Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)

I had the idea for this blog, name and all, jumping around in my head for a year or more before I finally got down to actually committing my thoughts to writing. As such, it's genesis is a bit more complicated than other blogs. There were a number of sources that lit a fire in me, most prominently my own experiences. One source which has informed me more than others though has been the work of Jackson Katz.

Our world has many problems, but one of the more prominent issues I can decisively point toward is the lack of familiarity the man on the street has with Jackson Katz's oeuvre. His work focuses on prevention of rape and violence against women. Generally I find most people I know would agree that these are certainly problems and that the world would be a better place if their incidence were as low as possible. However many will head for the hills when they hear that he is a feminist.

Feminism has a particularly nasty reputation due to the distortion of its image in the media (for example, bra burning never happened), and the tendency for a saddening number of people to frame it, unfairly, in terms roughly derived from particular sub groups of Second Wave and/or Radical Feminists. A coworker of mine once remarked, “I'll tell ya what feminism says. It says sex is bad and men should go away.” Generally, I find many people I talk to who react negatively to feminism have a view somewhat similar to this.

This isn't true for a number of reasons. For the same reason it is wrong to declare that all devotees are rapists, it is wrong to declare sex negativity and misandry as foundational elements of feminist theory. In fact the field is so diverse that use of the word 'feminism' is eschewed in many circumstances for the more appropriate “feminisms”, whose pluralization alludes to the diverse array of perspectives held on the issue.

What though is “the issue”?

Well, that's difficult to summarize. If you study racism, you'll find that there are different definitions of “racism”, and as such there are different definitions of what exactly “anti-racism” is, and how we ought to appropriately respond to it. Personally, I have always loved the work of bell hooks (she prefers to spell it with all lower case letters). She is a very prominent writer in the feminist movement, comparable in notoriety and respect to the likes of Audre Lord and Andrea Dworkin to name but a few.

She has the unique ability to write with a professional level of precision without becoming over-encumbered by the pretentious magniloquence that marks so much academic writing. What's more, she is conscious of this phenomena. One of her most accessible books is, Feminism Is For Everybody which I recommend to absolutely everyone. Years before that she wrote a very influential, and yet still quite accessible, text called Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, and yet in Feminism Is For Everyone she rightly points out that the academic tone of her previous work rendered it inaccessible to people who didn't have a similar educational background or reading ability. She linked this primarily to classist tendencies, though this being a dev blog I can't help but consider how, in the context of verbal learning disabilities, it is to some degree ableist as well.

I bring bell up for many reasons. One is because, like Jackson Katz, I hope more people expose themselves to her ideas. Of particular interest to me is her definition of Feminism. 

“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center more than 10 years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systematic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.”

See? It's nice and simple like that, unlike other pretentious wind bags. This is the first paragraph of
Feminism Is For Everyone, and the entire book is just the same. It cuts right to the heart of the matter in smooth, simple, unadulterated language. Not only is feminism for everyone, but so is that book, and more importantly the ideas it communicates.

Often I meet people who seem to be, or are, afraid of feminism on many of the grounds my co-worker was, yet bell's work happily sidesteps these. She does this at the very fundamental level of feminism's definition, however she also takes it on much more explicitly. In Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center she devotes an entire chapter to the subject titled, “Men: Comrades in the Struggle”, and later on in Feminism is for Everybody she has another chapter dedicated to the issue called “Feminist Masculinity” which deals with much of the same material.

My reason for bringing all of this up is that April is Sexual AssaultAwareness Month (SAAM), and I feel it is appropriate that I address the issue before the month is out. By no means is it a “fun” topic to cover. I would much rather write about how “normal” devotees are, instead of focus on how our communities perpetuate abuse and assault through direct action or merely turning a blind eye. Yet the issue of sexual assault relates to much of what I have written about since this blog's inception.

To begin with, I ought to define my terms. One definition of sexual assault which I found to be particularly interesting reads, “Sexual assault can be verbal, visual, or anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. It can happen in different situations, by a stranger, in an isolate place, on a date, or in the home by someone you know. Sexual assault and abuse is any kind of sexual activity that is unwanted.” I particularly like that last part, hence the added emphasis.

The only problem I have with this definition is that it is open ended enough to include merely feeling attracted to someone as sexual assault, if we are going to go so far as to define sexual attention as something like, “seeing someone and feeling aroused”, this becomes problematic because arousal isn't always an intentional process. Sorting out the finer points of this definition is another blog for another time, and perhaps one day I'll get to that, though for now it is a suitable definition for discussing the troubling situation of devotees and the disabled.

