Suggested Actions for White Feminist Allies from Katie

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.

On my blog, I had just linked to an excellent and common example by BrownFemiPower of white women getting credit for helping women at large when they’ve actually done a lot of harm to women.

How did they do this harm?

By forgetting to ask themselves whether women in a population group would be disproportionately hurt (compared to men in the same population group) by whatever actions they’re advocating (be they immigration actions, medical funding actions, military funding and policy actions, etc.)


Today, BrownFemiPower saw another instance of white women getting credit for helping women at large when they have, by forgetting to apply their feminist knowledge to all their advocacy of various policy positions, done a lot of harm to many, many women.

Short summary:

  • White feminists were getting mocked by conservatives for not criticizing misogyny conducted by non-whites against non-whites strongly enough.
  • White feminists wrote a nationally publicized letter saying, “We do too! Hell, we FOUND that misogyny and were the first to tell the non-white perpetrators that they should stop it!”
  • BrownFemiPower retorted (unfortunately, in a venue that isn’t nearly as highly publicized) that
    1. they shouldn’t even worry about whether they’re criticizing misogyny conducted by non-whites against non-whites until they’ve spent a heck of a lot more time criticizing misogyny conducted by whites against non-whites (usually through foreign policy) and
    2. they did NOT find the non-white-on-non-white misogyny mentioned by conservatives and they were NOT the first to tell the perpetrators of that misogyny to stop it–the VICTIMS did both.

Quotes from BFP’s post:

her little list of wrongs that “American feminists” stand against was the most irritating…

Hm. Who could Ms. Pollitt *possibily* be talking about here?…

Do you think it’s the U.S. government that is currently enforcing horrific immigration laws that are degrading and violating women and their families–-IN KATHA’S OWN DAMN COUNTRY?…

Why the particular emphasis on “Muslim countries?” Does Ms. Pollitt think that “Muslim countries” are particularly hostile to women’s rights for some reason?

Even as her own country imprisons 8 year old girls and deports their mothers?

Fact: it’s feminists who first identified atrocities against women around the world–female genital mutilation, forced marriage, child marriage, spousal violence, rape– as violations of human rights, not family matters or customs of no state importance.

Actually, Ms. Pollitt–it was the women who *experienced* those actions that first identified the violence being committed against them.


Please, please, please, please, please–if you’re a white feminist, consider my suggestion for action instead of signing Ms. Pollitt’s letter:
Next time you’re around white feminists who are upset that the right wing is saying, “You don’t do enough to stop non-white violence against non-white women!” STOP them from retorting with a, “Look at all we’re doing!” and, worse yet, a resurgence of interest in taking that kind of action.

Tell your white feminist peers only to tell the right wing commentators, if they must retort at all:

“I’m sorry, but you’re wrong to assume that that is our job. Our job is to stop white violence against white women and white violence against non-white women. And we will work on those issues in the proportion that they exist today.

“Though we may lend time and resources when and to the extent that they are asked of us by non-white women, we refuse to claim that it is our job to ‘stop’ non-white violence against non-white women.

“Thank you for listening, and please follow our bulletin for the amazing work we are doing stopping white violence against white women and white violence against non-white women in the coming months!”


Lakota Sioux women’s shelter needs help

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.

All text from the Pretty Bird Woman House blog.

In May of this year, the progressive netroots pulled together to save a tiny women’s shelter on a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Thanks to over 680 strangers who donated a combined $27,000, Pretty Bird Woman House was able to keep its doors open for the duration and provide emergency shelter for 188 women and 132 children.

But just last month thieves broke into Pretty Bird Woman House – literally smashing holes through the walls. They stole the computers, the television, clothing, toiletries – all donated. Then arsonists set fire to the building.

Pretty Bird Woman House remains open, without a house, in an unheated, donated office. The tribal council has done all it can afford to do. Without a house, this sanctuary will die.

Pretty Bird Woman House needs another netroots miracle to survive. There is so much in the world we are powerless over. For Pretty Bird Woman House you can make a difference, make the world a better place, right here, right now, today.

Origins of Pretty Bird Woman House
In October of 2001 a monster in the body of a fifteen-year-old boy stalked the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota. Since his tenth birthday he had racked up twenty-five separate criminal charges, included among them was torturing a kitten to death. Another incident involved his shattering a beer bottle over the head of an eight year old. Thirty one year old Ivy Archambault had the misfortune of being home asleep when he broke into her house intent on burglary. Before the night ended he kidnapped, raped and beat her to death. In the six years since this crime was committed, he has never been charged with the murder despite eyewitnesses willing to testify, thanks to a nightmarish maze of confusing tribal, federal, state and local jurisdictions and laws. (Sources: Indian Country News, Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Citizen’s Equal Rights Alliance)

Ivy Archambault’s murder might well have passed from memory without any impact. But Jackie Brown Otter, her sister, had other ideas; she envisioned a shelter, a place where threatened women could go. A base for the fight to prevent these crimes and when they occur, seek justice on behalf of the victim. She wanted to name this place with her sister’s Lakota name: Pretty Bird Woman. Over the course of three years she and a small group of women struggled to make this happen. Then, in late 2004, the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence came through with a grant and hired Georgia Little Shield, a nurse with ten years experience in the domestic violence as Director of Pretty Bird Woman House.

