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.

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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 ( 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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Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

Intimate Partner & Familial Human Trafficking: when Domestic Violence & Human Trafficking Collide

By Becky Owens Bullard

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Today marks the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), an awareness month that is particularly meaningful for me. Domestic violence was the first issue I worked on as an advocate, and I remember my first training vividly – the power and control wheel, the cycle of violence, and the myths surrounding intimate partner and familial abuse. I remember the women and children that I worked with in shelter, support groups and in the courtroom, and I can’t forget the devastating impact I saw this issue have on so many people’s lives. So, when I left my work on domestic violence in Nashville, TN and shifted my focus to the anti-human trafficking field in Washington, D.C., I carried my first passion with me.

Although I had little expectation that domestic violence would be so closely tied to human trafficking when I arrived in D.C. to work for Polaris Project, I did have an inkling that my work with domestic violence victims was far from over.  In my first week of training, I quickly realized that the power and control used by traffickers was incredibly similar to that of batterers and I subsequently developed the Human Trafficking Power and Control Wheel to raise awareness about these similarities in non-physical forms of control. The abuse was similar, cycles of violence and coercion were present, and to top it all off, the case that brought me to the anti-trafficking field in the first place was both a case of domestic violence and human trafficking.

On the surface, the case appeared to be a straight-forward domestic violence incident where a woman and her child had been physically abused by the woman’s live-in boyfriend. However, while waiting to testify, the woman expressed fear of being in trouble with the police because a Vice Detective had been questioning her about the defendant. I was confused, thinking she meant a DV Detective, and seeing my confusion she explained that her boyfriend had not only abused her and her child but had also forced her to engage in commercial sex. With this disclosure, I felt fairly helpless as an advocate.  I had worked on plenty of cases of intimate partner sexual abuse, but sexual exploitation (i.e. human trafficking) had not really occurred to me as a potential form of intimate partner abuse. The case and my feeling of incompetence stayed with me, opening my eyes to the intersections of domestic violence and human trafficking.

However, when I came to the anti-trafficking field, I couldn’t seem to find an appropriate place for this woman I had worked with. There was no mention of an intimate partner as a trafficker and her story was lumped into a fairly large category of “pimp-controlled” trafficking. While my take on pimp-control was that it was intimate partner violence anyway, she still didn’t fit the idea of pimps having a “stable” or controlling multiple women at one time. And what if her abuser had started selling her daughter for sex?  There was also very little recognition of family members or parents as traffickers.

Maybe it was just a rare case and not the norm for human trafficking? Maybe I was over-thinking it? Nevertheless, a few months into my work on the national hotline for human trafficking, I realized that her case was far from unusual. I ended up working on multiple cases where family members and intimate partners were perpetrators of both sex and labor trafficking and in 2010, we started to categorize them as such. In a few months, 10% of hotline calls were reports of intimate partner or familial human trafficking and I had heard multiple stories of intimate partners, parents and other family members who compelled their victims into commercial sex, domestic servitude, sexual servitude and labor.

Although it is rarely the type of exploitation or abuse highlighted by the media or by either field, it is happening and it’s time we start calling it what it is – both Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking.

When a mom and dad sell their daughter for sex to make their car payments – it is familial sex trafficking and child abuse.

When a husband forces his wife to sell herself for sex by threatening to take their child away – it is intimate partner sex trafficking and intimate partner abuse.

When a teenage boy convinces his girlfriend to sell sexual favors to feed his drug addiction – it is intimate partner sex trafficking and teen dating violence.

When a parent makes their child work long hours at the family restaurant under duress instead of going to school – it is familial labor trafficking and child abuse.

And when a husband forces his wife to work, taking all of her wages and beating her if she loses her job – it is intimate partner labor trafficking and intimate partner violence.

But why don’t we call these crimes what they are?  What stops us from understanding that domestic violence and human trafficking can not only involve the same types of power and control, cyclical violence and manipulative perpetrators, but can also directly collide, mixing the two crimes together completely?

Unfortunately, there are several myths that keep us from identifying these crimes and inhibit our understanding of intimate partner and familial human trafficking:

The myth that traffickers are usually someone unknown to the victim, not their mom or dad or intimate partner – even though we know that those closest to us, those who are supposed to love and care for us, can also exercise forceful bonds of control, manipulation and abuse.

The myth that abusive partners and family members wouldn’t go so far as to exploit – even though we know they commonly dehumanize, sexually abuse and economically manipulate.

