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.

Hey Buddy!

FB_IMG_1512986840497Michelle Aventajado wears many hats: mother, wife, daughter, entrepreneur, writer, model, product endorser, and Non-Profit Director. She grew up in New York, one of five children, the daughter of a Filipino mother and an American father. Michelle has a degree in Education from SUNY Cortland and has worked as both a teacher in the American public school system and as a camp director. In 1996, she was on vacation when she met the man who would eventually become her husband. By 2006, they had been married a few years and decided to move their young family to Manila where Michelle is currently the Director of Best Buddies Philippines

M: You are a mother of four children (two teens, a pre-teen, and a little girl). Your youngest has Down Syndrome. Was that largely the impetus for you taking the job as Director of Best Buddies Philippines?

MA: Actually, I’ve always been drawn to children and adults with different abilities. When I was in high school, my track coach ran a club called Interact. Besides shadowing professionals in our small town to explore what we wanted to study as we went on to college, the main thrust of the club was to “INTERACT” with others in the community. We volunteered weekly at one of the local group homes and spent time with its residents. In college, I pursued my degree in education because I knew it would be the perfect career to satisfy my desire to help kids and change the world one student at a time. After the birth of my fourth child, I realized that God had been preparing me for all that my baby would need for me to be as her mother. I could never explain the interest I had in this marginalized population I had until Evangelina – her name means God’s gift – was born. After the initial shock of her diagnosis wore off, I realized that Gelli (her nickname) suddenly gave the work and volunteering I was doing more purpose. I can’t say I immediately thought of “fighting the good fight” when she was born, though. My initial reaction was to take it day by day and make sure that my daughter and my family had everything they needed to adjust to our new normal. I read up on how to best care for my daughter because her birth changed the playing field. I felt like a new mom. A fish out of water. I thought I was already a pro at the parenting thing, and when she was born, I suddenly felt unprepared. I bought all the books I could get my hands on, watched videos, and read blogs of moms who were parenting a child with Down Syndrome in the States. I followed one particular blogger and credit her for changing my outlook. Kelle Hampton was the blogger who helped me see the positive side of parenting Gelli. I started blogging too. I had no idea that it would open so many doors for me in terms of identifying with other parents who might be in the same situation as myself. It was through blogging that I met Anj Onrubia. Anj has a son with Autism and she wanted to bring Best Buddies to the Philippines. She invited me to the training and the meetings and I signed on as a Program Manager for my children’s school. When Anj started planning her move to Canada, she asked me if I would consider taking on the role of Country Director. The rest is, as they say, history.

I do what I do with Best Buddies, not so my daughter can join the activities I organize but in the hopes that by the time she is of age to join them, that she will feel accepted. That she’ll have less difficulty than the children who came before she did. I do it so that when she’s of college age, she’ll have more than just two choices of schools to attend in Manila. I do what I do because I believe in our programs and hope for a better future for my precious six-year-old. I want more for her.  I want to change the world one friendship at a time through our programs in Best Buddies.

M: What has been the biggest challenge in terms of bringing awareness and education to the conversation surrounding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

MA:  Initially, the stigma. The mindset. The culture. The belief that kids and adults with IDD are less. Less capable. Less deserving. There are still families in this country who hide their children away, who are ashamed of the beautiful child they’ve been gifted.

I have a friend who is in his mid-fifties. After asking him to get involved with Best Buddies by volunteering his time to help with a PSA on “End the R-Word”, he disclosed a sad story to me from his childhood. Apparently, when he was a kid growing up here, he remembered a child with Down Syndrome who was chained to the front porch of a neighboring home. CHAINED. Like an animal. Mimi, this was only forty years ago!

M: Wow! That’s both tragic and maddening! That’s during our lifetime!

MA: Exactly. They say it takes seven generations to see the effects of how we live today (physically) in this world. I believe that it takes just as many generations to change a mindset. Just as many generations to shift the conversation and the perspective. We need that paradigm shift to happen before my daughter will be seen as someone who is counted and included in all aspects of society.

