Thursday, May 10, 2018

Bill Cosby’s Conviction and the Monster Myth

by Kaethe Morris Hoffer - Executive Director at Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE)

Bill Cosby’s criminal conviction in a Pennsylvania court is overdue vindication for the more than 60 brave survivors who publicly reported his penchant for drugging and raping vulnerable women. I am gratified that a jury of citizens joined the state of Pennsylvania in believing Andrea Constand, and decrying the way Cosby clearly inflicted sex on so many.

But as always I have mixed feelings about a conviction that brings with it the likelihood of long incarceration. While I celebrate that Cosby’s victims may finally be experiencing the sensation of being believed, I don’t take joy in the imprisonment of any human, and I continue to feel urgently that we, collectively, have far to go. Our culture remains so steeped in myths and misinformation about rape, and our criminal justice system is so racist in its application and cruel in its impact, that it strikes me as profoundly naive to regard the incarceration of yet another Black man as a substantial victory in the fight to end sexual violation.

This fight, whose most powerful warriors have often been uncelebrated Black women, has been my primary concern and passion since I was in High School, more than thirty years ago. I was just a teenager when classmates who had lived through rape and other forms of sexual violation began confiding in me, seeking help as they struggled in the aftermath of shattering trauma. Standing (however uselessly) by them, I quickly, and then repeatedly, learned a painful truth that too many survivors discover on their own: most schools, most justice systems, most communities, and even many families, profoundly fail the (mostly) girls and women whose lived experiences give them unwanted expertise in sexual violation. Our society’s status quo privileges men and white people, and individually and collectively, most people seem bewitched by lies, hostile to the truths that victims have long been exposing.

One of the most pernicious lies about sexual violation--I’ve long called it “the monster myth”--posits that rape is rare, violent, and committed exclusively by thoroughly evil men. The monster myth is why most people continue to imagine rape as a violent beating-plus-sex committed only by unusual and irredeemable serial predators, despite conclusive scientific evidence showing it is common, typically accomplished with little ‘violence’, and usually committed by men who spend most of their time engaging in socially acceptable and even appealing conduct. It is profoundly painful to realize that even smart and talented boys and men, ones who are manifestly capable of charm, humor, kindness, and generosity, also engage in many forms of sexual abuse, but it is long past time that people outside of the community of victims and their allies acknowledged this reality.

I find hope and solace in the power of the #metoo movement, founded by Tarana Burke (yet again, a Black woman leading the way). Her activism has proved more powerful than any data, setting a fire which might yet kill the lie that sexual violation is unusual. But the other elements of the monster myth persist, and I am desperate to have people stop expecting that a violent or serial predator lurks behind every #metoo experience.

Many people understandably equate rapists with monsters, because of the monstrous harm rape inflicts, and I am sympathetic to the rage-fueled desire to respond to sexual violation with penalties that are only fit for people whose humanity is invisible. But by insisting that only monsters rape, which we do in part by maintaining the cruelest penalties for rape, our society makes it virtually impossible to hold most perpetrators accountable. Survivors mostly step forward (which they do rarely) without eye-witnesses, physical injuries, or cohorts of fellow victims, while men who rape almost never ‘look’ like monsters, and typically have enough social skills to appear normal. Survivors learn the hard way that reports of sexual violation are treated like accusations that a particular man is a “monster.” If one accuser isn’t followed by others, or if he doesn’t have a previous criminal record, many police, school administrators, and friends end up slinking away, behaving as if her accusation, and not the conduct that it described, was the reprehensible act. Prosecutions of the occasional monster (I don’t dispute this is a moniker Bill Cosby has brought on himself) do nothing for the overwhelming majority of victims. And so even as I view Cosby’s conviction as just, I think it is his consistency with the monster myth, and not the #metoo moment we are in, which made his conviction possible. Serial rapists (especially men who are Black) have always had reason to fear the criminal justice system. Their less prolific brothers, meanwhile (especially those who are white), still have little reason to fear that rape begets consequence.

