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Religious Leaders Need to Work to End Sexual Violence

Bishop Simeon Hall recently called on the church to take a stance against sexual violence, specifically including acts within families and marriage. He made a distinction between the desire for sex and the attempt to gain power which leads to sexual violence. Hall also correctly made the connection between the dehumanisation of women and failure to see us as valuable people, noting society must value women in order for sexual violence rates to go down.

We need more leaders of the church to not only “boldly decry” sexual violence, but to implement programmes and policies that address the issue and support survivors. Hall encouraged women to report to the police, seek medical care, and take their time to heal. These are all important to hear, particularly for women who have been taught their wellbeing is worth less than the reputation of male relatives.

Many churches have men’s groups and women’s groups. Are they talking about sexual violence, making a distinction between sex and rape, making members aware of available resources, and advising of the support they can expect from the church and its leadership? They need to do all of this, but also to sensitise members to the issue and encourage them to support survivors and refrain from trying to silence them for any reason, biblical or otherwise.

A troubling part of Hall’s statement, however, was his comment about Bahamian women accepting and promoting “a low self-image of themselves and other women”. It is not clear exactly what he meant, but it appears to be a form of victim-blaming — pointing to women’s own behaviour or beliefs as contributing factors.

It is important to understand that nothing women do outside of perpetrating acts of sexual violence is a cause of sexual violence. Self-image could mean appearance in which case I emphatically state that nothing about a woman’s appearance is a cause of rape, whether she looks a certain age, wears a particular outfit, is visibly differently-abled, or seems to earn a low income. There is no such thing as asking for sexual violence.

Self-image could also refer to sense of self including abilities and value. Again, this is not a cause of sexual violence. It is, however, important to separate perceptions of women (including our perceptions of ourselves) from the value of women as human beings and as contributors to family, society, and economy in a system rigged to extract our labour in excessive amounts without appropriate compensation or consideration to the need for change.

Men do not just need to learn to take rejection. They need to respect women and recognise us as human beings. They need to be taught about consent and agency which is our ability to make decisions on our own. It is critical we all understand consent where agreement to participate in a specific activity is given freely and enthusiastically without coaxing and can be withdrawn at any time, whether or not the activity has started.

Some structures function to limit us and force non-consensual activities such as the belief that men are entitled to the bodies of their wives and wives are biblically bound by a one-time consent rule. These cause harm on multiple levels and are contributing factors in the high rate of sexual violence in The Bahamas. People look to the church for direction, and the leadership needs to stand up and provide it in ways that create change.

Published by The Tribune on May 1, 2019.

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Culture Clash: Don’t Be Blind to Cosby

Most of us know Bill Cosby as Heathcliff Huxtable. He is a doctor married to lawyer Clair Huxtable and father of five children. He is a funny, playful character with endearing eccentricity. Everyone loves Cliff, and wishes he could be their father. The Cosby family was aspirational, and The Cosby Show gave us somewhere to be when our own lives, homes and families did not quite manage to bring us joy. Young black people got to see themselves on television in a positive light. Doctors and lawyers, split-level homes, families they could support and the ability to work through anything that came along. Bill Cosby had come to represent all of this. Positive representation of fathers and husbands, visibility of black families, years of family-friendly entertainment and hope for a successful, happy future.

Now we see someone else.

Accusations of rape and other forms of sexual violence against Bill Cosby did not just start in the past few years. This has been happening — and largely ignored — for decades. One of the most recent events was the lawsuit brought by Andrea Constand in 2005 who alleged Cosby had drugged and molested her in 2004. During the process, 12 women made similar allegations and Cosby denied them all. In November 2006, the lawsuit was settled out of court.

In October 2014, the conversation picked up quickly, increasing in volume and reach, after a clip of Hannibal Buress’ stand-up went viral. Buress takes exception to Cosby’s touting of respectability politics. Buress said, “Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby.” Likely due to the wildfire spread of the clip, the Daily Mail ran Barbara Bowman’s rape accusation wherein she called Cosby a monster. From then on, women have been coming forward to share their stories. Cosby’s colleagues have done their best to cast doubt on those claims, swearing his innocence.

Cosby admitted in a 2005 deposition that he put quaaludes in women’s drinks. There is no mystery around the use of drugs and drinks in sexual violence and it corroborates stories that scores of women have shared about their experiences with Bill Cosby. He drugged and raped women. Some remember parts of what happened to them at his hands while others do not.

