Project Envision Coaliton NYC is a community-based collective aimed at changing the social norms that perpetuate sexual violence.
We envision a NYC that takes collective responsibility for ending sexual violence.
Project Envision Coaliton NYC is a community-based collective aimed at changing the social norms that perpetuate sexual violence.
We envision a NYC that takes collective responsibility for ending sexual violence.
When I was in college, I became acutely aware of the various factors that had shaped the way I related to the world and, specifically, to my mother. My mother had fashioned much of my understanding of gender. A survivor herself, she had also conquered many gender barriers that were typical of the times. She overcame gender bias and gender-based violence at every stage of her development. She told me many stories about how, since she was female, no one expected her to amount to much professionally. Naturally, she also received fewer financial and social resources than her brothers. Despite all this, she defied the odds (and her family’s expectations) by earning a PhD in Biochemical Engineering, a JD, and one or two (I lose count) MA degrees. It’s not surprising, then, that the obstacles she faced and overcame influenced the way she related to the world and, for better or worse, to me.
Even before learning about primary prevention, I had been drawn to working with survivors of sexual violence. I always looked for creative ways to increase education on this sensitive topic. It was an exciting revelation when, halfway through college, a professor spoke to us about prevention and explained a basic framework for understanding the different types: primary, secondary and tertiary. Before then, I had asked myself: “How did I/ we get here?” And, “What can we do about it now that the damage is done?” Now, I had a new question: “What can we do before the damage is done?”
Here’s my version of our professor’s explanation:
Once upon a time, there was a town that began to notice a lot of cats were falling into and drowning in the local river. This greatly upset the townspeople because they loved cats as much as I do (which is a lot). At first they went downstream and tried to save the cats (providing mouth-to-mouth and CPR), but this was SUPER tiring and not very successful. It was also not very supportive of those rescuers who really cared about the cats but were allergic to them. (As you can imagine, putting their faces next to the cats’ during mouth-to-mouth resuscitation caused terrible allergic reactions.) Ultimately, these methods only reduced the long-term impact of water exposure on the surviving cats. They didn’t solve the original problem. This type of intervention, our professor told us, is tertiary prevention.
So one brilliant townsperson thought, “Let’s move upstream.” Once the townspeople relocated further up river, they were able to rescue many more cats before they went off to cat heaven. But, even though more cats survived, many were severely traumatized. This, we learned, is secondary prevention.
Secondary prevention was a big improvement, but it, too, was SUPER tiring and still bad for those with allergies. So the townspeople decided to move even further upstream. It was only then that they came upon the source of the problem: A bunch of dogs who thought that attacking felines was a great way to prove their “dog-sculinity”, were pushing the cats into the river. (Get it? Masculinity…dog-sculinity. I know, I’m hilarious.) From this new vantage point on the river, the townspeople were able to intervene before the dogs threw the cats in the water. They began to teach the dogs that “dog-suclinity” is complex and not defined by taking away a cat’s power. The townspeople increasingly learned to make their methods proactive and sustainable. This, we learned, is primary prevention.
The focus was now on the dogs, not the cats, so the people with cat allergies were greatly relieved, and those with dog allergies were happy to find out that primary prevention requires very little physical contact.
To continue the metaphor, we who work in the field of sexual violence see our community “moving up river.” We have added proactive primary prevention to the more traditional and reactionary approaches (secondary and tertiary prevention), which can mediate the impact of sexual violence, but not prevent it. Such primary prevention programming starts early. We talk with children and adolescents about gender and how it should not be defined by denying another person’s authenticity, value or power. We teach them the meaning of consent in both everyday life and within intimate relationships.
Now, beyond the fun I had writing the above passage, this lesson has also given me new ways to think about my work. I now have more flexibility as a provider. I can still effectively reduce the impact of sexual violence using secondary prevention, but as a primary preventionist, I can also reduce the number of survivors who ever encounter it.
Even more, writing this has altered the way I think about my own history and my mother’s trauma. It has made me realize that, given a different set of circumstances, primary prevention could have changed the way my mother related to her world. It could have changed the way she shaped my relationships to the world, my partners, intimate relationships, and my self.
Then it dawned on me, “Wait, does this mean all of it could have been avoided?”
