia, there has always been a Bernie Sanders. His name has been Dennis Kucinich, and Howard Dean. His name has been Jesse Jackson, and Paul Wellstone. He exists to reassure and corral the liberal vote. He does his part, then fades away, as the "electable" candidate is tapped for the big show.

I recently saw this headline: Sanders and Trump Offer Two Roads Out of Establishment Politics—Which Will We Follow?. In what way does Sanders offer a "road out of establishment politics"? During his tenure in Congress, he has voted with the Democrats 98% of the time. Sanders is seeking the Democratic candidacy and Trump is seeking the Republican candidacy. What is anti-establishment about that?

Francis is not the new anything

And then there's the "radical pope". If ever there was a time for the "you keep on using that word" meme, surely it is when the word radical is applied to the leader of the largest hierarchy on the planet.

In what way is this pope radical? He has said some things. He has made some statements.

Pope Francis has declared that Catholic priests will temporarily be allowed to absolve the sin of abortion without obtaining special permission from a bishop. And media hailed this as the Church softening its stance on abortion!

Absolution? The Pope should be begging our forgiveness for the untold number of women who have died from illegal abortions, the orphans and desperately poor children whose mothers were denied contraception, the families forced into poverty by the Church's own policies. The Church offers a brief amnesty for women who exercised their human rights? Fuck you.

Pope Francis has made some statements against unchecked capitalism and in sympathy with the world's poor. Has the Church renounced its immense, tax-exempt wealth in order to feed the hungry world?

"God weeps," said this Pope, at child sexual abuse, and similar statements of contrition that survivors have heard from two popes before him. Pope Francis praised his bishops' handling of the sex abuse crisis, only to back down after an outcry from survivors and advocates. One more "carefully choreographed" statement. One more nothing. If survivors themselves had not risen up and demanded the world hear them, the Church would still be playing whack-a-mole with pedophile priests.

Pope Francis has acknowledged that LGBT people are human beings, and perhaps will not suffer eternal damnation for leading their own lives. Gee thanks, Pope.

There is no doubt that Pope Francis has changed the tone of a tone-deaf institution that is decades, if not centuries, behind the times. Because liberation movements - of women, LGBT people, indigenous people, sexual abuse survivors - have changed our very world, the Church was finally forced to acknowledge modernity.

But he has altered nothing of substance, and certainly has not moved one iota towards radical change.

This pope name-dropped the great radical leader Dorothy Day, much as every US politician quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. But besides his speeches in the US, what did Pope Francis actually do? He canonized Father Junípero Serra, a Spanish priest who was actively complicit in the genocide of indigenous peoples of North and South America.

Yet this change of tone and some heartfelt conciliatory speeches are enough for the media - including much alternative media - to hail Pope Francis as a Great Bringer of Change.

Mass amnesia

I watched in wonder as liberal USians hailed Obama as the Great Bringer of Change, then had their hearts broken, as per usual. Yet now, less than a decade later, they appear to be hypnotized again.

Bernie Sanders will not save us. Pope Francis will not save us. We are the people we have been waiting for. If we want radical change, we have to band together and create it ourselves. Idle No More. Occupy Wall Street. Fight for 15. The member organizations of 350.org. Food Inc. No One Is Illegal. Marinaleda. Los Indignados. And a million other groups - groups without names, groups without media coverage - groups of people, acting collectively. This is the way forward.

Vote for Sanders in the primaries. Then dutifully vote for Hillary for president. And wonder why nothing ever changes.

7.28.2015

35 survivors of cosby assaults speak out in new york magazine

In a powerful show of courage, strength, and feminist solidarity, 35 women (of the 46 total) who have officially accused Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting them share their stories in New York magazine.

Read, watch, listen.

5.31.2015

action bronson, hate speech, and protest: rape culture vs. freedom of speech

As part of the NXNE concert series in Toronto, rapper Action Bronson was slated to perform a free concert in Dundas Square. Bronson is apparently known for lyrics and videos that degrade women and glorify rape. He has also bragged about assaulting a trans woman. Many people felt that this performer was inappropriate for a headliner act and a free event in the heart of Toronto.

A petition was circulated calling for NXNE to cancel the Dundas Square show. Eventually they did. Their statement says they will try re-book Action Bronson as a ticketed event in a different venue.

That seems like a good decision.

However, I was less disturbed by another misogynist shock act than by some of the reaction I read on Facebook, from friends and their contacts. It seems that many progressive people believe that what Action Bronson does should be illegal. Others believe that even speaking in support of such expression should be illegal. I find that deeply troubling.

The people in this discussion seemed not to distinguish between a hate crime and hate speech - or indeed between expression and act, at all.

Most were willing to concede that expression condoning and celebrating rape is not the same as rape itself. But because this expression contributes to rape culture, because it perpetuates and normalizes violence against women, it should be illegal.

