Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Power of Imperfection

It is tempting to look for perfection. In many aspects of life, people have come to the understanding that perfection is unattainable. There is still, however, an idea of what makes a “perfect” crime victim. People imagine a grandmother on her way to church on Sunday morning who is struck by a stray bullet. They think of a woman jogging in the middle of the day who is dragged into the bushes and raped by a stranger in a ski mask. Not all victims fit those criteria, but in their stories is power.

If you have read media coverage of a crime that lists what a rape victim drank the night of her victimization or what the victim was wearing, you have witnessed victim blaming. If you have seen a story on a homicide that rattled off the victim’s previous arrests or convictions which may have happened decades ago, you have witnessed the blaming. All of this blaming points out what society deems as “imperfections” in the victim’s story, tarnishing to the victim’s reputation and credibility.

For years, victim advocates have fought the perception that certain actions somehow make a victim’s story less legitimate or worthy of empathy. Advocates have fought the notion that behaving anything less than what society deems “perfectly” makes someone less of the innocent, blameless victim. This standard does a disservice to the majority of victims by marginalizing their experience and shifting blame from the attacker to the victim.

When a victim isn’t “perfect” according to society, there is the greatest room to make an impact on society. No one will question the outrage created by the murder of a grandmother on her way to church. To have the same outrage when an individual with a checkered past is murdered at 2am in an alley is the test that victim advocates and allies must pass, a test that the media and the rest of society so often fail.

When an advocate stands next to a sexual assault victim while everyone around her is asking why she drank so much, why she went back to a room alone with the perpetrator, or why she was wearing a short skirt, that advocate is taking a strong stand against rape. That advocate is also taking a stand against society’s warped notion of what a perfect, blameless, innocent victim is by reinforcing that blame for the crime lies with the person who chose to rape another human being, not with the victim. The advocate can not only defend that victim, but also make an impact for future victims by moving the needle on society’s view of victimization.

There is power in “imperfection.” It is when advocates and allies stand up for the most marginalized victims of crime or those branded as “imperfect” victims that they take the biggest stand and can have the most impact. It is not always easy to stand by those who society has marginalized and blamed for their victimization, but it is one of the most important purposes of Crime Victim Advocacy Center since its founding in 1972 and up to the present day. We reject victim blaming and unattainable notions of perfection in favor of supporting all victims of crime simply because they deserve to be supported. Support CVAC, support crime victims, and find the power in imperfection. 

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Why are there so many murders this year?

If I had a nickel for every time I have been asked that question over the last few months, I could afford to treat myself and maybe a coworker or two to lunch off a fast food’s restaurant’s dollar menu. I have heard this from clients, coworkers, reporters, classmates, family, and friends. I usually say that I don’t know, but I guess that’s not entirely true. The true answer is that the explanation behind the high homicide rate, at least in my opinion, is so complicated that it defies easy explanation and also easy solution. I could give an answer to every person who asks me, but they would probably regret asking after the first 15 minutes of my answer. Even such a long-winded answer from someone who has worked with the families of homicide victims for more than 10 years would certainly still underestimate the circumstances  and causes that have led us to this point in 2015.

Homicide rates are affects by nearly every aspect of society. Economy, education, family structure, legal and illegal drug use, weapons policy, gangs, community reactions to law enforcement, climate, geography and many more feed into the homicide rate. Neither a single one of these nor the sum total of these is an excuse for violence. They are just an illustration of the complexity of the problem that has vexed St. Louis for years and this year in particular. That is why there are so many murders in St. Louis, although the exact mechanism by which these interacted in 2015 is unknown at this time. We are a city with a lot of problems and most of those problems contribute to our violence rate. We are also a city with a lot of potential and human capital to put toward fixing those problems.

