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?

Counselor’s Column–June 2019

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Melissa McGraw, Director of Counseling Services at Safe Passage

What is Human Trafficking?

In June several domestic violence staff attended a training on human trafficking in Springfield.  Domestic violence and rape crisis centers are seeing more and more victims of human trafficking entering shelters or seeking counseling services.  And, yes, trafficking is occurring in DeKalb County.

Human trafficking may involve either sex trafficking or labor trafficking.  It includes recruiting, harboring, or obtaining a person by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude or the sex trade.  There is an intersection between domestic violence and trafficking in that survivors of trafficking may be trafficked by an intimate partner or family member.  Contrary to popular belief, victims of trafficking are not always immigrants from other countries.  Victims of trafficking may not immediately identify that they are being trafficked.  Advocates and counselors are learning to ask specific questions to help identify if their clients are not only victims of domestic violence or sexual assault but also may be victims of trafficking.

Trafficking survivors often present with significant trauma histories and symptoms as a result of their traumas.  The counseling staff have worked to help these clients identify and process their feelings of shame and betrayal related to being trafficked by someone they thought they trusted and loved.  This may be a long-term process that also involves connection to case management and legal services.

As a result of this training, Safe Passage has staff who are more equipped to identify and meet the unique needs of trafficking survivors.

If you’d like to learn more about trafficking and how to recognize and support survivors OR if you think you may be a victim of trafficking, call us 24/7 at 815-756-5228.

Runner

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I am not, nor have I ever been, much of a runner.  However, when my partner volunteered me for a Thanksgiving 5K Race, I realized I had better figure it out. I’ve been working through a Couch to 5K program and decided last night would be my first attempt at a full 5K.  I haven’t run this far since I moved several years ago (I know I know) so I don’t regularly run the trails near my house.  Needing to get some extra miles last night, I decided to take a path that ran through the woods a bit further than I usually go.

I immediately felt unsafe.  I immediately took out my headphones and started scanning my surroundings.  I even pushed myself to run a little bit faster until I got to a place where the woods thinned out and I could see houses and lights.  I felt so unsafe that I almost turned around.

Now, it could have been the podcast I was listening to (Believed, an NPR podcast about Dr. Larry Nassar’s years of abuse of young women–check it out). It could have been the area (our town had a murder on a running trail not far from there a couple of years before I moved out).  It could have been just my natural hypervigilance from years of working at a Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Crisis Center.

But whatever it was, the point is, I felt afraid to run by myself.  I felt afraid enough that I took out my headphones and scanned my surroundings as I ran.  I felt afraid enough that I almost gave up on my goal for that run.

And you know what?  My partner (a cis white male runner) runs those trails almost everyday, almost always after dark and he NEVER feels that fear.  He’s never had to wonder if they’ll find his body the next morning and blame him for what happened because he shouldn’t have been running alone at night.

I do.  Those fears for my safety AND the fears that I’d be blamed if something happened to me run through my head every time I step out the door. And that’s not just anxiety.  It’s part of the gig women and femme people seem to have been handed on the day we were born. And that’s not okay.

I should be able to run in peace, no matter my gender or race.  I shouldn’t be afraid of being murdered or assaulted just because I’m female.  I shouldn’t hold myself back from my goals because I wonder if it is safe enough to achieve them.

Whether it is running, receiving an education, landing that new job, taking up painting…whatever your goal might be, you deserve to achieve it without the fear of abuse and violence.  That’s why places like Safe Passage are so necessary.  We have to work to support survivors AND work to create a world where we can all live without fear.

We’re in for the long-haul.  We hope you’ll join us!

Acquitted

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Daily Chronicle News Report:  Brenton Cleveland Acquitted in Rape Trial (LINK)

It has taken us a while to write about this case because it’s a very difficult and emotional topic.  We’d like to say we can always trust our court system.  We’d like to say that we believe in the verdicts that are handed down.  But the truth is, we know that the history of our society’s handling of sexual assault cases and there have been very few convictions.  If every case of guilt ended in a just verdict, we’d have seen a lot more powerful men in prison.

The truth is, just because you can’t prove assault under our current legal system, doesn’t mean an assault didn’t happen. Our system is more often stacked against victims from the very first moment they reach out for help.  In fact, our system is often stacked against victims from the moment they are born.  We raise our children in an environment that shames and blames women for what they wear, where they go, and who they talk to.  Our children grow up with very convoluted messages about respect and consent.  Our children see powerful people accused of assault and abuse who are welcomed back into society without facing any sort of real consequences (looking at you, Louis CK).

We all have to do more.  We all have to do better.  We have to start by teaching our children (and honestly, most of our adults) that CONSENT MATTERS.  If the other person is drunk, it’s not consent.  If you’re in Illinois and the other person is under 17, it’s not consent.  If they don’t seem sure, it’s not consent.  If they didn’t say yes, but they didn’t say no, it’s not consent.  If you had to convince them, threaten them, or even talk them into it, it’s not consent.  Anything less than a 100% freely given, enthusiastic YES is not enough.

And when that bar isn’t met, there have to be consequences.  No more slaps on the wrist.  No more stern words of admonition.  No more slinking off to hide for a few months.  Time is up and we are outraged.  Our children deserve better.  Victims deserve better.  We all deserve better.  And we’re demanding it.

