Recently released national research showed that one in sixteen adolescent girl’s first sexual experience is rape. In a new Denver Post Guest Commentary, Anne DePrince talks about the messages conveyed when violence is so common. And the messages we need to send instead.
Since my day-job focuses on trauma and violence, my off-the-clock reading tends towards fantasy and science fiction. I tell people this is my escape, though fantasy and science fiction often reflect back our day-to-day world in stark and profound ways. I was reminded of this recently while reading Jacqueline Carey’s Starless.
Starless opens as you meet Khai, who has been raised as an “honorary boy” in a brotherhood of warriors. At birth, a set of circumstances (read the book) revealed that Khai’s destiny would require him to be a warrior. Raised by the brotherhood, he becomes a skilled fighter by a young age, and a blooded-warrior after killing in battle.
Not until after he becomes a blooded-warrior does Khai learn that he was born a girl and raised a boy. While the length of the novel grapples with what this means to Khai, one particular sentence captivated me. Khai describes:
…I hugged my knees to my chest, unconsciously protecting a body that felt considerably more vulnerable than it had yesterday.”
Khai’s observation reveals much about the gendered nature of vulnerability in our non-fiction world. Vulnerability isn’t inherent to a female body. Rather, it is born of the historical and current reality that violence against girls and women is horribly common. One in four girls are sexually abused in childhood. One in five women are raped in their lifetimes. An average of 137 women are killed each day by family members or partners around the globe. Black trans women are disproportionately likely to be killed. And gender-based violence often goes without accountability for offenders or justice for survivors.
These statistics are brought to life in stories that have been shared for centuries among girls and women, once over clotheslines and today across #metoo posts. Each #metoo is a testament to survival and a reflection of a persistent reality for girls and women: that it could be you too.
What happens if we name this vulnerability? Maybe something like #couldbemetoo.
With a name, we can start to see the long shadow cast by growing up with awareness that it #couldbemetoo, affecting how girls and women organize their lives. From opportunities they do and don’t take to how they navigate homes, schools, and offices.
When women are victimized, they are often blamed for the violence they experienced. The implication is that they were supposed to know the #couldbemetoo risk and plan accordingly to avoid being victimized. They shouldn’t have dated that guy, had that drink, taken that job, gone to that school, worn that outfit, worked at that time of day. The list is wearying and suffocating.
All this got me thinking about questions I sometimes get when I talk about gender-based violence that go something like: Aren’t boys and men victims too? (Spoiler alert: Yes.) Then, why talk about gender-based violence? What’s gender got to do with it anyway?
Boys and men are victims of violence – and all intimate violence, regardless of the survivors’ gender, is preventable and unnecessary. Focusing on girls and women is not a negation or effort to ignore boys’ and men’s experiences. Rather, it’s a recognition that girls and women are disproportionately victimized by intimate partners. And that there are dynamics — due to the gendered nature of intimate abuse and the gendered nature of the world in which we live — that warrant attention.
Naming gender helps us recognize the vulnerability of living life knowing it #couldbemetoo, borne primarily by girls and women.
In fact, our country communicates every single day to girls and women that #couldbemetoo is a routine part of life and a burden they must shoulder. We communicate this each time that under-resourced communities can’t offer prevention programming. Or waitlists drag on for crisis services and interventions. Or offenders are not held accountable. Or Congress fails to re-authorize the Violence against Women Act (VAWA).
The effect of our collective action (and inaction) is captured so poignantly in that moment when Khai expresses that to be a girl is to be vulnerable to assault, no matter how strong and well trained you are. Even if you’re a warrior.
In tolerating gendered violence, we let the shadow of knowing it #couldbemetoo stretch into the future, dimming the potential of a new generation of girls. We have to do better.
Of course, re-imagining and re-creating a world that is intolerant of violence against girls and women is daunting. Don’t worry, though – Khai has plenty to teach us about working together to change the world. So go ahead, read the book. And take some notes because tomorrow we have to get up and start building a new world where girls get to grow up expecting to be safe in their bodies.
