Bevin, Bye.

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Content Warning: discussion of sexual abuse, sexual predators, and the legal system. No descriptions of sexual acts.

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As one of his final acts as Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin has taken it upon himself to pardon a convicted child abuser. (LINK) The case is a highly unusual one that hinges upon a retired judge who became convinced of the innocence of the man he once convicted.

In 2001, Paul Donel Hurt was convicted of sexually abusing his six-year-old stepdaughter. The child reported the abuse at the time to her stepmother who contacted police. The child was able to describe in graphic detail what had been done to her.  She also exhibited many of the red flags typically associated with sexual trauma. Her behavior, her knowledge, and her testimony helped a jury convict Hurt of criminal sexual abuse and he was sentenced to life in prison.

The judge who oversaw the case, Stephen Mershon [and no, I’m not giving him an honorific here on purpose], began to correspond with Hurt in prison and eventually became convinced that Hurt was an innocent man.  He then began to communicate with the victim to try to convince her of the same. In 2015, after contact from Mershon, the victim recanted her 2001 testimony, saying that she had not actually been abused by Hurt. Mershon went so far as to assist the victim in writing a letter to a previous Governor asking to pardon her stepfather.  That attempt failed as did Hurt’s many appeals of his conviction.

Even after Mershon’s intervention and the victim’s 2015 recanting of her testimony, judges still refused to overturn Hurt’s conviction. The judicial opinion (LINK here) written at that time states that the victim only recanted her testimony after interference from Mershon and that her recantation was much less compelling and much more inconsistent than her original testimony. The appeals court ruled that Hurt’s conviction should stand.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of Hurt’s guilt, Mershon felt compelled to interfere and Governor Bevin felt compelled to do the same.  When Hurt was released from prison after his pardon, Mershon was the one to pick him up and drive him home.

Now, you might be asking yourself, if the victim recanted, why am I so upset by this? From the outside, this might look like an innocent man finally receiving justice. But as an expert working in the movement to end sexual violence, this case is all too familiar and shows the failings of our society to understand trauma and victimization.  There are a few important lessons we need to learn from this miscarriage of justice:

  1. Children RARELY lie about being sexually abused.  If a child has disclosed abuse to you, believe them.
  2. Children will often feel guilt over loved ones or trusted adults who face consequences for abuse. Given that 90-93% of child abusers are someone the child knows, this guilt is common.  It is not unusual that a child might later recant a disclosure of abuse because they are worried about a loved one.  It is also not uncommon that community members or family will make that child feel guilty if they are not very careful about consistently reminding the child that the abuse and the consequences the adult is facing are not their fault. Children who feel guilty will often recant abuse, even years later, to try to safe a loved one or a family relationship.
  3. Trauma is confusing and those with power should be mindful that they can alter or impact a victim’s memory by gaslighting them about what really happened.
  4. When we don’t hold offenders accountable, they will continue to abuse.  When we publicly don’t hold offenders accountable, we give the green-light to other abusers that they will not be caught. A pardon like this undermines justice for one young victim and empowers countless other predators who feel secure that they, like Paul Donel Hurt, will not face consequences.

The key is this: when any survivor of abuse tells you about their experience, believe them. That is the most important thing we can do. This is even more important for children who will look to us for how they should feel about what happened to them. Tell children you believe them, tell them it isn’t their fault, and fight like hell to keep them safe.

If you’ve been a victim of child sexual abuse, now or in the past, Safe Passage is here and we will believe you.  Call us 24/7 at 815-756-5228.

 

 

Ally

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A message from our Volunteer Coordinator, Pam Rosales:

Ally by Jaz Sufi

The movement to end sexual violence is filled with activists that are passionate in ending other forms of social injustice. In a culture where People of Color experience higher rates of sexual violence, racial equality is deeply interwoven in the movement. As the Volunteer Coordinator of Safe Passage, I meet passionate individuals who are dedicated in both fights. Being a Filipina Muslim American, I’m aware of just how pervasive racism lurks within this space.

This space, where survivors of color seek sanctuary and healing, is often times permeated with well-intended individuals claiming to be allies. Whose ‘wokeness’ is as performative as the ethnic artifacts hanging on the walls from their last mission trip. Jaz Sufi illustrates this performance in her poem:

“When I say ‘woke’, I mean she keeps the city up at night listen to how loud her allyship is, like it’s only worth the effort if everyone can hear its echo. She says ‘fireworks’ I say ‘gunshots’ she says I’m wrong, but you’ll never catch her in the kind of neighborhood where you learn to tell the difference…When I say ‘woke’, I mean she knows all the right words. Says ‘microaggression’ and tries to shrink me smaller. Says ‘white fragility’ and shatters into shrapnel. Blames the brown girl for all of her bruises as she carves the meat from my bones. But of course, the only damage here is what was done to her, by me, the terrorist.”

