Category Archives: Sexual Violence

Take off the cape: Why using the word “rescue” is harmful to anti-trafficking efforts

Becky Owens Bullard

By Becky Owens Bullard

Originally Posted on the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA) Blog

When I came to the human trafficking field from working on domestic and sexual violence, I was shocked by a lot of things. It was disturbing to learn about the various ways traffickers abuse and exploit victims for labor and sex and surprising to see how frequently human trafficking intersected directly with intimate partner violence, sex assault and child abuse.

However, a different type of unsettling surprise for me came not from the crime itself, but from the terminology used to discuss it. More specifically, I was shocked by how commonly the word “rescue” was used to describe identifying and assisting victims and survivors of human trafficking.

This was so foreign to me because in the domestic and sexual violenceTake off the cape:  Why using the word “rescue” is harmful to anti-trafficking efforts fields it would be unthinkable to refer to victim identification and assistance as a “rescue” or “rescue mission.” I can only imagine the faces of my former colleagues if I had said that my work with an individual had “rescued” them from their abuser. There would have been some serious questioning of my ability to provide appropriate, trauma-informed services to that person without doing considerable harm as well as my motives for doing the work in the first place.

Having come from disciplines where the use of this term would be seen as highly inappropriate and demeaning to a victim or survivor of crime, it was very odd to me that “rescue” was a term used not only in everyday language around the issue but also in awareness and education, news media and even in the names of anti-trafficking organizations and programs. Although “rescue” is a word that evokes images of life-saving missions to pull people from a burning building, I soon found out that the anti-trafficking field had essentially reclaimed the word to convey uniqueness in the ways trafficking victims are identified and given assistance.

Now you may be wondering, “What harm can using a term like this really do?” Unfortunately, the frequent use of “rescue” has a serious impact on victims and survivors of human trafficking as well as to the human trafficking field as a whole. Here are some reasons why:

Trauma Bonding & Psychological Abuse

Some of you may have been thinking “but human trafficking is unique and usually involves kidnapping and confinement, so rescuing fits!” However, more often than not, traffickers aren’t complete strangers utilizing brute force but are known or become known to their victims by forming relationships and strong trauma bonds, making it difficult to leave because of love, hope and fear involved. Some victims are even trafficked by intimate partners, parents and other relatives. Also, anyone who has worked with trafficking survivors will tell you that the dynamics of this crime are complex and the forms of power and control employed by traffickers are often psychological rather than physical, similar to domestic violence.

Impact: So if your idea of a human trafficking victim is someone waiting to be rescued, you will find yourself confused when, instead of holding out their arms to you in relief and gratefulness, a victim uses some choice words to tell you where you can go and returns to their trafficker over and over again. Using the word “rescue” simplifies this incredibly complex crime and promotes misconceptions about who traffickers are and how they control and manipulate their victims. This is not only detrimental to law enforcement and service providers’ ability to identify victims, it is also harmful to our capacity to prosecute traffickers when a jury expects a victim who was chained up by their trafficker rather than one who leaves and returns to a trafficking situation multiple times.

Uneven Power Dynamic between “Rescuer” and “Rescuee”

Wondering why my previous coworkers would have been concerned if I said I “rescued” someone from their abuser? Because when you say that you “rescued” someone, that statement is about empowering and aggrandizing yourself while disempowering the person you think you rescued. This is because “rescuing” creates an uneven power dynamic where the “rescuer” (read: hero) has all of the power in the relationship and the “rescuee” (read: helpless victim) has no agency or role in the exit of his or her abusive situation. While not everyone using the word “rescue” is purposefully trying to pump their own egos and disempower victims, they are certainly using the term without thinking of its true meaning and impact.

Impact: A relationship built on inequality with an empowered, potentially self-serving role for the “rescuer” and a demeaning and demoralizing role for the victim mirrors the uneven power dynamics they experienced with their trafficker. This unequal relationship is the antithesis of trauma-informed care, as it doesn’t allow for mutuality and true empowerment, and ultimately inhibits a victim’s path to healing and survivorship.

Everyone wants to Rescue a Victim!

The use of the exclamation point is for sarcasm and the point is that this simplistic view of human trafficking gives a simplistic idea of the solution. Well-meaning, compassionate people hear about the horrors of human trafficking and how victims are just waiting to be rescued, and think, “Hey, that is something I can do!” without understanding of the complexity of the situation and the necessity for a trauma-informed professional response. Look no further than Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Skywhere he discovers in his chapter entitled “Rescuing Girls is the Easy Part” that taking women out of brothels doesn’t mean they won’t return or that all their problems have been magically solved.

