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London_Evening_Standard_30_7_2013It was with a sickened sense of incredulity I read the front page story of yesterday’s Evening Standard:

“Twitter Trolls Tell MP: We’ll Rape You”

Following Stella Creasy’s support for Caroline Criado-Perez, who was herself subjected to vile rape threats on Twitter for having the temerity to suggest that our bank notes should recognise the contribution women have made to our national success, it seems Twitter’s women-hating brigade have decided attack is the best form of defence.

I hesitate to use the word “trolls” in the context of men threatening rape.

It is a word that risks lessening the offensiveness and dangerousness of the words they choose to use. It also risks lessening the offensiveness and dangerousness of them, the men that make such threats, by decontextualising the perpetrators. A troll means different things to different people: the quasi-comical lumbering beast of popular culture; those punk-haired childhood toys that look like Child’s Play casting rejects; the dark and monstrous creatures of myth and fantasy; or dysfunctional “saddos” that should “get a life”.

In terms of the Internet, particularly, it is too easy to latch on to this latter idea. It is too easy to suggest that such threats should be dismissed as the mindless (and harmless) ranting of sexually dispossessed indequates. That those who feel threatened (generally women) should grow a thicker skin, particularly if they wish to enter the realm of the Internet (coincidentally designed and dominated, at least in terms of its architecture and maintenance, by men).

It also creates and reinforces a perverse sense of camaraderie and community. Persecutors present as the persecuted. They seek canonisation from their peers for defying the intrusions of the amorphous entity known as “the state” into their domain. It is a domain where, despite the fact that this domain and their freedom to explore it only exists courtesy of the state of which they are citizens, and the physical security and economic infrastructure which that state provides, “the state” and all that accompanies it (such as the rule of law) is evil: only the techno-anarchic, as defined by this self-selecting twisted-moralising techno-prophet elite, can be good.

Part of the hysterical rhetoric deployed is that this sort of censorship is the preserve of “feminazis”. Anyone familiar with the etymology of that word will know it was popularised by right-wing chat show host Rush Limbaugh in his attack on supporters of the pro-choice lobby. Suddenly, it was okay to conflate the term “feminist” with “National Socialism”, a genocidal quasi-religious totalitarian ideology, in order to mock and bring down those who chose to take a public stance on critical issues of women’s health. A quick trawl of the Internet reveals casual use of this term in Internet forum debate on the issue, as well as men seeking to deny that the rape threats were even made in the first place.

I don’t suppose it will be long before Criado-Perez’s assertion that “this is not a feminist issue” will be used both to undermine her credibility with feminist colleagues and, in complete contradiction, to attack her for her feminism. My reading of her comments is that she is making clear that this is an issue that has – or should have – currency beyond those who define themselves as feminist, not that this is not an issue for feminists. It is an issue that many might well identify as a feminist issue, but that we as a society should all be concerned with. It would be regretful if a well intentioned headline, designed to broaden participation and engage those who would normally stay outside such debates – not least of all because of the way some vocal and antagonistic participants use the terms “feminist” and “feminazi” to derogate and intimidate opponents – provided unintended cover for those who would prefer to retreat entirely from uncomfortable discussions of gender, identity and security (see the quote from Professor Mark Griffiths in this BBC story on Criado-Perez’s experiences and the wider issue of cyberbullying: Twitter abuse: Why cyberbullies are targeting women).

We need to slay these trolls – and even the very concept of them. We need to put abusers back in context. We need to remove their self-styled outlaw identity, where they seek to aggregate the romantic pioneer legacy of the Wild West to themselves and to the exclusion of those who choose not to engage in threats to violate other human beings. Like the rapists they emulate, these abusers are fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, boyfriends and lovers, banal in their evil. Like the rapists they seek to emulate they have mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends and lovers. They are men, real human beings who have lost touch with the qualities that make them human – at least, such qualities as make them functional members of a liberal and democratic society in which all should feel safe to carry on their own business without the oppression of the state or other individuals in that society.

