Thursday, March 31, 2011

South Africa's Rape Culture - Should We Care?

South Africa, has a problem with rape so pervasive and multifaceted that when you hear about the statistics or the horrible examples it's pretty close to mandatory to block out the subject and think about something else.

One in three men admit to rape and twenty-five percent of women are willing to say they are victims despite the shame.  Reuters offers a frequency statistic so shocking, you might find it unbelievable:
South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world, including child and baby rape, with one person estimated to be raped every 26 seconds, according to aid groups and local organizations.
How did this situation happen?  What can be done to turn this culture of rape around to a culture of respect between the sexes?  What can we, who are not in South Africa but have our own rape cultures on a smaller scale, learn from looking to South Africa?

Like most overwhelming social malfunctions, the South African rape epidemic has multiple factors.  You might even call them tributaries or streams flowing together and joining into a big flood of misery.  One player is the South African policy of apartheid, which harshly divided the country on racial lines.  Jobs for black Africans, when available, were located far away from where blacks were allowed to live, money was marginal, social services and education nonexistent.  Tribal family structures and support gave way to children in rags, underfed, with nobody but grandma to parent in what passes for home.

Another player is HIV.  The first white South Africans were diagnosed with AIDS in 1982, the first black in 1987.  At first, it seemed that, with international help, South Africa would have the same HIV/AIDS experience as the rest of Africa, but ignorance, denial, and political maneuvering let the virus penetrate deeply into family structures.

Amid the ignorance, much of it spread by the government, was the belief that sex with a virgin cures HIV/AIDS, a big contributor to the child rape statistics quoted above from Reuters - the article vividly describes the risks of being a black South African child today.

As in other parts of the world, where there are extreme stressors and families are destroyed, young men form gangs as substitute families, and the prevailing culture in those gangs is macho, entitled, seeing women and girls as property and objects of status.  "When I raped my cousin," one 14-year-old says, "I didn't know I was going to get AIDS, and I didn't know that it was rape."

Veteran journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the best description of the problems and potential solutions in this two-part piece for NPR.  She interviewed Romi Sigsworth with the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation about her study of rape investigations and prosecutions in Part 1.  Part II describes the effort of South African social workers to make some inroads, especially with young teen boys.

What about the boys?  Are they motherless monsters?  How do you turn this flood of entitled, socially-desperate rage against women back into humane relationships and hopefully a new generation of families?  This article in the Mail&Guardian Online is probably in the right track, describing the story of a young man who at 15 raped a younger girl, and grew up regretting it, now working for an NGO with many levels of projects for social change around South Africa. 

Why this article and not a different approach?  Dumisani Rebombo's story is about him taking responsibility for what he did and allowing himself to feel badly about it, not about social forces that may have cruelly set him up to make the choice to rape.  

Rape is a totally preventable, human-on-human power violation that may happen in the context of a great lake of violence, entitlement, and social rage, but ultimately is composed, like a lake, of individual acts, which like drops of water, can be remixed and redirected.  

Rape does need to be prosecuted - it is a crime.  Rapists do need to be punished.  Women need to tell.  But rape only stops when individual boys and men are allowed to be manly without being vicious, and when they are told it's okay by peers and those they admire to help and befriend women instead of hurting them.

Should we care?  I hope you agree that we should.  Where you live, where I live, there may not be anybody advocating raping a child to cure or prevent AIDS, but the macho culture is alive and well, male privilege and entitlement pops up in the strangest places.  What if we all reach out to the boys and young men we know and redirect a warped attitude toward women, offer an alternative to macho of mutual respect and equality.  Anything is possible.  Give it a try where you are.

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Small Voices" Cartoon - Options

If this makes sense to you, wear it on a t-shirt.  Pick your own color and style.  See more cartoons and dark, woman-centered art at my Red Bubble Store where you can design your own stuff with my images.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What You Should Know About STDs

If you and your partner are nice people, why do you need to know anything about sexually transmitted diseases?  On the other hand, if you are more of a freewheeling, hookup kind of girl, why not deal with it if it ever comes up rather than ruining a perfectly good half hour reading about something that might not ever happen?

