Violations and Vocabulary: How Policing Language Silences Victims

**TRIGGER WARNING: The following article may contain graphic depictions of sexual abuse**

By Kimberly Congdon, PhD

At this point, you’ve probably already heard of Larry Nassar. If not, see HERE. And HERE. And HERE.  There is no question that what this man did was wrong. There is no question it was criminal. There is no question it was sexual abuse, and that he deserves to be punished for unbelievably heinous crimes against children and young women. We can recognize the incredible wrongness of his actions even without delving into the fact that his position as a doctor added another element of psychological trauma for his victims. Larry Nassar is done – quite literally. His victims have proven themselves to be remarkable, brave women who will foster a new generation of remarkable, brave women. The judge who oversaw his case has become a figurehead for women’s rights. His trial was a watershed moment for feminism and equality. The questions still loom. How was something like this able to happen? How could something so obviously wrong persist for so long? How do we stop it from happening again?

There are a lot of factors that specifically enabled Nassar to abuse women for decades. Those specific issues must be addressed, and specific individuals must face consequences. But ultimately, Nassar is a symptom of a larger problem. First, we have to acknowledge that Nassar is not nearly as rare as we would wish him to be. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found more than 2,400 cases of doctors sexually abusing patients since 1999, occurring across all 50 states. At least half of those physicians still had their medical licenses as of 2016. And these numbers are guaranteed to be low, as sex abuse in all forms is chronically underreported. So Nassar is a monster, but he has a lot of company. What’s going on here?

Unpacking the issues that allow abuse of women to persist would take a lifetime.  There is, however, one thing that underlies it all, and it may not be what you think. It’s language. The words we use matter, the words we emphasize and teach matter. This is the principle of linguistic relativity. It tells us that the structure of a language affects the worldview of the people who speak it. The classic example is Benjamin Whorf’s claim that “Eskimos” have 50 words for snow. His point was that snow is very important to Inuit language groups, and that importance is reflected by the fact that they have a lot of words for it. It’s a rather basic, intuitive idea. Your culture will have many ways to discuss what’s important, few ways to discuss what is unimportant, and no words to discuss what it has no conception of at all. So what happens to a culture when we restrict the words that can be used to describe reproductive anatomy? Misogyny has stolen from women the very words they need to comprehend and assert their own bodily autonomy. And when you don’t have the words to describe your experience, when the words you do have teach you shame, when they don’t empower you and reaffirm your own bodily autonomy, how can you ever find your own voice to speak out against these atrocities?

We have allowed the words that describe reproductive anatomy to become stigmatized, under the guise of “polite” behavior. Parents teach their children euphemisms for their own body parts, students are punished for using words like “penis” and “vagina” in school (and sometimes even sex-ed teachers), and often it’s because they use them as expletives, having been taught they are inherently “naughty”. All this works together to teach kids that certain parts of their body can’t be discussed, which serves to build a barrier between our own anatomy and the ownership of it. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states and D.C. mandate sex education in schools. Only thirteen of those states mandate that the instruction be medically accurate, twenty-six states require that “the information be appropriate for the students’ age”, and ONLY TWO prohibit the program from promoting religion. This combination of factors is a recipe for disaster when it comes to language. If a program is not required to be medically accurate, students are not going to learn technical terms about their own anatomy. When we accept the fallacy that sex education has an “age appropriate” element, we allow for the introduction of shame associated with female bodies. What are we telling young girls who HAVE vaginas that they are too young for the WORD vagina? If we teach girls that they have to mature into the ownership of their own body parts, is it so surprising that men with power so easily assert their own rights to those parts over their actual owners? And if we CORRECT children who use the proper terms, if we insist on euphemisms, is it such a surprise that they’re reluctant to speak out when needed?