I recognize rape culture. I resist it and I detest it. And that's one reason I believe we shouldn't criminalize speech.

Shutting down hate speech doesn't make hate go away. But it does shut down all possibility of education. It allows the speaker to play the victim. It may make our society more polite and pleasant - on the surface - but it does nothing to further a society where all women are valued as equals. And inevitably, it will be used against us.

Throughout history, laws banning or criminalizing expression have been used by the powerful against the less powerful, by the dominant culture against the minority. That's why gay literature was labelled as pornography and banned, while male-dominated, heterosexual porn flourished. It's why the Harper Government can call David Suzuki an extremist, and try to ban criticism of the state of Israel.

When speech and expression are curtailed, history shows us who suffers: radicals, dissidents, peace activists.

If we want to be free to protest and to express political views that are offensive to the powerful, we should be prepared to defend potentially offensive expression for everyone. Criminalizing any expression threatens all expression - and it threatens progressive activists most of all.

And what of fantasy? For many, erotica/porn includes bondage, simulated rape, and all manner of acts that would be criminal if nonconsensual. And of course these acts are depicted in literature, photography, video, and the like. Many people find it triggering and offensive. Shall we ban that, too? (Or is it only offensive if it subjugates women?) If we roll back that clock, all our rights are going with it.

Here is some of the Facebook conversation. Indented text is quoted from commenters. I'm quoting liberally in order to not quote out of context, with my own comments below.
If he wrote that song for an individual, and sent that video to them in the mail, it would be considered a hate crime. So what's the difference between that, and releasing his song to the public? The fact that it's not targeted to an individual? His hate is targeted towards the entire female gender. I think we're talking bullshit loopholes and technicalities here.
Protection of public expression is much more than a technicality. If an individual is targeted - threatened, harassed - that is a crime. (Although not rape. Still not rape.) But we distinguish between those private, targeted actions and public expressions - songs, movies, books, poetry, video. In my view, people must be allowed to express whatever they want in those forms, and not do so in fear of arrest.
Hate speech impedes on people's right to live a life free from worry of abuse. You can't be pro freedom of anything if you support hate speech because it prevents people from having certain freedoms - one of those freedoms is the right to feel safe. Bronson's lyrics are hate speech and add to the pre-existing rape culture problem that is plaguing our society. Bronson also publicly admitted to assaulting a trans woman and misgendering her. THIS IS AN ACT OF VIOLENCE. He's a white man whose violent, misogynistic lyrics and music video imagery specifically target women of colour. . . . The KKK are still allowed to have their say, and operate under the guise of "freedom of speech" and look what's happening! You have cops who are KKK members on the Ferguson police force spreading their views and encouraging whites to shoot up innocent black kids by constantly portraying them as thugs. They get away with it because the media has done everything in its power to instil anti blackness into the minds of whites and non-black people of colour.

The freedom to protect hate speech under the guise of freedom of speech only benefits and serves the white rich cis straight able bodied man. They do not suffer from any forms of systematic oppression.
In the society described above, which I readily recognize as reality, which hate speech is more likely to be protected, "Women are bitches" or "Death to cops"? Once certain expression is illegal, who defines and decides what stays and what goes?

Commenters also noted that the expression in question is without artistic value. That may be true, but in my opinion that is (a) subjective and (b) irrelevant. One person's erotica is another person's smut, and to someone else, it's all garbage.

Other commenters noted that speech that promotes rape culture is as bad as rape. What can I say. It takes a luxury of ignorance to express such hyperbole, and it minimizes the trauma and suffering of every rape survivor.

Some commenters mentioned the general offensiveness of the Action Bronson act. Well, freedom of expression is easy if you're raising money for kids with cancer or posting cute puppy videos. Freedom of expression is tested when the expression is most offensive. A society that values freedom of expression allows space on the fringes. A society that values conformity and politeness more than free speech narrows the field.

That's when I realize that Canadians, as a society, do not really value freedom of expression. They value a quietly polite society, where hate is ignored and so said not to exist.
A few of my classmates were having a discussion about "Game of Thrones" One of the women said "I don't like the show, it glorifies rape." One of the men responded, "what is the big deal, rape is everywhere..." The fact that those words flowed so easily from his tongue..... I am an artist, a woman and someone who has been victimized. Free speech, like art, comes with responsibilities and to abuse that freedom is demonstrating a reckless disregard for others. THAT is a crime. It is no different, in MY opinion, than knowingly getting in a car and driving while drunk.
Criminalizing speech completely shuts down the possibility of education. If we arrest the man who said "What's the big deal about rape?" we lose all opportunity for dialogue, not just with that one man, but with every person who now must suppress his or her speech in order to avoid arrest.

