Category Archives: Women’s Rights

Ray Rice and Cultures of Violence

In this piece published today in the Washington Post I argue that since jail teaches people how to be better criminals, it likely also teaches men like Ray Rice how to be better batterers. Click on the link to read the full article.

Be careful about sending domestic abusers to jail. It might make them even more violent

From sports talk radio hosts to feminist bloggers, just about everyone seems to agree: Former Ravens player Ray Rice should be locked up. We should throw away the key.

They’re wrong.

Fighting Rape Culture: Real Tips

rapewhistle2

You can read this and other posts by a wide range of women’s health clinicians, advocates and activists on the Our Bodies Ourselves webpage.

The new academic year has started and once again students are attending seminars on staying safe on campus. These orientation workshops typically focus on tips for women like:  “Take control of your online life;” “Make others earn your trust;” “If you see something, say something;” “Be aware & stay alert;” “Make plans & be prepared;” “Party smart;” “Be a good friend;” “Stick together in groups.”

I’m sure all of this is good advice, but it misses what I have come to see as the crux of the matter: Teaching girls and women that if they just try hard enough they can avoid sexual assault places responsibility for rape on the shoulders of targets and potential targets rather than on the shoulders of perpetrators and of political and cultural power-brokers.

As a parent and an educator, I feel obligated to tell my children and students the real truth: Rape is a weapon used to amass, exert and enforce power. It has nothing to do with the behavior or attitude or psychology or sociability or preparedness or intelligence or skirt length or alcohol use of particular girls and women.

Here are the real “tips” that our children and students need to know.

In 2012 there was (brief) international outrage over the brutal gang-rape of a student on a Delhi bus in 2012. This was far from an isolated incident. Women and girls in India are raped on buses, in schools, in bathrooms and at home. They are raped in the context of inter-religious, inter-ethnic and inter-caste violence. They are raped for being educated and they are raped for being uneducated. According to a recent International Men and Gender Equality Survey, nearly one in four Indian men has committed sexual violence at some point in their lives. Rape in India must properly be seen in the context of femicide: The gender ratio in India is at its most unbalanced since 1947, with 1000 boys for every 927 girls. The “missing girls” are eliminated through selective abortion, infanticide, abandonment, preferential feeding of male children and adults, through torturing or killing young married women for their dowries. Tip #1: Politely thank your university or community for rape crisis hotlines and for those shiny whistles they give you so that you can make a scary noise when you are assaulted. And then insist that they invest in educating and socializing men about women’s humanity and that they put significant resources into ending gender violence at its source.

Hundreds of Yazidi women in Iraq have been abducted by ISIS and either sold or handed out to members of the extremist group in Syria.“In the past few weeks, ISIS has “distributed” to its rank and file about 300 female members of the persecuted religious minority, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group aligned with the opposition in Syria.” The monitors explain, “In ISIS’ eyes, the girls and women are “captives of the spoils of war with the infidels.” Tip #2: If you ever hear anyone saying that a woman who was raped “asked for it,” ask them what the Yazidi women did to entice the ISIS terrorists.

Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group active in Nigeria, has – for several years – been forcing Christian women to convert to Islam and taking them as wives. It has also carried out mass kidnappings and is still holding captive more than 200 girls soldiers abducted in April from a school in Chibok. The group released a video in which the group’s apparent leader called the girls “slaves” and threatened to “sell them in the market” and “marry them out” rather than let them get educations. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “Although about 50 [of the girls] escaped, not a single one of the remaining girls has been found, and despite international offers of help, the Nigerian government has been slow to act. Tip #3: Write for your campus newspaper, tweet, talk, yell, become an expert in social media: Help keep the violence committed against girls and women in the public eye.

In an excellent on-line essay for NOW, Jenna Archer itemizes increases in incidents of gender-based violence in Central America in recent years. “Rates of femicide (the targeted, systematic killing of women and girls), sexual violence, kidnapping, forced disappearance and unjustified detention are on the rise in the region, causing thousands of women to flee Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico due to their well-justified fear of being raped, murdered or tortured.” Calling out the “pandemic of gender-based violence,” Archer notes that, “Rates of gender-based violence in Honduras rose sharply after the 2009 coup d’état and during the subsequent regime of Porfirio Lobo. Between 2002 and 2010, the rate of femicide increased 257 percent and, today, the second most prevalent cause of death of women is gender-based violence.” And, “Girls may be kidnapped and forced into sex and drug trafficking. In some regions, it has gotten to the point that parents no longer allow girls to go to school because they fear for their safety.” Tip #4: Get together with friends and teachers to learn and and talk about the “pandemic of gender-based violence.”

