Starting with Sisterhood

•March 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been in the movement for a couple of years now, and over the course of my involvement with institutionalized feminism, I have been exposed to bits and pieces of the history of the women’s movement.  I’ve written in the past about parts of it-~-for example, about the history of the family planning movement-~-but as I have spent more time working with organizations that would define themselves as feminist in nature, as I learn more, something has become incredibly clear: so much of what we now identify as the feminist movement started out as women helping other women.

The oldest gender based violence crisis center in the country is the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC), founded just over 40 years ago.  Before that, responses to gender based violence were very much a case by case basis wherein women would help other women they knew.  Prior to the establishment of laws and systems to address domestic violence, the DV movement was simply a collection of women taking other women into their homes.  At the time, domestic violence was considered a “family issue” (and this attitude sometimes rears its head today, making it difficult to prosecute a large number of DV cases).  Though the movement against gender based violence is not all of feminism, it is arguably one of the most central at the moment, along with efforts to promote women’s bodily autonomy, equal pay, and access to educational and professional opportunities.

That list is nowhere near comprehensive, of course; the feminist movement is an umbrella term that encompasses a large number of issues and perspectives all focused on integrated marginalized voices into the discourse.  But I would say that in general, and this is just one blogger’s perspective, much of the movement has stemmed from, and gained its power from, this idea of sisterhood.

Many of you will have heard the saying “sisterhood is international”, the rallying cry of internationally focused feminist work.  And it is, though maybe we need to be refocusing to say that “sisterhood is intersectional” as well.  “Love your sisters, not just your cis-sters”.  The idea of sisterhood is not an uncommon one within the feminist canon, and it can be a powerful premise: we are in this together.  Women helping women, while it seems parochial at first, has led to waves of change in this country, from individuals helping other women to look after their children while they worked to women taking in survivors of abuse to, I hope, women in privileged positions using their voices to amplify the concerns of those whose message might otherwise not be heard.  One of the biggest problems that feminism has faced, that women’s movements have faced, comes from the fact that the movement has not been as inclusive as it could have been, or as it strives to be now.  When white suffragettes asked Black suffragettes to march at the back of the column, when cis women ignore the concerns of trans women and trans men, when white middle class women recognize their own pay gap but fail to see how much worse it is for women of color, the movement struggles.

There is no one group that speaks for everyone, no one movement that encompasses every concern, and that is, honestly, okay.

But maybe sisterhood is a good starting point as we consider how the movement can go forward.  It may be Women’s History Month, and that makes this a great time to look back-~-to honor some of the amazing women who came before us, and to recognize some of the mistakes they have made so that we can do better.

Sisterhood is intersectional.  It has to be, if we are going to meaningfully tackle the problems that we face as a society.  Reproductive justice needs to include culturally competent medical care, so that doctors stop fixating on things like size, disability, or making assumptions about individuals based on race, and actually start providing quality medical care.  And reproductive justice might include things like access to contraception, but also needs to include things like an ability to raise your children without fear they will be shot by the police.  When we decry violence against women, we need to remember that women of color and trans women are even more likely to be subjected to violence, and keep in mind the social barriers that create this elevated risk and make recourse more difficult to access.  When we talk about the additional risks that women face with regards to HIV and other STIs, we need to remember that African-American women are placed at an elevated risk because of the impact that high levels of incarceration in the Black community has on HIV transmission.  For any issue we can claim impacts women, it’s worth keeping in mind that it impacts different women in different ways, and we all deserve a fighting chance.

Looking back at our history, I can see how the idea of sisterhood helped get us here; I still believe it is a great cornerstone for the movement we are trying to build.  But when we talk about sisterhood, we need to make sure we are not just talking about the sisters who we think look like us: when we stand on the shoulders of the women who came and fought these battles before us, we should be able to see further, do better.