These rape-culture thoughts don't go away, but they remain unchallenged. All the arrest teaches is forced conformity. As much as "what's the big deal about rape" pains me deeply, I would rather that thought be expressed openly - I would rather see an atmosphere cultivated where people are free to express any thought - so those thoughts can be challenged, examined, and potentially changed. Perhaps the person who expressed the thought would not be changed, but some listeners to the debate might be.

There is also the very huge issue of who decides what speech is criminal. In our society, it will usually be people like Stephen Harper.
but I think if enough people boycott and protest against his music, it will send the message that this type of hate speech is not tolerated.
Boycott and protest? Absolutely! We should, and we must. But if the expression is declared illegal and banned, we lose the opportunity to protest. We lose a huge opportunity for education. Plus the speaker becomes the victim. The only thing we gain is not having to hear something - but those thoughts are still in the person's brain and heart. The hate hasn't gone away.

* * * *

Update. Some of the people involved in one of the several conversations that led to this post feel they were misrepresented, even ambushed. I believe they think I participated in the Facebook conversation as research for my own writing. This is being characterized as deceptive and hypocritical, and contrary to my own principles of free speech.

The reality: after the discussion on Facebook, I had more to say, but - not wanting to use someone else's Facebook page as my own soapbox any more than I had already - I went to my own venue to continue writing.

This post reflects nothing more than my desire to express myself further. People often leave one venue to discuss ideas further elsewhere, both online and in person. It's not unusual, and certainly not duplicitous.

The opinions quoted and referred to in this post are culled from several different Facebook threads. The indented quotes were copied and pasted directly from one thread, but I found those opinions echoed many times over in many places.

I note, too, that one friend retracted her call for Action Bronson to be prosecuted for hate speech, and felt my blog post should reflect her changed opinion. I note that most people who I saw expressing this opinion did not similarly retract it.

I am inviting the parties who believe themselves misrepresented in this post to explain themselves further in comments. We'll put all their comments through moderation, and of course all wmtc readers will be free to respond.

1.11.2015

solidarity forever

Poor neglected wmtc. In addition to having absolutely zero time and mental space to write, I have some kind of head-cold-thing. So instead of trying to string words together in an order that conveys meaning, I will use this blog as a Tumblr, something formerly known as a photo blog.

I've been seeing such beautiful, creative displays of solidarity lately. These actions can be so inspiring - reminding us that we can demonstrate not only against bigotry and hatred, but for love and compassion, and for justice.

After anti-Muslim rhetoric was scrawled into an Uppsala mosque wall yesterday hundreds of residents gathered to paste cut-out hearts and messages of support onto the entrance of the building, ahead of Friday’s prayers.

The previous day police reported that a Molotov cocktail was tossed at the religious building fortunately failed to catch fire.

Hundreds gathered in the countries three largest cities, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo, to condemn the attacks across the country under the banner: “Don’t touch my mosque”.

Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers team-mates are the latest NBA players to join the protest against police violence.

Bryant and the Lakers wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in the warm-up for their game against Sacramento on Tuesday night.

The Cologne Cathedral and several other landmarks across Germany went dark last night in protest against marches by Pegida, an anti-Islamization movement that has rocked the country in recent months.

Several University of Oregon football players are facing potential disciplinary action after celebrating their recent Rose Bowl win over Florida State University by chanting “no means no” — apparently in mockery of Florida’s quarterback, Jameis Winston, who was accused of sexually assault in a case that has been fraught with controversy for the past two years.

Joe Sacco's brilliant response to Charlie Hebdo attacks


Hands Up Don't Shoot

11.15.2014

when sexual assault goes public: #beenrapedneverreported and the presumption of innocence

The revelations about Jian Ghomeshi hit my Facebook feed in waves.

First many friends were shocked by CBC's announcement that they were "severing their relationship" with the longtime and very popular radio host. I don't listen to radio and I'm always surprised at how many people do.

Then came Ghomeshi's own statement, which one friend very perceptively recognized as likely Ghomeshi's attempt to get ahead of a story in which he would be accused of assault.

Then came his victims - now 14 people - who have courageously come forward to tell their stories.

Despite the corroboration of multiple victims, one Facebook contact of mine (a woman) continued to praise Ghomeshi for "pushing the boundaries of what the public finds acceptable sexually" - that is, a brave warrior for BDSM. I unfriended. BDSM has at least one thing in common with any other sexual activity: it's consensual. (See: poor persecuted pervert by Sex Geek.)

Whenever a famous and well-liked public figure is accused of sexual assault, the public's reaction serves as a microcosm - and a litmus test. First it's "He wouldn't do that!" - based on a public persona, as if rapists are somehow recognizable. They're certainly not good-looking, congenial, and hip! Then it's "If these women were assaulted, why didn't they report it?" and "They're only saying this to get attention!"

Statistics: YWCA Canada.
These ignorant reactions present an excellent opportunity for education. But for those of us who have been educating about rape half our lives, it can be so tiring. Do people still think these things? Do they still not understand? Is rape still shrouded in ignorance and myth? Yes. Yes. Yes. Sigh.

