Friday, May 29, 2015

Dear Women Who Don't Identify As Feminists

Ladies, what if I told you that you actually might be a feminist.  Yes, you, a FEMINIST.    But how could that be, you ask?  You fantasize about the Marlboro man, you promised to "love and honor" your husband at the alter, and Cinderella is your all-time favorite Disney movie.  Feminism:  a.k.a. "the most misunderstood theoretical concepts of our time."   Judging from my newsfeed alone, I'm confronted daily by nice women in my broader circle of friends, who I've unknowingly offended for spouting feminism rhetoric.  And I had no idea I was even doing so.  I assumed that all of the females in my circle identified as feminists, but I assumed wrong.  It turns out that feminism (or rather one's perceived definition of feminism) can give out some pretty negative vibes to women who consider themselves more "traditional", and to women who don't walk around challenging patriarchy on a daily basis like I do.  Here's the thing though - I think there's room for all of our voices to be heard.  And I wonder if we started listening to each other more, if we'd be surprised at just how closely we stand on the issues that really matter. I'm afraid that if we can't even get on the same page about "feminism" at a very basic level, we won't be able to tackle the more serious issues that really are impacted by the true marginalization of women.  "Marginalization".  That's the most theoretical word I'm going to use in this blog.  Words you also won't see anymore:  Patriarchy, Liberation, Misandry, Misogyny, Second Wave, Objectification, and Oppression.

Today, I want to break it down in more simpler terms, not because I don't think you're capable of grasping those textbook terms, but because I want to lift up that silent wall that tends to separate the women and gender studies majors from the stay-at-home moms.   It's really so mind-numbingly simple, it's scary.  If you believe in basic fairness and mutual respect, you, my friend, are a feminist.  And for us to start tackling the big issues like sexual and domestic violence, human trafficking, women's health, and income equality, we all need to be at the table:  stay-at-home moms, bra-burning radicals, and everyone in between.  And we all need to agree that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men.  My hunch is that we actually already agree on this.

So give it to me.  What are all the reasons you've rejected feminism all these years?   Allow me to take a shot at this:

But I quit work to stay home with the kids.
Being a feminist means that your opinions and perspectives regarding parenting and family decisions are valued as equally as your partner's.  If you have deemed that putting your career on hold in order to care for your children makes the best sense for your family, then that's YOUR choice.  Kudos to you.  Feminists come in all variations, but the common thread is that we believe that women should have the same choices as men.  As long as no one is forcing or guilting you into staying home with the kiddos, you may still be a feminist.  And when you decide the time is right for you to go back to work, armed with your qualifications and experience, you'd probably expect to make as much (given your sabbatical) or a bit more money as John over there who just graduated and has no experience, right?  That, my friend, would make you a feminist.

But I like it when he opens the door for me.
Kindness never goes out of style.  As long as YOU don't forget how to open a door, and you help out others when their hands are full (or they're pushing a baby stroller), you aren't disqualified from the title.  When someone you love expresses his affection in adoring ways, even feminists are allowed to gush.  After all, you'd do the same for him, right?  Note:  reciprocity in the relationship.

But I would never have an abortion.
Your body, your choice.  Just because you have personal, religious, and/or moral reasons against abortion, you may still be a feminist - particularly if you question why the majority of people making laws about this will never ever be put in a position to make such a decision to begin with (hint:  they don't have a uterus).  You may never choose to have an abortion yourself, but you empathize with a woman faced with this kind of decision.  Regardless of your feelings on abortion, you'd want to empower her with the knowledge, information, and support for her to do what's best for her.  You'd never want a stranger who doesn't even know the depths and complexities of her position to arbitrarily make that decision for her.  If you're at least willing to start the conversation there, I wouldn't rule out feminism just yet.

But I like it when my boyfriend spends time with me.
It's OK!  Most people I know date/marry someone because they genuinely enjoy spending time with them. As long as he isn't the one dictating how you spend your time, and who you spend it with, I hate to break it to you, but you still qualify.

