We really haven’t learned a thing, have we?

Every person has encountered a survivor of sexual assault, rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence. They are friends and family members, colleagues or acquaintances. More importantly, they are people with stories that illustrate pain, suffering, fear and, silence. Journalist Sheetal Dhir sums this poignantly, “I recently did a straw poll of the women in my life and realised that I know more survivors of sexual assault than I do mothers.” In some families, mine included, every woman has some experience with sexual assault and violence. It’s a reality that we cannot ignore or dismiss; the trauma is intergenerational. More importantly, it’s a fact that still makes men (especially men in power), scratch their head with confusion on what is considered acceptable behavior when interacting with women.

1 in 3 women in the US have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. For Black women, around 2 of 3 will experience sexual abuse by the age of 18. 2 of 3 incidences will go unreported (only 310 of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police), and for every 1 Black woman that reports, at least 15 do not. When they are reported, more than likely they are not taken seriously; it is a common erroneous comparison for many survivors of sexual violence.

Victim-blaming, intimidation, threat of employment termination, literaldenial of a memory of the assault happening. The rage many women felt when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony, in front of a panel of mostly white men hidden behind a woman prosecutor (for what is assumed to be a way to not make an ass of themselves in front of a sexual assault survivor in the age of the #MeToo Movement), was an acknowledgement that all women, all survivors have gone through the traumatization of their assault, and then the re-traumatization of not being believed. And for the response, the questioning of her memory, Dr. Ford gave a succinct but unbreakable response that only a professional in the field of psychology could; the neurotransmitter epinephrine, she replied, “Codes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.”

Memory remains clear-cut when we experience trauma. It flashes through the brain when one feels at their most vulnerable. It’s why women can remember their assault even years later when they move on. It’s why girls can remember their abuse when they were young children. It’s why Anita Hill faced a panel of 14 very skeptical white men, and was able to recount what then-nominee Clarence Thomas put her through.

The utter disbelief she endured by such men who thought that engaging in overtly sexual conversations in front of and directly to female colleagues, was not such a big deal. Considering that some of those same skeptical men were presiding over Dr. Ford’s testimony, albeit skulking behind the words of a female prosecutor, makes it more apparent that men have not learned a damn thing when it comes to sexual assault.

There’s data and research to prove why women don’t report. Psychologists, like Dr. Ford, can elaborate the fascinating science behind trauma-based memory; there are rape kits to prove it happened; confessions from the accused themselves. Mountains of evidence and personal stories from the survivors who have reported and were treated like whores and attention-seekers, and the ones that feared such a response and never made a sound. Believing the survivor is imperative, because of what they’re giving up just to come forward. We can no longer accept men in places of privilege who are given slaps on the wrists or sycophantic words of encouragement. What we need is punishment for the accused and something as simple as faith in the accuser. It won’t change everything, but it will be a start. It may even break the intergenerational chain of victimization that is passed between mothers and daughters, and teach sons that respect for women, informed consent and care for a woman’s choice, is a goddamn requirement.

Men, step up. We gave you the tools for learning at your disposal, now use them.

 

(Photo Credit 1: BBC News) (Photo Credit 2: Bill Snead / The Washington Post) (Photo Credit 3: New York Magazine)

Chicago hotel housekeepers say NO! to workplace harassment … and win!

Unite Here members celebrate passage of Chicago ordinance protecting hotel workers from sexual harassment

While celebrities and politicians being accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault has brought workplace harassment into the national conversation, low wage workers, such as hotel housekeepers face similar instances of harassment cleaning hotel rooms and hope the conversation will help to end the harassment they’ve been fighting for years. Much less attention has been paid to the abuses and harassment low wage workers face, especially in the hotel industry.

A minibar attendant at a Chicago hotel, Cecilia walked to a guest’s door and was let in to a man masturbating at his computer. Given the satisfied look on the man’s face, it was clear that he had planned the encounter. Another guest once answered her knock by opening the door naked. “I felt nasty,” Cecilia recalled, “You’d expect that to happen to people in a jail but not in regular work. I felt like crying.” One of Cecilia’s colleagues confided that a guest tried to embrace her while in his room. Cecilia had to escort the housekeeper to security to report the incident.

Harassment in the workplace is not a new, or one-time, occurrence for housekeepers, who face abuses but are unable to report for fear of retaliation from an already exploitative work environment. Maria Elena Durazo, of Unite Here, has advocated for housekeepers to be given handheld, wireless panic buttons that can alert hotel security when a worker feels threatened: “Frankly, I don’t think much of the public understands what housekeepers go through just to clean these rooms and carry out the work.” The union won workers’ contracts to include the panic button, but the situation of sexual harassment for housekeepers is still dire. Durazo is now lobbying the city council to mandate them for all workers, union or not.

The panic buttons go a long way for workers to feel safe, but the imbalance of economic power between the harasser and survivors cannot solely be addressed by buttons. As Durazo argues, “We have to do something to equalize the power so that women really have the ability to speak up, without having to risk their livelihood. That goes for whether you’re a housekeeper or a food server or a big-time actor.”

To bring attention to the harassment of hotel and casino workers, Unite Here surveyed 500 of its Chicago area members. The majority surveyed were Latinx and Asian immigrants.

