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by Julia

An investigation by The Baltimore Sun reports disturbing news about the Baltimore City Police Department and its handling of rape cases at every point in the investigation. As a proud Baltimore native and a staunch advocate for women’s rights, this upsets me greatly.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • 4 in 10 emergency calls alleging rape end in on-scene officers dismissing the case, concluding no further investigation is needed. These cases never make it to detectives or prosecutors.
  • More than 30 percent of the cases investigated by detectives each year are deemed unfounded, five times the national average.
  • The number of rapes reported in Baltimore has dropped by 80% over the last 15 years. The FBI reports the national rape rate over the same period of time has dropped by only 8%.

“Of the 194 reports of rape or attempted rape last year,” 62 (32%) were determined to be unfounded. In the vast majority of these cases, police say the victim recanted her story after initially seeking police involvement. If 40% of rape allegations are called “unfounded” in the field, and then 32% 0f those cases that do make it to investigators are delegitimized, the number of women who are suffering in silence from the emotional and physical toll of sexual assault is inexcusably high.

The Baltimore Sun, June 27 2010

A common response to rape allegations – whether in large cities or on college campuses – is that the women are lying, either to punish the alleged rapist, or to detract attention from infidelity, etc. But the facts surrounding rape allegations tell a different story. “Studies suggest the percentage of rape claims that are false is between 2 percent and 8 percent.” In an editorial in Sunday’s paper, The Sun puts it this way:

It is often too difficult for rape victims to come forward, to report their crimes and to see to it that their attackers are brought to justice. The problem is not that women routinely make up rape allegations — who would willingly submit themselves to such unjust public humiliation?

Rape victims often feel ashamed to report their allegations to others in large part because they may have been partaking in activities that are either illegal or embarrassing at the time of the assault. Most experts on sexual assault agree that when victims recant their previous allegations, it is to avoid further emotional turmoil, especially in cases in which police investigators are questioning them in a way which makes the victims feel their stories are not being taken seriously. Victims report being interrogated by detectives while in the ER just after receiving rape kits – some women are even threatened with lie detector tests or cell phone record and video footage investigations. After undergoing such intense questioning, is it any wonder that some women would choose to recant their stories and attempt recovery on their own, rather than having to undergo scrutiny?

Rape is different from other crimes. Not only does it involve a violation more profound than any other crime but it also comes with a social stigma that forces victims to relive the pain again and again. No one suggests that a victim of a carjacking was really asking for it. No one asks whether an assault might really have been consensual. When a robbery victim is on the witness stand, the most private details of her life are not dissected under cross examination.”

The issue of determined a rape as “unfounded” in Baltimore is further complicated by high rates of prostitution and drug usage. One woman reportedly recanted an account of rape because she was “tired of people thinking they can do what they want to people because of her situation being a prostitute.” The message to police should be crystal clear: a victim’s activities at the time of an alleged sexual assault have no bearing on whether or not a crime occurred. Every case should be treated seriously, regardless of whether a woman was high, drunk, disabled, involved in prostitution, wearing a short skirt, walking in a bad area…etc. As to consent, the absence of ‘no’ is not ‘yes.’

Baltimore and Other Cities

There is an egregious disconnect between the reported number of sexual assaults in the city, and, in all likelihood, the number of actual rapes per year. Baltimore is one of only two cities in the nation in which homicide rates are significantly higher than reported rapes (the other is New Orleans, where a similar investigation is being conducted). Baltimore’s reported rape rates match up with relatively low-crime cities like Toledo and San Francisco, while our homicide rates more closely match Detroit and Philadelphia. [see graph]

A group of 50 detectives is responsible for all of the rape and child abuse cases in the city. (The Sun’s investigation uncovered that Detective Anthony Faulk Jr. is responsible for one-fifth of the unfounded reports, shelving 14 cases last year (the next highest “unfounded” case rate among the detectives is six) I would love to sit down and talk to this guy…) According to city procedure, officers in this unit must file chargers before the Baltimore state’s attorney office gets involved with the investigation. This recent rape statistic story has unearthed a longstanding conflict between the Police Department and the prosecutor’s office about who has “charging rights” in sexual abuse cases. Sometimes, there isn’t physical evidence of sexual assault (non-consensual, non-violent sex between a couple could be an example in some cases), and the only thing the police can go on – the only “proof” – is the woman’s word. This shows how vitally important the initial interaction between the victim and the police is in fully prosecuting a rape case.