Thousands of Central Americans travel through Mexico every year attempting to reach the United States. But because they make the trip illegally, they are vulnerable to kidnappings, extortion and robbery – with organized criminal groups such as Los Zetas often acting in cahoots with law enforcement authorities. Women face the additional reality of widespread sexual violence. According to Rev. Prisciliano Pedraza, a priest and director of a shelter for migrants in the town of Altar, near the Arizona border, “The women passing through here know that they’re going to be raped. … Migrants are a vulnerable group, and the most vulnerable among them are women.” While there is no systematic tracking of rates of violence, Father Pedraza puts the figure at 90 percent of all female migrants. Tip #5: Support candidates who support true immigration reform.

Across the United States an estimated 70% of incarcerated women have been victims of physical and sexual violence. With only a few exceptions, all of the Boston-area criminalized women with whom I work have suffered sexual abuse. About half of the women were sexually abused as children. To escape, many of them ran away from home (and so were exposed to additional violence on the streets) and turned to drugs to “self-medicate.” As drug users they became vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of dealers, johns, prison guards and – as one woman puts it – “shady police who make you do things for them.” And, even in this era of the Violence Against Women Act, the vast majority of rapists are not arrested. According to estimates only 5% of rapists are convicted and 3% spend any time in jail. Tip #6: Don’t count on the police or the courts to save you from sexual assault.

My new book describing my work with criminalized women is now available through Amazon and other bookstores. You can read more here.

 

Aswirl in a sad spiral, women in detox face human rights violation

Reprinted from the Boston Globe, August 19, 2014

The Aug. 14 editorial “Women get unequal treatment in court-ordered detox” underscored an egregious violation of human rights in the Commonwealth. Due to a lack of treatment beds, drug users who have not been arrested, tried, or sentenced may be sent to MCI-Framingham if a judge deems that they are dangerous to themselves or others.

Women committed to a prison setting do not receive the treatment afforded those who are sent to the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center, which is licensed by the Department of Public Health. Most damning, women of color are three times more likely than white women to be committed to prison rather than to the treatment center.

The way out of this mess, according to Governor Patrick and others, is to fund additional substance-abuse treatment beds in non-prison facilities.

However, many of the women who are civilly committed are not only dealing with addictions but also with poverty, homelessness, serious health problems, and intimate partner violence. One DPH official estimated that 20 percent of civilly committed women do not meet the criteria for commitment; rather, they are committed because no one knows where else to send them.

As a nation, we’ve gone the route of building more prisons in unsuccessful efforts to manage the devastation caused by economic and racial inequalities. Building more “staff-secured” treatment centers will not prove any more successful unless we also address the poverty, gender and racial discrimination, and violence that lead so many residents of the Commonwealth to turn to drugs in the first place.

Susan Sered

Boston

The writer is a sociology professor and a senior researcher at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University.

Morality Hijacked by Religion

“One of the greatest tragedies in mankind’s entire history may be that morality was hijacked by religion.” ― Arthur C. Clarke

A Sociologist’s Thoughts on the “Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court Decision

Introductory college courses on religion typically begin with a unit called “what is religion?” We tell our students right off the bat that there is no natural, universal or inherently true definition of religion. We discuss how some people consider Buddhism to be a religion because Buddhist rituals and symbols “look religious,” but others might say Buddhism is not a religion because there is no formalized notion of god. Some people consider Judaism to be a religion because of the presence of a sacred text and a tradition of attributing rules of behavior to God, but others might say that Judaism is an ethnicity. (Of course, anyone who watches the Daily Show realizes that Jon Stewart is Jewish in the sense that his parents were Jewish and he uses Yiddish slang in his sketches, but he makes it perfectly clear that he does not “believe” in the Bible or observe the laws.)