Happy women’s history month

5 Women Changing the World

•March 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I never really know what to say for Women’s History Month, but I feel like it’s worth recognizing that women are still making history, every day, around the world, so in honor of Women’s History Month (which is quickly drawing to a close), here are five women who are changing the world:

1. The Gulabi Gang

The Gulabi Gang might not be one person, but they’re definitely making a huge difference where they operate.  Who are they?  They’re a group of women operating in Uttar Pradesh, in Northern India, who work together to protect women from abusive situations, teach self-defense and self-reliance, and take steps towards eliminating child marriage in their region.  Their founder, Sampatpal Devi, taught herself to read and write with the assistance of her brothers, the only members of her family to go to school until one of her uncles agreed to sponsor her education; after watching a man mercilessly beat his wife, and after being beaten herself when she tried to intervene, Devi and a group of other women in her village teamed up to punish the abuser.  In 2006, after numerous requests for similar interventions and self-defense trainings, Devi and her colleagues formed the Gulabi Gang, choosing the pink sari as their uniform.  Today they are active across North India, both on the streets and politically, fighting to end violence against women.

2. Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai has become a relatively common name, with the anti-war, pro-education Pakistani activist having been named the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Malala has been celebrated in the West as an example of the triumph of hope, flourishing in spite of an oppressive government, having grown up in a region where the Taliban has often barred young women from attending school.  Though she is best known for her work surrounding girls’ education, it’s worth noting that Malala has also been an outspoken proponent of positive peace more generally-~-that is to say, fighting poverty, not the poor, and putting an end to techniques like drone strikes, which inspire fear and lead to less stability in the Middle East.  She and her father also co-founded The Malala Fund, which works to help young women in the developing world, including girls in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, girls kidnapped or under threat by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and adolescent girls learning technology skills in Kenya.

3. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi

In 2012, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started a hastag-~-and a movement-~-that went viral following the 2014 death of Michael Brown: #BlackLivesMatter.  All three identify as queer Black women, organizing to massively change a system that has repeatedly, in various ways, made it clear that in this country, their lives are not protected, and their work deserves recognition and respect (as does the work done by Darnell L Moore).  As the statistics on their site point out, the average life expectancy for a Black trans woman in the United States is only 35 years; and every 28 hours in the United States, there is an extrajudicial killing of a Black man, woman or child.  Their efforts have at times been co-opted by other groups and other movements, and it’s important to remember where this came from, and also that it’s not just a hashtag, and it’s not just about one incident: #BlackLivesMatter is about challenging a system that has for too long deprived too many people of their basic human rights.

4. Ruth Bader Ginsberg

To be honest, when people mention the Notorious RBG, I fangirl a little: Ruth Bader Ginsberg has been on the bench for so long that she has played an important role in some key SCOTUS decisions, and moreover, she has begun to call out our courts for the role they have played in upholding or facilitating injustices in this country.  When asked how many women she thought would be included in her ideal makeup of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg answered “Nine”.

Image result for ruth bader ginsburg

In addition to serving, for three years, as the only woman on the Supreme Court (in the period between Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement and the confirmation of Justice Sonya Sotomayor), Ruth Bader Ginsberg has played a role in decisions dealing with everything from equal protection to contraceptive access, and was one of the major dissenting opinions in Bush v Gore, Gonzales v Carhartand Burwell v Hobby Lobby.  She has been an outspoken proponent of reproductive rights and women’s involvement in government, and her retirement will be a sad day for the judiciary.

5. Dr. Hawa Abdi

Dr. Hawa Abdi Diblaawe, or “Mama Hawa” as she is known in Somalia, was Somalia’s first female gynecologist, and is a major advocate for women’s health in Eastern Africa today.  In 1983, she founded the Rural Health Development Organization, which operated as a one-room clinic offering free obstetric services to women, and which later evolved into a 400-bed hospital.  In 2007, the organization changed its name to the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, and gradually expanded to serve as a relief camp which, during the 2011 drought, housed approximately 90,000 people.  Though the compound has been forced to suspend service twice due to violent threats, today it is operating fully, run by Dr. Abdi and her two ob/gyn daughters, Deqo Adan and Amina Adan.  The facility now includes a hospital as well as a school and a nutrition center, and runs programs to inculcate its own self-sustenance, as the organization offers its services free of charge.

