Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fantasy of Equivalent Pain

I've got a new piece up over at the BARCC Blog, and it's not one of my better works. The post was inspired by a friend who shared a Dateline story with me about a young man who was emotionally abused and coerced by his abuser into killing her husband. Pretty much every aspect of the story is incredibly depressing, but also fairly typical for an abuser. The only thing that sets Ramos's story apart from our more "traditional" story of DV is that his abuser, Patty Presba, didn't smack him around the way we expect male perpetrators to smack around women.

Whenever I read a story like this, in addition to the depression and sadness that comes with it, I also feel a twinge of...victory? I'm not sure exactly how to describe it. When I hear news about a female perpetrator, my first thoughts are often almost gloating - "see, women can abuse too." My post today was sort of about this, although in much nicer language. Yes, it is important for me to understand that men can suffer from sexual and partner violence and abuse. Yes, it is important for me to understand that abuse is unreasonably common in all types of partnerships across the country, and that lesbians abuse, queer people abuse, women abuse.

There's a very valid concern in the world of violence prevention that survivors who don't fit the cultural script of who a survivor "should be" have a lot of obstacles to getting support. BARCC has run up against this problem with male survivors, who don't really report assaults, and with lesbian survivors too. I want to recognize that there are probably a lot of male survivors, or non-traditional survivors, who haven't reported or can't report because of hurdles placed in their path above and beyond what we already throw in front of straight white women who are survivors.

BUT - and here's where things get tangled in my own mind - it's really easy for me to slip into a fantasy where, because of all these obstacles that exist in the world, there are these huge masses of men being sexually abused or raped, and who never talk about it. I have this fantasy that abuse and violence are equivalent, and that it's not mostly people who look like me and identify like me that are causing all of this pain in the world.

That fantasy is complete bullshit. Yes, men can be and are survivors of assault, abuse, and violence. It is absolutely necessary to support survivors who are male, to ensure that they have the safe social space to seek support and help, and that they can do so without compromising their gender identity. Almost hoping, though, that as many men have been victimized as women (because it would make me feel better as a male-identified person myself) is a form of trying to claim ownership of an issue that isn't mine to claim.

It's like try to prove that rifles are as dangerous as handguns in gun-related violence. Sure, people do shoot each other with rifles in non-military situations in the US, and we should probably have good policy to prevent people from getting shot with them. But high-profile cases like the D.C. sniper aside, the relative levels of handgun violence versus rifle violence is so outrageously lopsided that any public health professional or gun-control activist would laugh at the idea that we need tremendous resources to prevent rifle-violence.

Likewise, even if I wish it weren't true, the rates of perpetration of domestic violence, incest, rape, and violent crime between men and women is so ridiculously lopsided that I can't in good conscience harp on female perpetrators. They do exist. They do hurt people. But if I'm trying to stop sexual violence, I'm going to do a lot more good focusing my work on other men than I will on women.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pernicious Cultural Messages

The way that CNN pretty much pulled a 180 on Jaclyn Friedman is both ridiculous, but also strangely transparent in its urge to promote mainstream cultural conversations. Check out this post for the skinny on it.

The part that I find a little strange is that, for CNN, it sounds like they had a pretty good idea of what this segment they were running was going to sound like, well before they consulted any experts or talking heads. The mainstream culture already has a message for artists like Ke$ha and others who promote female wildness, and CNN was pretty intentional about making sure that message got promoted at the end of the day.

My question is why they decided they wanted to use Jaclyn Friedman to support that message. For a chunk of CNN readers, Jaclyn's name may not mean anything, and her being quoted out of context almost doesn't matter for those readers. Even our biggest Feminist names don't have quite the cultural penetration into popular cultural consciousness that, say, Ke$ha has, unfortunately. But Jaclyn's name is pretty big, especially in the world of rape prevention. For anyone who's heard of her even a little bit, they probably have an inkling that the quotes CNN published don't quite sound right, based on what else they may know of Jaclyn.

It feels almost like CNN either didn't know who Jaclyn is, or they deliberately set out to trash her reputation. This is not that much different than having CNN invite someone like, say, the late Dr. Howard Zinn to speak on history, and then misquoting him as saying that history is made by kings and presidents. It's not only not what he would say, it's the exact opposite of what he would say.

How pernicious must these cultural messages about drinking, sex, and gender roles be for CNN to pick not only someone who wouldn't really agree with the story they wanted to write, but who vehemently disagreed, and had spent most of her professional life opposing it? I don't know why they didn't just grab some random talking head who has no reputation for this segment.

Now Jaclyn has used her superpowers to call attention to the fact that CNN misquoted her, used her name and not her thoughts, and tried to stack a B.S. story on top of her credibility. I love that. It's awesome. But it's annoying that, instead of reporting on reality as it is, and actually allowing her the space to share her ideas for real, CNN tried to shoe-horn Jaclyn's points into the pre-determined shoebox they made for the story.

I'm not the biggest fan of the Freakonomics guys, but one thing I will certainly cede to them: once we look at real data in the real world that's based on reality, the social myths we constantly prop up and support (like, say that female drinking is responsible for rape) crumble around us. Conventional wisdom is pretty much always crap based on social power and not on facts and data. The more we can push up against them, and break them, the better off we'll all be because we'll have a world that actually respects real information. Hopefully.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The power of non-traditional messaging

Quick mini-post, not about gender at all: back to messaging and communication!

On Saturday, a main water pipe in Weston ruptured, leaving about 2 million members of Greater Boston without safe drinking water. Obama has since declared this a disaster emergency, paving way for Massachusetts to receive some federal funds to even out the cost of repairing the 10-foot pipe and testing the water quality.

The interesting part of this story for me was not the response of state or city agencies, although as far as I can tell, both were exemplary. The most unique part of this story is the way social messaging websites served in many ways as state proxies, distributing information about the water to a diverse series of social networks.

I didn't learn about the ruptured pipe from the Boston Globe (not because it didn't report it, but because I don't generally read the Globe or any other physical newspaper, for that matter). I didn't learn about it from the evening news or from the radio; I heard about it via text message from Boston University's Send Word Now alert system, developed after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2008.

Then, when I got home, I learned that I could boil my water to purify it for drinking, that it was safe to use for washing my hands (but not brushing my teeth!) and that it would be a few more days before we had reliable drinking water from a variety of friends on Facebook and Twitter.

I'm not going to wax too poetic about the social virtues of Twitter and Facebook; there are many other articles written about that. What I found interesting about this particular phenomenon was how quickly my friends (many of whom have worked for public agencies in the past, granted) took up the information they received from the Department of Public Health or Public Works, and spread it to their own social networks. It would seem to be the case that, when/if the public welfare is clear enough, most people are willing to cooperate with government to help educate each other.

It makes me wonder about things like Hurricane Katrina - how much different would the response have been, both of citizens in New Orleans, and the response effort, if Twitter and Facebook had been as big then as they are now. Would more citizens have been able to evacuate? Would more family members and friends have known ahead of time what type of hurricane was coming?

Once New Orleans lost power those networks would have been useless, of course, but would the state of Louisianna's message about evacuating have been carried further by individual social networks if we had the kind of technology in 2005 that we have in 2010? Would more people have been able to pool resources to leave, if they didn't have enough on their own?

I think the Boston water pipe aquapocalypse shows, in a small way, that government doesn't have to do all the necessary messaging itself: people will spread information, and reliably, too, if they have the mechanisms to do it.