People of color who survive trauma from sexual assault are not free from the trauma of racism. They have to carry the heavy weight of both. If racial violence continues, sexual violence persists, and vice versa. People of color experience victim blaming with the added baggage of racism. When a person of color seeks support for their sexual assault, not only do they worry about whether or not they will be believed, but they have to worry about how their race affects their journey. Will the color of their skin affect whether or not they will receive proper medical care when they get a rape-kit done? If they share their story, will people blame their culture for being ‘oppressive’ and ‘backwards’? Will their citizenship be the focus of the conversation instead? This is the trauma that People of Color endure, often by the hands of “allies.”

Do impactful, genuine allies exist? Yes. This post is not about them. This post is about those who exploit the oppression of People of Color to wear as evidence for their activism. This post is about the “allies” who grab the microphone from us to speak for us, and then receive the accolades that should have been given to us. The thing about these allies, is that even though they might not see themselves as problematic, the people of color around them can spot them out easily. We see you, and we are not fooled.

While reading books like White Fragility is a start, it is not enough. There’s no simple answer to this complexity. I wish I can say that the answer is to travel, to have more People of Color in your inner-circle, to educate yourself on issues of racism, to learn more about our peoples’ history and culture – but I have seen “allies” partake in all of those things and still get it wrong. Instead, their knowledge of our culture and experience is weaponized against us through the form of tokenization, gaslighting and white saviorism. We do not need you to free us. We do not need you to speak for us. We do not need you coming into our ancestral lands, wearing our traditional clothing, speaking our mother tongue, and then stealing our identities to make yourself look “worldly.” We need you to listen. We need you to start by believing when you are held accountable on your racial abuse. We need you to be silent when we speak.

So I ask this: if I asked the people of color in your life what type of ally you are, what would they say?

T[M]I

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I’ve never seen the word “hymen” posted so frequently on my Twitter timeline.

In case you missed the news, rapper T.I. recently mentioned in a podcast that he goes with his daughter to the gynecologist each year to check that her hymen is intact.

Yep.  You read that correctly. (LINK here, if you don’t believe me.)

It is hard to know where to start with this one because there are so many things wrong with this. I suppose the best place to start is a reminder that this isn’t just a T.I. problem.  “Virginity Tests” and purity culture are as old as the patriarchy. As long as people have had sexual agency, other people have been trying to police their sexuality. Virginity tests, chastity belts, purity balls (not to be confused with Truck Nutz), genital mutilation and just straight-up shame have all been used (and are still being used) to keep people from having the independence and information to practice safe, healthy sexuality.

So just to clear a few things up:

  • Hymens are irrelevant.  Some people have them, some people don’t.  Some hymens break when you have sex for the first time.  Some break long before that due to activity. Some don’t break at all. You can’t tell someone’s sexual history from the structure of their genitalia.
  • Virginity is a cultural construct. It is not a thing you can lose or give away. It is a cultural frame of reference and it doesn’t matter (or even exist) if you don’t want it to! Having sex or not having sex does not change who you are as a person.
  • Your sexual history does not change your value.  If you’ve had one partner, zero partners, ten partners, or 10,000 partners, you are just as valuable as anyone else. If you choose to be abstinent at any point in your life, that is just fine.  If you choose to be abstinent until you get married, more power to you.  You do you!  That choice, however, does not make you any more moral or any better than someone who is making a different choice.
  • Sex does not change who you are as a person, no matter what.  You are not chewed-up gum, unsticky tape, unwrapped candy, or any other horrible analogy.  You are a person who deserves respect.

Aside from the lack of science and the unwarranted policing of people’s bodies, hypervigilance around virginity sends the message that your body doesn’t belong to you.  It sends the message that your body belongs to your father until it belongs to your husband. Too many young girls have been brought up with this message and have been taught that they aren’t in charge of their own bodies and their own sexuality. This leads to a culture that expects and tolerates sexual abuse.

And penetration by a doctor with a medical instrument for any non-medical reason IS ASSAULT.  And let me tell you, there is no valid medical reason to “check for a hymen”, so virginity tests are also abuse.

We may not all be taking our daughters for yearly hymen checks or locking up a metal chastity belt, but we all live in a culture that defines a woman’s value by her lack of sexual partners and sexual agency. We all live in a culture that values [female] virginity over enthusiastic consent. We all live in a culture that that tolerates and excuses sexual abuse and assault. The question is, what will be do to change that culture?