Our bodies, Ourselves (Also, our snacks)

3 02 2011

Last night, we packed up the scented candles and snacks (my goodness, my girls love ranch dressing) one last time. It was our final teen girls’ group.

SocialJerk, you said you weren’t going to cry.

OK, I’m back.

We did the things you usually do when terminating (my, that word sounds kind of harsh) with a group. The girls did evaluations. We reminisced. We talked about what went well, what could have gone better. And we asked the girls what they learned.

They had a lot to say. A lot about confidence, and self-esteem, and making friends. But one thing stuck out to me.

“I learned that I can say ‘no.’ Like, that people should listen to it.”

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, I know. And this girl had definitely heard before that she has a right to her boundaries, and that people should respect them.

But still. This was something important, that she credited group in helping her with.

Weeks earlier, we had a rather memorable sex ed chat with the girls, which was spread over two sessions. A lot of the second week was spent talking about the right to say no. Is “no” ever not enough? Can you ever sacrifice that right?

Some of the girls thought that you can. Quite easily.

We asked the question, “If a girl is wearing something sexy, and she’s assaulted, does she have the right to go to the police?”

Why was I so naive to think that this wouldn’t be a debate?

Almost all of the girls thought that a girl dressed “too sexy” was at least partly to blame for her assault. My co-leader and I challenged this assumption. We talked about self-control. Why are we constantly degrading men, acting like they’re dogs who can’t help but hump anything that will hold still for long enough? It seemed like these girls legitimately thought that a man could not be expected to have any restraint if he saw a woman showing too much skin.

I then pointed out how subjective “too sexy” is. Have you ever seen footage from Afghanistan? Saudi Arabia? They would be scandalized by you showing your arms, your ankles, your neck. Does your grandma ever think your clothes are too revealing, when you know they’re exactly what everyone else is wearing? OK, so how could one possibly regulate this?

“Well, maybe the guy AND the girl should go to jail.”

Oh, dear.

One girl (there’s always one) looked at the rest like they were crazy. “I don’t show off my body, but no one has a right to touch you if you don’t want them to.”

Thank God for you!

The other girls came around a bit. And I think they will continue to. I’m glad they were exposed to some different ideas. It’s important to challenge those immediate assumptions, because people really just don’t realize how silly the knee-jerk reaction is. Oprah showed us all when she interviewed Trisha Meili, “the Central Park jogger,” who was raped while out jogging. She asked her what she was doing in the park at that hour, alone?

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have thought it. “It’s terrible what happened, don’t get me wrong. But what was she doing in that area/out at that hour/walking alone/going home with that guy/drinking that much/dressing like that?”

Um, she was probably looking for someone to assault her horribly. I mean, obvi.

We need to teach girls that they have control over their own bodies. That they have rights, and are entitled to their boundaries. That their bodies are not on loan.

A lot of us have been hearing about HR 3, a charming bit of legislation that would make it more difficult for low-income women to have Medicaid pay for their abortions in cases of rape.

Stay classy, Republicans (and one Democrat.)

They want to limit Medicaid funded abortions to cases of “forcible rape.” You attorneys out there will recognize the term “forcible rape” from your second year law class, “Legal Terms That Do Not Exist and In Fact Make No Sense.”

All rape is forcible. What they’re saying here is, you weren’t really raped. Unless a stranger jumped out of the bushes and assaulted you while you were walking to the library in a safe neighborhood at a reasonable hour, preferably while you were wearing a nun’s habit, it simply doesn’t count. Saying “no” isn’t enough. You are not in charge of your own body.

I don’t delude myself into thinking that my girls are C-Span junkies, hanging on John Boehner’s every word. But they are getting this message. It’s a part of our culture.

And let’s bear in mind, in our work, that this is something we need to challenge. Making sure that women are aware that they have agency over their lives and bodies is crucial to what we’re trying to do. The idea that one of these girls, my girls, could be victimized in the future, or think of how they’ve been victimized in the past, and see it as something they brought on themselves, breaks my heart.

Which is enough to get me preparing for our next group already. I’ll get the ranch dressing.

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8 responses

3 02 2011
cb

Sounds like fantastic work you are doing. Really interesting and useful stuff. I don’t understand the problem with supporting abortion and find it offensive that there is some kind of standard and archaic morality which affects the right to medical care and attention.
That is my worry about the influence of religion in politics to be honest.
Feminism has a long way to go but we’ll keep fighting the fight!

3 02 2011
socialjerk

Thank you! I love doing teen groups. Watching the girls learn from each other is incredibly cool.

