The Changing Face of Development in the Fight for Gender Justice

As International Women’s Day approached, I was thrilled to attend a panel at the United Nations, “Youth Approaches to Funding Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights,” with the Executive Director of an organization I am very excited to be a part of, Spark, as one of the speakers. Shannon Farley was joined by Mia Herndon from the Third Wave Foundation and Amina Doherty from the Young Feminist Fund. These dynamic leaders provided what turned out to be unique though complementary perspectives on engaging youth in development strategies, and I came away feeling revitalized and encouraged that Spark’s work is at the forefront of essential evolution in philanthropy and development.

While powerhouse young women lead each of these organizations, their differences should be noted. Spark, at 7 years old, is the middle child of the organizations, and the only one that operates within a member-driven framework, allowing those active members to vote on grantees and possible themes. Granting more than $1 million since its inception, a great feat since most gifts are seed money of the couple thousand dollar range, Spark’s offering of extensive pro-bono services to granting organizations also sets us apart – that and statistic of having nearly 50% male members. FRIDA is the new baby in the gender equality, women’s rights development world, and they interestingly refer to themselves as a “learning fund,” as each organization that applies for funding does some fairly in-depth research on other groups with whom they are competing for funds. Of the more than 1,000 applications from over 120 countries this year, FRIDA selected 125 ‘short-listed’ groups who then voted for a group in their region other than themselves who they felt deserved the grant based on their work and application. Lastly, the Third Wave Foundation, which has been around for 15 years, funds work that benefits 15 – 30 year-old women and transgender youth. They emphasize leadership development and advocacy, and given their size, are also able to offer multi-year ‘arc’ grants, supporting groups as they get off the ground, giving them a big financial push during subsequent cycles, and tapering off as the group begins to grow.

Despite these differences in age, funding history, and model of grant making, one can see the overlaps. My favorite element of the panel was discovering throughout the presentation how similar the roots of the missions of these groups are – interactivity, democratic funding policies, involvement of the grantees and groups for whom they are advocating, and leadership that represents the interests of the grantees. Each of these groups – and this is what I think draws many to Spark in the first place – emphasizes the input of passionate members or supporters who are emotionally and mentally invested in working for justice, and who may have previously been rebuffed in other volunteer development efforts. Equally important, they value the participation of those on the ground seeking to be funded. Panelists actually articulated how important the flow of communication was in the funding process, not only to ensure that the funding organizations were really sound in their understanding of the grantees, but also so the beneficiaries feel as though they are being heard and understood throughout the process. This is actually fairly empowering. This kind of communication between funding agencies and grantees used to be unheard of – grant applications would be filled out on one side, and grant-making decisions would be made on the other side, often with grantees not feeling as though they were making meaningful connections with funding organizations that would enable them to better articulate their needs.

These newer models can bring up questions of validity for some, and this query was posed by an audience member who asked the panel about issues of monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and how that was considered within these newer frameworks. This garnered perhaps my favorite answer, which was that one of the ways M&E can be handled is by changing the definition of what a successful program or initiative looks like. One of the ways these newer development organizations does this is by defining at the outset what success looks like to the grantees and how that will be measured, and emphasizing those goals in the evaluation process as opposed to adhering to strict, traditional methods that may not be appropriate measures for many of the newer, innovative groups that are seeking funding.

Piggybacking on this part of the conversation, panelists were asked about what they saw as the primary benefits and drawbacks of not working within the more traditional development models. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, these leaders focused mainly on the positive. Working within newer models allows them to take risks; to explore relationships with new groups and leaders that older, more established organizations may not have the time or framework to take on; and to nurture long term relationships with groups that can use the leadership guidance and seed money granted by organizations like Spark to get off the ground and be ready to present themselves to progressively larger funds. Essentially, these groups – Spark, the Third Wave, and FRIDA – are building a foundation to get a foot into the door of the local and global conversations about eradicating injustice for groups that may have been historically overlooked.

As the landscape for women’s rights and gender disparities shifts, this kind of risk-taking is essential in assisting burgeoning efforts of organizations that may have been traditionally ignored.

