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The buzz around town is the release of a “high risk sex offender”. Here is the link: High Risk Sex Offender Released in Burlington, if you would like to read more. Surely you have seen this already as it has been all over the news and social media.
The fear is real.
Today, we have had a record number of requests for our women’s self-defense classes. I can’t even respond to them all. Individuals, companies, mothers and daughters, groups of friends; women of all ages who share one thing:
Their fear is real.
I have a daughter who lives downtown and I know several young women who live there as well.
MY fear is real.
Not only has the news been covering this man’s release, but various police departments have been posting tips for women on how to keep yourself safe. On the surface, this is great. Below the surface, it is beyond infuriating. Look at this detailed page of well intentioned tips.
It is a very long list of what women should or should not do. Let me get this straight: a high risk offender is released, and now I—and all women--have even more things to do. His freedom has cost me mine.
Aren’t we missing the point with these lists?
Truthfully, I wasn’t really free anyway. These lists aren’t new. I grew up with lists of things that girls/women should or should not do regarding our safety and many, many other things. Perhaps you did too.
I think we are making lists for the wrong people. To borrow a quote that I heard at a wonderful UVM conference yesterday on “Dismantling Rape Culture”:
Rather than learning to accept the things that we cannot change, we need to change the things that we cannot accept.”
I cannot accept that the best that we can do is to make lists for women or other potential victims. This only underestimates the power of men in being an instrumental part of the solution and it ignores the bigger picture of our culture and community. And it places the responsibility for safety on the potential victim rather than on the perpetrator who actually owns responsibility for his/her actions.
We can do better. If we must make a list, let’s make one for how we can create a community of respect, connection, peace and safety.
by Darcy Richardson Miller
(noun) permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.
(verb) give permission for something to happen
Pretty basic stuff when we're just looking at the definition, but when we talk about what consent is in a sexual situation or what it looks like it is sometimes less clear.
If I've consented to flirting does that mean I've consented to kissing? If we've had sex before does that mean my consent is still valid even after that fight? If I've had several drinks can I still consent? Is silence consent? If I've stopped saying no is that consent?
Obviously I have answers to those, but I would bet that if I presented those scenarios to a group of people a discussion would result without unanimous agreement.
And these examples above are exactly why I support the affirmative defense legislation and "yes means yes" campaign which I discussed in our last post here.
What we need to be focused on when talking about consent is a continuous, enthusiastic agreement to the activity proposed. If I'm flirting, that may be all I'm consenting to. I'm out to have fun and that's it. I may be wearing this dress because I love how the color brings out my complexion and I feel confident, not because I'm looking to score. Consent may occur only to a certain level and that is ok. That is something that should be discussed.
It's also not a zero sum game. If I've agreed to what we've done so far it does not mean that I've relinquished all rights to say no after. If we've had sex before, that does not mean consent is forever. Makes sense right? But how do we know that? Well, there can be subtleties, tension, pushing away, but what we need to work on is both an awareness of signals, but also to encourage clear communication. "Is this ok?" Again, that's why I like the focus on only yes means yes because it forces me to ask how you feel about this.
What about alcohol? Well, we know that alcohol is used in 50% of rape cases on either the victims or the predator or both sides. (A caveat that every time we're dealing with rape and sexual assault statistics that these crimes are under-reported and therefore so are the stats.) In terms of alcohol we know that alcohol impairs cognition skills. There's a reason you can't sign your mortgage or make a plea agreement in court if you're under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Get it? Because alcohol takes away your ability to consent to those things. Same with sexual contact.
Now what about the case of silence or if one person finally stops saying no? Is that consent? No, it's not. Part of the problem is that we've raised generations of men and women to believe that women must say no and men must push until it happens. We've made it so a woman who enthusiastically consents is a whore and to protect her purity she has to say no and feign objection. We've made it so men think they have to push to prove their manhood and that a no is just the opening to negotiations and not an actual objection.
This hurts both men and women.
By making it so only "bad girls" consent, an objection means nothing. By making it a game we force our men to push and disregard a woman's feelings.
A no must be respected. But a yes must be sought! Without a sober yes, there is no consent.
Talking about sex can be hard, but we have to do it. Clear communication, and a respect of that communication, can reduce the number of assaults that happen. Most of the time it's not the stranger in the alley and we need to acknowledge this by empowering both men and women to have the ability to consent and the ability to say no, but most importantly the knowledge that consent is something that needs to be granted, not something assumed.
This is a great article on a sexual consent class in Oxford that I would love to see more of.
Until next time. Take care!
by Darcy Richardson Miller
If you haven't heard of the legislation you can read about the recent passage in California here. There has also sadly been a large amount of backlash against the legislation. In most cases it's simply a misunderstanding of what the law is and why it's important, in the other cases it's more of the same denial of sexual assault as simply "bad sex" or lying women trying to get men in trouble.
For those on that extreme end, I fear there is little to be said. Reality will be denied regardless of what we say, no matter how awesome the Safety Team is. (And we are quite awesome!) For those others I think we can help.
