Prevalence of rape culture calls for an un-blurring of the lines

Editor’s Note: This opinion/editorial piece was originally written for one of my professors at the U of M. I thought about sending it out for consideration as a freelance piece, but ultimately I decided it belonged on this blog.

 

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Isabella Porcaro, pictured above, began her activist career as a teenager in Manhattan, New York, before moving to Memphis.

Robin Thicke sings about blurred lines, but the pop vocalist’s message, like society’s, is crystal clear.

“Blurred Lines” has earned its reputation as “the rape culture anthem,” which makes it harder to understand the longevity of its popularity. But that’s exactly how things work within rape culture, said Isabella Porcaro.

After being molested in her teens and becoming a bit of an activist, Porcaro, 20, spent months studying rape culture while working on an undergraduate project at the University of Memphis.

Rape culture, she said, is “the idea that a culture and a society normalizes rape and sexual assault, meaning that it’s commonplace.”

This includes “the way we view women as objects, because the stereotypes we put women into (make it) more OK,” she said. “When we’re sexually assaulted, it ends up being socially accepted.”

When rape becomes socially accepted, a society ends up with problems such as a huge rape kit backlog stemming from a failure to make solving rape cases a budgetary priority. This looks something like the 12,000 plus untested rape kits currently sitting on police storage shelves in Memphis. This backlog, which is made of untested kits used to collect DNA from the bodies of rape victims, has been dubbed the largest in the country.

That society would also be the kind that would figuratively tear apart a rape victim who dared to speak out about her attack. This recently happened to Dylan Farrow after she accused her former stepfather and famed producer Woody Allen of molesting her.

I’d wager a bet that Farrow doesn’t enjoy Thicke’s hit single.

A quick listen will get you nearly 20 repetitions of “I know you want it.” In the song, Thicke references his willingness to use a date rape drug on a woman at a nightclub. He insists that he will not be denied sexually, even with all of these supposed blurred lines drugging her would create.

Beth Johnson, 25, was sexually assaulted a few miles from her Memphis home in July. Thicke’s song, she said, makes her feel re-victimized. She worries about her two daughters, 5 and 4, hearing it. In their house, Robin Thicke songs are banned outright.

“If it comes on the radio we change stations. It comes on entirely too much in public places, and sometimes we just leave,” Johnson said. “I don’t want them hearing that because, even though they’re still young, they’re still absorbing that message.”

But Thicke isn’t the Lone Rape Culture Ranger.

“We’re saturated with rape culture,” Johnson said. She said she sees it on Disney Channel when male characters comment on the bodies of female characters and even in everyday interactions, such as her 5-year-old’s recent playground incident.

A boy pushed her down, and Johnson arrived just in time to hear his mother telling her daughter that it happened because he liked her. Johnson said she pulled her daughter away from the playground and had a conversation with her about what types of behaviors were acceptable.

Neither the action of the boy nor the reaction of his mother made that list.

“I feel like I’m putting a lot of the responsibility on her, but she needs to know how to react in that situation,” she said. “In the little moments if she’s not taught, what’s going to happen when we get to the big situations?”

Porcaro thinks having these types of conversations early and often might be our only tool to combat rape culture.

“When conversations come up with small kids, like when a boy is picking on a girl, we should never say, ‘Boys will be boys,’ or ‘Oh, he pushed you in the dirt because he likes you,’” she said. “It teaches young women that men hurt them when they like them and that abusive behavior is acceptable.”

Porcaro said she deals with a variation of sexual harassment regularly at the local steakhouse where she works as a server. Recently, she offered dessert to a table of male customers, and one of them responded with, “Only if we can have you for dessert.”

“I don’t see how it’s 2014 and we’ve made so many advances, but there are still so many people who look at women as second class citizens and tell sexist jokes they think are funny,” she said.

While rape culture doesn’t seem to be becoming more prevalent, Porcaro said things aren’t improving. This place of stagnation comes as a result of low awareness about rape culture and how to combat it.

