Thursday, September 03, 2015

If I Were the Mom of a Girl Going Away to School . . .

I'd have a few concerns. But I'm not a mom of a girl going away to school, I just teach personal safety skills to girls whose moms are concerned as their girls are growing into independence.

Recent headlines tell us about a young man at one of America's elite prep schools who engaged in the school tradition of "senior salute."  How that particular encounter turned into non-consensual sex and a rape charge.  The young man was convicted by a jury of one count of using the internet to have sex with a child, and three counts of misdeameanor sexual assault and child endangerment.  He was acquitted of the more serious charges of felony rape.

According to CNN's legal analyst Sunny Hostin, "the jury did not appear to believe the former prep school student's claim that there was no intercourse, but it also seemed to dismiss his accuser's testimony that it was against her will."

My focus, as a self-defense teacher, is less on the legal issues and more on what we're teaching girls, explicitly as well as implicitly.

This article from the New York Times details the young woman's testimony.  She describes a mixture of emotions during and after the assault -- of politeness and pain, then secrecy versus standing up for herself. 
“I didn’t want to come off as an inexperienced little girl,” she said. “I didn’t want him to laugh at me. I didn’t want to offend him.”
Afterward, she said, she felt physical pain and utter confusion, and blamed herself for the events; it took several days for her to tell anyone, in full, what happened.
“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless,” she said, adding, “I was telling myself, ‘O.K., that was the right thing to do, you were being respectful.’ ”
This girl's feelings of powerlessness are common among teens in this sort of situation.  Girls encounter a host of contradictory messages.  They should be polite, nice, and certainly not rude -- while at the same time keeping themselves safe.

I believe respect is a very important social grace, and it should not trump safety.

My concerns include:
  • The jury's verdict indicates that many adults still don't believe girls could be telling the truth about rape.  These jury members are also community members, and could very well be among those from whom a girl seeks advice and help.
  • The girl not being aware of other tools at her disposal to discourage and perhaps prevent the rape.
  • The girl's feelings of powerlessness over her own body.  As noted sexual health educator Amy Lang says, she should be the boss of her body
Not only should any girl expect to have her "no" respected, she should have other options in case it is not.  That's what I teach, and in self-defense classes we practice skills when unfortunately "no" isn't enough.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Do You Have Faith in Frank, Pete, and John?

I'm not a football fan.  But, because I'm not a supporter of domestic violence, I was glad to hear that both Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and manager John Schneider avowed they would never allow an abuser to play for them.

Yet here we are today, being asked by the Seahawks' new draft pick, Frank Clark, to have faith in him.

The selection of Clark as a Seahawks draft choice is dogged by charges that he struck his girlfriend, Diamond Hurt.  They got into a fight in a hotel, someone called the police, the officer determined there had been some physical violence and was obliged to arrest Clark.  Larry Stone's article in The Seattle Times lays out more of the evidence and issues, and you should take a look at that.

One quote from Stone's article bears special notice.  He cites John Schneider as saying, “I would say there are always two sides to a story. You have to go through the whole thing. You can’t just go with one police report. You have to talk to everybody involved. Everybody.”  Stone also notes that they did not talk to Diamond Hurt.  So much for everyone?

[Update Tuesday May 5: A subsequent article in today's Seattle Times revealed that those Seahawk representatives charged with investigating this incident in fact did not talk to any witnesses, of which there were several.  Except for Frank Clark.]

That is not surprising, as another article noted that Hurt didn't want to press charges.  She may have not wanted to harm Clark's nascent football career, especially in light of the Ray Rice publicity.  A very common response in abusive relationships.

Again, I don't know much about football.  But I do know something about abusive relationships and why they exist.  Abusers too often continue to abuse because they can.  It is a learned behavior, it gets them what they want, and there are often few if any meaningful consequences for them.  That's because often people around them make choices that help minimize and mask the "not-so-bad" behavior."

Renowned psychologist Paul Ekman has written, in his book Telling Lies, that intelligent people can sometimes fail to see blatant untruths because they have a vested interest in believing the lie, in "collusively helping to maintain the lie, to avoid the terrible consequences of uncovering the lie."

It can be easy to minimize abuse when the abuser is someone you like, or you think can perform well for your organization.  It can be easy to minimize a police report when that certain someone has skills you want to exploit.  Domestic violence is perpetuated not only by those doing the hitting, but by those with a vested interest in other aspects of the abusers' lives.  By those well-meaning ancillary enablers who want to give some a second (or third?  fourth?  fifth?) chance, but up teaching that abusers can get away with a LOT of bad behavior before suffering serious consequences.