And the idea that intimate partners (especially husbands) and family members (especially parents) somehow have a right to force their loved ones to work but not calling this forced labor – even though if the perpetrator were a stranger or an “official” employer, we would recognize it as human trafficking.

These myths and discriminatory ideas inhibit us from recognizing the intersections of these two issues, keeping domestic violence and human trafficking in separate silos. When we treat these issues as completely distinct, we risk misidentifying victims, providing inadequate and uninformed services, and missing out on crucial collaboration between the domestic violence and human trafficking fields.

So as we work to enhance the public’s understanding of abuse during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let’s also improve our own understanding of the types of abuse that we can encounter in our work. By acknowledging that human trafficking is one of these forms of abuse and that it can intersect directly with domestic violence, we can ensure no advocate feels ill-equipped when they come across their own case of intimate partner or familial human trafficking. By uniting the domestic violence and human trafficking fields around this issue, we can amplify our voices and work together to end abuse and exploitation by those closest to victims: their family members and intimate partners.

For more information on the intersections, please see the following resources:

Issue Brief on the Intersections of Domestic Violence & Human Trafficking

Intimate Partner and Intrafamilial Exploitation: How the Intersections of Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking can profoundly affect our Work by Becky Owens Bullard


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

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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Filed under Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

Easy, ‘Breezy’, and Not So Beautiful: What Chris Brown’s New Tattoo Says About Our Society’s Tolerance of Domestic Violence

  by Katie Reyzis

As much as I try to remove myself from the gossip-laden world of pop-culture, the story of Rihanna and Chris Brown hits closer and closer to home for me with every update. To make a long story short, a verbal dispute between Rihanna and her then-boyfriend Brown, also known as ‘Breezy’, escalated to physical violence and resulted in assault charges against Brown in early 2009. Brown pled guilty to felony assault and the couple split, but media coverage of the incident continued as rumors surfaced about their reunion and their professional collaborations in music.

Through my work and experience with women’s issues, I have been exposed to the issue of domestic violence time and time again. While each situation may present different details about the people involved and the type of abuse, there are many overarching principles that remain the same. Chief among them is a concept known as the ‘cycle of violence,’ which I think has been largely ignored in the media’s coverage of Rihanna and Brown’s tumultuous relationship.

When the most recent articles about Brown were brought to my attention, I expected yet another aggressive comment on Twitter or something along the lines of that one chair-throwing incident.

Holy moly, I must say I didn’t see this one coming.

Brown’s latest contribution to the tabloids was released two days ago, when he was photographed with his newest tattoo of what at first glance appears to be a battered woman and bears a striking resemblance to his ex-girlfriend. While he claims that the image is art to represent a Mexican holiday called Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the tattoo’s resemblance to Rihanna is uncanny. Even despite the most recent affirmations from Brown’s tattoo artist that the tattoo was in fact an illustration of art, I am not convinced that Brown’s motives were purely creative. The placement of the tattoo coupled with Brown’s history of violence and continuous lack of remorse for his actions make me skeptical that he isn’t just looking to brag about his apparent immunity to punishment for his actions.

While Brown’s tattoo may truly be an artistic illustration of a M.A.C. cosmetic design, it still begs the question – why did a convicted felon of domestic assault choose to get a highly visible tattoo that can at best be described as a female face that has either been beaten or is “half dead”? And why is it that instead of Brown, Rihanna tends to be the one who catches the heat for the back and forth rumors that she and Brown are getting back together?

Rihanna, affectionately dubbed ‘RiRi’ by the press, may be a pop-singer and a high-fashion icon, but her personal exposure to domestic violence makes her like 1 in every 4 women in this country who experience physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by their intimate partners, family members, roommates, and other loved ones. Furthermore, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that, “Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.” Rihanna fits into the statistics so neatly that her story should come as no surprise, but the media’s coverage and, subsequently, our society’s response to this issue remains stagnantly ignorant and it is time to catch up with the times.

Critics in the Public Relations field claim that Rihanna’s response and continued connection to Breezy demonstrates the normalization of domestic violence, but I argue to the contrary. I think that by blaming Rihanna, her critics are in fact the ones contributing to said normalization and disregarding a central component of abusive relationships, the aforementioned cycle of violence.