While each of these organizations emphasized the need for young women’s leadership and articulated how their models centered on the unique and essential perspectives of young leaders, the speakers also championed the importance of inter-generational work. When concern was raised by an audience member over being dismissive of the work of older activists and development organizations, panelists were adamant about the fact that their communities were grateful for the work that had come before them, and the wisdom that is often culled from creating partnerships with leaders who have been involved in gender equality development work for years.  The experience of these more senior leaders is not only valuable in gaining insight into what isn’t working and why within traditional giving pathways, but collaborating with them often leads to grant-making opportunities for these newer funding organizations. Shannon’s remarks specifically about how larger, older funds had passed on applications to Spark that are more suitable for our funding model than theirs was met with nods of appreciation from many in the audience – an audience that was in and of itself diverse in age and funding experience. And of course, having big voices in the field champion the work of newer organizations for their innovation certainly doesn’t hurt when trying to increase our donor circles.

I encourage my readers to check out Spark, and consider becoming a member. It’s an incredible organization that offers great opportunities for young leaders to get involved. In light of International Women’s Day, I’d also encourage you to check out these other fantastic on-the-ground groups doing fantastic work for gender equality and justice (some of them Spark grantees!):

The Komera Project: Education for girls in Rwanda, financial and mentoring assistance, started by Margaret Butler.

CAMFED: Investing in girls’ education in Africa

She’s the First: Education investment in the developing world

Plan International: Children’s rights and development around the globe

No coincidence that these organizations tend to focus on education access! Have organizations that you’re passionate about and want me to include in this list? Send ’em my way!

Sebelius Caves, Girls Pay the Price

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard that Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, has blocked the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration that the over the counter (OTC) drug Plan B, commonly known as the ‘morning after pill,’ be made available without a prescription for girls of all ages. It is currently available without a prescription to girls ages 17 and up, and requires a prescription for girls ages 16 and below.

It is worth noting that this is the first time a Secretary of HHS has overruled the FDA. This is not insignificant. The purpose of HHS is to promote the health, safety, and well-being of Americans. The FDA is an obvious component of this. While the FDA is an agency of HHS, the purpose of the FDA is to promote and protect public health, through the regulation of OTC and prescription medications, vaccines, food safety, medical devices, and more. They do this through clinical trials and testing, which is how we come to know of drugs’ side effects as well as how significantly they aid in the relief of what they purport to treat. The FDA recruits researchers who understand both the purpose of and execution of this research. Attempts have been made to loosen the regulations of the FDA; for example, some terminally ill patients have petitioned the FDA to allow them to access experimental drugs after Phase I of a trial – the FDA has denied these requests due to the lack of research regarding a drug’s long-term effects post- Phase I. The FDA is not without criticisms; they have been accused of being both too hard and too lax on the pharmaceutical industry. Members of the FDA have also expressed feeling pushed to present certain results. Scientists at the FDA complained to Obama in 2009 that they felt pressured under the Bush administration to manipulate data for certain devices, and the Institute of Medicine also appealed for greater independence of the FDA from the powers of political management.

The commissioner of the FDA, who is a physician, reports to the Secretary of HHS. Sebelius’ job is not one of medicine or research, and requires a background in neither. It does require a background in politicking, which is exactly what we’re seeing here. The purpose of pointing that out, and of articulating that this is the first time a Secretary of HHS has overruled an FDA recommendation, is that Sebelius’ refute would not be based on differing scientific results, or research that opposes the FDA’s recommendations – because there is none. The override has different drivers, and the assumption floating out there – for good reason, since there is little alternate explanation – is to appease social conservatives and the anti-abortion contingents.

Plan B is not the abortion pill. It is the equivalent of an increased dose of a daily birth-control pill, and has no effect on already established pregnancies – it prevents pregnancy from occurring. Scientists within the FDA unanimously approved the access of the drug without a prescription for girls of all ages, after an expert panel put the recommendation forward. It is, to quote a USC pharmacist, one of few drugs that is so “simple, convenient, and safe.”