We will probably never know for sure what happened that evening.  In general, however, by the time a relationship gets to physical violence, there's been a lot of power and control and manipulation happening.  And physical violence in a relationship, once it begins, happens again, and again.  As a self-defense teacher, my suggestion to students is to recognize the relationship for what it is, and plan how to keep themselves safer.

Going forward could be challenging.  The first step I’d like to see is Carroll, Schneider, and the Seahawks as an organization express accountability for their decision to draft a player who, by witness accounts, did hit his then-girlfriend.  I’d like to see them own up to not really interviewing “everybody.”   Second, I’d like to see them discuss how to hold Clark accountable going forward.  Finally, I’d like to see Clark take seriously being accountable for his behavior, which would involve being publicly honest about that evening’s events.  Because, whether or not I follow football, my community is affected by prominent public figures publicly deny abusive behavior.

Friday, March 20, 2015

You Can Dress Up Old Cheese, But It Still Stinks

I resisted watching this video for a couple of months.  Really, the first few moments of music made me want to hunker down with a glass of wine to go with the cheese.  I caved in only because a class of high school girls wanted to dissect it.  And, as I watched, the overly cute morphed into creepy.

You may have seen it — this video was all over my Facebook feed earlier this year.

“Slap Her.”  The one in Italian with boys ages 7 to 11.  An off-camera interviewer asks them a few preliminary questions, to prove they’re just regular joes (but smaller, and cute).  Name and age.  What do you want to be when you grow up, and why?  (Firefighter, baker, pizza maker — because they want to help people, make messes, like pizza.  Regular li’l joes.)

Next they are introduced to a girl.  Martina bounds into the frame.  Taller than the boys, looking more like a tween than little girl, Martina may be 11 or 13 years old.  A bit of makeup is balanced by the braces on her teeth. 

One more question is directed to the boys:  What do you like about her?  Various answers, all on appearance (well, they don’t know anything else about her since she hasn’t said or done anything, what else could they say? other than uhhhhh . . .).  Her hands, eyes, shoes, hair, . . . everything.  She is a pretty girl.

Enough with the questions.  On to commands.  The voice behind the camera tells them to caress her.  Then to make funny faces at her.  The boys comply, with varying degrees of awkwardness.

The final command: to slap her.  The cheesy music stops.  They boys look at the camera.  They seem not sure they really heard correctly.  They look at her, look at the camera, look at the camera some more.  They refuse.  And the cheesy music resumes, with the addition of a string orchestra swelling in the background.

The boys give various reasons.  Because we’re not supposed to hit girls (not even with a flower).  Because she’s pretty.  Because hitting is bad.  Because Jesus said so.  Because he’s against violence.  Because he’s a man.

Fade to text scrolling on the screen:  In the kids’ world women don’t get hit.

I really wanted to get sucked into the cuteness.  But I could not, even when accompanied by a glass of red rhone.  The “creepy” factor just overtook the “cute.”  Let’s count the ways:
  1. Martina doesn’t talk.  She giggles, behind her hand, at some point.  She is portrayed more as a Disney automaton (an object) than a real person. 
  2. Martina is an object labeled “girl.”  The boys are asked what they like about her after having first met her.  What can they say, really?  Is the interviewer leading the boys to believe that the only parts worth assessing are what’s visible?  That’s annoying.
  3. The really creepy part for me began when the interviewer told the boys to caress her.  Huh?  How about ASKING HER?  With all the media coverage these past months about “consent,” this stands out in an out-of-touch way.
  4. So by the time it got to “slap her,” I was past annoyed.  The cheese was spread thick, and no wine was cutting through that stinky layer.
But we all know that in the real world, women and girls (and boys and men, and transgender and questioning) do get hit.  Is the question we’re left to ponder how that happens?  What transpires between the magic of childhood and the mundanity of adulthood to make violence okay?  I think the structure of the video makes that clear:  both boys and girls got pigeonholed in very hetero-normative boxes, where girls are pretty objects (for boys) and not to be hit, and boys are active agents. 

The whole point of learning self-defense skills is NOT to beat up others, nor to lock yourself in an apartment cell to keep harm at bay, nor even to set up invisible impenetrable boundaries.  You learn self-defense so you can go out and meet others and travel and study and go to parties and gatherings and meet other people and make friends.  You get to pick your wine as well as the cheese, or decide whether or not you want either.  You learn skills so you can be happy and successful and expand the scope of your activities.

