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Posts Tagged ‘consent’

by Julia

A good male friend recently asked me what percentage of the television shows I watch fit into the category of “Women Who for Some Reason Embrace the Patriarchy.” Avoiding the cop-out answer that “all popular culture reflects the patriarchy,” I realized that it’s a pretty large percentage. Anyone who has lived with me or spent any time in front a television with me knows that when I’m not watching The Wire or Ravens football, there’s a good chance that I’m watching TLC or MTV. I was into Jon & Kate plus 8 before Kate went blonde, I started watching the Duggars when they were at 13 Kids and Counting (now at 20, I think?), and I’m pretty sure my college roommate and I threw a watch party for the premiere of 16 and Pregnant (long before there were domestic violence awareness commercials at every break during Teen Mom).

Disregarding the fact that having articulated that list kind of makes me want to self-revoke my college and high school diplomas, I observe that all of these shows revolve around women reproducing, and either reproducing a lot or reproducing at a stigmatized age – both of which are categories of reproduction that I have neither experienced nor known anyone to experience. There are a lot of class observations to be made here (Kiera, I’m totally going write that post on dialectics and Teen Mom), but I want to focus this post more on the latest addition to my television line up (no, not Boardwalk Empire, though it is amazing): TLC’s Sister Wives.

Sister Wives documents the lives of Kody Brown, his three wives – (l-r) Janelle, Christine, and Meri -and their 13 children in Lehi, Utah. They lead relatively normal lives – all but one of the children attend public school, they wear conventional clothes, etc – except they all live in the same house with three separate apartments for each of the women, through which Kody rotates on a schedule, sleeping with a different woman each night. At first, it seems like Kody makes a real effort to spend equal time with each of the women (his meticulous schedule helps him – vomit). But as the show progresses, it’s clear that there is some serious inequality going on, all of which manifests in major jealousy among the wives. The show revolves around the major plot twist: 16 years since his last marriage (to Christine), Kody wants to add another wife to the family – Robyn (far right).

This show got over 2 million viewers for the premiere, and with such viewership comes, obviously, scrutiny. The scrutiny wasn’t limited to the Today Show, however: Utah police are looking into possibly prosecuting the Brown family for bigamy. Not really surprising given the huge media attention, and with this whole law school thing going on, I didn’t pay much attention to the progression of the story. That is, until my Torts professor announced that he would be representing the Brown family. My professor, a constitutional law scholar, explains his reasoning here.

So my fascination with the polygamist, patriarchy-embracing family took on a legal flavor. I hopped on my legal statute search engines and dug up the history of bigamy prosecutions in Utah. Turns out, there aren’t many. The ACLU gives a great summary here, but basically it comes down to this: “a person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.” In the case of the Browns, Kody is only legally married to Meri, his first wife, and he cohabits with the other three women, thereby falling under this statute. Historically, Utah courts have be hesitant to prosecute claims of bigamy unless there are allegations of other crimes in the relationship: rape, incest, child abuse, etc. (More on the definition of “crime” as construed under this statute in a bit.) The reason for turning a blind eye? The Fourteen Amendment and, ironically enough, the landmark civil rights case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003). In Lawrence v. Texas, a Texas law criminalizing sodomy  was found to have violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the court said “absent injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects, consenting adults enjoy the freedom to define their private intimate relationships within ‘the confines of their homes and their own private lives.'” This same legal principle contributed to the relative freedoms women enjoy under Roe v. Wade.

Is this a matter of “Bigamy! From the people who brought you anal sex and abortions!”? As you would imagine, it’s not quite that simple. But the protection of privacy (and, in this case, the expression of religious beliefs) is what allows consenting adults to partake in polygamist marriages, absent any other crimes. As the ACLU points out, these other crimes can and should be prosecuted under other statutes.

However, by criminalizing private, consensual, adult relationships that are motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs, we fail to live up to the constitutional promise that consenting adults be free to maintain and define their personal relationships without fear of government interference.