Georgia Little Shield knows a little about domestic violence:

I’m a survivor. I was abused as a child. It was real bad. I almost succeeded in committing suicide – you see, back then, the only place I had to go was to die. There was nothing, no shelter, no counseling on the reservation, nowhere I could turn. There was no help for me and I just wanted to die. No woman should have to go through that. No woman should feel that way…

Nobody’s going to talk for these women but us. We have to help them. We have to let them know, there is help. We don’t have to tolerate it no more. We have rights.

Georgia started in October 2005. The local tribal district government donated office space and on January 5th, 2006, Pretty Bird Woman House opened for business and has not closed since despite a constant struggle to survive.

Scope of the Problem
Standing Rock Reservation is not particularly friendly to women. According to the Amnesty International report Maze of Injustice – The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA:

High levels of sexual violence on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation take place in a context of high rates of poverty and crime. South Dakota has the highest poverty rate for Native American women in the USA with 45.3 per cent living in poverty. The unemployment rate on the Reservation is 71 per cent. Crime rates on the Reservation often exceed those of its surrounding areas. According to FBI figures, in 2005 South Dakota had the fourth highest rate of “forcible rapes” of women of any US state.

Amnesty International was told of five rapes which took place over one week in September 2005. Many survivors reported that they had experienced sexual violence several times in their lives and by different perpetrators. There were also several reports of gang rapes. One survivor and activist told Amnesty International that people have become desensitized to acts of sexual violence. A common response to such crimes is blame, but directed at the survivor rather than the perpetrator.

Making things worse, Standing Rock Reservation has a tiny police force to patrol all 2.3 million acres. At the time of the murder of Pretty Bird Woman, Standing Rock had only one police officer on duty during the night shift. As a result, it took over a day for anyone to even come out to start to investigate the disappearance. Since then the night patrol has doubled in size… 2 officers for 2.3 million acres each night.

Further compounding the problem, Amnesty reports on the legal nightmare facing the victims, their advocates and the police:

Tribal and federal authorities have concurrent jurisdiction on all Standing Rock Sioux Reservation lands over crimes where the suspected perpetrator is American Indian. In instances in which the suspected perpetrator is non-Indian, federal officials have exclusive jurisdiction. Neither North nor South Dakota state police have jurisdiction over sexual violence against Native American women on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. State police do, however, have jurisdiction over crimes of sexual violence committed on tribal land in instances where the victim and the perpetrator are both non-Indian.

This legal mess has produced three distinct and uniquely horrifying results.

Police agencies often work at cross purposes when it comes to investigating and prosecuting the crime.

“When an emergency call comes in, the sheriff will say ‘but this is Indian land.’ Tribal police will show up and say the reverse. Then, they just bicker and don’t do the job. Many times, this is what occurs. And it doesn’t always get resolved, which means no rape [sexual assault evidence] kit, etc.”
-Juskwa Burnett, support worker for Native American survivors of sexual violence, May 2005

Georgia Little Shield told me that when her daughter was beaten by her husband, the husband, remorseful after hitting her daughter, took her daughter to the hospital and asked to be arrested. As emergency workers rebuilt her daughter’s shattered nose the police argued over who was responsible for handling the crime. Finally, the city police gave the husband – who was still wearing the t-shirt covered in his wife’s blood – his car keys and told him to just go home, nothing was going to happen. And nothing has.

The next result is the predictable outcome of this legal mess – women do not report rapes and domestic violence because when they do, they will suffer victimization by the system. Georgia Little Shield told me: Women don’t report because not a darn thing will be done for them. The Amnesty International report bears this assertion out:

Amnesty International’s interviews with survivors, activists and support workers across the USA suggest that available statistics greatly underestimate the severity of the problem. In the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, for example, many of the women who agreed to be interviewed could not think of any Native women within their community who had not been subjected to sexual violence.

So this is the battlefield on which Georgia Little Shield and her tiny team fights. She tells me that there are police officers there who want to help and want to prosecute but cannot do so. So essentially, the three women who work for Pretty Bird Woman House work alone.

Services Offered by Pretty Bird Woman House
What can Pretty Bird Woman House do against all of this injustice? Small miracles, one day at a time. In the first ten months of 2007 Pretty Bird Woman House accomplished the following:

– answered 397 crisis calls

– gave emergency shelter to 188 women and 132 children

– helped 23 women obtain restraining orders, 10 get divorces, and 16 get medical assistance

– provided court advocacy support for 28 women

– conducted community education programs for 360 women.

These impressive achievements achieve a new stature when put into the context of what happened to Pretty Bird Woman House during the exact same time frame. In April, the grant from the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence ran out. Georgia Little Shield’s salary ended as did the phone service (including crisis line). Pretty Bird Woman House had a staff of three, Georgia Little Shield and at that time, one part time advocate and one volunteer advocate. They were waiting, hoping for a Federal grant to come through at the time they ran out of funding. By the complex rules of the grants, that should have ended Pretty Bird Woman House right there because they could not have provided the services (the crisis line) required to receive the Federal grant. Georgia Little Shield prepared to continue work without pay, realizing that she would not even have the gas money to drive into town many times.

Pretty Bird Woman House needed over $25,000 to make it until September when the Federal grant might kick in. Raising that kind of money on Standing Rock seemed an impossibility. Tribal government remained supportive of the shelter but had no further resources to share after donating a small building at the end of 2006. Further compounding the problem, the three staff members of Pretty Bird Woman House needed to spend their time helping women, not scavenging for non-existent funds.