Last week, Cosby was found guilty of aggravated indecent assault and could face up to ten years in prison. Not yet sentenced, he is free — though confined to his Pennsylvania home — on $1m bail. His legal team is likely to appeal and almost a dozen women have civil suits pending against him. Responses to the verdict vary greatly. Some are celebrating and recognise the #MeToo movement for its role in calling for justice in high-profile cases of sexual violence. Some express their certainty that 60 women lied, and Cosby is innocent. Others pretend to be on a line between the two, claiming they want women to be safe and access just justice, but do not think it is right to send Cosby to jail for a crime white men have committed and evaded prison.

“They are trying to ruin a black man’s legacy,” they say.

“Those women were lying. Their stories are too similar,” they say.

“They definitely lied. Their stories don’t match,” they say.

“Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein are still free, so why does Cosby go to jail?” they say.

We can talk about race. We can talk about how much the US justice system hates black men. We need to talk about the systems — white supremacist and otherwise — that have allowed white men to terrorise women and never have to face the public disgrace and consequences they deserve. We simply cannot have that conversation as a way of excusing or protecting other criminals. We cannot use that conversation to detract from the ongoing conversation about sexual violence, particularly perpetrated by men in positions of power.

We cannot have a conversation about race at the expense of women. It has always been far too easy to forget the black community includes women.

People look at Bill Cosby through Heathcliff Huxtable-coloured glasses. They see the loving husband and father he played on The Cosby Show. They see the weird sweaters, hear the funny jokes and feel the sparks of hope and pride at seeing a happy black family on television. They confuse the character with the actor — the real person, Bill Cosby. They ignore the power dynamic that emboldened Cosby and allowed him to sexually violate women and get away with it for a long time. They see a cultural icon.

Compare the rhetoric of the pro-black anti-woman rape apologists in support of Cosby with his respectability politics campaign that registered high on the self-hatred scale. He framed the issue of racism in the US as a black people problem — one AfricanAmericans created for themselves and can solve for themselves. How? By wearing their pants differently, of course. By changing the way they speak. By giving their children more Anglo names. A few changes in behaviour would be all it took to end racism forever, right?

If you have never heard Bill Cosby’s speeches denigrating black people — especially young black men and parents — start with the “pound cake” speech he made on the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Apply his logic to his situation. He says a black man did not have to get shot if he did not have pound cake in his hand. He did not have to go through these trials if he did not always have quaaludes in his pocket.

Maybe Cosby only got to court because he is black. Maybe the system is rigged. Maybe there is something to be angry about. If so, we need to carefully think about what should make us angry.

Is it that a black man is charged and convicted of a crime of he committed, or that a white man is not charged and convicted of a crime he committed? Do we want to fight for the freedom of black sexual predators, or do we want to fight for justice to be served, regardless of the identity of the predator? We need to deal with our inability or unwillingness to separate people from their work.

R Kelly is not even a discussion in most spaces. He has been known to violate young women and girls for years. Story after story reveals his predation. We are horrified by the accounts of those who get away, but many of are not bothered enough to stop supporting him.

By now, we should all understand that we do not have to take money out of our pockets for him to make it, but just playing a song on YouTube helps to finance his den where the women are cut off from family and friends, must ask to go to the bathroom, are completely subject to his abuse and control. Does this disgust you? Is it changing the way you consume?

How far have we come since the OJ Simpson trial? Think about all you consider before coming to a decision on high-profile cases. Race, gender, age and popularity tend to heavily impact judgment. There are stories we immediately dismiss and positions we feel obligated to take.

It is not easy to consider multiple identities, but we must. We need to find ways to be honest with ourselves about our own biases, learn to value justice, and resist the call to automatic solidarity. People are not always as they seem. They are not their work and they are not what they pretend to be. We have to look at what they do. When it comes to justice, our favourites cannot be exempt.

 

This was published in The Tribune on May 2, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Eight Years On The Same Debate With The Same Answer – Rape Is Rape

We need to talk about consent. Most of us understand it to mean permission. Parents and guardians signing forms to allow children to participate in extracurricular activities probably comes to mind. We don’t think about consent as a way of controlling and protecting our own bodies. Instead, we view the bodies of women and girls as public property.

When we force children to show affection to family members and friends without prejudice, we teach them they do not own their bodies. When we tell teenaged girls, “Dress the way you want to be addressed”, we are telling them other people’s perceptions of them are the most important thing. We have many ways of making each other less than human, stripping away rights and dignity. We find ways to blame one another for any violation experienced, conditioned by and continuing the perpetuation of rape culture.