Other cities (such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) have dealt with the changing nature of investigating sexual assault, as departments become more educated on the ideas of affirmative consent. Departments with relatively good sexual assault response programs often dispatch specialized units to respond to 911 calls. These departments also have specific classifications for sexual assault allegations which are later recanted by the victim – these reports are filed away and can be reopened if/when the victim decides to prosecute. These departments have it right – the focus should be on prosecuting the rapist – not on blaming the victim or making her feel uncomfortable for not having “evidence.”

The Next Step

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has ordered an audit of police procedure and statistics following The Sun’s investigation. As I’ve written previously, Rawlings-Blake has been a solid advocate for women’s rights in the past. Last year as City Council President, Ms. Rawlings-Blake ordered all Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) in Baltimore City to clearly display that they do not offer referrals or services for abortion or contraception. Baltimore was the first major city in the US to enact such a policy. Just last month at a Take Back the Night event in Baltimore, the Mayor spoke out about the importance of recognizing and reducing sexual assault, stating, “The number of women living with the long-term affects of sexual assault is much higher than reported.”

The Sun also reports that a task force has been created to further investigate the procedures of the department as well as look into the cases that have been deemed “unfounded” in the past. On Tuesday, it was announced that a rape hotline would be implemented to encourage victims to come forward with rape allegations by reducing the anxiety surrounding a police interrogation. Until police are adequately trained in dealing with rape reports, outsourcing sexual assault cases to experts is the right call.

Baltimore needs to utilize every possible avenue towards protecting rape victims moving forward. 911 response teams need to be trained to respect every victim and treat each allegation seriously. Investigators need to learn how to tactfully question victims to gain information about the situation, and when to it is time to stop questioning. If rape victims cannot trust their government to take them seriously in their allegations, how can we even begin to think about ways to reduce rape occurrences in our city? Rape victims are violated in the most extreme way. It is now the city’s job to convince residents that they “won’t be victimized again by a callous, cynical police department” and to take action to treat rape victims with the respect that should be afforded to citizens who turn to the law for protection.

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Tab dump

by Julia

Amanda Marcotte on the history of prayer politics. An excerpt:

The 1979 Energy crisis. Instead of responding to the energy crisis through international political pressure and conservationist policies, President Jimmy Carter prayed in a national address that Jesus redo that trick with the water into wine, but this time to create oil. While it didn’t work in 1979, some suggest that the current transition of the Gulf of Mexico into a big bucket of oil indicates that God finally came around to answering that prayer.”

A visual history of the American Presidency. I wish I could have a 10 foot print out of this on my wall.

“Is Sarah Palin a feminist?” I am beyond sick of this “news” story, but this piece (h/t Johnny) clarifies the phenomenon of pro-life women running for (and winning) elected office by focusing on California’s senatorial race between University of Maryland MBA program grad (ew) Carly Fiorina and 3-term incumbent Barbara Boxer.

The loneliness of modern life through real magazine photos of architecture inhabited by yuppies. Very dystopian, very funny.

Do anti-depressants actually make us more capable of acting and feeling politically, as opposed to the common narrative that medicated folks are the real zombies? (Warning: this piece is the intersection of a lot of things I’m interested in (disability rights, activism, anarchism, anti-capitalism, theory, postmodernism, mental health, etc) – it is theory-heavy, but a really interesting read if even a few of the above items interest you. At any rate, thought I’d warn you 🙂 )

19 of the world’s most  complex and dangerous roads. Not tryna drive in Norway. Or Russia. (h/t Paul)

This is a gorgeous cover of Sufjan Stevens’s “Chicago” by Katsby. The ending with the guitar is especially beautiful.

I’ve been late to jump on the Robyn bandwagon, but I’m such a fan of her new(ish) album, Body Talk Pt. 1. Swedish feminist robo-pop? Yes, please. Here is ‘Dance Hall Queen’ with Diplo, but also check out ‘Fembot‘, ‘Dancing on My Own‘, and ‘The Girl and the Robot‘ with Royksopp. Just do yourself a favor and grab the whole album.

