What we are taught, part 2

Over breakfast one morning when I was maybe 14 or 15 years old, my grandfather advised me to ‘keep [my] knees together’. To this day, I have no idea what prompted this seemingly random statement.

As an awkward adolescent sitting at breakfast in a restaurant with her family, I was mortified. From the faces of everyone except my grandfather and the choked chortling coming from the wait staff, it’s one of my most vivid memories of my grandfather and one I’d rather not recall quite so easily. The message, however, was as clear then as it is now: my own actions as a girl or woman will be interpreted by others and either invite judgements of virtue or exploitation and I alone hold responsibility over whatever happens. In other words, what happens to me (sexually) is my ‘fault’.

Horseshit, I say, now as I did then. I am of course responsible for the choices I make and decisions I take. But, I am not an object.

Nearly 30 years later and armed with a firm understanding of feminism, sexual justice, and the notion that there is no justification for the subjugation or exploitation of anyone, it’s discouraging to hear what is passing as a project aimed at today’s youth in West Virginia.

Labelled Project Future Two-a-Days, the ‘social media and drug education’ programme launched in August is aimed at high school athletes and guiding them on ‘avoiding trouble on the internet‘. Basically, it teaches young athletes how not to tweet, text or post to social media any evidence which might incriminate them or lead to criminal charges against them.

That is, things happen when you add drugs, alcohol, smartphones and raging hormones. Don’t share it via social media and here’s how you can avoid getting caught.

Maybe, in all this training, we can insert a little bit of guidance on not sexually assaulting young girls? Maybe a little something about ‘consensual sex’ and its meaning? And, hey, whilst we’re at it, maybe we could talk about safer sex? Since the programme mentions drug education, maybe we can also add a little about responsible drinking and drugs behaviour as well?

But, no, the idea is to not get caught — not to not do it in the first place. That it is designed for young male athletes is rather shocking.

News this week has showcased yet another town’s lovely treatment of a pair of young girls who were raped (at a star football player’s home and by him and his friends), one girl being left for dead on her lawn in freezing temps. Despite both physical and digital evidence, despite eye witness accounts from the younger girl and several of the other boys there, and despite what appears to be confessions from the two boys who assaulted the girls, the charges were mysteriously dropped. Instead, the two girls — one 13 and another 14 — were blamed for what happened to them and much of the town stands firmly behind the boys who perpetrated rape whilst publicly shaming the girls.

‘They asked for it’. ‘They deserved it’. ‘Matt 1: Daisy 0’ read one viscious t-shirt — Matt being the star football player, Daisy being the girl left for dead. That t-shirt was worn by another girl.

How many times will this happen? How many times has it happened and gone unreported?

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network provides a depressing answer to that last question: out of every 100 rapes, 54 go unreported. Only three out of every 100 rapists will spend a single day in jail for the crime(s) they commit. Three. I think we can agree that that is appalling.

From RAINN (http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/reporting-rates). Sources:  1.  Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2006-2010; 2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports: 2006-2010; 3. National Center for Policy Analysis, Crime and Punishment in America, 1999; 4. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006; 5. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006.

From RAINN (http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/reporting-rates).
1. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2006-2010; 2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports: 2006-2010; 3. National Center for Policy Analysis, Crime and Punishment in America, 1999; 4. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006; 5. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006.

There is no justice figures like these. Whilst these are figures for all rapes regardless of age, given the reluctance of most kids to talk about sex let alone sexual violence and drugs and alcohol with their parents, it’s easy to imagine that most instances of rape in adolescents go unreported to anyone. But, by all means, let’s start programmes which teach young men how to get away with sexually assaulting young girls.

Gloria Steinem may have been speaking on a seemingly unrelated issue when she recently said that we need to ‘change the culture‘. But, that seems precisely what we need to do. Rather than teaching boys and young men how not to get caught and to not post videos or pictures of their friends raping young girls, we have the tools and responsibility to teach them how to respect young girls and how NOT to rape young girls. We should spend a little energy and time imparting upon them that girls and women are not simply sexual objects — young girls are equally important and valuable — intellectually, socially and culturally. Let’s provide young people with healthy notions of relationships of all types.

And, while we’re at it, let’s teach young girls (and young boys) that have been sexually assaulted that they won’t be blamed for the heinous acts perpetrated against them. They will not be shamed by their community simply because the popular, well-connected individual is the guilty party. It is not their fault when a violent crime is committed against them.

The only way we can change the culture of rape and the culture of objectification is to call it what it is and hold those accountable for turning a blind eye. And, we commit further crimes when we blame those against whom such crimes have been perpetrated.

Thirty years on from that mortifying breakfast and I am realising nothing has really changed. But, that doesn’t mean it can’t.

Crushing hope

The worst crime we adults commit is not murder or theft or the bodily harm of another. It’s crushing the hope and dreams of children, particularly those who look to us as members of their immediate and extended families and to whom they look as role models and guides.

It’s tragic enough when adults lose all hope of a better tomorrow; but, destroying that belief in a better life, a promise of tomorrow among children is unconscionable.

This weekend, we caught a documentary from Appalachia which leaves little room for hope—for parents or their children. Oxyana, a brilliant crowd-funded documentary directed by Sean Dunne, is gut-wrenching in its honest talks and unfiltered intimacy with residents of Oceana, West Virginia, a small town nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains. It is a film which provides very little in the way of hope.