Larry Nassar’s victims ranged from girls as young as six to young women in their teens and early 20s. He told them that inserting his fingers into their vaginas and leaning towards them to whisper “How does that feel”, often with an erection, was medical treatment. In their victim statements, many discussed how he abused their trust, how he made them ashamed to discuss what he did, some of them still referenced shame in speaking out, in a courtroom where he had pled guilty – an open admission that what he had done was wrong – and they had no reason to be ashamed. They speak of being touched in private places, the loss of innocence, but above all – confusion. Confusion over whether what he did was wrong, confusion over who to tell. They speak of knowledge that internal pelvic floor therapies exist, and are legitimate – leading to a difficulty to distinguish legitimate treatment from sexual violation. One victim STILL questions her own interpretation of the experience, she is still unable to tell if she was being molested or treated. That kind of confusion can happen when we don’t give girls the tools to tell medicine from abuse, when we don’t teach them about their anatomy, and don’t give them the words to understand what is happening to them. Rachael Denhollander, the first accuser to file a police report and start the ball rolling against Nassar, says one of her earlier complaints was dismissed because “a 15-year-old girl thinks everything between her legs is a vagina”. The assumption that girls don’t know their own bodies was used to dismiss an accusation of forced penetration – and it worked, because so many young girls DON’T know their own bodies. The girls that did come forward in the late 90s were repeatedly told they were confused about what had happened – an easy thing to push when you’ve already robbed people of the language they need to conceptualize the event in the first place.

For years, child psychologists have been emphasizing both the importance and appropriateness of teaching children proper terms for their anatomy from Day One. It will empower them to speak out against inappropriate touching, teach body positivity, and perhaps even protect them from predators who will recognize that a child who knows the words vulva and vagina likely has parents that will discuss these subjects with them, and listen if they report abuse. Body-related shame is a real and persistent problem. We all know adults who won’t use the word penis or vagina or insist on whispering them if they must be said. People who aren’t comfortable discussing their body will struggle to tell health care providers about medical problems. They will struggle to tell sexual partners if something causes them pain or discomfort. They will be more susceptible to those who would manipulate them via that shame. And if we start by teaching kids shame about body parts, we’ll continue with shame about all language that
discusses sex. This will disproportionately hurt girls, who are made to believe that they should not want or enjoy sex, that they should not express sexual desire for fear of being labeled a slut, and that if sexual contact is forced upon them, it was somehow their own fault. In short, sex euphemisms are a tool of female oppression. We de-emphasize the importance of that anatomy and suggest there is inherent shame in those body parts since we won’t use the actual words to discuss them. This is a problem that can be overcome at home, but politicians at the local and state level who advocate for comprehensive sex education also need our support. Too much of what we learn about language happens in school for this to go unaddressed.

People who criticize women inspired to speak out during the resurgence of #metoo discuss female agency, female responsibility – they ask why women don’t say no, don’t speak out against behavior that bothers them. How can we demand women speak out when we deprive them of the language to describe what happened to them and teach them that putting it into words is shameful? We have to reclaim our vulvas and vaginas, our penises and testicles. Before we can assert autonomy over our anatomy, we have to know what to call our anatomical parts and deny that discussing our bodies is shameful or wrong.

The Women’s March welcomes all women – except Feminist Zionists?

Power To The Polls _Womens March Anniversary Event Jan 2018See the Women’s March Host Planning Committee above? I’m in that photo. I thought the Women’s March would be a great opportunity to register Millennials to come out and vote and loved the catchy “Power To The Polls” slogan thought up to entice young people to make their vote count in these midterm elections coming up. The idea of it all was punchy and persuasive.

After the 2017 Women’s March – the largest protest in the history of the United States – I felt like I was part of a sisterhood, a feminist collective voicing their needs while wearing crocheted pink hats and locking arms together across the country (and the world). To me, the only thing missing about that glorious day that we all needed so badly after enduring Trump’s election, was the presence of the real hero for many of us – Hillary Clinton.  Let’s be real. In those one million bodies holding signs and chanting in unison most of them were heartbroken to know DJT was going to be sitting in the Oval and not HRC.

Fast forward to a year later when I got the news that a local group of which I’m a member was asked to be part of a planning committee because the founding members of the Women’s March had decided to hold their anniversary event in Las Vegas, Nevada where I live. Nevada is a key battleground state and is also home to the first female Latina United States Senator (Catherine Cortez Masto), is the state with the second largest number of females in its legislature (second only to Vermont), has the 5th largest school district in the country (Clark County School District in Las Vegas), is the number one tourist destination in the world (Las Vegas), and recently was the site of the worst shooting massacre in modern US history. You can imagine my excitement. As a dedicated feminist, activist, and a staunch supporter of progressive causes, why would I have any reservations at all when it came to this opportunity? Two words.

LINDA SARSOUR. 