Have a lovely weekend, and go USA!

by Julia

I’ve been dealing a lot this summer with a not-uncommon state of conflict within myself (and with my elders) since graduation from college. A lot of me feels like the woman I write about on my résumé – a woman with a fabulously enriching college experience (in an academic and social sense) who is taking the next >2 months to relax in preparation for law school. A major part of this relaxation involves enjoying my independence. I’m grateful to have relative freedom in terms of how and with whom I spend my time during this transition.

Yet it would be disingenuous to paint this summer (and time in my life) as wholly independent of the opinions and pressures of those around me (in both a concrete and abstract sense). As a feminist in my early 20s, I have an indelible internal drive for achievement in every conceivable sense of the word. A major part of this quest centers on surrounding myself with the experiences, resources, people, and places who can both challenge and fulfill me. When I’m on this drive (which is almost always), I want little to stand in my way. I’m autonomous, god damn it!

This indignation, I’m sure, comes from a place of defense against attack. It is no surprise that woman today – even those of us standing in the wake of the second wave feminists – still face daily obstacles towards achieving autonomy. I’ve recently focused my feminism not so much on the idea of equality (with whom?…I don’t want to be like this), but on that of autonomy, which to me seems like I much more difficult, but ultimately more liberating, goal.

All of this is to say that,despite certainly sensing autonomous adulthood at times, I seem to crumble at the slightest sense of a challenge to my expression of choice. Am I aware that my emotional reaction might be a product of my youth? Sure. But I’m exasperated by constantly being told by those older than me (again, abstraction) that I’m incapable of making a choice – about my body, my relationships, my career – without outside input. At what point do young women cross over from being objects of others’s influence to subjects of our own choices?

As you can imagine, it was with great delight that I stumbled across Nancy Bauer’s new article on the New York Times’s feature, The Stone. This feature highlights modern day issues in a philosophical light, so clearly I’d be following it. But philosophy + feminism + dialectics + generational differences in understanding + Lady Gaga? Yea, I’m there, and then some.

I can’t think of a single category in modern society who wouldn’t benefit from reading this piece (maybe if you never interact with young women and never will…), so seriously, click through. Parents should read this. Partners and friends of young women should read this. Most of all, young women: read this.

In summary, Bauer uses the example of Lady Gaga to explain the phenomenon of post-second wave women. Lady Gaga is fabulously independent, seemingly impervious to outside criticism and speculation, and talented in her own right – not to mention progressive on issues of sexuality. At the same time, Gaga is often scantily dressed, pushing boundaries of “acceptable” entertainment, quite thin, and ultimately highly sexualized. What might seem like another analysis of a pop star’s antics quickly becomes entirely relevant to young women through political theory.

Bauer uses both Hegelian dialectics and Sartre’s philosophy on being-in-itself to explain that human beings at once experience themselves as subjects of their own desires and objects of society’s control. Explaining Sartre, Bauer writes:

On occasion we find ourselves pretending that we’re pure subjects, with no fixed nature, no past, no constraints, no limits.  And at other times we fool ourselves into believing that we’re pure objects, the helpless victims of others’ assessments, our own questionable proclivities, our material circumstances, our biology.

de Beauvoir takes this further by asserting that women experience this split more so than men, and often experience subjectivity in a sexual sense. Simone de Beauvoir also realized, however, that women are able to experience subjectivity without sexual objectification, but it is necessary to “re-describe how things are in a way that competes with the status quo story and leaves us craving social justice and the truly wide berth for self-expression that only it can provide.” This redefinition of the world in which we live requires struggle. Simone “warned that you can’t just will yourself to be free, that is, to abjure relentlessly the temptations to want only what the world wants you to want.”

Bauer stumbles when she asserts that Gaga’s autonomy centers solely on her sexuality. I disagree with Bauer (and others) that young women use solely sexual tactics to advance themselves – there are plenty of other choices that parents and elders do not understand that do not involve oral sex or fishnet stockings. What people of previous generations (and perhaps, all those outside of the experiences of young women) fail to realize is this: the choices that we make – even our mistakes – are self-interpreted as a type of power. Bauer admits:

What’s mind-boggling is how girls are able to understand engaging in it [read: deviance], especially when it’s unidirectional, as a form of power.