Oceana has been renamed ‘Oxyana’—an indication of just how much of the town has been impacted by oxycontin dependency. Members of the community recount how Oceana was a different place a mere 12 to 15 years ago before oxycontin was commonly prescribed to residents for pain and ‘anxiety’. Now, oxy dependence is epidemic. Person after person tells of their own oxycontin dependence, or the horror of watching their family and friends fall into prescription pill addiction. As one interviewee recounts, no one in the town has been spared the loss of at least one person close to them to overdose. Indeed, one such individual who appears on camera and is incredibly lucid and open about his use and distribution recounts how his own father committed suicide after first killing his wife and other son over what appears to be the mother’s prescription drugs. It’s a rather chilling moment in the film for obvious reasons.

The town’s dentist weeps as he talks of his own girls growing up in a town amongst good people who have no hope. His girls’ friends have lost parents to overdose. And, yet, he remains in the town and tries to hold on to hope for himself and for his girls. A physician from the local hospital explains rather dispassionately of the number of overdose deaths they encounter in the hospital each day (not week) and how 50% of all babies born in the hospital are on methadone to combat the dependency with which they are born.

In the final moments of this compelling documentary, a young woman, herself dependent upon oxycontin for pain and ‘anxiety’ talks of how she just wants a better life for her daughter, for herself. It’s when talking of her daughter that she truly breaks down.

The cycle of poverty, joblessness, and a life in which dope offers an escape from the physical and mental pain provides very little in the way of hope. Dope and a sense of overwhelming despair largely resulting from poverty and hopelessness have a vice-like grip on this small mountain community. If an individual doesn’t work in the mines, they are most likely already dependent upon on oxy. And, so, the cycle continues.

Diane Sawyer, a native of Kentucky, also used the power of journalism in a documentary ‘A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains‘ to bring to the masses the crushing weight of poverty which is characteristic for more than a half million residents of Appalachia and which for most of the rest of America is unimaginable. That she focused on the lives of children in incredibly desperate situations added yet a further blow.

Drug use and dysfunction feature in this second narrative prominently. But, mostly, crushing poverty provides little in the way of hope for a brighter future for any of the children. ‘Faith’ helps one cling to the idea that the future will be better — for her and her troubled mother. Yet, watching, hope is largely absent. As a young girl describes the only two contents of their fridge at times being mayo and ranch, you want to weep. At least I did.

What have we done to leave these communities in such situations? What have done that a physician describes the current generation as the ‘lost generation’? Are they well and truly lost? Or have we and with us they simply lost all hope?

We have failed these communities and more importantly those individuals who despair in such situations. Whilst we have the tools to help them medically, what will we do to assist them medically or socially? Because they are nestled away in an isolated community, will we continue to turn a blind eye and ignore their pain and suffering and relegate it as their problem alone? What message does that convey to the children who live in such situations?

And, what hope are we offering them, any of them? Or, have we simply crushed all hope for Oceana?

On civility

Merriam-Webster defines civility as:

polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.

The interwebs are filled with anything but civility today.

For most of the rest of the world, watching the discourse coming from not just Washington DC but the United States in general most likely lies somewhere between reviews of the worst theatre production ever and an unthinkable reality show capturing a mass of petulant, pouting, spoiled brats hurling food, mud, insults and anything else at one another (check out the comments in the link). What’s worse is that those actors this very large schoolyard bully fest don’t have the slightest inkling what they are actually fighting about anymore, other than that the other side is just ‘wrong’ and ‘immoral’ and they are not.

There is scarcely little in the way of public displays of civility between waring factions in the US anymore between politicians between friends and even between family members at times. What happened?

I’m not a member of any political party in the US or elsewhere. I can see merit in many positions (although I confess that I do find most of what the Tea Party spews to be utterly incomprehensible and unconscionable). But, I don’t 100% agree with any party on every single issue. Who does? I’ll certainly entertain policy outlines and listen to agendas which attempt to solve a problem or provide a solution to an issue which faces us all and which keeps human rights and dignity at the forefront. I’m open to debating issues as long as it doesn’t become personal and attacks are not launched at a party or class or group of individuals categorised as ‘the other’ or those ‘who are to blame’.

We are all humans. We are all guilty of some sin or another just as we all have good within us. And, frankly, we should all share a portion of the blame for the situation in which we now find ourselves. No one is infallible. No one is above reproach.

But, increasingly and especially at the moment, having any sort of discussion is like sitting several centimetres from a tinderbox doused with a litre of petrol and a burning match dangling ever so closely to where the tinder is just beginning to smoke. Sparks are flying ever so closely and we all seem in danger of erupting fully and violently (I include myself in this — I am under no illusions to those who might think otherwise). It’s a little frightening to me. As much as I love to discuss policy and politics, there are many moments when I’d rather not since I know the inevitable flame wars will ensue.

Again, what happened?

If we cannot create a safe space in which to voice our concerns as well as our ideas and solutions, we’ll never find common ground and we cannot hope to find a happy medium. If we ever hope to regain that greatness and promise of a brighter future for our children and grandchildren, if we are ever to begin to address the most pressing issues of our day, we must regain that sense of collective good. To do that, we must keep discussions civil and even-handed, and we must remain open to alternatives.

I’ll do my best. Will you?