rape culture

Survivors. Digging Deep. And the Exhausting Nature of Rage.

Content note: discussion of sexual assault, rape, depression

I haven’t blogged in months. Three-and-a-half months, roughly. On Monday, I wrote about how depressed I was most of the summer, and that’s part of the story.

There was actually a lot I could have written about this summer. I took an arts-intensive workshop with other K-12 teachers and got a lot of great teaching ideas, but also came away with a lot of questions and a desire to take it further, because, well, I think we can do more and expect more for our students’ ability to engage in the art-making process. I think the way we engage them is often insulting to both their cognitive and emotional intelligences (and I’m not talking about the way Powers that Be talk about “raising the bar.” They can shove their Bar).

I took a week-long graduate-level pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. It was life-changing. Career-changing. Did I mention life-changing? There was so much to unpack from the four-day seminar, and so many connections to what I’ve done, what I am doing, and what I will be doing in my classroom. I connected it back to the arts workshop, and made even more connections to what was missing from that experience. I will be writing about it later. But I could have written about it this summer, too.

Here’s what happened, and why it’s taken me so long to come back: I wrote about the Josh Duggar abuse scandal. And my post turned into a three-post series. And I had to dig pretty deep for part of it. And I had to word things carefully, and try to keep a cap on my rage, and not say too much. And then I was tapped out, and I could go no further. Before I could write more, on anything, I had to talk to my parents. There are issues too important, too damaging, too harmful, too caustic, too violent for me too keep myself partially shrouded. And some things are things too important for my parents to read for the first time on a blog.

So I took a break. And I drove home, 1200 miles, took my parents out to dinner, and told them something I’d kept from them for 11 years.

I am a rape survivor.

It made so many things make sense to them, that never clicked before. I told them I’ve been in counseling, I’ve been working on it, I’ve been healing. It doesn’t control my life. But I’m to the point where I want to write about it, to help other women, to help men and women understand, to volunteer with victims/survivors, to help the Church respond better.

Because that’s the part that made me so angry I had to quit writing– when I first started opening up to friends in the church I was revictimized by the responses, and writing Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones drudged a lot of that up. And it was exhausting. It was exhausting to write about it circuitously when I wanted to write about me. It was exhausting to know how feels to be a rape victim, and to have the response be about restoring purity or forgiveness, rather than on pursuing justice or making sure the abuser gets real help or is kept out of positions of authority so he cannot abuse again. (By the way, my abuser abused again. They do that. It’s a thing).

Now I’m back. I’m back teaching, back to grad school, trying to get a handle on this latest depressive cycle. And I’m “out” as a survivor.

There are more of us out here than you probably realize or know. That has to change. This culture of rape and abuse has got to change.


The Boss of My Body

Content note: bodily autonomy, child abduction, stranger danger, child sexual abuse, classroom discipline

Each of my students is the boss of his or her own body. That sentence may seem simple, straight-forward, and fairly basic. But the more I dig into it, the more radical it becomes for me to abide by it in my classroom.

I grew up in an era of Stranger Danger. When I was four years old, Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. The fact that it happened only three hours from my hometown, which is just a stone’s throw in rural areas like North Dakota, made it hit pretty hard. I remember asking my mom if the Jacob boy was home with his mommy yet. I also remember yearly Red Flag Green Flag® programs. But I lived in a small town, where no one was a stranger, so it was an odd juxtaposition for me.

As time has passed, our fear of strangers has reached a fever pitch. Neighbors call the police when they see children walking home from school unattended. Kids are often not allowed to play in their own front yards. But stranger abductions like Jacob Wetterling’s are extremely rare, so our focus on Stranger Danger is often misplaced. What we need are kids (and teens who used to be kids) who develop a sense of autonomy over their own bodies, and who trust their gut when it comes to saying no.

In college, I worked at a daycare and after-school program for kids with special needs. One of my favorite clients was a child who loved to hug. He was full of love and wanted to share it with everyone. When he got to middle school, his teachers came down on him hard and said that hugs were no longer age appropriate. Um what? I don’t think people grow out of hugging at some magical age, and his teachers’ concern about the inappropriateness of him hugging girls and women missed the point. The issue wasn’t age–it was consent.

Starting in first grade, my students ask for hugs. I usually say yes. Their friends usually say yes. But when they say no, we accept the no.

I have a student who uses a wheelchair. Her friends are prone to over-helping, and that contributes to disempowerment. So we have a two-part rule: the chair is an extension of her bubble, and everyone must ask before offering help or push her chair. And by everyone, I mean everyone: students and staff. If she says no, we accept the no.

I don’t use time-out as a behavioral consequence very often. I like to create a community with my students, and sending the message that they can be banished for rule infractions does not sit well with me. Most rule infractions can be handled with a look or a conversation, usually short. My students are capable of discussing their behavior and any precipitating factors; they do not behave in a vacuum, and we all know this. I respect them enough to have these dialogues. The only times I use a time-out or a break is if a student is making the classroom emotionally or physically unsafe for the rest of the students. Then we exit the room to have our conversation (ideally). Here’s where it gets radical: if a student says no, we accept the no. 

If a student will not remove himself or herself from the classroom when asked, directed, or reminded, the rest of my students practice self-care. The move to a different part of the room, bring their work to the couches in the hallway, or if the student is still physically safe, they have been known to assert themselves by saying, You are not being fair to my feelings and my learning, and I think you need a break. 

I play the long game with my students. And the long game takes time and infinite patience. The long game does not depend on immediate compliance, but on multiple small conversations and reminders and tending the seed that sprouts and grows into an understanding of why we behave the way we do. It grows slowly. Sometimes painfully so.

