Archive for March, 2013

*********Trigger Warning********


I have been waiting to write about Steubenville, but I have not yet found what I was waiting for to begin forming thoughts about it – hopeful clarity and reconciliation of the fact that so many people watched this happen and did nothing to stop it. Young women played a role in this, but that aspect is disturbing to me but far from shocking.

Two girls have been charged with crimes for threatening Jane Doe. Countless girls saw Jane Doe being carried around like a sack of potatoes, but how many helped her? None. What about the “former best friends” who testified that they did not believe her about the night in question? Ok, so they don’t believe her, but they also don’t believe the videos, the photographs, the Tweets, or the infamous speech that Michael Nodianos wanted us to laugh at when he said, “she was so raped” over and over again in a multitude of disturbing and creatively constructed ways through his barely contained giggles. In fact, it was not Jane Doe who initially said she was raped – it was everyone else who watched it, filmed it, and laughed about it until the police came asking questions. No one has to believe Jane Doe; all we have to do is watch two minutes of that video and all doubt flies away like a dandelion in wind. I thought, at least, it was enough to disburse any doubt.

What is happening to me has a little to do with PTSD. It is not often that I see anything where girls have played such a blatant role, but when I do, it is especially painful. The first time I was raped, girls I’d known for years cheered and made jokes while I was assaulted. I thought I was safe because they were there, but I was never more unsafe. I had a hard time trusting anyone. I was a fifteen year old virgin. They were supposed to be my friends, my buddy system, my safety net as girls in packs were believed to be safer.

In the healing process, I nearly tanked my life running from that night and the harsh reality it forced upon me via a group of girls I thought I could and should trust. That should in the trust phrase is crucial to what happened to me. Had I known that the funny feeling I had prior to the assault was not me being paranoid and sometimes, it’s ok to be rude, I would have fled into the dark night on foot to escape. I would have called 911 and asked for help, but by the time I knew what was happening, it was happening.

I left the nice college prep school my parents had me attending and went to a public school that didn’t want me before dropping out of high school because one of the girls who cheered while I was raped began going to school there as well. I feared going to college so much that I put it off as long as I could stand to wait tables or work for relatively low wages in my early twenties. By the time I started, I figured they would be done in case we went to the same college. When I did finally go to college, I felt riddled with fears I had thought were laid to rest. In retrospect, all of this was an irrational fear as a result of unchecked PTSD, but I didn’t know that until I knew it.

So, this involvement of women or young girls is very difficult for me to digest even from the distance between Ohio and Tennessee and people I will never know or see. I lost my voice for the last week or so. But people keep talking to me about Steubenville, and I want to say something about the way we as women deal with each other. We all need to stop participating in our own oppression. We need to start unpacking the messed up messages we’ve gotten since we were born and begin truly recognizing our own humanity.

That is not always easy especially if you aren’t familiar with a lot of terms like “privilege.” Privilege is more than the ability to go out on a Saturday or an amount of money in the bank. Privilege is something else entirely in terms of “male privilege,” “heterosexual privilege,” “white privilege,” “white female privilege,” or “black male privilege.” There are more kinds of privilege to deal with in a single sentence, but the idea is that we are all attributed certain rights that are not all the same. White privilege does not always mean that we are intentionally cashing in on the white card if we are white on purpose, but we do cash in on it in ways we have not ever even recognized – like when white people get pulled over by police, there is often a much different course of action taken than what people of color might experience.

We need to let ourselves be a little uncomfortable in doing this, and we need to do it because we have young women coming behind us. We need to recognize fully rape culture and debunk it one uncomfortable conversation at a time – whether that conversation is one we have with ourselves or with other people. Sometimes this isn’t easy to do. I have had to recognize some unpleasant things about my own thinking as a result of patriarchal brainwashing.

We don’t need to do this just for women and girls coming behind us; we need to do it for the men and boys coming behind us and living with us. For example, women are sent messages about looks defining our value; men are sent messages about diamonds making their love valuable. Both are dehumanizing and condescending. Patriarchal oppression oppresses everyone in different ways.

