Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A 6-year-old's Suspension and Rape Culture

A first grader was recently suspended from school for several days for kissing a female peer on the hand during a reading group.

Wait... what? That sounds pretty ridiculous. Like... really ridiculous. At least, that was my first thought. H (my husband) text me about it this morning and suggested I write about it so I googled it a few minutes ago. The article I found is here and it focuses on the question of whether or not we can call this incident sexual harassment and whether or not the school over reacted.
The first thing that really stood out to me was this line:

"Jennifer Saunders said her son was suspended once before for kissing the girl and had other disciplinary problems, and she was surprised to find out that he would be forced out of school again for several days."
So this kid had kissed this girl before and was told not to do it again, he was suspended, and still he doesn't respect the "No." He's six, so I can't judge him too harshly, but I do think his parents are doing him a disservice. Based on the article, it seems that his mom is really excusing the actions of her son to her son. I mean, if my kid was suspended for kissing a girl on the hand, whether it was a repeat offense or not, I would probably think the whole thing was pretty silly. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't have a serious talk with the kid about consent and appropriate boundaries.

At the same time the behavior is being excused, relevant information is also seeming to be withheld; the mom says,

"This is taking it to an extreme that doesn't need to be met with a six year old. Now my son is asking questions. What is sex mommy? That should not ever be said, sex. Not in a sentence with a six year old."
She has a right to her own ideas about when sensitive conversations need to happen, but it seems to me that this little boy might be able to understand his situation a little bit better if his questions were answered accurately, honestly, and responsibly. If he understood what sex was, why it's special, and what it has to do with kissing, he might be able to understand why people are upset by his lack of boundaries.

Now, the little girl's family didn't comment about the situation but the school policy is against "unwanted touching" and the Superintendent of the school district said,

"The focus needs to be on his behavior. We usually try to get the student to stop, but if it continues, we need to take action and it sometimes rises to the level of suspension."
It seems as if the little girl probably told him the touching was unwanted, if not at the time of this incident, at the time of a previous one. Additionally, his teacher or another adult at the school had clearly told him the touching needed to stop.

I'll be honest, I'm not really too concerned with a six year old kid kissing some other six year old kid on the hand. I am, however, concerned with the idea of who this little boy will grow into. What kind of man will he become if he is consistently being taught that other people's boundaries are unimportant and that he doesn't need to follow the rules of his society.

And what are the readers of this USA Today article going to learn?
This boy broke a rule, invading the personal space of someone else with unwanted touching.
Now there is news about it, questioning whether the boy's motive was bad and whether the consequences are too heavy.
Whether his actions caused the little girl to be uncomfortable and unfocused in her learning environment isn't even discussed.
The idea of consent being violated is simply rolled over with the phrase, "he has a crush on a girl at school and she likes him back." As if that makes it alright that he invaded her space.

Again, not really that big of a deal. I remember little boys kissing me on the hand or cheek at school in elementary school and even when I didn't like it, it didn't damage me. That being said, this format we've just explored is used really often in much more serious circumstances.

Like with Steubenville, when several boys broke some rules, invading the personal space of someone by touching her in a way she couldn't consent to.
Then there was news about it, questioning whether the boys' motives were bad and whether the consequences were too heavy.
Whether their actions cause Jane Doe tremendous pain, anxiety, depression, etc. was barely even discussed.
The idea of consent being violated was simply rolled over with phrases like, "party girl," and "drunk." As if that made it okay that they raped her.

A little boy kissing a little girl on the hand during reading group in the first grade is not a big deal. Refusing to see the patterns we, as adults, are developing and imposing on children, especially so young, IS a big deal.
I'm sure this kid is really great and awesome. He probably doesn't understand why he's been suspended for trying to make the girl he likes feel special and I do feel for him, but he still has to be taught that intent is less relevant than harm.

I've only read this one article about it and I obviously know nothing about this boy, girl, or their families. I can't possible make an accurate judgment about whether suspension was too harsh, but I do know that our culture sets kids up to continue the long tradition of rape culture and victim blaming we live with.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Common, Unintended Christmas Message - The Mary Paradox

It's becoming more and more common to hear and see examples of women being objectified, dehumanized, and held to impossible standards in today's media. As a consumer this holiday season please be conscious of the kinds of messages you support with your dollars. If the advertising is sexist (or oppressive in the form of any other "ist" or "phobic") don't buy it. There's a movement out there to use #notbuyingit in response to those kinds of ads so we can show companies that we don't respect oppressive advertising and we won't support it.
I think it is really important to let our dollars speak for us on the commercial side of Christmas as we're bombarded with marketing schemes, but there is another side of Christmas that can have some pretty negative impacts on our young women too.

Religion is a touchy subject so let me just say that I am not trying to be offensive. In fact, I'm trying really hard not to be offensive, so keep that in mind. I get that people have all kinds of personal feelings and beliefs and the only reason I'm bringing this up at all is because there are a lot of Christians in the United States and every year this story about Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus is told, which is fine, except that there is a really damaging impossible standard for women in this story and no one talks about it.

Mary is a virgin and a mother.

In many cases, culturally and religiously, women are found valuable for only three reasons: Purity, beauty, and child bearing. The more a woman has of one of these things, the more valuable she is, if she has two of these things, she's even more valuable. The catches are that without at least one of these things, no other positive qualities seem to matter, and it's impossible to have all three.

Unless you're Mary. Mary, who is a virgin and a mother, who is always depicted as young, innocent, and beautiful. Mary who was said to be "favored" and "blessed among women."

