Category Archives: criminal justice

Top ten Sexual Stories of 2013


For the 5th year in a row, Sexuality & Society brings you its (highly subjective and mostly North American/U.S.-centered) list of top ten sexual stories of the year!

One of the satisfying aspects of compiling these stories each year is noticing their connections to past stories. Collectively, these “sexual” stories are critical to the societal narratives that are told and retold and sometimes sold to make sense of our lives. Below are some of the stories which struck us as worth retelling and analyzing…..Check out our lists for 200920102011, and 2012!

Also: We maintain an active Facebook Page — please find us there as well!

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10. Iowa court says it’s ok to fire women who are “irresistible”

This story is so ludicrous that it is difficult to believe that it is not out of The Onion. Nonetheless, it relies on 19th Century Victorian notions of femininity whereby women were viewed as responsible for controlling men’s sexual desires, and thus ensuing calls for modesty were viewed as minimizing the possibility of sexual attention from men. See below for a 2013 version of this Victorian mentality:

irresistible

Melissa Nelson was fired because her boss found himself unable to restrain himself around her “irresistible” charms. An all male jury and judge agreed that the scourge of irrisistible women must be stopped.

(CNN) – Melissa Nelson lost her bid Friday to have Iowa’s top court reverse its ruling that held the former dental assistant did not suffer gender bias when she was fired for being “irresistible.”

The Iowa Supreme Court stood by its December finding that Dr. James Knight was legally able to fire the assistant after his wife became concerned about the relationship between the two.

Knight’s conduct was not sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the court said.

The all-male court had previously ruled against Nelson, finding that employees who are seen as an “irresistible attraction” by their employers can be fired in such circumstances.

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/12/us/iowa-irresistible-worker/index.html

 9. Susan B. Komen rejects money donated by exotic dancers 

The Pink foundation has made our list for a second year in a row …. (remember last year, when they cut funding to Planned Parenthood due to anti-abortion politics within the foundation? But then they changed their mind?). This year they kept themselves under the public radar but still received some press when they refused money from a fundraiser held by exotic dancers. Their rationale? “Southern Nevada’s Executive Director Stephanie Kirby said it’s Susan G. Komen’s national policy to not partner with certain businesses, especially ones that may sexualize women.”

“It just doesn’t fall in line with who we are as an organization. There are too many survivors out there who no longer have the body part that is being displayed at a lot of these shows,” Kirby said.”

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One of many T-shirts available for purchase at the Save the Ta-Tas Foundation.

source: http://www.fox5vegas.com/story/23585295/breast-cancer-foundation-denies-donation-help

Meanwhile, the Komen Foundation also appears to be consistent in their distancing from sexualized breasts as they have no official partnership with the Save the Ta-Ta’s Foundation — a breast cancer research and for-profit organization which sells T-shirts like “Save a life; grope your wife.”

8. Teen girls criminalized for their consensual sexual relationships

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Kailyn Hunt (18) was prosecuted and eventually jailed for her relationship with a 14 year old girl.

In the state of Florida the age of sexual consent is 16. The problem is that the age of sexual exploration is much earlier than this. Given increased attention to the issue of child sexual abuse over the past couple of decades (a good thing), there have been many cases of older teenage partners now being defined as sex offenders, even if the relationship with consensual and non-violent (a bad thing). This is what appears to have happened to Kaitlyn Hunt, who was 18 when she entered into a sexual relationship with a girl four years her junior. The younger girl’s parents objected, and found that they could enforce their objections by law. Given the threat of going to prison and being a registered sex offender, Hunt chose a plea bargain, plead guilty to all charges and is now in jail. (Source: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/02/justice/florida-gay-teen-kaitlyn-hunt-case/)

See also: http://theseattlelesbian.com/fl-teen-faces-felony-charges-for-same-sex-relationship/

 

7.  Russia instigates state-sponsored terrorism against sexual, ethnic, and artistic diversity (e.g.: gay people, labor migrants, and the punk rock band Pussy Riot).

Russia.Putin

Since 2011, thousand of people have gathered for Anti-Putin demonstrations such as this one in Moscow. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011–13_Russian_protests

In June of 2013, Putin signed into law an “anti-gay propaganda bill” which sought to punish individuals for “promoting” homosexuality. The law imposes fines for those members of society who “disseminate information at minors that are directed at forming nontraditional sexual setups” or which cause “distorted understandings” that gay and heterosexual relationships are “equivalent.”  (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130630/eu-russia-gay-rights/)

AmericaBlog reported on these events by stating that “Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law … one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet.” (right up there with Uganda: see # 6 below).

“The new law, coming only seven months before Russia is to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, would ban anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech, to gays holding hands in public, to even wearing rainbow suspenders. The law also contains a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. That provision ought to send chills to anyone gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender who is planning to attend or participate in the Winter Olympics.” (see: http://americablog.com/2013/07/russia-olympics-sochi-gay-law-putin.html)

The Russian media is also under fire by Putin: One Russian news media outlet is now under investigation for reporting on a gay teacher who was recently fired for being gay (he was said to teach that gay relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships). The news coverage did not report negatively (enough) about the gay teacher. (see http://www.advocate.com/news/world-news/2013/11/14/russian-newspaper-accused-violating-gay-propaganda-law)

While the Putin regime is also instigating crackdowns on ethnic minority labor migrants in Moscow, there is an increased movement to oppose Putin’s politics both inside and outside of Russia. The recently released members of the Punk band, Pussy Riot — imprisoned for two years as punishment for their anti-Putin demonstration in an Orthodox Russian Church — have promised to be part of this ongoing movement for greater sexual and social justice in Russia. See: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/927f4516-6f0c-11e3-bc9e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2pBljprat

6. U.S. preacher behind Uganda “kill the gays” efforts will be tried for crimes against humanity

Since 2009 we have been following the story about the connection between US conservative evangelical preachers and the push by some lawmakers in Uganda for strident and violent anti-gay laws. See our first post on this here:  

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Scott Lively, a US based anti-gay evangelical pastor who went to Uganda to preach his hatred, is now being tried for crimes against humanity.

Despite widespread global opposition, a version of this bill passed on Dec. 20, 2013. However, the story continues to evolve with now Ugandan GLBT activists pushing for accountability for the U.S. religious leaders who stirred up this mess. In what is being called a “landmark decision” .. “a federal US judge (has) ruled that the case filed by a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group against American anti-gay evangelist Scott Lively, for his collaboration with religious and government officials in Uganda that lead to the introduction of the African nation’s “Kill the Gays” bill, will be allowed to proceed.”

“As reported in Gay Star News, Michael Ponsor, the US District Judge in Massachusetts, said “Widespread, systematic persecution of LGBTI people constitutes a crime against humanity that unquestionably violates international norms.” This marks the first ruling by a federal U.S. judge calling the persecution of LGBT persons a crime against humanity, possibly setting a precedent for the human rights of sexual minorities will be protected under international law.”

“The case against Lively stems from the evangelist’s 2009 lecture tour of Uganda, the theme of which according to its Ugandan organizer, was “the gay agenda – and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.”

