Guest Post – What is Normal? Addressing Violence with Young People

This week’s post comes from a man that I admire tremendously, a friend and ally from college.

Benjamin SmithBenjamin Smith is in his first year of law school at the University of Oregon where he is looking to focus on Child Advocacy and Domestic Violence Law. Previously he was the Male Involvement Coordinator at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work there was facilitating primary prevention of sexual violence with youth of color and young men in central New Mexico. He graduated from Earlham College in 2010 with a degree in Economics. He can be reached at: bsmith13 |at| uoregon.edu

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What do you consider normal?

I work in the field of primary prevention of sexual violence, and in doing so, I work with many diverse populations.  My focus, though, is with youth of Color, ages 12-18. This is one of the first things I ask them.  I say, “If you see your neighbor reading his newspaper on his porch in his underwear, would that be weird for you?”  They giggle and cringe thinking about the perceived awkwardness. Then I ask , “What if you saw it every day for years, he always does the same thing. Would it be weird then?” They shake their heads, many times even responding that it would be “normal,” and I explain that this is called “normalization.”

But when we get into discussions of what normalized violence they see or feel, the conversation is divergent from how normalization is many times approached. The conversation doesn’t usually, as I first expected, focus on the media and the messages that the youth were constantly being bombarded with but instead often focuses on real violence they were experiencing.

This was jarring for me. Having the privilege of never experiencing domestic and sexual violence, I was confident in dealing in the abstracts of the media and language we use, only to be confronted with a male student, 13, who was almost in tears after a session where we discussed sexual harassment. He came up to me after the program.

“You’re saying it’s wrong to holla at women on the street?”

I sat with him, discussing consent and how the person being called at might feel. He nodded, understanding and agreed with me that being called at could make someone scarred or feel violated, and then looked at me and asked why his father told him to do it whenever they were in the car.

It took me a while to answer, but I responded by telling him that he could make choices about whether to participate in the action or not, to which he responded that he didn’t want to, and would not do it anymore. I felt that this was the best outcome I could hope for, but it brought to my attention the fact that as anti-violence presenters, many times when we identify violence that others many not see, we challenge social norms.  But with that we also have to realize that these norms are a fundamental basis for many youth.

Pushing Back Against Normalization

Generational violence is a huge normalizing factor, and challenging a youth’s parents, or at least their teachings, can be very difficult for some kids. Do I think we need to back off? No. Do I think we need to dumb it down? No. Do we need to acknowledge that violence is a foundational part of many youths live? Absolutely.

Many of my students have seen more in their middle of high school lives than I have in 24 years. These students understand violence more than I do, my academic background, ability to quote theorists and call upon citable data may make me feel like I understand violence. But when a student asks me why they feel weird when their boyfriend grabs them or that they cry at night because of bullying at school, I am overwhelmed with my own hubris.

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#FitchTheHomeless – Hearing the Voices of Skid Row

#FitchTheHomeless

#FitchTheHomeless

In the last week, my piece on #FitchTheHomeless has gotten a lot of attention.  It inspired the second-most single-day hits that my blog has seen, and it was republished at The Good Men Project and on the Huffington Post.  With that kind of traffic, though, comes a lot of criticism.  Lots of people said things like, “So what you’re saying is that we should just never attempt to serve other people?  We should just sit on our asses?”

Others claimed that the ends justify the means, saying that it doesn’t matter if homeless people are being dehumanized because they’re being given something they need: clothes.

But absent from those criticisms is an understanding of the very voices that are inherently left out of most any conversation that takes place online: people experiencing homelessness.

In her brilliant response to #FitchTheHomeless published at Relevant Magazine, Rachel Karman, a social worker who works daily with the people who live in Skid Row, decided to do something that the creator of #FitchTheHomeless never thought to do: Talk to the people the campaign purports to help!