You hope that these individuals would not talk to their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends or lovers in the language they choose to address a stranger. (I resent describing them as “men” almost as much as I am reticent about calling them “trolls”. Unfortunately, I can’t escape the fact of their gender. Perhaps I should use the term “males” as “female” and “females” seem to be the nouns of choice when men engage in the casual objectification of women.)  You also hope, perhaps forlornly, that they would be angry as hell if a man approached a woman they loved and said he was going to rape her. If it were someone I loved who was threatened in that manner, I hope I would have the guts to punch their lights out.

If anyone doubts the extent of the challenge, it is worth reading Cath Elliot’s thought-provoking Guardian piece from October 2011 and the response it provoked in comments from readers: Facebook is fine with hate speech, as long as it is directed at women. One particular argument provoked a storm of angry comments from indignant readers, predominantly (though not all) men:

“What Facebook and others who defend this pernicious hate speech don’t seem to get is that rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than the average man in the street: rapists rape because they can. Rapists rape because they know the odds are stacked in their favour, because they know the chances are they’ll get away with it.”

This was immediately seized upon as Elliot saying that all men are potential rapists. Comments under her article include:

“So any man will rape if he thinks he can get away with it? Is that what you’re saying Cath? That were rape to be legalised tomorrow we’d all be doing it?” [04 October 2011, 11.18am]

“Given that even using the disputed maximum figure for number of rapes committed per year you wind up with only 1 in 500 men actually being rapists I’d say that that does make them pretty different from the ‘average man’.” [04 October 2011, 11.22am]

“Oh. That’s absolutely disgusting, by the way. I hope you’ll clarify you’re not seriously suggesting the ‘average man’ would be out there, raping away, if they thought they could.” [04 October 2011, 11.33am]

At no point did Elliot make an equivalence between rapists and non-rapists. Quite the opposite in fact. She makes the distinction based on their actions. In the end she responded with her own comment:

“I didn’t say they were the ‘same as’ I said they weren’t ‘particularly different from’, and they’re not, apart from one key thing – the fact that they’re rapists!

I’m actually surprised that so many posters here seem to think rapists are some kind of special alien-like breed, easily distinguishable from everyone else. Well they’re not. As someone else has pointed out in the thread, they’re brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbours and so on, ordinary men in just about every way except for one – they’re prepared to commit this heinous crime whereas the vast majority of other, decent men are not.”  [04 October 2011 1.17pm]

She makes the point on contextualisation: that these men are like other men, enjoying the same relationships as non-rapists. They do not appear different, even though their monstrous actions set them worlds apart. If you want to get an idea of the kind of person who makes such threats, read this piece by Emma Barnett, the Telegraph’s Women’s Editor, on her radio interviews with two Internet trolls who attempt to “defend” their “right” to make rape threats online.

I wonder if those who scream “Free Speech” in defence of the right of men to threaten the rape of women on the Internet, whether to intimidate or just “for a laugh”, have really thought through what it is they are calling to protect? Before joining the chorus of indignation, anyone who is in doubt as to the vileness and impact of rape should talk to a rape survivor.

Hear them describe the fear and the sickening sense of violation and the powerlessness and the destruction of self-esteem and the ruin of identity. Hear the anger and the self-blame and the vilifications that have been caused by another man. If you are a man, wrestle uncomfortably with your instinctive sense of affront and indignation at any gender generalisations about men and male behaviour and realise they are being made by a woman who has had her identity reduced to object, a thing which a man felt entitled to violate.

To those who are critical of my gender-specific language, I am of course aware that men are raped and the horrific nature of each instance of rape is not altered by the gender of the victim. However, that still doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of rape victims are women. Get your head around the fact that official UK government statistics reveal that some 85,000 women are raped on average each year. That is over 230 a day. Then realise that means the offence has been reported and recorded and so unreported offences, which are no less real to victims too terrified or ashamed or resigned to report their rape, mean the real figure is much higher.

And then think what it means when a man says the following to a woman, whether in private or in the street or in a virtual forum: “I am going to rape you.”

