Saturday, October 25, 2008

Get the Facts: Don't Be Misled by Racist Stereotypes

Why did anyone believe the now-discredited story by a McCain volunteer that she was attacked by a black man due to her McCain bumper sticker, even though the story seemed improbable from the beginning?

Because despite the progress we've made in race relations in this country -- of which Barack Obama's candidacy is the most obvious example -- many white people are still all too willing to believe that they are more likely to be criminally attacked by a black person than a white one.

And that's not true.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics 2006 data on victims and offenders (PDF alert), white people are more often attacked by white criminals. To cite just one statistic from the many available in the BJS reports, 70 percent of all violent attacks on white victims are by people the victim perceives as white, while only 13 percent are by attackers perceived as black (the remainder is either other races or unknown). This is a figure compiled from 3.7 million attacks by a single attacker.

If you look at rape attacks, over 50 percent of the attackers of white women are white, while about 17 percent of them are black.

The truth is, white people are at much more risk of violent attack from other white people than they are from people of other races.

Likewise, black people are more at risk from other black people; the same BJS chart shows that 75 percent of all violent attacks on blacks are by people perceived as black, with 11.5 percent committed by white people.

It's time to retire the old stereotypes. Fearing the wrong thing makes us more vulnerable, not safer.

(Note: All statistics are from Chart 42 in the above listed PDF.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Take Action: "I Refuse to Be Raped."

The quote above is from a t-shirt worn by some women in the Congo as part of their effort to do something about rape and other violence against women in a place that that United Nations says has the worst sexual violence problem in the world.

The New York Times published a detailed report of actions people are taking in the Congo, including stepped up prosecution of rapists, grassroots organizing, and groups working with rape victims. The American Bar Association has a project to help prosecutions, and playwright Eve Ensler is organizing victim services and has formed an organization called City of Joy.

This is a good example of the kind of multilayered approach needed in dealing with violence against women. Rape should not be tolerated; rapists should be prosecuted. Women need to learn how to protect themselves and must speak out. And others need to provide services to those who are harmed. No one thing solves all problems.

Get the Facts: Encouraging Women to Protect Themselves Is Not Blaming the Victim

Women's eNews published a story this week about men becoming angry enough to take action on domestic violence.

Hooray for all men who understand the problem. Given the complexities of domestic violence -- and indeed, all violence -- against women, we need all the help we can get from men who get it. After all, most men are not violent abusers, and when they take action to show their disapproval, they have a strong affect on other men.

But the article goes on to say:
The focus is usually on women not doing enough to protect themselves or their children, while far less attention is paid to the perpetrators. Why aren't more men outraged at their fellow males' actions and motivated to end it, once and for all? Why are women left to pick up the pieces? Isn't this a man's problem?
Men cause the problem, but it's women who suffer from it. Rather than waiting around for outraged guys to "take care of" the bad ones -- which could take a long time -- women will be safer if they take steps to keep themselves safe.

In the case of domestic abuse, the two most important things women can do are to learn to recognize men who are likely to become abusive and to immediately get out of a relationship when the first signs of abuse appear. The programs aimed at high school students I discussed last week are a step in the right direction.

Giving women the facts and skills to avoid becoming victims is not the same as blaming the victim.

Several years ago, I was on a panel at a science fiction convention discussing women in the military, and someone in the audience asked whether we thought that teaching women to protect themselves would reduce violence against women. Both I and a fellow panelist -- a retired military officer -- answered with an enthusiastic "yes." That doesn't mean that either of us thought women were at fault for being attacked; rather, it means we think that if women are not perceived as easy targets, violence will drop.

Of course, if men think they will be censured by other men for violent acts against women, their actions will change, too. There is no one solution to violence in our society. And children, of course, are rarely able to protect themselves from adults. Both men and women need to make sure they take steps to protect children.

I should add that one thing in the article disturbed me: the author quoted from the reaction of a prison inmate to a horrible video of the rape of a three-year-old: "The man who did that should receive the death penalty. No, send him to jail and let the inmates kill him. Because after that, they will."

I hope the author doesn't really agree with that point of view, though she presents it without discussion. More violence is not the solution to violence.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Trust Your Instincts: Don't Get Close to Unknown Cars

Lubbock cops are telling parents to teach their daughters to avoid approaching unknown cars. Apparently there have been several reports of a man exposing himself after calling girls over to his car.

It's good advice, and goes for boys as well as girls. Personally, I never approach a car when I don't know the people in it, even when someone sounds absolutely lost and is seeking directions. You don't have to be rude; you can give good directions from 10 feet away.

This might sound silly, unless it's ever happened to you. It happened to me. I wasn't a young girl, either -- I was about 21 at the time. I was walking alone along South First Street in Austin and a man called me over to ask directions. I didn't get close enough at first, so he waved me over closer. I looked into the car and his penis was hanging out. I yelled at him and took off running. He didn't follow me.

Nothing bad happened. I wasn't harmed physically and it didn't leave me traumatized. In terms of sexual misconduct, it's pretty minor. But it must have had some kind of effect, because I still remember it very vividly after all these years. In fact, I remember it every time some stranger calls to me from a car. It's why I always keep my distance.