Impact: Multiple organizations are forming with the idea of “rescuing” trafficking victims without professional experience in victim services and trauma. Sometimes these organizations even plan their own undercover rescue missions or try to be a kind of renegade force to fill in where official law enforcement can’t respond. A week doesn’t seem to go by that I don’t hear of a new organization that wants to “rescue” or “save” victims of human trafficking. And while they may have good intentions, ignorance and inexperience can be incredibly harmful to victims and survivors who need professional trauma-informed services. Moreover, the ease with which organizations are able to form and claim expertise in this relatively new field of human trafficking is astounding and frightening. Because the field is younger than say the domestic violence or sex assault fields, new organizations can often form without much question from funders or even partners in the field as to how qualified they are to be providing services in the first place.

For all of these reasons and the harmful impacts they have, the anti-trafficking field has to reevaluate the use of the word “rescue” in everyday language among practitioners, in communication to the general public and most importantly, to victims and survivors themselves. We should rely on more traditional, professional terms when we talk about discovering and working with victims of this crime that truly reflect its’ nature, such as “identification” and “assistance.”

This reevaluation and revamping of our terminology is crucial because before we can meaningfully move forward in our efforts to end human trafficking, we have to communicate the correct information about what this crime looks like and have appropriate responses and services that don’t further disempower victims and survivors. It’s time we take off the “rescuer’s” cape and elevate our language around anti-trafficking work to the trauma-informed, victim-centered place that it should be.

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Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Human Trafficking, Intimate Partner Violence, Labor Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

Ending Violence against Women is “a responsibility for all of us”

By Becky Owens Bullard

“This is not just a women’s issue, this is a responsibility for all of us. This violence is an outrage and it must be stopped. Time has run out for complacency or excuses. Let us show the will, the determination and let us mobilize greater resources to end what is a scourge of humanity, violence against women.” – Michelle Bachelet, UN Women Executive Director November 20, 2012.

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Photo from Say NO – UNiTE to End Violence Against Women

Every November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, yet I’m always surprised at how little coverage this day and the issue itself receives.  In some countries around the world, including my own, this time of the year is a time where most people are consumed with upcoming holidays and what presents to get our loved ones.  So most often, this day of awareness is lost on these countries and the millions who inhabit them, but the importance of raising awareness to eliminate violence against women and girls can not be understated.

With some of the progress that we’ve seen in issues like domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, harassment, human trafficking, femicide, forced marriage and rape as a method of war, it may feel easier to overlook violence against women and girls as an issue deserving of serious attention at this time of the year or really at any time of the year. However, violence against women and girls continues to be incredibly pervasive, much more so than you might think. In a multi-country study conducted by the World Health Organization finds that in most countries between 30 to 60 % of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, with the highest proportion of findings at 71% of women in Ethiopia.

Additionally, people will often ask why the focus on women? And aren’t men affected by violence too? While a number of men and boys are certainly affected by violence, the unfortunate reality remains that violence disproportionately affects women and girls. This is a result of discriminatory gender norms that view females as the weaker sex, as property, as subservient to men, and as objects to be gawked at and grabbed whenever men please.

The most common number taken from the WHO study above and additional studies on the subject is that on average around the world 1 in 3 women will be affected by some form of abuse or violence in her lifetime. So if women and girls make up half the world’s 7 billion human beings, over 1 billion of these individuals have been victims of some form of violence. over 1 billion people.  This constitutes a pandemic of very serious proportions. Nonetheless, it is an issue that is commonly placed behind other international, national and local priorities even though violence against girls and women between ages 15 to 44 cause more death and disability than war, cancer, malaria, and traffic accidents combined.

For example, in the U.S. during the most recent elections there wasn’t a single question in the presidential debates concerning this pandemic or the long overdue ratification of the Violence Against Women Act, even though 1 in 4 women in the U.S. are victims of domestic violence, 1 in 6 women are victims of rape and 1/3 of women murdered in the U.S. are murdered by their intimate partner.

Sadly, what we did hear were various comments about “legitimate rape” not causing pregnancy, rape being “something that God intended to happen” that girls don’t get pregnant from statutory rape or incest, pregnancy from rape being similar to “having a baby out of wedlock“, and that “some girls they rape so easy“. Disturbing comments like these show a troubling lack of understanding that half the world’s population is at very serious risk of becoming a victim of very real violence.