So you are an active agent in your life.  Anything less is cheating on yourself.


While this has the look and feel of a PSA, it is not.  This video refers viewers to, is an Italian news company (too bad I don’t know if this news company is more like the New York Times or the National Enquirer).  No references to domestic or dating violence resources are provided at the end, which diminishes the value of the video.

Here are a few other YouTube comments on this viral video.
    •    Sad that the NFL has become so susceptible to parody:
    •    Kids React had these American children watch and comment: (Lucas’ reaction to why abuse happens:  They are dumb)  These kids were also asked would girls hit boys, and some believed yes.
    •    While in India, girls were asked to slap boys:

Monday, October 06, 2014

I'm Sorry. (How Do You Like Me Now?)

One student told me that when a guy on the street bumped into her friend -- she's sure deliberately -- the friend apologized right away and asked the guy if he was OK.  I had to stop the story to make sure I heard it right.  So this guy, on purpose, almost knocked her over and SHE said sorry?  Yup, I heard it right.

Apologies carry a complicated burden.  A heartfelt apology can mend fences and relationships.  A sincere apology can save face and begin to heal hearts.  An inauthentic apology can infuriate the receiver.  And a social apology can superficially appease others and make you seem more likeable -- really?

I began to consider apologies after reading this article, where author Lindsay King-Miller describes how offering apologies has totally transformed how others relate to her.  Got some pithy quotes, too:
"So these days I apologize a lot. Everyone tells me all the time that I don't need to, that I have nothing to be sorry for, that I shouldn't be so insecure, but in between they tell me how likable I am. How personable. How pleasant. How I set people at ease.

"Apologizing is a survival skill in a society where women are penalized, personally and professionally, for being abrasive, for speaking their minds, for not smoothing their sharp edges down, for not fitting in. Apologizing is a way of saying I know I'm smart but I don't mean to be. I know I take up space but I'm trying not to. I want you to like me more than I want to be right.These are things the world demands from women. If you don't provide them, it punishes you. Before I started apologizing I heard all the time, secondhand, that people hated me. That this girl or that girl thought I was a bitch. That I was too aggressive and guys were scared of me. I never hear that anymore.

"People tell me that higher self-esteem would help me apologize less. I think No, you don't understand. I have to apologize because I can't let people know how awesome I actually think I am.  The world is not kind to women who love themselves as much as I do -- certainly not fat, queer, socially awkward girls. I am not supposed to have confidence. I am not supposed to think my opinions matter." 
Personally, I had never thought of apologizing for my opinions as a way to make others comfortable.  I despise the idea that anyone would expect me to express regret for being smart or projecting confidence.  But it happens, and consequences happen. 

King-Miller describes her younger self as brash, confrontational, emotionally needy, and sensitive.  She says she hated how people would shut her out to not deal with her intensity and neediness.  At some point, when in her 20s, she found herself apologizing for all the crying, saying that she was over-sensitive, it was no big deal. And she found that was acceptable.  And people liked her better. 

I do not know King-Miller.  I've never met her, and only know what she says about herself in this one article.  But I do know intelligent, articulate, and opinionated women -- who I would not characterize as brash, confrontational and emotionally needy -- who were too readily dismissed as abrasive when they spoke uncomfortable truths (and most truths will make someone uncomfortable).  Assertive women can get labeled aggressive. And there's a small yet vocal group of trolls who are eagerly watching to pull off-balance any women who dare to "lean in." 

I don't believe that women's only two options are to blurt bluntly or cower contritely. Yes it takes some art and energy coming up with more appropriate and effective ways of expressing myself.  I accept the fact that there always will be individuals who just will not like what I have to say, regardless of how I couch it.  And I am a native New Yorker, so there are limits on how much I'm willing to care about others' opinions.  But the article did get me thinking about how saying sorry can be used to stay safe.  

Yes, the apology can be a self-defense strategy.  It can be a tool of camouflage, of distraction, of social disguise.  It has a VERY big role as a de-escalation tactic.  In rare instances you have to chose between being right (and maybe physically hurt) and emotionally available (which may manifest as sympathetic, empathetic, or apologetic).  When you make safety your priority, learning the art of apology can pay off.  That's good self-care, an essential component of your toolkit.

To make the choice that best suits your goals, you want to have all options at your disposal.  When you have to take out your self-defense toolkit -- whether physical or verbal or emotional responses are called for -- recognize that sometimes your choices are between bad and worse.  Do you want to pick your best response, or will you let someone else will decide for you?