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Project Envision NYC is a community-based collective aimed at changing the social norms that perpetuate sexual violence and other forms of oppression through cultivating safe spaces for dialogue and creative expression.

We envision a NYC that takes collective responsibility for ending sexual violence.

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Envision Voices

postal_ihavetheright_esp_frenteENVISION VOICES is a blog written by Project Envision NYC  members to start healthy dialogues around the root causes of sexual violence.

The One With The Existential Crisis

I love the television show Friends. LOVE it-own the entire series and have seen every episode at least 5 times, not exaggerating. I started watching the popular sitcom around age 10, following it religiously through my formative teen years until the series ended in 2004. Over ten years later, and Friends is still one of my favorites—it’s my go to when I’m bored, sad, anxious, or nostalgic. If I’m feeling stressed, I pop in an episode and instantly feel comforted by the familiar jokes and banter between the show’s six characters, the soothing laugh track lulls me into a happy calm place.

But in recent years, a hitch in my otherwise blissful Friends-watching has developed. Growing up in a predominately white, conservative suburb in the Midwest, my awareness and connection to people of different races and economic classes was limited at best, and this narrow world that I inhabited was unfortunately reflected back to me on the majority of popular television shows at the time, including Friends. The six friends are all white, heterosexual, and live financially comfortable lives—even Joey, who’s allegedly a struggling actor for part of the series, still lives in a questionably large apartment.

Shrouded in my own privileges, this lack of diversity never seemed odd or upsetting to me when I was younger, but as I moved from my small Midwestern suburb to New York City for college and then eventually grad school, my world became bigger and so too my awareness of the less obvious microagressions that are rampant and reaffirm the narrow frameworks that our society views race, gender, and economic class through. As I watched the same episodes I had watched numerous times before, certain dialogue and plot lines began to newly rub me in the wrong way.

For example, one afternoon I was watching the episode “The One With The Ballroom Dancing”. For those of you non-Friends obsessed readers, here’s a short summary of the episode: The superintendent, Mr. Treeger, of the building that Joey, Chandler, Monica, & Rachel all live in, yells at Rachel for clogging the trash chute. Joey then confronts Mr. Treeger for upsetting his friend which in turn causes Mr. Treeger to threaten to get Monica and Rachel evicted from the building as they are illegally subletting Monica’s grandmother’s apartment. In order to prevent the girls from eviction, Joey strikes up a deal with Mr. Treeger that he’ll be his dancing partner to help Mr. Treeger practice ballroom dancing in order to build his confidence to ask a woman out to a dance (The Superball). When the rest of the gang finds out about Joey’s agreement with Treeger, they tease him relentlessly because the idea of heterosexual male practicing ballroom dancing with another male? Assuming the traditionally female role in the equation? Hilarious! Monica even goes as far as to quip something along the lines of “How are the dancing lessons? Gay yet?” Upon hearing this last line, I legitimately cringed. Had that blatantly awful dialogue really made it into the final script? A line not even subtly implying that being gay means being less of a man? That it means being on the same level of a woman god forbid?

And surely I, as a non-awful, well informed feminist had acknowledged the terribleness and heteronormative language of that line before during one of my several previous viewings of this episode? I thought back to past viewings of this episode-me as a pre-teen watching, or as a slightly older, slightly wiser (?) teenager watching and hearing that line and reacting not with outrage as I am now, but with…laughter? Thinking that horribly offensive line was actually funny? And I cringed again because I know I did indeed laugh at one time and other times likely did not give the line more than a second’s thought. I grew up with that type of “humor”-hetero and gender normative—as being normalized. “That’s so gay” was a phrase commonly used by my peers (and I’m sure by me at one point) as an insult meant to be synonymous with “that’s so stupid” or “that’s weak”. Similarly, calling a boy “girly” was a commonly used insult, and if a boy participated in an activity stereotypically viewed as only acceptable for girls to do, it was grounds to be ridiculed.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when in time I started becoming less okay with this offensive type of language trying to be passed off as humor. I vaguely remember those type of jokes making me feel uncomfortable during my teen years but feeling like I didn’t have a right to voice this uncomfortableness, that I would be seen as “not being able to take a joke” (it would still be a couple of years before I formally learned what “tone policing” was and how much of it I would face for having the gall to voice my feminist beliefs).