Acknowledgements: Starless by Jacqueline Carey was published in 2018 by Tor Books; quote p. 127. Thank you to Naomi Wright, Susan Buckingham, Julie Olomi, and Lindsey Feitz for comments on an earlier draft.
Blows to the head are common among women experiencing intimate partner abuse (IPA), as documented in recent research nationally (e.g., Corrigan, Wolfe, Mysiw, Jackson, & Bogner, 2003; Wilbur et al., 2001) and from the Traumatic Stress Studies Group (Gagnon & DePrince, 2017). Despite prevalence data, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and IPA have received scant policy and research attention. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 report to Congress, Traumatic Brain Injury in the United States: Epidemiology and Rehabilitation, failed to even mention IPA.
Victim service providers, recognizing the occurrence of TBIs among clients, have begun to integrate traumatic brain injury (TBI) screenings into practice. Unfortunately, the lack of research on TBI and IPA means that there is not yet an adequate empirical base to inform practices for the use of TBI screenings in decision-making and treatment-planning for women experiencing IPA.
We plan to address these gaps in a new study.
With funding from MINDSOURCE Brain Injury Network (Colorado Department of Human Services), the Traumatic Stress Studies Group will collaborate with Drs. Julia Dmitrieva (Department of Psychology, University of Denver), Kim Gorgens (Graduate School of Professional Psychology, University of Denver) and the Rose Andom Center to answer key questions about TBI and IPA.
In particular, we have designed a study that promises to result in an empirically-informed approach to screening for TBI among women experiencing IPA. By partnering with the Rose Andom Center — a multidisciplinary facility that serves women who have experienced IPA — we will ensure that the research conducted is relevant to providers and ready for their use. We also hope that this research will advance understanding and awareness of links between IPA and TBI in Colorado — and nationally.
Stay tuned for more on this new study as we begin data collection later this year.
Only a handful of days remain to make public comments on the problematic Title IX rules proposed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (comments have to be submitted by January 30). If you’re thinking about submitting a comment, there are resources available on writing an effective comment and plenty of reasons to get your keyboard. For example, the proposed rules will require survivors to submit to cross-examination by an advisor of the accused’s choosing and create significant barriers to reporting.
The proposed rules also include a radical re-write of the definition of sexual harassment that has serious implications for what we teach this country’s young people about why sexual harassment and assault matter.
The new rules require that schools dismiss complaints that do not involve “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the [school’s] education program or activity” (§§ 106.30, 106.45(b)(3)). According to the new rules, then, sexual harassment only matters after severe harm has already occurred – such as after a survivor has already left school entirely. In this, the proposed rules say that harassment matters only because of the consequences to an individual survivor and not the occurrence of sexual harassment.
Here’s the problem – or at least a problem – with this approach. Imagine a man uses the same sexually explicit words and graphic images to abuse two different women. One woman leaves college; the other does not. Though the man engaged in the same behavior, what he did can be investigated as sexual harassment in one instance and not in the other. The proposed rule reverse-engineers the definition of harassment based on the way survivors react rather than the behavior of the harasser. This puts the onus of defining why sexual harassment matters on the shoulders of survivors: If they can’t demonstrate severe harm, it doesn’t matter that they were sexually harassed.
An enormous body of research clearly establishes that, on average, sexual harassment and assault result in short- and long-term physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and behavioral harm. Research also documents that the impact of sexual harassment and assault on survivors varies. Some women experience physical and mental health consequences; others don’t. Some women are aware of and able to describe the immediate impact of abuse, others aren’t. Saying sexual harassment matters only after survivors can demonstrate severe harm fails to recognize the diverse responses humans have to traumatic stress and perversely penalizes resilience in the face of abuse.
This is not to say that harm should not be considered in some contexts. For example, victims have to demonstrate that they suffered harm to get monetary restitution through the civil legal system following sexual harassment or assault. Having to demonstrate harm when asking for monetary restitution for harm makes sense. However, students who report sexual harassment and assault to their schools are not asking for financial damages – they are asking to learn in an environment where they are not sexually abused.