Seeing the Women’s March 2017 organizers giving the cold shoulder given to Hillary was a bitter pill for me to swallow, I did it knowing that Hillary herself was tweeting that she was proud of the women who were marching, who were raising their voices, who believed in racial/social/economic/political equality and justice for ALL women (the true definition of a Feminist, by the way). I did it because I saw the importance of the larger picture. I understood the strategy. This time around though, that pill is a little harder to swallow. Why? It’s those pesky two words again.

LINDA SARSOUR.

Linda Sarsour QandA Lipstick Republic Blog

Ms. Sarsour makes no secret of her disdain for Feminist Zionists. In fact,  when asked for her response to an op-ed article written by Emily Shire of the NY Times, Linda said it wasn’t possible for a person to be a Feminist AND a Zionist.  Clearly, Linda needs to brush up on her vocabulary because the definition of Zionism is not a bad thing. Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination and freedom in their historic homeland. Being a Zionist does not mean that you agree with Israeli politics or that you’re a fan of Bibi or the Likud Party or that you don’t care about Palestinian Arabs. It simply means that you believe in the things stated above and that you believe the Jewish people have a right to liberation (they have, after all, been in existence for 5,777 years without a generation passing since the Babylonians where somewhere in the world some nation or ruler hasn’t tried to lobby for their extinction) and protection. Sarsour’s misdirected and misinformed beliefs she espouses with loud vitriol have rankled me for quite some time. I decided to share some of my concerns with her at a committee planning meeting she and the other three Women’s March co-founders were at with me along with a crowd full of people.

Below is part of the transcribed version of the video/audio that was taken which is still in the process of being uploaded. 

M: It’s no secret that a lot of Jewish women felt unwelcome at the Chicago Dyke March. So my question is, what do I say to women who are hesitant to come to this Women’s March event? Are women who identify as Jewish Americans welcome? Are they going to be turned away for wearing the Star of David? Are they going to be turned away for being Zionists? What should I say to them?

Linda Sarsour: This is a domestic movement meant to bring to attention the tyranny we’re living under. This is not a moment for any community to come and invoke their political position on our campaign. We don’t talk about foreign policy. There’s been conflation by some people. Not all Jewish people are Zionists. In fact, we have included all communities in our movement. In fact, at a recent convention we just had, it was I that organized the Shabbat Friday evening. It was I that paid for the kosher meal. It was I that coordinated groups like Jews for Justice and Jewish Voices for Peace to attend. Everybody has always been included. I think it’s important for people to understand that we don’t have time in groups like this for this conversation. It’s very clear that I’m Palestinian. There’s nothing I can do about that. I’m very proud to be Palestinian. Unfortunately, that in and of itself and my very existence has created controversy just by the virtue of who I am and particular positions that directly impact me and my family.

M: So are you saying that wearing a Star of David or being a Zionist won’t make them unwelcome at the event?

Linda Sarsour: What I want to say to people is that we have a tyrant in the White House and we are being stripped of our rights and if you care about the rights of your fellow Americans then show up to this March.

*This was just one of three questions I asked Ms. Sarsour. I plan to probe more at our next meeting and then blend both video recordings to upload here on the blog. This way, readers can see and hear all the questions and answers in full. 

Her answers did nothing to allay my concerns. In fact, they compounded them for me. She completely deflected my question about the Star of David and responded by basically saying that the political positions of other communities are not meant to be heard or shown at Women’s March events. Since when was the Star of David a political position? Last time I checked it was a religious symbol. Why are attendees allowed to wear Free Palestine t-shirts and hijabs but Feminist Zionists are shut down and told they have to choose between those identities. Also, groups like Jews for Justice or Jewish Voices for Peace are about as relevant and authentic to me as Jews for Jesus or groups like BDS in representing me. For her to try to spin their participation to allyship is laughable.

Sarsour’s social media accounts are rife with her own glaring modus operandi that is illustrated flagrantly. Why is she not held to the same standards she expects of other feminists in their intersectionality? Why can she have an outspoken Muslim voice but Jews with outspoken Zionist beliefs are “invoking their political issues on the WM”?

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It would appear from Ms. Sarsour’s propaganda and behavior that she is intent on using the Women’s March as a platform for her own designs disguised as championing feminism. When author and brave victim of female genital mutilation Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke out in her book “Infidel: My Life” about crimes committed in the name of Islam, Sarsour had some very supportive (insert sarcasm here) words about the issue.