I was raised in a devout Christian home and I can testify to the heart-breaking sense of shame at knowing I would have to choose between purity and bearing children. I used to wonder what Mary had done to be worthy of such a wonderful calling and what I had or hadn't done that made me so much less special. Women feel an expectation to live up the standard this presents. We're expected to be sexy enough for a man to want to have sex with us, but we're supposed to not want to have sex ourselves; we're supposed to be striving for "virgin mother" and that's about as close as we can get.

I'm not saying that, if it's true, the story of Jesus being born of a virgin isn't miraculous and worth telling. I'm saying that the value of Mary, as a person, should be a lot more about the way she accepted the scary and dangerous calling of carrying a fatherless child during the time and in the place she did, and the overwhelming responsibility of raising the Savior of all Mankind. I'm saying that the value of Mary, as a person, should be a lot less about the fact that she'd never had sex. The virgin part seems incidental to me... in a time without birth control, choosing a virgin was a good way for God to make sure no one else claimed his kid, that's about all the value I can see in it.

Personally, I'm not a religious person so when I think about Mary now I imagine a young woman who either thought she was in love with someone she knew before she was given away to Joseph or was raped. In either situation she would have been killed as punishment, probably by stoning.Which is why, in the bible Joseph considers keeping the matter private, and simply "putting her away."

So... the difference between one of the most revered, respected women in history and a woman stoned to death in shame and disgrace, or made to disappear, comes down to whether the skin on the penis of a man had touched the skin lining the inside of her vagina. Or, if you'd like, it doesn't have to do with her at all, it's about who impregnated her- a person or the spirit of the lord. Whether she had any choice in it doesn't matter either way.

Neither of those messages is acceptable to be teaching girls and young women.
If you wait to have sex until God makes you pregnant you're awesome. If you have sex after you're married, just to have children, you're alright, and if you have sex before that, you should die horribly or at least disappear. Or:
If you're raped by someone cool, you're cool. If you're never raped you're alright. If you're raped by someone not cool you should die horribly or at least disappear.

Do I need to go into all the ways these ideas influence and support rape culture?

It seems to me that many Christian women have at least part of their sense of value tied up in Mary. Let's stop influencing that value with the idea of the pinnacle of womanhood being dependent on simultaneous virginity and motherhood. Instead it should be influenced by the ideas of courage, selflessness, strength, and grace that can just as easily accompany women without "virginity" or children. Mary displayed those characteristics and they influenced our world much more than the details of her bedroom ever could.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Text Before Sex" and Proving Consent

I just read the article posted by Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN, titled "Jones: Young men, text before sex" you can, and should, read it here.

This article is well intentioned - she wants sexual assault to end and she wants her son to be healthy and safe while he's at college. But her subscription to a couple of common rape myths, and ignorance of some little-known facts, makes her article just another victim blaming, convoluting, confusing, piece of rape culture.

Jones basically expresses a belief that having proof of consent (in this case, in the form of text messages) is important to protect young men from false accusations of rape.

I have mixed feeling about this tactic. On one hand, I appreciate any attempt to make discussions about sex and consent commonplace. On the other hand, I'm disgusted by the emphasis on avoiding false allegations of rape because they don't happen very often. In fact, for every unfounded report of rape there are around 15 founded reports. And guess what else? Just because a case gets recorded as being "unfounded" doesn't mean that the rape didn't happen, so there's something to think about. Honestly, it's ridiculous that people focus on protecting people from being falsely accused instead of protecting people from sexual violence considering how often each happens.

But if this texting thing can help clear the muddy waters of consent, isn't it a good thing, regardless of the ulterior motive? Well, in that one way, yes. But that isn't what ends up happening. A person who really does consent, in person and not just over a text message, will, likely, not be reporting a rape later.

On the other side of things, consider the following situation:

A man texts a woman he is friends with,
"Hey! We should hook up tonight. What do you think? Are you DTF?" (For those of you who don't know, DTF stands for "down to fuck" It's a particularly crude and casual way to ask for consent.) So the woman texts back,
"Of course! How could I resist you? ;)"

Knowing nothing else about these people there is already gray area... were either of these people being serious? Was this an inside joke? Do they both know whether the other was being serious or not?

For the sake of the argument, however, we'll assume they both understand the other and they are, in fact, consenting to sexual activity.

Now, what if the next time this man sees the woman she has had several drinks. Does the previous consent still apply?

See how the gray area just keeps popping up? 

The thing is that we already have a lot of guidelines and rules and advice out there about how to prove consent was not withheld: text messages, listening particularly for the words "No" and "Stop," making assumptions based on previous sexual partners or activities, etc. and ALL of these leave room for "gray area," for "he said - she said," for doubt and discussion.

As a culture, we need to stop focusing on whether or not consent was clearly withheld and/or granted in the past and begin to focus on the concept of whether or not consent is obvious and enthusiastic when the actual activity occurs.

The article by Jones ends with her telling her readers to stay away from the drunk, party girls; the implication is that those are the girls who are in the best position to later make a rape accusation.
I agree with her sentiment, but not with her reasoning.
Dear readers, you should stay away from sexual activity with drunk people, but not because they may later accuse you of rape, because you may be committing a rape especially considering that an intoxicated person is not, legally, capable of consenting.
The concepts Jones expresses are great, but unless it's presented in a way that doesn't slut-shame, and/or imply that false accusations are a common issue, it does more harm than good by further cementing rape myths.

A person with such a broad following should be more responsible. Better advice for young men would be to learn what consent really is. I'll end with a definition for those of you who aren't too sure:

Consent: Voluntary, positive agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity.
-A person who is asleep or mentally or physically incapacitated, either through the effect of drugs or alcohol or for any other reason, is not capable of giving valid consent.