WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

#MeToo is a step forward, but it's time for bystanders and perpetrators to stand up

metooI applaud the strength and solidarity of the women (and men, too) who are asserting with the hashtag #MeToo, that they are among the estimated one in five women who have been sexually assaulted and one in four working women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Hundreds of thousands of women are assaulted each year in the U.S. Enough IS enough. What I now want to know is how many men will stand up against it. Maybe things are changing… It did not take long before we saw that men were writing #IHave and now as I suggest #IWill which can reflect steps they are taking and will take to end the role they have had in promoting gender-based violence and sexual assault, to assert that they will NOT stand by while sexual harassment and assault happen, that they will call it out when they see it.

Classic rape is recognized as a crime --- when a male stranger attacks a woman at night, kidnaps her, or breaks into her home, and then forces her at gunpoint to submit to sexual acts it is (usually) seen as rape. But this does NOT describe most rape, nor are most perpetrators of sexual assault strangers. Those of us working in this field have recognized for years that most rape occurs at the hands of someone the victim knows. While some of what draws our attention today is workplace sexual harassment not involving sexual contact, clearly in the context of the Harvey Weinstein allegations we are hearing about actual sexual contact, forced sexual contact, contact against the will of the victim. The lawyers can tell you what statute covers this behavior in your particular state, but when it occurs without the consent of the woman or child or when she is unable to consent, this is a crime. A serious crime that can result in jail time, a crime which should result in the attention of the criminal justice system-- though nine times out of ten it does not.

We have known for decades that most rape is perpetrated by men known to the victim; study after study have found that many hundreds of thousands of women and girls (as well as many men and boys) are sexually assaulted each year. So why are we still surprised to hear about it today? (Yes, we are doing better responding to sexual assault and, yes, it is gratifying to see the support that the women who have come forward to report what has happened to them in Hollywood are now—mostly—receiving. But year after year after year this is still with us.)

Again and again we see a backlash against the victims. Perhaps our system of justice will prosecute those who rape very small children or 97-year-olds, or those who assault women who are the valued mothers and daughters of powerful white men, but most sexual assault is not reported and, even when reported, does not lead to an arrest or prosecution.

blogquote linda metooWe must remember it is not only Hollywood producers who sexually assault and not only young actors who are the victims. The rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault include:

  • the boss of a 17-year-old working in a fast food restaurant who needs her job so she can go to college, or
  • the supervisor of a 30-year-old mother who is a dishwasher, waitress, cashier, salesperson and needs her low wage part-time job to feed her family,
  • the manager who knows his employee can’t quit or take the chance of being fired so she won’t report or can’t find the time to go to the police or to court to press her case,
  • the manager, the frat-boy or the professor who knows the victim won’t risk the shame and humiliation of reporting and this won’t make it dangerous for him to continue assaulting her or others,
  • The senior colleague of an assistant professor who will decide her fate on the promotion and tenure committee,
  • The fellow student, the upperclassman or the star football player who knows his attention will flatter the first-year student or the jock who knows after she has had a lot to drink that he has a good chance of getting away with a sexual assault-- he knows that when she passes out in the dorm room, or by a dumpster in the parking lot, or no matter what happens to her, she will be too afraid to scream out or report what this star athlete has done,
  • Or a bus driver or taxi driver, priest, teacher, uncle, military superior, or neighbor who assaults the mother of his child’s best friend,
  • Finally there is the ex-boyfriend or partner who thinks that he is entitled to sex because she consented in the past, because he knows her secrets and can prey on her fears, insecurities, or her shame.

This is the reality of rape—a crime most likely perpetrated by a man known to the victim – an acquaintance, “friend,” classmate, employer, or partner. Such rape is more common than stranger rape. In spite of extensive data showing that rape is underreported, rarely falsely reported, and even after many Harvey Weinsteins--too many to count-- many still hold inaccurate beliefs about the nature of rape, when and to whom it happens, and its impact on the victim—the women who are young and old; Black, white and brown; rich and poor.

Yes, it is notable that women can now join in and feel supported enough to tweet #MeToo and in so doing make it clear that rape is not rare, that rape can happen to anyone. But now, it is also time to ask the bystanders and the actual or wanna-be perpetrators to stand up and say #IHave to indicate “I sexually assaulted someone,” “I stood by while my friends or classmates or colleagues did it,” or “I know men who bragged about it.” And use the hashtag #IWill to assert they will no longer stand by and do nothing but instead that they will stand up and support victims and survivors. #IWill stand up and call out these behaviors even when powerful men state “I just start kissing them. I don't even wait...when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything."

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is senior research scientist and director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.