The conservative Family Research Council claims that requiring a prescription will protect girls from sexual exploitation and abuse – I fail to see how requiring a girl to get a prescription will protect against sexual violence, especially since girls may be attempting to get Plan B because sexual violence has already occurred. This comment is also a flagrant indication of misunderstanding of sexual violence and abuse – a young girl is not likely to disclose to an unknown physician that she is being sexually abused or assaulted and that’s why she needs a prescription for Plan B. Make no mistake, this ban is a victory for anti-abortion rights activists. If a girl cannot prevent a pregnancy from occurring, she is subsequently faced with trying to terminate an existing pregnancy (again – that could have been prevented!). Given how reproductive and abortion rights have been systematically chipped away at for the past few years, this girl who did not want the pregnancy and tried to prevent it from happening but was denied because she is shy of 17 years, will be in an even worse position. This is what anti-abortion activists are counting on – that once she is pregnant she will have to carry to term.

Plan B can prevent abortions from happening. HHS, with its mission of protecting the health and welfare of all citizens, should do everything they can to protect the health of girls’ reproductive development, which includes the prevention of unwanted pregnancy at its earliest stage. The girls under the age of 17 who need Plan B the most are the ones who also need it to be as easily accessible as possible. Much like requiring parental permission for abortions for girls under the age of 18, this ban actually can put girls at risk. Many girls will not have the family support, financial means, or healthcare to manage a pregnancy; some girls may face parental and familial abuse if they have to admit to needing to prevent a pregnancy with Plan B. What if a girl is a victim of sexual assault within her family? Should she be forced to deal not only with this trauma, but also have to determine how to prevent herself from being forced to carry a fetus to term as a result of this tragedy? Most girls under the age of 17 do not have easy access to clinicians and hospitals on their own, nor are they able to navigate our increasingly complex healthcare system on their own, which they would not only need to do to access Plan B, but would need to do within 72 hours for the pill to be effective. Girls whose bodies are not ready for pregnancy, girls who were victims of assault and rape and incest, girls whose futures will be dramatically changed and opportunities truncated – they all become casualties of this ban. Before we start sex-shaming and proclaiming that they shouldn’t have had sex if they didn’t want to deal with the consequences, let’s remember that these girls were not miraculously impregnated. Whether consensual or not, a boy was involved. This is a gendered issue – the girls are the ones who will have to deal with the lack of access to Plan B, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Originally, advocates in 2003 successfully petitioned Plan B to be available OTC for girls 18 and up (after having been available with a prescription since 1999), but a judge overruled that decision and lowered the age to 17 after he deemed the decision had been made politically, not for scientific reasons. It appears that history is repeating itself.

Thanks, KMart

…for making sure I didn’t actually take a few days off this holiday week!

What a charming little undergarment you were planning on selling to the masses this Black Friday:

Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald

Every 7 year-old girl needs a thong (like, I could end the sentence there!), an article of clothing designed for the sole purpose of sexually exciting others, that also broadcasts to the world that they’re diggin’ for gold before they’re even old enough to have a checking account of their own.

The perfect holiday gift for your first grader. The message that baring their buns will be rewarded with a wealthy partner. Cheers! And happy holidaze.

Feminism in Zambia: Finding an Unexpected Champion

Our last guest post this month is by Stephanie Reinhardt. Stephanie is a Program Officer with Jhpiego and is currently working to support HIV/AIDS and maternal health programs in east and southern Africa. Growing up in San Francisco and joining forces with Larkin Callaghan at the age of 4 has left her overly opinionated and easily distracted by all the exciting things around her. Hey look – a baboon just walked by my office window! When she’s not bouncing around the globe, she’s very busy procrastinating.

Gabriel, a Zambian taxi driver who works outside an overpriced hotel in the capital Lusaka, drove me to a township on the outside of town last week. We started with the usual conversation.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I responded, “though I’m starting to feel like Zambia is my second home”.

I’ve been to Zambia six times in the past four years supporting public health programs run through Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins. After some discussion about various locations in the US he had learned about from other passengers, he jumped into his favorite story about American history to see if I knew it as well.

After slowing his taxi to traverse a particularly rough patch of potholes, Gabriel looks at me and said, “Well, you know about the Gremich sisters?” (Upon further research, I learned the correct spelling of Grimké sisters). I shook my head no, which gave Gabriel the green light to dive into his story:

“During the time of slavery in America (perhaps in California, or Texas or wherever), there were two sisters who wanted to put an end to slavery.”