Because germs are way more opportunistic than you can imagine, and they are also in more places and more varieties than you probably know about.

STDs are a natural phenomenon, just like earthquakes and tsunamis, and just as quickly as those Big Earth events can interrupt lives, a small, personal event like a potential STD could be staring you in the face (so to speak).

Start your mental knowledge emergency kit is with this quiz from WebMD  Called the STD Name Game, the quiz will throw you a scenario to see if you can guess the STD that might be involved.  Then, thankfully, there is information about what to do, what tests and treatments are available.  You are sure to learn something - maybe that you are a bit rusty on this STD stuff.

What about oral sex?  It obviously isn't safe sex, but what are the risks?  Since oral sex is often "get acquainted before we do the real thing" sex, this article, titled "Four Things You Didn't Know About Oral Sex," deserves a look.

But what good is this information if you don't know how to talk to your partner - new or old - about the risks to you both from those ever-present germs and viruses transmitted during intimate contact?  This article, "Protect Yourself," will give you the what and how to talk about it all.  All you have to come up with is the courage.

Hard to do?  Yes, but your health and your life are at stake.  You deserve a wonderful, satisfying, SAFE sex life.  Don't settle for less.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How Dangerous Is Your Partner?

Q:  What do you mean by "dangerous"?
A:  I mean, what is the likelihood that the person closest to you in your life is a candidate to go from annoying, wearisome, irresponsible, moody, emotionally too cold or too hot, unfaithful, etc. to being actually a hazard to your sanity and your life?

Q:  I don't think my partner would ever deliberately hurt me.  The incidents we've had are just over-reactions, times when he's been under a lot of stress or drinking a lot.  He's always so sorry afterwards and I know he loves me.  Don't all relationships have ups and downs, rough periods?
A:  Depends on what you mean by "ups and downs".  When you are in the midst of a relationship with someone you love, it can be very hard to get perspective on what is going on.  Things can slowly get worse and worse, but we have a way of adapting that makes it hard to see how far things have gone.

To get some perspective on negative side of your relationship with your partner, it is important to know two things:  First, abuse can take many forms and almost every abusive relationship includes a pattern of various abuses rather than the occasional BIG incident.  People inside and outside the relationship tend to focus on the BIG incidents, which may not happen very often.  The greater portion of abuse of one partner by the other varies in type, in intensity, and the person on the receiving end is encouraged not to complain or "make a big deal" out of anything.  Months and years pass, and the victim becomes more and more discouraged, resigned, and helpless.

Here's a quick list of signs that you are in an unhealthy or unsafe relationship.  How many apply to you?

The second thing to know is that there are checklists which can indicate what is important in your situation - important in that your safety and sanity may be at risk.  These checklists have been compiled by social scientists who looked at large numbers of domestic abuse situations that have had bad outcomes (homicide, serious injury) to find out what was going on in them before the crisis occurred.

The Danger Assessment at this link was developed at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and is used all over the United States to help alert people about what is dangerous in a relationship and what is less likely to be dangerous.  I encourage you to take a look, and check off what applies to you.

Additionally, there is a printable calendar you can use to track what goes on in your relationship.  Far from being a throw-away task, you might see for the very first time that the "ups and downs" have a pattern, and that the pattern is possibly escalating in severity or varieties of insults and incidents.

Sample questions include:
  • Do you have a child that is not his?
  • Has he ever tried to choke you, either in anger or during sex?
  • Has he ever threatened or tried to commit suicide?
  • Does he follow or spy on you, leave threatening notes or messages on answering machines, destroy your property, or call you when you don't want him to?
WNL:  The more you know about yourself and your partner, the better decisions you can make.  Looking at unpleasant things in your relationship can be a big step towards living the life you want, in love and safety.

