Sexual Violence, the Patriarchy, and the Government Shutdown

Sometimes current events that don’t seem related begin to overlap and parallel in weird and uncomfortable ways. Earlier this year I wrote about a string of oddly connected stories in Connecting the dots: Nice Guys™, MRAs, mass shooters, and aggrieved entitlement. I discussed how the thread of aggrieved entitlement (an unfortunate product of a deeply patriarchal culture) underlies the Nice Guy™, MRA, and mass shooter phenomena. This time, the release of a groundbreaking new study on young people and sexual assault, Chris Brown’s childhood rape, and the government shutdown feel eerily connected.

This week, a groundbreaking study on sexual assault among young people was published in JAMA Pediatrics.  The study found that 9% of young people have committed sexual violence: 8% reported that they kissed, touched, or “made someone else do something sexual” when they “knew the person didn’t want to”; 3% verbally coerced a victim into sex; 3% attempted to physically force sex; 2% perpetrated a completed rape. (The numbers don’t add up because some perpetrators admitted to more than one behavior.)

Perpetrators reported having higher exposure to violence pornography (non-violent porn had no correlation to sexual violence). They also found that 98% of perpetrators who committed their first perpetration at 15-years-old or younger were male, whereas by the time they reached 18- or 19-years-old, perpetrators were more evenly split between men (52%) and women (48%). Perpetrators who began perpetrating later in life were also less likely to get caught. To top it all off, 50% of all perpetrators said that their victim was responsible for the sexual violence committed against them.

On October 4, Chris Brown (notorious for his violent assault against his girlfriend Rihanna) told the Guardian about “losing his virginity” at age 8 to a teenage girl. Many outlets have appropriately acknowledged that this is rape. Olivia A. Cole deftly explained why Brown’s framing of the event is problematic: “Chris Brown was raped, but to hear him tell it, that experience was positive, healthy. Something to brag about. “At eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it.” Cole writes:

Can you imagine being sexually abused and then growing up being told that this is a good thing? That your sexual potency has been enhanced? That rape was a “head-start” into the wonderful world of sex? The damaging system that tells girls they are worthless after rape has a disgusting flip side for boys: you have worth now. This violence has made you a god.

Then we have the government shutdown. The Tea Party and their conservative Republican friends are being the worst kind of sore losers — the kind that decide to flip the table over rather than play the hand they were dealt. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is law, and shutting down the government is not a rational, reasonable, or in my opinion, legal way of trying to “undo” a law whose constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Robert Parry suggests that this is about more than Obamacare. He places the debate over Obamacare within the historical narrative of federalism vs. state’s rights, which was, notably, a big deal when the country was divided over the constitutionality of slavery. He writes:

The relevance of this history to the present is not only that the ideological descendants of the Confederacy are now up in arms over the election and reelection of the first African-American president but that they are insisting on the slaveholders’ distortion of the Constitution, over its truly “originalist” interpretation and the plain reading of its words.

The overwhelmingly white Tea Party, with its foothold in the overwhelmingly white Republican Party, has now developed a new variation on the theory of “nullification,” asserting that the Tea Party’s Confederate-style interpretation of the Constitution must be accepted by the rest of the nation or the country will face endless political extortion.

Through this lens, the Tea Party’s hostage-taking stance is, in effect, a tantrum over the looming loss of privilege and power for white men.

So where is the connection?

A small but significant percentage of America’s young people are perpetrating sexual assault at alarming rates. They are most commonly using verbal coercion (including threats) and manipulation to do so, all the while while believing their victims were responsible for their assaults. A small but significant percentage of America’s adult leaders are using coercion, including threats, to shut down our government – an action resulting in harm to our nation’s most vulnerable populations. Populations that these same adult leaders believe to be responsible for their own poverty or vulnerability.

Chris Brown’s story reminds us of the role that aggrieved entitlement has to play here.

Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man. Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.