The Progressive Netroots Miracle
At this time this situation came to the attention of Daily Kos user nbier(I’m not clear how) and he created a chip in page for the effort and followed up with a series of diaries trying to raise funds. And then a miracle happened. Other Daily Kos members diaried about this: flautist, sarac, njgoldfinch and frontpager Devilstower jumped in. From Daily Kos the news spread virally and Christy Hardin-Smith at Firedoglake, mole333 at Culture Kitchen, DB at Queen of Pentacles, William Neuheisel at Creative Evolution…. and many more I have missed kept the torch lit.

The result? Over 680 strangers donated $27,500…

This money functioned as the operating funds for the shelter from May through September of 2007. The Progressive Netroots paid for crisis phone lines, Georgia Little Shield’s salary, a financial advocate for the shelter, court costs, operating expenses, food, clothing, toiletries and other incidental expenses. This money literally saved the lives of women on the Standing Rock shelter:

I just got off the phone with Georgia Little Shield, Director and Advocate at the Pretty Bird Woman House. Over the weekend, the shelter received a call from a woman who needed to be evacuated. If this had happened on Thursday, the shelter would not have been able to do much more than take the call. But because of your efforts, Georgia was able to tell this woman: “Don’t worry about the money–we have money coming. Just get out and come in.”

In late September the Federal grant was awarded, paying the salaries for Georgia Little Shield and two more full time shelter staff/advocates. The future of Pretty Bird Woman House seemed assured. With the support of the Tribal Government, a shelter to house women in danger and the federal grant the pieces had finally come together and the women of Standing Rock had a permanent sanctuary.

This security proved illusory.

Losing the House
Georgia Little Shield described the abandoned building donated to Pretty Bird Woman House by the Bear Soldier District government in late 2006 as being able to house one family and two single women at a time with room for office space on the bottom floor. While not luxurious by any means, it had all the necessities; running water, electricity, telephone lines, a small amount of storage and shelter from South Dakota’s harsh winter. The biggest drawback lay in the fact that the building’s remote location made it difficult for the small police force to quickly respond.

The first signs of danger came when Pretty Bird Woman House offered shelter to a woman whose batter had a record of extreme violence. Fearing for her safety, they transferred her to a shelter off of the reservation. The next day someone cut the shelter’s phone lines. Police did not have the manpower to come out and see the cut phone lines and eventually the phone company fixed them.

Shortly after this unknown men entered an adjoining abandoned building. They kicked and tore a hole through the drywall wide enough to walk through and looted the shelter of anything they could carry: televisions, computers, clothing, toiletries (all donated or purchased with donations) – literally anything that could be carried. This happened in broad daylight while the shelter was empty – the staff were all absent transporting women to court or other shelters. Clearly the perpetrators watched the shelter for such an opportunity.

After a second break in, local government and Pretty Bird Woman House realized that the shelter could not function safely. The staff moved out and returned to the unheated donated office space. The day after they moved out the crisis line got a telephone call:

Lady, your shelter is on fire, they are burning down your shelter.

Arsonists had thrown some kind of molotov cocktail through a basement window, setting fire to the building.

This blow dealt a terrible setback to Pretty Bird Woman House. Some of the grants they depend on require that they provide shelter to battered women and their children. All the advantages they gained – not having to make three and four hour trips transporting women to neighboring shelters (assuming those shelters had room), having a stable base of operations, having the extra time not spent driving, or calling to place women doing grant writing – all of these advantages vanished.

While Georgia Little Shield maintains a stoic resolve that Pretty Bird Woman House will survive regardless, others wonder if the shelter can make it. Some feel the shelter has been targeted (sorry for the “some say” construction – anonymity is a real concern for these people) for destruction.

Fears and Hopes for the Future
Georgia Little Shield has modest dreams for Pretty Bird Woman House:

I want to have a shelter and four paid advocates. Two advocates would focus on sexual assualt – currently we must travel 120 miles to get rape kit. We need two advocates for domestic violence as well. Domestic violence calls make up most of our crisis calls, but sexual assault requires a lot of resources. I want to be able to teach women’s safety classes, parenting classes, offer assistance in getting GED’s, have a place for women to look for jobs on line. These are the kind of support services I want to offer.

She has not forgotten the men who batter either:

I want to offer them classes to help them stop being violent. Anger management and things like that. Hopefully it would make a difference.

Georgia Little Shield hopes these things can happen but the most important goal for her:

Pretty Bird Woman House must be self sufficient. I have chronic heart problems and diabetes… my health is real bad. I just want to make sure Pretty Bird Woman House will be able to continue without me.

What Your Donation Buys

Pretty Bird Woman House already has two potential replacement houses in mind. Both offer significantly more space than the previous building. Georgia described how they both had full basements, storage room and would house more than double the families and women than their previous building. Both buildings have yards which means possible playgrounds for children.

One house has a major advantage in location – a police station across the street.

Because of difficulties obtaining loans (banks are allergic to both Native Americans and poverty) the best solution lies in purchasing the house outright. The Tribal Council could hold the mortgage but coming up with the mortgage payments every month creates an ongoing problem. Since both houses are on the market, they could be gone anytime. Depressed property values on Standing Rock mean that $60,000 gets the house. An additional $10,000 is required to make them secure, with proper fencing, video cameras, reinforced doors and other measures. Neither house is in great shape, but both offer shelter and that remains the bottom line for the survival of Pretty Bird Woman House.