What is "Yes means Yes?" Yes means yes legislation requires affirmative consent. This means that
for sexual contact to be consensual both parties must have agreed to it with a yes. This means that if a person is asleep or unconscious, sex is never consensual. It means that there is clear communication and for those worried about rape accusations coming from miscommunication, this is unambiguous. Yes is yes, anything else is no.
How is that different from "No means No?" It's a subtle, but vital distinction. First off if we think of the default with "no means no" it means that I have access to your body unless you say no. It means that the default is always consent, and it is your responsibility to stop me.
Think about that for a minute.
That's how we talk about sexual assault in our culture. It is your responsibility to stop it if you don't want it to happen. That is powerful and as a woman, a bit defeating to think about. It's a tremendous burden.
Now, think about the default with "Yes means yes." It changes the entire conversation because now it's not about stopping something from happening, it's about consenting. True consent. It means I do not have any access to your body until you say yes. That means that sexual contact happens when we both agree to it.
That change in default is an important one in terms of how we think about sexual relations. It makes us equals in the decision making process and that is an amazing step forward!
In my professional life I work with sexual assault and rape cases. Too often the conversation goes as follows: "I said I didn't want to." "But you didn't say no?" "I pushed him away." "But you didn't say no?" "I was sleeping, and I woke up with him on top of me." "But you didn't say no."
That has to end. The burden should not be to stop the contact. The "burden" should be to get consent.
Doesn't it place an extra burden on the accused?*teeth grinding* I am unsympathetic to this question, but I keep seeing it on the internet so I figured I should respond. The burden at the moment is all on the victim to prove that she was raped. This involves discussion of what she was wearing, whether she liked him, whether she was a virgin, whether she was drinking etc. (And yes, men are raped too, but they are rarely asked the same questions.)
In my mind this one thing takes pressure off of both parties. It is clear and should free up any concern of miscommunication. And for the life of me I can't see why anyone would object to getting a yes. Is it so hard to say, "Do you want to have sex?" If it is, then maybe we should be talking about that issue and why we can't talk about sex.
Maybe we should ask why we're more comfortable with women (and men) being raped than we are with talking about sex. Food for thought.
Doesn't it ruin the moment? This is silly to me, but I would remind people that the same arguments were made against condoms. Thankfully we got over that and many people have perfectly satisfying sexual relations while also being safe. Communication is sexy. Period.
Now, do I think this legislation will stop rape? Unfortunately no. I do however think this is an incredibly important step forward. It's an important shift to the conversation and for the first time states clearly that women and men, have a right to dictate what happens with their own body. This is crucial.
Hopefully parents and educators will take this and help frame the conversation of how we talk about consent. What is consent? When do you have it? But, that is a topic for another blog post. Until then, take care!
by Hillary Boucher
I absolutely love to travel. Getting to experience different areas of the country (and the world) is probably one of my favorite things. I am also lucky enough that when my boyfriend has a work trip, I can often swing going. Then only thing better than a trip is a trip where the hotel room is completely covered by someone who isn't me. This does however put me in situations where I am in large cites (which compared to Vermont that’s really not a difficult feat) that I’m completely unfamiliar with and I’m usually left to my own devices. I have the advantage that Chris knows the area at least a little, and we are usually staying in a business district of some kind so I know the neighborhood is safe, and that the hotel probably has decent security in place.
Typically my day involves a trip to the hotel gym, breakfast, and then wandering around the city. When I’m done I usually find my way back to the hotel, and I kill a few hours reading by the pool or just watching TV in the room until Chris gets back from the office. This means I spend time in my room and in the common areas. Hotels have always had this unique feeling to me, it’s both incredibly public and yet so very private. People are really trusting because it’s supposed to be a safe place, your home away from home. I have also found that when you’re staying in a place full of people dressed in business attire, it is easy to drop your guard.
When I am in my hotel room I always make sure that I have the door locked, and not just the deadbolt, always use the chain (or whatever the door has on it) and never prop the door open. Always know who it is before you open the door, if its unexpected person who is calling themselves hotel staff, feel free to call the front desk to verify.
When I go to the gym the first thing I do is look around and make sure I know where the exits, the rest rooms, and pool are so that I know where people may be coming and going. I always make sure that my headphones are low enough that I can hear doors open and close, and I do my best to position myself in ways where there aren’t any obstructions to seeing the room and doors, mirrors really can help.
I personally think elevators are the worst part; they are these little boxes that get filled with people who end up in your personal space and then go up hundreds of feet in the air. Anytime stairs are an option I do try to take those (good for burning off dinner too!). More times than I can count I’ve have other women get on the elevator, turn their back to me then pay more attention to their phones than anything else. When I walk only the elevator I make sure my phone and mp3 player are put away and that I know where my room key is (preferably in my pocket so I don’t have to try and find it when I get to my room). I do my best to stand with my back against the wall so that I can see the other passengers, and when I go to get off on my floor I actually make sure no one else is getting off with me – certainly not behind me. I’ve more than once back tracked like I had gotten off on the wrong floor, into the areas with the vending machines, or even just faked a phone call so I could stand where I was and talk.
The biggest thing I can stress is being aware. Be aware of the neighborhood, be aware of other guests, and be aware of your own surroundings. If being safer only costs a few minutes of time and energy, then it’s well worth it.
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