(Thanks to the Hartford Courant newspaper for the image above.  Unfortunately, no artist credit was available.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Charlie Sheen's Invisible Women

Charlie Sheen acting out, decompensating, losing it, making a fool of himself once again is hardly news.  But there is something newsworthy in the midst of it all, and op-ed writer Anna Holmes has put her finger on it in this piece for The New York Times.  Where, she asks, are the women, wives, girlfriends, porn stars, hookers, whomever, who are the inevitable accompaniment to Sheen's felonious antics, in these stories?  Nowhere, invisible!

After recounting a list of specific women and law enforcement-worthy incidents with Sheen front and center, Holmes has this to say:
"The privilege afforded wealthy white men like Charlie Sheen may not be a particularly new point, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are endlessly derided for their extracurricular meltdowns and lack of professionalism on set; the R&B star Chris Brown was made a veritable pariah after beating up his equally, if not more, famous girlfriend, the singer Rihanna. Their careers have all suffered, and understandably so.
"This hasn’t been the case with Mr. Sheen, whose behavior has been repeatedly and affectionately dismissed as the antics of a “bad boy” (see: any news article in the past 20 years), a “rock star” (see: Piers Morgan, again) and a “rebel” (see: Andrea Canning’s “20/20” interview on Tuesday). He has in essence, achieved a sort of folk-hero status; on Wednesday, his just-created Twitter account hit a million followers, setting a Guinness World Record.
And what's behind the gratuitous indulgence we accord Sheen.  Anna Holmes has some very astute suggestions which should be of interest to those of us who are the women bystanders and observers of this madness.  "The women" she points out "are of a type, which is to say, highly unsympathetic. Some are sex workers — pornographic film stars and escorts — whose compliance with churlish conduct is assumed to be part of the deal. (For the record: It is not.)"
“Gold diggers,” “prostitutes” and “sluts” are just some of the epithets lobbed at the women Mr. Sheen has chosen to spend his time with. Andy Cohen, a senior executive at Bravo and a TV star in his own right, referred to the actor’s current companions, Natalie Kenly and Bree Olson, as “whores” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Tuesday. Arianna Huffington sarcastically tweeted that Mr. Sheen’s girlfriends “symbolize modesty, loyalty and good taste.” Mr. Sheen’s own nickname for Ms. Kenly and Ms. Olson — “the goddesses” — is in its own way indicative of their perceived interchangeability and disposability.

It’s these sorts of explicit and implicit value judgments that underscore our contempt for women who are assumed to be trading on their sexuality. A woman’s active embrace of the fame monster or participation in the sex industry, we seem to say, means that she compromises her right not to be assaulted, let alone humiliated, insulted or degraded; it’s part of the deal. The promise of a modern Cinderella ending — attention, fame, the love and savings account of a rich man — is always the assumed goal.

Objectification and abuse, it follows, is not only an accepted occupational hazard for certain women, but something that men like Mr. Sheen have earned the right to indulge in. (Mr. Sheen reportedly once said that he didn’t pay prostitutes for the sex; he paid them “to leave.”) One can’t help but think that his handlers might have moved more quickly to rein in their prized sitcom stallion if his victims’ motivations weren’t assumed to be purely mercenary. (Or if they enjoyed parity and respect with regards to their age, influence and earning power.)
WNL comments:  Anna has more to say - I hope you will take the time to read her entire op-ed.  Her clear and analytical voice is much needed in the midst of the current media frenzy and the public ogling and apathy it evokes in us.

Sheen is an abusive, violent, dysfunctional jerk some of the time, but not all the time.  He can be charming, charismatic, and generous.  You can be sure that the women, of whatever "type", who have become his girlfriends, wives, and lovers over the years  fell in love with the "good guy" and were truly horrified when he morphed into an attacker.  Intimate partner abuse, domestic violence, is devastating and is NEVER deserved.

(NYT article illustration above by Ruth Gwily)