Speaking of Women's Rights: 04/11

Friday, April 29, 2011

Blaming the Victim, Again

As April draws to a close, we’re marking the final days of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Recent news from Lynnwood, Washington shows just how badly this awareness campaign is needed.

Three years ago, an 18-year old Lynnwood woman reported to the police that she had been raped. Although the police opened an investigation, they concluded that the victim was lying. But the case didn’t just end there. City prosecutors charged the woman with false reporting of a crime. To avoid a trial, she ended up pleading guilty and paid a $500 fine.

But earlier this month, the Lynnwood police were contacted by Colorado police, who had arrested a suspect in connection with a series of sexual attacks in the Denver area. When searching the suspect’s home, the Colorado police found images of the Lynnwood rape victim from the 2008 attack. The suspect has now been charged with rape in Washington.

Lynnwood’s Police Chief has admitted “we were wrong.” But at the same time, the chief appeared to justify the way the victim was treated, saying that her “story changed and details appeared to be inconsistent” and “people who know the woman also spoke to detectives and expressed doubts about the woman’s story.”

In response, the Everett Herald ran a scathing editorial that addressed each of these rationales for turning a rape victim into a suspect, noting:

  • How many interviews does it take before a traumatized victim might begin to feel like a suspect?

  • Are people who have experienced a severe emotional and physical trauma expected to have a totally consistent story?

  • Perhaps scariest of all is the information that “People who know the woman also spoke to detectives and expressed doubts about the woman’s story.” Isn’t that known as hearsay in other parts of our justice system? Do other crime victims require character witnesses?

But while the Everett Herald gets it, many public officials still don’t. It’s no secret that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, with an estimated 60% of sexual assaults going unreported. But instead of trying to encourage greater reporting, many officials treat women who do report rape as suspects rather than as victims.

In Lewiston, Idaho, for example, police officers told reporters several years ago that they believed most rape reports in the city were false. In Georgia, a state legislator introduced a bill this year to re-define rape victims as “accusers” in the state’s statutes. And in Pennsylvania, a woman who was sexually assaulted while working at a convenience store was not only disbelieved by police, but spent five days in jail on charges of false reporting and theft from the store. The charges against her weren’t dropped until her attacker confessed to the crimes after he was arrested for committing another sexual assault.

Back in Lynnwood, the police chief has said “we’re doing our best to make it right.” Let’s hope that means the city will agree to pay a huge monetary settlement to the victim, rather than making excuses for how she was treated. But even more, let’s hope this horrible case helps stop police in Lynnwood, in Washington, and across the country from treating rape victims like criminals.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Speaking the truth

Pie Chart of Planned Parenthood Services

Though it’s only April, we can safely say that “Not intended to be a factual statement,” is a likely candidate for phrase of the year.

Senator Jon Kyl gifted us with the opportunity for some quality sarcasm last week with his “excuseplanation,” following the grossly incorrect statement that 90% of Planned Parenthood services involve abortion (my favorite Colbert tweet: “Jon Kyl bought a SodaStream so he could drink *carbonated* tears of the poor." #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement) . Though I’ve enjoyed the clever jokes, this whole thing has also saddened me. How did we arrive at a place where it’s ok for our elected officials to spit out statements that they are well aware are untrue?

The fact of the matter – no pun intended – is that the consequences of Planned Parenthood losing its funding are no laughing matter. This is an organization that provides important services to millions of women that have no other option; real, live, factual women.

Just as frustrating was Kobe Bryant’s recent apology for a gay slur flung at a ref during a nationally televised Lakers game.

So we’re to believe that the ref is a figurative f****** f*****? The PSA announcement that the NBA crafted after the episode was a step in the right direction, but kind of reminded me of the apologies my brother was forced into – given through clenched teeth – when we were too young to realize the consequences of our words.

Former NBA player John Amaechi responded to Bryant’s slur with an incredibly honest and poignant editorial, calling for Bryant to stop fighting the NBA fine imposed on him, and pointing out why it’s such a big deal:

“I challenge you to freeze-frame Bryant’s face in that moment of conflict with the referee Bennie Adams. Really examine the loathing and utter contempt, and realize this is something with which almost every lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender person is familiar. That is the sentiment people face in middle and high schools, in places of worship, work and even in their own homes across the United States.”

This is why truth matters. Because, even if Kobe Bryant doesn’t feel this way about LGBTQ people, there are certainly people that do. And whether it’s a teenager who is emboldened to bully people at school, or a block of voters who are persuaded to boot out their senator, simply because he or she didn’t vote to defund Planned Parenthood, these false words cause actions. As John Amaechi points out, being in the spotlight gives you a special responsibility to act with integrity. 'I didn’t mean it' just doesn’t cut it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Three-quarters of the Way to Equality

Happy Equal Pay Day!! That’s the day in 2011 by which women’s earnings, starting from January 1, 2010, will have reached what men earned just in 2010.

You read that right: it takes women three months and twelve days longer to earn an amount comparable to what men earn in one year. According to the U.S. Census, on average, women in the U.S. earn 78.2 cents for every dollar a man earns. The pace of progress is excruciatingly slow; in fact, it has been getting slower over the past 15 years than in the preceding 20. And it continues to be worse for women of color. (Men of color also earn less than white men, not surprisingly.)