Until self-expression – sexual or not – is understood by others not as “mind-boggling” but rather natural behavior for female human beings, young women will continue to struggle against the divide between subjectivity and objectivity, until a separation no longer exists.

Tab dump

by Julia

Liz and I will probably be blogging more over the summer as she job hunts and I mentally prepare for law school in the fall. Here’s some of the stuff I’ve been reading. Happy June, readers!

Caitlyn Flanagan’s piece in The Atlantic has generated a ton of controversy. We’ll most likely respond in the next few days, seeing as we’re the girls apparently perpetrating this “cultural insurrection.” Some of our favorite feminist bloggers have responded: Sady Doyle and Jill Filipovic among them.

It is so rare to find commentary on women having children later in life without it being spun as a grave social problem. The Guardian has a great op-ed debunking some of this, and some good commentary here.

Some overlooked stories regarding the BP oil spill. ICE is investigating the immigration status of workers involved in the clean-up effort. File this under Really? Also, capitalism wreaks environmental havoc in places besides the US – just a reminder.

15 billboards that do not belong next to each other.

I’m getting a bit nostalgic for my DC summer intern days. For your entertainment purposes, Overheard in DC (intern edition) and the infamous DC intern blog, which Liz and I are thankful we never graced.

DC film festival round-up. Rosslyn’s ’90s series looks great.

I’m so excited for World Cup 2010. A beginner’s guide and a reluctant reminder that I’m not at all unique in this affinity.

Om nom nom for the day.

I’ve been listening to this a lot (thanks, Crystal Castles Pandora):

by Julia

NOTE: When I watch SATC, I’m not trying to focus on the whiteness, thinness, richness, heterosexualness. That is all a given. So if you’re looking for that in a post, look elsewhere – there’s plenty on that. Or talk to me. Just don’t critique me for my hypocrisy. thanks 🙂

Last evening, I went to see Sex and the City 2 with my mom in Baltimore. Mom and I have shared Sex and the City as one of our girly guilty pleasure shows since I was in high school. Like Grey’s Anatomy, SATC always exists for me when I’m in the mood for semi-self reflection/semi-escapism from a television.  Naturally, the story lines within are familiar, and Mom and I were both interested to see where the lives of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha would go next. In that respect, I was pleasantly surprised (with one major exception). The characters’s modern-day and materialistic existences are clearly not fulfilling them, and it takes a week away with the girls – of course – to remind them of their individual voices and needs.

*Spoilers ahead*

The film begins – where else? – in Manhattan, with the girls reuniting at Bergdorf Goodman to shop the registry for Stanford and Anthony’s GAY wedding. Some critics said these first few scenes were the best in the film, but I’ve never been a big Liza Minnelli fan (nor of overtly gay generalizations), so I’ll leave it to y’all to see the extravagance for yourselves. What I did enjoy about the first half of the film was the peek inside the lives of these women.

Charlotte is still with Harry and her adorable daughters Rose and Lily are proving quite taxing on the couple. Obviously, they’ve hired a gorgeous Irish nanny, Erin, who helps Charlotte out but also raises fears that Harry might cheat with the nanny. DRAMA. Samantha is 52, single, and going through menopause. Fortunately, she has the help of 44 hormones and supplements to maintain her notorious libido. Carrie is entering her third year of marriage with Big, and she worries that they are settling into a “normal” couple routine of nights in with TV and carry out. She also worries that any semblance of asserting herself would render her a “bitch wife who nags,” so she usually acquiesces to Big.

That brings us to Miranda. Miranda has always been my favorite character – probably because she leads the most realistic romantic life, contributes snarky remarks to conversations, and boasts a successful (if tiring) balance between her position as a partner in a law firm and a mother. Miranda’s home life is going well – Brady’s in second grade! – but she is being literally silenced at work by the new senior partner. One boardroom scene reveals the dynamics – all board members are white males, except for one black man and Miranda, a white female. The senior partner, also a white male, consistently puts his hand up to Miranda’s face when she speaks. I was really interested to see where this story line went, and really hoped it wouldn’t turn out that Miranda would quit and become a stay at home mom to avoid losing her voice at work.