I jumped in to briefly describe (with my best recollections from high school) the divisions between the north and the south that eventually led to the civil war, which I explained, for future reference was on the east coast of America, so I would guess that the Grimké sisters were probably from a state like New York. (Turns out they were from South Carolina, but later joined abolitionist circles in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.)

Gabriel gave me a polite nod, but the civil war was clearly not his target conversation. With the eagerness of a school kid sitting in the front row, he continued his story, which he credited to a book he had read called, No Fear of Trying. Gabriel’s eyes grew large as he told the story of these sisters’ amazing bravery to publicly speak out against slavery. He looked at me and repeatedly tapped the top of the steering wheel with his palm to emphasize the profundity of this story. “These were the first women to speak at a podium…to men. Women did not do that at that time.” He described the message of equality and freedom that they took all the way to the US government. “People thought that women should not give public speeches to men. Lots of people threatened them and told them to stop, but these women were so brave, ” he continued. I was nodding in agreement, but apparently not giving the reaction he wanted.  “Isn’t that amazing?” he exclaimed. “It’s great!” I responded.

Despite a few factual inaccuracies (that the Gimké sisters final speech ended slavey, and this all took place in the 1950s), Gabriel’s story is pretty spot on. The Grimké sisters grew up in South Carolina with all the advantages of a privileged class awaiting them.  Unlike many other northern born abolitionists, the Grimké sisters had seen slavery first hand and felt compelled to not only put an end to the practice, but to put an end to racial and gender discrimination – an idea radically progressive for their time. They promoted extremely advanced messages for both racial and gender equality. Angelina Grimké letters demanded “educational reform, equal wages and an end to other forms of discrimination against women.”

What fascinated me most about Gabriel’s story was not that I was previously unaware of this significant historical biography (I am never shocked by the amount of information I don’t know or frankly, don’t remember). Rather, I was completely taken aback by his emotional response to this story. He loved these women for their bravery to stand up to men and wanted to share it with anyone who got in his cab.

Zambia is not a country known for its progressive gender relations. Women unfortunately still live very much as the mercy of their husbands, cultural laws and the State. As explained in a 2002 OMCT report on violence against women in Zambia:

Women in Zambia currently face many obstacles to the realisation of their human rights including high rates of violence against women in the family, in the community and by the State, discrimination in the application of customary laws relating to family and inheritance rights, low levels of representation in political and other decision-making structures, a lack of access to education and employment opportunities, poor health care services and the limited availability of affordable contraception.

The 2007 Zambian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) included an assessment of women’s empowerment by asking questions on employment and decision-making.  While great variations exist with regard to education level and location, overall 37 percent of men think that decisions about how to spend the wife’s cash earnings (if she has employment outside of the home) should be made mainly by the husband.  These views extend to a woman’s body as well – 46 percent of men think that the husband alone should make the decision on the number of children to have.  Only 64.8 percent of currently married women responded that they are the primary decision makers or make joint decisions with their husbands regarding their own health care.

So, given this context, I was baffled. I wondered if I had stumbled into the cab of an outspoken Zambian male feminist. As Gabriel’s taxi approached our destination, I probed him on his thoughts on women’s rights in Zambia. “Oh,” he responded, “we have learned a lot from Americans. Everyone is equal here.” Then he dropped the famous development buzz word “gender” and it was all over. “Yes, we have learned gender is important, so now we are all equal.” Ack.

I was hugely disappointed. My image of this Zambian male taxi driver in a superhero outfit championing women’s rights quickly vanished. I thanked him for the ride and started to get out of the car. As I was about to depart, he pulled out a small piece of paper and said, “You work in health? Can I ask you a question?” I nodded, and he continued: “My wife has decided that we should only have three kids, and so we want to stop now that we have three. Can you look at this list and tell me what you would recommend?” On the piece of paper was a list of family planning methods that they had received from their local clinic. I sat with him and explained the differences between some of the short term methods and the long term methods. I also described the vasectomy process should he be interested in the procedure. I explained that if his wife wants no more kids, a long term method, such as an IUD might be best, as it offers protection for 5-7 years. He smiled and responded, “Great, thank you. I will tell my wife this information and see what she wants to do.”

Maybe we have our champion after all.

99 Problems But A Gay Ain’t One: A Look at Gay Men and Reality Television

Our next guest post is by Zel McCarthy. Zel is a media professional and blogger based in Los Angeles. He tweets about music, politics, and nail polish at @ZelMcCarthy.