In my primary prevention fantasy, my mother would not say to my teenage self, “The only way to ensure that a man will continue to love you is if you don’t have sex with him.” Instead, she would tell me that sex with a partner is not about control, but about intimacy. She would have been horrified by my own victimization, not accepting of it as an inevitable part of my being a woman. And perhaps she would be happier, closer to me, and less mentally ill.
For me, primary prevention makes such things possible. It shows me that damage can be prevented at the source, not just mitigated after the fact. It means that a world with decreasing rates of sexual violence is a possibility, not a fantasy. Now, as our community creates interventions and strategies, we ask, “Where on the river is the best place to intervene?” And, “When we get to those places, how should we do it?”
Primary prevention has recharged my passion for working as a provider and encouraged me to reconnect with my mother. It has made me believe that violence is preventable and relationships repairable.
– A Primary Preventionist and Daughter
“Do you have a condom…?” The words rush out of my mouth awkwardly and timidly. I search his eyes for that familiar look of ill-contained annoyance. Boom! There it is. “Uh, yeah, I guess. Hold on,” he sighs and reaches into his bedside drawer.
Sadly, this is one of the better outcomes I’ve received after asking the condom question. Being a single, sexually active woman in New York City is…interesting. Sometimes the question comes up the same night we meet. At other times it’s a couple of dates in. But regardless of the timeline, I’ve noticed a trend in the guys I’ve been with—they are anti-condom or, at best, condom-ambivalent. I’ve heard a myriad of excuses: “I just hate the way they feel.” “Babe, I can last SO much longer without one.” “But it’s fine. You’re on the pill, right?”
I am on oral contraceptives, but sometimes I lie and say I’m not in the hope that, maybe, if the idea of contracting a life-long and possibly fatal sexually transmitted infection isn’t a convincing enough argument, then the idea of an unplanned pregnancy is. Well, apparently not for some guys. “Don’t worry, I’ll pull out! You can just get plan B though right?” And, my all-time favorite, “Well, you’re pro-choice, right?”
Was this last guy serious? Was he really implying that, because I believe in a woman’s right to make decisions for her body, I’m okay with risking unplanned pregnancy because, hey, I can always just get an abortion? I didn’t stick around to find out.
As I write this post, I still feel infuriated by these guys’ sense of entitlement and seemingly blatant disregard for my sexual health—and their own. I wish I could say that, to every half-assed excuse, to every sigh of annoyance or attempt to convince me that protecting myself from the risk of diseases and unplanned pregnancy is silly and over-reacting, I confidently and eloquently explained to the guy just how reckless and backwards he was. I wish I had coolly pointed out that he was about to get laid by an awesome chick and that he should be grateful that this awesome chick cares about sexual health, damn it!
But I didn’t. Which may be the hardest part of these past experiences for me—to confess that my knee-jerk feeling in response to these men’s ignorance, entitlement and misogyny was often not one of anger or outrage, but guilt. I felt guilty for having annoyed the guy, for having interrupted the flow of kissing and touching only to be a buzz-kill, a nag. And I felt scared—scared that the guy would no longer want to sleep with me, would no longer like me, if I didn’t let him have unprotected sex with me. Then I would feel more guilt, this time over the fact that I felt guilty in the first place (Oy vey, so much guilt!). I’m a modern-day, enlightened and empowered woman, after all. Why should I feel bad for being proactive about my wellbeing just because an ignorant man might be irritated about having to put latex over his penis?
Why? Because, as much as I told myself that I was a confident modern woman, for much of my late teens and early twenties I wasn’t actually confident. I was extremely insecure—insecure about not being thin enough or pretty enough. And though it’s hard for me to admit, a big part of me was ingrained with the belief that my sole job while being intimate with a man was to make sure he was happy, that he was having fun, that he was having an orgasm.
Hetero-sex in our society is often depicted as centering on the male’s pleasure. In almost all the porno I’ve watched—and, yes, I’ve watched quite a bit—it’s all about the male getting off while the female smiles and gasps while being pounded into in what looks like a very painful manner. Even in the tamer depictions—in TV shows and romantic comedies—sex is still usually portrayed as an activity controlled by the male. The male is the main focus while the female is just a sexy accessory, an object placed in the scene for the male’s pleasure.
As I grow older and hopefully wiser, I find myself being more assertive with men. I find myself believing more and more that I deserve to have safe sex that is enjoyable for me, as well as my partner. But those old insecurities still crop up and sometimes it can be hard for me, as it is for many other women, to go against the gender norms so firmly held to be true by our society.