If the causes of murder are complex, the solutions are necessarily so. Many solutions to the high homicide rate only take into account one or two of these issues. We often find a solution to a problem within our purview or skill set because of how we define the problem. The solution presupposes the problem. If you are in control of the police department, this looks like a problem that can be solved with more officers. If you are a politician, it looks like a problem that requires a law change whether that is reevaluating drug policy, gun policy, or others. If you are a prosecutor, this is a problem that requires better cooperation with prosecution to reduce the number of murderers who get away with their crimes. If you are an educator, we need to increase student retention and quality of education. If you work with families, you may see the need for fatherhood initiatives to encourage men to be more involved in their children’s lives of programs to divert kids from joining gangs. The fact is, most of these solutions will probably affect the murder rate to different degrees and all are based in the logic of how and why crimes happen. A single leader or small number of them, however, cannot affect all of the causes of victimization.

Ultimately, we are holding leaders responsible for solving a problem that is so much bigger than their sphere of influence. That does not excuse them from their obligations; it just means they need to think bigger and more strategically to have a true influence on the violence that has plagued our city. 

Comments by: Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services & Special Victims Advocate

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Caitlyn Jenner Matters to Crime Victims

Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover has garned a lot of media attention this week. Some lauded her look. Others had more negative responses, choosing to call her "Bruce" or to use masculine pronouns when referring to her. Some individuals grumbled about America’s celebrity-worshipping culture and bemoaned the fact that there are more pressing issues than Caitlyn’s gender identity, like war and famine. To transgender individuals, however, the issue of self-intentity and self-expression can be just as much a matter of life, death, and health as those issues are.

By introducing herself to the world as a transgender woman, Caitlyn has taken a brave step that shines a light on a population that is still fighting for recognition and respect in the United States. Because of their marginalized status, transgender individuals are at increased risk for violent victimization. According to the Office for Victims of Crime:
  • one in two transgender individuals will be the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime
  • half of transgender women report being physically assaulted by an intimate partner after revealing their status as transgender
  • in 2009, half of the LGBT victims of fatal hate crimes were transgender women. 
However, in 34 states, transgender individuals are not legally protected by hate crime laws.

These high incidence of victimization among transgender individuals may be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Statistics and data collection from this highly marginalized population may not be telling the whole story. Furthermore, transgender victims of crime may not be seeking help through the normal channels that are available to cisgender individuals. The Office for Victims of Crime reports that only 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ victims of sexual or domestic violence get services through traditional providers like shelters, legal programs, and victim advocacy groups.

So, what can be done?
1. Learn your terms. For example- Gender is a social construct like girls wearing pink and boys playing with trucks. Sex consists of the genetic markers and genitalia that someone has. Transgender individuals identify with a gender that is not the one associated with their biological sex. Cisgender individuals are those whose biological sex and preferred gender identity coincide. Some individuals do not identify with a binary gender and may identify with both genders or neither. Learn what the letters mean in LGBTQ(IA+). Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words DO matter and they CAN hurt people.

2. Respect Caitlyn Jenner, but don't idealize her. Ms. Jenner is one of the first celebrities to have been in the spotlight as a male and also while transitioning to female. Caitlyn is absolutely gorgeous in her Annie Liebovitz photos, but she also has advantages that not all transgender individuals enjoy- besides photoshop and a professional photographer! 

Gender reassignment surgery, breast augmentation/reduction, facial resculpting/impants, and shaving of the adams apple are all costly medical procedures that many insurance plans don't cover. Ms. Jenner has ostensibly been lucky enough to have at least some of these procedures along with hormone therapy that can also be prohibitively expensive for some trans people. Her privilege also potentially insulates her from societal consequences to transitioning like job loss. Thirty-two states allow individuals to be fired simply for being transgender. Ms. Jenner was lucky enough to get a reality show, but that is of course not a typical outcome for trans individuals.