On a recent episode of Bravo’s show Most Eligible Dallas, likable girl-next-door Courtney told the camera about how much she enjoys her friendships with gay men. As she put it, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but a gay ain’t one.”

In the following episodes that would prove to be true, even as one of her gay friends, Drew, picked a public fight with her over some mysterious and vague issue loosely regarding a lack of attention. That’s how friendships work on reality television: paradise to category 5 in a single episode. Truly, Drew is never a major problem for Courtney. While she hates when anyone dislikes her, Courtney’s biggest issue is (of course) finding a husband, who may or not be her best friend Matt.

It’s always bothered me when someone converts the word “gay” from adjective to noun. Comedian and Bravo star Kathy Griffin practically pioneered the noun-ing of “gay” by frequently referring to her homosexual friends, fans, and followers as “my gays.” Even if it’s not being used pejoratively, it’s always reductive. Instead of a person or man or even a self-obsessed reality TV personality, he is merely a sexual orientation. (Mind you, the phrase is never used to refer to gay women. They are excluded almost completely from Bravo’s narrative of gender and sexuality in society.)

Even more bothersome, however, is that gay characters on reality TV are so marginalized and stereotypical that they never get to be someone’s problem, much less have problems of their own. In fact, aside from fueling the on-screen drama necessary for its programming to function, gay men on Bravo’s slate of shows, like Drew from Dallas, are ubiquitous but never problematic because they are never the central figure of a story.

Whether watching the Real Housewives franchise, The Rachel Zoe ProjectPregnant In HeelsMiami Social, or Bethenny, the message is clear: if you are a gay man, you can be a human accessory in a rich woman’s life. From Jill Zarin’s “gay husband” to Kyle Richards’ “ladysitter” to the coterie of hairstylists, decorators, and event planners orbiting around an endless supply of narcissistic women, gay men are written to serve two functions: enhance the aesthetics of their mistresses, and act as a stand-in for the straight men in their life.

Even gay designer Jeff Lewis, star of Flipping Out, whose caustic outbursts at his employees pull focus from the window treatments, doesn’t get to be the star of his own life. He’s constantly appeasing the whims and fancies of the rich white ladies who hire him to revamp their homes. Through several years on the show (and a rough economy), we’ve watched the once successful house-flipper turn into a driveling decorator so desperate for the next job he’ll screw over his best friends to get it.

Meanwhile, the straight men (husbands, boyfriends, that sort of thing) serve as a foil to these flamboyant and endlessly problem-free gay men. The straights, such as they are, are coded as “real men.” They are fully sexualized, integrated into society with jobs, off-camera friendships, hobbies far beyond the confines of the feminized reality TV world, and comical only when they don’t understand the flurry around the importance of a pair of shoes or lighting at a party. On the axis of characters, they’re the rational yin to the emotional yang of gay men. Cheapened to stereotypes, gay men on reality TV become little more than well-dressed, occasionally articulate, placeholders in the lives of women.

These supporting characters of Bravo have become the reality embodiment of an archetypal role writer and comedian David Rakoff once named Fudgey McPacker. Without a life of his own, Fudgey stands on the sidelines, cheering on the leading lady, occasionally offering sassy retorts and painfully obvious tokens of wisdom. He gets to tell his girlfriends things like “girl, don’t you know he loves you,” before she runs to her leading man’s arms and they live happily ever after while Fudgey presumably disappears or finds another lady to devote his life to. Like Fudgey before them, the Brads, Dwights, LTs, Joeys, and Shawns of Bravo don’t get to have many independent storylines of their own; their on-screen characters don’t have their own essence. When they try to, they’re quickly jettisoned off the show (see Cedric from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

While all media reflects the values of its culture, we look to reality TV to see our culture reflected, however misguided that notion is. I have often said to my friends that the gay community is so desperate for recognition it accepts any representation of itself on screen, no matter how negative. A glance at Logo’s The A List would prove that point handily, but also, consider how fervent Bravo’s gay audience is, despite the continued marginalization of its gay characters. I’d even say that there’s a certain comfort in seeing a stereotypical gay character; it validates one singular version of gay identity without straying beyond a previously accepted boundary.