These persistent misogynist attitudes and the staggering statistics on violence perpetrated against women and girls clearly demonstrate why we cannot ignore this issue and the opportunity to raise awareness about ending this violence today or any other day of the year.

But why should you be bothered with this difficult and depressing issue, especially at this time of the year?  Because you know her.  You know a woman/girl who has been sexually harassed, you know a woman/girl who has been so terrified of her intimate partner that she’d do anything to calm him down, you know a woman/girl who has been a raped.  While you may be thinking, “I don’t know anyone who has had that type of horrible experience”, these statistics aren’t just numbers and the prevalence of violence against women and girls is very real. You know her I guarantee you, you’ve just never heard what she’s been through.

So during this time of the year when we are supposed to focus on love, togetherness and humanity, do your part to raise awareness about this issue.  Do your part to help the women/girls you know who have been affected by violence. And like with any issue, if we work together to educate ourselves, our children and our communities on the important role that every single one of us has, we can end the pandemic of violence against women and girls.

Ask your government to commit to end violence against women.

Take action against gender violence during the 16 days between today and December 10th (International Human Rights Day).

Learn how to help someone who may be suffering from abuse or from sexual assault.

And finally – share this post on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women with your family and friends to raise awareness!

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Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Gender Equality, Human Trafficking, Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, Stalking, Stranger-Street Harassment, Violence Against Women

Reproductive Coercion: A New Term for an Old Problem

By Karen Moldovan, Guest Blogger and Program Manager at CCASA
Originally posted at and re-blogged with permission from the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA)
Throughout my career, I’ve consistently worked with women (and girls) who are pregnant.  As an advocate at a domestic violence shelter, it was not uncommon for pregnant women to access residential and other supportive services.  When I became a teacher at a Florence Crittenton program, all of my students were pregnant and/or parenting teen girls, between the ages of 12 and 18.  In those settings, it wasn’t uncommon to have conversations about morning sickness, baby names, back aches, and the logistics of getting to and from countless OBGYN appointments.  While those conversations came easy, I gradually realized how complicated it was to have conversations beyond the more mundane pregnancy and birth talk.  As I was able to build trust with the women and girls I worked with, I slowly learned about the mounting physical and emotional safety needs that were often a quiet struggle.  One student was a twelve year old 7th grader, who flatly refused to tell anyone, anything about the male who was no doubt involved in her pregnancy.  Yet other students would quietly murmur about how the biological father was a grown man, and she didn’t want to get him in trouble.  Apparently her family didn’t want to get him in trouble either, because he did have steady employment and would be able to financially provide for the baby.

Still to this day, it’s painful to think about the struggles of many of these young women.  Pregnancy was often closely intertwined with intimate partner violence, incest, inter-familial sex trafficking, and rape.  There was a young women who refused to speak about or even acknowledge her pregnancy, a young woman who confided that she could not hold her baby daughter without breaking down into tears due to the flood of traumatic memories she could not stop, and the young woman who flatly refused seeking any sort of child support because the most important thing was being away from the man who impregnated her.  I bring up these cases because they changed me as an Advocate.  Now I look back and see that the context of the pregnancy was often the “elephant in the room.”  As an advocate, baby names and OBGYN appointments felt okay to bring up, but I really didn’t talk integrate the following facts into my work:

  • Approximately one in five young women said they experienced pregnancy coercion and one in seven said they experienced active interference with contraception (National Crime Victimization Survey, 2005).
  • Girls who are victims of dating violence are 4 to 6 times more likely than non-abused girls to become pregnant (Silverman, 2004).
  • As many as two-thirds of adolescents who become pregnant were sexually or physically abused some time in their lives (Leiderman, 2001).
  • Homicide is the second leading cause of traumatic death for pregnant and recently pregnant women in the U.S. (Chang, 2005).

Considering what we know about perpetrators of intimate partner violence (and the power and control they demand), it should not be surprising that sexual coercion and forced pregnancy are frequently used as tools of abuse.  This abusive behavior may manifest as threats and/or violence if a partner does not comply with the perpetrator’s wishes regarding contraception or the decision whether to terminate or continue a pregnancy.  It may manifest as intentionally interfering with the couple’s birth control, or forcing invasive fertility treatments.