A 2010 article published in , The New York Times, wrote about on one of Lively’s speaking engagements in Uganda.”[T]housands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians,” reportedly attended the conference. Lively and his colleagues “discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how ’the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ’to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.’” Lively wrote days later that “someone had likened their campaign to ’a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.’” (Source: http://www.edgeonthenet.com/?148277)

5. Regnerus’ anti-gay “study” condemned by the American Sociological Association 

The past year showed us not just that U.S. based anti-gay pastors have influenced the laws of other countries (see #4 above), but that flawed empirical studies conducted by credentialed researchers can also inflict malicious impacts. The most striking example of this can be seen with the case of Mark Regnerus, who has a Ph.D. in sociology and is an Associate Professor at University of Texas, Austin. In the words of John Becker from The Huffington Post:

“The study was widely discredited for its flawed methodology, its wildly inaccurate conclusions and its alleged partiality. Nonetheless, it has been breathlessly touted by the anti-gay right as evidence justifying their opposition to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Many of the Supreme Court briefs filed by equality opponents rely on the Regnerus study, but the American Sociological Association — Regnerus’ own professional organization — has just demolished those arguments.”

Indeed, given its serious flaws combined with the intent by anti-gay activists to use it to justify anti-gay discrimination, leaders of ASAthe American Sociological Association have roundly condemned Regnerus’ study, including but not limited to the 42 page Supreme Court brief in support of overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Fortunately, law makers in the U.S. are also listening to the reasoning of the ASA as well as human rights activists to nip in the bud any ongoing legal influence of the Regnerus study. On November 12, 2013, we saw this news from a Florida judge:

In today’s opinion, Orange County Circuit Judge Donald Grincewicz ruled that emails and documents possessed by University of Central Florida (UCF) related to the flawed study’s peer-review process must be turned over to John Becker, who sought the documents under Florida’s Public Records Act. UCF houses the journal Social Science Research, which published the Regnerus study, and the editor of the journal, UCF Professor James Wright, led the peer-review process for the research. Becker is represented by the Law Office of Andrea Flynn Mogensen, P.A., and Barrett, Chapman & Ruta, P.A; and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation funded the litigation. (Source: Human Rights Campaign press release found at http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2013/11/florida-judge-orders-ucf-to-release.html)

While Regnerus’ study has been discredited by experts and law makers in the United States, other law makers with malicious anti-gay intent have and will continue to grasp at any “evidence” which supports anti-gay messages. For example, in Russia (see #6 above) the Regnerus study was presented to the Russian legislature and may have played a role in supporting Russia’s recent move to outlaw non-heterosexuality. See: http://www.bilerico.com/2013/08/anti-gay_regnerus_study_to_russia_with_love.php

4.  Transgender justice and visibility 

Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.

Laverne Cox plays the role of Sophia Burset, a transwoman prisoner in Orange is the New Black.

In 2013, many tuned into U.S.-based media and saw several stories featuring transgender individuals and issues. Perhaps the most visible faces were Chelsea (formerly: Bradley) Manning — a U.S. solider who was incarcerated for releasing war-related documents to Wikileaks; and Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the Netflix series hit centered in a women’s prison, Orange is the New Black.

The media attention on the real life and fictional stories of Manning and Cox inspired a press release from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project on “the realties for transgender and gender non-conforming people in prison, jails, and detention centers:”

A significant amount of media fascination with transgender people in prison is about accessing surgery and focusing on the criminalized act underlying an individual’s sentence. Not only do transgender people in prison have problems accessing healthcare, but they experience a heightened level of gender policing.  The clothing they wear, their hairstyles and grooming practices, their bodies, mannerisms and identities are scrutinized and controlled by the state.  Any deviance from norms can lead to violence at the hands of corrections officers or other people who are incarcerated.  Legal “protections” are hard to access as there is little accountability on the inside.  If one is brave enough to risk retaliation and file a grievance, they must follow up with that grievance and timely appeal any denials.  It is not until those appeals (usually two) are denied that one can access the court system.  Finding a lawyer or representing one’s self pro se (without a lawyer) is another difficult barrier that one must overcome, as SRLP’s report IT’S WAR IN HERE has documented.”

Beyond high rates of incarceration, trangender individuals also face an alarming rate of violence and harassment in the US and worldwide and this intersects with race, class, and other social locations. According to a recent report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in the U.S., LGBTQ people of color experience 1.8 times the violence of white LGBTQ individuals. 73% of all LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. Transgender people are 3 times more likely to experience police violence than non-transgender individuals, with transgender women experiencing the highest rates.

In one legal step toward transgender rights, in August 2013, Jerry Brown signed into law AB1266 that offered the right for individuals “to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities” (including bathrooms) based on their gender identity rather than by birth sex. Predictably, conservative groups and religious individuals immediately rallied in protest, creating a new “war on privacy rights.”  California Republicans support a referendum that is being prepared to overturn AB1266. While the law goes into effect on January 1, 2014 and the state plans to continue to issue same-sex marriage licenses, there could be enough signatures on Jan 8 against same-sex marriage to push the referendum process forward. We’ll be watching this case unfold in 2014.

3. The Papacy changes its guard

Despite the fact the the majority of the world is not Catholic, the Pope, as leader of the Worldwide Catholic Church, tends to have a lot of influence on sexual politics. (Recent church statistics indicate that 17.5% of the world’s population is Catholic). The Changing of Papal leadership was important in several ways, including the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of the left-leaning Pope Francis.

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The old (Pope Benedict XVI , left) vs. the new (Pope Francis, right). Source: http://www.tmz.com/2013/03/13/old-pope-vs-new-pope-whod-you-rather/#ixzz2p6HNNQB2

“Pope Francis faulted the Roman Catholic church for focusing too much on gays, abortion and contraception, saying the church has become “obsessed” with those issues to the detriment of its larger mission to be “home for all,” according to an extensive new interview published Thursday.

The church can share its views on homosexuality, abortion and other issues, but should not “interfere spiritually” with the lives of gays and lesbians, the Pope added in the interview, which was published in La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome-based Jesuit journal.

“We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” Francis said in the interview.

“The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” (source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/19/pope-francis-gay_n_3954776.html)

2. Utah finds itself in a pickle about its marriage politics.

Utah, a state founded by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) church, has long been a bit of an outsider compared to the rest of the nation; indeed it was only after leaders defined marriage as being between one man and one woman that it was accepted into statehood. This was after a long history of plural marriages:

In 1852 church leaders publicized the previously secret practice of plural marriage, a form of polygamy.[52] Over the next 50 years many Mormons (between 20% and 30% of Mormon families)[53] entered into plural marriages as a religious duty, with the number of plural marriages reaching a peak around 1860, and then declining through the rest of the century. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormons)

Given the need for the Mormon church to divorce itself from plural marriages it is likely that for Mormon leaders, the moral mantra of monogamous heterosexual marriage is likely undergirded by an ongoing quest for mainstream assimilation. Indeed the success of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot proposition in the 2008 California elections, can largely be connected to money from the Mormon Church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City Utah.  (See, for example the documentary 8: the Mormon Proposition.)

Thus, when in December, a federal judge struck down Utah’s anti-polygamy stance on the grounds that one cannot “prohibitsister-wives-season-4 cohabitation” mainstream Mormon religious leaders were not happy. The challenge to the law was brought by the Reality TV star Kody Brown who stars along with his four female partners (and 17 children) in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.” The Brown family successfully argued that the Utah cohabitation law violated their rights to privacy and to religious freedom.