We must remind ourselves that "passing" for the other gender or how closely a trans person matches our societal norm of "masculine" or "feminine" is not the burden of proof for their acceptance. Individuals who identify as trans but cannot afford surgery, hormone therapy, or other medical procedures are no less worthy of the love and respect owed to all humans. Ms. Jenner is beautiful, but anyone who is able to express their true self even in the face of strong societal gender norms should be appreciated for their strength, bravery, and beauty, as well.

3. Demand better treatment. The criminal justice system and service providers should be called to task for their treatment of trans victims. Police Departments must be trained on issues as simple as how to address a trans person For example, when all else fails, ASK how that person how they prefer to be addressed or use gender-neutral pronouns. Also (not specific to law enforcement), lose the term "tranny" from your vocabulary. It makes anyone who uses it sound outdated and transphobic. Training like this is available and can be obtained through CVAC and its partners.

Whether they exclude them from their service population or just ignore the incidence, victim service providers are at least partially responsible for the small number of trans victims who seek services. CVAC's domestic violence programs are inclusive, but the name Legal Advocates for Abused Women Program predated that inclusivity and may deter trans individuals from seeking help. That is an issue that CVAC must address going forward. Not every service provider has to serve people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but as a community, victim service agencies must make the effort to identify service providers, reach out to the LGBTQ+ population, and to streamline service provision across agencies.

Caitlyn Jenner is just one trans woman, but she has in her story the potential to expose the life or death struggles than many transgender individuals experience on a daily basis. High criminal victimization rates against transgender individuals are an important part of this picture. The information here is only the start of the conversation, but it is an important one that CVAC plans to continue with our partners.

Comments by Director of Advocacy Services

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The questions matter, not just the answers.

Last week, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze started a firestorm with a skit meant to undermine the statistics used to justify tighter scrutiny of the way college campuses respond to sexual assault of students. Bloomberg Businessweek does a good job of putting the statistics into context in their article linked here. (The link also includes the video of the skit if you care to watch it.) I would argue that the bigger point, however, is not about parsing out the statistics. Rather, the questions that they asked are most informative.

Granted, the questions seem like researchers are taking a circuitous route to their final numbers, and that leads to the show's criticism. The studies asked about specific behavior or situations often without using the term "rape" or "sexual abuse." The host of the segment declares that if he were to study the percentage of women who were raped, he would ask them "Have you been raped?" The more direct the approach the better the answers, right? Apparently it does not occur to him that some women may choose not to identify themselves as rape victims to a man they do not know, especially one who asks in such blunt, careless language. Maybe he should be asking why researchers feel they have to explicitly state different sexual assault and sexual coercion situations to elicit responses rather than just asking the simple question. Therein lies the lesson.

Researchers have learned that victims of sexual violence do not always identify as "rape victims" or "sexual assault victims" even if their experience meets the legal definition. There are different explanations for this phenomenon. One of the most troubling ones that has surfaced in research is that some of these abusive behaviors are normalized by society in a way that victims no longer identify as victims of sexual violence. This is not a matter of "The president is saying the women were raped and these women are saying they weren’t" as The Blaze host opines. It is at least in part about what our culture tells even the youngest women about their body and how men will treat or mistreat them.

In a study published in Gender & Society, researchers found that child victims routinely trivialized, minimized, or justified sexual harassment and sexual abuse committed against them. Sexually aggressive boys who touched girls without their consent or used sexually explicit language to proposition the girls were understood as "boys being boys." Even adult men who pursued sexual contact with underage girls were sometime given this pass by the victims.

One 14 year old in the study relayed a story about a boy on her school bus who repeatedly touched her over her protests. He ultimately told her that he planned to come to her house and rape her since she was not acquiescing to his sexual overtures. This girl repeated dismissed the threats and aggression as the boy "feeling rejected" or "just joking." She did not identify as a victim of sexual abuse or sexually aggressive behavior.

