Bystander Education is Not a Silver Bullet

Bystander intervention education is great. I really believe in its power to make the world a better place, and to make college campuses safer and more welcoming for all. But I also believe that bystander education won’t do much to prevent sexual assault until we agree that sexual assault is a gendered issue, and that sexism is still a big, fat, effing problem.

Let me explain.

Bystander education teaches students how to step in and intervene when they see or hear something that’s not okay. When they witness someone in trouble. But it will never be effective at combating sexual violence or harassment if we can’t even agree on the basic premise that yelling at women on the street is not okay. Or that having sex with a really, really, blacked-out, drunk person is not okay. If that’s where students are stuck, then bystander education is a waste of everyone’s time. Those students don’t need bystander education. They need Sexism 101.

But do students get taught Sexism 101? Ever in their 12 years of grade school? Nope. Not one bit. Why not? Because we – the adults – can’t even agree that sexism still exists.

DESPITE THE FACT that most women experience street harassment on a daily basis. DESPITE THE FACT that most women would love to “Lean In,” except for that whole bit about how it so often backfires because nobody likes an assertive woman in the workplace. DESPITE THE FACT that most women have experienced being groped by a stranger at a dance club. DESPITE THE FACT that even the supposedly-feminist “girl’s” toys are pastel pink. DESPITE THE FACT that news about women is a separate category on news sites as if women were a special interest group instead of half the population. DESPITE THE FACT that intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for pregnant women. DESPITE THE FACT that Game of Thrones Director Alex Graves thinks a textbook rape scene isn’t rape. DESPITE THE FACT that rape-threats and death-threats are “just another day at the office” for female bloggers. DESPITE the wage gap, slut shaming, “BLURRED LINES,” and multiple pro-rape Fraternities, we still can’t reach consensus that women are marginalized in America.

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Despite all evidence to the contrary, respectable, educated people still argue that sexism isn’t a thing anymore. That we are living in a “post-sexist” America. (Just like we are living in a “post-racial” America, amirite?) But not only are they arguing that feminism succeeded and we’re fine now, they’re giving space in publications like the New Republic to voice the concerns of MRA’s who think that men are now the primary targets of gender discrimination, and who have been known to harass, stalk, and bully feminist writers and activists to further their cause.

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Some college students respond really well to bystander intervention education. They recognize the problem and want to help. Other college students think that bystander education is unfair and “biased” because sometimes men are the aggressors or perpetrators in various scenarios.* Try telling them the truth – that even though most men do not rape, 99% of rapes are committed by men – and they argue back that that’s one-sided. Biased. Unfair. Demonizing. The only sexual assault prevention education they’re interested in is one in which men and women are “equal,” regardless of the reality.

Equal?

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*The scenarios I use feature men, women, and the gender-neutral “Jamie” as aggressors, yet that special minority of students will still accuse me of bias against men.

As an educator, you have two choices. You can pretend that men and women are “equal” when it comes to sexual assault, thereby validating this inverted thinking and perpetuating the fallacy that women are just as likely to rape men as men are to rape women. And you can rationalize it by telling yourself “Well, if that’s what I have to do to get them to come to the table and talk about this stuff then it’s worth it.” You could do that. But you’d be wrong.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not equal. They are not even. They are not fair. They are gendered issues. Who are most likely to be victims? Trans people and women. Who are most likely to be perpetrators? Men. Sorry. That’s the reality.

Am I suggesting that men are evil? That men are hardwired to be horrible, violent, abusers? No. Not even close. Men and women are shaped by the society they live in, and our society is one that tells young men that women are asking for it, that drunk women are “DTF,” that women lie about being raped because they regret having sex, and that real men want sex all the time no matter what. That a boy being raped by a woman at age 8 will help him grow up to be a “beast” at sex. That being offended by homophobic slurs makes you a “pussy.” That the worst thing you can ever be accused of is being feminine – or gay, because it’s basically the same thing.

And even so, men who grow up in that society, espousing those hideous, sexist beliefs, usually don’t rape people. Except for a small few. But those hideous, sexist beliefs of the majority allow the violent few to rape with impunity. Because who would ever believe that drunk slut anyway, right? 

All the bystander intervention skills and techniques in the world won’t make a damned bit of difference to a student who won’t accept the simple premise that rape is real, and it is gendered. That “false rape accusations” are not happening as frequently as actual rape. That sexual harassment is actually harassment, and not a compliment.