What we need, and what I believe survivor leaders are directing us toward now, is a movement against sexual violation which embraces anti-racist and anti-sexist criminal justice system reform, while simultaneously and radically expanding the systems and methods by which people who engage in sexual violation can be held accountable for the harm they cause. I am confident that survivors can lead us there if we are only willing to acknowledge the complexity of the wisdom with which most are cursed. Not being blind to what makes a man seem trustworthy in the first place--whether it is standing in a community, social or professional success, a capacity for charm or humor—while also not being blind to the cruelty of his conduct, survivors see sexual violators as they truly are: as complex people capable of better than their worst acts, as well as much worse than their every-day conduct suggests. In a world that wants everything to be simple, with “good guys” and “bad guys” and nothing in between, this is a burdensome and profoundly discomforting vision. But it is also the root of one of the sentiments I have heard from almost all of the countless and diverse survivors I’ve listened to over the last three decades: while they desperately want to be believed, and while they hunger for justice and accountability, they also don’t want to “ruin his life.”

For as long as we cling to simplified notions of who engages in sexually violating conduct, and succumb to the easy temptation of cruel and one-size-fits-all penalties, I fear that our society will continue to hold accountable only those men who come from our society’s most marginalized communities, or engage in the most, or most egregious acts. Current practices fundamentally fail the girls and women (and boys and men) whose requests for justice are not actually demands for cruel retribution, and they are also symptom and cause of sex and race inequality. Fortunately, the manifest power of #metoo and Time’s Up efforts are current proof that the arc of history can be bent towards justice and equality. Incorporating into these efforts a commitment to rejecting the myth that leads us to expect sexual violation only from monsters, may help us create what we desperately need: systems and practices that can hold people appropriately accountable for sexual violation, even as we see and acknowledge their virtues, their humanity, their capacity to do, and be, better than their worst acts.

Kaethe Morris Hoffer is an attorney and the Executive Director at Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), a legal services, prevention, and policy reform organization addressing sexual assault and exploitation.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Betsy DeVos Launches New Assault On Title IX

By Megan Rosenfeld, CAASE Policy Director

Last Friday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded guidelines outlining how college campuses should respond to sexual assault, and put some interim guidelines in place. The new guidelines:

·         Allow schools to replace a “preponderance of the evidence” standard (the standard used in nearly all civil court cases) with a more difficult-to-meet “clear and convincing” evidence standard.
·         Allow schools to deny victim-survivors the right to appeal their cases, while maintaining a right of appeal for people who’ve been accused of rape.
·         Allow schools to adopt practices that could leave victim-survivors feeling obligated to go through “mediation” with their rapists.
·         Allow schools to adopt practices related to cross-examination which have been shown to discourage victims from reporting rape.
·         Remove the requirement that forced schools to respond to complaints quickly. Now schools can draw investigations out for months or even years, without oversight from the Department of Education.

We are very troubled by these changes. The guidance issued under the Obama administration was imperfect, but the interim guidance is far beyond imperfect: it is patently designed to promote the re-installation of roadblocks that long stood between victims of rape and their right to education unencumbered by sexually discriminatory violation. We will take every opportunity to urge the Department of Education to move away from its current efforts, which appear bent on denying and minimizing the ways in which sexual violation disproportionately harms women in the United States, and which would undermine the adoption of reasonable policies by Universities wishing to stand with victim-survivors of sexual violence in their midst. The fight is not over.

At CAASE, we are thankful that under the leadership of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the Illinois General Assembly directed that in Illinois colleges and universities, students have rights beyond what the federal government provides. The Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act codified into state law much of the Obama-era Title IX guidance, and, as is appropriate under state law, went further. In Illinois, colleges and universities must:

·         Use a “preponderance of evidence” standard when adjudicating claims of sexual assault.
·         Develop a comprehensive policy, including reporting procedures and university response guidelines.
·         Designate a trained “confidential advisor” to consult with student victim-survivors on their legal, medical, and reporting options.
·         Provide a short and clear written explanation of rights to any survivor that details reporting options, potential accommodations (changing class schedules or residence hall room assignments), and the complaint resolution procedure.
·         Adopt an amnesty provision to encourage students to report sexual violence without fear of sanctions for certain conduct that violates a student code, such as underage drinking.
·         Define consent to include, at a minimum, that a person cannot consent to sexual activity if they are unable to understand the nature of the activity or give knowing consent, such as when the person is unconscious, asleep, or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol.