In my own personal life, my partner and I have spent the past two years seeking medical advice and intervention regarding (in)fertility.  In our journey to try and become parents, we’ve seen numerous doctors and medical professionals. When exchanging small-talk before or after an appointment, they’ve all asked me what I do for work.  As I explain CCASA, the tone of the conversation shifts, and more than one Fertility Specialist has shared case examples of reproductive coercion.  One case involved a couple coming in to seek in-vitro fertilization (IVF).  The Doctor just sensed something wasn’t right and (smartly) decided to talk to the husband and the wife separately.  When separated, the wife confided to the Doctor that she didn’t want to be pregnant and didn’t want to do IVF, but that her husband was forcing her.  Another Doctor told me about a situation where she had performed an Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) procedure for a couple, which was successful and resulted in twins.  Shortly after, the couple was back with the husband demanding IVF.  The Doctor was perplexed by both his urgency and demeanor.  Within a couple months of that appointment, the husband was arrested for both child abuse and domestic violence.  When these stories have been relayed to me, the Doctors each seemed incredibly saddened, baffled, and unsure of how to both identify warning signs and respond appropriately.

Because October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I think it’s important for all of us to think about how we can collaboratively improve outreach and awareness around reproductive coercion and the unique considerations of survivors who are pregnant.  I’ve found that health care providers want assistance with these issues, yet are often just too busy to be the ones outreaching to community agencies. The good news is resources are available.  Futures Without Violence (www.futureswithoutviolence.org) has numerous, groundbreaking tools for addressing reproductive coercion and facilitating cross training and collaboration between health care providers and advocates.  Penny Simkin and Phyllis Klaus’s book, “When Survivors Give Birth: Understanding and Healing the Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Childbearing Women” is a must-read for anyone working directly with survivors who are pregnant.  Research determines that a physically-abused woman also experiencing forced sex [is] over seven times more likely than other abused women to be killed (Campbell, 2003).  In light of this horrific statistic, these conversations are absolutely worth having.

Karen Moldovan is the Program Manager for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA). She joined CCASA with strong experience in advocacy, education, community organizing and international development. Her professional experience has often focused on working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, individuals experiencing homelessness, and pregnant and parenting youth. Karen has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Gender Studies, and a Masters of Arts in Teaching. In 2009, she completed service as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in the Kingdom of Tonga. She is a founding member of First Response Action, which advocates for comprehensive reform for sexual assault prevention and response within the Peace Corps.

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First Impressions Count: Campus Safety from a Survivor’s Perspective

By Michelle Spradling, Guest Blogger and Project Director of the Sexual Assault Interagency Council in Denver

Originally posted at and re-blogged with permission from the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA)

More than any season, fall brings nostalgic feelings of excitement and anticipation. I am certain this is a direct result of 17 years of “back to school” shopping trips, class schedule-comparing, and no. 2 pencil sharpening. Fall is the season of change, with leaves turning into delicate crisps of mahogany and new classes, friends, and the promise of a whole year’s worth of experiences waiting to be realized.

Although exactly ten years have passed, I still remember starting my freshman year of college, which was prefaced by a summer of accumulating boxes, squirrelling school supplies and reading college survival guides. I will never forget saying goodbye to my best friend and how we said we would IM and call each other, “like, all the time.” And I will never forget how arriving 10 hours and two states away from the only life I ever knew was nothing short of awesome.

Recognizing Campus Safety Month in September is obviously deliberate: get the message out about the dangers of alcohol, campus shootings, theft, fire safety, and sexual assault the minute students disembark on the quad. More importantly, the beginning of school is memorable and serves as a golden opportunity to imprint the vital messages students carry with them throughout their college careers and beyond.

Although subtle, I wouldn’t realize the weight of the messages I learned during the first month of college until January of the following year. Exactly one week in to the second semester, I was raped. In the interest of time: he was a trusted acquaintance and fellow Greek member. I was at a party where I had been drinking and my friends had gone home, accidentally taking my cell phone and dorm key with them. In the aftermath of the assault, I felt painstakingly alone, ashamed and responsible. As I considered my next move, I tried to recall anything about what I was told to do in the prior months, but could only recall the following references to sexual assault from my weeklong orientation class:

1.       Our orientation class discussion about sexual assault was brief.  While sitting in a shady spot under a tree near the student center, we flipped our student handbooks to the crime report statistics which showed one sexual assault was reported during the previous school year. Our orientation leader informed us that of course this is not a real number since most victims do not report.