I will not violate my student’s bodily autonomy to enforce immediate compliance; I’m trying to dismantle the Cult of Compliance, not reinforce it. My desire for order, or respect, or discipline, or consequences, or whatever classroom management buzzword of the week happens to be floating around does not supersede a student’s right to be the boss of their body. That is an abuse of my power and position. If I teach my students they are the bosses of their bodies, and then demonstrate that as an adult I can violate that rule, what message does that send? Since the majority of sexual abuse cases involve an adult known to the child, and since children often get in trouble for telling their adults no, am I not upholding rape culture by rejecting the very word I am trying to build up??

When a student says no, I don’t remind them to be “polite.” No is no; the content is more important than the tone. And the content of NO can’t get much clearer than that.

For some great Safe Kids rules, including I AM THE BOSS OF MY BODY, click here!

For a perspective on the cost of physically forcing compliance, and what that means for the bodily autonomy of an autistic child (as told by a parent), read this: the cost of compliance is unreasonable.

For a perspective on those outcomes, as told by an autistic self-advocating adult, read this (trigger warning: stories of abuse, poverty, discrimination): No You Don’t 

Women, Sex, and Cars (Part II)

Content Note: sexual assault in the news, rape culture, sexism, misogyny, sexual symbolism

My blog post about buying a car was only going to be one blog post. But as often happens with conversations, it begets further conversation. Which springs forth into further reflection, deconstruction, reconstruction, keyboard smashing, synthesis.

And today I read about Patricia, the most recent in a group of over 30 women who have come forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault, and between comments on that story, and conversations and comments on my first post about buying my car, I’m up to my earholes in rape culture and power dynamics. So here’s the alternate title to this post:

How I Learned to Drive a Stick (that’s what she said)

Right off the bat, I am going to issue this clarification: at no point am I issuing an indictment of individual persons, with the exception of Bill Cosby. It’s pretty clear he’s guilty of some horrible acts against women. My other commentary is “aimed up” at the culture and systems and not “aimed down” at the people forced to navigate the resulting marginalization.

When I bought my car, I left feeling adequate. I felt not completely empowered, but not disempowered either. I left with enough of my autonomy intact to feel I had done a good job negotiating and purchasing my car, my first big ticket item since my divorce. A discussion happened among some women acquaintances about our experiences buying and servicing cars. We were split into two groups: those who had been traumatized, ripped off, or otherwise dehumanized, and those who had survived mostly unscathed. Those in the latter group cited strategies for the successes: bringing a male partner to the dealership, doing extra research, choosing a female salesperson, calling a male friend on the phone for back-up. A few of the women in the latter group made suggestions to the women in the former group for a more positive experience next time: Seek out a saleswoman, or Well, I know to bring a man with me.

My problem isn’t that these women gave these suggestions, but that the automotive culture is such that this conversation exists at all. Why do we have to “know to bring a man”? Why should buying a car feel like reporting a sexual assault on a college campus (a lived experience a friend of mine used during the aforementioned conversation)?

Why did all of this remind me of the “how to avoid getting raped” college presentations for freshman women?

The same society that produced our current rape culture produced the boys’ club that is the automotive show room.

When I got my butt grabbed at the Old Broadway in Fargo, there were those who might have told me to take it as a compliment. When someone touched me unexpectedly and without my consent and called me sweetheart at the car dealership, one of my friends did tell me to take it as a compliment. Neither of these is a compliment; both of these are about power.

Salespeople generally assume that women don’t know anything about cars. Legislators generally assume that women don’t know anything about what constitutes sexual assault, too.

I’ve been writing about my car a lot on my personal Facebook page. I’m sure some people are looking forward to the end of my overly emotional good-bye to my car. But it’s my narrative. I get to decide when to move on.

I know some people are tired of how drawn out the Bill Cosby story has become. The allegations first came to light in a 2005 civil case and were effectively silenced in 2006. This latest viral resurgence of victims stepping forward began in October 2014; to date over 30 women have publicly accused him of drugging and assaulting them, seven of whom are from the 2005 civil case. As far as Hollywood news is concerned, this story seems like it has gone on forever.

But this isn’t just Hollywood news. And five months is nothing compared to years of silence and internalized shame. You want the media to move on? This isn’t your narrative. This isn’t Cosby’s narrative, either. Finally–yes, finally–this narrative belongs to the women. The women who felt partially responsible for their own assaults. The ones who looked up to a man as a mentor, only to have that power used against them.

The statute of limitations has passed on these cases. This isn’t about going to court, or getting money. This is about power. And from where I sit (and I could be wrong), it’s not even about the victims/survivors getting power over Cosby, but about getting some of their power back.

When I was in rehearsals for How I Learned to Drive, the hardest scene for me was the hotel room scene, when Li’l Bit finally confronts her uncle for the years of inappropriate interactions and abuse of power and “grooming” that led up to that night, her 18th birthday. Li’l Bit runs through a huge range of emotions, and anger is one of them. I am still learning how to let myself experience my own anger, so portraying such a raw and visceral emotion on stage was challenging. The director could see my struggle because, let’s face it, I was sucking. She told me that scene was for the women who never got to face their abusers, and that I needed to be angry for them. I didn’t want that burden, really, and I don’t mean to imply that I fixed the abuse of the world by performing that role for three nights in July. But that was what I needed to hear, as part of my own journey as Danielle and as Li’l Bit.

I got good and angry. Li’l Bit took her power back. Everything is about power.

And if you think it isn’t about power, ask yourself this question: Why are there people who express more worry for Cosby’s legacy than they do for the damaged lives of these 30+ women?