#BeenRapedNeverReported

But that's the great thing about solidarity. When one of us is too tired or too disgusted or feeling too raw and vulnerable to do the work, a sister or brother will step up and do it twice as well.

Antonia Zerbisias, who very recently retired from The Star, along with her friend Sue Montgomery, also a journalist, started a hashtag on Twitter - and it took off, big-time. #BeenRapedNeverReported gave survivors a place to share, and it gave the media a peg on which to hang many excellent stories about why victims of sexual assault usually do not report the crime to the police. Sadly, #BeenRapedNeverReported is also awash with stories from women who did report, and wish they had not.

If you are hearing about this for the first time, the Twitter phenomenon has gotten some excellent media attention:
Women find power in #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag (Toronto Star),
#BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag trending, as women share stories of assault (CTV),
Women who were raped take to Twitter to explain why they didn't report it (Montreal Gazette),
#BeenRapedNeverReported: This was our way of silencing the silencers and denying those who would deny us our voices, our justice. (Al Jazeera English)
- Why women go online to report sexual assault but not to police (CBC, "The Current")...
and many others.

It would appear that most people actually don't know that the majority of rapes are not reported to the police. Why would that be? Here's an idea. (Please go and read the full story.)
So what kind of woman is reluctant to report sexual assault? Anyone who consumed drugs or alcohol before the incident, who was intoxicated; who flirted with, has a relationship with, knows, or has significantly lower status than the perpetrator.

Any woman who's had an abortion or messy divorce. Anyone who might be in a custody battle. Anyone with a sketchy social media history. Anyone who's sexted nude photos or has unorthodox sexual tastes.

Any sex worker. Anyone who initially consented to sex. Anyone with addiction issues. Anyone afraid of her assailant. Any First Nations woman. Anyone from a minority or immigrant community. Anyone who's been raped before and not been believed.

Anyone without a strong support network. Any woman who waits too long. Anyone who's seen a shrink, or been prescribed medication for mental or emotional conditions. Any woman who doesn't want her medical records or psychiatric history disclosed. Or who has family members and a community who could be hurt or shamed by disclosure or publicity. Anyone with a criminal record or who is on public assistance.

Any woman with a past. Any woman with a future she doesn't want derailed by the stress of reporting.

In short, the kind of woman who doesn't report a sexual attack is almost any normal rational woman.
The "presumption of innocence" and some other legal concepts

I once saw an online commenter claim that former district attorney Linda Fairstein said that 98% of rape accusations are false. (I think that was when I decided to stop reading comments on news stories.) What Fairstein really said: 98% of rapes don't generate enough legal evidence to be prosecuted as rape, so most are "bumped down" to another category, such as aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault with intent to harm, sodomy, sexual abuse, or other legal categories. These categories are legal distinctions, each carrying different implications for evidence and punishment. But they are all sexual assault.

Prosecutors routinely down-grade formal offenses to the highest level for which they feel they can get a conviction, a kind of legal gamble based on a whole raft of variables, from the likability of the accused to the perceived credibility of the victim, to what kind of defense the accused can afford. Prosecutors don't downgrade rape to other legal categories because they think the victim is lying, or because they're not sure if the accused actually did it. If they thought that, the case would never proceed to court in the first place!

Statistics: RAINN
The legal distinctions of rape, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and so on, can denote all different things: whether or not a weapon was involved, whether the victim was tortured, what sexual acts were involved, whether the victim met the criteria for good victimhood (not a sex worker, not intoxicated or doing drugs), whether the victim and assailant knew each other, whether the victim and assailant had engaged in consensual sex in the past, and so on.

These are legal categories. And none of the categories have any bearing on whether or not a sexual assault occured. That definition is conveniently black-and-white. Was there consent? If no, it's sexual assault.

Think manslaughter versus murder: either way, someone has been killed.

If a friend of yours - or a student, your daughter, your niece, your colleague - discloses that she was raped, you would never ask, "Was that really rape, or was it aggravated sexual assault? Does that constitute sexual assault under the laws of Ontario? Is there enough evidence to prosecute?" You would never even think such a thing. You would know that the finer points of the law have nothing to do with your friend's pain.

Yet one legal concept is frequently invoked in just this inappropriate way: the presumption of innocence. As person after person came forward to say that Jian Ghomeshi had sexually assaulted them, people cried, "Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? He is innocent until proven guilty!"

The presumption of innocence - or "innocent until proven guilty" - is an important tenet of the legal and judicial systems, and one that is constantly undermined by practices such as pre-trial confinements. (See this excellent column by Carol Goar.) It is not some sort of golden rule that we should invoke by closing our minds to logic and reason.

A blogger I know once posted photos of her daughter's battered face - purple and green with bruises, eyes swollen shut, lips split and bloody - at the hands of her ex-husband. A commenter-troll said, "Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? Is this guy guilty before proven innocent?"