The Message: You’re probably not supposed to report a sexual assault—unless you want to really stand out.

2.       Campus Police presented about self-defense classes and the After Dark police escort service, which would shepherd any student to their car after a late night class or past the big scary oak tree by the Science building.

The MessageWomen shouldn’t walk alone on campus at night.*

*Two months later, as I was leaving to walk to my sorority house for a pledging activity,  I ran in to a nice guy that frequented the floor of my dorm. He offered to walk with me, as it was after dark and “there are a lot of creeps out there”. I didn’t mind the company, so I accepted his offer. The next time I saw him was through the glass of the study room on my floor, chatting with the cops. It turns out he had been stalking a girl down the hall. I realized I was better off walking alone at night.

3.       The Resident Advisor came in to my dorm room and tossed a “Red Zone” packet on my bed and explained that the start of the school year until Thanksgiving is the most dangerous time for women on campus. Inside the packet were statistics, phone numbers to the rape crisis center, and a keychain rape whistle.

The Message: Mark a commemorative date on the calendar for December 1 to celebrate not being raped. Also keys are now a weapon against violence and shouldn’t be left unattended.

4.       Many times we were warned by both the orientation leader and Resident Advisor that the campus is dry. Don’t drink, don’t stash alcohol in your closet, and don’t even try returning to your dorm drunk. You will get caught and disciplined accordingly.

The Message: The campus is dry. Don’t get caught drinking. It’s safer to go off campus to drink and use the stairwell instead of the elevators when returning to your room. And if you find yourself without your dorm key at 4AM and you’ve been drinking, your only option is to use the emergency call box to dispatch an officer to open the door for you. Unless you want to risk being arrested for underage drinking and kicked out of school, it’s probably “safer” to stay off-campus at a fraternity house, with a guy who will ultimately rape you.

Looking back, I realized that what I didn’t learn in those formative weeks was a message about how survivors of sexual assault are believed, encouraged to seek help and supported by the institution. I hadn’t learned what constituted rape, but had instead received mixed messages about perpetrators being known to the victim while at the same time being handed a rape whistle. I, like most survivors, struggled internally with defining my assault: It didn’t seem like rape because I hadn’t heard of anyone who had experienced anything similar.  While I did ultimately find a culture of support from university administrators, counselors and police, I disclosed with a delay, slowly and reluctantly, and only after I had been reassured by trusted friends (and later a rape crisis advocate), that I had been sexually assaulted, it wasn’t my fault, and I would not be in trouble.

This September, alongside fire extinguisher demonstrations and sexual assault prevention education (bystander only, please), ensure that your definitions of “sexual assault awareness” and “campus safety” include consent descriptions and a component of emotional safety for sexual assault survivors. Because not all sexual assaults can be prevented, send the message early that your school is a place where students can feel safe talking about, intervening in, and disclosing sexual violence—and subsequently where perpetrators do not feel welcome.

Michelle Spradling is the Project Director of the Sexual Assault Interagency Council in Denver. She also speaks publicly about her experience as a survivor and is co-chair of the Crime Victim Advisory Council, a group of crime victims who work educate the community on the personal and societal impact of violent crime.

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No joking matter: why we shouldn’t ‘lighten up’ when jokes are harmful

By Katie Reyzis

Daniel Tosh, seen here performing during his Comedy Central series

Image from CNN Article, Courtesy of Comedy Central

Daniel Tosh’s recent controversial joke has been all the rage in the media, and very rightly so. For those that haven’t heard, Tosh’s recent stand-up performance at the Hollywood Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, CA spawned a furious debate over the First Amendment, censorship, and the social norms surrounding acceptable humor.

The story boils down to one female audience member who spoke up during Tosh’s show, the content of which allegedly eluded to the comedic nature of jokes about rape, and said that ‘Rape jokes are never funny,’ to which Tosh responded: “’Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…’. A full account from the female audience member of the incident can be found here.

Tosh claims that he was misquoted, but there is a bigger issue to discuss here: the social tolerance of detrimental material, such as this joke and others that are in the grey area between offensive-but-acceptable and downright harmful.

This incident reminded me of a personal experience I encountered in the fall of 2009, when I was studying abroad in Strasbourg, France. Surprisingly, my most memorable culture shock came from a fellow American student who made a joke about the Holocaust. I don’t recall the joke verbatim, but it was a metaphor about the hot temperature of the room being equivalent to the ovens that burned Jews in Nazi concentration camps.  Seeing my outrage at his remark, the student’s response was that I should ‘lighten up’ because after all, the genocide he was so carelessly mocking ‘happened so long ago!’