Even now, as a more fully formed adult with confidence in my beliefs and pride in my feminism, I still have moments of self-tone policing. Coming back to my Friends-induced existential crisis of conscious, the other day I brought up the episode, and in particular the “gay yet?” line that was bothering me to a good friend of mine who is equally obsessed with the show. She responded “Yeah, it’s not great, but it’s just a sitcom what can you expect? It’s not really a huge deal.” Was I making too big a deal about this? Should I just swallow my anger and try to continue blithely watching Friends, care-free as before? But it is a big deal. In the same way the Oscars’ lack of diversity this year (and every year) was a big deal—while it may seem like “yes this is just a sitcom” or “it’s a movie awards ceremony, not a political movement”—because these tv shows and movies are further propagating what should and should not be seen as normal and acceptable in our society. As for me…I’m still watching Friends and I’ll feel forever grateful towards the show for getting me through some tough periods of anxiety and loneliness, but at the same time I’ll continue to cringe at lines such as “gay yet” and be aware of the show’s flaws as well as my own when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes.

Going Home

I recently came across a short film that really spoke to me and made me think about the world we are trying to create through Project Envision and primary prevention.

The film was produced in India and is called Going Home: A film by Vikas Bahl feat. Alia Bhatt. It was released online on October 17, 2014 and quickly went viral. The film was created as part of the #VogueEmpower campaign.

You can view the short film here. It’s approximately five and a half minutes long and is absolutely worthwhile.

In summary, the short shows a young woman whose car breaks down at night on a quiet road. You see this car approaching with the sound of heavy predatory breathing accompanied by ominous music. Inside the car are five men who stop and get out of the car to help. The exchange of knowing glances between the men and the young woman’s trust and vulnerability are all highlighted by the editing. The mood implies that she is in danger and this plays right into our internal script about what we think is going to happen. As viewers we make assumptions that the woman is about to be assaulted. However, throughout the video, the actions of the men show them being helpful, appropriate, and humane towards this woman – with no sexual or violent impropriety. As a viewer this surprises us and challenges our assumptions, which is the genius of the film. Our surprise at the absence of violence makes us check ourselves and leads us to think about what we have become accustomed to.

We are brainwashed by societal norms and the media’s incessant message that the situation the woman finds herself in is inherently dangerous, that she has “put herself” in an incredibly risky situation (as if you can ever predict a car breaking down). We find it remarkable that these five men did not “take advantage” of this young lady’s “vulnerability” in the situation. Our surprise holds a mirror to the fact that we’ve come to expect very little humanity from these men. One wonders if this is why some men expect so little of themselves, and each other, in similar situations; why they allow themselves to violate another human being. Identity, roles, expectations–these are powerful social forces that influence individual behavior.

Along with the upload, the director Vikas Bahl included the following statement: “I pledge to create a short film titled ‘Going Home’, in which we visualise a utopia for women, where, unlike today, mistrust and fear don’t dictate actions and decisions.”

It’s worth noting that while this video and the director’s comments refer solely to women, sexual violence can target men as well as gender non-conforming, gender-queer, transgender individuals and those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. It’s important to highlight this; otherwise we risk propagating oppression by omission. I’m not sure if the #VogueEmpower campaign plans to produce more short films. If so, I hope they will show a more inclusive and comprehensive spectrum of how a violence-free society can be envisioned.