Like the women in the studies that The Blaze skewers, the children in this study did not always report the abuse to authority figures because they didn't believe it was serious enough to warrant reporting.  These are young girls being forcibly touched against their will. Boys (and sometimes men) are touching their bodies without their consent and the girls don't consider it serious enough to report. They change their own behavior by trying to avoid the situation or the boy or by trying to divert his attention, but they do not identify the males' behavior as abusive. The girls' own behavior belies their discomfort with the situation, but they do not express that in terms of sexual abuse.

It's not just the boys who normalize this behavior. Mothers tell their daughters to expect sexual aggression and to protect themselves. After being forced to perform oral sex on a 17 year old boy, Terri (age 11) took the blame on herself saying, "I shouldn't have been there, my mom said I should've been home anyway, but I didn't want to get raped so I had to." This girl was forced, under threat of forced vaginal intercourse, to perform oral sex against her will. Still, she does not identify as a rape or sexual assault victim.

Another 14 year old girl reported that a 30-something year old man touched her leg, thigh, breasts, and vagina. When asked to reflect on the encounter later, she said, "He does it to everyone, you know, it's just happens sometimes." Other girls reported being given alcohol to facilitate sexual abuse, repeatedly being propositioned by adults who had already sexually abused their peers, and being shamed or threatened with shaming for their sexual behavior. Still, some of the girls criticized themselves and their peers for not successfully avoiding the abuse and normalized the males' behavior as just part of the way things are.

Get that? Women and girls can be subjected to aggressive sexual behavior, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and rape without necessarily identifying themselves as rape victims. It's not always the case, but it does happen. It does not mean that they are not victims, it just means that we have to be smarter and more delicate in the way we ask the questions. It is the nuanced questions, like in the studies lambasted by The Blaze that elicit descriptions of those victimizations. Until we can change our culture which tells women to expect, normalize, and take responsibility for the violence committed against them by males, the least we can do is ask the right questions to let them tell their stories.

Comments by: Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Faces

I feel like someone is looking over my shoulder. Not in the “NSA is reading my emails” kind of way. Rather, when I look to my left, I see three handsome smiling faces- pictures of people I have never met.

Probably the most consistent fear I hear from my clients is not that someone else in their family will be hurt. It’s not that the perpetrator will never be brought to justice. The most common fear I hear from my clients is that no one will remember their son or daughter, their brother or sister, their mother or father.

It’s a realistic fear in a city and in a culture where most crime stories last for one news cycle before they are replaced by newer ones. Certainly, some stories capture the attention of the public or the media, but those are the exception. Sometimes it is because the victim was especially young. Sometimes it’s because the victim doesn’t fit this city’s stereotype of what a homicide victim looks like. Sometimes it is because the crime happened in a part of the city that most people consider “safe.” The media reminds us of these cases, but not of the rest.

For the majority of the cases, by the time the funeral is held, there are no cameras or reporters there. There is just a family that has been left behind. There are young friends who have to wrestle with the reality of their own mortality much too early. There are ministers, police officers, and advocates who have dedicated themselves to helping to pick up the pieces and to help those families to find justice, renewed meaning, and happiness, but there is no media. They have moved on to the latest story.

Out of the 120 homicides in St. Louis City last year, could you name 5 victims? How about 2? If you were not related to the victim or you don’t work in victim services, that’s probably a difficult task. It seems like the fear of families that their loved ones who were taken too soon will be forgotten is a realistic concern.

That is what brings me back to the three gentlemen over my shoulder. These three boys were killed to early, all before their 21st birthday. They are three victims whose families have chosen to add their portraits to an exhibit called the Faces Project which was started by local artist Christine Ilewski. The Faces Project gives families a way to ensure that the memory of their loved one goes on. The faces and the stories will be preserved in this traveling exhibit, and they will be seen and read far beyond where the family alone could take them. They will testify to the toll that gun crime takes on young victims. 

I will remember these happy faces. I will remember the grief of their families, but I will also remember the hope that we have been able to give them through a partnership of advocacy and art.

I invite you to come and to see the faces at this month’s showing of the Faces Project. 