I should note here that the jokester did not know that I happened to be Jewish, but I hoped to convey to him that his joke was offensive regardless of my personal background or beliefs.

What made my jaw drop even lower was that the other students in my program were surprised that I had never heard a joke about the Holocaust.  Like the woman who found Tosh’s joke offensive, I was the odd woman out in an environment that seemed so blatantly unethical to me. Standing alone in such circumstances is extraordinarily difficult, and I greatly admire this woman for speaking up in front of a crowd at Tosh’s show and shedding light on a much larger issue: society’s acceptance of harmful humor.

While humor can be an important coping mechanism in our lives, there is a very fine line where humor can cross from funny to offensive, and from offensive to unacceptable. We can and should laugh at ourselves, and every person has the right to an individual sense of humor.  For instance, I don’t watch South Park because I don’t think it’s funny most of the time, but that doesn’t mean South Park isn’t funny to everyone or that it should be taken off television. (That episode about redheads was a good chance for me to laugh at and commiserate with my fellow gingers, so no argument there.) That said, Tosh’s joke crosses into that unacceptable territory that I simple can’t tolerate. What makes it cross the line?

Let’s look at the facts: Multiple government and non-profit reports indicate that rape and sexual assault are much more common than police reports show, with statistics as horrific as 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Due to how often sexual violence goes unreported, these statistics may not be exact, but according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Networks (RAINN), “97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.”. RAINN also suggests that victims of sexual assault are, after all, three times more likely to suffer from depression and six times more likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With the odds of even one audience member being a victim of such a tragedy being as high as they are, I don’t think the laughs of those ‘lightened up’ folks who thought the joke was funny are worth the trauma that joke may cause.

Just like me being Jewish had nothing to do with me being offended by the Holocaust joke made by my peer, my logic for this article follows a similar line of thinking – I can accept a joke about a carrot-top or a jab at Hitler’s mustache, but blatantly insinuating gang-rape makes me physically uncomfortable and is therefore harmful to my well-being, and that of many others in the audience.

As someone who is well known in the comedic world and in the entertainment industry, I expect better quality from Tosh’s material. Certainly, there is no doubt in my mind that Tosh ever wished any harm toward the woman who spoke up against his joke, which is evident in his somewhat vague apology, which states, “All the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize,”. This particular instance, however, was too far below the belt for me.

I’m not mad – I’m disappointed.

Let’s step back in time for a second – it’s like a ‘Yo Mamma’ joke gone bad on the playground, when you actually take a stab at the real ailment of someone’s mamma, you can rightfully expect a reaction, if not a slap in the face, or at least on the wrist. The same rules apply on the big kid playground – Tosh took a stab at a really serious issue that crossed the line, and he should be prepared to deal with the backlash.

Despite my discontent with Tosh’s joke, this argument has a flip side. Numerous comedians have taken Tosh’s side and cited their right to freedom of speech and the widespread acceptance of other offensive humor in our society, namely mainstream shows on Comedy Central and all over YouTube. Generally speaking, articles like this one illustrate that the consensus seems to be that stand-up comedy is inherently offensive by definition, and anyone who can’t roll with the punches shouldn’t enter the ring.

By all means, I have no qualms with the Freedom of Speech of comedians. Doing so would be hypocritical since I am a refugee whose family moved to this country from an oppressive one that restricted this freedom, among other things (to put it lightly).  I am, however, arguing about the morality of this joke and, as an advocate for victims of human trafficking and sexual violence, I’m arguing that this joke, and acceptance of such jokes in society, is detrimental to my work and victims of these crimes who already have a hard enough time coping with their trauma.

Essentially, humor that desensitizes the public perception of violence – whether it’s rape, genocide, or something else along these lines – is harmful not only to individuals who may have been affected in the audience, but to the general cultural norm that accepts such material. A skilled comedian should not have to resort to cheap shots, especially on such a sensitive topic and widespread crime, unless the joke clearly renders the act intolerable.

So, what is the solution? Banning offensive jokes is certainly not the answer, but regulating our tolerance of them is.  I am not referring to government censorship, but rather to social morality. If society stops laughing when a comedian crosses the line, the comedian will have no choice but to find other means to elicit the same response, wherein lies the skill of a quality performer.