Enter Abu Dhabi. I’ll take a few lines from Andrew O’ Hehir’s brilliant (if cynical) review of SATC2 to explain the transition:

“Do you really want me to reconstruct how this movie gets from a gay wedding in Connecticut through the lugubrious scenes of Carrie and Big’s vampire-like existence and onward somehow to a girls-only, all-expenses-paid luxury getaway to Abu Dhabi? Because I can’t.”

So the girls end up in the United Arab Emirates. Suspend your doubts, stifle your cringes with Carrie’s Alaadin analogies, and just roll with it. To keep this post from being too long, I’ll give you my take on the relatively plotless movie: it took a trip to the Middle East to help the women rediscover themselves – the women that I came to know inside and out throughout the series. I think this film would have taken a different turn had the women escaped to, say, Dubai. In a parallel world of excess, it is unlikely that the opportunity for cinematic self-reflection would have manifested. However inaccurate the cultural portrayals were (and they were pretty egregious – more on that in a minute), the comparison between the niqabi women of the UAE and the silenced SATC women was too hard to ignore. Observing one veiled woman being sheltered by her husband in the presence of Samantha’s antics, the girls remark that these women symbolically lack voices, and it is in this revelatory moment that Miranda and Charlotte rediscover themselves.

Miranda quits the big firm and joins what appears to be a public interest firm with an incredibly diverse group of attorneys. Yay! Charlotte takes time to herself and frees herself from the daily mommy routine. Erin, the nanny, is a lesbian – phew, no threat to the marriage there! And Samantha remains fabulously sexually active. Woo! Carrie, on the other hand…ugh. Throughout the series and this movie, she had been the proponent “making your own rules” and disregarding dating scripts. Yet she ends up in the most oppressive relationship of the film. I can only chalk it up to mediocre writing on Michael Patrick King’s part. That, or, you know, hegemonic monogamy or something, but I told myself I’d stay away from that in this blog post…

Much more disturbing than Carrie’s story line was the portrayal of “the other” in this film. Sadly, this includes the women and men of Abu Dhabi. I do not claim to be an expert on orientalism,  but even a cursory analysis of the film unveils obvious mischaracterizations. Just as the film portrays the SATC women in a overly materialistic, immature, and shallow light, so MPK paints Muslim women as universally silenced by aggressive men and their religions. This type of cultural misunderstanding is painfully accurate of Western perspectives on Islam of late (see: Sarkozy.) Muslim culture is exploited by the film in order to liberate the oppressed women of SATC. As Salon’s Wajahat Ali notes, this only results in further isolation of Muslim women – they are cast as intriguing, mysterious, and…silent. Our girls could have engaged with local women – at one point, I thought they were going to lead a feminist uprising of sorts! But, alas, the only cultural immersion consists of Carrie purchasing shoes for all of the ladies from a local vendor. In this way, our Manhattan visitors repeat the time-honored tradition of exploiting the natives in order to liberate themselves. (Ali also notes that the SATC women never exchange a word with any veiled women. I propose the creation of a new cultural Bechdel test.)

A greater message could certainly have included an anti-materialistic spin. For certain, “the ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense.” It would seem that a materialistic existence in NYC hasn’t proven to be everything to everyone, but let’s not go too far, America. Could it be that MPK perhaps put feminism first, and in the next installment the girls will kick capitalism to the curb (with thrift store Louboutins!)? Nahh, probably not. Because, let’s be real, the clothes were fabulous. With the exception of  this film’s Ms. Exception, Carrie Bradshaw. Seriously, that skirt in the market? wtf.

No, what we’re left with is exactly what we expected: an escape into a world of material excess and personal strife. And, like all good “chick flicks,” this one made me pretty damn happy to be where I am.

by Julia

So the final short assignment for one of my classes asked me to answer the question, “Are you a feminist? Why or why not?” What follows is my rant, which will also answer some of the questions I’ve been getting about my previous post regarding feminism and capitalism.