In contemporary American English we generally use the word “religion” to describe institutions characterized by an organized body of people who posit some sort of God, attribute to that God some sort of moral potency, and conduct rituals that are perceived as having the gravitas of tradition. In other words, we use “religion” in terms that more or less resemble western Christianity.

From the earliest days of European settlement in the Americas there have been heated and often bloody disputes over what counts as religion. European missionaries did not recognize Native American beliefs and practices as “religious.” Rather, they considered them “heathen” which justified forcible conversion and even murder. The beliefs and practices of many 19th and 20th century immigrants were labeled “superstition” which justified national campaigns to re-educate those primitives who insisted on holding onto their old wives’ tales. And in 1993, when the Branch Davidians “cult” in Waco Texas was stormed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the death toll included twenty-five children.

np9705191These verbal gymnastics cut both ways. Over the past few decades there have been a number of court cases challenging government support of Alcoholics Anonymous. To sociologists, AA looks and acts like what we in America generally consider to be a religion. It grew out of a Christian movement in the beginning of the twentieth century; it has prayers (the Serenity Prayer), scripture (The Big Book), rituals, and a belief system that posits a Higher Power. Interestingly, the rulings – while complex and not totally consistent – have leaned towards declaring that AA is not “religion” but rather “spirituality,” a category even less definable than religion. Is a long walk in the woods spiritual? Many Americans would say yes. But what if you’re walking in the woods because your car broke down? Is that still “spirituality”? What if you pray to the tree god in the woods? Is that now “religion” or “heathenism”? Would it be protected by the First Amendment? And what if the tree god answers you – is that spirituality or schizophrenia? There is no right answer, of course. But how you answer these questions likely reflects your cultural milieu.

That Pesky Establishment Clause

Given that there is no “true” definition of religion, we tell our students, the questions for sociologists are: Who determines what gets to ‘count’ as religion? And, whose determinations carry weight for other people? The answers to these questions, we tell our students, have more to do with political power than with theological purity. In the United States today the IRS has authority to classify organizations as “religious” for the purpose of tax exempt status and psychiatrists have license to determine if an individual is “religious” or mentally ill for purposes of standing trial. But ultimately, in the United States that power rests in the hands of the courts.

“I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don’t have as many people who believe it.” — George Carlin

Justice Alito, of course, is smart enough to realize that under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution the Court cannot favor one “religion” over another. A way around that pesky clause, at least in the Hobby Lobby ruling, is to cherry pick the beliefs and practices that one considers to be “religion.” So, in the majority opinion, objections to contraception are “religion” while objections to blood transfusions or vaccinations are not. Though not spelled out by Justice Alito, the implication is there: Mainstream Christians object to contraception (we’ve been bombarded with pictures of the very attractive, white “All American”-looking Green family) while objections to blood transfusions or vaccinations are associated with fringe groups or cults.

“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” George Burns

The Hobby Lobby ruling invoked a second category that is just as confusing – and as culturally determined — as “religion.” According to Justice Alito religious beliefs meriting protection have to be “sincere.”The Court did not, however, specify what sincerity is or how it is measured. If you recant Judaism because the Inquisition threatens to burn you if you do not embrace Christianity, then are your Jewish beliefs less sincere than those of someone who “chose” the flames? If you have spent most of your life as a devout Christian but for a period of time experience a crisis of faith, a long night of the soul, are your beliefs during that time “insincere” and so not protected by the law? And who gets to decide what or who is sincere? Just because someone says something in a sincere voice doesn’t mean that they are not lying (if that were true Bernie Madoff wouldn’t be in prison), and just because someone cannot articulate their beliefs in a manner that others find credible does not mean that they are insincere.

What beliefs were so compelling as to lead these justices to make a ruling that at best is nonsensical and at worst is discriminatory and unconstitutional? In part, their ruling reflects a broad American consensus that religion overall is good for society and healthy for individuals, and so should receive public support. We have a government Office of Faith Based Initiatives, we love studies showing that church goers are healthier than non church goers and that meditation improves cardio-vascular function, and as a country we entrust churches with children’s moral education.

One might have thought that the assumption that religion (and especially “sincere” religion) is inherently good – or at least benign — would have been undermined by the many religion-driven wars, genocides, suicide bombers and terrorist attacks of the past century. We Americans tend to have short memories, but surely 9/11 is still in our communal consciousness! There must, then, be other considerations that were sufficiently persuasive to have blinded Justice Alito and his colleagues to the potentially dangerous consequences of sincere religious beliefs.