Rape survivor stories make for harrowing reading. It is an offence that defies our sense of what is right on every conceivable level. Those who think that we who are offended by rape threats and jokes (without even being threatened) should grow thicker skins should themselves pause to consider how desensitisation to language is a very real thing. The recent history of popular culture is testament to that.

After all, we have learned as a society to tolerate language that our parents and, even more so, our grandparents, would not. Some of us have championed that as liberating. Some of us have bemoaned a collapse in standards of manners and social etiquette. Still others, myself included, have done both, casually accepting this change in the moral value of language without real challenge, assimilating vulgarities into our own speech despite the things we believe, bemoaning that vulgarity in others, yet also unwilling to see society return to a more censorious age. We may like it, we may not like it, we may champion it, we may hate it, but no-one would seriously question that Western society today is more acclimatised to the use of certain words than a generation ago.

Prevalence of such words, through use and reuse, has, inevitably, extended social acceptability. However, there is a world of difference between the freedom to use offensive words as we choose, with no intrinsic or constructed intent, and the use of phrases that are clearly constructed to create fear through expressed intent – targeted hatred designed deliberately to impact fundamentally on identity and a sense of self, of place. And whether we are content to live in a society in which casual disregard for such intent is a socially acceptable norm is a question we all have a responsibility to answer.

For me, in this particular debate, the cry of “Free Speech” is a modern-day Chimera, a monster conjured up by techno-demonologists to strike fear into the hearts of a non-expert majority who rightly fear a censorious state that interferes with political expression and the way we choose to live our lives. It is intended to terrify liberals into feeling that common sense has no place in a liberal democracy. It seeks to drive them into knee-jerk defences against an authority that, manifested in the state, is deemed amoral by the very fact that its pronouncements could arguably bear the label “moral”. It seeks to create a false and binary choice between one particular and romanticised meme of an anarchic Internet, which is fundamentally good, and the opposite and obvious evils of a liberal totalitarianism, worthy of the worst excesses of Arendt or Orwell. To up the ante, this is often presented as an insidious precursor to the totalitarian regimes we witness and condemn in a variety of real world manifestations. Unlike for many of its inhabitants, there are no shades of grey at all in the Internet’s potential states of existence.

I wonder if we are still intimidated by technology? I wonder if for those who aren’t in on the workings of the illusion there is still something mystical about the Internet that means we are terrified it will suddenly vanish if we apply some of the ground rules to this virtual playground that we use to order our physical space? Do we regard these techno-demonologists, who function as the Internet’s high priests, in much the same manner that the inhabitants of Oz regard the Wizard in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz? One of Baum’s biographers, Rebecca Loncraine, describes the story as a critique of power that demonstrates how “easily people who lack belief in themselves can become willing participants in the deceptions practised by manipulative figures who rule over them.” [“The Real Wizard of Oz The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum”, New York, Penguin Group, 2005, p. 179.]

The same liberals that vociferously deny that the existence of a free society depends on the right of its citizens to bear automatic weapons become less sure of their ground and even mute at the thought of tweets in this virtual, “unreal” realm leading to prosecutions and imprisonment in the “real” world (I would suggest that “unreal” and “real” are increasingly unsustainable distinctions in terms of the interface between the virtual and the physical). Yet were this their mother or daughter or sister in the street, they would not hesitate to recognise the threat for what it is. For me, the fallacy of the rapist tweeters’ argument is demonstrated clearly by the way it collapses under the weight of its intrinsic illogicality: “Our right to say what we like, no matter its reception, is one to which we attach such value that it must be protected at all costs, but yet, don’t worry, because it is also so valueless that you can simply disregard it completely when we exercise it.”

If we start from the presumption that freedom of speech matters, which for me it does, and at a very fundamental level, then surely it cannot be divorced from the responsibilities I accrue as a member of the society that protects that freedom? I am free to say what I like in the United Kingdom. I am also free to understand that if I say certain things, there will be certain consequences. That is part of the social contract I enter into by participating in a society that has decided to protect its minorities from words and behaviour that may make them feel threatened for simply existing.