In my own field of traumatic stress, we have used research on the harm that results from trauma to make the case that that practitioners and policy makers should pay attention to traumatic stress. Studies in the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, were critical to documenting the psychological symptoms people often experience in the aftermath of traumas. That research led to establishing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a diagnosis as well as increased policy, practice, and research attention to trauma.
So, documenting the harm that results form sexual harassment and assault to survivors has helped make the case that health and legal systems should pay attention to these forms of abuse. However, the new Title IX rules throw into sharp relief the limits of harm-based arguments, particularly when applied to individual students. For example, we know from work on trauma-informed schools that narrowly thinking about the impact of trauma on one student fails to recognize how trauma affects the learning environment for all. If sexual harassment matters to our schools only because it causes severe harm, and a particular student does not experience severe harm, then the new rules say sexual harassment doesn’t matter. That doesn’t make any sense.
In our larger national conversations, it’s time to step back from harm-focused reasoning to re-ask: Why do sexual harassment and assault matter to our schools?
Our educational system plays a critical role in socializing young people into the norms and values upon which our communities and democracy depend. Sexual harassment and assault violate a fundamental social contract between human beings who share the halls of schools and streets of neighborhoods: that we will not abuse each other in the most intimate way possible. If our educational system defines sexual harassment as mattering only when it causes harm to a specific person, we teach that abusing a person isn’t the wrong part. Abusing a person who is harmed is. That’s the wrong lesson – for schools and for society. And the wrong policy.
As reported recently, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has released new proposed regulations to Title IX. The proposed changes run counter to what we have learned through the TSS Group as well as research nationally about the causes and consequences of sexual assault, reporting decisions, and the importance of trauma-informed responses. The sweeping changes would be far-reaching, affecting the kinds of cases that can even be investigated to requiring survivors to submit to cross-examination by an advisor of the accused’s choosing. The proposed changes promise to have a chilling effect on reporting and institutional responses to campus sexual assault. And, unlike Obama-era guidance on Title IX, the new rules would be legally binding.
Now that the new rules have been proposed, the public has until January 28, 2019 to comment. Several resources are available to learn more about the proposed rule changes as well as how to make an effective comment that draws on data to make substantive critiques and/or suggest alternative policies. Here are a few:
- How do I access the proposed rules?
- What is in the proposed rule changes?
- 9 Things to Know About the Rule (Know Your IX)
- Guide to proposed rules (National Women’s Law Center)
- Comment Guide (Equal Rights Advocates)
- What You Need to Know about the Proposed Title IX Regulations (Chronicle of Higher Education)
- Follow-up: The Fight Over the Title IX Has Reached the Comments Section. Here’s What People Are Saying. (Chronicle of Higher Education)
- What is “Notice and Comment”?
- How do I write an effective comment?
- Notice and Comment Toolkit (Know Your IX)
- Sample comment (National Women’s Law Center)
- Notice and Comment Data Guide (The Action Network)
- Submit a Comment (Hands Off IX)
- Writing and Effective Comment (Equal Rights Advocates)
- Your Voice Counts: Title IX Proposed Rule and How to Comment Effectively (CCASA)
Maybe it’s the college professor in me, but here’s one more reminder: The due date for public comments is January 30, 2019 – no extensions.
Update: January 12, 2019. New resource links were added to this post.
Update: January 25, 2019. Because the Federal eRulemaking Portal was unavailable for two days, the due date for comments was extended to on January 30, 2019. The deadline has been updated in the post above.
Dear Colleagues and Friends of the TSS Group,
As 2018 draws to a close, I offer my heartfelt thanks to you for your collaboration. Your willingness to work, share, and learn together continues to make it possible to do research that advances understanding of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, older adult abuse, and sex trafficking in our communities. I am grateful for opportunities to work with and learn from you — and grateful for all you do.
On behalf of the TSS Group team (and our antlered friend), we wish you a peaceful holiday season filled with kindness and joy.
P.S. Our offices will be closed December 24, 2018 through January 2, 2019. See you in 2019!