The Court answered this question in their statement that the Hobby Lobby ruling is narrow – that it applies only to contraception and not to blood transfusions or vaccinations. On the face of it both blood transfusions and vaccinations should be even more problematic as a requirement for employers to include in health insurance policies. We need only think about the many Biblical verses declaring that the blood is the soul and the life. And in the case of vaccinations we are talking about children before the age of consent. Contraception is special, I believe, because it speaks to women’s autonomy in a way that few other matters do. Indeed, women’s bodies are often the central battleground in contemporary culture wars not only in the majority Christian United States but in Israel and in the Muslim world as well.

“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” ― Jon Stewart

In any war there are few motivations that are as compelling as religion. Invoking the will of God has extraordinary power to inspire people to action: Where human laws are seen as flawed and transient, God’s laws are believed to be perfect and eternal, even transcending death of the mortal body. Religion has the extraordinary power to lead people to martyrdom and to genocide, to endangering their own lives to save children in the slums of Calcutta and to sacrificing children to blood-thirsty gods, to giving away their worldly goods and to appropriating the worldly goods of others. And it has the power to erase from the minds of at least five Supreme Court Justices the thousands of years of human history in which millions of women died in childbirth because they did not have the means to prevent pregnancies that were too closely spaced.

The framers of the Constitution clearly understood the power of religion, and tried to contain it. In the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS unleashed it.

 

You can read more about recent SCOTUS decisions affecting women’s reproductive rights here: Pregnant Bodies as Public Property

 

SCOTUS Ruling: Pregnant Bodies as Public Property

Susan’s note: You can read my analysis of the “Hobby Lobby” ruling here

Yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling striking down 35 foot buffer zone around women’s health clinics in Massachusetts on the grounds that it is “extreme” baffles me. I just paced out 35 feet from my front door. It’s not a lot. I find it hard to believe that anyone who can use a ruler would see 35 feet as an over-zealous restriction on freedom of speech, especially given the bloody history of attacks on abortion clinics and providers.

When a group of educated and intelligent people (at least in the case of most of the justices) make a declaration that so clearly flies in the face of commonsense I have to ask if there is some other agenda driving them. It’s the same question I ask regarding those who deny climate change: Do they really understand the evidence or are they driven by broader anti-science or anti-government regulation of industry sentiments?

“Agenda” sounds like a harsh word, implying greed, personal aggrandizement or some other scurrilous motive. But the reality is that all laws and legal decisions are agenda-driven in the sense that they arise and are adjudicated within social contexts.

So when news of the ruling broke the first thing that popped into my mind was not a point of constitutional law but rather a conversation I had a few days ago with a pregnant woman who complained that everyone – relatives, co-workers and total strangers – feel that it’s okay for them to touch her belly. People who would never dream of invading anyone else’s bodily space in that way seem to believe that a pregnant woman’s body is somehow public property. She’s even had people make nasty comments to her when she asks them to refrain, and she told me that she’s thinking of putting a sign on her belly saying “Hands Off .”

I’m a medical sociologist. My job is to think about the social forces surrounding bodily experiences. And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that we seem to have a consensus in the United States that women’s reproductive experiences are a matter in which the collective legitimately has a deciding role.

What do these phenomena have in common? Outlawing lay midwives or homebirths. Incarcerating women for refusing a caesarian section? Disallowing welfare benefits for a child born less than two years after a previous ‘welfare baby’. Taking away children from women who use drugs, even when there is no evidence that the mother neglected or abused the children. In my work I’ve seen criminalized women pressured into having an abortion with the threat of the State taking away their other children if they go ahead with this “irresponsible” pregnancy. And I’ve also seen criminalized women coerced into looking at pictures of ultrasounds when, upon incarceration, they were found to be pregnant.

The SCOTUS ruling was based on freedom of speech arguments. So while I am tempted to see the ruling as part of a broader attack on women’s right to choose, it’s worth noting that the judges actively offered suggestions as to how Massachusetts can protect women entering clinics by changing traffic laws or vigorously enforcing the laws against blocking entrance to or egress from the building. But basically, the ruling came down to the Court privileging the rights of others (of anyone?) to weigh in on women’s reproduction, even people who have demonstrated associations with groups who have used violent and deadly tactics in the past, over the rights of women to bodily integrity.