Steubenville highlights the sense of entitlement that all of these young men who laughed – just laughed – had to the spectacle of a human being treated like a sex toy. They urinated on her, but there are people lamenting their “ruined lives.” They urinated on her. Are there so many sociopaths in the world that people really don’t get how serious that is? These two sociopaths will never be redeemed. What are we lamenting? Would we lament the deaths of KKK members who lynched someone? Maybe she’s not literally dead, but her life as she knew it is over. Her best friends testified against her in a rape trial. How can a victim even be testified against? Why would a victim be testified against?

God only knows what they would do next if they hadn’t been busted on social media thanks to these two friends of hers. Her friends went into court saying she was not drunk enough to lack the ability to consent, and they know this because “she lies about things.” As if they didn’t lie when they said they were her friend. My true friends did not even do that to me and there were no cell phone cameras in 1992 when this happened to me. I was not drunk, so I remember what happened except for what trauma may have complicated in my memory. I remember that I did not consent. I remember saying no. I remember people laughing and mocking me when I said no – including people I thought were my friends.

Which leads to my second point about the urination – people, including plenty of women, have gone on television to talk about how much they hate this girl despite the mountain of evidence that is out there thanks to Anonymous. On Dr. Phil, I saw the interview of a woman who is raising a football player son literally foaming at the mouth over Jane Doe, but not bothered at all by her son’s friends urinating on an unconscious young girl. They did not release sexual tension on her; they were getting off on humiliating her. When people stop looking at this as a sexual thing and start recognizing it as the sadism it is, we will see a paradigm shift that could possibly result in the end of rape as an expectation. People watch all the time as an unconscious person is carried away from a party or bar. People could stop watching and start intervening.

Why don’t we intervene already? Some of us may feel like it is not our place. Convention prevents people from breaking the age old gender roles we have bound ourselves in. It is uncomfortable to confront people. However, getting raped is far more than uncomfortable, and if it is you being dragged away clearly incapable of communicating anything, you might appreciate a good friend making sure you get home safe and not in the hands of a bunch of football players (or whatever pack of psychos dressed up like real people are attempting to treat a human being like a thing or a toy).

Maybe sometimes this looks really uncomfortable, but just think of how nice it would be to have someone help you if you were in that situation. Instead of victim shaming other women for drinking too much at a party, try making sure you get your drunk friends home safely and make sure they will do the same for you should you have too much to drink.

Let’s stop telling women how to avoid being raped and start telling men what will happen to them if they do rape someone. Let’s stop acting like rapists are victims of some messed up system. Rape victims are victims and rapists are criminals – one of the most offensive kind. 97% of rapists never see a conviction. That number is so ridiculously high that I do not understand how rape apologists can suggest that “we just don’t know,” or “it’s just so hard to prove.” We do know, but we don’t like what we see. Indulging in ignorance has created a system virtually free of consequences for rape.

Is this the world we want to leave behind? One where women are responsible for rape and men are given 97% carte blanche to rape us? To rape our daughters, goddaughters, nieces, and granddaughters in the future? Is this the world we have to live in? Not me. I think I’ll invest some discomfort into our future for the sake of hope for a better world.

I’ll be writing about this again when my thoughts are better organized, but I wanted to say something about this tonight.


third bloom on orchid march 11 2013 008

At age 17 I was raped on a second date. At age 19 I was raped by a man I had just met. For many years I thought both instances were my fault. I told no one. Eventually I was able to speak about them in the most general of terms but I still felt at fault. Over a decade later I was able to talk about them in more detail without paralyzing flashbacks, but I still thought I was to blame.

It wasn’t until the 2012 election season that things really began to change for me. All the crazy things candidates were saying and the subsequent conversations about those comments made me angry and sad and scared and … guilty. Why was I feeling guilty? I couldn’t figure it out. So I did what I always do when I am confused – I threw myself into research.

I started researching the statements politicians were making. I researched the commentaries on these statements. I researched rape, rape statistics, rape laws, the medical and psychological effects of rape and I read many survivors stories. I don’t remember exactly when or how but somewhere during all this shifting through information I had the most profound realization of my life: my assaults – my rapes – were not my fault. Period. Full stop. No ifs, no buts, no howevers. Not. My. Fault. This wasn’t just a change to my memories. It was a change to my way of thinking. It was a change to the way I viewed everything.

I was no longer a victim, I was a survivor. I was no longer ashamed, I was indignant. I was no longer scared, I was determined. What had haunted me for years was now something that gave me strength. But I began to wonder that if I had been so wrong about this for so long, what else was I wrong about? I slowly became aware of many things I had been wrong about, but that’s a different story.