The social contract is in part defined by law and in part by the the informal ways in which we interact with each other socially to establish appropriate behaviours. In modern parlance we might describe these unwritten, normative rules as “crowd-sourced”. I may choose to disregard the contract, or even refuse to recognise it, but that does not change the fact of its existence. (In understanding that, it beggars belief that we have not yet recognised how some words and behaviour can make a much larger segment of the population feel threatened for simply existing. That is an argument for another day but, thankfully, at least making threats of rape carries a criminal sanction.)

Beyond grand ideas of a social contract there is a much more banal and immediate reality (evil may be banal, but so is reality). Twitter might appear to be an anarchic public space, but it is actually a privately provided platform, run by a company that must operate in the real world of rules and corporate responsibility. Users of Twitter sign up to Terms of Service. These include the following provisions:

“We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services, to suspend or terminate users, and to reclaim usernames without liability to you. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to (i) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request, (ii) enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof, (iii) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, (iv) respond to user support requests, or (v) protect the rights, property or safety of Twitter, its users and the public.”

Granted, users are at liberty to not read them or to read them and disregard them. However, Twitter is also perfectly entitled to remove users’ access if they are breached. Similarly, as users with equal access to this private platform, those who feel the terms of service have been breached, for instance if an “applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request” has not been complied with, are perfectly entitled to report their concerns. Whether Twitter then discharges its own contractual responsibilities appropriately is another matter entirely and a part of the focus of the current debate: the way it has been slow to act until public pressure has mounted suggests a depressing subordination of substantive concern to image.

This is not an unusual phenomena. It characterises much of the debate about the Internet and the way, particularly, that private companies who provide virtual platforms appear keen to protect profit margins by perpetuating iconic imagery, such as that of the Internet outlaw, in order to sustain associations with traditional user groups. Perhaps, ironically, it is the very fact that the Internet and social media is becoming more widely accessible to non-theists, and thus potentially more profitable, that is causing these companies pause for thought.

Whether driven by economics, a recognition of what is right and what is wrong, or simply common-sense, at least there are some signs of responsiveness. On the same day that the Evening Standard carried that headline, Twitter was reported as saying that it would install a report abuse button on every tweet, despite previously arguing that it was not necessary.

First the Bank of England and now Twitter. Caroline Criado-Perez is emerging as a very serious and inspirational force to be reckoned with. (If you still want to add your name to Kim Graham’s petition in support of Criado-Perez, calling for a Twitter abuse button, you can find it here.)

I am a liberal to my core.

I believe that the rule of law is fundamental to a prosperous and peaceful society. I believe that governments should err on the side of extreme caution in matters of intervention where it could be construed as an assault on freedom of speech. I also believe that we should put the “trolls” back in context as real individuals with abusive behaviours that demand consequences. Those who seek to hide criminality in the form of threats of rape behind something as valuable as freedom of speech place themselves at liberty of sanction. Freedom of speech matters too much for it to become the preserve of rapists and those who believe they have an unfettered right to engage in society’s private and public spaces without regard for the freedom of all of that society’s citizens.

[Updated 31.7.13]

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According to figures released by the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and the Office for National Statistics, more and more incidents of women being raped in England and Wales are being recorded:

2009/10

2010/11

2011/12

Rape of a female

13,902

14,589

14,767

Rape of a male

1,172

1,303

1,274

That is a total of 47,007 incidents of recorded rape over a three year period.

And the number of convictions for rape in that same period (and yes, I know there is no absolute read-across between the offences and convictions)?

1,372.

Yet these figures don’t reveal the horrific extent of rape and serious sexual offences in England and Wales: the report also shows that 57% of women told someone but not the police of a rape or serious sexual assault. 28% told no-one.

And then the questions…

There were “only” 40 non-custodial sentences for rape in 2011. Excuse me? Why were there any?

Apparently “Since 2005, there have been fewer than seven Suspended Sentences Orders (SSOs) given each year for rape of a female and none have been given for rape of a male.” What does the fact that any SSOs have been given  say about differences in perceptions between rape of a female and rape of a male?