The cycle of violence is comprised of four phases, which form a pattern of abusive behavior: 1.) Tension Building 2.) Incident 3.) Reconciliation and 4.) Calm. These phases revolve in a circular paradigm that makes leaving an abusive situation extremely difficult, particularly when that situation, like Rihanna’s, involves an intimate partner. Although some critics of the cycle of violence state that it isn’t applicable to all intimate partner violence, it is a helpful tool for the public to explain how a person’s psyche and willpower can be broken down and how it can be incredibly difficult to leave an abuser. The psychological, emotional, and physical implications of this pattern are vastly complicated, and Rihanna’s status as a popular icon is a chance to highlight a horribly invasive issue in our daily lives and educate the public about domestic violence.

Sadly, the social reaction to the Rihanna – Brown saga has been disappointing to say the least. For instance, in March 2012, a steakhouse in Georgia had the audacity to create a ‘black and blue’ sandwich as a parody to the incident. The ‘cleverly’ titled sandwich certainly elicited quite a negative retort and an eventual apology from the restaurant, but this was not the first or the last disappointing play on words about the episode.

Just last month, comedian Joan Rivers tweeted the following message to Rihanna directly, “Rihanna confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it’s MY turn to slap her.” As repulsed as I am by Rivers’ remark, I am even more disappointed that her view, in various capacities, is shared by the media, the general public, and my own circle of friends.

As someone who due to her age and gender fits so neatly into the statistical risk factors for domestic violence as Rihanna, I am appalled by critics’ reactions to this situation and disappointed by the fact that coverage of her story has not taken a different angle. For instance, why, instead of criticizing Rihanna’s coping mechanisms with her love of an abusive ex-boyfriend, are we not focusing on how this story demonstrates that domestic violence can affect everyone, even the wealthiest, prettiest, and most famous people in our society? This could have been a chance to underscore a crucial issue and, most importantly, accentuate the cycle of violence that is so common among those 1 in 4 women who are faced with domestic violence. I purposely repeat this statistic twice to draw attention to that fact that it is highly likely that someone you know has experienced it as well.

Yet, despite my loathing of Brown’s actions in this case and the media’s uninformed coverage of this issue, it is important to consider that Brown doesn’t exactly have the statistics on his side either.

The NCADV indicates that “Children witnessing domestic violence and living in an environment where violence occurs may experience some of the same trauma as abused children.”  By the same token, “Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.”  Brown’s mother has been very candid about her history of domestic abuse and very supportive of the steps her son has taken to right his wrongs, but the fact remains that his history cannot excuse his actions in adulthood.

The facts are simple: We know domestic violence exists in America. We know that no one is exempt from it. We know we can report it and speak out against it. So why do we tolerate it?

Even if Rihanna and Brown really did laugh about all this ‘erroneous’ media coverage of the tattoo that resembles a face very similar to hers, the moral of this story is that her brush with domestic abuse and Brown’s unapologetic demeanor are far from unique. Belittling Rihanna’s emotional struggle and continued feelings of love toward her abuser only heighten the obstacles domestic violence victims face in coming forward and seeking assistance.

In my ideal world, I would emphasize a few reforms to the current status of this story in the media:

First, let’s show our understanding for someone in Rihanna’s situation, that leaving an abusive relationship is not black and white and takes many times to leave and return before finally leaving.  Let’s not engage in blaming attitudes that place blame on the wrong person – the victim not the abuser. Shifting our focus away from the victim is crucial not only in the cases of celebrities in the media, but also in the very likely event that we are exposed to similar situations in our personal relationships with neighbors, co-workers, friends, or family members.

Second, let’s stop awarding Brown with Grammys and stop buying his records. How is it that Breezy remains unscathed from his well-deserved assault charges? Not only did he win a Grammy in 2012, he also performed at the Grammy Awards in front of a national audience. At the same time, fellow celebrity and football star Chad Ochocinco was held much more publicly accountable for battery charges as his TV show was cancelled and his contract with the Florida Dolphins was terminated.

It’s time we even out the playing field, take a stand against an issue that is so invasive in our everyday lives, and hold Brown accountable. So he was put on probation, his Got Milk ad was dropped and he was sentenced to some community service hours. Do those punishments fit the crime? Do those three things even fall in the category of ‘punishments?’

One of the most important ways to curb the prevalence of domestic violence is to set a strong precedent so that abusers are afraid of the consequences. As Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization for Women stated, “Young girls and boys watching this [Chris Brown’s trial] unfold on TV will see than men who commit violence against women practically go scot-free.”