I cannot encourage you enough to read her entire article, but in case you don’t do so, at least read this excerpt:

And acknowledging how emotionally invested I am in this situation, I thought it might be best for me and for us all to hear and learn from the people whose opinion on this really matters. I decided to show some of the people I work with the video and write down—unfiltered—what was said. Here’s what I heard:

“Wow, that CEO guy is a bad dude.”

“Why the h*** would he pass out clothes to us that he said date rapists wear?”

“I’ve seen my nephew wear that brand of clothing and he’s not a date rapist.”

“It doesn’t look like he is explaining what he is doing to anyone he is giving clothes to. That’s not right.”

“Why isn’t he talking to people when he gives them the clothes? I hate it when people who think they are do-gooders act like that.”

“Why did he just give that large man those tiny pants? I thought he just said they don’t make those sizes? That doesn’t seem very helpful at all.”

“He’s not even asking if he can film them, does he think this is a zoo?”

“Why would we want our ‘own brand of clothing?’ Especially clothing he said ‘douche bags’ wear.”

“I’m not interested in being this guys billboard or social cause, unless it’s to get people homes.”

“We may be homeless, but that doesn’t mean we want to wear ‘douchey’ clothes to prove a point—what purpose would that serve, to dehumanize us even more than we already have been?”

“If someone walked up to me to take a picture of me to put on the Internet, I would be really pissed off.”

But the comment that I think sums up everything that needs to be said, was made by a woman who sat quietly through the whole video, before simply stating, “Well, that sort of hurt my feelings.

So before we go justifying our paternalistic “charity,” let’s at least take some time to listen to those who are being affected by campaigns like #FitchTheHomeless.

And for the opportunity to do so in this case, I am endlessly thankful to the powerful voices from Skid Row who spoke up and to Rachel Karman for sharing them.

#FitchTheHomeless – On Dehumanization, Paternalism, and Charity

The internet is in agreement: Fuck Abercrombie & Fitch.

The collective outrage has produced some fantastic responses.  My favorite comes from Amy Taylor who proclaims,

“I am proud to say that I may be a not-so-cool kid and the extra pounds I carry may not be a thing of beauty, but I am nothing like you or your brand — and that, Mr. Jeffries, is a beautiful thing.”

But inevitably, as is par for the course on the interwebs, there are going to be some responses that are less than fantastic, that despite good intentions, actually end up furthering oppression rather than combating it.

Enter the #FitchTheHomeless campaign.

I’ve seen a number of people posting this on Facebook and Twitter with captions like, “Awesome!” and “Perfect.” and “Brilliant!!”

But when a friend posted it to my timeline asking for my thoughts, I immediately was left with a pretty terrible taste in my mouth.

This “campaign” is neither “Awesome!” nor “Perfect.” or “Brilliant!”  And here’s why:

While I am sure the creator had good intentions (“I can humiliate Abercrombie & Fitch while helping people in need!!!“), what it ends up doing is using people experiencing homelessness as pawns to make a political statement.

And that’s really not okay.

Setting aside the immature digs at the physical appearance of Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries, the essential premise of the video seems to be:

Abercrombie & Fitch wants only “attractive” people to wear their clothes, so let’s rebrand them by putting the ickiest people in their clothes that we possibly can, and who’s ickier than homeless people!?!?

So the White man who created the video puts on his White Savior cape, buys up a bunch of second-hand Abercrombie merch, and heads to a community this is, in every respect, not his space to invade: Skid Row.

Skid Row and Gentrification

The narrator/creator is right in asserting that Skid Row has “one of the largest concentrations of homeless people” in the U.S., a reality that is a direct result of policies by local authorities that attempted to concentrate the city’s entire homeless population into one area with few resources and services.

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What Men Can Do to Stop Street Harassment

It’s that time of year again!

The weather’s getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and most of us can’t wait to get a little sunshine on our skin.

People are breaking out the shorts, skirts, sundresses, tank tops, sandals, and bathing suits. We’re hitting the parks, beaches, running paths, streets, back yards – anywhere we can get a little bit of that Vitamin D.