Women around the world are making a difference in their hometowns and their home countries.  I had to select women (and groups of women) whose work has received recognition, but it’s worth remembering that the smallest things can sometimes make a huge difference, and that every one of us has the capacity to change our world, even if it is just in a small way.  There is no way to know what might trigger something bigger, or what might make it possible for someone else to take that next step towards achieving something great.

Happy Women’s History Month.

Staying, Surviving, and Defying the Good Victim Paradox: A Perspective on Domestic Violence

•March 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

“Why didn’t you/she/he/they leave?”

When it comes to domestic violence, I feel like this is often the most common question.  Why not leave–as if leaving is the most obvious thing in the world.  As several other media outlets and Twitter campaigns have striven to show, there are any number of reasons why someone doesn’t leave: they think it is their fault, they lack the resources needed to find a new place to live, they still love/care about their abuser, they are dependent on their partner for income or health insurance, they are trapped in a cycle of substance abuse, they don’t have anywhere to go…the list goes on and on.

The thing about these stories is that they illustrate an important point: domestic violence, from the perspective of the survivor, may not be black and white.  When people ask why someone didn’t leave, the truth is that they are judging a situation that they can’t know all the details of, and imposing their standards for an idea survivor actually doesn’t serve to support actual survivors of intimate partner violence.  It’s nice to think that we would all leave at the first sign of trouble, but that actually isn’t true in most cases; and it’s nice to think that anyone could recognize domestic violence if they saw it, but I can say from my personal and professional experience that that isn’t necessarily true, either.

Though I keep mentioning it on this site, I think it’s worth reiterating that not all violence is physical. Emotional abuse–particularly mind games, gaslighting, and blame-shifting–can have a survivor questioning their own understanding of the situation and make them unsure if their reactions and feelings are legitimate.  This means that in some cases, it’s difficult to actually recognize and confront the problem of interpersonal violence in the home, because the survivor may internalize the idea that this is their fault or that their perceptions are off-base.  On top of that, some forms of violence can become normalized with time, such that they become difficult to recognize as problematic–this is particularly true, for example, of sexual violence in established relationships.

Even when a survivor can recognize and come to terms with the fact that abuse is happening and is a real problem, actually confronting it can be difficult and dangerous. On average, it takes about 9 attempts for a survivor to successfully leave an abusive situation; that’s not nine thoughts related to leaving, it’s nine interactions with advocates, shelters, the police, etc.  There are all kinds of reasons for this: our most common narratives of domestic violence might focus on physical violence–especially beatings–but abusive situations also tend to include elements like stalking, wherein the survivor might not be able to move about unmonitored, or the control of the survivor’s finances, which would make it difficult to leave.  On top of that, there can be legal barriers that are not always easy to navigate, including issues like child custody.  A survivor might not want to leave if their partner is using child custody, children’s insurance, or threats to their children (or, for that matter, their pets–a large number of survivors stay with their abusers because they don’t want to leave beloved pets behind).  And even if the survivor decides they have the money to leave or opts to stay in a shelter, there can be all kinds of barriers to entry: shelter space is often limited, the shelter may not be nearby, or age restrictions regarding children may pose problems for survivors looking to remove themselves from abusive situations.

As if all of that were not enough–and, frankly, it should be–the sad reality is this: a survivor of domestic violence is most likely to be re-assaulted or killed within two weeks of trying to leave or calling the police.  In many cases, leaving can be flat-out dangerous, with a high risk of retaliation by the abuser or their family or friends.  In truth, the risks of leaving may be similar to the risks that accompany staying, so it’s up to each survivor to determine what will make them the most safe in their own situation.