My point here is to show that if I – a well-traveled, college educated, strong, independent woman and self-declared feminist – can fall into the trap that is the rape culture we live in, then anyone can. Victim blaming is so prevalent that even the victims blame themselves. Excuses are made for rapists. Rapists are shown pity. The victims are blamed, shamed, scorned and threatened. This is completely ass-backwards!

I feel that it is now my duty to speak up; to tell my truth. To let others know that it is NEVER the victim’s fault. To let other survivors know that it isn’t their fault. It doesn’t matter what you wore, what you did, or what you said. Unless you distinctly said “yes” with a clear and able mind, then it was rape! As my husband said to me this morning, “It’s really simple. If the other person is unwilling or unable to say ‘yes,’ then don’t do anything [sexual] with them.” He’s right. It really is that simple. An un-coerced yes means yes. Anything else means no.

Why did I want to be part of this documentary project?

Good question and one that I have asked myself repeatedly since agreeing to be part of it. There are many reasons.

There are the typical, expected reasons.

As a feminist and activist, I felt I had to do this.

I wanted to give a voice to the people affected by the War on Women.

I wanted to expose injustice and hypocrisy.

There are the professional reasons.

I’ve always wanted to break into documentary making, but never knew how or thought I could.

I thought it would be a good start for a career in documentary making.

I’d get the all-important experience under my belt.

There are the personal reasons.

I faced extreme sexism from a very early age.

I am a rape survivor.

I am related to rape and sexual abuse survivors.

I am friends with rape and sexual abuse survivors.

But what was the real reason? What made me jump at doing this instead of the dozens of other projects I could have joined or started? What is that hidden, driving reason? It took a LONG time to figure this out. In the end, I realized that it was the most basic, visceral of reasons: I was angry. I wasn’t just angry; I was pissed – filled with a slow burning rage that roiled at the very core of my being.

After the decades that countless women had spent fighting for equality; after the years I had spent fighting equality; after people in the U.S. seemed to think that “feminism had won”; I realized that women had won precious little and even that was being threatened. It was a hard slap to the face. Reproductive freedom, equal pay, protection from violence and rape, assistance for pregnant women and young children, – it was all being attacked and dismantled bit by bit. Hell, I even heard some people suggesting we repeal the 19th Amendment (that’s the amendment that gave women the right to vote)!

It’s as if collectively, we women looked away at other issues and the instant we did – BAM – an all out assault on women’s rights exploded. But it was an insidious assault. Brilliant, really. The attacks came camouflaged at first. Sneaking in at the edges. Oozing into political cracks. Like ninjas in the night, opponents to women’s rights gathered and before we knew it, they had taken out our defenses and had women surrounded and backed against a wall.

Maybe it was the way I was raised. Maybe it’s the time I spent in the military. Maybe it’s the result of all my life’s experiences, but I do not take well to being backed into a corner. In fact, that is the quickest way to get me to fight. Ferocious and relentless, I will fight for myself, my family, my friends, for all women. I will fight in all the ways I know how. I will fight to regain the ground women have lost and will continue fighting until we achieved equality or I draw my last breath.

Women’s rights opponents thought they had found a way to roll back all those “feminist laws” and briefly, they did. But they didn’t count on women waking up and fighting back. And wake up we did! There have been hundreds – thousands – of sleeping warriors shaken from their slumber. I am but one among many. And this documentary is but one weapon I will wield in the War FOR Women.

~ Sara B. Free

Jenessa at nine years old and as an adult woman.

Jenessa at nine years old and as an adult woman.

I recently promised that a fellow contributor, Jenessa Lynn Sanders-Williams, would be writing about the Onion’s Tweet on the night of the Academy Awards and the general sexism found that night. Here is Jenessa’s writing, and it is about much more than sexism in Hollywood.