The White House recently created a Sexual Assault Task Force and handed down a bunch of new mandates for colleges under VAWA and the Campus SaVE Act and Title IX. One of those mandates is bystander education. And I think that’s good and right and important. But nowhere in that recent White House report did it say anything about addressing sexism. Nowhere is anti-sexism education mandated. Some colleges have Women’s Studies programs and Women’s Centers and those are amazing. But plenty of schools don’t. And at those schools, no one is standing up and acknowledging that sexism plays a major role in campus sexual assault. No one is mandating that first year students take an anti-sexism seminar.

What about primary and secondary education? Grade schools have taken up the anti-bullying flag, but still, no anti-sexism flag. It’s okay to talk about being an active bystander and standing up to bullies, but it’s not okay to talk about sexism because the grown-ups still can’t agree that it exists.

Until we start teaching anti-sexism, bystander education can only do so much. When it comes to primary prevention – actually preventing sexual assault from happening – bystander education is not our silver bullet.

Until our students understand what sexism is, what it looks like, and the role it plays in perpetuating sexual violence against women and other marginalized groups in our global community, bystander education will not be effective as a primary prevention strategy to combat rape. Unless our students can understand and identify situations of sexual harassment and assault, bystander education will remain a solution to a problem-they-don’t-believe-is-actually-a-problem.

As an educator charged with the task of bystander education, I am frustrated. I love doing bystander education because when students are ready for it, it is the most fulfilling and inspiring and uplifting part of my job. But lots of students aren’t ready for it because they have no understanding of sexism or gender discrimination or gender violence. And who takes responsibility for that? Where is the accountability for that?

Your Fat is Not Your Fault 2: Blocking Out the Noise

Sunday night I returned from a long camping weekend off the grid to find a whole slew of angry comments on my most recent post, Your Fat is Not Your Fault. Apparently people get really mad when you deign to suggest that it’s okay to be fat on the internet.

Most of the comments were mean and/or stupid in that predictable way people like to be mean to fat people. Those were, and will continue to be, deleted. There were also some typical interweb lols like “I lost 100 lbs eating Paleo. Have you considered that everyone should just eat Paleo?”

There were, however, some comments written by actual thinking, feeling, people critical of  my assertion that dieting almost always fails, and that obesity as a social problem that must first and foremost be addressed on a systematic, societal level. While I won’t address all of those arguments right now, I feel that they are secondary to (and distracting from) my overall point. My point–that it’s okay and important to forgive yourself for being fat–unfortunately got lost in the politics of fatness.

I’m not here to debate whether or not obesity is unhealthy (at least not today). I am here to argue that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are unhealthy. If it makes me a  radical to suggest that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are significant problems then so be it. Body image disturbance (the term for all types of body image issues including dissatisfaction and distortion) is associated with eating disorders and low self-esteem. Self-hatred and low self-esteem keep people from reaching their full potential; they keep people from participating fully in their own lives and becoming productive, contributing members of society.

Think obesity is a drain on the healthcare system? Well, body image disturbance is a drain on every system.

Last year I wrote a post called Positive Body Image Won’t Make You Fat: The Case for Body Positive Health Promotion. Read it.

Having a positive body image won’t make you fat. Letting go of the guilt and blame will not keep you fat. In fact, it will help you begin to heal and one day embrace self-compassion and fun as motivators for healthy eating and fulfilling physical activity.  And once you’ve embraced self-compassion and let yourself have fun-while-fat,  you can start to make those positive lifestyle changes that will allow you live your life to the fullest, whether or not it results in weight loss. If you’re looking for help with this, there are some amazing books on the subject like Kate Harding’s Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere and Linda  Bacon’s Health At Every Size, as well as coaches like Isabel Foxen Duke and Sarah Jenks.

But forgiving yourself for your fat is especially hard when everyone wants you to fix it, apologize for it, or suffer for it. It’s especially hard when when everyone acts as if it’s as easy as “putting down the cheeseburger,” when in reality it’s a gargantuan, exhausting, and wholly demoralizing task that requires strict self-regulation of every thing you eat or do for the rest of your entire life. It’s not helpful to listen to the noise, ever, even if you do want to lose weight.