But I like to cook for my man.
Guess what?  So do I!  Mainly because a can of crushed tomatoes, a box of spaghetti, and a few flat squares of processed Kraft Singles just doesn't seem to do it for me (despite his best intentions).  Now you have to be careful here.  Finding joy in sharing your culinary talents with those you love is very different from walking in the door with him looking up from his iPad and asking, "What's for dinner?"

But I feel safer when he's around.
My husband is 6 foot tall and I'm 5'1.  Whenever I'm traveling alone at a hotel, I never sleep soundly because I feel a tad vulnerable being in a strange place and, because my husband's not snoring right next to me in the event of a break-in, sudden fire, tornado, or zombie apocalypse.  It's OK, really.  He admits that he sleeps more soundly when we're together too.  Especially since I'm considering putting a bid on a zombie hunter blade on eBay this week.  There's that reciprocity again.

But I like for him to buy me gifts.
I've been in positions where I've made more and made less than my significant other.  Either way, I still appreciated it when a boyfriend/husband came bearing a thoughtful gift.  Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean I'm going to turn down someone's kind gesture and expression of love.  For the record, I'm quite the thoughtful gift-giver myself.  See a pattern here?  Balance?  Give and Take?  Starting to get the hang of this feminist thing yet?

But I'm turned on by strong, muscular bad boys.
While this isn't my typical modus operandi, I have plenty of girlfriends who are attracted to no other type.   Just because I'm a "brains over brawn" feminist who defines strength in less physical terms, this doesn't mean that you can't have attractions that are different than mine.  More power to you, sister.  And more muscles too.

But I like to wear sexy clothes that show off my assets.
Being a feminist means you can and should be able to wear whatever the heck you want to wear without someone placing their own expectations on you.   Trust me, I don't walk around in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt all the time in order to downplay my femininity.  I've also been known to have a slinky nightie or two.  As long as it's my choice to wear what I want to wear, when I want to wear it, and no one else makes those choices for me.....or expects me to act a certain way because of what I have on.  

But I'm still waiting for Prince Charming and "happily ever after".
Many of us aspire to find "the one" and go on to lead happy, blissful lives.  It's OK and even natural for us to long for deep connections with another human being, to long for partnership and companionship.  That is, as long as you're realistic that "Prince Charming" may come with a ton of baggage, may one day become unemployed, and does indeed belch and pass gas.  Without the crown and horse, you'll probably want to make sure that you remain in full control of your own "happily ever after".

And around here, we call that feminism, my friend.

So what do you say we shed the formalities, get rid of those pesky theoretical terms?  And whether or not we identify with the term "feminist", as women, do you think we could simply agree on just one basic notion?  That we should have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else?

I certainly hope so, because our daughters are counting on us to start working together to create a better, safer world for them.

Not Your Textbook Feminist
(forgive me, bell)

            Photo credit:  Housewife from 1950's by Michael Kennedy Photos

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Why I've "Named" the Victims of Josh Duggar by Discussing Incest

I run a rape crisis center.  Our philosophy is simple.  We believe victims.  We empower them to make their own decisions about their healing.  We respect their privacy.  Belief, power, respect - these are all things that have been stripped away from them.  We want to make every effort to restore them. 

This is why we never pressure a victim to file a police report.  We never advise them on what they should or shouldn't do.  We merely provide all the possible options, and we stand by them and their decisions.  That is, unless the victim is a child - especially if the abuser is someone living within that child's home. We still fiercely advocate to restore belief, power, and respect, but doing so for a 25-year old living in her own apartment and paying her own bills looks VERY different than doing so for a 7-year old whose entire emotional and physical existence is dependent on her abuser.  How do you restore belief to someone whose entire belief structure was created for them by their abuser?  How do you restore power to someone who never had any to begin with?  How do you begin to challenge the definition of "privacy" for a child victim of incest, when they've been taught that sexual abuse is normal, a family matter, a private matter?