 

M: Best Buddies is in fifty countries around the world. It’s great to see the Philippines has been involved in helping spread the organization’s message since 2014. What are some of the things you have planned for Best Buddies Philippines in 2018?

 

MA: Good question. After attending recent training in Madrid, Spain, I know we’re on the right path. Best Buddies Philippines has been slowly growing our membership and chapters in both public and private schools and making changes to bring added awareness to the plight of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Also, we have an elementary school campaign that we’re hoping to launch a pilot for so that our friendship programs can begin with even younger children.

M: Hillary Clinton famously said “it takes a village” to raise children and I know Best Buddies Founder, Anthony Kennedy Shriver, believes deeply in community service and helping those in need (Anthony’s mother, Eunice, was the Founder of the Special Olympics and his father, Sargent, was Founding Director of the Peace Corps). What is it about Best Buddies that you love most? Is it one thing in particular or a lot of little things?

MA: It really does take a village. The village I live in consists of children, families, and professionals who all can take part in our programs. Small businesses that can employ individuals with IDD. Educators. All of these people are important in furthering our mission of inclusion for all people.

I was bullied because I was different as a child. Living in a small town where there were very few Filipino kids – most of whom were related to me – makes this cause even more meaningful to me. I’ve been on the other side and I know what it feels like to be left out. Everyone wants to be a part of something. As a mother, I want Gelli to be included in all that she desires.

What is it about Best Buddies that I love most? The time I spend with the Buddies. The selfies. The stories. The smiles. The laughter. The growth of each individual as they participate in our activities. The leadership I see that is nurtured in both the typical kids and the kids with IDD. I enjoy seeing our parents sigh with relief, knowing that their children are safe in our programs, that they’re being included, and that their kids have a chance at friendship.

M: In May, you were honored at a ceremony in Malibu, California with the award for Mother-Of-The-Year by Best Buddies International. What was that like for you?

MA:  A bit awkward. Humbling. I do what I do for Gelli and others like her because it’s personal to me. I don’t do it for recognition. In fact, I didn’t even know I was being honored. I thought they were just asking me to attend as a guest. It was a surprise to learn that I was actually being given the stage to share part of my story as Gelli’s mom and as Country Director for the Philippines. I can talk for hours about the work we do and how others can help, but talking about myself in front of all those people was difficult for me. Still, I wanted to make sure the audience understood that it was only a few years ago the Department of Education in the Philippines made it the law for my daughter to have the right to an education with her diagnosis. I bring the knowledge of that statistic to the work I do for Best Buddies and what we are up against. I felt it was my job to share these personal experiences of mine so they could understand that it was only through my motherhood of Gelli that I became aware of what the real fight was about here. I am extremely thankful for the award and the recognition but it felt a little silly being acknowledged for a job I would do anyway. Does that make sense?

[L: Michelle with Maria Shriver and R: Michelle with daughters Gia, Gelli, and Cindy Crawford]

M: It makes perfect sense. You’re a Filipino American who made the decision to move to the Philippines with your family. What’s a big difference in terms of how people with disabilities are treated in the Philippines as opposed to in the United States? I know you mentioned earlier that there’s still a stigma, but you also noted some of the improvements you’ve seen.

MA: We are still light years behind the United States when it comes to an inclusive society. When Gelli was born, my first inclination was to move back to New York where I knew she’d have a better chance at becoming who she was meant to be. In the end, I realized there’s a reason for everything. A reason she chose me as her mother. And a reason why I found myself in Manila. There is so much work to be done here. It’s why I had to step up and walk the walk.

M: What’s a typical day like for you as Director of Best Buddies Philippines?