Ironically, during the same month, Federal Officials also shot down Utah’s discrimination against same-sex marriage — thus striking down the original requirement by the Feds a century and a half earlier that Utah define marriage as a dyad between one man and one woman. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby stated that the law to ban same-sex marriage conflicted with the U.S. Constitution which guarantees equal protection and due process. Thus even though 2/3 of the voters voted to ban same-sex marriage on a ballot in 2004, in 2013 Utah became the 18th state in the United States (17 states and the District of Columbia) that allows same-sex couples to be legally married.

utah.gayWhile same-sex couples flooded the county clerk’s office seeking to be married, movements to reverse both legal the Utah polygamy and same sex marriage decisions are underway. We’ll be following both stories as they progress in 2014.

 

 

 

1. Two victories for sex workers’ rights: Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada, and the repeal of the Anti-Prostitution Pledge

Finally, we end with two major developments in support of global rights and justice for individuals who work in the sex trade.decriminalize-prostitution-men

The movement for decriminalization of prostitution (much like that of moves historically and currently against criminalization of homosexuality) — arises out of the work of a range of global human rights activists. And after years of work by Canadian activists, on December 20, 2013 prostitution was decriminalized in Canada.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the country’s major prostitution laws, saying that bans on street soliciting, brothels and people living off the avails of prostitution create severe dangers for vulnerable women and therefore violate Canadians’ basic values.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, stressed that the ruling is not about whether prostitution should be legal or not, but about whether Parliament’s means of controlling it infringe the constitutional rights of prostitutes.” (source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/supreme-court-rules-on-prostitution-laws/article16067485/)

This ruling comes on the heels of an important statement stemming from the United Nations in 2012 calling for decriminalization of prostitution in Asia. (See: http://www.voanews.com/content/un-reports-calls-for-decriminalization-of-prostitution-in-asia/1529473.html)

In a similar spirit, in June of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Anti-Prostituion Pledge, stating that “it is a violation of the First Amendment for the federal government to force groups to endorse the government’s views opposing prostitution in order to receive funding to combat AIDS overseas.” (Source: http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/politics/read-supreme-court-strikes-down-required-anti-prostitution-pledge-for-hiv-and-aids-workers/243/).  Finally! A brief breath of relief from global health workers and sex worker activists across the globe — but more work needs to be done as this ruling still only protects US-based organizations.

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Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists, scholars, and practitioners working towards sexual and social justice. May 2014 be filled with stories of hope and justice.

Top 10 Sexual Stories of 2011

As the Gregorian calendar year officially comes to a close, we offer once again a sampling of the year’s top ten sexual stories. While certainly not a complete, in-depth, or globally representative list, we do think that this list contains snippets that have both disturbing and hopeful implications for sexual justice.

10. Rick Perry steals gay, secular icons to create anti-gay Christmas message

Rick Perry in a replica of the jacket worn by Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain."

 ”​By now, you’ve probably seen Rick Perry’s “Strong” ad, in which he opines, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Not only are gays in our military, they’re also composing music for our campaign ads. As the Harvard Political Reviewpoints out, the music that plays in the background of Perry’s ad is inspired by or directly taken from Aaron Copland, a gay composer.” (Nick Greene, Dec. 10, 2011, Village Voice).

9. Herman Cain tests Mainstream American Media: What’s worse in a political candidate: Assault or Affair?

Presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s campaign abruptly crashed and burned after news media learned of his long time extra-marital lover. But this was after his multiple cases of sexual harrassment and assault against his former employees were also aired. Most news media, including reputable news outlets like the Washington Post, failed to differentiate between Cain’s alleged criminal and consensual acts, using the language of “accusation” to describe both. See for example this story with a headline of “Ginger White accuses Herman Cain of long affair.”

…”Cain denied the accusations. In an interview that aired before White’s allegations were broadcast, Cain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he knows White and that the two had been friends but that there had been no sexual contact and no “affair.” He characterized their relationship as “trying to help a friend” because of her “not having a job etcetera and this sort of thing.””

The story then goes on to simply state that:

“This month, Cain was accused of sexually harassing several women.”

Such lack of differentiation between criminal and consensual sexual scandals is common among contemporary American mainstream media. Gratefully, Amanda Marcotte (Alternet, Nov. 30, 2011) provides a helpful guide for assessing the significance different kinds of sex scandals. See Marcotte’s article here: “6 Kinds of Sex Scandals: What Should be exposed? What should be left private?”

8. Wienergate

… AND speaking of the need to have more sophisticated interpretative filters around why and how some Wieners constitute a “scandal” … see article above, again. … See also our post about Anthony Weiner:

“In contrast to the Dutch, Americans love sex scandals. We love them so much that in a good year we produce and consume not just one of these high-profile scandals, but several. For many of us interested in sexual justice, the juiciest stories are those of the hypocrites: the Elliot Spitzers who lead anti-prostitute campaigns while purchasing sex; the George Rekers who champion the anti-gay movement while hiring “rent boys,” and the Newt Gingrichs who lead impeachment hearings while engaging in their own extra-marital affairs.”

7.  Obama’s Secretary of Health & Human Services overrules the FDA, pulls “morning after” pill 

Kathleen Sebelius overrules FDA recommendation

“In what can only be called an astounding move by an Administration that pledged on inauguration day that medical and health decisions would be based on fact not ideology and for which women are a major constituency, today Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) overruled a much-awaited decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make emergency contraception (EC) available over-the-counter (OTC) to women of all ages.

According to the New York Times, “no health secretary has ever [overruled an FDA decision] before.”  See Jodi Jacobsen’s full story in RhReality Check here.

6.  The politics of Rape. Rape committed by men against women was frequently in the news during 2011, not because the dynamics of it have changed (it’s always about maintaining/exerting symbolic power), but because some people and institutions have found new tactics of exerting and/or maintaining heterosexism. Here’s a sampling of three such tactics.

Ms Magazine posted several stories on rape this year. This image comes from: http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2011/05/02/25-facts-about-rape-in-america/

5. Penn State & masculinist cultures of sexual abuse.  Rape and sexual abuse committed by men against boys was again in the news this year. While the Catholic Church and the Military managed to avoid serious spotlight time in 2011, another site of masculine privileged culture — American college football –wasn’t as lucky.

“With former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky charged with sexually abusing children—and school officials including iconic former football coach Joe Paterno dismissed for purportedly failing to report Sandusky’s alleged crimes to law enforcement—many observers have compared the situation to a series of similar cases that have rocked the Vatican.”

See: What the Catholic Church can teach us about the Penn State Scandal.” (Patrick Hruby, The Atlantic, Nov. 16, 2011.)

After all these dire (and at times ludicrous) sexual stories, we will end with four stories on a slightly more hopeful note …

4.  Mainstreaming of Transgender stories (including both opportunities and misses for gender transformation).

Transgender actress Harmony Santana

While images of Chaz Bono’s new book and his stint with Dancing with the Stars were ubiquitous, the inclusion of transgender individuals in policies and programs were just as, if not more, influential.  Any sort of mainstreaming can bring missed opportunities for radical transformation (in this case for the institution of gender). But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality details 14 reasons why 2011 was “a game-changing year for transgender rights.” (See full story in The Advocate, Dec. 28, 2011).