Since the Duggar sexual abuse case came to light, I've been called out by several friends and even colleagues for "naming" the victims by referencing the incest.  I've joined the ranks of other victims advocates to publicly hold ourselves, as a society, accountable to: empathizing with the plight of an abuser more than a victim; continuing to frame incest and child sexual abuse as a private family matter; ignoring the powerful impact religion has on the way we address sexual abuse.  While I have never actually named any of the victims, I have discussed these matters in the context of sexual abuse that happened by a family member, within the victim's own home.  And when your family is thrust into the limelight and watched weekly by millions of viewers, it's not hard to figure out who the victims might be. This has caused several people to accuse me of disregarding the privacy of the victims.  I would like to offer you three reasons why, as the director of a rape crisis center, a mom, and a member of society, I've chosen to do this.

1.  It is not possible to dismantle childhood incest without first confronting the complex power dynamics of the abuser/abused relationship that allows it to exist.   While all forms of child sexual abuse can have negative long-term effects for the victim, incest is especially damaging because it disrupts the child’s primary support system, the family.  The victim has been told that what is happening is normal or happens in every family, and doesn’t realize that it is a form of abuse.  The victim may care about the abuser and be afraid of what will happen to the abuser if they disclose. When a child is abused by someone outside the family, the child’s family is often able to offer support and a sense of safety.  When the abuser is someone in the family, the family may not be able to provide support or a sense of safety. Since the children (especially younger children) often have limited resources outside the family, it can be very hard for them to recover from incest.  (Excerpts from RAINN: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network website)

2.  In our efforts to protect the privacy of the (now) adult victims, could we possibly still be shaming them as children?  When media outlets commit not to name adult victims, it is because historically, we as a society have further shamed victims by blaming the sexual assault on them, by letting perpetrators walk with little to no consequences, and by questioning the truthfulness of their claims.  Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often continue to carry with them confusing feelings of intense shame and self-blame.  Because I don't have direct access to the victims in this case, I want to shout it from the rooftops:  It's not your fault.  Not even if your own parents and the world around you have done very little to hold your abuser accountable.  Not even if your faith taught you that you are somehow responsible for tempting the action of others.

3.  It is a scary slippery slope when we attempt to "protect" the privacy of a child at the cost of perpetuating the dangerous notion that incest is a private family matter and that child victims have no voices.  Of course I believe that every child has the right to grow up without forever being defined by their sexual abuse.  Of course in my daily professional practice I diligently comply with mandatory reporting, confidentiality, and disclosure laws and policies.  But when media outlets are already reporting that this is a case of incest, it is irresponsible for us to frame it otherwise.  Because by doing so we are sending the message that there are different standards for sexual abuse if it happens in your home, by someone who should be protecting you.  We are perpetuating the message that incest couldn't possibly happen, and even if it did, it's too taboo of a topic, too difficult for us to stomach, much less talk about. My main motivation here is to increase public awareness of the problem in order to encourage other victims to disclose and seek help.

All States require appropriate agencies to report child abuse.  18 states, including my home state of Kentucky, require any person who suspects child abuse or neglect to report the abuse as well.  Please become informed of your state's reporting laws here:  Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect.

If you are an adult dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse, please remember that you are not responsible for the abuse and that you are not alone. You can overcome the effects the abuse may have on your life. Please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the Online Hotline. It’s never too late to get help.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

My 7-Year Old Is a Privileged Kid with A Nook and I'm Not Happy About It

My 7-year old son has been living a pretty privileged state of existence for the duration of his short life.  Please allow me to offer a small demonstration via America's favorite e-reader: the Nook.  Yes, indeed, this week my husband (the tech geek) upgraded, and therefore passed on his formerly prized e-reader to our son, fully loaded with all 53 issues of "The Magic Tree House" series.  That's right, unlimited e-books on demand, at the fingertips of someone who can barely wipe his own butt.  And you know what came before the Nook?  Saturday morning family strolls to the public library where he could pick any book he wanted, and where the trip usually ended with a pit stop at the ice-cream or fudge shop.  Books = family time + ice-cream.  How's that for some positive reinforcement?  And before that, you ask?  When he just started walking, we regularly brought our son to play with his favorite wooden train table....which happened to be situated perfectly in the middle of the children's section of Barnes and Noble.  And before this child was even born, he had a bookcase filled with books.  I'm talking at least 50 books before he could even see past 15 inches, people.