Patriarchy hurts men as much as it hurts women by eliminating any space for men’s victimization. It does not allow male victims to let themselves feel victimized, or allow the rest of us to take men’s victimization seriously. Instead, it teaches men to get revenge by victimizing others.

Unfortunately, sexual coercion has become a “normal” part of teenage sexuality. Aggrieved entitlement flourishes in a culture that treats sex like a commodity: we teach men to measure their worth by how much sex they “get” from women, while conversely we teach women that their worth is determined by what they “give away.”

Likewise, the patriarchy teaches men that their worth is derived from power. It does not teach young men how to share power, or how to put the needs of others before their own. It teaches men to lash out in revenge when they lose power. Today it seems our Tea Party politicians are fighting — the way they learned in the backseats and bedrooms of their adolescence — to regain their power through coercion, threats, and ultimately, the victimization of others.

It’s generally not a good idea to use “rape” as a metaphor, but in this case, the comparison is disturbingly apt.

Addressing the sleep deficit, NOT one person at a time

The more I learn about health and wellness, the more convinced I am that sleep is magic.

Not only does getting the recommended 7-9 hours help you feel awake and refreshed in the morning, it also helps regulate your metabolism and improves your memory, focus, judgment, problem solving, and athletic performance.

New and terrifying research links not-enough-sleep (the 5-6 hours most Americans currently get) with weight gain, increased risk of cold/flu, diabetes, cancer, and ADHD-like symptoms. Additionally, not getting enough sleep results in poorer cognitive abilities (lack of focus, concentration, ability to remember what you’ve learned), poor judgment, and impaired driving on par with drunk driving. It’s also correlated with depression, anxiety, and other mental illness.

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When I saw this New York Times post basically summing it all up (and providing links if you want to check out the research) I was ecstatic and all “That’s what I’ve been saying!” Then I read the comments.

“You assume it’s a choice, that people actively choose to get less sleep and, if they want to, can choose to get more. That may well be true of upper class people who can hire others to do their work for them – housework, tutoring, etc. As for me, a middle class shlub, well, I would LOVE to get more sleep. But I am a single mom. I have to get up at 5:30 am for my job. And I have to work or I will land in the street with my kids. ANd I have to stay up at least until 10:30 pm most nights to get this or that child hither and thither, help with homework, and son on. I cannot hire anyone to do any chore– lawnmowing, housecare, homework, driving, shopping, bill paying, college planning for kids, etc etc etc etc. Basically, I work from the moment I get up until the moment I sleep. I have no time to exercise either.”

And it hit me. The sleep deficit is a lot like the obesity epidemic; it is a systemic problem that cannot be solved by encouraging individuals to make healthier choices.

I work with college students who probably could get more sleep if they spent a couple fewer hours playing videogames.

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Shit college students say.

Of course, some of my students work more than the recommended 10 hours per week and can’t choose to sleep more. But in general, I feel okay about trying to encourage them to prioritize sleep over partying or more time on Reddit because they can usually make changes without too much trouble. For the general adult population, however, this really isn’t the case.

The comments on the New York Times post read like a laundry list of reasons why Americans are not sleeping. Parents are kept up by new babies. Physicians-in-training are working 28-hour shifts. People who travel constantly for work (flight crews, journalists, musicians, etc.) are forced to keep irregular schedules in different time zones. Single parents are working full time jobs in addition to the “second shift” just to make ends meet.

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But it isn’t just our jobs, families, and full schedules that are keeping us up. The world has changed. Energy drinks and caffeinated latte drinks are sold on every corner and and marketed either as health supplements or entertainment. We are constantly connected, if not tethered to, our phones, tablets, and the internet — whether it’s for work, entertainment, or connection. A recent study found that the light from backlit screens can disrupt sleep by suppressing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate our circadian systems. But this is even bigger than a gadget issue.

Our circadian rhythm, which is how our body knows when to sleep and when to wake, is informed by both light and temperature. Darkness and cooler temperatures let our bodies know it’s nighttime, and therefore bedtime. So what happens to our circadian rhythm when we live in consistently temperature-controlled environments? And about that darkness thing? Yeah. We don’t really have that anymore. Just check out these NASA images of the world at night.