Another shocking statistic is that, on average, it is 722 days from the moment someone is raped until the completion of the case. That is almost two years of reliving the hell of what happened in order to secure justice. Why should someone have to wait so long?

There are  so many important questions that arise from this report it is difficult to know where to start.

The figures should hit home like an iron bar hammered in your face.

They should be screamed across the  front page of every newspaper. They are utterly appalling – and reveal a shocking affront to justice that reminds us we are light years from ensuring that rape victims receive the support they need to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.

And now, in the wake of Leveson, is the ideal time for the press to demonstrate their worth. After all, we’ve had plenty of self-indulgent hand-wringing in recent months, most notably about the important role played by our newspapers in our public life and democracy. In his evidence to Leveson, The Sun’s editor, Dominic Mohan, extolled his paper’s virtues (Para. 60):

“It distils complex important issues of the day, including politics, finance and law into concise readable copy which educates and entertains.”

So, on a day when official statistics reveal such a shocking failure of our investigative and legal processes, on an issue that clearly straddles law and politics, what was this bastion of our free press’s front page?

The_Sun_newspaper_front_page

Perhaps we would expect such crassness and double-standards from The Sun. But what were the front pages of most the other main UK papers today?

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Only two national newspapers ran the story on their front pages: The Independent and i – the quality tabloid off-shoot of The Independent:

Metro, the newspaper given out free in major cities, also had it on its front page.

Where were all the others?

Where was The Guardian,  never usually bashful in its self-promotion as the left-wing champion of women’s rights and awareness of issues that particularly affect women? Who knows. It certainly doesn’t consider this report front page news. Even after the Savile report was released, The Independent still had this story as a second headline on its website. By contrast, it was the 17th headline on The Guardian Online – appalling.

What does this lack of interest say about a media more concerned with itself than getting to the core of issues that affect hundreds of thousands of people in the most horrendous ways?

It is a corroboration of the silence and inaction that characterises our society’s approach to rape – an approach that continues to allow rapists to escape justice. With Savile, with the horrors of Steubenville and Delhi, perhaps this might just change. Perhaps. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of these are, in and of themselves, the answer.

As Deborah McIlveen, policy and services manager at Women’s Aid, told the Independent:

“Despite all that is known about rape and sexual violence, the justice system still fails to hold most rapists to account and so fails to deliver victim safety, public protection and management of perpetrator risk. These men are free to continue to rape and this is unacceptable, harmful and illegal.

“Most rape victims can identify their abuser, and many of these will be their partners or ex-partners.  This ongoing failure to secure convictions will continue to leave women and young people vulnerable and in potentially risky situations.”

And as spokeswoman for Rape Crisis England and Wales told the Independent:

“The figures are shocking but sadly not that surprising. There has been lots of publicity and measures put in place to try and increase the conviction rate around rape and sexual abuse. But it looks like it is not having as much effect as we would like.

“It is a chicken and egg situation: women do not report offences because they know they are very unlikely to get a conviction. They know they would have to put themselves through a system which is very traumatic and are likely to come out at the other end with no justice.”

If it matters to you, read the report for yourself. Ask questions.

And don’t be silent.

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The phrase “The law is an ass” was coined in a play entitled “Revenge for Honour” that was probably written by Henry Glapthorne and published by (and frequently mistakenly attributed to)  George Chapman in 1654.

Both the title and the wrangle over identity are bitterly ironic, following the decision of the Los Angeles-based 2nd District Court of Appeal to overturn a three-year sentence for rape on the basis of an arcane legal anomaly dating back to 1872.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Court of Appeal has interpreted the statute thus:

A man who impersonates someone in order to have sexual intercourse may be guilty of rape only if the victim was married and the man was pretending to be her husband.