3. Sex workers rights recognized by the UN and US State Department

(Meanwhile the conservative sexual politics of mainstream anti-trafficking rhetoric became increasingly exposed. See: for example, social justice activist Emi Koyama’s brilliant investigative article in Bitch Magazine, American University Human Rights professor Ann Jordan’s series of critical papers exposing the “Hype” of the abolitionist/trafficking movement, as well as of course the Village Voice’s mocking of Ashton Kutcher’s “real men” campaign.)

 

2. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers historic gay rights speech to the United Nations

 GENEVA — The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that the United States would use all the tools of American diplomacy, including the potent enticement of foreign aid, to promote gay rights around the world.

In a memorandum issued by President Obama in Washington and in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton here, the administration vowed to actively combat efforts by other nations that criminalize homosexual conduct, abuse gay men, lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered people, or ignore abuse against them. (Myers and Cooper, New York Times, Dec. 8, 2011).

1.  The Sexual Politics of Egypt’s Arab Spring, featuring:



 

Happy New Year from Sexuality & Society! Thanks to all the activists and scholars working toward sexual and social justice; may 2012 be filled with your stories!

Warm regards, Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin

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Related Sexuality & Society stories:


Terrorism against Sex Workers: It’s time to Take a Stand

For the past 7 years, December 17th has been recognized by sex workers and their allies as a day to recognize that violence against sex workers is endemic to many societies. It is also a day to commit energy toward making the cultural and working conditions of sex work safer. This is very different from simply telling people not to be sex workers (Imagine criminalizing the mining industry and jailing miners as a way to protect them; imagine how much more dangerous the mining industry would be if there were no health and safety regulations in place). The work of making any cultural and work environment safer for all is to recognize the right of individuals to be agents over their own bodies, to achieve personal livelihood, and to live a life free of terror.

This work, on a larger scale, also entails the recognition of the potential social value of sex work. This does not mean that all sex workers love their job, any more than all miners love theirs; what it does mean is that it is not enough to listen only to the tragic stories (reaffirming the notion that people involved in this work must be punished), while covering ones eyes and ears to other stories (which suggest that the work is not intrinsically dangerous, evil, or otherwise worthy of punishment). As academics, policy makers, and citizens we don’t have to personally become providers or consumers of sex work (or the mining industry) to have compassion. But we must take seriously people’s claims that they, their families, and their communities can benefit economically or socially from their work, and ask what it is that we can do to make their work safer.

This year’s Dec. 17 vigils, at least in the US, will be tinged with a new sense of urgency given the recent discovery of 4 bodies in Long Island, some or all of whom were women sex workers. (See NBC news link here). Targeted violence on this scale is a form of war, of terrorism, of outright hatred for a particular category of people. Can you imagine the media and political response if the bodies were of children, or of politicians, or a particular ethnic or religious group?

Today, and all this week, a number of progressive media outlets are featuring stories about the importance of Dec. 17 anti-violence vigils. Rh Reality Check is featuring a series of stories, one of which I’m reposting in full below:  ”Treating Violence Against Sex Workers as a Hate Crime”  By Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoop. (Other links also provided at the end of this article).

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Treating Violence Against Sex Workers as a Hate Crime

By Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoops

December 16, 2010 – 6:40pm

Published under: Women’s Rights | End Violence Against Sex Workers Day 2010 | England | Prostitution | sex work

Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoops’s blog | Printer-friendly version | Login or register to post comments | ShareThis

This article is part of a series published by RH Reality Check in partnership with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, December 17th, 2010. It is excerpted from Research For Sex Work 12, published 17 December 2010 by the NSWP, an organization that upholds the voice of sex workers globally and connects regional networks advocating for the rights of female, male, and transgender sex workers. Download the full journal, with eight more articles about sex work and violence, for free at nswp.org.  See all articles in this series here.

Over the last decade sex work projects, the police and other agencies in Liverpool (United Kingdom) have been addressing violence against sex workers, encouraging reporting and taking crimes committed against sex workers seriously. In recent years Armistead Street, a sex work outreach and support project in Liverpool, has worked with Merseyside Police to continue to build on this legacy. This partnership has led to unprecedented increases in the number of street sex workers reporting crimes committed against them to the police, the number of active investigations of such crimes, and the numbers of people being charged, brought before the courts and convicted of crimes. Key to this success is the practice in Liverpool of treating crimes against sex workers as hate crime.

Liverpool is a city in the North West of England. The majority of women involved in street sex work in the city experience problematic drug use, with high levels (over 90 percent) of heroin and crack cocaine use. They also experience social exclusion including homelessness. Research in the city, and frontline project work, has for over a decade reported high levels of violence against street sex workers, 80 percent of them reporting they have experienced violence in the course of their work. These studies showed there was noticeable under-reporting of incidents to the police. The key reasons identified for not reporting were: sex workers believing they would not be taken seriously or would not be treated with respect by the police; a lack of trust in the police; poor previous experience with law enforcement; fear of revenge from attackers; fear of arrest for soliciting; anxiety about court cases and fear that involvement in sex work would become public.

Groundbreaking Move

Liverpool has had more than its share of tragic loss of lives amongst sex workers in the UK, with eight women who were involved in street sex work murdered since 1990, of which five cases remain unsolved. The most recent murder of Anne Marie Foy in September 2005 led to a debate in the city about how to manage street sex work, resulting in strong support to address violence against street-based sex workers. During the murder investigation, Merseyside Police acknowledged that relationships with agencies and sex workers were ad hoc, that there were difficulties contacting and maintaining contact with vital witnesses, and that there was a continued lack of trust in the police amongst sex workers.

In a groundbreaking move in late 2006 Merseyside Police agreed a policy that all crimes against sex workers be treated as hate crime. They were the first, and at the time of writing, the only force in the UK to do so. In this country, the hate crime model has been developed for dealing primarily with racially motivated and homophobic crime. In policing policy, if a reported crime is classified as a hate crime, it will receive an enhanced response with more attention and police resources being allocated to it. The hate crime approach implicitly recognises that violence against sex workers is shaped by discrimination and attitudes of hostility and prejudice.

In the same period of time, Armistead Street was the first sex work project to secure government funding for an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) located within the project.2 ISVA’s were introduced as part of the national government strategy to address rape and sexual abuse. Armistead Street’s ISVA is a specially trained member of staff who co-ordinates initiatives in the sex work project to address violence and safety, liaises with the police, offers training and awareness-raising sessions to other agencies and last but not least, supports sex workers who have been victims of crime to ensure all their holistic health and social care needs are met. This includes advocacy and intensive support if cases are progressing through the criminal justice system. Key concerns in this regard have been, first, to improve the quality of evidence, and second, to support sex workers in getting their cases to court. The approach used is victim-centered and low-threshold (see below). The ISVA works closely with the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) which opened in Liverpool in 2008. SARCs are regional centres that provide holistic care – including the collection of forensic evidence – for victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Ugly Mugs

One of the tasks of the ISVA is to coordinate the ‘ugly mugs’ (‘bad date’) scheme. After each incident, sex workers are encouraged to make formal reports to the police as well as fill out an ugly mugs form. An ugly mugs report describes the incident, characteristics of the perpetrator, e.g., clothing, hair, accent, approximate age and height, and descriptions of his car or the location where the incident took place. Not only does the report serve to warn other sex workers of dangerous individuals, it can also be (anonymously) shared with the police to aid investigation and in some cases, support evidence.