Rape culture is prevalent in our environment and allows people to believe there is something women and girls can do to prevent sexual assault. We can dress differently, travel in groups, ensure we are always accompanied by men, refrain from consuming alcohol, get home before dark and ignore our own sexuality. Even further, we can purchase a number of products like special underwear that only we can remove and nail polish that detects date rape drugs in our drinks. The onus is continuously put on us, women and girls to protect ourselves by being less visible and investing in products specifically designed for us. As if this is not enough to bear, our law does not recognise us as full people after we marry.

According to the Sexual Offences Act, once married, women are no longer entitled to (not) give consent to their husbands and are expected to engage in sexual activity whether we would like to or not. The Act says we cannot be raped and, by marrying us, men have unlimited rights to access our bodies.

What if this were the case for murder? If a man owns his wife’s body to the extent he can penetrate her vagina without her consent, what is to keep him from thinking he can kill her without consequence? If we stick to the “two become one” argument, we set ourselves down a slippery slope. Married women can vote, but not say “no” to sex and have the right to press charges if her husband rapes her. Married women are human beings in some ways, but property in others.

There is no reason for women to be denied the right to choose what to do with their bodies, in marriage or otherwise. The narrative of false accusations is completely baseless at best and foolish at worst. If we create legislation and policies based on potential for misuse, we would likely be forced to go without. Anarchy, anyone?

People talk about the great fear of the lying woman. Won’t married women lie on their husbands, just because?

People sometimes lie — not women; people. Cases sometimes go to court and the defendants are innocent. Sometimes it is difficult to prove the crime. We see this happen every day. This is the reason for courts, judges and juries. It is the reason evidence is required. The justice system has its issues, but so do society, the church and the institution of marriage. Are we really satisfied to doom married women to live as the property of their husbands, able to be lawfully violated? Are we happy to have even ten women suffer in silence, with no legal recourse, because one might lie on her husband? Do we really believe men are entitled to sex on demand when they marry a woman?

To be clear, rape is not sex. Sex can only occur with clear, continuous consent from all parties involved. When anyone is forced to participate in sexual activity, it is assault — a violation. If a person is underage, they are not able to give consent. If a person is intoxicated, they are not able to give consent. If a person is unconscious or asleep, they are not able to give consent. Consent must exist for a sexual act to be lawful. It must be explicit and cannot be coerced. There is no such thing as sex without consent; that is rape. It does not matter whether or not the people involved are married. Consent is not granted in perpetuity, regardless of licences and vows. We have the right to say yes or no.

In July 2009, then MP for Long Island Loretta Butler-Turner tabled the marital rape bill which would have amended the Sexual Offences Act to omit “who is not his spouse” so that marital status does not enter the definition of rape or impede access to justice. Eight years later, we are having the same conversation on the same level, seemingly with no better understanding of or appreciation for women’s rights as human rights. We listen to political and religious leaders and allow them to guide our thoughts on opinions far too often. We forget Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers work for us and should be acting in the best interest of the Bahamian people. Laws and policies should be made to protect the most vulnerable among us; not putting them at higher risk or further marginalizing them from the rest of society. Religious leaders should not be interfering in governance of the country, or imposing themselves and their views on the citizenry. They should be rebuking the consistent, dangerous misuse of biblical text to support misogyny.

Those who support men who rape their wives often use biblical text, mostly in fragments, to compel others to do the same. A favourite is Ephesians 5:22 which implores women to submit themselves to their husbands. Those quoting this scripture conveniently neglect to mention verses 23 and 28 which call on men to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “as their own bodies”. A true, practising Christian would surely look at the full scripture and, upon seeing “love,” refer to I Corinthians 13 for its definition and characteristics. According to Paul, love is patient, kind and protective and is not self-seeking. If a man loves his wife, would he not be patient, kind and protective, and willing to put his own desires aside instead of being self-seeking? If a man loves his wife as Christ loved the church — for which He gave His life — what limit would there be to what he would give up for her? Why aren’t we holding men to the same standards we demand women meet?

A married woman is still a woman, and a human being. Married women, like unmarried women, have human rights. These include being equal in dignity and rights, the right to security of person, freedom from slavery or servitude and recognition everywhere as a person before the law. In addition to being protected from sexual assault and understood to be human beings, women deserve to have access to justice. We need to look at the Sexual Offences Act and its definition of rape. We need to look at the way we view marriage and, in particular, the privileges of men within the institution. We need to understand that rape is rape, no matter who is involved. Perhaps more than that, we need to look at the positions we take and the arguments we use and ask ourselves who we are trying to protect – and why?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 20, 2017

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Culture Clash: On Cyber Crime in The Bahamas

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on April 19, 2017

Everyone wants to be entertained.