Dating in New York, not a pretty thing, yet I try. I decided to go on a 4th date with a dude I found myself being pretty attracted to, internally and externally. I was excited to see him again after work, we were just going to meet at a convenient spot for both of us for some drinks. I walked in and saw him sitting at a table, I walked over, said hello and opened my arms for a hug. I then proceeded to take off my jacket and sit down. It was winter time, nice and cold. I was wearing black skinny jeans, a flannel, and my bean boots. As he watched me take off my other layers and sit he said, “You look just like me!” I laughed it off as I was not sure what to make of it and wanted to catch up and hear about a trip he had just returned from. Later that night I got back to thinking about that comment. “You look just like me”, what did that mean? Was it a good thing or a bad thing? I’ve seen many New York women wandering the streets of the city in their black jeans and flannels, actually, I feel as if it’s a style “norm” these days. As I let my thoughts flow freely through my mind I noticed I started thinking to myself, “I hope he didn’t think that it was unattractive that I was wearing something he might wear too”, or “Should I have been wearing something more girly and sexy? Will he still want to see me again?”
After a few minutes of mustering over this, I decided I had to let it go. I was almost ashamed of myself for letting it even go that far, questioning myself, and my stupid clothing choices. While the task of letting those thoughts go was fairly easy for me, I know it is not as easy for others. Unfortunately, there is still the expectation in our society that the way we dress should reflect our gender…which in itself is a socially constructed term that has and will continue to limit and oppress both sexes in many aspects of their lives. To me this was a fleeting thought; to another woman similar to me it could have been a potential break-down, clothing choice gone wrong.
At the end of the day, I was able to and had to remember how much I love myself, and that I was comfortable in my outfit, so I’m happy I own those clothing pieces and that I wore them that night. My conclusion was that if someone was not going to be interested in me because of that, I was not going to be interested in them anyways. I am not my clothing, and I should not have to wear a cute, sexy little dress to be seen as an attractive, intelligent, and funny lady.
When I was around 12 years old my mother told me to never be alone with Uncle Mario*. She told me that he had been sexually inappropriate with my Aunt Teresa when she was a child. I had some understanding of sex at the time, so I had a vague understanding of what might have happened. Hearing that about my family that was shocking to me as a kid, but I understood my mom was trying to protect me. My uncle had always made me very uncomfortable. I was a very observant, introverted kid, and I always got this off vibe from him. I stayed away and followed my mother’s advice.
My mother has always been torn up about what happened to Teresa. She was the oldest sister and felt protective of her. She blamed herself for having ‘missed’ the signs of abuse. My mom also never really knew specifically what happened or for how long it happened until recently. Not too long ago my mom called me, upset, telling me that Teresa was angry with her because she asked if Teresa was planning on going to Mario’s weekend get together at his home. Teresa said that my mother was being insensitive to the abuse she faced by asking her if she planned to attend. I told my mom I agreed with my aunt. My Aunt has spent her adult life avoiding any family gathering that involved my Uncle Mario. For the most part, Mario was the “black sheep” of the family, and he excluded himself of many family events which made it a bit easier for Teresa. However, it was no secret that Teresa didn’t want to be around him or even hear anyone speak about him. I asked my mom what she was thinking in saying that to Teresa. We then had a conversation about loyalty, alliances, and supporting survivors of incest/sexual abuse.
My mom said that she felt conflicted about the situation because in my mother’s mind “it was so long ago”. I told my mom that for however long the abuse happened, which we weren’t sure of at the time, it doesn’t end for my aunt, because she has to live with the emotional aftermath and trauma that this sort of violation and sexual violence causes. She has to deal with the memories and painful reminders of her abuser, given that he remained in touch with her other family members. My mom asked me if her sister should just forgive Mario. I said that’s not for my mother to ask of her. Firstly, Mario has never admitted to the abuse he subjected her to. Secondly, Mario has never asked for forgiveness. I told her that if Teresa one day finds it necessary for her own healing and peace to forgive without him asking for it, she can do that on her own time, in her own way. My mother tried to make comparisons, talking about people she had forgiven and resentments she had let go. I responded that sexual abuse is not a ‘mistake’ that you can let go like any other. I asked her:
“Mom, if it were me, if he had done that to me, would you expect me to forgive him just like that? Would you forgive him?”
She paused, “No, I wouldn’t.”