You can read the full opinion of The People v. Julio Morales here, where a picture is painted of a young woman (identified only as “Jane Doe”) enjoying a night out with friends, going home, deciding not to have sex with her boyfriend as they had no condoms – and then being raped by a man pretending to be her boyfriend. It is quite clear that in any right-thinking understanding of the concept of rape, Julio Morales is guilty without question. Indeed, reading the judgement, the prosecution contend that he admitted his guilt. Yet, because she was unmarried, and he was impersonating a boyfriend, not a husband, he is apparently not guilty of rape.

So what the hell sort of legal system allows this sort of specious contention to come between a young woman, whose life has been wrecked, and justice?

As a non-lawyer, who could scarcely believe what he was hearing on the radio this morning, I can only think that it is a legal system in which the moral compass of those who interpret the law is subordinated to the irrelevant technicalities of archaic legislation, almost certainly written by men, to benefit men, at a time when General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby was chasing Indians back across Lost River in the Modoc War. Had you heard of General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby? I hadn’t until I started looking at this case and what else was going on in California in 1872. I doubt that “Jane Doe” had either.

Take time to read the opinion.

And forget the technicalities for a moment. Think about those involved as merely people. The victim. The lawyers. The perpetrator. Think about them as merely people in a civilised society. Think about the purpose of the law in that civilised society. Think about its purpose in a modern, socially-aware Western democracy that contends it is working to make its communities secure places in which everyone, regardless of gender, can live, love, play and work safely. Contrast that purpose with what we can only imagine its nascent role to be in the early 1870s, four years before the last stand of George Armstrong Custer and the Sioux Nation at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Which of those lawyers behind the appeal could possibly look that woman in the eye and say that the in 21st Century Los Angeles of today they were acting in all good conscience, believing that their client did not actually rape her?

So there we have it. A young woman in 2012 is brutalised and subsequently denied justice because legislators and lawyers derive their basis for legal decision from a past that is completely irrelevant to her life experience today.

Yes, the Court of Appeal urged legislators to act. Yes, legislators have agreed to act.

And yes. The law is an ass.

I hope the retrial of Julio Morales proves otherwise – and provides a measure of justice for “Jane Doe”.

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It should have been a bipartisan no-brainer, something that politicians from all sides could unite around when there is so much else on the political agenda that is a source of division.

After all, it had spent eighteen years on the statute book with support from both the GOP and the Democrats. Indeed, when it was renewed in 2005, it passed the House of Representatives 415-4 and served as a legislative beacon in the civilised world of the real difference law-makers can have on the lives of the vulnerable and damaged.

Yet, this week, the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives refused to take up the bipartisan Senate renewal bill S.1925 and its proposed revisions and so, for the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is no longer on the statute book. Stop Street Harassment and other bloggers have reacted with understandable fury.

So what did the Violence Against Women Act do?

It wasn’t some wishy-washy social liberal piece of over-regulation. It was making a real difference to the lives of people that otherwise would have suffered silently, unable to seek redress against those that abused them. The Hotline, the national domestic violence hotline website, is clear about the progress that the Violence Against Women Act achieved in tackling domestic violence and other violence against women:

VAWA 1994 – Congress, in passing VAWA 1994, envisioned a nation with an engaged criminal justice system and coordinated community responses. VAWA 1994 fostered:

  • Community-coordinated responses that brought together, for the first time, the criminal justice system, the social services system, and private nonprofit organizations responding to domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Recognition and support for the efforts of domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and other community organizations nationwide working everyday to end this violence
  • Federal prosecution of interstate domestic violence and sexual assault crimes
  • Federal guarantees of interstate enforcement of protection orders
  • Protections for battered immigrants
  • A new focus on underserved populations and Native victims of domestic violence and sexual assault

VAWA 2000 – Congress improved on the foundation established in VAWA 1994, including:

  • Identifying the additional related crimes of dating violence and stalking
  • The creation of a much-needed legal assistance program for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Promoting supervised visitation programs for families experiencing violence
  • Further protecting immigrants experiencing domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking, by establishing U- and T-visas and by focusing on trafficking of persons