I have to say, I was giddy when I saw the question for this assignment. “Easy!” I thought, of course I am a feminist. I have feminist pins on my bag, feminist books on my shelf, feminist  bumper stickers on my laptop, and a facebook page absolutely dripping with feminist quotations and affiliations. But it is this very immediate association that I had – the things that “made me feminist” – that is also making me question my identification with the word, “feminist.” Certainly, I believe in the tenets of feminism – I intend to devote my life to gender equality under the law. I believe in access to abortion for women who need one. I believe in access to parental leave so that women can work and not be burdened unequally with raising a child. I believe in health care reform so that women are not discriminated against for their preexisting conditions or gendered medical conditions by insurance companies. I believe that girls and boys have equal opportunities for accession to whatever career they choose and that biology does not determine one’s intellectual potential.

I believe all of these things, but I simply cannot fully “own” the term feminist in our current culture. As I wrote in my gendered institutions paper, feminism has been co-opted by capitalism to represent a certain type of woman: thin, hyper-sexualized, heterosexual, white, and affluent. Femininity is constructed by capitalism to be an unattainable goal, yet the modern conception of feminism is something that is already attained – by employed women and their self-purchased products of fun.

Feminism to me represents much more than one’s own identification. Feminism is the creation of a community of women with the power to overcome patriarchal controls on their lives. Feminism should never be unattainable for anyone. Feminism is not individual – it is at its core built from commonalities. If to be a feminist is to strive towards this goal in one’s daily actions, then yes, I am a feminist. But I will not identify as a feminist if all that means is someone who buys a vibrator and isolates herself from the rest of her comrades who are striving to eliminate barriers and realize a common struggle.

by Elizabeth

Note: A version of this post first appeared on My Life. My Choice. My Vote., the blog of NARAL Pro-Choice CT, where Elizabeth just finished her policy internship.

This month marks the 50th birthday of the birth control pill in the United States, prompting a TIME Magazine cover story, various histories of contraception, and the looming question: why, after half a century, are almost half of all pregnancies in the U.S. still unplanned?

Of the 3.1 million unintended pregnancies per year, almost half (48%) involve contraceptive failures. In 52% of the cases, couples used no birth control at all. As Melinda Beck of the Wall Street Journal points out, to begin to answer this question, we must untangle a complex web of cultural, religious, behavioral, educational and economic factors.

Contraception still presents a financial barrier for many people, often complicated by culture and religion. Though most insurers now cover contraceptives, co-pays and deductibles can still present obstacles, and as was drilled into our heads earlier this year, before the reform bill, over 49 million Americans were uninsured.

Yet more importantly, Beck points to the behavioral tendencies which have failed to stop unplanned pregnancies:

And many young people are in “the fog zone” in which their beliefs about pregnancy don’t match their behaviors, according to a 2009 report by the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In a survey conducted by the Guttmacher Institute of 1,800 single men and women aged 18 to 29, more than 80% of both sexes said it was important to them to avoid pregnancy right now, yet 43% of those who are sexually active said they used no contraception or used it inconsistently.

Though we’ve gone a long way in the 50 years since the pill’s FDA approval, it’s clear that the need for education, support, and resources is still immense.

There is no doubt that sex education works and yet 29 states do not mandate these programs in their public schools. According to the Guttmacher Institute (please hire me!!):

  • Some 35% of US public schools with a policy to teach sex education require abstinence to be taught as the only option for unmarried people and either prohibit the discussion of contraception altogether or limit discussion to its ineffectiveness. The other 51% have a policy to teach abstinence as the preferred option for teens and permit discussion of contraception as an effective means of preventing pregnancy and STIs.
  • More than one in five adolescents (21% of females and 24% of males) received abstinence education without receiving instruction about birth control in 2002, compared with 8–9% in 1995.
  • Every year, roughly nine million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) occur among teens and young adults in the United States, an extremely high rate as compared among teens in Canada and Western Europe.

So why, in a world of countless pills, the ring, the patch, implants, and condoms for women and men, do women still get pregnant unintentionally? Because without comprehensive services, adequate public funding, or supportive laws and policies, a victory fifty years ago can only take us so far.