Education and awareness about domestic violence and related issues is essential to fostering more healthy relationships in our communities and more resources for individuals who face these crimes in our world. Shifting society’s focus from the victim to the abuser and equipping the public with tools for avoiding and coping with the dangers of domestic violence is the key to prevention. Intolerance to the obvious implications of a continued lack of remorse from a convicted batterer like Chris Brown, artistic or otherwise, is step one on this high road.


Filed under Domestic Violence, Intimate Partner Violence, Pop Culture, Violence Against Women

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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Filed under Pop Culture, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

A Picture says a Thousand Words: sending the right message about the realities of abuse through our images

By Becky Owens Bullard

The power of an image is immeasurable, especially when it comes to promoting awareness of an issue that people don’t exactly understand.  When we want every day citizens to engage in an issue they’d rather pretend doesn’t exist, we try to pique their interest by providing a photograph or video that they can associate with the issue – an image that will be burnt in their memory and make the issue real for them. Often times, these images that we use in awareness campaigns and community education on issues of abuse are our best chance of catching someone’s attention long enough to raise awareness and promote positive social change. Unfortunately, to inform our already media-saturated public we often resort to flashy visuals that do very little to accurately portray the crimes we hope to stop.

Image found at

Example: human trafficking.  Try looking up “human trafficking” on an image search and you may see what I mean about exaggerated or inaccurate portrayals of abuse. While there are some clever images (for example,  humans with price tags representing the idea that people are still bought and sold), the photos most commonly associated with human trafficking are of people shackled or locked in a cage. Now think about the movies you’ve seen or the books that you’ve read on human trafficking.  Most have likely contained a story line about someone who was kidnapped by a large criminal operation, thrown into a brothel and “rescued” by someone from their trafficking situation. I can’t tell you how many times I spoke with individuals when I worked on the national human trafficking hotline who were outraged about human trafficking because they had just seen this type of over-the-top image or video on human trafficking.

While these images and media portrayals of human trafficking are fairly compelling and may serve to spark interest or outrage in the issue, they are also misleading. A human trafficking case where an individual is physically chained or caged is not the norm. In fact, the “chains” that keep a victim tied to a trafficker are often the things that you can’t see – fear, shame, hope and love.

So how harmful are images that portray human trafficking victims as shackled, caged and battered? While some may argue that they are just an innocuous way to grab someone’s attention, these images often promote misconceptions about the issue and make it difficult for victims and survivors to speak out about what happened to them. For example, if someone’s understanding of human trafficking is limited to images of slavery, chains and rescue missions and they sit on a jury for a human trafficking case where they hear testimony from a victim who had a cell phone or was able to go to the store alone, that person would likely think, “this isn’t human trafficking.”

And they would be wrong. Cycles of violence and various non-physical forms of abuse are extremely common in both sex and labor trafficking. The failure to clearly communicate these dynamics is damaging to the issue as a whole and is what led me to create the human trafficking power and control wheel while I worked at the national hotline to detail forms of abuse beyond physical violence that occur in trafficking situations.

Image from Identity Magazine

Example: domestic violence. Now try an image search for “domestic violence.” You will likely see images of women and children bruised and battered, being choked, silenced and slapped. Think of the movies or music videos you’ve seen about domestic violence – they are often aggressive and extremely volatile. While we’ve started to get more creative with domestic violence images and encourage people to see beyond the physical forms of abuse (see this portrayal of verbal abuse), it is still all too common that a black eye is what is associated with abuse instead of the manipulation, isolation and emotional abuse that survivors often say are the most damaging. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “it’s not like he punched me square in the face” when I worked as a domestic violence victim advocate in court. The pervasive images of fist punching and serious bodily injury is what the general public, as well as victims themselves, associate with intimate partner and familial abuse.

So how harmful are images of domestic violence centered on black eyes and bruises? Just like with human trafficking, the flashy image of physical injury may seem completely harmless and a way to get a non-interested citizen to agree that domestic violence is a bad thing. But think of that person that is now sitting on the jury for a domestic violence case. When they hear that the defendant threatened the victim and restrained her from leaving the house, but there were no visible injuries, they just might think, “doesn’t sound like domestic violence to me.”  Again, they would be very wrong.

These narrow images paint an incomplete picture of abuse, resulting in unintentional victim blaming. Understandably, the general public may have a hard time reconciling the reality of abuse with the images that they are familiar with and wonder “why didn’t s/he leave if they weren’t chained up?” or “is it really domestic violence when s/he didn’t get hit?”