Leaving seems like it should be obvious, from the outside looking in.  But every time you want to ask, “why didn’t they just leave”, remember that leaving may well be the hardest thing that survivor ever has to do.  Leaving may leave them homeless, unemployed, unable to care for their children, unable to see their children, or even dead.  Leaving is not the obvious answer, and it’s time to prioritize the actual needs and safety of survivors over impersonal narratives derived from a privileged conception of morality.  Survivors of domestic violence deserve far better than your judgement.  They deserve to know someone has their backs.

This One’s For…

•March 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

…everyone who doesn’t understand why today is International Women’s Day.

This one’s for you, individuals who want to know why women get a day.  A day, during the US’s Women’s History Month (which, I promise, will start receiving coverage here soon), to recognize that around the world, women disproportionately live in poverty, die too young, do not complete school, are forced into marriages with older individuals, are targeted for personal violence, and are disenfranchised from their political systems.  We get a day to recognize all that’s wrong and all the things being done to help make it right-~-a day.

…the teenage girls who give birth to 11% of all new babies worldwide each year, often at great personal cost. These girls-~-maybe the oldest could be called women-~-account for 23% of the overall burden of disease (disability- adjusted life years) due to pregnancy and childbirth.  But countries like the United States continue to fund abstinence-only education, or leave vital development work to missionary organizations that admittedly do great things, but which often do not provide the sex education these girls need.  Our next Republican president will likely reinstate the global gag rule, which will further exacerbate this problem.

If we want to help women around the world, this is one of the places where we need to start.

I’m not just here to remind you how bad things are, though; I want to take a moment to recognize that organizations like the UNFPA and the International Planned Parenthood Federation do fund, support or provide comprehensive sex and sexuality health education to young people in the developing world.  These are organizations that need more support to continue to do what they do, providing meaningful access not just to education but to contraception, condoms, and other tools to make and execute informed health decisions.

…all the grandmothers (and grandfathers) who have taken over raising children in the developing world, as well as here at home.

In the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, parts of the developing world-~-especially parts of sub-Saharan Africa-~-have seen shifts in family structures as AIDS orphans are increasingly raised by their grandparents.  Organizations like Nyumbani Village, in Kenya, have brought together groups of older individuals to help raise AIDS orphans in a culturally sensitive and nurturing environment, when they have no parents to take on these child-rearing roles.  And in South Africa, Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA), was born out of a support group for grandmothers who had taken over these parenting responsibilities as a result of HIV/AIDS; the group now works to train new activists, create projects for poverty alleviation, and provide support and education for grandmothers who are working to take care of their grandchildren and better their communities.

But it’s not just AIDS in Africa; a quick perusal of social science literature reveals that in the United States, more and more grandparents are taking over the care of their grandchildren, primarily in African-American households that have been impacted by crack-cocaine usage.  It’s worth recognizing the important work that these individuals are performing, because it often goes under-appreciated and often unseen.

…all the women who have been working to raise children, period.

source: HuffingtonPost

The reality is that whether a woman works in the labor force or not, women do disproportionately more of the household and childcare labor at home than their male counterparts, virtually everywhere in the world.  The result is that women end up providing something like an additional two months of labor at home, all while being paid comparatively less than men in the workplace.  This means that these women are making a disproportionately large contribution to the social good, providing for children, taking on medical, educational, and other socially util roles in their homes, and then acting as both producers and consumers in the marketplace.

So this post is absolutely for all the women who do the very important work of raising the next generation, whether they do so professionally or just because this is their parental or grandparental responsibility; this is for all the women who do the very important work of raising children but are punished for it via their careers, their lack of free time, their mental health, or any other avenue.  Women are disproportionately impacted by the introduction of children into their homes, but many continue to have children, and to shoulder this additional burden, and that’s absolutely worth mentioning on International Women’s Day.

…all the women who choose not to have children at all.