And with this time of year comes an increase in street harassment.

My Name is Not "Baby" photo

It’s not as if there is not street harassment in the dead of winter. As my friend Heather recently said to me, “I can go out in a full-length down coat, hat, gloves, and boots, and I will have some f*ck think it’s okay to yell about my ass.”

But it tends to get more pronounced when it’s a bit warmer, and there’s a bit more skin showing on your average street. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not the fact that skin is showing that’s the problem. It’s the fact that most men can’t seem to help ourselves once the skin comes out, and we just HAVE to comment and stare.

So let me say it plainly to my male-identified people out there: Street harassment and leering are never okay. Never.

Nope. Not ever.

In case anyone’s unclear, let’s look to the phenomenal folks atStopStreetHarassment.org to define precisely what we’re talking about:

Catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation, and assault. Most women (more than 80% worldwide) and LGBQT folks will face gender-based street harassment at some point in their life. Street harassment limits people’s mobility and access to public spaces. It is a form of gender violence and it’s a human rights violation. It needs to stop.

Yup. That’s right.

We’re talking about the “Hey baby!” Or the “Smile! I bet you have a pretty smile!” Or the “Damn, you’ve got a fine ass!” Or the licking your lips and staring as she walks by.

It’s all harassment. It’s all misogyny. And it all needs to stop.

And since men are the primary perpetrators of street harassment, men bear the responsibility for ending it. So with that in mind, here are a few things men can do to stop street harassment.

1. Don’t Leer or Harass!

It seems obvious, but it bears saying.

One of the single most important things men can do to stop street harassment is to refuse to participate.

That means that you should never be commenting on a woman’s (or any person’s) body or appearance unless you have a relationship with that woman and have anexplicit understanding that this is welcome (which means that you’ve talked about it and she’s consented to it).

But it doesn’t stop there.

Though I don’t recall ever hollering to a woman on the street, there are plenty of times in my life when I have used my eyes and body language to treat a woman as little more than an object.

And in the end, how is leering any different than cat calling? Both send the message that women’s bodies are public property.

Sometimes the most radical action we can take is refusal to participate in oppressive norms.

2. Listen in Solidarity

Stop.

Don’t say it.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Thinking Comprehensively: Preventing Sexual Violence

There is a parable used often in education to describe the reforms that are needed to better serve those students who are left behind or pushed out of our educational system:

A man and a woman were having a picnic along the river outside of their village. As they were eating, they heard a baby crying and, looking around for the source, saw a baby floating down the middle of the river.

The woman waded out and caught the baby and passed it to the man, only to realize there was another baby coming. The man ran to the village to get help, and before long, there was an organized party who were forming a chain across the river to stop the ever growing number of babies who were floating down the river. They saved a lot of children, but the number of babies was too many, and they could not save them all.

Then a young girl walked away from her duties on the riverbank and marched upstream. People yelled at her, “Where are you going!? We need your help!”

She replied, “I’m going to find who is throwing all these babies in the river so that we can stop them!”

Here’s the lesson for any social justice cause: If we don’t get to the root of the issue, all we’re doing is pulling some individuals to safety while losing others to the river.

In combatting sexual violence, undoubtedly, we must work to help survivors heal, seek justice, and find the “new normal” in their life, but that cannot be our only work.

We must prevent sexual violence before it happens. But how do we do that? What does it look like?

Expanding Who We Think of As Survivors

We can start by changing how we think about who experiences sexual assault.

In most prevention and response work, the focus tends to be on cisgender, straight women as victims and cisgender, straight men as perpetrators.

And there’s good reason for that: The vast majority of survivors are straight, cisgender women.

And with limited resources (especially in these times of austerity), those who work to prevent violence and support survivors tend to focus on that majority in order to best serve as many survivors as possible.

But to prevent sexual violence, we must acknowledge the incredible diversity of survivors and perpetrators.

Read the rest of the article at Everyday Feminism.