Does anyone think that’s good enough?

We all know by now what reality TV is (scripted, sensational, entertaining) and what it isn’t (reality). Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that gay men have become a secondary staple of the genre and a lynchpin of nearly every Bravo series. But let there be no doubt about the space these characters inhabit: the periphery in the lives of a cadre of superficial women.

Ain’t that one bitch of a problem?

Looking for More Attention? Drop Some lbs.

At least that’s what Skinny Water is promising in their latest advertisement, which I spotted yesterday. The ad shows a woman facing a throng of cameramen snapping her picture, elegant earrings dropping to the top of the headline which says: “Skinny Always Gets the Attention.” Take a look:

Thinspiration, thanks to Skinny Water

A close-up, to see all the text:

Close-up, for good measure.

Below the headline and photo of the various flavors, it also says “Zero calories, Zeor sugar, Zero Carbs, Zero Guilt.” With all that’s not in this water, you might wonder what it does offer. The website tells me that depending on the flavor of water, they’ve added vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, C, A, and E. They’ve also thrown in magnesium, folic acid, calcium and/or potassium.

Despite trying to market itself as healthy, Skinny Water is instead perpetrating the cultural message that the best – nay, only – way to ensure that you get attention is by being skinny. This of course positions them well to try to push their product on those women who have been pulled into this lie. This ad tells us that the best way to skinny is not through healthy food choices and exercise and an understanding of what “skinny” means for our particular body type and shape, but essentially through fasting – which is what zero calorie drinks are the equivalent of.

In fact, Skinny Water is doing precisely the opposite of what a health-conscious company and product should be doing. Promoting the idea that those who are skinny deserve attention more than those who are not creates communities that support harmful diet-related behaviors and disordered eating for the goal of a wispy appearance . Not to mention reinforcing the ever-present undercurrent of disapproval of those who are overweight – or even normal weight! – and do not bow to the hierarchy of beauty that says those who are thin are the best. It’s just one more item in the laundry list of products that tell women their size and appearance are what is most important and will attract loyal friends and fans.

In defiance of that, let’s use our brains to remind ourselves why Skinny Water is wrong. While the website details the added vitamins and dietary minerals of each drink, it’s far better to get your needed supplements through a healthy diet rich in cruciferous  and dark and leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grain and lean proteins. Washed down, in fact, by regular old water that keeps you hydrated and helps your body process and absorb nutrients. Skinny Water is telling its buyers that by adding these vitamins and minerals to their product, one can cut out food entirely and survive on a calorie-free but vitamin-rich manipulated water diet. Don’t be fooled! (I know you aren’t. Hopefully, you’re equally horrified.) For example, the“Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks are all fortified with calcium, magnesium, and potassium – to help activate metabolic enzymes, keep your blood regulated, and support strong bones and teeth. Do you know what else can do that?  Bananas, yogurt, kale, almonds and cashews, and quinoa. Frankly, there seems to be little difference between the “Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks despite the claim that they each support different “goals” of the drinker – which lends support to the conclusion that these are madly marketed products that don’t substitute a healthy, well-rounded diet and instead are capitalizing on the now-entrenched notion that women care more about being skinny than anything else.

The DSK Decision and the Definition of Consent

I have held off writing about the DSK case being tossed out because honestly, I can’t really bear it. Plenty of other news sources and bloggers have reported on the reasons why I feel this is a catastrophic blow to victims of sexual assault, and reiterating it would likely only upset me and readers even more. However, a news story reported in my hometown paper, The Chronicle, got me thinking about the definitions of consent and what it means to be a person worthy of a trial, and I thought I’d tie these two instances together.

According to the DSK decision, if one has lied in the past they are considered unworthy of a trial in the eyes of the DA – whose goal seems to be focused solely on winning as opposed to determining if in this particular instance one is lying. Let’s look at the specific lies in question – namely, the reason behind Diallo’s asylum in the United States and her recounts of the story.