What’s worse, these images may also persuade victims to minimize their own suffering and think, “I am not a victim because I wasn’t locked away” or “I can’t be a victim because I didn’t get punched in the face.”

While the anti-violence movement has to find thoughtful ways to educate the general public about crimes that affect millions of people each day, it is important to do it the right way. Even though it is necessary to be catchy and inventive to engage individuals who would rather not hear about the prevalence of violence, resorting to exaggerated or inaccurate images that perpetuate misconceptions does nothing but harm victims and survivors while miseducating those who can help us end violence.

So let’s be true to what we know about abuse in the images we use for our education and awareness efforts – that it isn’t all big black eyes and someone chained to a wall. Abuse is complex, psychologically manipulative and incredibly difficult to end without an accurate understanding of its dynamics. It’s time for the anti-violence movement to rise above the desire to be provocative and instead, refocus on our passion of empowering others to end violence by providing images that truly reflect the crimes we seek to eliminate.


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

Mr. Wrong or Mr. Abuser?

By Erin Meyer

from “Mr. Wrong ft. Drake” – Mary J. Blige

Let me start by saying that Mary J. Blige is one of the most empowering female hip-hop artists of the past two decades and her songs have seen me through many a relationship; the times to celebrate and the times to re-evaluate my choices.

“Mr. Wrong” is a song that speaks to all of us.  We have all been there; been in that relationship where you know you aren’t getting what you need, but you still feel that desire, feel that commitment and want to be with him regardless of the cost to yourself.  So if we can all understand this feeling, this draw to the painful, why can’t we understand the cyclical nature of abusive relationships?

What is it about that relationship that makes us say “she should have left…she should have known better”? Is it the physical violence?  Is it that point where we all say to ourselves “if anyone hit me, I would leave him no matter what!”

But most domestic violence relationships don’t start with physical abuse; they start with the emotional.  The emotional abuse leaves just as much of a scar and trains the heart to be more and more vulnerable to the physical abuse as the abuser escalates.  So how do you know when it goes from just the sort-of emotionally abusive of “Mr. Wrong” to the gateway abusive and cyclically escalating abuse of intimate partner violence?

Is it when we convince ourselves that “even though he breaks my heart so bad…we got a special thing going on”. Is that when we tell ourselves that if it gets worse, we’ll be able to leave? That this consuming feeling we have now that “even if I try, no, I never could, give him up cause his loves like that”, will change?

Then it does…

…It is just a bit worse this time; no big deal.  He didn’t mean to hurt my feelings when he called me names and then he took me out to a nice dinner on Saturday night, so he must have felt bad about it and won’t do it again.

…He just broke the window this time.  It wasn’t on purpose.  I just made him so mad because I wanted to visit my family this weekend and he loves me so much, he needs me to be with him.

Drake summed it up perfectly, it’s “a terrible pattern…it goes up and down, it’s just up and down; she’s crying now but she’ll laugh again..” Something the victim convinces herself to be true and a belief that the abuser relies and thrives on.

So if abusive relationships start off so ‘innocent’, how do we know when to get out?

As, on average, an intimate partner violence survivor attempts to leave her situation 7 times before successfully doing so, it is vital that we educate ourselves as a community and understand victims’ mindsets. We must do this so that we can not only recognize the signs and increase prevention, but so that we can also be that support, that strength, for our loved ones when they are ready to explore their options.

Throughout the escalating cycle, abusers have been using isolation and manipulation to make their victims believe that no one will understand what they are going through, and that no one will love them as much as he does.  When a victim tells us her story and we respond with “Well, what are you thinking? Leave that man! How could you stay with him?”, we are proving the abuser right.  We are showing that victim that we don’t understand, we don’t support her, and even worse, that we are judging her and she is alone in this.

Instead we can utilize safety planning resources to help empower survivors to leave their relationships and re-build their lives.  We can direct them to resources, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, for personalized safety planning, local resources, and emergency assistance.

We must understand the mindset of victims and understand that being caught up in these relationships is not so foreign as we might wish to believe.

We must remember, it is not so different from loving a “Mr. Wrong”, and we need support from our communities to be ready to move on.  In the words of Mary J, we’ve done “enough cryin and don’t need no more drama in our lives“.


Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Intimate Partner Violence, Pop Culture, Violence Against Women