MA: I wake up and see the kids off to school and then I jump on my laptop and answer any emails or messages received. I check on the activities we have planned for the week and see if any of the chapters need my help with anything. I talk to parents and check in with the ambassadors. I do this while also balancing the writing I do for my own website, attending events, and preparing meals for my family. I’m hands-on with everything and honestly, when my head hits the pillow at night I find myself making lists of things I need to tackle when I wake up. Some days are full of work with Best Buddies and others aren’t, but I’m pulled in so many different directions that no two days are ever alike.

M: How does the Buddy System work?

MA: In each chapter, the faculty advisor and/or the program manager has to be really astute in making matches. We match according to age, gender, and interests. By getting to know the Buddy and the Peer Buddy, we can make the best match possible. It’s not easy, but with help from everyone involved, we try to make matches where a selected friendship will naturally evolve to a deeper one. In our more established chapters, you can see the matches that were made well because they stay on as Buddies long after the year-long requirement has been fulfilled.

M: How can people volunteer or get involved with Best Buddies Philippines?

MA: We are always looking for Buddies, parent volunteers, schools, teachers, and professionals. Interested parties can contact us on Facebook at Facebook.com/BestBuddiesPhilippinesManila, on Instagram at @bestbuddiesphilippines or email us at BestBuddiesManila@gmail.com.

Surviving The Holidays: Single Mom Style

The holidays can be a stressful time for any parent and for Single Moms it can be extra difficult. As a former member of the club of fourteen years, I totally get that there’s a tendency to overcompensate because of the pressure so many of us women put on ourselves as nurturers to make sure everyone around us is okay.

I remember being super hard on myself about the gifts I thought I needed to buy my kids when they were younger – the latest PlayStation, newest G-Shock, cutest Uggs, hippest Abercrombie outfit, etc. Don’t misunderstand me. My kids never asked for those things, they knew that I was working a lot of hours and trying my best. It was more my own baggage. I grew up with a mother who showed me she cared by buying me things after she and my dad divorced and since I didn’t really have any blueprint as to how to mother (I was eighteen when I had my eldest), I thought that was how parents showed their affection. Sure, I said “I love you” all the time (something I didn’t hear a lot from my own mom growing up), but I also thought that in step with the verbal affirmation had to be a Barbie Doll or a new Teenage Mutant Ninja toy.

Christmas and Hanukkah gift lists can be a mile long and the pressure can be daunting for all parents but in a one-parent household, that pressure can sometimes be overwhelming. Starting right after Thanksgiving, there’s a seemingly neverending round of holiday party invites. Add that to the gift-giving headaches to all the decorating around the house in an attempt to make the season as picture perfect as possible for our children and you’ll be reaching for a spiked eggnog or Hot Toddy in no time.

Single moms need to make time for themselves and remember to practice self-care. After all, you can’t keep giving if your own tank is depleted.

Here are some holiday gifts to remember to give yourself that don’t cost a thing:

  • Take a bubble bath. Don’t underestimate the power of a relaxing, hot soak and a closed door away from the world. If your children/babies are still small, maybe leave the door open and place them in a playpen so you can keep an eye on them. If they’re old enough to play on their own though, don’t feel guilty about shutting the door. They’ll be fine.
  • Let yourself say no to supervising the school holiday dance or participating in a seasonal cookie swap. Betty Crocker is a fictional character. You don’t have to volunteer or agree to help with everything. Sure, teamwork is important but so is your sanity.
  • If your children do have lists or special items they want, set a budget. This benefits both of you. For them, it teaches them the importance of saving money and for Single Moms, it helps lighten the load and not your wallet.
  • Create experiences in lieu of shopping trips together. Malls and boutiques can be sensory overload for kids and nightmares for Single Moms. Instead, try baking cookies together or doing a craft project together (a couple of favorites my kids had included making paper mache piggy banks from old gallon milk jugs and wax paper crayon t-shirts). Take a walk outside and go sledding or jump in leaves together. Go on a scavenger hunt. Pick out a book and take turns reading to one another.

I know it’s not easy, but you can make it through the holidays and with a little pivoting, it can be just as enjoyable for you as it is for your kiddos.