Unfortunately, fat shaming trolls can be found just about everywhere, including the medical and public health establishment. I’ve recently learned that they are especially virulent among the uber-libertarians (“fat people are destroying our economy because they’re lazy and looking for handouts just like homeless people are lazy and looking for handouts”)  and men’s rights communities (“feminists are destroying my game by telling fatties it’s okay to stay fat”). Add ’em to the bingo card, boys.

In order to “become healthy” — whether that means getting fit, raising your self-esteem, having more fun in your life, etc. — you need to practice self-compassion. Treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love. That means looking backwards and thinking about when you “became fat.”

  • Were you a child? Not your fault.
  • Were you a teenager? The teenage world is one of desperate insecurity; you coped the best you could.
  • Were you in college? You were stressed and not sleeping and maybe partying a lot and still feeling invincible – it’s okay. As my fellow college health professionals often say, it’s “developmentally appropriate” behavior.
  • Were you pregnant or did you just have a baby? Were you coping with depression or another mental illness or maybe a disability? Were you working long hours with no time for yourself? Were you dealing with an eating disorder?

You are not to blame for all the circumstances of your life. Give yourself the compassion and respect you deserve. You would not blame your best friend. Don’t blame yourself.

If anyone out there wants to make you feel bad about your body or feel bad about yourself because of your body correctly identify them for what they are: a troll. If they act concerned for your health, they are a concern troll.

Only you know what’s best for you. Only you can determine what it means for you to live a healthy, happy lifestyle.

Block out the noise. Delete the comments. Do you.

And if anyone has any questions about my comment policy, this is basically sums it up:

Your fat is not your fault

Your fat is not your fault.

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You are not lacking willpower.

You are not lacking willpower because you can’t stick to your diet. You are fine; it’s dieting that doesn’t work. No really. Diet and exercise DO NOT CURE BEING FAT. They may help you lose weight for a few months to a year to six years… but, according to a massive analysis of every long-term weight loss study, no one — statistically speaking NOT A ONE PERSON — has kept off a significant amount of weight (i.e. more than 15-20 lbs) permanently. There is a lot of emerging evidence that when a person goes on a diet, their chemistry changes so that they’re bodies will continue to fight against weight loss long after the dieting has stopped. As David Wong from Cracked put it, “It’s like being an addict where the withdrawal symptoms last for decades.”

You are not lazy.

You are not lazy because you choose to focus your time and energy on things other than losing weight. To quote David Wong again, “The people who successfully [lose weight and keep it off] are the ones who become psychologically obsessive about it, like that weird guy who built an Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks.” So congratulations, you aren’t spending every waking moment of your life focusing on your waistline. You are doing amazing things, whatever they are. Seriously! Whatever you are doing with your precious time and brainspace (reading, writing, working, creating, studying, caretaking, being nice–contributing to society in any small way) is worthwhile and meaningful and more important than spending it obsessing about your weight.

If you want to be more active, then cool. Go for it. Hopefully you’ll find some activities that will bring you pleasure and joy. But don’t think that being more active is going to make you lose weight. It’s not. (See above). So don’t force yourself into a lifestyle that doesn’t work for you–you’ll only end up making you feel worse.

tumblr_mab2gzHeHb1qm339ko1_500You are not unhealthy.

You are not unhealthy just because you happen to be fat, I mean. Isn’t that great? Your weight and your health are two different things. You can be healthy at any size.  Health is determined by your behaviors, luck, and genetics (more luck). Your behaviors are up to you. And they are NO ONE’S BUSINESS but yours. For whatever reason, being “healthy” has been equated to being moral or being “good” in our society. Let me blow your mind for just a second by throwing this nugget out there: You have a right to be unhealthy. For any reason. It’s YOUR body and you can treat it however you wish. But if you choose to be healthy, eat nutritious food and try to sleep for 8-10 hours a night. Find some active things to do that you enjoy and quit smoking. But don’t conflate your health with your weight. Losing weight probably wont improve your health, and improving your health often times doesn’t result in weight loss. This is okay.

You are not stupid.

You are not stupid for trying that juice cleanse or hoping that trying Weight Watchers or eating paleo or forcing yourself to go to the gym every day would “fix” your fat. Our society believes that diet and exercise cures fat. This is what our doctors tell us. This is what the medical and public health arms of our government advise. They are wrong. They have failed us.