This is urgent for many reasons:
– Pretty Bird Woman House cannot serve the women who need help now – if neighboring shelters are full battered women and rape victims needing a place to go have nowhere at all.

– the lack of a shelter disqualifies Pretty Bird Woman House from many grants

– the situation requires Pretty Bird Woman House to stretch its resources to the breaking point – it cannot be sustained.

Once Pretty Bird Woman House has a permanent home, the future looks much brighter. Again, they will meet the criteria for grants. The permanency of a home opens many doors for them and makes a huge impact on the future of the shelter. Beyond this, a permanent women’s shelter on Standing Rock creates an infrastructure to begin to tackle the nightmares detailed above. That infrastructure will function to erode the resistance to change. In a very real sense a women’s shelter is the foundation upon which progress can take place.

In short, if we meet this goal, Pretty Bird Woman House should not need constant fundraisers by the progressive blogosphere.

Please: DONATE NOW. Pretty Bird Woman House is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.

What Else Can We Do?
Material donations
If you have clothing, toiletries or other goods (or checks if you don’t donate online) donations you can send them via USPS to:
Pretty Bird Woman House
P.O. Box 596
McLaughlin, SD 57642

If you use FedEx, UPS or DHL ship to:
Pretty Bird Woman House
302 Sale Barn Rd.
McLaughlin SD 57642

If you have ideas for helping, please join the Yahoo Group.

Perhaps most importantly, BLOG. Spread the word. Make it go viral. That is the genius, the magic, of the netroots – our amazing power. No one of us has to do this all on their own. We do this as community. Pass this on throughout the community. Feel free to take anything from my diaries or from the Pretty Bird Woman Blog for this purpose. That’s what it is there for. Please, if nothing else, do this.

Anything you do for this effort is appreciated. You are helping make the Bird in Pretty Bird Woman House into a Phoenix – literally rising from the flames. Please take a second to tell us in comments what you did so we may thank you – and maybe your comments will inspire someone else to give as well.

Georgia Little Shield said:

Someone has to hear these women. Someone has to listen to them.

Let’s make sure someone can be there to listen. Thank you so very much.

Friends of Pretty Bird Woman House Yahoo Group
Pretty Bird Woman House Blog
Amnesty International Report-Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA

"Prostitute" does not mean "worthless"

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.

Jeffrey McKee was convicted of raping two women, but received a lighter prison sentence because his victims were prostitutes.

Luckily, there are people in the Washington state judicial system who aren’t total fuckwits.

Read the article for the full story, but here are a few notable quotes that illustrate the persistent sexism and victim-blaming in public attitudes towards sexual violence. Sure, society says, we’ll protect the victims of rape – but only if you’re the right kind of victim.

Superior Court Judge Douglas McBroom said the sex acts were against the victims’ will only because they didn’t get paid,

“Only because they didn’t get paid” and they didn’t want to. Payment may be a necessary part of consent for sex workers to engage in sex, but it is by no means the only part. If you insist on equating sex workers with any other kind of worker (without regard to the social context in which they perform this work), then you must also acknowledge that a worker who is kidnapped and held at gunpoint while robbed is the victim of more than simple robbery.

and prostitutes were “a far cry from the innocent rape victim” that lawmakers envisioned when deciding the severe penalties for the crime.

Ah, yes, the “perfect victim” idea. As if the so-called “innocence” of a person determines the nature and extent of the crime. Funny, I thought the behavior of the perpetrator determined that.

In its ruling Monday, the appeals court called the judge’s reasoning behind the sentencing “a reflection of his personal opinion and subjective belief that raping a prostitute is not as brutal as raping a woman who ‘did not willingly start off ready to perform a sex act.'”

Scary, isn’t it? If you are – perhaps, if you ever have been – “ready to perform a sex act,” that makes you less of a victim, in the eyes of Judge Douglas McBroom. Ready to have vaginal sex, but your partner forces anal sex on you? Not a victim. Ready to have sex with one guy, but he calls in his buddies and they force themselves on you? Not a victim. Experience pain or discomfort during sex, but your partner doesn’t stop? Nope, not a victim.

The three-judge panel also rejected many of McKee’s claims, including an assertion that his crimes were more like robbery than rape, and that prostitutes are not as traumatized by rape as other victims.

So the perpetrator attempts to belittle his crime by attacking the victims again … Yeah, that’s an indication that you want to give this man a shorter prison sentence and unleash him upon society sooner. *eyeroll*

The fact that this ignorant, sexist decision was overruled by the appeals court is heartening – as is the fact that the news article itself is written intelligently. Here are the names of people worth listening to, and worth supporting – in elections, with donations, what have you.

Appeals Court Judge William Baker, the man who threw out the inadequate prison sentence, says that, The fact that the women “may have been willing to have sex for money does not trivialize the trauma of being raped at gunpoint.” It’s sad how rare it is that you actually hear public officials say something that makes so much sense.

Eboni Colbert, co-executive director of Communities Against Rape and Abuse, says, “It’s kind of scary to think that who I might be as a victim will impact how the criminal justice system chooses to punish the perpetrator.” CARA, if you haven’t heard of it, is a wonderful local anti-abuse organization, and I’m glad they were highlighted in the article.

The article (whose author is Tracy Johnson), also noted that prostitutes are often seen as disposable and deserving of whatever happens to them — even though abuse or other desperate circumstances may have led them into selling sex in the first place.

