Soap on a Rope, Slippery Slope?

Witty banter, catch phrases, and prison rape jokes are common rhetoric in our society. So I ask, is the image and joke soap on a rope, a slippery slope? Are we encouraging, condoning and finding sexual violence funny? The roaring laughter that inevitably follows suggests that a tool used to reduce risk of sexual assault while incarcerated is found hysterical. Yet, this kind of humor encourages sexual violence, especially for individuals who are detained for various reasons. Social media, movies, and music sensationalize and draw attention to the issue of prison rape. What is rarely portrayed are the long term effects of sexual assault. Experiencing sexual violence is a devastating event in anyone’s life and the effects of sexual violence on inmates is exacerbated by powerlessness, facing their attacker on a daily basis, and limited to no resources or support following the assault.

The perpetuation of prison rape culture further silences survivors of sexual assault, condones violence, and dehumanizes the invisible members of our community, inmates. No person deserves to be sexually assaulted, regardless of their criminal history. Sexual assault should not be a part of their sentence, and flagrant disregard of the issue can easily be viewed as cruel and unusual punishment.

Nearly two million people in the United States are incarcerated at any given time. Twelve million admissions occur each year, and the jail and prison system can often act as a revolving door. Nearly 200,000 incidences of sexual assault are reported each year occurring in the detention facility. The most alarming fact is that this is comparable to the number of women reporting sexual assault each year in the general public. A large majority of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, and many have not yet been found guilty of any crime but are incarcerated while awaiting trial.

To truly call ourselves advocates for ending sexual violence we must expand our views and afford services and attention to all victims of sexual assault, as there are no bad victims. No one asks to be sexually assaulted. All humans should have the right and control over their own personal bodies and space. Instead of viewing inmates as social pariahs, see them as your fellow man, parent, sibling, neighbor, or best friend. Legislation has been passed to afford rights and services to these invisible community members. It’s known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Change your rhetoric, educate yourself, and as you advocate for social issues, whether it be Cecil the lion, racial issues, or issues pertaining to gay rights, remember everyone’s rights and safety matter, and as a community we are responsible for the conditions and our attitudes. So yes, soap on a rope, is a slippery slope. The conditions of our communities are a direct reflection of our consciousness.

–Heather is the Volunteer Coordinator at Our VOICE.

Promoting the Positive: Prevention Education

I often think about how to promote the positive in my life—eating healthy, getting outside and being active, and building healthy relationships with my family and friends. When you work at a Rape Crisis and Prevention Center you have to be very intentional about making more space for the good things than the bad things. Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean ignoring the reality that people I love, people in my community are experiencing sexual violence at alarming rates and that violence has a huge effect on their health.

As a prevention educator and someone who is known for working at Our VOICE, people often ask me: “How can I have (or continue) these conversations with people who are important to me, who are uncomfortable with or don’t want to have these conversations, without alienating them?”

I believe the best answer to that question is to promote the positive. Some of my friends and family may not be interested in or comfortable with talking about sexual and intimate partner violence or rape culture. But if I can engage the people in my life by talking about consent and the other elements of healthy relationships, I believe I am still doing my part.

If we want to get folks involved and committed to ending violence in our community and beyond we have to give folks the tools, language, and skills to create the community they desire. We cannot only say NO to what we do not want (i.e., sexual violence, rape culture, racism, transphobia, homophobia) but we have to actively decide upon and seek out what we do want in our lives and communities. Experiences of privilege and oppression play a huge role in how much ability a given person has to set boundaries and have those boundaries respected. However, as individuals we can do our personal best to communicate our own boundaries and respect others’. Modeling that kind of behavior will only help the people around us to feel safe and to reflect on their own boundaries, desires, and relationships.

For example, when I watch television shows with folks like this, I try to point out moments between characters that are consensual or demonstrate healthy communication. To be clear, conflict is a normal part of relationships. And conflict can be both healthy and unhealthy. So when I see healthy communication and conflict on TV or in movies I point it out! I say: “Wow they did such a great job working through such a difficult issue.” Or: “That was sexy/awesome/impressive… the way he just asked what they wanted and if they were comfortable!”