I feel like it may look like I just threw women who don’t have or don’t want children under the bus, and so I want to be clear: women who make the choice not to have children (as well as women who simply can’t), still get a big thumbs up from me.  It takes gumption and resolve to reject a narrative of womenhood that is centered around motherhood and which is shoved down our throats from an early age. From playing house to playing with baby dolls, young girls are taught that their goal in live is to become wives and mothers.  And to all the women who will never do either of those things, I say, good for you, if that’s what you want.  Rejecting a socially constructed and socially limiting idea of what it means to be a woman is still a great thing, and I genuinely salute you.

And not to end on a low note but…

…this post is for all the women who have died for being who they are.

This post is for all the women who were injured, raped, or killed for rejecting a man’s advances, in the United States and around the world.  Consent is a basic human right, and we as a society-~-we as a world-~-do not do nearly enough to uphold it, or to protect those who attempt to exercise it.  You have a right to say no and not be killed, and we have failed to teach this to those who would hurt you.   Women deserve better, and the world is failing us.

This post is also for all the women who died just to be women.  Trans women, and especially trans women of color, are disproportionately subject to violence, and while I have little data outside the United States at the moment, I imagine that given how things look here, things cannot be going well elsewhere either.  Their deaths this year thus far have included Penny Proud (21), Lamia Beard (30), Ty Underwood (24), Yazmine Vash Payne (33), Taja DeJesus (36),  as well as Bri Golec (26) and Kristina Gomez Reinwald (46).  It isn’t just murders, though; the suicide rate among trans youth in the United States greatly exceeds that of the overall country, a result of how we as a society have come to treat trans individuals when they come out.

Women deserve better-~-both cis women and trans women (and before anyone says it, obviously trans men, all people of color, and people generally deserve better, but it’s International Women’s Day).  The world needs to do better, and it starts when we call out sexism, misogyny, racism, transphobia, and transmisogyny.  It starts when we pressure our lawmakers and our school boards to provide meaningful education and laws that actually make sense and protect people’s lives.  It starts when we change the conversations we’ve been having about entitlement, relationships, femininity, masculinity, and what it means to be a person in our modern society.  It starts when we hold ourselves, and each other, to a higher standard.

Happy International Women’s Day.

A Couples Thoughts and Props for ABC’s Nashville and Grey’s Anatomy

•March 2, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Spoiler Alert: this post discusses content from the last few weeks of ABC’s Nashville and Grey’s Anatomy.

If it seems like I watch a lot of ABC programming, I do, and part of why I talk about them so much is that many of these shows do a seemingly better-than-average job of a) casting diverse groups of individuals and including diverse characters and b) taking on important, if difficult, social issues.  I know that I recently talked about Switched at Birth‘s ongoing drunk consent plotline, and I’ve previously mentioned Nashville in reflecting on issues around consent and rape culture as well; but I want to give the show a little attention again to talk about their conversations around domestic violence.  And, since it’s been a while, I want to talk about what happened two weeks ago on Grey’s Anatomy.

I guess I’ll start with Grey’s, because I didn’t post on it right away, and because I am still taken aback by how well I felt the writers handled the episode.  In S11:E12 “The Great Pretender”, Dr. Warren’s brother, Kurt, is hospitalized and Dr. Bailey, looking at his chart, realizes that Kurt is trans, and is transitioning to being female.  Kurt (I’m using this name because the character does not reveal their alternative name until the very end of the episode) confides in her, and Dr. Bailey does just about everything she can to push her husband, Ben Warren, to talk to Kurt about this, and to accept, well, her for who she is.

There are a couple of reasons I think the writers nailed it in this episode.  First, because it can be hard on families, especially when news that a loved one is trans comes as a big shock, and Ben’s reaction to Kurt’s news is reflective of that.  But even more than that, Dr. Bailey’s handling of the situation is wonderful.  She is supportive of her sibling-in-law’s decision to come out, and is firm in pushing her husband to be supportive as well.  At the end of the episode, when confronting Ben about his mishandling of the situation, she is sympathetic but unwilling to acquiesce to Ben’s anger-~-and when Ben continues to misgender Kurt/Roselyn, Bailey finally just corrects Ben’s pronoun use, and leaves.

