Solidarity not Sympathy
Last month, I traveled down to New Orleans for a week-long service trip. Details can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/y3f9eqr. I served with a group of Humanist graduate students hosted by the Center for Ethical Living. The center is run by a woman named, Quo Vadis, who shared stories and wisdom with us during our stay. One of the center’s missions that she drove home to us was the idea that true service is not done out of sympathy, but rather out of solidarity. I realized that this really applies to ally-building in general, not just service work. It definitely applies to how men should approach women’s rights.
When women travel abroad, they often have to be prepared to deal with sexual harassment. I’ve talked about this at length in my past posts as well as provided some ideas for how men can be allies to our fellow female travelers.
Sometimes, the trouble does not stop at harassment though. Sexual assault and rape are very real problems. These problems aren’t limited to distant lands, but can be found on almost every college campus in the U.S. Given that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’m dedicating this month’s column to highlighting a few movements that address support for victims of sexual assault and ways for men to be a bigger part of the solution.
First Response Action
There are many ways to stand in solidarity against sexual violence. Perhaps one of the most important ways is to advocate for victims and provide them with the needed support and services. In the Peace Corps, the way each post responds to sexual assault and rape is not always uniform. To be clear, they are not ignoring the problem and do have some systems in place. For example, in South Africa, the medical unit made it a point to talk about the need to get in touch with them immediately if one was ever raped so that they could get the victim on PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), in order to minimize the risk of transmission of HIV. If taken within 72 hours, PEP can drastically reduce the chances of transmission and its something that more people should be aware of, even outside of SA. Much of the support needed after an incident of rape or sexual assault though, is not related to bio-medicine, but rather to mental health. On this front, there are many ways that the situation could be improved in the Peace Corps and elsewhere.
During the two years I served in South Africa, there were multiple rapes of female PCVs and there were multiple incidences of sexual assault. Our post and our fellow PCVs responded to these in a sometimes haphazard way. Sometimes facts were distorted. Sometimes victims were blamed. Neither of these are acceptable. I think much of this was due to both our post and our PCVs not taking enough time to prepare a response to sexual assault and rape. Fortunately though, out of this chaos has emerged a movement within the Peace Corps community to do better.
First Response Action is an advocacy group headed by Casey Frazee, a fellow South Africa PCV, who was a victim both of sexual assault and of poor support from the post after the incident. Casey is trying to get the Peace Corps to adopt a 7 Point Plan to provide a more uniform and supportive response to the realities of sexual violence against volunteers. It is a cause not just for victims, but for all fellow volunteers, and friends and families of volunteers to stand together with those that have been victims of sexual violence.
To get the ear of a big government organization like the Peace Corps, we need all the support we can get. Please visit http://firstresponseaction.blogspot.com/ to find out more about the campaign and see how you can help.
Of course, this response may be specific to Peace Corps, but the problem is not. It’s worthwhile looking into whatever organization you work for or travel with to see if they have a well thought out strategy to respond to incidents of sexual violence.
White Ribbon Campaign and Men Against Rape
Women close to me have been victims of sexual abuse and whenever I learn of another friend that in some way has been assaulted or abused sexually, I get even more angry. More often than not, the perpetrators are men using their power, either physical or other, to victimize women. I’d like to think that most men would not do these things, but that alone is not enough. We need to vocally and visibly oppose such abuse. We need to overturn the masculine stereotypes of sexual dominance that feed sexual violence. The sickos that perpetrate such violent acts should walk around fearful of the wrath of the community, not with the swagger of impunity.
In researching for this article, I found some beacons of light. There are already a few movements among men to organize against violence and stand in support of victims of sexual violence or other violence. The White Ribbon Campaign: http://www.whiteribbon.ca/
provides a visible symbol for men against violence against women. On some college campuses, there are Men Against Rape groups ( that are wrestling directly with how best to mobilize against sexual violence. The Harvard Men Against Rape group also spun off an online presence: http://www.menspeakup.org/.
I’m still fairly new to these groups, but from what I can tell, they seem to be mostly about solidarity and awareness. Some of these groups have started taking actions too, helping men rethink masculinity and providing support for women’s shelters. Guys reading this, go to the sites. Sign up and help to start doing something. Girls reading this, put some pressure on the men in your life to take a stand on these issues. They aren’t women’s issues. They are human issues.
Getting the message right
One word of caution: We must be careful to keep in mind the words of Quo Vadis. This isn’t about chivalry. This isn’t about women not being strong enough to fight for themselves. A good friend of mine confessed a degree of disgust at an anti-rape poster she saw while in college. It had a meek girl clinging to a tall guy. She was staring with a mixture of trepidation and gratefulness to the guy as he looked confidently ahead saying something like, “I didn’t know if she wanted to, so I asked.” Obviously the sign was targeting men, but what was the message? That women are these poor helpless creatures that we must be careful not to trample upon with our over exuberant sexual powers? This just reinforces the power stereotype that feeds the violence in the first place. The message must be that men are against rape because it is completely wrong on a fundamental human level. A strong man is not the one that perpetrates violence but the one who stands against it. The images that advance our message should portray this.
It’s about solidarity, not sympathy.