**********Trigger Warning*********

In the past few years, I haven’t been very interested in watching anything on TV at all, but, every time something happens on TV, I get a good run down of it via my Facebook newsfeed (my regular job takes place online). This definitely includes awards shows like the one this past Sunday. I was not surprised or interested in much that appeared about it until I heard that The Onion had tweeted about a 9 year old girl being a cunt. This elicited an eyebrow raise, and, upon further investigation, turned out multiple opinions on a Hollywood awards ceremony that was rife with sexist humor. That the awards ceremony was rife with sexism goes without saying. For me, at least, it doesn’t take more than the fact that the red carpet constitutes pageantry for women, but not men, to set my sexism radar buzzing. It is, after all, Hollywood, and Hollywood is a huge mouth piece for patriarchal, capitalistic, racist, et al. propaganda: It is the media. What also didn’t surprise me was that someone involved in comedy would resort to shock value or sexists jokes for laughs. That is common. What did surprise me was hearing that it went so far as to target a 9 year old girl and, in particular, a little black girl. Knowing what I do about being a little black girl, I felt truly sad that that moment for her had to come under public scrutiny.

To give you an idea of what can await a young black girl, I’ll share a conversation that I recently had with my 18 year-old niece, Ashley, who is out of the house for the first time. She had a pretty sheltered, albeit not easy, childhood in which most of the boys and men she came into contact with were relatives, teachers, or friends her age. It’s only been about a month since she left home. In those few short weeks, she has dealt with ongoing street harassment and assault and was witness to a domestic dispute in which the female victim of abuse was jailed for defending her brother against her abuser. That’s a lot of reality to come into so quickly. Here’s a bit of the chat we had via text message:

Me: His uncle tried to touch you? sounds like its not safe around his family.

Ashley: what? How does everybody know about this?

Me: beth

Ashley: how does she know?

Me: she tells me this stuff & I tell mom because im not someplace I can do anything. But I think if your bein out of the house means youre gonna have fucked up stuff happen, you’re maybe safer stayin home a lil longer.

Me: no idea. I got a text. Are you ok?

Ashley: I’m okay. That happens to me almost everyday, whether I’m at the library or walking around. I suddenly begin to feel as though nobody loves me for who I am. They’re not anywhere near interested in that. All people seem to want is sex.

Me: also it’s a good idea to start thinking about what kind of life do u want to live. Because there are certain lifestyles that are fun in the moment but lead to a lot of pain & struggle. You can choose to be around positivity. You can choose to have direction because being lost is hard when you live at home but is damn unbearable when you’re not

Ashley: And that makes me feel like I’m nothing.

Me: who are all these people you’re looking for love from & why aren’t you loving yourself 1st? take care of yourself. Figure out what you wanna do & take steps toward it. Idle hands really really do lead to trouble whether its w/other people or within yourself. You have gotta have something yr doing. Something concrete

Ashley: It’s not that I’m looking for love, It’s more like I’m minding my own business and along comes a pig trying to get in my pants. And you tell them you’re not interested, but they act like they don’t hear it.

Me: how much time r u spending “on the street”? do u have some place to go during the day? What’re you doin?

Ashley: I’m not on the street.

Me: ive had my ass grabbed on 3 different continents. I’ve had a stranger try to shove his tongue down my throat & another put something in my drink. Ive been LUCKY it hasn’t been worse. The world is unfortunately like that & unfortunately because you’re a woman you have to take precautions for your safety because if somethin happens everyone is going to hold you responsible anyway.

Ashley: Yeah, one of my friends was raped a few days ago.

Me: the questions will all be the same “where were you” “who were you with” “what were you wearing” “why were you by yourself” “were you drunk/fucked up”

Me: 1 in 6 girls. Few reported. Almost none prosecuted. Rape kits sit in police departments untested. I wish it weren’t true but we live in a rape culture & a patriarchal & misogynistic culture & you have to learn to be really really smart. Especially if you wanna travel & be free & independent.

Me: im not going to advise u to be scared. I walk alone at night. I travel. I venture out on my own & ill be goddamned if im gonna be afraid, but im also vigilant & prepared to fight

Ashley: I hate having to feel guilty for being female.

Me: you don’t have to feel guilty. You need to shame them.

Me: most sexual assault is from someone you know & trust like a family member, friend, or acquaintance. You gotta be careful but also be pissed instead of afraid.