 Many, many, many devs have tried to assert that, “...we're fucking normal.” However, by focusing on the issues of the very real stigmas faced by devs (and more generally every sexual minority), we often end up, whether intentionally or not, ignoring or minimizing the issue of sexual assault/abuse of the disabled in the Devotee/Pretender/Wannabe (DPW) community. Noted devotee and pretender ParaGirl regularly hosted stolen pictures on her blog until her now infamous interview with New Mobility after which a reader pointed out she was indeed engaging in abusive behavior by hosting stolen photos in her photo stream on her blog.

To her credit she quickly took the pictures down with no fuss. What is interesting to note is that in the past Cathy has made use of “we women” language suggesting that she is certainly no opponent to this issue of sexual assault and abuse. This seems to suggest that she and likely other devs would rather turn a blind eye to issue facing our community.

I've been authoring his blog since late January, and despite getting on the front page of DevGuide (the site for devs online), and reaching close to 10,000 views there still is little said in our community of this. Picture stealing is the dirty secret most devs would rather ignore. This is wrong. This is sexual abuse. There is no way around this.

I've talked about this before, and the answers are the same. Despite what some may say, it absolutely does harm the disabled, though that is not where it ends. This harms their friends, their families, and in many ways it arguably harms devotees as well.

Jackson Katz rightly points out a common fallacy in our thinking about issues of rape and sexual assault. We often characterize these issues as “women's issues”, when in fact men are responsible for between 97 and 99 percent of rape and sexual assault (yet, most men do not rape). By branding them as women's issues, the onus is in many ways tacitly placed on women to care about, and fix the problem. To a degree, this seems like an unexamined ideological relic from the time when it was believed that women invited rape by dressing or acting in a promiscuous manner.

Rape and sexual assault are men's issues. In this same fashion we may understand the sexual assault that is picture stealing and trading as a devotee issue. It is our failing, and we ought to be doing more to put a stop to it. 

This is slightly different from Katz's approach because this crosses sex and gender lines. While gay devs are in the minority there are gay male devs who have stolen and traded pictures without the model or photographer's consent, and, as we have seen with ParaCathy, lesbians are not by their gender, sex, or orientation immune from doing the same. That being said, one of the more consistent points in both the academic and amateur work available on devoteeism points to an overwhelmingly heterosexual male population. Indeed, such appears to be true of all paraphilias according to official sources. 

Regardless, we ought to do something. Jackson Katz has put together a fantastic list to help those of us asking, “What is to be done?” While his focus is on men's roles in ender gender violence, I encourage you as you read this to substitute the word “devotee” for “men” and “people with disabilities” for “women” (or appropriate derivations thereof). 


  1. Approach gender violence as a MEN'S issue involving men of all ages and socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. View men not only as perpetrators or possible offenders, but as empowered bystanders who can confront abusive peers
  2. If  a brother, friend, classmate, or teammate is abusing his female partner -- or is disrespectful or abusive to girls and women in general -- don't look the other way. If you feel comfortable doing so, try to talk to him about it. Urge him to seek help. Or if you don't know what to do, consult a friend, a parent, a professor, or a counselor. DON'T REMAIN SILENT.
  3. Have the courage to look inward. Question your own attitudes. Don't be defensive when something you do or say ends up hurting someone else. Try hard to understand how your own attitudes and actions might inadvertently perpetuate sexism and violence, and work toward changing them.
  4. If you suspect that a woman close to you is being abused or has been sexually assaulted, gently ask if you can help.
  5. If you are emotionally, psychologically, physically, or sexually abusive to women, or have been in the past, seek professional help NOW.
  6. Be an ally to women who are working to end all forms of gender violence. Support the work of campus-based women's centers. Attend "Take Back the Night" rallies and other public events. Raise money for community-based rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters. If you belong to a team or fraternity, or another student group, organize a fundraiser.
  7. Recognize and speak out against homophobia and gay-bashing. Discrimination and violence against lesbians and gays are wrong in and of themselves. This abuse also has direct links to sexism (eg. the sexual orientation of men who speak out against sexism is often questioned, a conscious or unconscious strategy intended to silence them. This is a key reason few men do so).
  8. Attend programs, take courses, watch films, and read articles and books about multicultural masculinities, gender inequality, and the root causes of gender violence.  Educate yourself and others about how larger social forces affect the conflicts between individual men and women.
  9. Don't fund sexism. Refuse to purchase any magazine, rent any video, subscribe to any Web site, or buy any music that portrays girls or women in a sexually degrading or abusive manner. Protest sexism in the media.
  10. Mentor and teach young boys about how to be men in ways that don't involve degrading or abusing girls and women. Volunteer to work with gender violence prevention programs, including anti-sexist men's programs. Lead by example.

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