“Everyone deserves the protection of our laws,” Deputy Prosecutor Andrea Vitalich said. “The failure to protect the most vulnerable in our society is a failure to protect everyone.”

That’s really all you need to know in relation to sexual violence against prostitutes. Regardless of how you feel about sex work – whether you think it’s empowering, oppressive, or somewhere in between – it makes absolutely no difference as to whether a person was raped or not, nor how much of a criminal the rapist is. I’m not sure why there’s even a question on this issue – except, of course, that I know we still labor under the malicious lie that a woman who’s sexual is fair game for sexual exploitation.

I’m sending emails to the author of the article and the editor of the newspaper, to let them know that their intelligence regarding this crime is much appreciated, especially in light of the shameless misogyny of Judge McBroom. I’d encourage other people to do the same.

Preventative measures against violence [Women and Violence, Part 9]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is the final part of my series on Women and Violence, which I wrote as a project for a Women Studies course I took this quarter. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

I realize that a quarter-long series of articles about violence against women can be depressing, and I’d like to end this on an optimistic note.

Unfortunately, I don’t have The Solution to violence against women. Even I don’t have delusions of being that wise. 😉 But – and here I’m engaging in a bit of hubris – I believe in the power of language to educate and agitate for change. That’s one of the reasons I chose to undertake this project, and why I choose to blog in general. Writing and dialoguing is important. It’s powerful. It’s consciousness raising in cyberspace.

The weakness of dialogue is that people can simply choose not to listen. Words are just words and, by themselves, can’t stop something physical like violence. But, you know? Physical intervention isn’t necessarily what stops violence, either. The kind of violence I’ve been writing about is more than a single, contained instance of extreme violence that can be thwarted by knocking out an individual perpetrator.

Instances of violence such as the ones I’ve written about don’t spring up, fully formed and self-contained, out of vacuums. They come from someone ‘who was always such a nice guy, but …” They happen when factors that are already there ‘just get out of hand.’ They don’t disappear once they’ve occurred – they leave traces. So what makes us think there aren’t any traces before they happen? And those traces, being small and unremarkable, can also be changed by our small and unremarkable efforts.

Changing our definitions

First and foremost is the need to revise our understanding of what ‘violence’ is. Whether that means making the debatable move of classifying cosmetic surgery as violence, or the obvious and necessary recognition of marital rape as a form of rape, we need to make it clear that certain practices that society accepts without question are, indeed, harmful or violent.

It seems strange to say that we might be unaware of violence – that something so damaging could escape our notice – but in cases like marital rape, it’s true. Women might be hurt or angered by their experiences, but if the surrounding society denies that they have experienced violence – if they are told that they are simply fulfilling their ‘wifely duty’ of providing sex for their husbands, whether they want it or not – they might have a difficult time articulating their suffering as being an instance of violence.

And without the label of violence, our ability to combat things like marital rape is hampered. Because then it’s easy to dismiss it as a ‘misunderstanding,’ a ‘mistake,’ or just a ‘bad experience’ – unfortunate, but not worth action. Perhaps, in the case of marital rape, a bad husband – but certainly not a systemic problem that implicates our understanding of heterosexual relations. But with the language of ‘violence’ at our disposal, we can emphasize the harm and wrongness of these actions, and join our struggle to those against other forms of violence.

Changing our language

I’ve already talked about aspects of our language use that perpetuate violence against women. The way we talk about things – everything from the words that are ‘normal’ to use, to what is ‘normal’ to talk about at all – shapes how we think about practices of violence.

One aspect of our language that I want to highlight is our use of the virgin/whore binary. Our understanding of rape and sexual assault involves a dichotomy between women who are innocent, virginal victims of rape, and women who are promiscuous – and therefore can’t be raped. This division is obvious in the ways that female rape victims are treated, as we scrutinize a victim’s history to see: Did she ever have sex? Did she have sex with many men? Did she have sex with the alleged rapist? Did she have sex with him many times? Each ‘yes’ is one more blow against the victim’s case, one more reason that she’s a whore and not a virgin, and therefore not a ‘real’ victim.

One way we can fight against this discursive bias against women is to end slut-shaming. Stop making that division between women whom we like/who are like us and have ‘enough’ sex, and women whom we don’t like/who aren’t like us and have ‘too much’ sex (or too ‘dirty’ sex, or sex with ‘too many’ partners). Stop creating that artificial line which women must not cross, lest their ability to refuse sex no longer be respected. Stop buying into the idea that there even is an amount of sex that a woman can have that invalidates her ability to refuse sex.

And stop, stop, stop using ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ as an insult for women, even in non-sexual contexts, because it just reinforces the idea that this is a label we can use to punish women for doing what they’re not ‘supposed’ to.

The influence of language doesn’t stop here, of course. There’s also the way we talk about violence against women, as something that women passively experience rather than men actively perpetrate against them. There are the ways we talk about women’s emotions (especially anger) as opposed to men’s as less valid, less rational. There’s the way we talk about sex in general, as an aggressive activity that involves one party dominating another, and therefore automatically predisposed towards violence.

Changing our language means changing our understanding. And that means how violence is responded to, and how – if – violence happens at all.

Changing our ideas of women and men

In the previous entry I explored the ways in which women are socialized into keeping silent about violence against them. That’s one of the many ways in which standard ideas about what ‘women’ should be work to perpetuate violence against women – supplemented by standard ideas about what ‘men’ should be that grant them impunity to commit violence.