Since there’s no way to escape it, unless we’re all ready to move underground, our only hope, she said, is through participating in open dialogues with our children.

“Answer questions they have. Teach them, especially your daughters. Tell them they matter, their feelings matter, that when they say no it matters and that they are allowed to say no,” she said.

Johnson said she plans to continue teaching her daughters to be strong, but she wishes so much of the responsibility didn’t fall onto girls.

“It’s time men stop skirting this responsibility,” Johnson said. “It’s not our job as women to protect ourselves from something that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.”

It’s time that we get serious about rape culture and start creating a better society for our children.

I know you want it.

 

 

 

 

 

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The fat girl you photographed for fun

I’m sitting in the lobby of Patterson Hall, the English building on the University of Memphis campus, and exactly four minutes ago a random woman took my picture as she waited in line at the Edgar Allen Joe’s coffee shop (located in the middle of the lobby) WITHOUT ASKING. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and creepy. I wish I could say it was the first time, but it’s not. It happens to me quite frequently actually.

In the age of technology, arguably the fastest way for someone to get likes on a Facebook post is to post an unflattering photo of someone the poster has deemed to be of less value and make fun of that person. It works. I see it all the time, and I have seen the practice explode since I first joined Facebook six years ago. I just never realized then that I would wind up being the person of less value over and over again.

I’m fat, and the internet knows it several times over, I’m sure.

People (like the woman who took my photo) are obsessed with weight and fatness. Shows like TLC’s “My 600 Pound Life” have created a stereotype of a fat person that includes not being able to walk or bathe and eating enough food in a day to feed four normal people for three days. And while that’s true for some fat people, it isn’t the reality for most of us.

The W8H8 (weight hate– get it?) goes so deep that I honestly think my friends and even strangers are much more obsessed with my weight than I am. I don’t like being fat, but I don’t spend every second of my day thinking about it…. until I have to deal with people who do.

People are often surprised that I enjoy photos, and when I ask why, their silence implies that they thought my weight should be making me run from the camera. My own “friends” have failed to invite me to parties and nights out because they assumed I wouldn’t want to be seen in my “current state.” I enjoy going out, and if I stay in, it’s because I’m tired or need time to myself, NOT because I’m embarrassed to be seen. (WTH?)

I can’t tell you how many of my friends have brought up their need to diet or exercise and then apologized to me for being insensitive or proceeded to mention how their needs really didn’t compare to mine, expecting me to be upset that they wanted to get in shape or fit into an old pair of jeans, BECAUSE I’M SO MUCH FATTER.

My weight has nothing to do with him wanting to look good to pick up chicks now that he is divorced, with her wanting to be in shape so that she can keep up with the kids she hopes to have a little further down the road, with his desire to build muscle and join the military or with her wanting to fit back into the clothes she wore five years ago.

Why would it bother me that someone else wants to get healthier? I like eating healthily too. But they don’t see that possibility. And they don’t see me.

To them, I’m not a person. I’m a fat person, because all they can see is my weight. That’s it. Just the fatness. They don’t see Paula at all; they see Fatty Fat-Fat McFatterson.

I don’t advocate for BEING obese, because well– why in the hell would anyone do that? It’s not a great aspiration. But I do advocate for kindness, which I think should be shown to everyone, even fatties like myself.

This sounds like a character lesson for kindergarteners, but there’s obviously a need for it. Sure, I’m fat and unattractive. SO WHAT? There are great things about me too, and the best one is that I see PEOPLE, not just their attributes. I just wish those people would extend the same courtesy.

Sigh.

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Coat Drive Reflections

As some of you know, I was pretty busy this week. I’m an operations board member for Common Ground, and for the past three days, we partnered with Action News 5, Memphis’ local NBC affiliate station, to host a coat drive.