First, the defense is claiming that since she allegedly lied on her asylum application about being gang raped in her home country, she cannot be trusted in this accusation of DSK. Had she lied? Yes, she admitted to that. Does that matter in this specific case of DSK assaulting her in the hotel room when a forensic examination, including a medical exam, proved to be consistent with her story? No. When she lied on her asylum application – as many, many people do (an interesting and poignant piece in the New Yorker recently profiled this in a case example) – she did so to escape a country in which she felt constantly at risk and in danger and wanted to protect her daughter from the same fate. Should the fact that many people do this – and lie about repeated gang rapes in particular – immediately excuse the lie? No. But it does put it in the context of a reality that should not go unexamined. While lying in previous instances can make a case harder to win, and isn’t something I’m championing or condoning, when you look at her reasons for a falsehood on her asylum application, it make no sense that she would then risk a job she was grateful and proud to have gotten as a hotel housekeeper, raising in her daughter in New York, by having what the defense claims was consensual sex in the middle of her cleaning duties.

In regards to the changing of her story, it is well known and understood by trauma experts that women who have experienced sexual assault (and not just sexual assault, but any traumatic event, for both genders) often recall the order of events differently and clarify them as time goes on, due to the effects of the shock, denial, and the coping mechanism of blocking out of painful incidents. This does not mean that the assault didn’t happen, particularly since this reaction has been seen and understood many times over by many other rape and assault victims.

What I also find interesting in these cries about credibility is how gendered they are. DSK has a notorious history in France of being too forward and sexually aggressive with women; in my mind this causes some credibility issues for him as well, as he claims in this instance it was only consensual. It also reminds me of the fact that one of the NYPD officers acquitted this summer had a history of sexually harassing women, unsubstantiated arrest of a woman and blocking the filing of a report of the woman whom he sexually harassed – yet this was not seen as hampering his credibility. Nor was the fact that he made false 911 calls that routed him back to the apartment of the East Village victim and denied ever sleeping with her and then promptly changed his story to one of doing so but using a condom and assuring it was consensual. If we’re saying Diallo has credibility issues, I’d say these two need to join her on that wagon.

In the San Francisco case, we are confronted with a similar – though not the same – situation; one of assessing the validity of the accuser based on previous actions or claims. A SF lawyer (who specializes in sexual harassment cases, interestingly) is accused of raping three women, ages 19 – 36, whom he met over Craigslist while searching for partners interested in dominant-submissive rough sex. Two of the women had consented to having sex with this man on previous occasions before filing specific incidents of assault and rape. The man’s attorney has used this as evidence that the women were consensual partners, interested in engaging in sex and agreeing to what the man proposed in his post.

It seems we need a reminder of the definition of consent.

It does not matter if a woman is a prostitute. It does not matter if a woman had sex with you consensually in the past. It does not matter if in an email a woman expressed interest in specific sexual roles, positions, and activity. What matters is if in the specific encounter at hand, both parties have expressed the desire to go forward, and that if one withdraws that consent at any point it is the responsibility of the other to stop. The women could have easily agreed over an email exchange to engage in dominant-submissive sex, arrived at the man’s home still agreeing to it, and agreed to it right up to the minute they were to begin. But if in that minute she decided she no longer wanted to do this or was hesitant and unsure and wanted to wait, and he went ahead anyway – then it becomes rape.

Rape and sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to try. They are usually he said/she said situations, at best aided by forensic evidence. Each case is unique, each has elements that are often not introduced or examined until a trial begins – this exemplifies the importance of scrutiny and juries who devote days to understanding the nuances and details of cases that are not reported or perceived by the media.

Setting the precedent that previously engaging in sexual activity, lying, or expressing interest in sexual experimentation eliminates your chances for a fair trial regarding the specific assault case at hand pushes us into the realm of implausibility. It is also worth noting that despite outcries of false accusations, the most frequently repeated results of studies regarding false claims and filings of rape show that the real rate of these is between 2% at its lowest and 7% at its highest (American Prosecutors Research Institute). But the media sheds so much light on the false claims that people presume it is much higher. The vast majority of rape and sexual assault charges never see the spotlight – perhaps because they aren’t dangerous enough or don’t involve high-ranking political figures or people whom media isn’t able to coin as gold-diggers and attention mongers because of their social or socioeconomic status. The bottom line is that each story deserves to be closely and carefully examined, and not discarded because a DA thinks he can’t win the case. District Attorney Vance is quoted as saying “If we don’t believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, we cannot expect a jury to.” I would venture to say that given the outcry over his decision, many people would like to hear the full story (and who do in fact think that the issue of reasonable doubt is in question) from both sides, with all the available evidence and fleshed out arguments. The issue of the truth, and seeking it, should take the precedence over one’s doubt at a courtroom victory.