I do think the state has a rightful role in protecting the health of women, children, men and even animals. But I am concerned that this role seems to expand out of all proportion regarding women’s reproduction. Today’s ruling was narrow in focus – it related only to women’s health centers. So I can’t help but wonder what the ruling would be if the case involved anti-vaccine activists standing outside children’s health centers and yell at parents who choose to vaccinate their children. Or Scientologists standing outside mental health centers yelling at people who see psychiatrists? Or celibacy advocates standing outside urologist offices and yelling at men seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction?

I find it interesting that the lead plaintiff, Eleanor McCullen, is described in the press as a “grandmotherly” woman whose claim is that “I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody.” My pregnant friend, I’m guessing, would see her as one of the “belly patters” whose motives may have been kind, voyeuristic or anything in between, but whose actions constituted an assault on her private bodily space.

On Memorial Day: “Remember the Ladies”

2016 Update: According to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), “Currently, medical prosthetics for female amputees are provided as one-size-fits-all and are based on male anatomy. This means female veterans often receive prosthetics that are burdensome, uncomfortable and may not be fully functional.”  An appropriations bill currently making its way through Congress would fund research and acquisition of prosthetic devices that fit women’s bodies. The bill also would allow the VA to cover the costs of reproductive services for veterans who suffered service-related injuries that prevent them from starting families. According to NPR Veterans Correspondent Quil Lawrence, “A law passed in 1992 made it illegal for the VA to pay for IVF, which some people oppose because embryos are often destroyed in the process.”

 

I understand that if women are to have the privileges of citizenship then we should have the responsibilities as well. However, given the needlessness and horror of nearly all wars, I am not at all sure that it is a good thing to expand the number of people who can be called upon to fight.

I understand that if women are excluded from military service then the power of the military  remains in the hands of men. But in light of the near absence of women in the high ranks of the armed services – the ranks where the important decisions are made – I’m not convinced that military service for women achieves a more gender equitable sharing of power.

I understand that for many women the military is a pathway to education and a career. However, – and this is what I’d like to write about this Memorial Day – military service has turned into a path of misery, ill health and homelessness for large numbers of women.

In the second decade of the new millennium, American women have come to make up approximately 15 percent of the U.S. armed forces. While women are not technically in combat roles, in their duties and service environments women face the same dangers and fears as men: exploding ordnance, bullets, vehicular accidents. According to studies the military poses additional threats for women: about one in three women in the armed forces has been sexually assaulted, twice the civilian rate.

Women who have been sexually assaulted are more likely than other women to suffer from chronic pelvic pain, fertility problems, high rates of pregnancy complications and perinatal death, gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis, invasive cervical cancer, hypertension, urinary tract infections, anxiety and sexually transmitted infections. A history of having been abused is correlated with a lifetime of earning less money, missing more days of work and a greater likelihood of becoming homeless.

Servicewomen suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than do their male counterparts. According to the National Center for PTSD, women in the military run double the risk of developing PTSD of male service members. The Veterans Administration (VA) has found that women are four times more likely than men to experience long-lasting PTSD. This is not surprising: While male veterans who return home no longer face the active dangers of war, women veterans who return home continue to face the active dangers of sexual violence in a society in which one nearly 1 in 5 women has been raped at some time in her life; 1 in 4 women has been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime; 1 in 6 women has experienced stalking victimization during her lifetime. One cannot “get over” trauma if one continues to live with trauma-inducing conditions on a daily basis.

Marriages of female troops fail at almost three times the rate of marriages of male service members. And while veterans have long been more likely than non-veterans to become homeless, women veterans seem up to four times more likely than non-veteran women to be homeless. The number of women veterans who have been in touch with the VA or Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for assistance with housing more than doubled between 2006 and 2010. Two-thirds of these women were between 40 and 59 years old, one-third have disabilities, and many have minor children.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a quarter of the VA’s homeless support programs do not meet the needs of women. For example, the VA does not have the statutory authority to reimburse grant and per-diem housing providers for costs of housing veterans’ children. Thus, mothers must face the dismal choice of going to the streets with their children or of handing their children off to relatives or social service agencies. The GAO also found that women reported experiencing sexual harassment and assault both on the part of male residents and on the part of staff members in the temporary housing paid for by the VA.