While the Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act includes the enormously valuable protections listed above and more, it did not duplicate all of the Obama-era guidance.
We must organize and demand schools maintain comprehensive sexual assault policies that do not coerce victims into mediation with their rapists, that allow victims to appeal erroneous decisions, and that provide a reasonable timeframe for adjudicating cases.

Know Your IX developed a comprehensive toolkit for how to respond to sexual assault on campus. Determine what your school’s policy is and whether it is adequate, build a coalition, and work with your school’s administrator to comply with both the previous Title IX guidance and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act.

Moving forward we have two missions: there is still time to convince the Department of Education to draft fair and comprehensive regulations that protect victims’ access to education. That process will be long and the impact will be felt for years. In the meantime, we can act now at our schools and universities to convince them to continue to use guidelines and processes that do not discriminate against victims.

We will not stand for any roll back of Title IX rights for survivors. We will continue to amplify the voices of the victims, students, and communities that support Title IX. We will continue to fight for the realization of the law’s promise: students are entitled to an education unencumbered by sex discrimination, harassment, and assault.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Title IX is a promise not yet realized, but worth fighting for

By Kaethe Morris Hoffer, CAASE Executive Director
Since Title IX became law in 1972, girls and women in the United States have been entitled to receive education unencumbered by sex discrimination.  
More than four decades later, however, colleges, universities, and secondary schools too often lack policies and practices capable of making real the promises made by Title IX.  To this day, significant minorities of girls and women (as well as too many boys and men) experience sexual violation at the hands of classmates and teachers, only to then discover that the communities in which they are embedded are woefully unequipped to respond to them, or to the people (who are mostly male) whose acts of sexual intrusion throw worlds, and educations, into trauma and chaos.
The ways in which colleges and universities have long been incompetent at preventing or responding to sexual violation have overwhelmingly hurt women, and violated the promises of Title IX.  Having been so bad, for so long, at acknowledging or taking appropriate responsibility for the realities of sexual violation, it is predictable that certain schools will develop new policies and practices that are ham-fisted at best.  It is clear, in fact, that some schools have simply ping-ponged from being stupid and cruel in the way they treat victims of sexual assault, to being stupid and cruel in the way they treat men in their community against whom allegations of sexual violation are made.  This is not the outcome that feminist activists seek, and it is not a reason to jettison efforts to demand that schools and universities learn how to do better.
In the last few years young women activists have been spectacularly successful at increasing awareness regarding the epidemic levels of sexual violence inflicted on (mostly women) in campus settings, and there have been significant, positive developments across the country.  New, thriving conversations about the importance of affirmative consent, and the imperative of seeing that sexual assault is as much a “men’s issue” as it is a “women’s issue," have been critically bolstered by never-before-seen levels of enthusiastic support from male allies and the Federal Government’s Department of Education under former President Barack Obama.
Given President Trump’s apparent lack of concern for the sexual dignity of women, many in the anti-rape movement have been anxious about what steps would be taken by his administration regarding campus sexual assault, and last week Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a stinging rebuke of efforts made by her predecessors.  At the same time, she announced that her Department will launch a notice-and-comment period regarding regulations, with the aim of ensuring that schools are better informed and guided, and have processes that better serve both victims and perpetrators. CAASE supports those aims, and we agree with Secretary DeVos on this point: the Department of Education can do a better job of helping institutions get it right.
We worry, however, that Secretary DeVos believes that false rape accusations are routinely (rather than very rarely) leveled against men.  There are no facts to support that claim, although it is an effective and powerful lie that plays a key role in silencing victims. We are also disturbed by the Secretary’s suggestion that rapes occur because of  individual “personal weakness,” and her failure to acknowledge the ways in which the violation of young women’s bodies is simultaneously normalized and ignored by our culture. We worry that the Department of Education will promote policies that undermine school efforts to rid their campuses of sexual violation.  
We will not stand for any roll back of Title IX rights for survivors. We will continue to amplify the voices of the victims, students, and communities that support Title IX. We will continue to fight for the realization of the law’s promise: students are entitled to an education unencumbered by sex discrimination, harassment, and assault.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Young men find a role in ending sexual exploitation