In 2007/2008, 65 ugly mugs reports were made to the project, 2 for robbery, 29 for rape and other serious sexual offences, and 16 for assaults. The rest covered a range of offences such as being held against one’s will, verbal abuse and threats of violence. Ugly mugs reporting forms and processes have been developed with advisory input from Merseyside Police. There is a formally agreed process for the processing and analysis of ugly mugs reports by the police. For instance, the information is used in the official investigation of the incident it reports on, as well as shared with police officers in areas where street sex work takes place. Further, the forms are used for monitoring and analyzing incidents related to sex work.

Supporting Cases Getting to Court

Armistead Street has adopted an approach which puts the victim of violence first and tries to eliminate all barriers that make it difficult for him or her to access justice. For instance, early evidence can be taken by outreach staff (including the ISVA), who carry early evidence kits. Further, the ISVA can be present when a police officer interviews a victim, using video. This interview can also take place at the project’s premises as Armistead has its own video interview equipment. Normally, two police officers will conduct such interviews but as the ISVA has had specialist training from the police on interviewing vulnerable witnesses, she can replace one of them. Outreach staff assist victims of violence from clients in filling out an ugly mugs form.

If a sex worker wants to press charges, the ISVA will support him or her in filing an official complaint with the police. If a particular case is going to court, the ISVA will apply early for ‘special measures’, so witnesses can give evidence from behind screens or via a video link to protect their identity and avoid having to face their attacker at court. She will also work with the courts to avoid where possible that the victim has to spend a long time at court waiting to give evidence. If someone is on a methadone prescription, the ISVA can liaise to arrange for people to collect the medicines before court and if someone is homeless, accommodation can be arranged during trials. The work in Liverpool has seen tangible outcomes. The proportion of sex workers giving permission to share their ugly mugs form and full details with the police and willing to make a formal report, increased almost fivefold, from about 20 to 95 percent. Of the eighteen people who have been brought before the court since 2006, fifteen have been found guilty, a conviction rate of 83 percent. Since the Sexual Assault Referral Centre and Rape Support Unit opened, 98 percent of all sex workers experiencing sexual offences have gone to the SARC for full forensic medical examination. No sex workers supported by Armistead have withdrawn their formal statement or refused to proceed. News of success travels fast. Recently, Armistead Street’s example has been followed by other organisations: a further five sex work projects secured funding for an ISVA located in their service in 2010.

Gaining Trust

Building confidence in the police amongst sex workers and gaining trust has been very important in creating these achievements. Strong partnership work with ongoing liaison and communication between Merseyside Police, the sex work project and sex workers has been key. Since 2006, the police have appointed a sex work liaison officer. Linked to this has been a commitment to getting the message out that crimes against sex workers will not be tolerated in the city, hence challenging attitudes that such violence is acceptable. For instance, senior police officers have engaged with the media to communicate the message that sex workers are part of the community and will get the full protection of the law.

The police have also worked at building trust with sex workers providing ‘friendly faces’, routes for reporting, and information and reassurance via leaflets and the media, as well as utilising the intermediary role of the Armistead Street project. Information about cases brought to court and the successful outcomes are shared with sex workers via outreach work and mechanisms such as the ugly mugs newsletter.

All this has seen a real shift in the relationship between street sex workers and the police in terms of violence against sex workers. Many sex workers now expect that the police will take them seriously and many will independently report to the police as well as to the project, through ugly mugs forms. There has been a real shift in balance within wider policing policy of street sex work. The safety of sex workers and collecting evidence are now priorities, and whilst a degree of law enforcement in response to community complaints regarding soliciting does take place, there is continuous contact with Armistead Street. The police now consider the impact of each planned action on the safety of sex workers. Sex workers are also encouraged to work in areas covered by video surveillance for their security.

There is still a long way to go. For example, the police policy applies to sex workers in all sectors of the sex industry but proactive work building trust with indoor sex workers is underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the work in Liverpool shows that real in-roads can be made into enabling reporting, investigating and prosecuting crimes against sex workers if there is commitment and resources are dedicated to do this. Indeed this can happen even within a challenging and problematic framework in which street sex work is criminalised. This highlights that addressing actual violence against sex workers needs to be a strategic and operational priority in all legal settings.

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Related links:

Compromising Positions: Reflections on the Violence Against Women Act

Sexuality & Society welcomes this guest post from Karen Rosenberg, who holds a Ph.D. in Women Studies and directs the Writing Center at the University of Washington Bothell.

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It has been more than 15 years since The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Since becoming law on Sept. 13, 1994, VAWA has provided billions of dollars to bolster the criminal legal response to violence against women, provide services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, and increase protections for battered immigrant women. 

I got into anti-violence work in VAWA’s infancy and continue to wrestle with the questions that brought me to the movement in the first place. These questions include: Why is there so much violence in intimate relationships? What kinds of activism are most effective for reducing this violence? What role should the state play in regulating (reducing violence in) romantic relationships? What role should the criminal legal system play? What role should our communities play?

Working as a legal advocate in a mainstream anti-domestic violence program in the mid-1990s, I saw VAWA as unquestionably good. Finally, there was federal recognition that violence against women is pandemic, and serious, and worthy of public attention. Federal dollars–billions of them—were going to every corner of the country.  

I worked on several projects funded with VAWA dollars. I collaborated with cops and prosecutors to design trainings and improve the criminal legal response to domestic violence. I began to see fewer cops saying “we don’t get involved in domestics,” or telling violent husbands to “take a walk around the block to ‘cool off.’” I helped women navigate the legal system and advocate for their interests and the interests of their children. I brought the concerns of battered women to policymakers. And every few years, when VAWA came up for re-authorization, I contacted my senators and urged them to continue funding VAWA. I saw these changes in the criminal justice and legal systems as the unquestionably sweet fruits of feminist activist labor.

It wasn’t until I interviewed feminist activists in the course of my dissertation research on responses to violence against women in Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia, that I realized that the larger social justice picture was quite a bit more complicated. One activist I interviewed had a particularly powerful critique of VAWA:

“…At first we’re like VAWA has both good things and bad things.  But then I really understood the bad things about VAWA and understood that it was part of…this big, gigantic, monstrous crime bill and inside of this crime bill was where we got…the bullshit around three strikes and mandatory minimums and things that were devastating to our communities.  So if you ask me now whether or not we should have supported VAWA given the money that came to programs and given the general attention that was put on violence against women, both of which are good, I say ‘no.’ (Seattle feminist activist)

Soon after transcribing these words, I began to do some homework. I learned that VAWA, indeed, was part of a massive crime bill. Though then-Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) initially introduced VAWA as a stand-alone bill in 1990, it did not command the necessary support to pass. After 4 years of lobbying and revising the legislation, Congress folded it into a comprehensive crime bill. As legal scholar Rachelle Brooks explains, embedding VAWA into a comprehensive crime bill “…placed many feminists in the awkward position of mobilizing around a measure with which they did not agree.” She goes on to say that:

“…the symbolic act of consolidating VAWA in the Crime Bill means that the legislative system grouped domestic violence with other violent crimes and has framed it as a criminal problem.  By associating domestic violence against women with other criminal acts the state can ignore the many other roots of this violence” (Brooks 1997: 79).