If you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse or assault, Safe Passage is here for you 24/7.  We believe you.  We support you.  We’ll stand with you every step of the way.  Give us a call at 815-756-5228.  All services are completely free and confidential.

The Mistakes Dress

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***Guest Post***

Like many people in college, my friends and I were young, broke, and sometimes stupid.  We made dumb decisions about how much to spend on sushi, how long that political econ homework actually take, and what kind of shoes are appropriate for walking around campus in a snowstorm.  For what it’s worth, Midwest sushi shouldn’t be a priority when you’re cash-strapped, political econ will take you days to complete and YEARS to understand, and boots would have been a better choice.

We also made dumb decisions about who was safe to drink with.  We made dumb decisions about what we should drink.  We made dumb decisions about how much we should drink.  In fact, we were so good at making these dumb decisions that my friends and I shared a cocktail dress we called “the mistakes dress”.  If one of us was wearing it that weekend, it was guaranteed she’d throw up in it, make out with a gross frat boy in it, or fall down the stairs in it.  It was guaranteed.  You could win millions betting on this dress.  And yes…despite it’s nickname, we still kept wearing it.  Was it really that cute?  I’m afraid to look back at pictures.

The thing is, despite our dumb decisions, despite the nights where I drank cups of god-knows-what at god-knows-whose houses, despite choosing to wear a dress we literally called THE MISTAKES DRESS, we still deserved to be safe.  We deserved every bit of the hangovers and embarrassment the next morning, but we never deserved sexual assault or harassment.  Being in a cute clubbing dress did not mean that we were looking to hook-up.  It did not mean that you had any right to touch us without asking.  Being in that dress did not mean that we were “asking for it.”  All it meant was that we had a dress with a silly name that we all liked to wear.

So often when women and femmes are sexually assaulted, the first question asked is “what were they wearing?” If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m here to tell you that this question doesn’t matter.  Whether you’re in your pajamas, workout clothes, a snowsuit, or the mistakes dress, you haven’t consented to anything.  My dress is not consent.  That is as true today as it was all those years ago in college.  Unless I’m verbally consenting, I’m not “asking for it.”

We need to be a culture that values and expects consent.  We need to respect everyone, even the young women in college who are just figuring things out.  Be the person who speaks out against this harmful rhetoric.  Be the person that speaks up for a friend in a vulnerable position.  Respect consent and expect others to do the same.

Sorry Not Sorry

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Public apologies: the quickest way to say you’re sorry without having to actually show any remorse. We’ve seen a slew of public apologies since the #MeToo movement began, but if we think back, we can see they’re really nothing new.  It seems a right of passage for those in the public eye to commit some sort of faux pas and almost, but not quite, apologize for it.

In a BBC comedy video (LINK), Rachel Parris gives some tongue-in-cheek advice about how to craft a good “I’m sorry.”  She highlights some of the common “missteps” we hear these fauxpologies for: racism, calls for police brutality, and sexual assault. What could, in fact, be considered hate crimes, calls for state-sponsored terrorism, and criminal activity, are instead swept under the rug in a gentle “sorry, not sorry” apology.

Ms. Parris discusses the three main types of public “apologies”: 1. “It was taken out of context;” 2.”I’m sorry I used upsetting language;” and 3. “If I did that, I’d be sorry.” It’s easy to see why these aren’t real apologies at all.  There’s no context that justifies abusive language or jokes.  The language isn’t usually the problem; the actions are. Finally, if you’re offering a conditional apology, it’s no apology at all. Apologies without accountability are just empty words.

Our willingness to forgive and forget, particularly for powerful abusers, allows abuse to continue to thrive and for victims to feel silenced and re-traumatized.  Look at any interview with Ray Rice after video surfaced of him knocking his then-fiance unconscious to see what an apology looks like from an abuser who is only sorry he got caught.  Listen to Ms. Parris talk about Kevin Spacey to hear what a serial sexual abuser sounds like when forced to face his past.  Listen to the countless non-apologies we’ve heard over the years and wonder how we, as a society, haven’t gotten any better.

It’s time we starting expecting better apologies.  And it’s time we started demanding accountability.  It’s time we started seeing changed behavior not just nice words.

#MeToo, Madigan

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Timothy Mapes Harassment Scandal (LINK)

Does the #MeToo movement still matter?  Haven’t we talked about this enough?  Surely everyone knows and understands how unacceptable sexual harassment in the workplace is by now!

If you’re like many Americans, you’ve heard these questions.  Maybe you’ve even asked them yourselves!  Harvey Weinstein is facing charges for sexual harassment and assault.  Al Franken was forced to resign!  There’s only one, not two, US presidents facing allegations of sexual assault (Bye Kevin Spacey!).  Surely this means we’ve made progress!

Well, if you’re wondering if the #MeToo movement is still relevant, just look at the news coming out of Illinois.  Timothy Mapes, ex-chief of staff to IL political powerhouse Mike Madigan, is out of a job after a sexual harassment scandal and all he has left to his name is a $130,000 buy-out and a $134,000 lifetime pension.  Hard luck for him but you’ve got to pay the piper, friend-o. In fact, if the charges are proven in court (and when has a case of sexual harassment against a powerful politician ever failed?!), he could face a hefty $5,000 maximum fine. Talk about consequences!

No one could look at this case and think that they could get away with similar behavior.  It’s nice to know we are finally starting to hold these powerful abusers accountable.

Oh wait…