So that explains why my professor is representing them. However, this is the same professor who spent the first two weeks of law school talking about Hegel, Critical Legal Studies, Queer Legal Theory, and Feminist Legal Theory. So how does feminism fit into all of this? I believe it all comes down to whether or not something as nebulous as patriarchy can be criminalized (answer: it can’t…who writes and enforces the laws to begin with??). But should patriarchal exploitation be criminalized in relationships between (or in this case, among) “consenting adults”? It is clear that there’s some major inequality going on in this family. I think a lot of what I’ve observed is pretty easily surmised, so I’ll just include two select stories that epitomize the relationship.

On their twentieth wedding anniversary, Meri and Kody discuss some of the jealousy problems that arose when Robyn was added to the family. Meri asks Kody the question that I had been wondering throughout the series: “How would you feel about me taking on another husband, or having another male lover?” Kody’s answer: “The thought of you with another guy sickens me and seems wrong to me. I feel like you want me to admit that what I’m doing is unfair – and that’s just not an emotion I’m willing to address.” Wrong on so many levels, all of which come down to patriarchy.

The most disturbing quotation from that same scene came when Kody and Meri discussed having another child. Meri and Kody have one child together, a teenage daughter, and though Meri used to want to have more children, fertility issues have prevented that, and now she has decided she doesn’t want to try for more children any more. She tells Kody that she doesn’t want to do in vitro fertilization, at which point Kody smiles and turns to the camera and says, “I haven’t been told ‘no’ in a strong enough fashion for it to mean ‘no’ yet.” I think that pretty much epitomizes the problems encompassing the entire show. Consent in this relationship, it seems, is a one-time deal. All of these women did choose freely to enter into this relationship, knowing that they would take on more wives, etc. But when it comes time to add the new wife, there really isn’t any negotiation – it’s the Kody Show. And this type of inequality, writ large, is the Patriarchy Show. And guess what? It’s not limited to polygamist marriages.

I’ll leave the analysis on deconstructing patriarchy within heterosexual relationships to another time (or perhaps another person), but it is essential to recognize that inequality pervades all relationships if you don’t actively resist it. This doesn’t mean we should stop having partnerships, but it does mean we all need to work incredibly hard to live up to the name we give our interactions and truly act as partners. The clear problem in Sister Wives is not the polygamy, it’s the patriarchy. There is no negotiation, no consent-seeking, and, therefore, no equality. And that’s incredibly oppressive and detrimental to women.

But should the state be intervening to prevent exploitative, patriarchal relationships? I’m sure you could find some feminist legal scholars out there who would argue for the criminalization of polygamy on these grounds, but then how many monogamous relationships would crumble under similar examination? While it pains me to watch the jealousy that plagues these women in this incredibly unequal relationship, I can think of other reality shows that portray similar levels of misogyny within supposedly “normal” marriages – rife with cheating, deceitful husbands and crying women left at home wondering what she did wrong. And I can think of millions of monogamous, “real-life” relationships that lack communication and equality.

The answer, then, is not to try to criminalize inequality in marriages. From a constitutional perspective, it’s a complete invasion of privacy. From a practical standpoint, it’s impossible. And from a feminist standpoint, it’s just not the right route. We need to strive towards demanding equality in our relationships. This comes from empowering both men and women to seek and desire consent in every iteration of the word, and to desire equality in their relationships. Partnerships can come in many forms, and it’s not my role to judge someone else’s choice, how many partners they want to have, or whether they want to have any all. It is my role, however, to be concerned with the lack of consenting partnerships. A partnership is a grounds for constant renegotiation of boundaries. What one initially consents to should not be binding. What breaks my heart about this show, then, is not that these women are in a polygamist relationship, but that they are stuck, like so many other women, in relationships that no longer make them comfortable and no longer fulfill them. The way to rectify this situation is not to criminalize their partnership, but rather to empower women and men to strive for a world in which no one exists in a oppressive partnership, for at that point, it ceases to become a partnership at all.

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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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by Julia

I’m reblogging this post from the SdS Womyn’s Caucus Blog. It is written by a fellow student at UMD, Aliya Mann, who also happens to be a member of our new Women’s Collective. Aliya and I share a lot of the same feelings on polyamory within activist communities and concerns about how to reconcile existing relationship models with feminism. Feel free to comment!