VAWA 2005 – Congress took a more holistic approach to addressing violence against women. In addition to enhancing criminal and civil justice and community-based responses to violence, VAWA 2005 created notable new focus areas such as:

  • Containing provisions that exclusively serve to protect immigrant victims of domestic violence but also include immigration protections to alleviate violence against immigrant women that previous legislation had tried, but failed to alleviate
  • Developing prevention strategies to stop violence before it starts
  • Protecting individuals from unfair eviction due to their status as victims  of domestic violence or stalking
  • Creating the first federal funding stream to support rape crisis centers
  • Developing culturally-and linguistically-specific services for communities
  • Enhancing programs and services for victims with disabilities
  • Broadening VAWA service provisions to include children and teenagers

So what was it about the Senate bill, proposed in April 2012 by senators Pat Leahy (Democrat) and Mike Crapo (Republican) and approved by the Senate by 68 votes to 31, that was so objectionable? It ensured that there was proper protection for immigrants, LGBT communities and Native Americans. Clearly, this is something that the majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives found objectionable and so they introduced their own bill,  H.R. 4970, which gutted the Senate bill of those provisions – even though the President had already indicated he would veto it for its inadequacies. Congressman Michael E. Capuano (Democrat) has a simple yet devastating summary of H.R. 4970’s weaknesses on his home page:

Among other provisions, the 1994 VAWA allowed immigrants who were being abused to petition for their own independent legal status. This part of the law protected individuals who were living in the country legally as the spouse of a citizen or a lawful permanent resident. It gave them the ability to report the abuse and remove themselves from a dangerous environment without fear of deportation.

H.R. 4970 weakens that provision in an important way. It eliminates a requirement that abuser-provided testimony or evidence be corroborated before denying a petition for independent legal status. What does this mean? Currently, abusers who deny that they are inflicting harm must submit some evidence that they are actually telling the truth – testimony from a family member, counselor or law enforcement personnel, something besides their own statement.

H.R. 4970 rolls back that provision. Instead of requiring some supporting evidence, this bill simply requires that the word of the alleged abuser be weighed against the word of the abused. Just on the basis of that, a petition for independent legal status can be denied. I want to be very clear; this has nothing to do with illegal immigration. Anyone covered by this provision is already here legally. There is no credible reason to weaken a part of the law that has been in place since 1994.

H.R. 4970 does not include provisions that would protect Native Americans who are being abused. Currently more than 50% of all Native American women are either married to or living with someone who is not a Native American. However, tribal courts do not have the authority to pursue charges against non-Native Americans. Instead, someone who is abused is forced to seek help through federal or state law enforcement. That help is all too often located hours away, creating a barrier when it comes to reporting abuse. The Senate bill would simply have given tribal courts the ability to prosecute non-Native Americans who are accused of domestic violence against Native Americans.

H.R. 4970 also fails to adequately protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) victims. It does not include Senate-passed provisions that would prohibit VAWA-funded programs from discriminating based on sexual orientation. And it doesn’t add LGBT victims to the STOP Grant program, which funds domestic violence support initiatives. Studies have shown that members of the LGBT community do face discrimination when seeking services, including being turned away from domestic violence shelters. These provisions are simply about equality. Sexual orientation shouldn’t matter. Abuse is abuse and help should be there for everyone who needs it.

Over 100 organizations oppose the House version, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Women’s Law Center, the American Bar Association, the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Congress of American Indians. I voted NO.

The debate on House Resolution 656 of 12th May 2012, seeking to authorise H.R. 4970, makes for depressing reading and gives a clear indication of the ideological divide that has led to the politicisation of an issue that should unite politicians, not divide them. In the words of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke:

This egregious bill is another example of this Republican-led Congress waging political warfare on women.

H.R. 4970 would roll back years of progress and bipartisan commitment on the part of Congress to protect vulnerable immigrant victims of domestic violence, stalking, sex crimes, other serious crimes, and trafficking. Choosing one type of victim over the other.

So the Violence Against Women Act has expired. The Senate Bill attempting to renew it with necessary extensions has been abandoned. And, rightly, the Republican-gutted substitute will go nowhere.