It all started when it got cold outside. And when I say cold, I mean IT WAS SEVEN DEGREES. Shelby County Schools cancelled classes on Tuesday because of the dangerously low temps, and when people who are blessed enough to have never gone without a coat took to facebook to question the decision, my friend wrote a blog post explaining it to them. The fact of the matter is that too many kids in Memphis don’t have the proper winter apparel (aka a nice, warm coat) to safely walk to school or wait at a bus stop in the extreme cold.

You can read that friend’s account of the story here, but basically, it led to discussions between several people who ended up making the decision to take on the coat drive project. We were excited to work with the crew from AN5, and thanks to their hard work and a big push on social media from our extended networks and their networks and even theirs, we pulled it off quickly and successfully.

If you saw my facebook posts, you’ve probably seen this video of my interview, and you know that we collected over 480 coats, over 200 accessory items (hats, scarves, gloves, etc.) and over $4,000. That’s pretty amazing when you consider that it came together in a couple of hours, and we collected donations for the next three days.

All of this is old news. What I want to tell you about is the part that really can’t be shown on camera that well.

This week, I saw so much love. I saw people carrying bags stuffed with things they cleaned out of their own closets they wanted to donate because they wanted the items to be of use to people who needed them. I saw people driving from all over to bring coats to kids. I saw retired teachers and military officers and nurses and meteorologists and parents (and probably at least one of everything else) taking the time to make a trip out in the rain to go shopping to buy winter apparel for children they don’t know. I saw donations roll in first from the Memphis area, then from the region and soon from all over the country. I saw a note left by an online donor from Florida that said she had saved money not having to buy a coat this year (because it’s never seven degrees there), and she wanted to donate the amount so that a kid could receive a coat, but she donated enough money to buy four. 

This coat drive was the most incredible thing. Our donor pool and our lovely volunteer pool (thank y’all, by the way!) were both so diverse that it amazed me. The response from the community blew my mind. Seeing people give so freely and cheerfully is an indescribable experience.

I saw God’s love and favor firsthand this week. He helped us plan. He helped us get the word out and collect and push through. It was his plan all along that the blog post be written and that it light a fire. But this experience might have been a gift just for me.

I’m so thankful that I was able to be a part of it all. My friend thanked everyone but herself in the blog post I linked to previously, and I want to take an opportunity to do just that.

Wendi Thomas – thank you for stating the truth, for writing that blog post, for being brave and standing up for these kids, for taking on this project for the organization, for volunteering and helping me find other potential volunteers and for being the backbone that held the entire project together. I appreciate your hard work, sacrifice and can-do attitude.

We didn’t change the world this week, but we certainly made a difference in these kids’ worlds. What more could I ever ask for?

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U. Memphis’ carelessness in awarding financial aid hurts students

When people picture college students, most of them think of free-spirited young people with a lot more ambition than money. In fact, college might be the only period of the typical American life in which being poor is the norm. Tuition costs are HIGH. Textbook costs are HIGH. Add in living expenses like rent or dorm fees, food, hygiene items, other school supplies, automobile expenses – the only thing that isn’t high for college students is the amount on our paychecks.

Anyone who has ever been to college knows how the story goes. And that’s why the University of Memphis Financial Aid Office’s inability to inform students about the amount of aid they’re receiving this semester is so detrimental. (Ridiculous and pathetic also come to mind.)

I wrote about the difficulties college students from less glamorous financial backgrounds face here right before I began my first semester at the U of M. But that was before life had its way with me.

The following story is my own.

When I first started college in 2010, I was involved in a car accident on the way home to visit my grandparents for the weekend. I had to withdraw from school and go through the painful process of physical therapy for months.

Because of laws (rules? regulations?) governing federal financial aid, students must have a 67 percent completion rate (pass 67 percent of all classes taken) to continue receiving financial aid. When I withdrew, my completion rate hit zero percent.

The accident wasn’t my fault, but I’ve been cleaning up the pieces for 3.5 years. Every semester, I have had to submit an appeal with the same paperwork – copies of the accident report, my doctor’s notes, my physical therapist’s notes and reports from scans done on my back. (You’d think they could store these in my file, but…) Then I wait for it to be approved so that I can receive financial aid. It’s a very stressful, time-consuming process that I honestly don’t feel like anyone deserves to go through.