Indeed, a look at the budget for the initial VAWA legislation reflects this commitment to the law and order response: over half of the funding—almost one billion dollars—was allocated to criminal legal system remedies. This was a significant infusion of money into criminal legal organizations and contributes to the perception in the US that cops and courts are intimately involved with and the primary responders to domestic violence. The budget also gave significant funding to social service remedies, most notably battered women’s shelters. However, even this funding helped bring the CLS into women’s lives and communities. Much of the VAWA funding required women’s anti-violence organizations to work collaboratively with CLS agencies (such as many of the projects I have worked on).

Another problematic aspect of feminist support for VAWA—which has received even less attention than the problems with the de facto support of a far reaching crime bill—is the removal of the Racial Justice Act from the final version of VAWA. The proposed legislation would have given inmates of color additional avenues to appeal death sentences. Feminist acquiescence to the removal of the Racial Justice Act led to the all-too-familiar feminist prioritization of gender over race. As Brooks comments, by supporting the final version of VAWA embedded in the crime bill “…feminists implicitly endorsed both the removal of the Racial Justice Act…” as well as the racism in the CLS (Brooks 1997: 80).

Where does this leave us now, nearly 16 years after the initial passage of VAWA? While I am acutely aware of the limits of advocacy within the criminal legal system, I do think it makes a difference that the key players in the criminal legal system receive training and tools to intervene in cases of intimate partner violence. As a result I do not regret my support for VAWA.  I doubt that so much attention, and so many resources, could have been dedicated to address violence against women in the 1990s outside of a law and order frame. 

However, as we approach the 16th year anniversary of VAWA, I believe that activists should continue to rethink violence against women outside of a law and order frame, and make connections between interpersonal violence and other forms of violence (the 2001 Incite!-Critical Resistance statement is a powerful expression of the connections between interpersonal violence and state-sponsored violence). I am inspired by the work of local activist groups exploring community-based responses to violence against women that deemphasize the role of the CLS. This work has included, for example, organizing groups of friends who share information about what’s going on in their intimate relationships to counteract the isolation that often accompanies abuse and creating community dialogue about the impact of specific acts of abuse. Here in Seattle, two groups at the forefront of this work are Communities Against Rape and Abuse and the Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse.

VAWA was born of compromise and the tensions that were present at its inception—the focus on gender at the expense of race, the over-reliance on the CLS—are still very much with us. At the same time, the sustained attention and resources directed toward the problem of violence against women has been genuinely helpful in many ways. The critiques of VAWA that activists and academics have developed over the life of VAWA move us powerfully ahead – pointing us toward the importance of community involvement and the dangers of relying too heavily on cops and courts to change a culture that fosters violence against women.

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Karen Rosenberg directs the Writing Center at the University of Washington Bothell and has been involved in anti-violence against women organizing for over 15 years. She earned her doctorate in Women Studies from the University of Washington and her research explores the contradictions inherent in using the criminal legal system to regulate intimate relationships.

Referenced and recommended sources:

  • Brooks, R. (1997).  “Feminists negotiate the legislative branch: the Violence Against Women Act.”  In C.R. Daniels & R. Brooks, (Eds). Feminists negotiate the state: The politics of domestic violence (65-82). Lanham: University Press of America.
  • Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. (2006). Color of violence: The Incite! anthology. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press.

International Sex Worker Rights Day

It seems appropriate that our follow up to the Facebook “Kill your hooker” story is a post on Sex Worker Rights.

Today, March 3, has been named by sex worker rights activists as a day to recognize sex worker rights as human rights. The following article comes to us via the St. James Infirmary, a free medical and social services clinic in San Francisco run by and for sex workers:

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International Sex Worker Rights Day

The 3rd of March is International Sex Worker Rights Day. The day originated in 2001 when over 25,000 sex workers gathered in India for a sex worker festival. The organizers, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Calcutta based group whose membership consists of somewhere upwards of 50,000 sex workers and members of their communities. Sex worker groups across the world have subsequently celebrated 3 March as International Sex Workers’ Rights Day.

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (2002): “We felt strongly that we should have a day what need to be observed by the sex workers community globally. Keeping in view the large mobilization of all types of global sex workers [Female,Male, Transgender] , we proposed to observe 3rd March as THE SEX WORKERS RIGHTS DAY.”

This year, we celebrate March 3, International Day for Sex Worker Rights with a lobbying day in Sacramento. Our issues include criminalization of out communities, targeting of transgendered workers, migrants and sex workers of color, lack of police protection and recourse in cases of abuse, and targeting sex workers in lieu of addressing the real issues of trafficking.

This March 3rd Sex Workers Outreach Project NorCal members are bringing forth a specific and urgent issue for which we seek you support. Among the numerous hardships which effect our communities, it is surprising that our insistence on condoms for protection is actually used as evidence in prostitution cases by police and District Attorneys in this state. Although sex workers use condoms, it is clear that condom use is inhibited when the mention or use of condoms can be employed against them. This practice is rampant. In fact, two SWOP members are challenging cases which use this type of evidence. The legislation we bring to Sacramento will halt this practice.

As the late Senator Milton Marks wrote in a 1994 letter condemning this practice, “The result of this has been a fear among prostitutes to use condoms. This is alarming to me and should be alarming to all public health officials, as it runs directly counter to the work we have done in the AIDS pandemic.”

We believe ONLY RIGHTS CAN STOP THE WRONGS.  If you would like to join us please call SWOP 877-776-2004

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Other resources on US-based and international sex worker rights movements include:

The real problem with “sexting”: Adult complicity in labeling teens “sluts,” “perverts,” and “criminals”

“Sexting” — the practice of sending sexy words and images from cell phones from person to person– has suddenly emerged as the newest social problem for American youth. News reports overwhelmingly describe sexting as a new teenage trend which is “alarming,” “dangerous,” and “shocking.” Parents of minors are told be on red alert. Sales are on the rise for “net nanny” controls, which alert parents via a text message if their child visits an “inappropriate” web site and/or sends or receives “inappropriate” email or instant messages. Parents are advised to pay extra cell phone fees to block all images–sexual or not—from their children’s phones. The underlying message of most news reports is this: if parents don’t put a stop to sexting, their children will end up traumatized, endangered, in jail, or dead. Read on, as we’re not making this up.

This sort of alarmist language, suddenly emerging as a sort of moral tsunami, is a fantastic example of what sociologist Stanley Cohen has termed a “moral panic.” According to Cohen, moral panics are reflections not of any inherent physical threat but of threats to existing moral orders. Moral panics are driven by the construction of a “folk devil” — symbolized by a group or a social movement seen as causing a threat to a particular moral order. Using this framework, the moral panic around sexting reflects deeper social fears — for example around loss of parental authority and increasing teen agency over their own sexuality. The folk devil responsible for this moral threat lives in “cyberspace” and in some cases may be “cyberspace” itself.

From what I can tell, the growing visibility of, and panic over, sexting was at first largely generated by media personalities such as Dr. Phil and Matt Lauer of the Today Show. Since then, dozens of news outlets have featured stories on sexting. Surveys on sexting have been quickly conducted and released: MTV asked teens about the prevalence of their sexting; CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked parents about how concerned they were about teen sexting. The results, as reported in the media are as follows: Teens are sexting like crazy, and parents are freaking out.

imagesDr. Phil was one of the first to discuss this on a national stage with a show in April 2009 called, ”Scary Trends: Is your Child at Risk?” In the video promo for the show, Dr. Phil warns in his classic fatherly drawl: “There are some dangerous trends popping up in schools everywhere, and you may not even know if your children are getting involved.”