In the end though, whilst politicians wrangle, it is the victims of domestic and sexual violence who will suffer.

And for those of us across the Atlantic, who often see our cousins leading where in a few years’ time we follow, we should pay particular attention to the societal signals that this determination to put ideological considerations above the safety of women and communities sends us. Rather, we should be relentless in our desire to work across the political divide to tackle violence against women and recognise that by prioritising spending and political attention in this area all of society benefits.

To do otherwise is shameful.

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Someone I am close to recently sent me the link to One Billion Rising. The statistics are absolutely shocking.

One in three women on our planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. Just think about that for a moment. Think of the number of people that means. It is a staggering and numbing statistic which should be a call to arms for right-minded people everywhere.

One Billion Rising is an Internet movement harnessing the power of global social networking to take a peaceful stand across the world against violence against women, using the power of dance.

Surely it must be the responsibility of those of us who think we are right-minded to consider the consequences of cultural norms and narratives that perpetuate the circumstances in which such violence is perpetrated? Rape culture is not a figment of the feminist imagination. Yes, it is a shocking term  that makes many of us feel uncomfortable. Yes, it switches many people off. But it is very real and silence is safety’s worst enemy.

And rape culture is not always overt. It is the rolled eyes of good people who embarrassedly dismiss the lecherous remarks and whistling of “mates” as offensive but harmless, effectively validating the objectification of women through inaction. It is the zealous liberalism that subordinates the fear felt by women on the street to the ‘right’ to say what we want, to whom we want, all in the name of ‘free speech’. It is the badly-lit subway or council estate built and not maintained without thought given to the safety of those who use them, providing instead havens for harassers and predators. It is the everyday language that excludes and belittles and generates a sense of inferiority.

John Stuart Mill’s ‘Harm principle‘ has been fundamental to my liberalism since I first stumbled across it: the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against  their will, is to prevent harm to others. It is not an academic exercise. It is a practical guide to organising our communities and society and we urgently need to develop an understanding of how damaging our failure to act on behaviour that can lead to such statistics as those highlighted by One Billion Rising.

Why do I care? Why do I “bang on about it” (as one friend put it)?

Because it matters. Simple as.

Everyone is entitled to live their lives peaceably and as they choose – and without fear, particularly of this most vile and humiliating crime.

So.

Join One Billion Rising. In their words:

RISE!

  • It is February 14, 2013. Leave your work, leave your school, interrupt the day, dance, and demand an end to the violence!

  • Make February 14, 2013 a “day of action” by organizing your friends or colleagues to volunteer at local women’s shelters or service centers – promote your plan on the OBR Facebook page and across your own social networks.

  • Consider the impact of your rising. What mark can you and those who rise with you leave behind in your community?  Organize to change a law, get more funding for women’s programs, or model new non-violent ways of being in your city, office, or college.

This is the message  I received on signing up:

Thank you for joining ONE BILLION RISING, V-Day’s most ambitious campaign yet.

When we started V-Day 14 years ago, we had the outrageous idea that we could end violence against women. Since then, hundreds of thousands of V-Day activists in audiences and on stages in over 140 countries have come together to demand an end to violence against women and girls. The funds we’ve raised together have kept organizations’ doors open, and the issue front and center in local media.

But still today, the United Nations states that 1 in 3 women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime that’s more than one billion women and girls alive today.

V-Day wants the world to see our collective strength, showing them exactly what one billion looks like.

ONE BILLION RISING is a promise that on February 14th, 2013, we will ensure that millions of women and men rise up around the world to say, “ENOUGH. The violence ends NOW.”

Ben, there is so much more to come. But for right now, you can help us launch ONE BILLION RISING with a few simple actions:

ONE BILLION RISING will make the earth move by uniting us through dance across every country.

Ben, I look forward to dancing, striking and rising to end violence against women and girls together with you.

In solidarity,

Eve Ensler
Playwright, Founder of V-Day
One Billion Rising

Find your local Rising here.

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