Please know that I genuinely love and care about school. I’m an honors student – I’m in one honors society and two honors programs (university-wide and department-wide). So on December 19, when my grades from the fall semester became official/final, there weren’t words to express how happy I was because my completion rate was (finally) over 67 percent.

Still, I was told I had to wait to be approved for financial aid for the spring – just one last wait, and I’d be free from all of the appeals and the paperwork that have plagued my life for years.

I waited for my financial aid to post. And then I waited. I took a nap to pass some of the time, and then I continued to wait. Christmas Eve came, and the entire university shut down for 10 days. I waited. It reopened in 2014, and I continued to wait.

When January 3 arrived and I hadn’t heard anything, I called the office (again) to inquire about it. I was told I had just then been approved to receive aid for the semester (16 days after my grades became official). The representative told me it would take another three to five business days for the amount of aid to appear on my online student portal.

My stress level skyrocketed.

You see, I lost some of my financial aid after the accident (because of the withdrawal), and while I could’ve appealed that and gotten it back, the university screwed that up for me (another story for another day). I pay a portion of my tuition out of pocket now. For the fall 2013 semester, I ended up paying about $1,000 out of pocket just for tuition. Purchasing textbooks added another $300.

Tuition is due by the close of business January 15. That’s eight days away, and I have no idea how much I owe the school – $1,000 again? The whole $5,050? I don’t know because they literally will not tell me, and those three to five additional business days are up exactly five days before the money is due.

To be fair, I should mention that the university offers students a payment plan option. When we enroll in a payment plan, we must pay a $50 enrollment fee and half of the amount owed. The remaining balance is split into two or three monthly payments. The program is designed to help students plan financially, but how does a student, who is broke almost by definition, plan financially when she has no idea how much money she needs to pay?

I understand that there’s a lot going on at the end of a semester. And there are a lot of students. And it was the holiday season. And we still haven’t decided if the chicken or the egg came first. But there has to be a better way of doing things.

For all I know, I could be receiving NO financial aid and be on the hook for over $5,000 plus additional fees, textbooks and additional supplies. Even making use of the payment plan option, there’s no way I can pay $2,500 (half of the tuition amount due) and a $50 enrollment fee and purchase $200 (minimum) worth of textbooks and a bunch of supplies – totaling close to $3,000 – WITH FIVE DAYS NOTICE.

If that happens, add “spring 2014” to the list of semesters I was unable to attend school for reasons beyond my control.

I just wonder how many of “me” there are out there.

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Welcome to 2013

Happy New Year! We’ve all made it to see the beginning of a whole new year.

What’s in a year? According to RENT, it’s 525,600 minutes. But a year is more than a string of minutes to me. It’s a list of moments – filled with laughter, tears, and growth. 2012 proved to be a huge year for me. So much happened so quickly, and I learned many important lessons, including one about trying to plan out a life that was somewhat difficult to grasp at first. I grew a lot closer to God this year (the thing I’m most proud of).

It really has been a year. Like any other, it had peaks and valleys. Thankfully, I seemed to experience more of the former than of the latter. I failed and succeeded and gave it my all. And it didn’t turn out too shabby.

Even still, I have some plans for 2013. I’m not big on resolutions, especially at the New Year, because I feel like we can change whenever we want. There’s no need to wait for January 1st to try and live better lives. But in the spirit of the holiday, I did some reflecting and came up with a few things, some of which I’m sharing.

I want to become a better listener. I’m a natural talker, and that definitely helps me in the social skills department. I need to listen more though. And not just in that paying-attention sort of way, but in the way that allows me to absorb and comprehend and remember the information.

I want to become more organized. I’m overly-busy, and that doesn’t allow a lot of time for being successfully unorganized. It’s time to get it together and save myself the mini-strokes that inevitably follow the issue.