Miranda Bailey comforts her sibling-in-law going through transition

This isn’t the firs time Grey’s has featured a trans patient; several seasons ago, Mark and Lexie treated a trans woman whose estrogen treatment was causing her to develop breast cancer, prompting them to medically recommend that she cease transition.  I honestly don’t remember how they resolved the problem, but the episode did focus on the importance of gender identity as well as on the experiences of the patient’s wife, and it was well-handled as well.  But this is the first time that the patient in question has been pre-transition and we have gotten to witness the coming out process, the first time it has been someone close to the main characters on the show, and the writers did, in my opinion, an excellent job of defending the idea that being trans is not problematic or weird, and in recognizing that misgendering can be a form of violence and that individuals should take steps to recognize how they are interacting with trans identities and move towards allyship.  So, go Dr. Bailey, you’re still the best.

Nashville is dealing with something completely different, and unlike Grey’s, it doesn’t deal explicitly with social issues very often…but it does, usually, handle them pretty well.  For those who don’t follow the show, the past few weeks have dealt with one of the characters, Sadie Stone, dealing with her abusive ex-husband.  A couple of episodes ago, said ex-husband turned up to threaten Sadie and punch her in the face, causing her to fear for her long-term safety and file a restraining order, which in the lnext episode, he proceeds to violate.  This is, sadly, reflective of the experiences of a number of survivors of domestic abuse, wherein even after they make the decision to leave and successfully execute that plan, their abuser continues to interfere with their life, and may stalk, harass, or threaten them in order to regain control.  In Sadie’s case, her ex sues her for rights to her music, threatening her financial stability by getting an injunction against her upcoming album.

Sadie Stone uses songwriting to cope with her experiences

The reason I want to recognize this portrayal, however, is this: Sadie goes through periods of fear and depression in confronting her ex-husband, but she is a survivor.  She is pushing through to pursue a very successful music career, and she has flashes of strength where she feels able to confront him, particularly as she feels able to leverage the restraining order to keep him away from her.  She utilizes the legal system, and her label’s ability to settle the lawsuit out of court, to eventually gain some protection, and uses her experiences to write incredible music and empower herself.  This is actually an incredible portrayal of a survivor, because Sadie is neither always strong and confident, nor fundamentally broken.  Her experiences are reflective of the idea that abuse can be traumatizing and difficult to get past, but that happiness and survival and success are possible in spite of that. That’s a message worth getting out to people, and I’m glad to see ABC doing it.

We don’t see enough about these issues, at least not enough that is portrayed in a realistic, meaningful way.  Intimate partner violence is incredibly common, even in the United States, and many individuals will not realize until things are very bad that they are in a dangerous situation, may feel powerless to walk away, or may feel like they can never get their life back after they do.  We need to see pop culture narratives that empower those individuals, narratives that recognize their existence and their humanity, narratives that remind them it isn’t their fault and that tomorrow will come.  And we need that for trans individuals as well: in a culture where too many stories about trans people ends with their deaths, both on screen and in reality, we need stories about acceptance and success and love.  We need better examples of what allyship looks like, and we need better stories about individuals from marginalized groups, stories and examples that give us something to reach for.  And I’m glad that, at least in the last few weeks, we’ve seen at least a little of that.

Survivor Support: A Few Things to Keep In Mind

•February 23, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Given the statistics on sexual and gender-based violence in the United States (and, for that matter, around the world), it stands to reason that most readers of this blog will, at some point, meet or know a trauma survivor.  They may or may not disclose this trauma to you, which means that much of the time, you may not know, which is why basic issues related to respecting trauma survivors should always be at play, such as not making rape jokes, adding trigger warnings to things (especially in settings where a survivor cannot necessarily leave the discussion), and not making comments that effectively blame victims for the trauma they have survived.  That’s not me saying every word out of your mouth has to be politically correct, or that well-meaning people don’t ever mess up.  It’s just a reminder that in a world where there is a good chance you could be interacting with a survivor of trauma, you should always be respectful of the way our culture places people at risk and not make the problem worse.