“If he had done this to me, would you ever maintain contact with him?”
“No, absolutely not.”
“He would be dead to you, right?”
“Right…you’re right.” She conceded.
“And this is your sister, what’s the difference?”
“If this had happened to me, and you maintained contact with him, I would never speak to you again, because it would be so disloyal to me.”
“…You’re right…But what about the family, should he just not have contact with the family then?” I can tell my mom is having trouble reconciling the family link with how she should position herself in relation to the abuse that happened.
“In my opinion, there are some things that make you lose the privilege of family, and that’s when you violate a family member to that degree. I don’t think there is any coming back from things like murder, rape, sexual molestation…unless there is some epic journey of redemption, and still, in my opinion the family should take the lead of the survivor as to what is OK and what is not OK.”
My mom asked “What should I do then?”
“Talk to her about it, ask her how you can support her. If she asks you to not have contact with him anymore, then you got to evaluate if that is something that you can peacefully do. But you should know that if you cannot support her in a way she needs it, you risk hurting her or alienating her.”
“OK, I’ll go see her tomorrow.”
The next day my mom calls me again and tells me that her sister sat her down and told her exactly what had happened between her and Mario. She said that the abuse continued over the span of several years, and began when Mario was already an adult. This surprised my mom because it occurred during a much longer period of time than she imagined, and Mario was much older than my mom had assumed.
My mom asked why Teresa didn’t tell anyone at the time. Teresa told my mom that she was confused because she was a child when it began, and later she was being told not to tell anyone by Mario under threat of grave violence. Teresa told my mom that she finally confronted the family and exposed the abuse when she was a young adult, many years ago. My mom had just given birth and wasn’t aware or involved in family matters at the time and wasn’t really informed about what was being exposed. My mom had vague notions of what was disclosed, but family secrecy didn’t allow for my mom to be really informed on what happened.
Teresa said that some family members minimized the abuse, saying that it ‘wasn’t such a big deal’. Another family member confronted Mario, and Mario told some story about being drunk one night and trying to touch her. That’s all that happened, Mario said. Teresa was accused of having ‘made it up’ of ‘fantasizing the situation’ or making it bigger in some way. Teresa told my mom about the pain of not being validated and believed when she told her family about it. She also talked about the pain of her family still being in touch with Mario after her disclosure. I told my mom that this can be a very isolating experience for a survivor, re-traumatizing them…
I asked my mom what she planned on doing. My mom told me that she cried during her sister’s disclosure to her, and they ended the conversation in a hug and an agreement to spend more time together to rekindle their relationship. My mom said that her sister didn’t ask her to not talk to Mario.
My mom reflected: “I don’t think I can be around him, just for my own sake. Teresa didn’t even need to ask me to not be around him, now that I know, from my own internal feeling; I don’t think I can be around him.”
I talked to my mom about the conflicting allegiances/loyalty issues that can come up in a family after incest or sexual abuse.
I reflected to my mom that it probably meant a lot to Teresa that she listened and was moved by Teresa’s disclosure, rather than minimizing, discrediting and invalidating her like other family members had. My mom said she was still shaken up by the conversation and would need some time to process it.
I also needed some time to process what had happened. I was glad that my mom was receptive to feedback and open to re-approaching that conversation with her sister in a sensitive way. I know my mom loves her sister, and she always believed her regarding the abuse. However, I can see how confusing it is to not have clarity because the actions of the abuser create conflict, polarization and divide in family relationships. Unfortunately, the “easiest” things for families to do are to avoid, deny, minimize, blame or discredit the survivor so that no one really has to deal with the reality or the pain of what happened. No one has to draw the line in the sand of what actions and values goes beyond the ties of family and define where their support is. The idea is not to create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, but to respond to the survivor’s needs and be supportive in the way they need it.
This is hard for families, but it’s hardest for the survivor. I can only imagine how it is hard for a parent to make these definitions when the abuse happens between siblings, two of their children. I can’t speak to that part of it, it must be incredibly painful. I can only speak to what I would expect if I were the survivor, and I know that can be one-sided. The complexity of that situation would be best addressed by therapy to have a guide in working through these issues. It would be a long journey of healing. I hope, though, that sharing this story can contribute with some perspectives on the issue.
*All real names were replaced with pseudonyms. Some details were modified to further protect the privacy and identity of those involved.