The video ends with the phrase “Impossible in the real world. Can we give her the world she believes exists? Can we”

This question puts the burden for creating this world not on her, but on US. You, me, everybody. This speaks to the heart of primary prevention. Gender socialization/norms, power inequalities, oppression, dehumanization of others in all its forms, these are the root causes of gender violence.

Can we create a society that isn’t fertile ground for sexual violence? Can we teach each other to honor one another as full human beings, respecting the inherent rights, space and agency of each individual? The film allows us to envision what a world free of sexual violence could look like.

What do you think?

Can we?

Malu

Singlehood

At the age of 10, I daydreamed about my wedding. Perhaps that was due to my new found religious beliefs or the crushes I had on various boys at school. The 37 year old feminist in me wants to shout, “Dream bigger, louder and beyond the traditional expectations placed on girls!” at that little girl. Feminism and I would not formally meet until I was in my twenties but we had seen each other around. In my early dating life, religion repressed my sexuality. I believed that sex should be with someone you love and in a relationship where the goal was marriage, so the only way to have sex was to get married.

Hundreds of miles and many, many years from that little girl in Kansas who dreamt of that “perfect” life with a husband and kids, I am single in NYC. I feel sad for that little girl because it was the only image of happiness that she was exposed to. Culture, family, and a small frame of expectations seems appropriate to blame. The depressing fact was that I was born into a world that sets up these expectation.

Walking down memory lane had me passing all my old childhood friends with their husbands and kids.  A few are on second marriages, some one parent homes, a couple married and miserable and a minority paired happily.  Many of the women are more educated and intelligent than their partner but conform to the traditional gender roles. As children, we saw and were taught that you found a job, until you found a husband and then you worked to support the family unit. This was happiness.

My high school history teacher and volleyball coach was the only woman during my adolescence who was unmarried, no children and not in a relationship.  Despite having her in my life, I did not consider her a role model.  Due to her age and lack of partner, it was assumed that she was a lesbian by parents and students.  It was whispered about as the only logical conclusion for not having a traditional family. To me she was a great coach and an average teacher but I was stumped as to what her life looked like without kids and a partner. Being a lesbian, to me, seemed preferable to being single because at least you could have a partner, being single to me at the time, meant you were unlovable.

Spending high school summer days dreaming about Jeff, Chad, Boyd, Charlie or whomever my current crush was never landed me a boyfriend, instead it landed me in college which was rare in my family. I was able to think about what else was out there. I managed to hit my late thirties without a long-term relationship. As an adult, I’ve discovered alternate dreams despite having my more liberal feminist friends constantly ask me about my love life as a reminder that I should always be looking for a partner.

Being single has never been an acceptable dream in our society.  We strive to share our lives with the people we love and as a single person, I have that in abundance. I accept myself and don’t need a partner to complete or validate me. I know I can love and trust others because I have friends.

Other people cite religious reasons for marrying.  I will relate this to Christianity as I have more of a working language of it.  God made Adam and gave him Eve so as to not be alone.  According to the story I recall, God didn’t intend to create Eve but Adam seemed lonely.  Loneliness is a hard emotion to deal with.  The emotion visits me like everyone, single or married.  I believe that if you were to ask Adam, he probably still had some sad and lonely days even with company and it was up to him to deal with it, not Eve.

Single life should be presented in a better frame.  It’s not a life less lived, less valuable or a place-holder until you find “the one”.  Singlehood is a state of being aware of who you are, what you want and having the freedom to discover yourself.  It could be deemed selfish but it can lead to self-awareness, which makes for a lovely existence.

When I tell people that I am single, they usually want to know what I am doing about it.  It is as if I were looking for a job, they ask similar questions: where are you looking, what have you been saying in the interviews or you need some help. I have chosen a single life because I love myself and being single suites me, even if society has me in the box of lonely old maid.

dani“Suck it society! Single equals awesome!”

If My Mother Had Primary Prevention

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

The Condom Question

“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?”

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.

BV

Dating in New York…

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.

by SER