The camera cuts to video shots of three pairs of young white hands (two identifiably female) punching keys on a cell phone. A voiceover from deep, spooky-sounding male voice says: “The disturbing new trend, called sexting, sending nude shots from phone to phone.” (the word NUDE is flashed on screen).

Next we see and hear clips of a white woman talking about her daughter, who we gather, was a “sexter.” The spooky male voiceover comes back: ”It nearly killed her daughter.” The camera shoots back to the mom, eyes pleading for Dr. Phil’s forgiveness: We thought we were doing everything right, Dr. Phil.” Dr. Phil nods, knowingly. The Spooky voiceover states: “how to protect your children.” The camera cuts back to Dr. Phil, who points to the camera and warns: “Don’t think it’s not your kid!” (Click here to see this short promo).

Dr. Phil’s “Scary Trends” program arrived on the heels of a few stories, some tragic, found in the news in the previous weeks and months. For example, in separate cases, two teenage boys (one in Wisconsin, one in New York) were charged with “child pornography” after sharing digital photos of their girlfriends posing nude. In another case, four middle school girls in Alabama were arrested for exchanging naked photos of themselves (ABC news, March 13, 2009). In all of these cases, the photos were being exchanged for and among peers. None of these photos were sold.  And yet, teens taking pictures of themselves, their partners, and/or their friends are now being labeled and punished as child pornographers by the criminal justice system.

The most tragic stories however are of two teen girl suicides; both killed themselves after they were viciously bullied, sexually shamed, and socially isolated from their peers. In both cases the girls were inadequately defended, and even further shamed and punished by, teachers, school administrators, and parents. Jesse Logan, a vivacious 18 year-old from Ohio hanged herself in her bedroom after being targeted for torment by other girls at school. Jesse had tdy_lauer_sexting_090306.300wsent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend, and in retaliation when they broke up the boyfriend sent the photo to a group of younger girls. The younger girls ran with the photo, using it as a powerful social shaming tool (which of course can only work within a social context where girls’ sexuality is shameful). In an interview with Matt Lauer of the Today Show, Jesse’s mother, Cynthia Logan, said that:

“…she never knew the full extent of her daughter’s anguish until it was too late. Cynthia Logan only learned there was a problem at all when she started getting daily letters from her daughter’s school reporting that the young woman was skipping school.

“I only had snapshots, bits and pieces, until the very last semester of school,” Logan told Lauer. She took away her daughter’s car and drove her to school herself, but Jesse still skipped classes. She told her mother there were pictures involved and that a group of younger girls who had received them were harassing her, calling her vicious names, even throwing objects at her. But she didn’t realize the full extent of her daughter’s despair. “She was being attacked and tortured,” Logan said.

“When she would come to school, she would always hear, ‘Oh, that’s the girl who sent the picture. She’s just a whore,’ ” Jesse’s friend, Lauren Taylor, told NBC News.

Logan said that officials at Sycamore High School were aware of the harassment but did not take sufficient action to stop it. She said that a school official offered only to go to one of the girls who had the pictures and tell her to delete them from her phone and never speak to Jesse again. That girl was 16. Logan suggested talking to the parents of the girls who were bullying Jesse, but her daughter said that would only open her to even more ridicule.

In this same interview with Matt Lauer, Cynthia Logan described her unsuccessful legal attempts (she tried six attorneys) to hold school officials accountable for not intervening in the bullying of her daughter. Lauer turned to his guest, Parry Aftab, described as “an Internet security expert and activist in the battle to protect teens from the dangers that lurk in cyberspace.” In a stunning re-direction of the issue of school accountability for creating bully-free zones, Aftab brought the discussion back to laws about child pornography:

“If somebody’s under the age of 18, it’s child pornography, and even the girl that posted the pictures can be charged. They could be registered sex offenders at the end of all of this. Even at the age of 18, because it was sent to somebody under age, it’s disseminating pornography to a minor. There are criminal charges that could be made here.”

Here’s the take home message we get from the Today Show: don’t worry about madonna/whore dichotomies that are spread among youth and adults. The main thing we should be concerned with is that Jesse “fell victim to the perils of the Internet and the easy exchange of information on cell phones.“ So let’s be clear: The source of Jesse’s anguish and eventual suicide is not the unrelenting and unchecked bullying at school but the fact that cyberspace (folk devil that it is) made her into a perpetrator of child pornography. And don’t forget, parents: child pornographers go to jail, and you don’t want your kid to go to jail.

Hope Witsell was only 13 when she killed herself in her bedroom, also by hanging. Hope, a girl from a conservative Christian Florida family, hadg-tdy-091202-texting-suicide-peace-8a.300w sent a topless photo of herself to a boy crush. The boy showed the photo to a friend, who embraced the opportunity to gain social power by sharing it widely with kids in that school and neighboring schools. The following comes from a story about Hope on Today, MSNBC.com:

While Hope’s photo spread, her friends rallied around her in the midst of incessant taunting and vulgar remarks thrown Hope’s way. Friends told the St. Petersburg Times, which originally chronicled Hope’s story, that they literally surrounded Hope as she walked the hallways while other students shouted “whore” and “slut” at her.

“The hallways were not fun at that time — she’d walk into class and somebody would say, ‘Oh, here comes the slut,’ ” Hope’s friend, Lane James, told the newspaper.

Clearly, the taunts were getting to Hope. In a journal entry discovered after her death, Hope wrote, “Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore! And I can’t be a whore. I’m too inexperienced. So secretly, TONS of people hate me.”

Shortly after the school year ended, school officials caught wind of the hubbub surrounding Hope’s cell phone photo. They contacted the Witsells and told them Hope would be suspended for the first week of the next school year.

Donna Witsell told Vieira that she and her husband practiced tough love on Hope, grounding her for the summer and suspending her cell phone and computer privileges.

In her interview on the Today Show with Meredith Vieira, Hope’s mother was joined, just as Jesse’s mom was, by the same Parry Aftab, proponent of internet safety measures. Again, Aftab directed the viewers away from thinking about adult accountability in protecting the rights of teens to not be shamed and bullied about their bodies. In fact, parents and their girls are all innocent here in Aftab’s view. Aftab even reassured Hope’s mother that her child wasn’t a bad girl; in fact, Aftab points out that Hope’s suicide is actually a sign that she came from a “good” home because kids with good morals have more guilt when they stray sexually:

Good kids are the ones this is happening to; Jesse was a great kid, and now we have Hope,” she said. “Good kids; they’re the ones who are committing suicide when a picture like this gets out.” (Parry Afteb, speaking to Hope Witsell’s mother on the Today Show).