May 9- June 6, 2014
Opening reception May 9 from 7-10pm
2028 South 12th Street
St. Louis, MO  63104

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Special Victims Advocate

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why does hate matter?

In the wake of events like Sunday's shootings in Overland Park, KS, people often ask what is so different about a hate crime. Conventional logic tells us that in order to violently victimize someone, you would have to at least dislike if not hate that person. Still, the law distinguishes between “regular” crimes and “hate” crimes. Why?

Part of the insidious nature of hate crimes is that they are not just committed against one person. Rather than targeting a person for some perceived wrong he/she committed, the suspect in a hate crime targets a person simply because they are a member of a certain group (or believed to be a member of that group). It is a crime against an entire community of people based solely on a characteristics that are largely outside of their control like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion. Because hate crimes are perceived as attacks on entire groups, there is elevated risk of retaliation and escalating violence.

There are two very important lessons to take away from the tragic crimes in Kansas. The first is that a victim need not belong to a minority group to be the victim of a hate crime. What matters for the purposes of hate crimes charges is that they were targeted because the perpetrator believed they belonged to a certain group. In this case, the victims were chosen because of their suspected affiliation with two Jewish institutions. While all three were Christian, according to media reports, that is not the important factor in the decision to charge the alleged perpetrator with a hate crime.

What matters for hate crime charges is whether victims are targeted because of their real or perceived membership in a particular group. It does not matter whether that group is a minority or a majority in our society. The same charges could be leveled against a perpetrator who shot people outside of a mosque or outside of a Christian church because he/she believed the victims were members of that religion. Members of majority or minority groups may be victims of hate crimes.

Perhaps the more important takeaway from this crime is that hate crimes legislation does not criminalize speech. It only increases the punishment for criminal acts. One of the reasons given for opposing hate crimes legislation is that such laws punish people for exercising their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech. According to news sources, the suspect in the recent case had a history racist, anti-Semitic speech documented through letters, campaign ads, and over 12,000 internet postings on one site alone. None of those were charged as hate crimes. They were not hate crimes. In order for someone to be charged with a hate crime, they must commit a criminal act. Hate crimes legislation does not impinge on individuals’ freedom of speech. The suspect was only arrested on hate crimes charges once he resorted to violence, a criminal act. Speech is not a hate crime unless the person commits or incites violent, criminal acts.

Hate crime prosecutions are not about controlling the exercise of free speech. They are not just committed against "the others" in society. They are about increasing penalties for individuals who commit a crime against a person or group for what they are, not who they are. Hate matters because it preys on fear, misinformation, and anger to incite violence. Hate matters because it breaks the bonds that hold us together as a city, a state, and a country. Hate matters because crimes against individuals based on their membership in a group depersonalize victims and alienate entire communities from the larger society.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services 

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Knight, A Captain, and A Role Model

Sir Patrick Stewart is not just the man behind Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the Startship Enterprise. He is a voiceover artist, a Shakespearean actor, and a survivor of domestic violence. At (of all places) Comicpalooza in Houston, Texas, a brave woman- herself a victim of abuse- thanked him for his work on behalf of ending violence against women and asked "Besides acting, what are you most proud of that you have done in you life (that you are willing to share with us)?” His answer stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to share it. He is eloquent, steadfast, and above all genuine. At the end of the video, Sir Patrick Stewart hugged the woman who asked the question and whispered to her "You never have to go through that again. You're safe now."

Sir Patrick Stewart has a spotlight because he is famous. He has chosen to expose a painful part of his life to that glaring light and to use it to help others. His sentiment that men must be responsible for ending violence against women is one that any and all men should adopt. You do not have to be famous. You do not have to have a history of being abused. You just have to be a man who will no longer tolerate violence against women, who will no longer blame the victims of abuse, and who will not be ashamed to say so. Men can guarantee that women never have to go through abuse again. Men can make sure that women are safe now and in the future.
Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services