Linda Sarsour Twitter Rant _Lipstick Republic BlogCompassion and concern for all women really just radiate from Linda.  It’s evident that all views are fine as long as they are Linda’s views. Seriously though, if that’s not enough proof for you, try a quick Google search on Linda and you’ll find that she also endorses Siraj Wahaj, unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who believes homosexuality is a disease.

Linda doesn’t seem to realize that Jewish women have always been at the forefront of the both the Women’s Rights and the Civil Rights movements. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem are Jews. In fact,  It was the Women’s Movement that made Betty the proud Zionist she grew to be and spent her lifetime defending.

I know many Feminist Zionists are choosing to boycott the event in Las Vegas because of Ms. Sarsour’s stance on Zionism and interest in competing in what many call Woke Olympics. While I can certainly understand their pain and anger, I will be taking a different approach. On January 21, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada I will be at the  Women’s March: Power To The Polls. I will not let Linda Sarsour’s twisted definition of Zionism or Feminism dictate my narrative. I will not take off my Magen David. I will not be silent. Linda Sarsour does not represent me or any of my values with her support of violence or intolerance.

That’s not the sort of sisterhood I want to be a part of or the sort of feminism that I believe in – not today, not ever.

 

Whatta Dame!

Jennifer Reitman DAME Magazine _ Lipstick-Republic Blog

 

Jennifer Reitman is a lady on a mission. She wants to empower women across the country and to give voice to their concerns and issues. As the Founder of DAME Magazine, she’s uniquely poised to do so on a national scale. The content is smart, provocative, and insightful and the journalists who write for DAME are among the best and most-awarded in the industry. If the magazine itself is the vox populi of the times, then Ms. Reitman is the doyen of the playing field.

M: How did you come up with the idea for DAME?

JR:  I conceived of DAME before media outlets were digital native. I had always worked in the magazine business, and I was a voracious reader, but  I was never enamored with traditional women’s magazines. I tended to gravitate to general interest ones like Vanity Fair or men’s magazines like Esquire. I wanted great long-form journalism with a bit of lifestyle service, but women’s magazines were full of fashion and beauty or relationship tips.  At the same time, men’s magazines were obviously for men – so the voice, the lens, the perspective wasn’t meant for me. I came up with DAME as a way to satisfy the sensibilities of me and so many of my women friends.

M: What are you most proud of when it comes to being the Founder of a magazine like DAME?

JR: I’m proud of so many things, it’s hard to pin it down to just one thing – but none of them have anything to do with me being the Founder. I’m incredibly proud of my editors, and how beloved they are by our writers. And of course, the writers themselves, they’ve won awards for the work they’ve done for us.  Perhaps one of the things that moves me the most – that makes it all so meaningful, are the notes we get from readers. When we get an email from someone who tells us that they love our site or that a story moved them, well – it makes it all worth it.

M: What’s been your biggest challenge in terms of the issues you cover and the stories you tell in this current political climate?

JR: There are two.  The speed of the news cycle and picking what to focus on.  As a small site, we can’t cover everything, so sometimes there are stories that are important pegs for our features that are moving so fast that we just can’t catch up.  The second challenge is finding new angles – I think we’re good at that – but finding a unique take on a topic that almost every other site is covering can be a challenge.

M: Does it concern you that the President calls much of mainstream media fake news?

JR: Enormously. It’s hard to rank my fears with this President but his attack on one of the absolute pillars of democracy is horrifying. A free press is critical.  In less than a year, he has managed to not only erode trust in the media but also his threats are truly authoritarian.

M: Walk me through a typical workday.

JR: I wake up at about 4am and review all of the overnight or morning trending news. From there, I check in with my editors to see the status of stories. I’ll work with the entire team, social and editors, to ideate future features, new writers etc. But a large part of my day isn’t creative at all – it’s the stuff that all small business owners contend with – lawyers, insurance, accountants and daily.

M: What do you think the greatest threat is to women right now in this country?

JR: Reproductive rights. Without question. Denying women agency is a goal of the GOP and it opens the door to economic oppression, abuse, so many things.

M: Were you always a Feminist? Did your parents play a big part in that growing up?

JR: I was always a very strong female – but I don’t think I discovered true feminism until I was older and had experienced all the things in terms of sexism, inequality and the like that make feminism so important.  That said, my parents truly raised me to be a feminist even if they didn’t use that word. When I was nine years old, my mother (a Swedish national) took me to march on DC for the ERA and my father, an executive, always championed me and told me that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do as well as men.

M: When you’re not slaying dragons and defending democracy, what do you like to do in your spare time?