Need help or assistance? In the U.S., call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.4673.

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"A" Is for Accepted

AisforAccept“A” is for Accepted

I was many things at ten years old, but one thing I wasn't was accepted. My family moved to a new town that summer—it was 1972—and on the first day of school when the school bell rang I stood in the middle of the girls’ line anxiously waiting to meet my new classmates. As I was studying my shoes I heard the laughter and the whispering, “What is that new boy doing in the girls line!” They were talking about me, well-dressed in boys clothing. I was humiliated, filled with shame, desperate to go back to my old school where people knew and accepted me. It was a long year of pain, accentuated by my teacher who routinely tried to force me to join the Girl Scouts.

This memory popped back into my mind when I first discovered social pain overlap theory (SPOT) by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA. These researchers study the brain in social situations. They devised a clever experiment during which people were asked to join a virtual cyberball game on a computer screen. As the game progresses, the research subject is attached to a functional brain imaging machine. Now, being left out of a cyberball toss experiment where you do not even know or see the other players is nothing compared to my year of ridicule and ostracism in fifth grade, nor does it compare to the many forms of being socially rejected from bullying, to racism and homophobia, but still, this rather mild social exclusion told these researchers something very important: Being left out hurts most people. They feel uncomfortable, unsettled, irritated… distressed. The next step was to see what area of the brain was activated with this distress.

blogpullquoteAcceptedThis is where the story gets really interesting. The area that lit up when a subject was excluded is a strip of brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus (dACC). The dACC already had been mapped as the area of the brain that is activated when a person is distressed by physical pain. To humans, being socially excluded is so important that it uses the same neurological pathways used to register when you are in danger from a physical injury or illness. Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones will break your bones and names will never hurt you”? Not true. It should have been “sticks and stones will break you bones and names will hurt you too!”

The human nervous system has evolved to be held within the safety of safe relationships. When we drift away from our group or are pushed out, when we are ridiculed, bullied, or shunned it creates real pain. This happens to individuals within groups and to groups of people within the larger society. SPOT theory confirms that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—but it also tells us that we all live in glass houses, we are all vulnerable to the pain of being left out. It is simply how we are wired.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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The Gated Community of the Heart

blogpullquoteGatedCommunityThe Gated Community of the Heart

A gated community can be more than a real estate development. Last year, I visited an ailing friend who lives in a gated community on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. I waited at a guardhouse while my white host, on the other side of the gate, was asked on the phone whether I should be let in. Waiting, I felt guilty until proven innocent, with a tinge of "Am I an imposter? Do I belong inside the gate?” But once allowed in, I could drive around without feeling wary as I looked for my friend's house. I didn't need to prove again that I "belonged." I am white, and elderly, and to the young white guards, I probably looked harmless. I was given a pass--temporary permission to belong.

Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman because he was a dark, unwelcome element from outside that Zimmerman felt did not belong within the gated community. Its neighborhood watch organization justified--at least in Zimmerman’s own mind--his intention to get rid of the outsider-within. George Zimmerman acted as an individual, and it was as an individual that he refused to do what the police asked him to do--stay in his car rather than engage on the street with Trayvon Martin.

But I see George Zimmerman as also acting out fears, projections and aggressions that form patterns in our civic life. I think George Zimmerman shared with tens of millions of people in the United States the assumption that people whose skins are darker than their own do not belong, people who look poorer do not belong, and black men on the streets do not belong. The deep and usually unacknowledged assumption of the more empowered is that these others are threats that should be rooted out.

My own education in this kind of exclusion started very early in my life. What I have in common with George Zimmerman is a head full of yes-and-no instructions about who should be in and who should be out of "our" communities. Beyond that, our circumstances were very different.

I was raised in an upper class suburban New Jersey family with what I call a "litany of 'good's"--unquestioned markers of superiority that put a gated community around my consciousness. I was told that we had a good family, lived in good neighborhoods, went to good schools, had good manners, read good books, and of course earned good grades. We females should go to good colleges and marry men with good prospects who would get good jobs and make good investments because they had good sense and good judgment. We would learn good music and recognize good art because we had good taste. When such a castle of invented "goods" is built around one, an obedient self, keeper of the moat and drawbridge, will recognize and try to keep out threatening elements.  

This frame of mind, instructed in keeping the “bad” at bay, made me as a child feel some fear when an un-good thought, an uncertified thought or person even, made its way into the precincts. The gated mind did what it could to hold off, stamp out, expunge, even kill the intruder. A man I was dating when I was 18 told me his parents had Jewish friends. I broke up with him immediately. Having grown up in anti-Semitic towns with few Jewish people, my gated mind stopped the intruding element. George Zimmerman and I were taught by large elements of American sensibility to do this.