By Aliya, College Park

* This is not meant to be offensive to anyone who is involved in or supports monogamous or polyamorous relationships- it is just my thoughts on the potential issues of both relationship models and my opinion that they leave little room for the existence of an alternative. I am speaking as a hetero-privileged cis-gendered woman involved primarily in heterosexual relationships.

That being said…

As feminists, we can effortlessly recite the laundry list of reasons why monogamy can be problematic- it is based on heteronormative ideals of relationships, it features marriage/children/establishment of home and family as the culminating events of the relationship (and marriage is a patriarchal, misogynistic, homophobic, and religious institution, while we’re at it), and it leaves little room for sexuality/sexual exploration outside of the confines of the relationship. So polyamory shines in comparison as the progressive, feminist, sex-positive alternative to monogamy, right? But indeed, polyamory has its issues, although it may provide more wiggle room than monogamy, and ideal polyamory has the notion of sexual liberation, choice, and defiance of gender roles and expectations built into it. But yet it often does not work, even within communities of progressive activists and radicals- so why is this the case? If everyone is open, honest, sex-positive, and most importantly consenting, then what is the issue? Why, if someone is not wanting a serious relationship, is into casual sex and dating, and supports alternative relationship models, does polyamory still feel uncomfortable at times?

Male privilege and patriarchy: It seems like a lot of problems can be blamed on patriarchy, but for good reason, because it kind of throws a monkey wrench into everything. As much as men who are in polyamorous situations don’t want to admit it, they have privilege as males that needs to be recognized, openly communicated with to their partners and other people in their lives, closely examined, and checked. No matter if a man thinks a woman has the power in the relationship because- A: she can withhold sex from them/break up with them at any time, B: there are more women than men involved in a particular polyamorous situation, or C: the man has done everything possible to make the situation peachy keen- recognize that women wouldn’t be totally wrong for feeling powerless in poly situations. Women have been socialized to believe they are the weaker sex, have been told that their sexual liberation and freedom is wrong (or slutty, or whorish, or what have you), there continues to be a double standard for women who date and/or have sex with multiple partners, and many women have been taught since youth that they should aspire for only heterosexual, monogamous relationships inevitably leading to marriage and children.

Exploitation: Men and the patriarchy often make it their aim to define and exploit female sexuality for their own gain. By equating polyamory with female sexual liberation and equating anything else (whether it be monogamy or something in between monogamy and polyamory) with being anti-sexuality and sex-negative, exploiters continue to define female sexuality for their own purposes and benefit. Women are often not taught that it is okay to be sexual and to explore alternative sex/dating/relationship models, and thus often do not have the words or ideas to define their sexuality in a manner that is easily understood or accepted by society. It is important for all individuals to be given the resources and opportunity to define and understand their sexuality for themselves, and their partners should only facilitate and encourage that learning process.

Exclusion (this doesn’t directly apply just to poly relationships but to relationships in general): Women are often underrepresented within activist and radical communities and often feel unwelcome, so they may look for companionship with a more veteran member of the community. Sometimes this companionship/friendship can turn into a dating and/or sex situation, but even if this occurs with consent from both partners, it can still be damaging to the newer member if they feel like their only link to the group is through their partner (and this may be the case, depending on how exclusionary the group is).

Sexism and misogyny: We know it goes on in purportedly progressive and radical communities, but are folks in the community, especially men, actively fighting and speaking out against it? It might not be said in the presence of women, but if hateful comments or rhetoric aren’t explicitly revealed in one form or another, they manifest themselves through other more subtle behaviors and actions that make women and other traditionally unrepresented or marginalized groups feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, and unwanted. An organization such as SDS, while not making women’s rights the focal point of its activism and work, would be wise to address issues such as sexism and misogyny in terms of how they apply to the larger scheme of its organization’s mission and how these can effect the inner workings of the organization itself. Capitalism largely operates by exploiting all marginalized groups, including women, and by maintaining societal power inequalities that continue male privilege and female oppression. If sexism and misogyny are not addressed by the community and/or the organization where it happens, then women cannot be faulted for feeling uneasy in poly situations that already have within them male privilege and the fear of exploitation.