Surely, Tosh is not the first and (sadly) not the last to make a joke about rape, especially not after this incident. Yet, the Debbie Downer in me says that just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you should do it too.  A skilled comedian should know better.

The good news is that Tosh’s incident ignited such an overwhelming social response on both ends of the argument, which sheds lights on such an important and prevalent topic in our world. One way or the other, the candidness of such a debate is what makes us a free people. As Americans, we are extremely lucky to live in a society that allows us to publicly voice our opinions about issues that affect us. Anyone who has seen the front page of the New York Times even once in the past decade should know that not everyone in the world is as lucky, and many are severely persecuted for voicing dissent.

The purpose of discussing this topic is that we should not be laughing when jokes go too far, and we should not be ridiculed for failing to ‘lighten up.’ Perhaps instead of ‘lightening up’ our response to morally detrimental humor, we, as individuals, parents, children, and members of our communities, should toughen up our intolerance of all types of discriminatory and violent humor in the first place.

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A Culture of Violence & Rape: how the normalization of rape perpetuates inequality and injustice

Image souce: Sexual Assault Awareness Month

By Becky Owens Bullard

Desensitization surrounding rape and sexual abuse seems to continuously invade our lives – it’s in the TV shows and movies we watch, in the songs we listen to and it’s even woven into every day speech as if it weren’t a horrifying crime that affects millions of women and men in the U.S. alone.  While some may think that a rape joke is harmless or a TV show graphically depicting a sexual assault is just interesting television, the prevalence and normalization of sexual violence in our daily lives has very serious consequences. Namely, it furthers the perpetuation of a culture of violence and rape in which the sexual objectification and dominance of women is just the norm.

This so-called “rape culture” creates an unhealthy and warped reality that communicates to our children, ourselves and even to perpetrators of sexual violence that we don’t take these crimes seriously and even in some cases, we condone it.

When we use rape as a casual term in everyday language (for example, to express something has gone poorly – “man, our project proposal totally got raped in that meeting”), we are equating rape to an mildly unpleasant event or a hard day.

When we see rape themes or violent scenes in our entertainment (so that by age 18, children will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence on TV – and that is from a study conducted in 1998), we are consenting that sexual violence is a normal part of life – a part of life to watch without reaction or disgust, a part of life that our kids learn about in the shows they watch or the video games they play.

When we see explicit ads that depict male dominance and sexual violence supposedly meant to be sexy or even funny, we are saying that rape and force are sexy, glamorous and somehow central to our marketing themes.

When we make light of rape and sexual violence, we reveal that we are insensitive to horrific and violating crimes that affect someone every 2 minutes in the U.S. We separate ourselves from an incredibly traumatic type of violence that is also very common – 1 in 6 women in the U.S. (and 1 in 33 men) have experiened rape and 1 in 4 girls (1 in 6 boys) have experienced sexual abuse by the age of 18.

This normalization, along with long-standing gender stereotypes and discrimination, perpetuates myths and misconceptions that lead normal people to trivialize rape and blame victims. So much so that we rarely see a jury of 12 U.S. citizens convict an alleged rapist, as 97% of them do not spend a day in jail. But, why in the world would everday people not want to see justice done and a rapist in jail, especially so they couldn’t perpetrate further violence?

If justice were simply about justice, we would not have to ask this question. Unfortunately, justice also entails individual prejudices from jurors, judges and sometimes even prosecutors as well as pointed antagonism from defense attorneys intent on blaming the victim, not seeking justice. When juries deliberate about a rape conviction or when normal people see news stories about rape and sexual assault, they inevitably ask the inappropriate victim-blaming questions of “why was she alone with him?”; “what was she wearing?”; “what did she do to provoke him?”, etc.  The misconception that these factors should come into consideration of a rapist’s guilt only serve to further injustice and silence future survivors who hope to speak out against their attackers and abusers.

April is Sexual Assault as well as Child Abuse Awareness Month. This month shines a light on issues that most people would prefer to pretend don’t happen, on issues we’d rather joke about or distance ourselves from by making them something more casual. However, the campaign slogan for 2012 Sexual Assault Awareness Month is “It’s time to talk about it” and if we’re ever going to live in a world without sexual violence, it is time to talk about rape and sexual abuse as just what it is and what it isn’t:

Rape isn’t a joke | Rape is a horrible crime.