Just like altering our language is a small but crucial step to altering our conceptions of violence, so is attacking the rigid gender roles that allow men to hurt women. For example, to counter the forced silence of women, we need to encourage women’s assertiveness, from childhood onward. Stop telling little girls to quiet down, especially if we allow boys to be louder without censure. Stop telling girls that being ‘ladylike’ means not complaining, not making noise, not drawing attention to themselves. Stop shaming women who call attention to sexual harassment for ‘making waves’ in the workplace. Stop calling women ‘bitchy’ for being assertive – and if they’re being overly aggressive, criticize them the same way we criticize overly aggressive men, rather than reserving gendered insults for them. Stop assuming that only mothers have to decide if they’ll sacrifice work to be a stay-at-home parent. Stop judging mothers who aren’t stay-at-home parents. Never, ever assume that a woman ‘should’ have sex with anybody, for any reason.

This change won’t stop violence. It will make violence less easy, less expected, less unremarkable. So would other, similar changes, such as eradicating our expectations/ideals of women as passive, thin, delicate, gentle, sexy-but-not-too-sexy, self-sacrificing caretakers, emotional, irrational. Hand-in-hand with this change would be the end of expecting and encouraging men to be aggressive, dominating, emotionless, sex-obsessed, and violent.

These changes, while vast in scope, are not difficult to start. This is what we can do. It’s well within our capabilities. Anyone who says that they can’t stop violence against women is lying, either to themselves or others.

Keep thinking, observing, talking, writing, fighting.

Voice and silence [Women and Violence, Part 8]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde writes the following description of her thought process when faced with a potential diagnosis of cancer:

[…] and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” (41)

The first time I read these words, it was like a finger had been pointed with uncomfortable precision, straight at my heart. I know what it means to be silent, out of fear, out of the desire to hide – out of the hope that, if I keep quiet, I won’t be the next target.

Silence isn’t always just about fear, of course. I know I have to pick my battles, and sometimes I know that taking on this instance of privilege will win me more headache and heartache than progress. Sometimes I honestly know that there’s no way that my voice will be heard. But along with those feelings comes the hope that silence will provide some sort of safety, like if I don’t call out the oppression around me, I somehow won’t be harmed by it.

It’s a false refuge, I know. Silence is where ignorance flourishes, and that is what allows the structures of oppression to continue to operate unchallenged. More than malice or greed, it’s ignorance of inequality that keeps us from dismantling white supremacy or patriarchy. And that ignorance requires collective action to change it – but of course, collective action requires individuals with the courage to participate.

But silence is a tricky issue for women, and women of color. Hell, if even Audre Lorde fell prey to it, that’s got to mean that silence isn’t easy to resist.

There are two other problematic aspects of silence that I want to explore, which are more complex than simply the fear of negative reaction, and which are tied specifically to issues of race and gender.

We just don’t know how to say ‘no’

Okay, that subtitle is somewhat sarcastic. I don’t mean that women don’t have the ability to actually say speak up for themselves, as if we lacked the courage or awareness. But there are ways that women are – sabotaged, we could say – in their ability to speak up for their own desires, especially when it comes to refusing other people – and especially when it comes to refusing men.

I have been in conversations with women in heterosexual relationships that revealed that they had trouble saying no to sex – either out of the assumption that it’s perfectly normal for a couple to have sex when the woman doesn’t really want to, or because they knew they could say ‘no,’ but felt bad doing it. I’ve had conversations about the origins of this difficulty, too – which reveals that just because women know they ought to be more straightforward, doesn’t mean they can be. There’s still that discomfort, fear, worry about causing trouble for the man. Even if that man is supportive! There’s the nagging concern that somehow we’re asking for too much by asserting our desires when it inconveniences our male partner.

Rather than assuming women just have some sort of biological imperative to have trouble saying ‘no,’ let’s look at these excerpts from Kathleen V. Cairns’ “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion”:

This pattern may be particularly prevalent in established male/female relstaionships, where women often feel that their consent is, ‘constrained by [a] felt duty to be cooperative, to meet the man’s needs, not to be “inconsistent”, or accept a sexual duty towards a man whom [they are] having a close personal relationship’ [Cairns 1993a: 205]. (104)


Self-assertion or strength in purpose is generally reframed in women as selfishness, and as damaging to the well-being of men and children, since women’s obligations and responsibilities for other are expected to override self-interest. (101)

Tie these factors in to the way in which women are taught that we aren’t ‘supposed’ to have sexual desire, and you get this:

‘Struggling not to know or feel her own desire [and knowing] that she “should” say no, [she may] end up having sex “happen” to her’ [Tolman 1991: 65]. […] The experience of male persistence and coercion is complex for women. They experience strong ambivalence and undertainty about refusing male advances. […] Confronted with sexual harassment or coercion, women educated about their bodies through patriarchy are likely to have difficulty experiencing their bodies as their own, even after being ‘told’ through education that they have the ‘right’ of ownership. (100-1)

Women aren’t born feeling this way: we’re taught to. Consider these facts from “Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice” by Jennifer A. Bennice and Patricia A. Resick: marital rape was codified into British and U.S. law through the “Hale doctrine,” a 1736 piece of writing by Sir Matthew Hale that stated, “But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

Hale wasn’t the only guy who thought this way, of course; his written idea was supported by society-wide cultural assumptions about women, marriage, and sex. And these ideas do not die easily, as we can see by the fact that the Federal Sexual Abuse Act, which made marital rape into a crime on federal lands, passed in 1986. Marital rape was not illegal in all 50 of the United States until 1993. Even now, it is granted more exemptions than other forms of rape – making it clear that, under the law, women lose partial control over their bodies just by virtue of getting married.