Consent: Verbalized, enthusiastic, open, honest, and non-judgmental consent is essential to any relationship, and especially so in a poly relationship, so this shit needs to be acknowledged and discussed on a reoccurring basis with partners. Women who participate in a poly relationship are not open or up for anything, but that is often the perception of outsiders who observe the situation (if they’re okay with that, they must be okay with anything!), although consent is never negotiable in any situation. If a community does not address the importance of consent and establishing boundaries, they do not put in place a framework to make women feel comfortable enough to engage in alternative and/or poly relationships. They also fail to develop resources and a foundation for dealing with instances where folks feel like their boundaries have been violated in any way or they have been mistreated by someone within the community.

So then, where does all of this leave those of us who don’t conform to either traditional monogamy or polyamory relationship models? I really have no clue, so I pose this question to anyone reading who has an idea. Why don’t we allow for as much exploration and openness with relationship models as we do (at least within activist and radical communities) with gender, sexuality, etc.? And if we do, we certainly don’t devote as much time to discussion about or exploration of these issues as with other important aspects of identity.

H/t to this piece for some great thoughts on the subject.

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by Julia

A Massachusetts mother, thirty-five-year-old Tessa Savicki, is suing a hospital for forced sterilization. Savicki went into the hospital in 2006 to give birth to her ninth child via Cesarean section. She brought an IUD with her and asked the doctors and nurses present to insert it for her. Instead, Savicki claims, the doctors performed a tubal ligation, an irreversible form of sterilization.

While the hospital is claiming that Savicki signed a now-missing consent form at the time of the procedure, she denies any consent. The Boston Herald adds:

Savicki has nine children from several men, is unemployed and relies on public assistance for two of the four children who live with her. She receives supplemental security income, or SSI, for a disability, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she said. Her mother has custody of three of her children. Two of her children are no longer minors.

Additionally, “Savicki previously sued CVS and the manufacturers of a spermicide that failed because, she claims, she was sold an expired product.”

While the courts figure out the details of the case, the public has been quick to judge the hell out of Tessa Savicki. They point to a number of reasons that would somehow negate Savicki’s right to control her reproductive choices:

  • She already has nine children – she doesn’t need any more!
  • She is poor and relying on the government for assistance – I don’t want to pay for her kids!
  • She’s disabled…obviously, unfit!
  • She’s unemployed! (read: lazy)
  • She isn’t married! Horror!
  • She has slept with more than one man!
  • She’s litigious and just looking for $$!

I’ve spoken to a few feminist friends today about this and have had some surprising reactions to the story. Many of them, when confronted with my statement, “no matter the circumstances, someone else shouldn’t be able to sterilize you without your consent…” get a little iffy, pointing to the reasons above for fodder. How can these women who so staunchly defend a woman’s right to choice in NOT having a child suddenly contradict themselves when faced with a less-than-ideal (meaning not middle-class) mother figure? We’ve seen this kind of mother-shaming before, with both disabled women and women with many children. This article, written in February 2009 about Nadya “Octomom” Suleman, is completely applicable to Savicki’s case:

“Choice does not only involve abortion, it also extends to actively seeking to reproduce. While we may feel dismay at the number of children [a woman] has conceived, the moment we begin to question whether she had the right to make this decision, we invalidate the argument that reproduction is a private issue and that a woman’s body should at all times be under her control.”

Kate Harding points out that Tessa Savicki makes perhaps one of the least sympathetic plaintiffs. It’d be one thing, she writes, if this woman had not had any children – then this would be a true tragedy. But the facts of Savicki’s case should make her the perfect rallying cry for feminists everywhere. Savicki’s case forces us to “set aside classism, ableism, disdain for women who have sex with more men than we might think appropriate, and scorn for “bad mommies” to declare unequivocally” that sterilization of anyone without their consent is wrong.

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