Sexist and Sexualized Advertising: On the Rise

A new study released by University of Buffalo sociologists discovered something truly ground-breaking: there has been an undeniable and increasing hyper-sexualiztion of images of women in popular media over the last several decades.

This is something that I would normally take notice of and file alongside the slew of reports that have similar conclusions and continue to confirm what I’ve always felt to be true about advertising and media presentations of women. Being a major theme of my blog, I occasionally worry that I’m Not Tired Yet will begin to sound like a broken record as I continue to write about how damaging media portrayals of women and girls truly are, and how it impacts human development, sense of self-worth, and definitions of beauty for both sexes.

That being said, as long as women and girls continue to be hyper-sexualized in images, videos, and advertisements, there have to be just as many consistent criticisms of them. Creating a chorus of opposition that shows growing girls this is not normal, not healthy, and that they have much, much more to offer than what our culture’s media is telling them they do through a ceaseless blasting bullhorn.

In this particular study, researchers’ conclusions did offer a concrete example of gender disparity in this realm. While representations of men and women have become increasingly sexualized, it was the intensity of the sexualization of women which was particularly shocking and far exceeded that of men. A scale was developed to rate the intensity of the level of sexualization of images, which showed evidence of women being far more likely to be in positions of submission or of offering pleasure as tools of hetero-male sexual desire. This sets a dangerous precedent – women are those who satisfy, men are those who are satisfied.

In the grand scheme of things, media not only influences our decisions and impacts our thinking, but is a reflection of these things as well – it’s a circuitous pattern of reinforcement and ever-heightening intensity. The more these images are sexualized, then the more it is socially expected for women to act as sexualized as they are portrayed, then the more sexualized the images become, building upon themselves as viewers need increasingly overt sexualization to feel excited or as though advertisements are pushing boundaries – which is what advertisements do to draw in a receptive audience. This causes two immediately obvious problems – first, that this pattern leads one down a path that ends in unquestioned and irrelevant nudity and commodification of the sexual identity of girls;  secondly, we move farther and farther away from the objections that this kind of imagery is entirely inappropriate, sexist, pedophilic, and harmful.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to guest speak on a radio show about the effects of sexualization and violence in video games and media. One of the last questions the host asked me was, “So, what’s the solution? Should we censor these video games and movies?”

My response to this was no, of course I am against censorship. The free speech I advocate protects the video game developers (and advertisers, fashion labels, films, etc etc) as well as my criticism of them – which I will stop as soon as I see the egregious violence against women, forced sex acts and trivialization of women stop. That being said, there is an element of self-censorship — editing, if you will — that could certainly happen on the part of the creators. Until the developers want to change the games, they aren’t going to change – which is why I said that the ‘solution’ as it stands is keeping up the constant conversation, the constant writing, the constant research, that refutes the idea that these games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc, that send the same messages) are just harmless entertainment. We know they aren’t. But the games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc) keep selling and people keep buying because it’s seen as normal, and the media’s bottom line – $$ – is different than that of a parent, educator, coach, sibling, etc, who have concerns (hopefully) centered around the health of their children. So the ‘solution’ is to keep up the commentary, keep up the research, keep up the discussions about why these media messages are harmful, and ensure that parents, teachers, siblings, and, of course, anyone who are concerned about healthy children growing into healthy adults, are aware of why media matters and the kind of influence it is having.

Curbing the effects of non-stop media is difficult, but not impossible, and involves even more talking – this time directed at the kids. Getting media to change its tactics can feel damn near impossible, but keeping up a constant dialogue with children about the kind of messages they’re on the receiving end of can certainly help.

In the end, it comes down to what kind of society we want to cultivate – for us and our future generations. The kind of culture we want to look upon as having created – the definitions of gender, success, individual expression, and love – and having fostered. Is it one in which the bottom line is comprised strictly of financial and monetary goals, with little regard as to what happens to members of our communities and how our actions impact children and youth in pursuit of that goal? Or the opposite?

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