Oh, but lest we forget – the principle behind the Hale doctrine can still be seen to rear its ugly head in non-marital rape cases.

So when women are faced with societal opposition to this extent, is it any wonder why we feel ambivalent about our ability to say ‘no’? And what other ways do we undermine women’s rights to assert their own desires, outside of sex and heterosexual relationships?

Silence out of defiance

There are, of course, instances in which we use silence with a purpose. One of my favorite descriptions of this comes from Mira Jacob’s “My Brown Face,” an essay in the anthology, Body Outlaws. An Indian American woman, she talks about her mother’s deadly use of silence to express her refusal or disapproval. It’s a use of silence that I, as an Asian American woman, am used to. I use it myself all the time – usually accompanied with a glare of death. 😉

Sadly, silence doesn’t always convey the message it’s intended to. Whether the gulf of understanding originates from racial or gender privilege, as Jacob describes, white men can misread her silence into something befitting the ‘Oriental girl’ stereotype:

[C]ontrary to my hasty logic (mute girl = bored guy), my silence only perpetuated the enigma, adding the brute element of interpretation. ‘I think you’re avoiding me,’ I heard at parties, often only hours after being introduced to a guy. ‘You’re scared of our connection, right? I know you can feel it. I felt it the minute I laid eyes on you.’ And here it was again, the bond, the miracle, the connection associated with my face, the need to be led into whatever temple I had available. I saw desire thrown back to me in fragments of Taj Mahal, Kamasutra, womanly wiles. I felt my body turn into a dark country, my silence permission to colonize. (10)

Of course, the use of silence is not common to all Asian women, nor is it limited to them. It can be used by women in any number of situations, when silence is the best – or perhaps only – method of refusal. Unfortunately, it’s too easy for men – socialized into entitlement to women’s consent – to be deaf to its meaning.

I hate to give up the tool of silence, which is (to me) one of the clearest ways I can convey my displeasure. Speaking often ends up being messy, my words tripping over one another and failing to convey my point. But in situations like this when it can be mistaken for compliance – and in a cultural context which, as described above, assumes women’s compliance – speaking up in dissent can be necessary.

Women’s words and women’s consent have been misused and abused to facilitate violence, whether in the form of verbal harassment or sexual assault. We need to recognize how silence has been forced upon us, so that we cannot refuse; or twisted, so that our silent refusal is ignored. Recognition can lead us to reclamation of both our voices and our silences.

Policing women through violence [Women and Violence, Part 7]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

In an article titled “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion,” Kathleen V. Cairns describes how harassment of women functions as a method of social control over women’s behavior:

[O]vert practices include the public, ritual shaming of women in the form of catcalls, lewd remarks and so on which serves to demonstrate the fact that ‘any man or group of men feels entitled not only to pass judgement on any woman walking along minding her own business, but also to announce it to her‘ [Kotzin 1993: 167] […]

In patriarchy, women are taught to accept that their femaleness, their simple presence, are responsible for men’s behavior towards them […] It becomes women’s responsibility to police themselves, to keep their dress, comportment and presence within approved limits to avoid ‘provoking’ harassment. (96-7).

This dynamic – of men acting with impunity to judge women, and women shouldering the blame for men’s actions towards them – can be applied to other forms of gender violence as well. What it comes down to is the way that negative reactions from men – or even the anticipation of those reactions – function to police women in everything from their appearance to their behavior.

Men policing women

Let’s start with the practice Cairns herself describes, of public sexual harassment. I know few, if any, women who have not experienced this in some form or another. Often this takes the form of men talking at women about their appearance or sexual appeal. This is distinguishable from actual flirting, because flirting is supposed to be a mutually consensual act, whereas harassment is just about a man making sure a woman knows his opinion of her, without caring about her participation in the interaction. (Anyone who’s been both harassed and flirted with/complimented can tell you the difference.) Harassment can also be quieter – lewd or invasive staring, muttered comments, or actual touching.

This practice polices women by imposing men’s opinions onto women about their physical attractiveness – whether the women are heterosexual or not, in a relationship and not looking for outside opinions, or just not in the mood. It reinforces the idea that the male gaze is upon a woman, that her appearance is not just for herself or a chosen few, but open to consumption and judgment by any man who sees her. Even if the judgment is ‘positive’ (“nice ass” as opposed to “ugly bitch”), it reinforces the authority of random men to inflict that judgment.

On the other hand, harassment can also be about punishment. Consider the recent study by University of Toronto professor Jennifer Berdahl, which found that, “The more women deviated from traditional gender roles – by occupying a ‘man’s’ job or having a ‘masculine’ personality – the more they were targeted.”

Women can be punished for things besides being ‘unfeminine,’ of course – as tekanji points out, men harass women for speaking up about gender issues, or just for being female. The ultimate result is the silencing or suppression of women, because we get afraid, frustrated, or just plain angry.

Violent policing

We can also look at tekanji’s examples and see how harassment quickly transforms from ‘only’ insults into actual threats of violence. These threats are almost uniformly sexual in nature, expressing that sexual assault will be used to punish deviant women, or even improve them (by causing a woman to ‘lighten up,’ etc.). How many of us (particularly feminists) have experienced or witnessed similar threats, about how we ‘need to get fucked’ in order to ‘get some sense’ or ‘learn our place’?