JR: Sleep and resist? I actually clean my house to relax or organize closets.  I try to catch up on reading. And of course, spend as much time with my two dogs as possible.

You can follow and subscribe to DAME online at www.DameMagazine.com. on their Facebook page here, or on Twitter at @DameMagazine

Dame Magazine _Lipstick-Republic blog

 

 

Rape Culture didn’t start with #MeToo

While the #MeToo movement has made successful inroads in opening up more discussions about consent and sexual assault in this country, it’s wise to remember that Rape Culture has existed here since America’s founding. What is Rape Culture, you ask? Basically, it’s a sociological concept that describes a society in which rape and sexual assault is normalized because of the social mores centered around gender and sexuality. Some modern-day examples of this include, but are not limited to: victim blaming, sexual objectification, denial of rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by sexual violence, and trivializing rape or assault.

norapeculture_Lipstick-Republic blog

One of the things that really frosts my cookies with critics of this current atmosphere is when I hear them question the timing of the victim’s reveal or accusation. It’s even more frustrating when those seeds of doubt are sown by other women. I often ask myself if these female naysayers are completely daft or deliberately obtuse. Either way, it’s maddening. Women should be rallying to help other women and to hold the line together.

It’s naïve to think that with the Fifteenth Amendment in 1919 and much later, the Women’s Movement, this kind of archaic mentality in the United States ceased to exist. Even now, with the #MeToo movement, we hear women being blamed and shamed for ruining the careers of famous men everywhere from the Silicon Valley and Hollywood to the United States government and institutions of higher education. Rape Culture reinforces the belief that women are merely property and second class citizens. It’s irresponsible and dangerous.

I find it tragic that while we encourage and applaud inspirational women like Oprah, Brene Brown, and Sheryl Sandberg, we vilify the brave victims who have survived rape or sexual assault and question the validity of their claims and agenda. Apparently, it’s too uncomfortable to have to think about heinous male behavior and it’s much easier to just subjugate women instead. Words like “hysterical” and “manipulative” to describe women in Rape Culture (the etymology of both words are not lost on me, BTW) infuriate me. They add insult to injury both literally and figuratively.

The figures from RAINN are sobering:

Out of 1,000 cases of rape, 994 perpetrators walk free. 

Two out of three cases of rape are never reported because of the victim’s fear of retaliation or that their account won’t be believed.

Lipstick-Republic blog_Rape culture Article

If another woman is telling you her story, listen. Use it as an opportunity to support her and to bear witness to her pain. Don’t dismiss or diminish what you may not understand. Encourage her to report the crime if she hasn’t already. Let her know she’s not alone.

To find out how you can do your part to help end Rape Culture check out these websites:

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)

AVP  (The Anti-Violence Project)

NSVRC  (National Sexual Violence Resource Center)

Women need our help.

I wish I could tell you that the items in this post weren’t real and that it’s just a satirical piece. Unfortunately, I can’t do that because the laws described below are VERY REAL items of legislation around the globe. I was horrified by all of them, but felt compelled to share them with you because women need to stand together to oppose this sort of tyranny.

  • In Lebanon, any man who rapes or kidnaps a woman cannot be prosecuted if he opts to marry the woman after the act is committed.
  • In terms of bequeathment, women in the country of Tunisia inherit only half of what their male siblings do when a parent dies.
  • If a man catches his mother, sister, wife, or daughter in the act of what he deems as “an illegitimate sexual act or behavior” in the country of Syria and murders her, the maximum amount of prison time he can receive is seven years.
  • In Iran, if a dispute goes to court, a woman’s testimony isn’t as valuable as a man’s in the eyes of the law. So, in especially severe or heinous cases, a minimum of four women and (only) two men must testify.
  • In Cameroon, a husband can prevent his wife from taking a job if he views it to be unfavorable to him.

FORTY-SIX countries have no laws protecting women from domestic violence. Some of them include: Algeria, Armenia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Haiti, Iran, Latvia, Kenya, Lebanon, Lesotho, Mali, Niger, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.
women worldwide _ lipstick-republic blog

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 in 3 women (that’s 35%!) on the planet are the victims of physical abuse and sexual violence. We must put an end to this brutality.

What can you do to help? Groups like United Nations (UNWomen.org) and Human Rights Watch (HRW.org) are fighting hard to help women worldwide. Check out their sites and see how you can volunteer or donate.