Instead of focusing on fixing the real, structural, environmental problems that cause people to become overweight, like poverty or food deserts or lack of sleep or being overworked/overstressed, food advertising, agricultural subsidies, high fructose corn syrup and processed flour…. public health officials have spent millions of dollars and time and energy telling you to diet and exercise. Why? Because it’s easier. It’s much, much easier (politically) to tell individuals to diet and exercise than it would be to fight the lobbyists or make any real headway in regulating the food industry or addressing poverty or our tradition of overwork in America. As Gary Taubes wrote in The Daily Beast, “…the reason the anti-obesity efforts championed by the IOM, the CDC, and the NIH haven’t worked and won’t work is not because we’re not listening, and not because we just can’t say no, but because these efforts are not addressing the fundamental cause of the problem. Like trying to prevent lung cancer by getting smokers to eat less and run more, it won’t work because the intervention is wrong.”

You are not weak.

You are not weak. In fact, your strength is incredible. You are living in a world that does not make it easy for you. You are living in a world that tells you you have to look a certain way in order to be loved, and at the same tells us food is love. You are told to resist eating foods that are scientifically engineered to be literally irresistible — as in, they trick our senses in order to make us physically unable to resist eating them. You have struggled with stigma and shame and guilt and survived. You are alive and you are living.

So let me say this one more time: Your fat is not your fault.

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Give yourself permission to forgive yourself.

Go out and live your amazing life.

One big reason I don’t miss the DELi*As catalog

Today I spotted a Buzzfeed article called 19 Reasons Why You Miss Getting the DELiA*s Catalog, and was instantly reminded of the one BIG reason I definitely DO NOT miss the DELiA*s catalog. The DELiA*s catalog was how I learned to hate my body.

Sure, DELiA*S wasn’t the only publication out there with images of thin teenage girl models. But I never had Seventeen or Cosmo magazines, so largely and for the most part, the DELiA*s catalog was the only collection of images of skinny girls I could take up to my room and stare at for hours, alone, wishing I was thin. That was my DELiA*s ritual — a deep, dark secret known only to me, my teenage self, and I. Until now, anyway.

Once a month or so, I’d spot the DELiA*s catalog in the pile of mail on the counter, grab it, and go up to my bedroom. I’d pour over each page, looking not at the clothes but the girls. I took in every detail, every airbrushed line. (Of course, at the time I didn’t realize they were airbrushed.) I even cut out a few of my favorites — girls with hair, outfits, and bodies I wanted — and pasted them into my journal.

I would strip to my underwear and look at myself in a full length mirror, strategically covering the parts of my body that weren’t “right” — the love handles, the belly, etc., and imagine myself without them. I used to fantasize about a magic knife that could simply slice off the extra that didn’t belong. I would visualize slicing, slicing, slicing, in long, fluid motions — literally carving my body into the shape I thought it should have been — the shape of the girls in the DELiA*s catalog.

Sick, right? Describing this behavior is weird and when I write it down, it sounds completely pathological. It’s horrifying to remember this part of my past. But if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that a lot of my peers were doing similar things.

I’ve come a long way since then, of course. Despite my perpetual and (unfortunately) NORMAL struggle with body image, I managed to develop a healthy self-confidence about the way I look. There are a lot of things I’ve always loved, and some that I’ve learned to love, about my body. And my feminist awakening, graduate research on body image, and introduction to Health At Every Size certainly made a huge difference in how I feel about my own body image journey.

So yes. I didn’t share this embarrassing secret so that people would pity me, nor did I share it to brag about how far I’ve come since then. I share this embarrassing secret because the Buzzfeed article about the DELiA*s catalog made me realize how glaringly absent my experience was from this ever-so-nostalgic account of what the DELiA*s catalog meant to girls who came of age in the 90s.

I can’t help but imagine how different my experience would have been if DELiA*s models exhibited the varied and beautiful range of body diversity in our world. What if some of those teen models looked like me? (What if the clothes they were selling actually fit me?)

I just read an amazing piece on XOJane about Lena Dunham’s audacity in showing her own, “imperfect,” body on screen — and how much people seem to really hate the fact that she’s doing it. It says:

For all our talk about wanting to see more so-called “real women” in the media we consume — a problematic category itself, as all women are “real,” no matter how near or far they might be to the female beauty ideal — we are awfully quick to condemn a woman who is showing us reality in a very plainspoken, unvarnished way.

The aghast controversy evoked by Dunham’s nudity shows us just how much of this “real women” talk is lip service, and how very far we have to go before we can socially deal with the fact that different bodies exist. Truth is, we’d all probably be a lot less neurotic about our own bodies if we could get used to seeing and accepting the natural variety in other people’s — without shame, and giving no fucks.