When I listen to songs on the radio I try do the same thing. One beautiful example of consent in a song is in Primetime by Janelle Monáe featuring Miguel, who sings, “Bang bang, I’m calling your name. You’re like a fire the world can’t tame. I wanna riot ‘til the stars come out and play. Is that okay?” Is that okay? What a beautiful example of making consent sexy and approachable. Consent and healthy communication are not easy. They both require constant learning and practice (and mistakes! Lots of awkward mistakes).

Although it can be more difficult, pointing out these moments IRL is just as important. (Apologies, I work with middle schoolers. IRL=In Real Life.) If you have a friend struggling to communicate their needs with an intimate partner, offer healthy suggestions, encourage them to feel empowered to set their boundaries. And if they try it out, give them constructive feedback. Say: “You are so brave for communicating your needs. Maybe next time you could be a little clearer about this one part. I’m so glad you feel safe to talk to your partner about this issue.”

Preventing sexual violence doesn’t have to always sound like “DON’T RAPE.” Although, duh. It can also sound like supporting the difficult processes that make up healthy sexual encounters and relationships. And as I’ve pointed out, media plays a HUGE role in modeling appropriate and acceptable (or unacceptable) behavior. Absolutely, call out sexual violence and rape culture when you see it. But let’s also celebrate the moments when our culture doesn’t fail us. When the teen show Beauty and The Beast shows a young woman communicating that her and her boyfriend will only have a healthy relationship if she is able to have alone time and time with her friends separate from him. (Not so guilty pleasure, I love YA media.)

And, if you’re into sports, celebrate the moments when athletes do the right thing. When they stand up for a cause that you believe in. When UFC Fighter Ronda Rousey tells young women and girls that they can be whatever they want outside of traditional (and often harmful) gender norms. Whatever they dream of being. Empowering individuals to live healthy, whole, authentic lives is just as much a part of dismantling the systems of privilege and oppression as holding perpetrators accountable. And this kind of empowering can feel so much less alienating (if at all) to folks who don’t think they are ready to hear about sexual violence and the necessary eradication of it.

–Erin is the Rape Prevention Educator at Our VOICE.

Our VOICE in 2016

Starting over, letting go, setting goals, resolutions and/or intentions… all very common themes for the month of January. Besides big milestones and life changes or events, January is a great time to create positive change and set measurable goals.

Here at Our VOICE, we certainly acknowledge January 1st. How each staff member recognizes the new year may look different: taking vacation/self-care, starting of a new fiscal year, approaching due dates, ending of school break, creating new Fitbit challenges, etc.; however, among all of our different personal goals and thoughts going into the new year, we all unite and share at least one intention: Ending sexual violence.

If you have ever set a goal before, then you know the importance of setting attainable goals. Nobody wants to set themselves up for failure. Right now you might be thinking: “Ending sexual violence? That’s impossible!” I will be honest, there was a time in my life when I too thought ending sexual assault and rape culture was an unreachable dream, but I am here to tell you it is not.

Wearing seatbelts felt like an impossible cultural shift. How can you change a cultural habit? Is it realistic to mandate whether people are going to wear their seatbelts or not? Well, mandates and laws are only a small step towards real change. Our language around car safety and the value we put on human lives is how our culture has shifted in relation to wearing seatbelts. Individuals decided their personal boundaries and values around wearing seatbelts, which mirrored positive behavior for young children. Those children grow up not even seeing another option; the consequences are not worth the risky behavior.

The consequences of not wearing your seatbelt can have traumatic impact on you and others, a trauma that can be prevented. Sexual violence is no different. It is 100% preventable.

Our new year’s intention is something that makes our office culture unique. We have so many dedicated and unique staff, volunteer advocates, and board members but we all share one passion. Ending rape culture and sexual violence is our common motivator, making Our VOICE driven, focused, and unstoppable.

This new space on our website is going to be a place where our staff, volunteers, board members, survivors, and community allies can share specific short-term goals, thoughts, actions, and feelings. We recognize we cannot achieve our long term goal without our community. Our blog will another forum to create thought and dialog, further connecting you to our cause and to the process of shifting our culture. Together we can end sexual violence!

—Caitlin is the Lead Counselor at Our VOICE. To learn more about our counseling services click here.