Please do not try to tell me that this is about “women leaving the workplace to have children,” or “women don’t negotiate for themselves,” or “other factors actually make the difference.” Even in my own profession, where we should be able to believe that women lawyers can stand up for themselves, it turns out that if you control not only for occupation, age, experience, education, and time in the workforce, but also for childcare, average hours worked, grades while in college, and other factors, in one study women graduates of the University of Michigan law school made approximately 81% of what males made.

It’s not just the numerical pay disparity that is so disheartening. Pervasive stereotyping and abhorrent societal norms also play into the gap. A study of more than 25,000 people in the U.S. and Germany by a professor at the University of Florida found that very thin women earned an average $15,572 a year more than women of normal weight. A woman who gained 25 pounds above the average weight earned an average $13,847 less than an average-weight female. By disappointing (and arguably unhealthy) contrast, men were also penalized for violating stereotypes about ideal male appearance, but in a different way. Thin men earned $8,437 less than average-weight men. But they were consistently rewarded for getting heavier, a trend that tapered off only when their weight hit the obese level. The highest pay point, on average, was reached for guys who weighed a strapping 207 pounds.

The discrimination (you just can’t call it anything else) isn’t confined to what workers are paid. It applies to hiring as well. I wish I could say I was surprised to learn that in the world of professional musicianship, blind auditions result in more women being hired for symphony positions: if the judges don’t know it’s a woman playing, they are more likely to rate the musician highly. Using data from actual audition records, they found that blind auditioning increases by 50% a woman’s odds of getting past preliminary auditions, and by several times increases the chance that a woman will win the final round of auditions. As much as 55% of the increase in women in symphony orchestras since the 1970s results from the use of blind auditions.

And as the economy inches toward something that resembles recovery, women are being left behind. Yes, it’s true more men lost their jobs when the crash hit, largely because of the sharp reduction in manufacturing jobs. Unfortunately, women have actually lost jobs during the recovery: from the official start date of the recovery, men have gained more than 406,000, while women lost 370,000— a gap of 776,000 jobs. This at the same time that the number of single mothers or wives who support a household -- at 14.2% of U.S. households as of 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- has increased since the recession began, adding another layer of economic significance to any limits on pay and promotions for women.

Times are hard for everyone. But once a year (at least) it’s good to remind ourselves that until all workers in the U.S. are treated fairly, compensated equally, and valued for what they bring to the economy, there’s a lot of work still to be done. So congratulations on catching up, women, and here’s to adding a few percentage points in the near future!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Free To Be You And Me

In a conversation about gender the other day, a friend mentioned that she was glad we live in a time when, as women, we can do the things we want to do, dress the way we want to dress, and be the way we want to be.  I nodded in agreement, but later I started to question this idea. It seems pretty clear that we’re better off than we used to be, but are we indeed free to be who we are?  And what about other people who don’t fit the mold of the majority?  What if you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?  What if you’re an immigrant?  What if you’re a straight girl who likes to drink beer and watch football?  What if you’re a straight guy who likes to bake cookies and sing broadway tunes at karaoke night?  I’ve decided to explore this question – are we free to be who we are - through a series of blog posts, beginning today with LGBT Americans.  

In January the US Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed new regulations that acknowledged that they “have a responsibility to make certain that public programs are open to all Americans,“ by including sexual orientation and gender identity among protected categories in housing discrimination.  Last month the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops officially took issue with the proposed changes and, as they have many times before, lobbed threats around cutting services.   

“... the ultimate effect of a rule requiring organizations to choose between adherence to their religious beliefs, on the one hand, and accepting government funds to carry out needed services, on the other, may be that those organizations with the greatest expertise and success provide fewer services (there being less money to fund them) or cease providing them altogether (if no money remains to fund them).” 

In other words:  If you make us house gay people, we might just stop housing people all together.  In the face of an epidemic of homelessness in the LGBT youth community, this threat seems heartless at best, and downright hateful at worst.  

So the USCCB doesn’t think we should get to be who we are (or rather, we should make damn sure we don’t need housing first)… but what about everyone else?  

Equally Blessed, a coalition of pro-equality Catholics, put out a statement pointing out the hypocrisy of USCCB’s stance on the housing issue, including this choice statement:  “It appears that the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development manifests a deeper appreciation of the Gospel than do the bishops of our church.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.

 Perhaps we’ll count this one as a tie:  depressing that we still have to hear from anti-equality groups like the USCCB, but encouraging that the federal government is starting to consider policies that forbid discrimination against LGBT folks, and more encouraging still that all religiously-affiliated groups aren’t working against equality.  

How about LGBT youth in general?  We’ve heard a lot of stories about bullying and suicide in the past year.  But as Entertainment Weekly pointed out in a feature article last month, depictions of gay teens on television are becoming more prevalent and more real.  We’ve come a long way from My So-Called Life’s Rickie (“Bi?! Do you hear these words she’s throwing around?  -Angela Chase’s mother), to our beloved Kurt Hummel of the Fox sensation Glee (“You think it’s ok to come in my house and say “faggy?..My family comes first and I can’t have that kind of poison around here” –Kurt Hummel’s dad.)  LGBT teenagers now have myriad television characters and situations that mirror their own lives.  Not only that, but perhaps Glee star Darren Criss is right when he claims that these characters are causing people to reevaluate the way they think.  

There are other baby steps happening all over the country, including pro-equality legislation in nearly every state.  Yet only 85 out of 7,382 state legislators are openly gay.  Are we there yet?  Definitely not.  Are we better off than we were ten years ago?  Twenty?  What do you think? 

Photo credit:  ABC Television