Rape isn’t appropriate to use in everyday speech | Rape is serious and the word shouldn’t be normalized to the point where it isn’t seen for what it really is.

Rape isn’t somehow exciting, glamorous or something to use to sell products | Rape is traumatic, terrifying and innappropriate to be used as a marketing tool.

Rape isn’t the victim’s fault because of where she was, how she dressed, what substances she might have used, or what she said | Rape is only the fault of the perpetrator, the person who is willing to commit a sex offense.

Rape is not an inevitable byproduct of life, conflict or war | Rape can be stopped, but only if we talk about it, educate ourselves and our communities and stand with victims and survivors to put perpetrators behind bars.

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Filed under Pop Culture, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

A Crime without Repercussion: How Street Harassment has gone Unacknowledged for Too Long

By Becky Owens Bullard

This year, International Anti-Street Harassment Week March 18-24 highlighted an important new movement to raise awareness about an issue that affects an extremely high proportion of women and girls every day.  This movement to bring attention to harassment by strangers in public spaces is an exciting new focus that anti-violence groups have historically been silent on. While there are a number of organizations, campaigns and events surrounding violence against women and girls, stranger-street harassment is often times left unacknowledged and untouched upon in discussions about crimes that perpetuate the cycle of gender-based violence.

While it is understandable how stranger-street harassment might get lost among crimes like domestic violence, rape, trafficking and femicide, the nature of this harassment is fundamental to our fight against all violence against women.  Stranger-street harassment reveals the underlying discriminatory and abusive attitudes still held by many men that a woman is an object and is to be treated like one wherever she goes, whoever she is, at any time of the day.

When I was growing up, the general message I got from adults was that although stranger-street harassment was unpleasant, it was also somewhat accepted as an unfortunate reality. If I was upset about someone looking at me inappropriately, hooting at me from a car while I was jogging, or just outright saying what they’d like “to do with me”, the general message was that it was just “boys being boys” and I should let it go. This reality had a negative impact on me – it meant that I didn’t feel safe in public, especially when I was alone. And sadly, what was not regularly reinforced from women or men was that this reality was unacceptable, that I have every right to be disturbed and upset, and that I should feel empowered to report this person who harassed me, grabbed me, made me feel unsafe.

As I grew up, I began to understand that claims of “boys being boys” was only minimizing harmful, harassing behavior that has deeper implications for sexual assault, exploitation, and abuse. Unfortunately, the attitude that stranger-street harassment is just an unpleasant part of life continues in our conversations with young girls and boys, as well as among adult men and women. For example, a friend called me recently upset and angry about being grabbed on the street by a stranger and she asked me if I thought she was overreacting to what had happened. Although she and I both knew she was not overreacting at all, I realized many people might not agree. If she had talked to any number of people about this male stranger touching her on the shoulder and saying something inappropriate, they very well may have told her that it was a yucky situation, but may not have understood why she was so upset.

Every female on the planet has stories of harassment, with a survey study on the topic showing 99% of women who have endured some form of stranger-street harassment from honking and whistling to being followed and assaulted.  By failing to acknowledge the harm of this harassment and responding apathetically with a “just shake it off” mentality, we send a dangerous message to women and girls that if you’re walking down a street or in any public space – you just may get stared at, hooted and hollered at, and even touched without any recourse. We also send a clear message to perpetrators that they can do any number of these things to make women feel threatened, unsafe and violated without any repercussion.

So, it is time to ask ourselves – how many times do we have to experience/witness/hear about stranger-street harassment to do something about it? When do we commit to educate our society about respect and equality in public places, so that women and girls can feel safe walking down the street?

For the stop violence against women movement, it is time to ask ourselves – why has it taken us so long to acknowledge the critical role of stranger-street harassment in ending gender discrimination and what can we do to combat it?

Fighting stranger-street harassment as a prevalent form of gender-based discrimination and violence is absolutely essential to the stop violence against women movement. With the momentum from the newly initiated International Anti-Street Harassment Week, now is the time to incorporate this issue into our  programs to end gender-based violence and discrimination and make a commitment to stop public harassment and make public spaces safe for women and girls.

For more information about the movement to end stranger-street harassment, go to:

Stop Street Harassment: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/

Meet us On the Street: http://www.meetusonthestreet.org/

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Filed under Gender Equality, Sexual Violence, Stranger-Street Harassment, Violence Against Women, Words Hurt Series