There was no question that the woman had been assaulted. And there was no question of who had assaulted her. Unless this assault was prosecuted and went to trial (two highly unlikely outcomes), no one had to think about any presumptions of innocence.

Legal guilt is not the only form of truth

Rape is rape whether it is reported, whether it is prosecuted, and whether a rapist is found guilty.

If a person is murdered, that person is dead, whether or not the murderer is ever tried or convicted. If you are mugged and someone runs off with your wallet, a crime has taken place, whether or not you report the crime to the police. Rape is the same way. If you are sexually assaulted or raped, that has taken place, regardless of what comes after. Most women do not report rape, and most reported rapes never go to trial. Does that mean those women were not raped?

Some people seem to think that a legal concept that allows an accused person certain rights in court is somehow applicable in a general sense. That somehow we must wait for a court to convict an offender before we admit what we have seen and heard with our own senses. As if the only kind of truth is the declaration of a court of law.

Or do they?

Have we really confused legal conviction with actual truth? I don't think so. In many cases, we will continue to believe an accused is innocent or guilty, despite what a jury declares. (O.J. Simpson, anyone?) But rape? Suddenly we need a conviction in court before we will believe a woman who says, "This man assaulted me".

I understand that there are false accusations of rape. They are rare, but they do occur. Sexual assault, however, is not rare. And we're not the legal system. We're not a jury. We're not bound by law to process information according to a certain formula. We're human beings, and we can operate from a place of both logic and compassion.

When someone takes a painful and courageous step forward to say, "I was raped": presume truth.

5.10.2014

paris day three encore, in which I admit ptsd is forever

So it turns out it's not just my snoring that's keeping Connie up at night. It's noises "that sound like you're upset," says my mother. Allan recently told me that I cry or startle or semi-scream in my sleep on a regular basis. The incidents I think of as rare are not, in fact, rare. What's rare is my memory of them.

I feel I must apologize for ever telling a fellow PTSD sufferer that it eventually goes away. I was 21 years old when I was raped. If it hasn't gone away by now, it obviously never will. Thank [something] I can sleep through whatever my subconscious is going through. I wish everyone could sleep through their own demons.

4.30.2014

josh lueke is a rapist and why we should continue to say so

Stacey May Fowles has written an incisive, biting, and definitive piece about shaming men who rape. I can scarcely quote from it (although I will), because every word is not only necessary but perfect. Please join me in reading this stellar essay, and in cheering for Fowles and every survivor of sexual assault, and in calling out every Josh Lueke we can find.

May I add, too, that this essay explains exactly why I will never stop saying animal torturer and dog murderer every time I hear or read the name Michael Vick. A blog reader recently told me I should give it up because Vick has "done his time" and "expressed regret". To which I politely say: fuck that.

Stacy May Fowles, "Josh Lueke Is A Rapist, You Say? Keep Saying It.":
I know that a lot of us are well aware of what kind of person Josh Lueke is, and that rape is a very bad thing. We don't need reminders to be secure in that knowledge, nor is it likely we'll forget. But with all due respect to Mr. Hahmann and his ilk, the onslaught of tweets calling Josh Lueke a rapist is not for you. It's for the thousands of rape survivors who watch games and know that what they love is sullied by baseball's willingness to turn a blind eye to the kind of suffering they themselves endured. It's a gesture on the part of fans who know it's unlikely Lueke will ever see his career end as a result of those actions, but refuse to tolerate his inclusion, who believe that, while a team may opportunistically decide to field a talented player who has committed an act of sexual violence, it shouldn't be immune from the disgust of the public.

That disgust is healthy, too; it reinforces the taboo and militates against the impulse of big-time sports to normalize and flatten out even abhorrent behavior like Lueke's. (Josh Lueke is "moving forward" from his difficult "situation," says MLB.com, as if he'd done nothing more serious than strain an oblique. Five years from now, he could very well be just another ballplayer with a vaguely checkered past. Was it some legal thing? Drugs, maybe? Who can remember, anyway?) Saying something out loud is a small token that takes very little effort, and perhaps it doesn't "do anything" in the traditional sense, but for someone like me who understands what it's like to be violated and to watch the man who altered my life forever live on in relative, undisturbed success, it certainly means something. In many ways, the gesture means even more within the confines of sports culture, a place that is generally ruled by the most toxic kind of masculinity.

Apologies to those for whom these Josh Lueke tweets interfere with their enjoyment of a game, but the threat of sexual assault interferes with how a vast majority of women enjoy life.

2.13.2014

cherry-picked data and undisclosed bias: the failure of freakonomics

Allan came home from one of his used-book sale sprees with copies of both Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. I had read so many excerpts from, and reviews of, these books over the years, and their appearance was a reminder to actually read them myself.