Yeah, it’s pretty shocking and offensive how much we think women’s right to health care should be up for debate. Especially the “not with my tax dollars!” line. My taxes pay for lots of things I don’t agree with (I think there was a war I heard about at some point…) but that’s the way things go. And to try to tell people that they weren’t really raped, in order to save money, is beyond disgusting.

4 02 2011
Doris

I too get disgusted at people blaming the victim when a rape occur. For Pete’s sake, a raped woman is the victim, regardless of how she was dressed, or how drunk she was, or how late it was…

One thing however. I do warn my teen stepdaughter about the risks of an assault. I believe girls should learn “preventive” measures.

Good post.

Doris

4 02 2011
socialjerk

I knew someone would bring this up :)

I do agree with you. We did talk to the girls about safety. We didn’t get much into tips about what they should and shouldn’t do, because they really have a good handle on that. But we definitely explained that not blaming the victim does not mean not being cautious. I would really like some of our male workers to talk with the bits about prevention-not just “no means no,” but really talking about what that means, and listening to whoever they’re with.

I had a moment of clarity over the summer, regarding this topic. I was lounging around my (un-air conditioned) apartment in well over 100 degree heat at around 10:30 pm. I realized that I had forgotten to pick up my prescription, so I ran out to the 24 hour pharmacy. As I was walking back, alone, late, in my short shorts and tank top, I realized that if anything did happen to me, I would be blamed. I could just hear it. “Why would a young woman be out at that hour, dressed like that?” Because it was super hot out, and I forgot to hit up CVS in the daylight. It’s so eye opening to realize how many times it could have been you. I think trying to figure out that the victim did “wrong” makes a lot of people feel better-well, ok, I’ll just never be that dumb! But of course, we all know it’s not that simple.

Thanks for reading and commenting! And sorry for the rambling!

6 02 2011
Astrid

I find this a fascinating post. I think it’s true that ideally “no” should be enough, and victims are never to blame for sexual assault. But in the real world, “no” is often not enough, and therefore it is important to learn about protecting yourself. That doesn’t mean it’s your fault for being raped, becasue in many cases, whatever you do, it’s not enough to prevent rape, and the perp will always find an excuse anyway. By the way, H.R. 3 sucks. IWith “forcible rape” now being put on the books as something different from, well, “consensual” rape (?), what will the consequences be for prosecution of rape? ‘m really glad I don’t live in the U.S.

6 02 2011
socialjerk

I am disgusted H.R. 3 for so many reasons. Fortunately they have dropped the “forcible” language, () but that means that even though we are no longer talking about reducing abortion access for rape victims, we are talking about reducing it for poor women.

The reason that we went over the “no” and setting boundaries topics so much was that most of the girls I work with have been victimized. But in no case has it been a stranger lurking, or a random attack. It was a family member, or friend, or a mother’s boyfriend. It was someone who made them feel that they didn’t have the right to say no, and that they shouldn’t listen to the signs that they were getting from their own bodies. Because of this, we really wanted to drive the message home that it’s always OK to say no, and that they don’t owe anybody anything.

Thanks for reading!

7 02 2011
MH

Ah, yes, how awful it is to degrade men by expecting them to be unable to control themselves. (How’s it feel, bitches? Just kidding. Mostly.)

Actually, it’s a really great point, though.

I would love to see you go back and forth with this guy: http://toysoldier.wordpress.com/

Also, just a little post script from an attorney – there are quite a few different kinds of rape. Forcible rape can be contrasted with, say, statutory rape – which may in some instances not involve any kind of coercion at all, depending on the circumstances.

7 02 2011
socialjerk

It’s a degrading message to send to everyone. Girls, you bring it on yourselves, because those boys are damn animals with no self-control. I think humanity can do a bit better than that.

I would write more about men and boys, but, like I’ve said, I don’t work with many. All of my families are female headed, and teenage boys are a rarity in the office.

And I’m glad to have you on my legal team :) I’m aware that there are different classifications of rape. My understanding was that what is considered “force” varies widely enough that the term is not really meaningful. What people tend to consider the “real, rape-y rapes,” are rare. Statutory rape is incredibly common, as is rape with all sorts of coercion. That’s what I usually see in my work. Statutory rape might not involve real coercion. I’ll certainly agree that there are better ways for law enforcement to spend their time, rather than going after a 19 year old who sleeps with his 16 year old girlfriend. But those kinds of cases being prosecuted also seem to be rather rare. At least in the population I work with–it’s generally known that it’s going on, but nothing is done. The same is true for almost all of the sexual assaults we work with. A majority of the women and girls I work with have been sexually abused (a small sample, but still mind-boggling and enraging) but none have had any kind of legal involvement. That’s why we try to focus on what we can actually make a difference in: understanding and enforcing your own boundaries, and feeling good enough about yourself to think that people should listen to you.

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