By Caleb Probst, CAASE Educator 

Students at Chicago Quest High School learn about the realities of the sex trade.

Imagine a laser beam – a perfectly straight line of colored light – that is part of the lighting design for a rock concert. The beam itself would remain unseen by the audience, much like a laser pointer in a lecture hall, if there were not also fog machines putting haze in the air. The haze elucidates the presence of the beam, allowing the audience to appreciate its existence. If the existence of sexual violence and exploitation is a laser beam I am a fog machine blowing smoke so that young people can see it.

Sexual violence and exploitation exist on a continuum that is often hard to detect. All of us, simply by living in this cultural moment, are positioned somewhere on this continuum and gradually move back-and-forth along it. At one end, there are seemingly benign actions like buying a ticket to a romantic comedy that reinforces gender stereotypes. At the other end reside the far more obvious actions like buying sex.

When I accept a stereotypical movie plot line that presents the love of a woman as a prize to be fought for and won, then I will have an easier time accepting the woman herself as a prize to be won.  Prizes like trophies and medals are often awarded for persistence and hard work. When I view some women as prizes, it becomes easier for me to view some women as objects. And if I then continue down the road where some women can be treated like objects, then I eventually come to the end where some women can be purchased for sex.

Nearly every high school student I have worked with identifies buying sex as “bogus” and believes that it is something only “desperate losers do.” As Dante told me,“If you’re paying for sex, there is obviously something wrong with you, man.” Most of these same young people, however, indicate having absolutely no reservations about patronizing a strip club, watching pornography, or calling a girl they know a “slut” as a way to insult or degrade her. (Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure I should note that “slut” is actually rarely used by young people, as the word has been replaced with “THOT” – an acronym for That Hoe Over There. But, I think you see my point.) All of these behaviors clearly lie somewhere along the continuum, but most young people are not able to see that because these actions are seen as normal, if not acceptable, parts of society. Our society typically blames the victims of sexual assault for wearing the wrong clothes, or walking on the wrong street, or going to the wrong party, but rarely holds perpetrators accountable. Our society typically arrests and re-arrests people in prostitution, yet the men paying for sex generally get to go home with little more than a warning. When we take a step back to examine our societal responses to some of these problems, the reality of what exploitation looks like becomes clear.

Throughout the four sessions of Empowering Young Men, the students and I examine the continuum and wrestle with a few of these challenging questions.Why are men celebrated for their acts of dominance, and forgiven for their acts of violence? Based on my actions, where am I situated on the spectrum? What can I do to make our society better? 

During one class we listen critically to a variety of songs, and look for the subtle ways in which violent gender-norms are reinforced in current popular music. While listening to one of the songs, Zac had an epiphany.“That’s like the first time I’ve listened to the lyrics that closely, but he hit the woman.”  In a later workshop, Zac pointed out that there is no single source responsible for normalizing sexual violence and exploitation,“so we all need to be more aware and just do something.”

Zac is not alone.

Most of the young men who go through our program, leave saying they intend to stop calling girls “THOTs.” Most of the young men also say they intend to never patronize a strip club, and some even go so far as to say they are going to stop watching porn. When asked what they will do, many respond like Antwan. “Man, we need to start respecting women. And when your friends say things like,‘She’s such a bust-down’ you need to say,‘Bro you trippin’!”

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