Saturday, September 18, 2010

See something? Say something.

I was sexually harassed tonight. My face is soaked in tears and I am feeling defeated.

I've been harassed before, plenty of times. But rather than getting "thicker skin" I feel as though the same scab is peeled off again and again, the wound growing ever deeper. I contemplate quitting my weekend job where much of the harassment takes place. But then I remember that this harassment doesn't happen because I'm a performer, because I dance in a short skirt or because my character appears to be drunk -- it happens because I am a woman. I've been sexually harassed walking down the street on a sunny day dressed to go to my grandmother's birthday party. It has nothing to do with what I wear or how I present myself. It has to do with the fact that the harasser thinks is a-okay to treat me with disrespect. Because I am a woman.

And why shouldn't he? Tonight there were literally hundreds of people witnessing the harassment, but did anyone speak up? Besides the lead singer of my band, no (at least, not to my knowledge). The fellow audience members were apparently good enough folks to not be yelling obscenities about my body, but not good enough people to shush-up or call security on the d-bags who were. So that leaves these d-bags with the message that it is okay -- it's okay to be a sexist, perverted asshole.

But it's not okay. Far from it. And I have faith that most people agree with me. Because I usually don't get harassed. I've played over 400 shows in the last five years, and despite the fact that I always wear a short dress, I always dance enticingly and my character always appears to drink Jack Daniels [coke + water = fake whiskey], only seldom does someone take those factors as an invitation for a verbal assault. So clearly it's not me -- it's them.

And if I'm correct that most people don't think sexual harassment is okay, I want to know: why do so many people condone it when it happens? Why don't more people speak up? Of course, there can be as many answers to this question as there are silent spectators, but my hunch is that most people don't speak up because they see it as normal. They see women being objectified on TV, billboards, music videos, movies and as a result, seeing it in real life may not seem shocking or even problematic.

But it is VERY problematic. Because I am a strong woman. And this shit puts me to tears. It makes me feel weak. It makes me feel like all my work to end sexual violence is for nothing. It makes me feel like I don't matter. It makes me feel unsafe in my workplace. It makes me feel like a victim. But I am a fucking survivor.

If you're reading this, you're probably my friend. And since you're my friend I don't mind asking you this favor: if you see something, say something. Please don't tacitly support sexual violence by bearing silent witness to verbal or physical assault. Speak up. Get security. Put the perp in their place. Intervene safely in a way that is comfortable to you. But for goodness sake, intervene. If you do already, thank you. Now consider taking it a step further and encouraging your friends to do the same. This shit won't stop unless we stop it.

Usually I end my posts with some words of encouragement. But they are escaping me tonight. Have you got any for me? I could use them.

I'd like to thank the members of Wedding Banned, past and present, for ALWAYS supporting me, being my advocates and never blaming me. I love you guys.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rape, Sex and the Grey Area

It’s common for sexual assault survivors to disassociate (leave their bodies) during a sexual encounter. And we know as many as 1 in 4 women are survivors of sexual assault. (FYI -- Staci Haines’ book A Survivor’s Guide to Sex is a phenomenal resource for partners of/survivor’s dealing with this issue). But I imagine that many women who are not sexual assault survivors struggle to remain “present” and fully enjoy sex as well. After all, women's pleasure is all-but-disregarded in our culture. I can make arguments about why this is the case (male orgasm is needed to make babies, female orgasm is not), but I’d very much like for it not to be case. Because, to borrow from a sister’s post: “women are rarely encouraged to experience pleasure or taught how to do so, which relates to rape culture in that women often do not expect pleasure from sex and therefore consent to touch that they do not particularly want, or consent for reasons of convenience or guilt.”

Because women are not taught to expect pleasure it becomes normal for women to have sexual encounters that are not pleasurable. Given these circumstances, the best-case scenario is that these women will have unfulfilling sex lives. The worst-case scenario is that sexual violence will be normalized to them. Neither sound fun to me, but the latter is particularly problematic.

A 2009 study by East Carolina University, Virginia Tech and University of Houston found that when women do not acknowledge sexual violence as a violation they are more likely to be revictimized.[1] Basically, if you don’t call rape “rape” you’re more likely to be raped…again. Despite this, our culture encourages women to believe that in many cases rape is actually just “bad sex.” I've seen this confusion play-out in countless friends and clients who've disclosed to me over the past eight years. (I want to be clear here: I am not critiquing individuals for choosing to name/not name an experience “rape.” I am critiquing the culture that encourages this confusion between rape and consensual sex). Failing to value women’s sexual pleasure enables rape culture and renders sexual violence invisible and even permissible.

So, women: we need to learn to expect pleasure from our sexual encounters. We need to support our sisters to do the same. We need to stop slut shaming one another. When we're not getting the pleasure we expect we need to speak up about it. We need to get comfortable voicing our needs before, during and after a sexual encounter. We need to practice enthusiastic consent that is mutual, active and ongoing.

Partners of women: we need to know that our orgasm does not mean a sexual encounter is complete. We need to speak up, not only about our own desires but inquire about our partners' as well. We need to stop slut shaming, too. We need to be able to hear that what we've been doing hasn't been working, and we need to be ready to make changes going forward. We need to practice enthusiastic consent.

Consent can be a confusing thing, as such there may always be grey area between "sex" and "rape." But I'd like that grey area to shrink. One way to do that is to fight against the sexist and heterosexist notion that sex is/should be about men's pleasure. If we can cool-off our slut shaming and expect enthusiastic consent and pleasure from all actors in a sexual encounter we'll be on the right track. Plus, we'll be having a really good time.

Of course, no matter what we do or what our culture tells us, there will be people who enjoy raping other people. As far as I know, rape has occurred in all cultures throughout history. And I can't know with certainty that changing the way our culture views rape or sexuality will significantly diminish the occurance of rape. But I think it might and I believe it's a worthwhile effort. We may not be able to change people's biology, but we can change what they're taught to view as "normal." And I have great hopes that if we're taught that women's pleasure IS normal and coercive and/or drunk and/or forced sex IS NOT, that much rape would be prevented -- or at the very least, not be tolerated. What's happening now isn't working. 1 in 4 is WAY too many. We need a change.

[1] Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33 (2009), 34-42.