Dr. Phil, the Today Show, and countless other media sources are doing teens, and especially girls a great disservice by offering content, tone, and implications of their sexting panic. Instead, a much more helpful and interesting perspective on the issue would be to explore the following questions and lines of reasoning:

  • What are the gendered sexual, class, and race dynamics of the panic over sexting? It seems that white “good” girls are at most “risk”: let’s talk about why, and what it is that is at stake! Should we panic over boys as well?
  • Why do so many adults remain complicit in the sexual shaming and bullying of kids? What models can be used to talk openly about sexuality at school, and to create a safe learning environment for all kids regardless of their sexual expressions?
  • Related to the above, how do school curriculums that teach/preach abstinence only sex education (which implicitly and explicitly underscore a Madonna/Whore dichotomy) encourage and facilitate the bullying and shaming of girls? How do they set up a gendered system that assumes that girls are usually sexual victims and boys are usually predators?
  • How can sexual health and justice scholars work with parents, teachers, school administrators, and teen advocates around these issues?
  • How does a concern with protecting girls’ sexual purity come at the expense of NOT protecting their sexual and human rights?

Recommended readings & resources:





Introducing (and remembering) Rita Hester: Transgender Day of Remembrance

In the past few weeks there have been several new stories (at least the U.S.)  about young people dressing “queer”  (in other words, playing with gender and not adhering to a rigid sex/gender system), while some school officials wring their hands in dismay. Some officials respond by attempting to BAN gender non-conformity at school, such as we see in the Morehouse College case and in the case of the girl who is fighting to wear a tux for her Senior class photo. One school principle attempted to simply CANCEL an event where gender/sexual non-conformity might be displayed (Alabama prom story). Meanwhile, one official response to gender non-conformity in India has been to simply add another official sex/gender category: voters can now register one of three sexes: male, female, or “other.”

These new developments are gratifying for me to witness, even those that are hotly contested. Sanctions around “appropriate” behavior and appearance expectations are not new, but perhaps what is new is a larger coalition of people (including parents, teachers, students, scholars, and community members) who understand that gender norms are not static, but simply reflective of existing sex/gender/sexuality systems. This larger coalition is part of the reason why Ceara Sturgis, the girl who wants to wear a tux for her Senior class photo, can be so courageous: “I’m standing up for a bunch of people who support me,” she said. “It’s an honor.” This is new, and very exciting.

That said, courage is needed on many fronts when it comes to working for sex/gender/sexuality justice. For the 11th year in a row, we are reminded of the fact that many people still hate and fear gender non-conformists so much that they murder them.

ritahesterThe Transgender Day of Remembrance was initially a response to the murder of Rita Hester, which occurred 11 yrs ago this week (Nov. 28, 1998). Rita’s murder occurred just 5 weeks after the murder of Matthew Shepard (who died of his injuries on Oct. 12, 1998). The story of Matthew Shepard inspired a jaw dropping amount of attention and activism, culminating with The Matthew Shepard Act (criminal justice legislation which imposes harsher penalties for perpetrators of hate crimes) signed by Obama just last month.

In contrast to the mainstream recognition of Matthew Shepard, few in the mainstream, even in the gay movement, have heard of Rita Hester. Unlike Matthew, a white, middle class college boy, Rita Hester was African American, transgendered, and made a living in part through performance. Though the movement inspired by Rita has had to be more grassroots (no People magazine features here), it has been steadily growing. And today, not just in the U.S. but internationally, there are more than 120 separate vigils and events scheduled in remembrance of all the Ritas of the world. eleventh1Please see below for a marvelous article on the meaning of today’s events from Jos, a trans identified author writing for Feministing.com:

Today is the 11th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. This day was created as a time to grieve trans and gender non-conforming people killed over the past year because of fear and hatred. It also serves as a time to raise awareness about violence against trans folks. The event was started by Gwendolyn Ann Smith following the murder of Rita Hester on November 28, 1998. Every year since the day’s founding vigils and memorial events have been held in the US and increasingly all over the world.

This year the TGEU Trans Murder Monitoring project TDOR 2009 update has collected information about over 160 people killed because of other people’s violent reaction to their trans presentation or identity. These numbers represent only those people we know about. We don’t know how many trans folks were actually murdered this year – our identities are so rarely recognized and there is still so little awareness about trans issues and the violence trans folks face that it is safe to say many murders of trans folks went unreported.

Finding accurate information to identify murder victims as trans or killed because of their gender presentation is a consistent challenge. Just this week the brutal murder of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was reported as that of a “gay teen” with male pronouns used when referring to Lopez Mercado. There has been very little coverage of the fact that Lopez Mercado was a sex worker with a female presentation. Murder suspect Juan antonio Martinez Matos said he thought Lopez Mercado was female but then “realized that the teenager was actually male.”

I don’t know how Lopez Mercado identified, but Martinez Matos’ statement tells us that they didn’t conform to his strict understanding of gender: Martinez Matoz thought Lopez Mercado was female and then changed his opinion, the reason given for the murder. So Lopez Mercado’s name has been added to the list of those we remember.

Many of those we have mourned over the years originally had their murders reported as the killing of a gay male. For most we still don’t know how they identified. But Lopez Mercado’s murder reflects those of too many others killed when presenting a gender other than that assigned to them at birth. Some may not have identified as trans but all were killed because of hatred directed towards those who break the strict rules of the compulsory gender binary. They were killed because they did not conform to what someone else thought their gender should be.

The media’s consistent failure to accurately identify trans folks reflects the erasure of and refusal to recognize our identities, lived experiences, and even our very existence. Information that identifies a murder victim as the target of anti-trans violence is often presented in the same way Martinez Matos’ story has been reported: the murderer thought the victim was a woman and killed them when they realized they were actually male and panicked. This narrative erases trans identities, legitimizes perceived physical sex over gender presentation, and paints trans folks as desceptive and the murderer as tricked, suggesting possible justification for murder. Media narratives end up contributing to the culture of violence and hatred targeted towards trans folks by legitimizing this “trans panic” narrative that gives the responsibility for explaining the murder victim’s identity to the very person who killed them.

Based on the murders we know about traditional sexism plays a huge role in who is killed: most people on the list each year had a feminine gender presentation. Other intersections of oppression seem to increase the likelihood of being targeted by anti-trans violence as well. Most of the people on the list are black or Latin@. And many were sex workers, a job that is often the only option for trans folks facing employment discrimination, rejection by family and friends, and high drop out rates from school because of harassment.

As a trans person I know I am a potential target of violence. However, as a person with white privilege not engaging in potentially dangerous work to survive I know I am less at risk than many other trans folks. This certainly gives me pause on Trans Day of Remembrance. I am lucky enough to have access to a pretty big platform when I want to raise awareness about the trans-related issues I care and know most about. Most of the people killed never had the opportunity to share their stories in such a public way.

I share something with everyone who was killed, but there are also major differences between my life experiences and those of most of the people we are remembering. I raise this point because I often feel a degree of appropriation in Trans Day of Remembrance. Many people are entering this day remembering lost friends and loved ones, people with whom they share life experience. But even many trans folks like myself have a very different life story from those killed. While I feel a strong personal connection to this day I also know the stories are not my own. I can mourn but also recognize important power differentials that make other trans folks more likely targets of violence. We must avoid using the stories of those killed to advance consciousness raising projects and a political agenda that is about the needs of trans folks with more relative power and privilege. Instead, we need to be continually working to build a politics that centers the voices and needs of those who are most vulnerable, even within already marginalized populations.

This year there are Transgender Day of Remembrance events occurring in over 120 locations. A list of events can be found here, though there may be an event at a city near you that is not listed so I recommend searching for “Transgender Day of Remembrance” and the nearest city if you would like to participate in a vigil or memorial.