Women who have been drawn into the United States correctional system describe similar cycles of poor health, homelessness and ongoing exposure to gender violence (both in and out of prison). In research that I conducted together with a colleague in Boston from 2008-2013, only 15% of women who had served sentences in the state prison became steadily employed during the five years following their release. Only 35% became securely housed. Seven-seven percent were hospitalized overnight at least once. Eighty-five percent continued to receive prescriptions for psychiatric medication.

For most of these women the cycle of illness, poverty and abuse seems unlikely to be broken anytime soon. But I believe that there are steps that can be taken now to reduce the chances that women veterans will join the ranks of women who circulate among homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, jails, prisons, rehab programs, and the streets.

Here are two concrete ways in which we can and should remember the ladies this Memorial Day:

  1. Put into place clear and effective programs to reduce sexual abuse and harassment of women in the military. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill requiring the armed forces to remove handling of sexual assault cases from male commanding officer should be brought up again in the House and Senate, and it should be passed and enforced.
  2. Provide adequate funding for the VA so that all veterans — men and women — can receive proper health care and secure housing immediately upon finishing service.

Maybe, hopefully someday soon we will declare a national ‘Peace Day’ in which we remember and honor all of those who dedicated their lives to ending violent conflict. But for now, let’s at least make sure that women who serve in the armed forces do not face as much danger from their comrades-in-arms as they face from shrapnel and bullets.

 

Marissa Alexander and the Shot Not Heard Around the World

I’ve been thinking a lot today about Marissa Alexander, the woman who could be incarcerated for as long as sixty years for firing a single warning shot in the direction of her abusive husband. Today she is back in court, again, requesting immunity under “stand your ground” in light of new evidence of her husband’s abuse. The shot most certainly not heard around world injured no one and may well have saved her from further abuse at the hands of a violent man. It has not, however, saved her from abuse at the hands of the courts. In 2012 she was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Marissa Alexander had given birth a week before the incident, her husband had beaten her up during her pregnancy, and she had a court injunction that was supposed to keep him away from her. She also had a license to carry a concealed weapon, was trained in using the weapon – and, it bears repeating – no one was hurt.

At the time of her trial and verdict the Court denied her right to use a gun in self-defense under the “stand your ground” law in Florida. The contrast to the ruling in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman seemed a clear demonstration of how racism, even in our era of “colorblindness” (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) permeates the law enforcement, judicial and penal systems.

But today when I read her message to her three children who are growing up without their mother, I’ve been thinking more about Marissa Alexander’s gender.

For the past six years I’ve spent a great deal of time with women in the Boston area who had been incarcerated in Massachusetts. Studies consistently show that the about 70% of women drawn into the correctional system have been targets of physical and sexual violence (Meda Chesney-Lind has written powerfully about this issue.) In my own observations this estimate may actually be on the low side. Furthermore, having been in prison sets women up for further abuse and assault. As “ex-offenders” they lose their eligibility for government-subsidized housing and as a consequence are likely to become homeless. In fact, a 23 city report by the United States Conference of Mayors confirms that domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women (www.usmayors.org). Women who are homeless or insecurely housed are vulnerable to assault on the streets, and, with few alternatives available, may move in with a man who is – as several women I know put it – “sketchy” which puts them at even greater risk of intimate partner violence.

Why – despite efforts our society has put into helping victims of violence – do Marissa Alexander and so many other women continue to suffer intimate partner assaults, abuse, sexual exploitation, and rape? The Violence against Women Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994, increased penalties for repeat sex offenders, trained law enforcement officers and established the National Domestic Violence Hot Line. We have police, social workers, psychologists, battered women’s shelters, rape crisis hot lines, mandatory reporting requirements – surely these should have, or at the very least, could have solved the problem of violence against women. We have public proclamations that raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse, date rape and domestic battering. But the culture of violence that endangers women, children, and many men has not changed; rates of gender violence have not declined; and men who rape or abuse women are unlikely to be charged with a crime, if charged they are unlikely to be convicted, and if convicted are unlikely to serve significant prison time (more on this in the National Violence Against Women Survey).