One thing I note looking back on this was that I made some very common mistakes. I asked her what had she been doing before I asked her how was she doing. I took emphasis away from the experience she was sharing with me and turned it to a lecture on how to be more careful/responsible, thereby shifting the incident into something she was responsible for avoiding (because it is part of male privilege that when they behave unethically towards a woman, it is the woman’s fault for whatever reason). There were other things. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I needed to give it to her raw, and then when I realized it might sound like I was teaching her to fear, I tried to correct that. But the biggest mistake I made was thinking of it too much in terms of me. There’s a reason for that. What I didn’t tell her, and what I’m now I guess revealing on a larger scale, is that I’ve actually been (date) raped more than once, and, if you count statutory rape, more than twice. It’s not important how many times or by who. Suffice it to say none of these men were strangers to me, and I had to confront them more than once. One laughed and said I wanted it the first time I confronted him (when I still trusted him), and then he cried on his knees for forgiveness the second time. The other woefully asked “What did I do?” the first time I mentioned it, but then told me to get over myself the second time, and that he didn’t care (after I had grown to trust him). That there was a serious breach in trust to begin with was, thus, on both occasions backed up by an even bigger breach of trust in the form of dismissal. But, if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that, like gratuitously problematic jokes from comedians, dismissing the feelings of women is common for men.

The others I never confronted directly, even to this day, and I probably never will because it’s hard to convince a man who was in his 20s that sleeping with a teenage girl and then ditching her was not only unkind but was also unethical…or maybe they know better now that they might have teenage girls of their own. It’s hard to say. When I started thinking about the jokes being made at the expense of the female actresses at this awards show, I realized that however hard our society makes it to be a female, having it done publically and in front of millions must be devastating, even if women in the public eye don’t admit it. And there really are strong impetuses on not admitting you’re hurt, getting over it, and/or paying it no mind.

But, the thing about “sucking it up” or “getting over it,” coming back to the average gal, is that it’s more easily said than done, especially when what you’re supposed to “get over” is trauma. The Sidran Institute defines a “traumatic event or situation” as one that “creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope” that leads to an individual feeling “emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed” (Giller, 1999). They list some potential circumstances that result in trauma as the “abuse of power, betrayal of trust, entrapment, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss” (ibid.). I can get over it enough to remember not to bring it up in front of you again because I know it’s a buzz kill, and you’re trying to party. But, I can’t get over it enough not to have situations (like the one I’m having with you) and words (like the one’s your saying to me) trigger it again. Your dismissal of these feelings brought about by my experiences is part of the trigger. It is further betrayal of trust. And these experiences aren’t limited to rape. They include daily street harassment. They include being not more than ten and having your body scrutinized, touched, and made into a sexual object by boys and men of all ages. They include having to scream at men in cars because they’re creeping behind you while you’re on your run. They include having to finally get so disgusted at the gym with the obvious ogling and the way that man put his hands on your sister’s hip that you have to finally report them…when really you want to raise uncouth hell. They include having a man yell at you, call you “bitch,” and tell you “you ain’t all that” when you refuse his come-ons and tell him to leave you alone. Or when you’ve just told him you love him. They include the way you’ve learned to be wary of the implications of eye contact and to consistently feel a little unsafe every time it’s night. All of these things build trauma, and even the mildest forms of trauma are not easy to get over when you continue to experience little bits or reminders of them almost every day.

However, in the long run getting over something doesn’t have to mean forgetting about it, as is often insinuated in our society when people with certain kinds of privilege would like to silence those without. Getting over it and over yourself should be a process of reconciliation, personal growth, self-care, and love. It should be learning that your past does not define you, and that you have lived through these events and now just have the task of pushing through the mental and emotional blockades they have constructed in your thinking and behaviors. In the course of these tumultuous experiences I have been taught the importance of humility and that judgment is not mine to give. I’ve been blessed to be around incredible people who have suffered tremendously but persevered through love, laughter, and tenacity. Struggle helps develop humility and strength, and those who daily struggle, often silently, within a society wherein their oppression is built into the institutions, the ideologies, and even the language are likely to be the strongest of all, regardless of what those with power and privilege wish us to believe about ourselves. When we can get over being hurt and begin to be constructive in our anger, we can start the process of dismantling our oppression through love, community, and creation.

Thanks to Ash, Keiko, and Amariah for helping me put some of this together. Also, thanks to someone repeatedly unmentioned through out: because we separate, it ripples out reflections. One love.

Jenessa Lynn Sanders-Williams is a Memphis native transplanted to Atlanta, Georgia, where she continues to light up the South with her great wit and strong heart. We are honored to have her writing for Lady Parts Magazine, and we hope to have her working with us again in the future.