  • Nearly 58 % of hotel workers and 77% of casino workers had been sexually harassment by a guest;
  • 49 % of hotel workers said they had experienced a guest exposing themselves to the worker when answering their room door;
  • 56 % of casino cocktail servers said a guest had touched them, or attempted to touch them, without their consent;
  • Around 40% of casino workers had been pressured for a date or sexual favors by a guest.

Outfitting housekeepers with panic buttons started to receive attention and popularity after French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of assaulting housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo in a New York Hotel. Tet next year, the New York Hotel Trades Council won a contract for 30,000 workers that guaranteed the use of panic buttons for housekeepers.

The Chicago campaign to mandate panic buttons for the hotel industry received little resistance from the hotel lobby. President of the Chicago Federation of Labor Jorge Ramirez stated. “We didn’t see them out there with pompoms, but they didn’t speak out against it, either. I think the industry would have a hard time opposing this, especially with everything that’s come to light in the last few months.”

To mark the passage of the ordinance for panic buttons, housekeepers wore “No Harveys in Chicago” T-shirts, hoping that the buttons bring a sense of security and safety to women like herself and the younger housekeeper she had helped a couple months prior, because, “You shouldn’t be scared to work.”

 

(Photo Credits: Chicago Sun-Times / Fran Spielman)

Womanhood, the original ‘pre-existing condition’

Every two minutes another American is sexually assaulted.

On September 11th the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) discovered that domestic violence is legally considered a ‘pre-existing condition’ in eight states and the District of Columbia and therefore a reason to deny health insurance.  The issue, however, is not new and in fact the Senate HELP committee voted on the issue in 2006; 10 Senators blocked the bill that would have made such discrimination illegal.  Unsurprisingly, all of these Senators are white, male, Republican and over 40.  In contrast, women are 85% of persons affected by domestic violence and the type of cold logic that looks at women in abusive situations as merely not cost-effective is not limited to either the insurance industry or Congress.

Victim-blaming happens every two minutes, at least.  The same neo-liberal ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ discourse that places responsibility for healthcare, childcare, all care really and economic stability on the backs of individuals equally without regard for privilege is used the blame individuals for their situations.  A woman being abused by her significant other, usually but not always a man, is blamed for the fact that this other person has chosen to mentally, physically and/or sexually abuse her and is in turn punished for it by the government and private insurance companies. The primary underlying assumption here: that someone being abused is actively choosing to be there or at least hasn’t chosen to leave. Aside from the gross ignorance and arrogance required to assume that all individuals have the personal financial, legal, physical and emotional capacity to pick up and leave an intimate partner, the fact that U.S. media and society removes all culpability from abusers is in every way abhorrent.  A woman may be a victim worthy of pity, if she never fights backs, but her abuser rarely is affected by his own actions.  Domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S.

The mentality which allows for trivialization of domestic violence plays itself out much more often in the public sphere than the private one.  Anyone who has ever been whistled at, flashed, followed or fondled on the streets could tell you that. Street harassment has been garnering more attention in the last few years and Washington, DC has become a city notorious for the intensity of the harassment that primarily women are subjected to every day on their ways home, to work or anywhere. With even a casual glance at HollaBack DC, one of a dozen blogs nationwide devoted to empowering individuals to end gendered street-based sexual harassment through talking about it (how novel), patterns become obvious.  The victim-blaming myths that preach that women are harassed because of how they act, what they wear and where they are when fall apart.  Harassment and abuse occur because someone chooses to harass and to abuse.  They occur because they happen in a culture which says that abuse is a private issue and that women are asexual and helpless.  Because street harassment, like domestic violence, is rooted in privilege.  It is a reminder that gender must be performed in certain ways and that certain groups are more equal than others.

Street harassment against women is generally committed by men and in DC it seems that most harassment is propagated by men of color.  This is not accidental considering that DC remains one of the most segregated cities in the US and that communities of color in the metro area are disproportionately poor and in the prison system.  While men of color are intensely disempowered, they still are able to gain power and reinforce privilege over women on the street.  Street harassment is the perfect tool for this because it is based in exploiting gendered assumptions of female sexuality, the most effective manner of gender policing in existence.  Whore, slut and cunt are after all still some of the most degrading terms for women in American English.

So what do we do?  The Tokyo police are in the midst of a so-called ‘groping prevention week’ in which police presence on the subway trains is significantly higher and gropers can expect to receive as much as 7 years in jail.  Some trains are even equipped with ‘women only’ cars now, a flashback to the 19th century in which women were seated apart from cars where men were smoking.  It’s swell and all that the government is taking the issue seriously in Tokyo, but this is a band-aid and instead of tearing a little skin, its segregating women and sending people to prison for almost a decade.  Not exactly productive.  In the U.S., gropers, if they were ever actually prosecuted, would have the added joy of being labeled a sex offender for the rest of their lives and be subject severe job and living restrictions.  But, recent events involving Philip Garrido have shown that these sort of punitive measures do little to stop abuse.  Separating men and women more and placing the police in the role of protecting women’s sexual purity is not just a bad idea, but ineffective.  Street harassment, domestic violence, asshole politicians and insurance companies are symptoms of larger privilege based problems which have only been exacerbated by extreme neo-liberal rule for the past 8 years.  There is no singular fix all and none of these things can be solved separately, but empowering discussion and action is a good start.  And getting some of those guys out of government wouldn’t be bad either.

(Image Credit: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network))