So is it any surprise that I have a 2nd grader who reads at the 4th grade level, who was put in the advanced reading group, has already been taught how to do research and write book reports, and who has fallen asleep with his Nook on his chest every night this week?  Am I proud of my kiddo?  Of course I am, he's my only son.  But barring any disabilities, given the gentle subtle and not-so-subtle nudging we've been doing for the past 7 years, does my kid really have any excuse NOT to be a strong reader?

While I'm grateful for the opportunities that I've been able to offer my son with our two-parent, two-income, two-car garage lifestyle, I can't help but think of the 50-70% of his peers who qualify for free or reduced lunches at his cafeteria.  I imagine the single parent who works evenings and weekends and has never been able to take her child to the public library when it's open.  I imagine the family living below the poverty line who has never been able to step foot into Barnes and Noble, much less dream of owning a Nook.  I imagine children who have parents that struggle with addiction, or children who are abused and neglected, that have never experienced a "family stroll" to the library, ice-cream parlor, or anywhere else for that matter.  Some say that when you become a mother, you become a mother to all the children of the world.  Maybe that's why I woke up in a cold sweat last week when imagining some of my son's peers being left behind.  Kids already labeled as "at-risk" being unintentionally denied leadership and growth opportunities while my son, who is likely to succeed no matter what, gets labeled as "high-achieving", and is consequently exposed to even more leadership and development opportunities.

By the end of fourth grade, African American, Latino, and poor students of all races are two years behind behind their wealthier, predominantly white peers in reading and math. By eighth grade, they have slipped three years behind, and by twelfth grade, four years behind. 

African American students are three times more likely than white students to be placed in special education programs, and are half as likely to be in gifted programs in elementary and secondary schools.   

By age three, children of professionals have vocabularies that are nearly 50 percent greater than those of working class children, and twice as large as those of children whose families receiving public assistance. 

* The Academic Achievement Gap, Teacher's College, Columbia University    

My son's school employs highly competent and compassionate educators who are doing the very best they can with their limited resources, time, and with the state-mandated requirements imposed upon them.  So what's a privileged mom of a privileged child to do?  Become part of the solution, of course.  Take responsibility for our privilege and do our part to level the playing field.  Like most parents who run for school board - or in my case, site-based decision making council (a Kentucky Department of Education statutory requirement), I want to advocate for educational access and academic success for all children, especially the ones that fall through the cracks.  I believe with all my heart that this is everyone's collective responsibility.  My dream (and my guess is that it's yours as well) is that when my son graduates 10 years from now, he and his peers will no longer be carrying our labels with them.  That each and every one of them will feel valued, smart, empowered, and equipped to go out and contribute to the world, regardless of whether or not their parents ever bought them a Nook.

My Top Three Priority Areas If Elected to the School-based Decision Making Council:

1.  Commit to culturally responsive teaching, equity, and inclusion of all students in order to ensure equal access to learning and participation.

2.  Explore and embrace different ways students are motivated in order to accommodate and celebrate different learning styles, communication styles, and cultural perspectives.  Shift from models of rewards and external incentives to communication, respect, and intrinsic motivation.

3.  Implement research-based prevention education that addresses bullying, dating violence, sexual violence, and stalking in order to eliminate barriers to student success.

If you happen to live in Berea, Kentucky, won't you support me, or consider advocating for these issues yourself?  If you live anywhere else in the world, won't you do whatever it takes to ensure that every single child has a chance to succeed without our labels? You know how the saying goes.... "It takes a village."  And news flash y'all:  We ARE the village.