So maybe I, too, would look back with loving nostalgia on the DELiA*s catalog if it showcased a cohort of teen models who reflected the wide and diverse reality of what girls look like, and if those girls modeled not only quirky 90s fashion, but also how to not give any fucks about what other people think about their bodies.

Now, that would be a catalog to reminisce about.

When we must be our own superheroes

Have you checked out Rebecca Cohen’s webcomic about Gyno-Star, the first explicitly feminist superhero?

Back in November, I blogged about Gyno-Star at Jewesses with Attitude:

Wonder Woman, created in the 1940s, showed the world that women could kick butt. Still, there’s a difference between a powerful woman superhero (i.e. a superhero who happens to be a woman) and a feminist superhero sworn to fight “forces of evil and male chauvinism.” Gyno-Star, created by Rebecca Cohen, is the world’s first explicitly feminist superhero.

In The Adventures of Gyno-Star, our feminist superhero takes on contemporary feminist issues like hiring discrimination and body image personified by different types of anti-feminist super villains, including the super sexist “Vlad Deferens,” fashion magazine editor “Anna Rexia,” the free-market touting “Glibertarian,” and her Sarah Palin-supporting, Fox News-watching nemesis, “Stay At Home Mommy.” Gyno-Star’s main superpower is the ability to make men feel the pain of childbirth.  Little Sappho, Gyno-Star’s sidekick, is a radical feminist-Marxist lesbian teenager with the powers of “gaydar” and righteous rage.

I’ll admit that I never much cared for superhero comics, I think because I didn’t really relate to them. But for the first time, there is a superhero champion fighting the same battles I do, whose frustrations mirror my own, and who takes action in ways I can only dream about. (How many times have I wished I could just punch a sexist idiot in the face with a “POW!” or simply zap a crowd of Tea Partiers with an “Enlightening Ray?”)

Continue at Jewesses with Attitude for an interview with Rebecca Cohen

Months later, and deeper than ever into a quagmire of government intrusion into women’s private and personal lives, it helps to fantasize about feminist superheroes. It helps us gather the strength and courage to keep going in this never-ending battle between gender equity advocacy and patriarchal evil-doing.

Fight on, super women.

4chan “Would Not Bang” meme is a body-snarking satire fail

We all have things about our bodies we don’t like. They’re just little things like non-symetrical eyebrows, a tiny gap in our teeth, a slightly-too-wide nose, etc. On our better days, we can remember that these little quirks are what make us special and unique and beautiful. And besides, we tell ourselves, no one else is paying enough attention to notice them anyway. Right? Wrong, according to an unfortunate new 4chan meme that confirms all your worst suspicions about just how harshly people are judging your appearance.

From Slacktory:

There’s this running joke on the internet about an acne-scarred C.H.U.D. (or Butthurt Dweller) finding fault with any and all images of women in order to alleviate the self-hatred and loneliness that goes along with being a neckbearded netizen — “I can’t find a decent woman, not because I’m just awful in every way, but because all the women in my town have such big foreheads and stubby toes. Disgusting!”

This mindset has borne a new meme, “2/10 Would Not Bang,” in which 4chan users post images of flawless women and compete against each other to find fault in increasingly creative ways, and then dismiss them with the Comic Book Guy-channeling verdict: 2/10, Would Not Bang.

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According to Slacktory and the 4chan-ers themselves, this is not men judging women harshly — it’s satire of men judging women harshly. GET IT? Good.

I can see hints of that satire in some of these images. For example, criticism’s like “half of face too bright,” “forehead cut off,” and “being outside on a cloudy day,” are kindof funny because they mock  the judging by judging things that are actually more about the photo composition or staging of the image than the woman herself. Unfortunately, the majority of the criticisms miss the satire mark by a longshot.

“big Jew nose”***
“man shoulders”
“lips too large”
“tan lines”
“too thin”
“big ears”
“jaw too angular”

These are all real things that women (and others) actually fret about. These are things that women are judged by in the harshest and most misogynistic of circles. “Would Not Bang” is the meme version of real-life sorority hazing where female pledges strip to their underwear and let frat boys highlight their flaws in red Sharpie.

I just don’t see any humor in that at all.

***Oh, and did I mention this meme is an excuse for racial bigotry?

(h/t to Tali for the link)