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.

Sexual Assault and Homelessness: A Vulnerable Population

Over half a million people are experiencing homelessness on any given night here in the United States, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  People experience homelessness due to a variety of different factors such as a lack of affordable housing, poverty, a lack of employment opportunities, the decline in available public assistance, serious mental illness, and a lack of affordable health care if themselves or a family member becomes ill.

Once a person is experiencing homelessness, he or she is now living in a dangerous environment where their basic needs such as shelter, food, and clothing are no longer being met.  They also struggle with where to shower, brush their teeth, use the bathroom, and other hygiene processes that those of us who are housed often do not think about.  To attend to all of these basic needs while also looking for the limited affordable housing and employment that is available makes all of these decisions and tasks all the more stressful and overwhelming, which only makes getting out of homelessness even more difficult for the individual or family.

Not only do women experiencing homelessness have all of this to deal with, but the condition of homelessness itself also dramatically increases women’s risk of being sexually assaulted.  Women on the streets do not have the same level of safety provided to them as women who are housed under a roof.  Ninety-two percent of women experiencing homelessness report having experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives.  Over 66 percent of these women experienced severe physical violence from a caretaker, and 42 percent had been sexually assaulted during childhood.  Sixty percent of women experiencing homelessness report having been abused by the age of 12.  This type of childhood trauma can be a factor in how someone began experiencing homelessness, and can potentially contribute to mental health conditions such as PTSD or the risk of substance abuse, which only makes it more difficult to escape homelessness with limited social services.

At Our VOICE we recognize that women experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to violence, and we hope to better serve this community.  Zac has recently joined the Our VOICE team as our new Outreach Counselor, which means that he goes out and tells underserved populations about our services and he provides counseling services to those that are interested.  We also realize that it could be very difficult to process these issues in counseling if you are worried about where you are going to sleep that night, or when you will eat your next meal.  For that reason, our Client Services Coordinator, Jerry, is expanding case management services here at Our VOICE.  He helps connect clients to outside resources such as food, housing, and transportation to assist people with all of the other complicated issues that they may be dealing with when they come here for counseling.  There is still a great deal to do to end both homelessness and sexual violence, but we will continue to strive to better serve this vulnerable population.

-Jerry is the Client Services Coordinator at Our VOICE

    References:

1. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Housing and homelessness in the United States of America: 2014.
2. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. No safe place: Sexual assault in the lives of homeless women: 2011.
3. Browne, Angela, and Shari S. Bassuk. “Intimate violence in the lives of homeless and poor housed women: Prevalence and patterns in an ethnically diverse sample.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 67.2 (1997): 261-278.

Only YES means YES: Navigating the waters of consent education

I teach a lot of students about the root causes of sexual violence and consent. The other day I was in a high school classroom and I said something to the effect of “the absence of NO does not mean YES. Consent must be a verbal agreement between both people.”

Immediately I saw a student’s hand go up. The simple question they asked has been on my mind since then. “What if the person cannot verbally say YES?” Now, I know that those that are deaf or unable to audibly express themselves can certainly give enthusiastic consent in other ways besides verbally. However, this question got me thinking about the ways we teach about sexual violence and consent and how we can begin to make this type of education more culturally specific, contextual and sensitive.

Each time I go into a classroom I learn something new from students and while I know we can always improve as prevention educators, here are a few things I think are important to address:

Power dynamics
Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within a complex social structure that benefits some social groups more than others. All forms of violence, sexual violence included, are buttressed by a foundation of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and many other types of power over that drive, normalize and make perpetration socially acceptable.

While conversations about power dynamics can be challenging to bring up in the classroom, they are extremely necessary. Power, control and entitlement are the main motivators of all forms of sexual violence. These conversations should be the foundation for dismantling systems of oppression, transforming social norms and creating a culture of consent.

Intersectionality
Intersectionality has become such a buzzword of late. It has become a buzzword, however, precisely because of its importance to social justice and social change. Statistics prove that people with more intersecting oppressed identities are more likely to experience sexual assault and violence. Starting at a perspective that allows us to understand that each individual has been shaped by society in unique ways based on their complex identities, allows us to:

  1. 1. Acknowledge each persons’ experiences as true and valid for them, and to
  2. 2. Recognize the need to describe oppressions as interconnected phenomena that cannot be examined separately

Our prevention programming should aim to engage students in conversations about intersectionality, because it translates directly to students’ lived experiences.

Language
As Prevention Educator, the language I use in the classroom when talking about sexual violence and consent is extremely important. For example, I cannot say, “verbal agreement,” and end the conversation there, when I know not everyone who is capable of consenting to sex is able to make a verbal agreement. I can engage and challenge the students with language by saying, “consent needs to be an enthusiastic, verbal agreement between two people. But what are some ways those who cannot verbally express themselves might express consent?”

Language and the ways we use it is one of the main ways we become blinded by our privileges. As educators, we will inevitably make mistakes with language over and over and over again. But it is okay; breathe. By acknowledging, learning from, and integrating those language considerations we can include and empower more students each time we teach.

Involving youth
This one may seem like a no brainer; of course we want to involve youth in consent education. But what I mean, is for sexual violence and consent education to be truly transformative, we must engage young people in what is important to them. This of course is easier said than done, but it all starts with listening.

Listening is the first thing we teach advocates working with survivors of sexual assault. It should also be the first thing we learn as educators. Listening to the lived experiences of young people and validating those experiences without judgment can be a powerful stepping stone to preventing violence and shifting social norms.

Focus on the perpetrators
Finally, the bottom line for prevention education is to shift attitudes and behaviors and this involves a lot of undoing conditioning around victim blaming. Our focus on prevention needs to be understanding predatory behavior and stopping perpetration of violence. Our culture’s focus on victim behavior, language, dress and actions creates shame and guilt for survivors of sexual violence. Through education we can empower students and community members to recognize perpetrator behavior and stand up and speak out against it.

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Much more could be said about education for the prevention of sexual violence and the creation of a culture of consent. We still need a lot of research around consent education, bystander intervention, perpetrator psychology and other topics related to the field. There are still some big, complex questions that require deep reflection and analysis. How is consent truly negotiated between two people willing to engage in sexual activity? Can those in marginalized positions truly give their consent? While sitting with these huge questions, it is comforting to know and be able to teach young people that no one deserves to be raped, that everyone has the right to decide when, how and with whom to have sex, and that anyone who has experienced sexual assault has options for healing available to them.

–Matt is the Prevention Education Coordinator at Our VOICE.