We pay for cable television, go to political rallies and engage in Facebook banter on hot topics for days.

Sometimes our jokes are on other people, but nothing is as disturbing as the pleasure many get from recording, watching and sharing explicit content without consent of the people involved.

Too many people prefer to make assumptions, stating them as facts, to looking critically at common behaviours and the related social ills.

There is no shortage of topics we would prefer to leave undiscussed. We are not interested in feeling uncomfortable, challenging norms or risking existing perceptions of ourselves to have necessary conversations.

No one wants to talk about sexual violence. It is not pleasant. Rape is not a safe table topic, but women are not safe from predators either. Why not? Who is to blame? How have we contributed to rape culture, ensuring that victims are blamed for violence enacted against them and made to feel shame and guilt?

Every few months, a new story makes the rounds on social media. Videos are quickly shared, exposing traumatic, humiliating moments for the entertainment of the general public. We have become voyeurs, cultivating an insatiable desire for violent content. When people are excited by images of car accidents, footage of people taking their last breaths, children being abused and women being raped, it should be an alarm. This growing obsession is a definite indicator of desensitisation to acts of violence and loss of humanity. Unfortunately, it seems this has been normalised, and few are willing to challenge it.

For the past few days, video of a rape has been circulating on social media. Not only has evidence of a crime been widely shared, but people have requested the video. They are asking contacts to share a video of a woman being raped for their entertainment and to enable them to join the troubling conversation, complete with graphic details.

Why was this video recorded? Who recorded it? Why has it been shared with anyone other than the police? Why do people want to watch it? What does it mean when people are excited by the thought of such a video?

In conversations about violence against women, the issue of relationship to the survivor is almost always raised. When men and boys fail to see the problem with various forms of sexual violence, we quickly point them in the direction of their family trees. What if this happened to your mother, sister, or daughter? What if this woman was related to you in any way? Would she be a human then? Would she deserve to be protected then? Would it still be her fault?

The same distance exists between viewers and individuals in the videos. Something keeps us from seeing people we do not know as human beings. The same deficiency renders us incapable of empathy. Entirely separate from this is the sense of moral superiority that comes with viewing such content. People like to see and position themselves as better than others. It is a pleasure to point out all the things we would have done differently to ensure a different outcome.

What did she drink? Who did she get it from? Did she ever let it out of her sight? Why did she drink it? Didn’t she notice it tasted different? Did she know these people? Couldn’t she fight back?

I wouldn’t have drunk anything. I don’t know anyone who would do that to me. I’m a better judge of character. No matter how drunk I am, I can fight back. I’m smarter. Stronger. Better.

These questions are easy to ask. These actions are easy to premeditate. Judgments are easy to make. In all of this, we centre ourselves and forget about the people who are impacted by the content shared without their consent and the unfiltered public commentary. We give no thought to the impact of our self-aggrandisement on victims of cyber crime. We rarely even think about our perception of rape.

It is easy to think of rape in narrow terms – dark alley, stranger, screams. In reality, rape is not limited to specific circumstances. It can happen day or night, inside or outside, with or without an audience. For the perpetrator, it is an exercise of power and control. When consent is not given, it is rape. Consent must be voluntary, explicit and continuous, and can only be given in sobriety and adulthood. It is never implied and is always necessary. When lack of consent or the end of consent is ignored, the act is a violation. In this most recent video, the young woman was incapable of giving consent. She was sexually violated and that has been multiplied by the cyber crime of recording and sharing the video.

Certain assumptions can be made about people who send and receive videos like the one being discussed. Sending such a video suggests the sender has reason to believe the recipient is like-minded. It implies there is nothing wrong with sharing this kind of material, and no consequences are expected. If you are in receipt of the video, it may be time to ask yourself a few questions. Who sent it to you? What is your relationship to the sender? Why would anyone feel comfortable sharing the video with you? How do you respond to people sharing this kind of content with you? Have you shared the video, or content like it? Are you a cyber criminal?

If we are not prepared to consider the impact of our actions and speech on others, to refrain from criminal activity or to correct family and friends when they commit harmful acts, are we ready for the revolution we say we want to see?

If we cannot govern ourselves or see the humanity in one another, we are not prepared for fight for democracy. Are we ready to study, debate, and decision-making on the road to May 10, 2017? Until we respect and protect the least among us, we cannot rise together for effective leadership and civic participation in our country.

We must think beyond ourselves and our personal relationships, working to understand and promote human rights for all, if we are to build a better Bahamas for Bahamians.