You're probably familiar with the general premise of Freakonomics. Steven D. Levitt is an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen J. Dubner is a well-known writer and editor. The two teamed up to write an unusual mix of story, statistics, and surprises for a popular audience, using research and statistics to draw unusual conclusions. Freakonomics' stories challenge conventional wisdom and seek to demonstrate how we often ask the wrong questions, thereby drawing the wrong conclusions.

Freakonomics is easy to read, and I found the stories entertaining and interesting enough, but every so often, an inaccurate word or phrase would jump out at me - a broad assumption would be asserted, without evidence - a bias would be exposed, but not stated. At first I thought I was nitpicking, but as these trouble-spots added up, I came to doubt the validity of the authors' work altogether.

Correlation versus causality in the unconventional wisdom

Early on, Levitt and Dubner remind us of the difference between correlation and causality.
... just because two things are correlated does not mean that one causes the other. A correlation simply means that a relationship exists between two factors - let's call them X and Y - but it tells you nothing about the direction of that relationship. It's possible that X causes Y; it's also possible that Y causes X; and it may be that X and Y are both being caused by some other factor, Z.
Levitt and Dubner say that conventional wisdom often confuses correlation with causality, or assumes causality where none may be present. I agree. Unfortunately, their proofs often do exactly the same thing.

You may recall the Freakonomics highlight that created a huge amount of buzz: the authors revealed a correlation between the precipitous drop in violent crime in the US in the mid-to-late 1990s, and the legalization of abortion in 1971. According to their analysis, the conventional explanations for the decrease in crime - better policing methods, tougher sentencing laws, and so on - were merely coincidental. The real reason for the drop in crime was that fewer unwanted babies were born.

After showing us many statistics about abortion rates and about crime rates, they write:
What sort of woman was most likely to take advantage of Roe v. Wade? Very often she was unmarried or in her teens or poor, and sometimes all three. What sort of future might her child have had? One study has shown that the typical child who was unborn in the earliest years of legalized abortion would have been 50 percent more likely than average to live in poverty; he would have also been 60 percent more likely to grow up with just one parent. These two factors - childhood poverty and a single-parent household - are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future. Growing up in a single-parent home roughly doubles a child's propensity to commit crime. So does having a teenage mother. Another study has shown that low maternal education is the single most powerful factor leading to criminality.

In other words, the very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would have led unhappy and possible criminal lives.
The authors then note in passing that legalized abortion brought about many social consequences, and they list some, including a sharp drop in the number of white, American-born babies available for adoption. (This, in turn, gave rise to an increasing in international adoptions.)

Here's what Levitt and Dubner do not say. Since the legalization of abortion in the US coincided exactly with a marked decrease in (white) babies available for adoption, it is highly likely that many of the women who chose to terminate pregnancies (after abortion was legalized) would have surrendered their babies to adoption (before legal abortion). Therefore, those children would not have been raised in poor or single-parent families, since adoptive families are highly unlikely to be either. This is still true today, but was even more true in the 1970s.

This important qualifier was omitted from the Freakonomics equation. In other words, the authors demonstrate a correlation between legalized abortion in 1971 and a drop in crime in the mid-1990s, but in trying to prove causation, they cherry-pick the evidence. Is it possible that the big bombshell revealed in this book, a correlation between legalized abortion and crime, is not causal after all?

The more I read Freakonomics, the more I had the nagging feeling that Levitt and Dubner do exactly what they tell us the wrong-headed, knee-jerk, and short-sighted among us do. They don't flat-out assume causation, but neither do they examine factors that disprove their theory. Instead, they posit a question that challenges the status quo, then find the evidence they need to prove it.

Language matters... and so does full disclosure

Word choices troubled me. Rhetorical questions angered me. And undisclosed conflicts of interest call integrity into question. Here are a four examples: on abortion, public schools, white-collar crime, and sexual assault.

Abortion. When writing about abortion, Levitt and Dubner use the expressions "pro-choice" and "pro-life". As you know, I believe the term "pro-life" has no place in good journalism, except in the name of organizations or in a quote. It is one of the most successful pieces of propaganda of all time, and a journalist who uses the expression has agreed to be manipulated.

Perhaps the authors felt that if they used the term "anti-abortion," they would be forced to also write "pro-abortion," which of course is not the same thing as pro-choice. Or perhaps I am being overly generous: the section on the link between abortion and crime contains many unattributed, "some experts feel" statements about the "violence" and "death rate" of abortion, although their general conclusion is that government should let women decide what to do with their own pregnancies.

Whatever their bias, the language solution is simple. It requires the addition of only one word: pro-abortion-rights, anti-abortion-rights. Or pro-legalized-abortion, anti-legalized-abortion. In other words, word choice that accurately describes, rather than adopts, a position.

Public schools. In a segment examining cheating on standardized tests, the authors claim to prove that some Chicago public-school teachers helped students cheat, and insinuate that such cheating is supported by teachers' unions.