We need liberal arts education and caring parents to teach children’s minds to see that what is unfamiliar is not necessarily threatening. We need teachers to encourage students to look critically at what they have been taught about who and what "belongs" in a democracy. Examining one's mind and widening one's scope are humanizing pursuits. By contrast, rage--especially racial, religious, gendered, sexuality and class-based rage--at what is seen as “other” can kill off those observant and potentially welcoming internal elements of the self that can see beyond whatever excluding “litany of goods” one was taught.

The posse sensibility is not open or welcoming. The inner watchdogs of the closed mind kill off democracy. They fear what is not in their precincts. They do not recognize themselves in others. They close off curiosity and empathy. What remains is the ruthless gated community of the heart.

Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D. is an associate director at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. The founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum and a leading scholar on privilege, she is the author of the groundbreaking essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

 

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Dear Dr. McIntosh After completing 4 yrs of undergraduate work, I am in my second semester of graduate courses here at Georgian Co... Read More
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On International Women’s Day: How Do We Get Girls in School Safely?

Global Partnership for EducationOn International Women’s Day: How Do We Get Girls in School Safely?

This blog post originally appeared in the Education for All Blog of the Global Partnership for Education; by Nora Fyles, Head of the UNGEI Secretariat

Earlier this year, I read an interview with a secondary school girl about her experiences commuting to school in rural Uganda. Her message has stayed with me, as an example of the “everyday” reality of violence in girls’ lives.

Interviewer: What is the biggest problem or difficulty that you have in your life right now?

Student: The biggest problem--is these men who disturb us--begging for sex when walking to school.

Around the world today, International Women’s Day, attention is focused on the issue of violence against women and girls, the theme of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women. For millions of girls worldwide, violence is more than the “topic of the day,” it is part of their everyday reality. Girls face violence and discrimination due to their sex and age, in many contexts, including on the way to school, in the school yard, and in the classroom.

There is no doubt that gender-based violence is a major and critical barrier threatening the education of girls in many countries of the world, with far reaching consequences: poor performance, irregular attendance, dropout, truancy and low self-esteem not to mention physical harm and pregnancy. In a consultation jointly hosted by UNGEIUNICEF and the Ethiopia Ministry of Education, participants reported on issues faced by girls. One country representative reported that, “Girls at secondary education levels increasingly face sexual violence including forced marriage, abduction and sexual exploitation, taking advantage of the fact that girls have limited financial and material means.”

Surprisingly, given the impact of violence, school-related gender-based violence is often unremarked upon and taken for granted. Thus, one of the biggest challenges is to recognize that social norms prevent girls from attending school in a safe environment, and to place girls’ education within the broader discourse of women’s rights.

Focus on Girls in GPE’s Strategic Plan

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has drawn up a Strategic Plan for 2012-2015 which provides an opening for dialogue and action by focusing on girls’ access to and achievement through school, including schools as safe spaces for girls. The GPE Plan identifies five thematic priorities, including one relating to girls, which states: “All girls in GPE endorsed countries successfully complete primary school and go to secondary school in a safe, supportive learning environment.

For UNGEI, this is a transformative statement which:

  1. Recommits the Partnership to an agenda of equity and rights;
  2. Defines quality education as a safe and supportive environment for learning, and recognizes the potential (and the reality) of the opposite: violence, including gender-based violence; and
  3. Puts forward a new vision of education that includes adolescent girls and their social context.

GPE proposes a holistic approach, with a focus on gender responsive education sector plans, strategies to ensure school safety and supportive learning for girls, including female teachers, the collection of evidence and sharing of good practice, and the tracking of enrolment, progress and learning of primary and lower secondary girls.

It is this country-led and holistic approach to ensure that schools are safe and supportive spaces that will allow girls to become advocates for their own rights.

Plan International Report: Education Reduces Violence against Women

We know that education can serve a protective role for girls and young women by making them aware of and confident to exercise their rights. A recent report by Plan International indicates that women who are educated to secondary level or higher are less likely than their non-educated or primary-educated counterparts to experience violence, and men who are educated to secondary level or higher are less likely than their non-educated or primary-educated counterparts to perpetuate violence.

Education can be empowering, providing space for girls to speak on their own and with their own voices, now and in the future. Preventing and eliminating violence against girls in and around schools is an effective strategy in advancing the status of women in society. UNGEI is pleased to join GPE in celebrating International Women’s Day. Our partnership is ensuring that all girls successfully complete primary school and go to secondary school in a safe, supportive learning environment.

 

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