That said, I periodically get questions about what to do when someone does disclose a trauma.  I want to preface this by reminding readers that I am not a social worker or a licensed psychologist, I was a rape crisis counselor who provided immediate support to individuals on a volunteer basis.  This means that my expertise is limited, and if you are close with a survivor of any form of violence, I would fully recommend that you seek further resources than what I am about to give.  This post is meant to provide a basic toolbox for that moment when you are scared that saying the wrong thing could make it worse, and saying nothing is not an option.

1. Do not be judgmental.

That seems kind of obvious, but many people don’t realize what, exactly, comes off as judgmental.  Don’t ask a lot of questions regarding the circumstances of what happened, because it doesn’t matter if they were drinking or what they were wearing or how long they and this other person knew each other or why they couldn’t leave.  It does not matter.  Accept whatever information the survivor feels comfortable disclosing to you, and accept that they may not feel safe saying any more.

2. Remind them it’s not their fault.

Sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault.  Relationship violence is never the survivor’s fault.  Abusers are the only ones at fault for the abuse they perpetrate, but in a society that will ask the questions I just said not to ask, in a society that looks for the perfect victim and blames anyone who might not fit that narrative, it is easy for survivors to internalize the idea that if they had just done something differently, this might not have happened.  Remind them that this is not their fault, and that you know that it’s not their fault.  It’s good for people to know someone is in their corner.

3. Respect their decisions.

Following a traumatic incident or experience, there may be any number of decisions to be made.  If you and your friend are comfortable discussing their options, you can make yourself available for that, even help them do the research to see what those options may be, but remember that the decision is theirs alone.  Get a SANE exam or don’t, report the issue to the police or don’t, file a restraining order or don’t…all of these questions need to be left to the survivor.  It’s important to restore as much control and autonomy to the person as possible, and to make it clear that they have both the ability and the right to be making these decisions, even if they are not the decisions you would personally make.

4. Remind them that they are not alone

This kind of falls in line with just about everything else I’ve been saying, but it’s worth mentioning separately because it is easy for survivors to feel isolated and scared.  Make it clear that you are here for the person, and that they are not alone.

5. Respect their privacy.

If someone trusts you enough to disclose their trauma to you, that is wonderful, but it also comes with some degree of responsibility.  Do not disclose the details of their trauma to anyone without their permission.  It doesn’t matter if you think they should tell their significant other or you think someone should call their mom-~-again, that is their decision.  This doesn’t mean you can’t talk to a trusted confident and say, “A friend of mine disclosed a trauma to me last night and I’m feeling really worried about them”, because that doesn’t actually give away anything about who they are or the details of what happened, but you absolutely should not say “My friend W was assaulted by this guy P last night at X fraternity party”-~-this fundamentally does not respect the survivor’s privacy or their ability to choose who knows about what happened.  This is especially important because being a survivor is often a stigmatized status, and the individual deserves the right to control for that stigma.

6. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.

People in caretaker roles often forget that they need to take care of themselves as well, but if you are going to support a trauma survivor, please keep in mind that secondary trauma can be real, and that you may experience emotional consequences from taking care of them.  Remember to take the time to read, relax, and take stock of your own feelings and capacities as you navigate supporting someone you care about.  If you need to, find someone who can support you, including a counselor or a friend (as long as you can talk to them without violating the survivor’s privacy), and make sure that you are conscientious of how navigating your experience with this may spill over into interactions with anyone you are supporting.

As always I will end this post with a couple of resources, in case anyone needs them:

RAINN has an online hotline where survivors and secondary survivors can turn to for support, which can be accessed here.

For a list of online resources to help secondary survivors, see here.

For a list of SANE (sexual assault nurse examination) programs (where survivors can get often free exams and have forensic evidence collected), see here.