The mention of unions seemed so strangely out of place - a completely gratuitous shot - that I searched online to see if there was a connection. I quickly found it. Levitt was involved in the drive to privatize the Chicago school system, which of course includes union-busting.

The very question Freakonomics asks, "Do school teachers cheat on standardized testing?", is itself biased: it is a weapon wielded by the movement to discredit public schools. The discredited public schools are then replaced by so-called "charter schools" - schools run by private, for-profit companies. (Test scores at these private schools are often higher, because students who can't keep up are simply expelled - more cherry-picked statistics.) This push to privatization is itself linked to Levitt's Chicago-school, neoliberal economics.

Levitt tells us that the data gleaned from standardized test scores proves that some teachers were cheating. But he doesn't tell us that the reason he examined the data in the first place was to find (or manufacture) evidence against public schools and teachers' unions, in support of privatization.

A professional writer like Stephen Dubner knows that this connection must be disclosed. But he does not disclose it.

White-collar crime. In a paragraph about white-collar crime, Levitt and Dubner ask:
A street crime has a victim, who typically reports the crime to the police, who generate data, which in turn generates thousands of academic papers by criminologists, sociologists, and economists. But white-collar crime presents no obvious victim. From whom exactly did the masters of Enron steal?
Really, Steven Levitt, free-market economist? You really don't know from whom the Enron execs stole? Perhaps you should consult Wikipedia. Emphasis mine.
Enron's shareholders lost $74 billion in the four years before the company's bankruptcy ($40 to $45 billion was attributed to fraud). As Enron had nearly $67 billion that it owed creditors, employees and shareholders received limited, if any, assistance aside from severance from Enron. To pay its creditors, Enron held auctions to sell assets including art, photographs, logo signs, and its pipelines.

In May 2004, more than 20,000 of Enron's former employees won a suit of $85 million for compensation of $2 billion that was lost from their pensions.
In the opening paragraphs of this post, I refrained from identifying Levitt's affiliation with the Chicago School of Economics, the free-market-worshipping, public-sector-hating cabal whose political cronies have caused untold suffering around the globe. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Benefit hereby withdrawn.

Sexual assault. In a paragraph about statistics that become accepted as common knowledge, but which have no basis in fact, Levitt and Dubner write:
Women's rights advocates, for instance, have hyped the incidence of sexual assault, claiming that one in three American women will in her lifetime be a victim or rape or attempted rape. The actual figure is more like one in eight - but the advocates know it would take a callous person to publicly dispute their claims.
Let's pause here while we imagine my eyes popping, my teeth gritting, as I force myself to put down the book and breathe deeply...

Fact: the one-in-eight figure is an FBI statistic. It counts rape and attempted rapes that are reported to a municipal police department. How many sexual assaults are not reported to the police? Estimates range from 50% to 70%. Most reported rapes are those perpetrated by strangers; most so-called date or acquaintance rapes are not reported. How likely is a girl or woman raped by someone she knows - a date, an acquaintance, an ex-husband - to go to the police? Estimates range from a high of 30% to a low of 5%.

The FBI's one-in-eight figure does not include violent sexual assault where no intercourse or attempted intercourse occurred. The one-in-eight figure does not include rape-murders. If a woman is raped and murdered, the crime is entered into the Uniform Crime Reporting figures as a murder, only. Statistically, the rape does not exist. You see where I'm going here.

In truth, I cannot say where the one-in-three or one-in-four figure originated. I believe they are based on many different data-collections over a long period of time, and an extrapolation about unreported rapes. But I can tell you this: the FBI's one-in-eight is merely a piece of the picture. Levitt and Dubner write, "...but the advocates know [that no one will challenge the statistics]". How, may I ask, do they come to this conclusion? Did someone in the anti-violence movement actually tell them, "I know these figures are false, but who's going to challenge me?" Not likely. It's much more likely they are making an unfounded assumption.

Ignoring their own central premise. Economics, Levitt and Dubner tell us, is based on this premise, asserted as fact: "Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life." Thus they look for hidden incentives as the key to solving various riddles. Yet when they show, for example, that most people (about 87%) don't steal and don't cheat, even when they are highly unlikely to get caught, they never explain what well-hidden incentive causes this cheery result. Because you know what? There just might be human behaviour that is not attributable to economics.

I have other examples, too, but this post is long enough. I love books that make complex ideas accessible, but not at the expense of accuracy. I used to write nonfiction for children, and I know it can be difficult to avoid reductionism. But in a book that claims the conventional wisdom is often wrong, and that better decisions can be made by looking at better statistical evidence, the authors must follow their own mandate, and be both thorough and precise. Levitt and Dubner challenge what they say is wrong-headed conventional wisdom, then they create their own wrong-headed conclusions, using whatever statistics get them there.