Continue reading Marissa Alexander and the Shot Not Heard Around the World

Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

This piece originally appeared in Salon in April, 2014

When I first met Gloria, over five years ago, she was in what she and others sometimes call “the homeless life.” That is, she circulated through a variety of homeless shelters, relatives’ couches, and apartments of men with whom she informally exchanged sex and domestic chores for a place to stay. Like other women in similar circumstances whom I met as part of a long-term project involving marginalized Boston-area women, Gloria (a pseudonym) was always concerned about lack of housing. Knowing that she would not survive on the homeless circuit much longer, she turned to a social service agency that placed her into a subsidized room in a “single room occupancy” (SRO), what used to be called a boarding house.

As is typical in SROs, she was not permitted to have overnight guests in her room. However, when her boyfriend was released from jail, he had nowhere else to go. For a while she snuck him into the building, a situation that humiliated both of them when she stood guard outside the communal bathroom door to make sure that no one saw him enter or leave.

Within less than two months he locked her in her room, destroyed her telephone, raped her and beat her up. Gloria was afraid to call in the police. She had learned through past experiences that women who report sexual violence may become vulnerable to negative repercussions from a variety of state agencies. In fact, a survey conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that at least 11 percent of evictions from public housing and Section VIII (subsidized) residences targeted women because they experienced domestic violence. In some cases, women were evicted for defending themselves. In other cases they were evicted simply because the violence created a “public disturbance.”

* * *

Gloria’s dilemma will soon be faced by many, many more American women.

Despite the well-publicized fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, there is good news: America’s race to incarcerate may be slowing down. California, the state with the largest number of people behind bars, has been ordered by a panel of federal judges to reduce the state’s prison population by approximately 10,000 to deal with prison overcrowding. (After several appeals, the court extended the deadline for compliance to February 2016.) Nationally, incarceration rates are going down for Black men and women and for White men (not for White women). Declining incarceration rates can be attributed to a variety of factors, including changing social attitudes regarding drugs (particularly marijuana); large numbers of inmates finishing the lengthy mandatory sentences they were ordered to serve at the height of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s; budgetary constraints including rising cost of prison healthcare as prisoners age; and the ongoing advocacy work of community and prisoners’ rights organizations.

American men remain incarcerated at 20 times the rate of women. And as Gloria knows well, the legacy of their imprisonment continues to play out in the lives of their families and communities long after their release. In a large-scale Oregon study, Margaret Braun found that at least 25 percent of male ex-prisoners engaged in acts of violence against wives and girlfriends within the first several years post-release.  The impetus for this violence simmers during confinement. In focus groups conducted by researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community, currently and recently incarcerated men stressed their demands that wives and girlfriends demonstrate loyalty to them while in prison, running errands for them, putting money into their prison account, and – above all – avoiding even a suspicion of new romantic interests.

Loyalty often was framed in terms of control. As one man explained, “One view of women is they just there to do what I want them to do. Slaves … somebody to be there at your every beck and call.” And in the words of another man, “I’ve seen over and over since I’ve been here [in prison], guys will get on the phone and they’ll accuse their wives or girlfriends of cheating with someone else. I mean, it’s never just a regular conversation.”

More broadly, prison culture amplifies the sexist attitudes and gender violence of so-called free society. Young men thrown into overcrowded jails often learn that in order to survive they have to become tough, numb to the pain of others; they learn to be the aggressor in order not to be the victim. This dynamic is deeply gendered. Criminologist Donald Sabo and his coauthors write, “Rape-based relationships between [same-sex male]  prisoners are often described as relationships between ‘men’ and ‘girls’ who are, in effect, thought of as ‘master’ and ‘slave,’ victor and vanquished.”

These attitudes do not suddenly evaporate upon release. Over the past decades, both the incidence and intensity of violence against women has risen in communities with high rates of incarceration. Indeed, Beth Richie, author of “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation,” links the rising rates of brutal sexual violence carried out against black women to the disproportionately high rates of incarceration of black men during the regime of what law professor Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow.”