It wasn't seeing a man's penis. I'd been in a serious relationship or two by then, and I used to frequent Hippie Hollow out on Lake Travis west of Austin, where everyone, male and female, skinnydipped except for the occasional creepy guy with binoculars up in the bushes.

There's just something very disturbing about a complete stranger who apparently gets his sexual jollies by showing his private parts to young women. The abstract of a study published in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology suggests indecent exposure affects women's "social freedom" -- I assume the author means women's comfort level in going places alone -- and raises their fear levels about crime.

I haven't read the full article -- it's behind a paywall -- but according to the abstract the researcher, Shannon Riordan, interviewed 72 women, of whom 35 -- almost 50 percent -- had experienced a flasher.

Someone is bound to write in and talk about women exposing themselves to men, so I'll just observe that a grown woman exposing herself to boys is also doing harm to them. I don't think it's as big a problem when women expose themselves to grown men, though. While I imagine that some men find this amusing and others -- perhaps most -- find it sad or disgusting, I suspect it's not as frightening to men as male flashing is to women.

If it were a man exposing himself to another man -- something I'm sure happens, though I haven't seen any materials on it -- I imagine most men would be as creeped out or even frightened as most women. After all, while the idea that someone is using you for their sexual fantasies is disturbing, the really frightening part of the experience is that they might intend to do something else. And most of us still find men more threatening in that sense than we do women.

Personally, I suspect the reason I still remember what happened to me is because I was immediately afraid the man intended to rape me. It felt like one of those near misses from a really bad experience.

So take the advice of the Lubbock police. Keep your distance from strangers in cars and teach your children to do the same. It's an easy thing to do, and most of the time can be done without being rude. After all, someone who really just wants directions isn't going to mind if you keep your distance.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Get the Facts: Teaching Teenagers About Dating Violence

Rhode Island has just adopted a law requiring schools to teach students about dating violence in their health classes.

Texas passed a similar law last year. In both cases, the laws came about because young women were murdered by obsessive boyfriends.

I'm in favor of incorporating discussion of dating violence issues into health classes. Young women often lack the experience to recognize the warning signs of dangerous behavior in their boyfriends. Discussion of these issues will help a lot of them avoid violent relationships, and it will provide valuable resources for those already in a troubling situation.

While general discussion of the subject in co-ed classes is important, programs should also include discussion groups separated by gender. Both boys and girls will be more inclined to deal with the subject honestly in a same-sex environment. Separate discussion groups for gay and lesbian students would also provide a needed service.

The Texas Attorney General's Crime Victim Services page offers valuable information on the bill and on opportunities for victim services advocates to get involved.

Schools shouldn't wait for their legislatures to act on these laws. Violence is a public health issue -- the Centers for Disease Control study it -- and should be addressed as part of the health course in any case.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Take Action: The NYC Transit Authority Encourages Women to Stand Up to Gropers

The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority has a new policy encouraging women to report men who grope them on the subway.

The policy came about after a police sting and informal surveys indicated that being harassed or groped on the subway was a common experience among women.

I'm glad to see such a policy. Women need to be reminded that they don't have to suffer such abuses in silence. They can take action.

There are probably times when the best course of action is to get off at the next stop and find a transit officer, but in many cases, yelling at the guy and embarrassing him when the assault happens may be the most effective response. In that situation, you will likely get support from others on the subway car.

On Salon's Broadsheet, Kate Harding suggests that this is another way of putting the onus on the victim. But while it's important not to blame victims, one of the best ways to stop assaults against women is for women to refuse to be victims. And the best way to do that is to stand up against attackers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Learn Basic Skills: Most of Us Should Know How to Drive

The marvelous science fiction writer and linguist Suzette Haden Elgin has a post on her Live Journal about learning to drive again. She lives in a rural area of Arkansas, but depends on her husband to do the driving.

Elgin, who is over 70 and often writes frankly on issues of aging, is making sure she can drive because she knows she could end up needing to take care of her husband at some point -- what if he was too ill to drive?

But situations like that don't just happen to older people; they can happen to any of us. And while I would argue that developing community -- family, close friends, neighbors, or at best of all combination of all three -- is an important part of self defense, there will always be situations when you are the only person who can do something.

The unskilled person who rises to the occasion makes for exciting cinema -- think of all those movies about the unskilled flight attendant or passenger who lands the plane -- but in real life, it's a lot easier to deal with a crisis when you already know how to do the basic things, like drive a car.

I'm not saying everyone needs to learn how to drive, of course; the actual basic skills you need depend greatly on where you live. If you live in Manhattan, for example, you don't really need to know how to drive, though you do need to know how to hail a cab and find the right subway stop. And not everyone can drive; some people have disabilities that make it impossible.

But if you live in a sprawling city with bad public transportation -- as do large numbers of us in the US -- or in the country, driving is a skill you need, even if you don't drive regularly or own a car. If you have a disability that prevents you from driving, then you need to plan how you will handle a situation if your regular transportation situation falls through.

Driving is an example of a basic skill. There are others. Off the top of my head, I come up with knowing how to quickly evacuate a building if you live or work in a highrise, knowing how to turn off the water to your house in case a pipe breaks, and knowing how to get home in case some disaster blocks your usual path. There are dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of others.

The unexpected happens and most of us freak out to one degree or another when it does. If you can handle the basic things when a crisis hits, you'll find it easier to be calm and deal with the larger problem.