For those who like reading blog posts on feminism, you’ve probably heard of the term “mansplaining” or “mansplanation”. Mansplaining is a delightful term which refers to when men try to enlighten the public on several topics like ‘reverse sexism’ or why catcalling is A-Okay and here to stay. Mainsplainers like to tell it ‘how it is’ and drop some ‘knowledge’ about the reality of oppression. They are here to teach us patience and show how powerful the blinders of privilege can be.
One of the best presentations of mansplanation I’ve seen recently is an interview on CNN about that viral catcalling video Hollaback released. It’s a sobering segment and highly entertaining. You can check it out here via the Huffingtonpost. If afterwards you feel you need to cleanse your palate, here’s an example of some male allies bringing light to cat calling, check it out here. It’s yummy.
It’s a refreshing thing when ‘mansplanation’ actually comes from a place of promoting gender equality. I feel we need a new term for that. Any ideas? Equalisplaining? That’s something to workshop for later…
Jezebel.com recently posted an interview with Terry Crews on the topic of manhood and masculinity. I mostly knew who Terry Crews was by those energetic the Old Spice commercials. As others may already know, he’s had a long career as an NFL player, actor and model. Crews also recently published a book called Manhood: How to Be A Better Man – Or Just Live With One, which I’ve promptly added to my amazon cart after watching his interview.
I didn’t know to expect because I really haven’t been aware of his views on the subject. Here are some of the highlights paraphrased from the interview:
It is worth a full viewing.
These messages are so important. Perhaps this framework is a bit ying-and-yangy, but I’ve always thought that you cannot help transform society’s patriarchal oppression by only talking to women or educating women on how to empower themselves. Those are really important pieces, but it’s not the whole picture. Not addressing men and having them have an equal force in this conversation subtly reinforces oppression, placing responsibility of change on the victims, not the oppressors.
I know within the last several years the conversation has really redirected towards men, bystander intervention, and male socialization. Masculinity needs to be healed as well, it needs to be taken out of this rigid box of behaviors and lenses through which masculinity is understood, defined and relates to femininity. Getting these messages from another man is even more impactful due to the role modeling in being a strong example in breaking those barriers.
If we intervene throughout the spectrum of gender and sexual identity, changing these mentalities at their root, the possibility is a society where gender-based violence is a dark part of a distant past.
Hooray for another public ally.
Sixteen Candles (1984) is one of my favorite John Hughes movies. It has always made me laugh, and watching it feels like a portal back to the 1980s. I recently watched Sixteen Candles and had different emotions about it this time.
The amount of stereotyping and political incorrectness in Sixteen Candles is profound. The way women are objectified in high school is a clear theme throughout the movie. When Jake Ryan asks about Samantha to a nerdy kid, he immediately talks about her body and lists her features in rank order. After he sees Jake get agitated, he asks “Oh man I’m sorry, Is she yours?” That statement did not resonate well with me. The idea that a man only feels obligated to respect women that ‘belong’ to other men is ridiculous. Samantha should be treated with respect, regardless of whether she has a boyfriend or not.
Another scene I found disturbing is when Jake is talking about his current girlfriend. He says, “Caroline is beautiful and everything. Shit, I’ve got Caroline in my bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.” Molesting someone while they are asleep or unconscious is not sexy. The fact that the lead male character, or protagonist, would make that comment is very odd. People that claim to believe films, TV, and pop culture moments like this are somehow disconnected from perpetuating rape should take a step back and really think about the message this sends.
Since 1980, a lot of things have changed. Technology has created a new channel for men and women to voice their opinions about gender stereotyping, discrimination, and rape. Men and women now have the power to raise red flags and publish their opinions of movies online. Men and women with strong followers can affect the box office success of a movie, the movie’s ability to franchise, and scale out.
In 2014, if I type in “Sixteen Candles Politically Incorrect” in my search, more than 50 articles show up. This sort of checks and balances system that technology has created has kept screenwriters conscience about the messages they send out. Negative messages can directly affect the success of their business. This is one of the many ways technology has changed our world for the better, and people that didn’t have access to voice their opinion now can.
Technology has help enabled a revolution in which men and women can share their story with millions of people. Rape and Criminal Sex acts are being talked about, and people are getting educated about what is right and wrong. Technology has helped break the silence about rape. I am forever grateful for the people that that continue to fight and publish informative articles that are further contributing the well-being of men and women that have been affected.