Of course these threats are verbal, and the one’s in tekanji’s post were communicated online. These men are not immediately and physically threatening women, and it would be safe to say that few of them actually want to rape the targets of their harassment (though I don’t trust any of them to be intelligent or worthwhile allies against sexual violence). One might be tempted to just blow this off as empty words, online aggression that doesn’t mean anything. Many people do blow it off.

But what does it mean when some men’s anger against women is expressed through threats of sexual violence, even in non-sexual contexts? And rape is a gendered form of violence, undoubtedly – women are the vast majority of victims, men are the vast majority of perpetrators, and when men are victims of rape by other men, there is the threat of the male victim being made ‘gay’ or ‘like a woman.’ All of this makes rape threats a gender-specific way of terrorizing women, above and beyond general physical threats against men or mixed-gender groups.

The effect of this type of threat is to police women’s behavior. Online, it can mean silencing a blogger, defaming her name for potential schools or employers, or driving her from a forum, community, or other space. Threats can teach women not to air certain opinions; or to do so only in private, regulated spaces; or to hide their gender identity; or to avoid sites that otherwise interest her; or to play along like ‘one of the guys’ in order to fit in.

Offline, the threat is more immediately physical, and the policing far, far more extensive. It determines who we talk to in public, the way we talk, the way we dress, the places we go, the times we go out, the amount of alcohol we drink, the people we associate with, the way we arrange our transportation … I’m sure you can think of more.

I am afraid to go out by myself at night. I don’t like being afraid, but I am. And the fear doesn’t really come from the threat of being assaulted – statistically, of course, I am far more likely to be sexually or physically assaulted by the men who are my friends and acquaintances than by a stranger jumping me in the dark.

See, I’m afraid because I have regularly been harassed when I’m walking by myself at night. It’s when I’m walking from my house to the bus stop. It’s not that late, just sometime in the evening after it’s gotten dark. I’m not dressed ‘provocatively’ (because we all know that’s an excuse, right?). But I get screamed at, by groups of guys from the safety of their own cars – loud, incoherent noises, meant to scare me or get some other reaction.

This doesn’t happen in the daytime. This doesn’t happen when I’m walking with my boyfriend. (He, by the way, walks by himself plenty of nights, and doesn’t seem to have this problem.) Sure, I’ve been harassed in broad daylight, but that’s been guys yelling in a sexual way, meant to offend (or perhaps ‘compliment’) me. This? The aggressive screaming? This is meant to police me. To let me know that I’m somewhere that I don’t belong, doing something that I shouldn’t be doing, and to let me know that these guys have the right to punish me for it by bullying me.

This policing works. I find ways to avoid walking alone at night, even when I want to go out – even though I know this isn’t right, and that I’m as entitled to be out there as any man, I can’t always convince myself to take the risk. I hate it, but I obey, because I don’t want the harassment. I’ve learned my lesson.

Women self-policing

Women police themselves in plenty of different ways. Not all of them are like my example above, where I was aware of the power dynamic. We internalize patriarchal disapproval or punishment in a myriad of ways, to the point where they become indistinguishable from our own reactions to ourselves.

Consider these excerpts Tomi-Ann Roberts and Jennifer Y. Gettman’s study, “Mere Exposure: Gender Differences in the Negative Effects of Priming a State of Self-Objectification,” which explores self-policing in the context of body image:

Although only a minority of women in the United States are actually overweight […] the majority report feeling fat and express this as a personal failure, which has been shown to lead to feelings of shame [Crandall, 1994]. Feminist theorists have described this as a cycle where the dominant culture constructs the ideal body and encourages women to monitor their own bodies as objects, and, as a result, women feel shame when they do not live up to these standards [McKinley, 1998].


Disgust can play a positive role in the development of a civilized society by internalizing norms for cleanliness, restraint, and reserve [Miller, 1997]. Unfortunately, it can also become a negative reaction to violations of these predetermined social standards. Insofar as many women experience a discrepancy between their actual body size and their ideal body size [Fallon & Rozin, 1985], women may become disgusted with their own bodies because they have violated a social standard by being unattractive or overweight, and hence “gross.” […] Indeed, it may be argued that the higher standards of cleanliness, hairlessness, odorlessness, and beauty held for women in our culture are a reflection of the greater burden placed upon women to “civilize” their bodies lest they be seen as “disgusting” by others [Roberts, Goldenberg, Power, & Pyszcynski, 2002]. (18-9)

It is also worth noting that the authors cite a study in which both men and women try on swimwear, and women “reported feeling more disgust, distaste, and revulsion than did men, who, in contrast, reported more lighthearted self-conscious feelings of awkwardness, silliness, and foolishness” (19).

Of course, there is always the possibility that women’s opinions of their own bodies are based on their own individual preferences. But why the strikingly gendered difference, between who feels “silly” and who feels “revulsion” about themselves? Why do women’s preferences about their bodies tie in so neatly to sexism, by keeping them spending their time, energy, and money on practices that make them smaller instead of larger and stronger?

And what is the role of male policing in all of this? How many of us have had husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, and friends imply to us, tell us, tease us, or threaten us about our appearance? weight? body hair? dress?

How much do negative reactions from men influence our behavior? And how much do we blame ourselves for limiting our actions, rather than those who impose those limitations upon us?