I want to be better… give more… love more… just BE more. There’s always room for more, and you can’t ever stop growing and changing for the better.

So here’s to 2013 and another chance at getting it right this time! Cheers!

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My Response to “The Memphis 13” Documentary (from the original screening)

[I attended this documentary with a group from Common Ground, and this response was actually written for the group. To find out more about The Memphis 13, visit thememphis13.blogspot.com & to find out more about Common Ground, visit commongroundmemphis.org]

As I settled into my seat anxiously awaiting the premiere of The Memphis 13, two women, one white and one black, sitting on the row behind me began having a disagreement. Seating was done on a first-come, first-served basis, and several people were saving seats for a friend or two. One of the women was trying to save over half a dozen seats, and the other woman and her family sat down in three of them. They went back and forth over who should be allowed to sit where and whether or not people should be saving seats at all. Suddenly, their statements were filled with heavy phrases like “you people,” and I realized that this disagreement over seats in a movie theater had become a full-fledged argument full of racial tension.

In a city like Memphis, you can, unfortunately, expect these things to happen on occasion, but this specific incident shocked me. I assumed that anyone who was that interested in a documentary about the first thirteen African-American children to attend previously all-white schools in Memphis would have enough respect for members of another race to not come in and start some mess. Obviously, I was wrong. They settled down just in time for the movie to start.

It was 1961, and twelve African-American families had just volunteered to let their thirteen six year olds integrate the school system in Memphis. “It can be a scary thing, first grade, even without the burden of making history,” narrated Mayor A.C. Wharton.

Immediately, I began to think about what it must have been like for them, as six year olds, to have this huge pressure to make history thrust upon them. In reality, they had very little knowledge of the impact that changing schools would have on their lives and the lives of so many others. Still, they had to feel something. “I was scared,” said Harry Williams, one of the thirteen who was enrolled in first grade at Bruce Elementary that year. “There were days I didn’t want to go.”

“I don’t know if there’s any perfect time to go through fire,” said Menelik Fombi, another of the thirteen former first graders.

I also thought about how much courage it must have taken for these parents to voluntarily place their small children in a situation with so much potential danger. Pamela Mays said of her mother, “She was scared, but she still took that chance and let me go.”

Both the children and their parents were understandably afraid, and they had no idea what might happen to them as a result of their efforts. One of the students’ mothers was fired from her job when her boss found out about her family’s involvement with integration. Another parent, John Holt, said he received hate mail after his child started school, but he said it made him feel “more determined.”

As someone who was not born until roughly thirty years after the integration of the school district in 1961, I grew up attending schools where the students had a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve always been appreciative of the sacrifices made to advance equality and integrate schools, public places, etc. But there is a difference between being appreciative of those sacrifices as a white person versus as a black person. I’m not sure I can even explain it and won’t try to do so, but it all stems from white privilege.

There is also a difference between getting historical information from a textbook versus getting it from the people who were involved. Hearing their thoughts and feelings, both then and now, made the story a lot more real. Too often, the presentation of historical events distorts and dehumanizes them, and we’re left with something mechanical. Seeing the documentary allowed me to connect with these thirteen people on an emotional level, and because of that, I now understand so much more about the facts.

I was ashamed by the two women who were arguing before the documentary started until I realized something very important. They might not have wanted to sit together for whatever reason, but they made that choice. There weren’t two separate showings for blacks and whites, and no one in that room tried to deter them from sitting together.

There’s a famous quote that describes a long journey as beginning with a single step. Each of those thirteen first graders began their walk to school on the morning of October 3, 1961, with just that – one step. Even though they behaved foolishly, those women represent a small step, too, because we haven’t always had the power to decide for ourselves. I don’t agree with their choice, but I know that eventually there will be another step taken to correct it.

Whether we’re part of a group of thirteen, a participant in Common Ground, or a party of one, all of us can do at least one intentional thing toward making a difference when it comes to racial issues. We only need one thing – the courage to take a single step forward.

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