For a basic guide to legal options for survivors of relationship violence, see here.

Remember that the resources you may need will change based on the circumstances you are addressing, and that these resources will not be able to answer every question.  Take the time to learn whatever information you find pertinent, and again, don’t forget to take care of yourself along the way.

Book and Issue Review: Wintergirls

•February 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

TW: Eating Disorders

When I read Speak in high school, I was blown away by how well Laurie Halse Anderson dealt with the issues surrounding her protagonist’s sexual assault and subsequent depression.  It was her debut novel, and it was touching, well-written, and ultimately a huge source of support for many readers who came to connect with Anderson’s characters.  I had re-read Speak since then, but until this week, I had not read any of her other works.

But I am so glad I did.

Wintergirls was everything I hoped it would be: solidly-written, well-researched, and compelling, the novel tells the story of Lia, a high school senior who has struggled with an eating disorder for years.  After her best friend dies suddenly, Lia begins to slowly deteriorate.  Written in response to fans who wrote in expressing to Anderson that this was something they struggled with, and in consultation with pediatricians and psychiatrists who helped to ensure the accuracy of Anderson’s portrayal of Lia’s experience, the book is both touching and at times uncomfortable.  And in case it was not clear, I fully recommend it (and Speak, if you missed it).

I’ll talk about the book a little more, but let me say a bit about eating disorders.

In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from or have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their life.  Eating disorders include not only anorexia and bulemia, which are the most commonly discussed, but also binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).  The statistics on impact and treatment are concerning: statistics show that only about 33% of individuals suffering from anorexia and 6% of those suffering from bulemia receive treatment for their condition; just under half of those suffering from binge eating disorder obtain treatment as well, a statistic we can only hope will improve in light of recent updates made to give binge eating disorder its own diagnostic criteria.  These disorders often start out with what would be considered normal dieting behavior, something so common that some studies indicate roughly 90% of college women engage in it; unfortunately, about 35% of dieters progress to pathological dieting, and about 25% of those individuals go on to develop an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are very real mental illnesses, with very real mental and physical consequences.  They frequently co-occur with depression and/or anxiety, and can also be accompanied by the following:

  • extremely low body weight
  • thinning of the bones
  • anemia
  • muscle weakness
  • growth of very fine hair all over the body (for warmth)
  • electrolyte imbalance and dehydration
  • low blood pressure
  • acid reflux disorder (more common with bulemia)

In extreme cases, eating disorders can lead to brain damage, multi-organ failure, and infertility, and in some cases, eventually death.

Eating disorders are scary, but they also largely impact a portion of the population that often isn’t taken seriously: teenage girls.  86% of those who report having an eating disorder also report its onset occurring by age 20, and eating disorders can begin as early as late elementary school.  While it is indicated in Wintergirls that Lia’s family may not have initially noticed her fixation with being thin and the excessive nature of her dieting, throughout the book they are monitoring her food intake and looking for signs that she is relapsing since her last attempt at recovery.  This website includes a list of warning signs that families and friends of individuals who may struggle with body image or who fixate on dieting may exhibit, which may indicate an eating disorder, and Anderson includes a number of these behaviors in her portrayal of Lia’s experience with her eating disorder.

One of the issues that the book makes clear is that eating disorders are fueled by disordered thinking; the problem is psychological, and it can be difficult to confront.  As readers watch Lia count calories, exercise excessively, worry about how her lack of food is impacting her, and struggle with depression, they also get to see her thought process as she articulates a distorted self image, a fixation on her weight, and a sense of isolation from her family and former friends.  Through flashbacks, Anderson reveals how Lia rejected attempts to help her recover in the past, a pattern which can be common among individuals struggling with eating disorders.

Anderson’s books are a reminder that even if you are struggling with some incredibly difficult and isolating things, you are not alone.  Though I would warn readers to prepare themselves if content related to eating disorders or self-harm is triggering to them, , I would also fully encourage people to read Anderson’s books.  They are a message worth receiving.


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