Tonya, an African-American woman in her 30s who has had abundant experience with men in prison (her child’s father was incarcerated shortly before he was born; she spent a great deal of time, energy and effort visiting her man while he was in prison; and now that he has been released he has moved into her house), helped me understand the links among mass incarceration, prison culture and violence against women. “I believe that there is a level of violence and anger in any person, that anger can be increased … depending on … how much time was given for the crime, and the level of violence that the individual has to deal with in the correctional facility. Do I believe that violence can trickle out into the community? Yes and no. Some men have the ability to take traumatizing experiences and utilize it to teach others about the violence, homosexuality and verbal abuse from state officials and correctional officers they have to deal with on an everyday basis … [But] this type is atypical … In my opinion men who are typical … have displayed behaviors of cheating, lying, stealing, manipulation of women and people who don’t know any better … Males only have so much patience before snapping and reliving what they view as an attack on them.”

Tonya explains that for men, “It can easily go both ways depending on what kind of support you do have when you get out of jail, what resources are available to you, and what is not available. See, it’s a cycle,  ‘I don’t have an education, so I can’t get the job I want, I can’t pay child support because no job and no education, my girlfriend or wife is stressing because I got a record which is stopping me from working and paying child support, which if you don’t  pay child support they take your licenses and you go back to jail, so I have to go back to robbing someone or selling drugs, because there’s no food in the house for the kids, which is making me feel less of a man, so I become angry which leads to violence on my women, my kids, and anyone else that is coming at me in what I view is negative.”

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Structural barriers created by misguided policies add fuel to the fire. Many men exit prison to find themselves barred from ever obtaining employment in the legal economy, unable to afford stable housing, and unable to support their families. When men leave jail they compete with women for the limited number of (typically low-paying) jobs available in low-income communities that already experience high unemployment rates. Barriers to employment for former prisoners are driven by social stigma and lack of work experience, and by laws permitting or even mandating criminal background checks, a practice that puts men (who are more likely than women to have a criminal record) at a disadvantage.

Throughout the country, low-income Americans are especially likely to be incarcerated. As a consequence, prisons and welfare offices often “serve” demographically similar populations – except in regard to gender. Welfare eligibility tends to be limited to poor women with children; and nearly all Section VIII subsidized housing vouchers (housing subsidies for low-income households) go to female-headed households. Because laws exclude individuals holding criminal records from eligibility for public and subsidized housing, people released from prison (again, more likely men than women given the demographics of incarceration) often find that they are dependent upon women for a roof over their heads.

However, the same housing laws allow (and sometimes require) law-abiding citizens to be evicted if a former prisoner or someone who commits a crime is caught staying in their house. In fact, women like Gloria risk losing not only their housing but also their welfare and food stamps or even custody of their children when a man – even the child’s father in some cases– is “caught” living in “her” apartment. Yet a low-income man who has to pay his own rent may not be able to pay child support. And failure to pay child support, in turn, can be used by the courts as a reason to send a parent to jail.

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As I have come to know Gloria and other women in similar situations I have become aware of ways in which gender-based violence is reinforced by economic policies and welfare laws that pit women and men against one another. These policies set up poor and marginalized women to become the targets for the fury, confusion and exaggerated machismo that are nurtured in prison. And while these policies may seem irrational, there is, in fact, a deep logic behind them. The promotion of  competition and conflict along gender lines shifts attention away from harmful public policies to the wrongs committed by individual members of the “opposite sex.” Taking a step back, we see that throughout history ruling elites have fostered animosity between ethnic groups, between the very poor and the working class, the young and the old, immigrants and non-immigrants – between groups whose solidarity could threaten the wealth, status and power of the privileged few. Gloria’s conflict with her boyfriend is just the latest chapter in that history.

Large-scale prison release is imperative if we wish to rebuild a democratic society. But while we are opening prison doors we need to institute policies that prevent the violence of prison culture from spilling over into communities. These policies must include eliminating structural barriers to housing and employment for formerly incarcerated people, investing in jobs and housing, expanding eligibility for welfare and other social services, facilitating reunification of families and households destroyed by decades of mass incarceration, and developing programs of restorative justice that provide men with the resources to develop more positive ways of responding to the women and other men in their lives.

Follow this link for more on gender and incarceration: Marissa Alexander and the Shot Not Heard Around the World