Criticisms from their own field

Looking online for criticism of Freakonomics, I found a series of heated exchanges - and an onslaught of posts repeating bits of those exchanges, out of context - that occurred a few years ago. (I was in graduate school at the time, ignoring much of what went on in the world.) This is not newsworthy, but it can't hurt to revisit an internet brouhaha long after the dust has settled.

Writing in American Scientist in 2012, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung gave a long, detailed critique of what they saw as sloppy, reductionist thinking from Levitt and Dubner, who by that time were the pilots of a high-flying media brand. In Freakonomics: What Went Wrong, Gelman and Fung write:
As the authors of statistics-themed books for general audiences, we can attest that Levitt and Dubner’s success is not easily attained. And as teachers of statistics, we recognize the challenge of creating interest in the subject without resorting to clichéd examples such as baseball averages, movie grosses and political polls. The other side of this challenge, though, is presenting ideas in interesting ways without oversimplifying them or misleading readers. We and others have noted a discouraging tendency in the Freakonomics body of work to present speculative or even erroneous claims with an air of certainty. Considering such problems yields useful lessons for those who wish to popularize statistical ideas.
They then offer numerous examples, and say they have many more. Their story was picked up by many blogs and other outlets (although that echo would be dwarfed by a later controversy). The Freakonomics authors responded with Freakonomics: What Went Right, a long, rambling piece that lumps together both founded and unfounded criticism, and never really responds to Gelman and Fung's central concerns.

Gelman then responded on his own blog, with A kaleidoscope of responses to Dubner’s criticisms of our criticisms of Freakonomics, a thoughtful meta-type piece. He writes, in part:
Dubner lives in different worlds than those of Kaiser and me. (Levitt is in between, with one foot in the publishing/media world and the other in academia.) To the millions of readers of his books and blogs, Levitt and Dubner are the kings (and rightly so, they've done some great stuff), and Kaiser and I have the status of moderately-annoying gnats.

But I suspect Dubner realizes that, outside of his circle, he and Levitt have some credibility problems. They have fans but a lot of non-fans too. As I wrote a couple months ago:
About a year ago, I gave my talk, "Of Beauty, Sex, and Power," at the meeting of the National Association of Science Writers. At one point I mentioned Freakonomics and the audience groaned. Steve Levitt is not a popular guy with this crowd. And that's the typical reaction I get: "Freakonomics" is a byword for sloppy science reporting, it's a word you throw out there if you want an easy laugh. Even some defenders of Freakonomics nowadays will say I shouldn't be so hard on it, it's just entertainment.
Now go back a few years. In 2005, Freakonomics was taken seriously. It was a sensation. Entertaining, sure, but not just entertainment—rather, the book represented an exciting new way of looking at the world. There was talk of the government hiring Levitt to apply his Freakonomics tools to catch terrorists.

That's what Kaiser and I meant when we asked "What went wrong?" Freakonomics was once a forum for a playful discussion of serious, important ideas; now it's more of a grab-bag of unfounded arguments. There's some good stuff there but seemingly no filter.
This is what I'm talking about. When a roomful of science reporters treats you like a punch line, the problem isn't with statisticians Gelman and Fung, or with economists Ariel Rubinstein and John DiNardo, or with bloggers Felix Salmon and Daniel Davies (to name several people who have published serious criticisms of Freakonomics). There are deeper problems, some clue of which might be found by reading all these critiques with an eye to learning rather than mere rebuttal. Don't get distracted by your fans on the blog—consider that room full of science writers! Try to recover the respect of Felix Salmon and Daniel Davies; that would be a worthy goal.
And then there's climate change

In Super Freakonomics, the 2009 follow-up to the original book, Levitt and Dubner take what they call "a cool, hard look at global warming". In that segment, they acknowledge the widespread scientific consensus that the earth is getting warmer. They bemoan the difficulty of persuading humans to act in sufficient numbers when the incentives for change are abstract and in the future. And they agree that humans should stop consuming and polluting so flagrantly, and should live more sustainably. They do all those things.

However, they challenge some of the accepted wisdom of how we can best achieve that worthy goal.
That is all.

Yet this small and reasonable poke at conventional wisdom was, apparently, picked up by an environmental blogger and translated into: "OMG Freakonomics authors deny climate change!!1!!".

A shitstorm of posts and tweets ensued. Levitt and Dubner were branded Enemies of the People. And the wingnuts, the anti-environment climate change deniers, in turn, had a field day. Look how the tree-huggers react when you question their orthodoxy! All hail Freakonomics, who have dispelled the myth of climate change! Which, of course, they did not do.

Which leads me to my second, less important Freakonomics-related post: what's wrong with the internet.

About Freakonomics itself, I'd say that fuzzy thinking, imprecise language, undisclosed conflict of interest, and especially the use of statistics without explanation or context (as in the sexual assault example) call into question both the seriousness and validity of this book.