Captured in 1994

Captured in 1994

Light pollution projected growth

Light pollution projected growth in 2025

So basically our artificial environment is  really screwing with our circadian systems, and we wonder why no one can sleep? Some scientists are even concerned that light pollution is killing off wildlife.

Animals need sleep too.

Animals need sleep too.

It’s no wonder that the New York Times post, which encouraged readers to get more sleep and discuss the issue with their doctors, made some people angry. For so many of us, sleep is simply outside our realm of control. Before I’ve made the argument that our obesity problem should not be addressed through individual behavior change because it is a systemic problem that can really only be solved through systemic changes to our environments and our policies. When we try to treat obesity as if it were simply an individual problem, it manifests as shaming people for things beyond their control. When we consider that sleep and weight are inextricably linked, it’s not surprising that the same thing happens when we tell people they need more sleep.

And, just like weight shaming can cause people to develop eating disorders or depression/self-esteem issues that lead to further weight gain, warning people about the health risks of sleep deficit can actually make the problem worse:

“As a law school graduate studying for the New York Bar and planning an impending move to NYC–without yet a job, praying to find one in public interest law–I lie awake every night, worrying.  But at least now I know all of the harmful things that are happening to me.”

“Constantly counting the number of hours of sleep I got each night hasn’t been good for my mental health either. It’s like counting calories. It made me obsessed. So I stopped.”

“One thing that would help me sleep is not being constantly told how awful it is not to get it.”

The Health Belief Model of behavior change tells us that if you scare people about a health issue without providing a clear solution for how they can prevent or treat it, they are not going to respond well. Telling folks the dangers of not getting enough sleep without providing realistic solutions will cause them to feel like it’s hopeless and shut down. This issue cannot be solved by telling people to try to get more sleep.

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So how can we address the sleep deficit at the systematic level? In college health we have an advantage because we have a fair amount of control over the environment our students inhabit. We have the ability to provide a campus that encourages and supports healthy behavior. We can close down our libraries, gyms, labs, and campus centers at 10 pm. We can ban 8 am classes to let our students sleep in later. We can mandate quiet hours in our residence halls. We can ban Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy from promoting their goods on campus. It’s a little more complicated in the real world.

tumblr_inline_mmq91iJGyJ1qz4rgpWhat could some of those systemic changes look like? Is it even possible to regulate light pollution in urban areas? How would we accomplish that? We could tax the crap out of energy drinks like we tax cigarettes. We could create similar disincentives for 24-hour service availability. For example, in Spain, most businesses are closed during siesta in the afternoon. People simply have to run errands another time, and they make it work. We could also place stricter regulations around the “full time” (read: eligible for benefits) work week, reducing it from the standard 4o-45 hours to something closer to 35. (Again, a lot of Europeans do it this way.)

But beyond regulation, true systemic change requires a culture shift. We need to foster a culture that doesn’t reward employees for putting in extra hours, or make anyone feel like they need to put in extra hours to keep their job. In industries where it’s possible, like in most office jobs, we need to institutionalize flex time and let workers telecommute in order to snooze that extra hour it would take to commute. We need to change the norm from one where we lie in bed with our phones checking email to one where that kind of behavior is uncommon. We could stop creating reasons for people to stay up late, like scheduling evening events earlier and no longer airing popular TV shows after 10 pm.

But this kind of societal change takes decades and requires tireless efforts from public health folks and other advocates. Perhaps the first step of that work is recognizing that the sleep deficit is bigger than you and your insomnia, her and her new baby, or him and his ridiculous work schedule. For those who can make the choice to sleep more, doing so will definitely improve their health. But the focus of public health messaging and health journalism should not be to scare or shame people who, for whatever reason, can’t get enough sleep.

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TL;DR sleep zombie friends?

What I’m really trying to say is that the only way to really address the issue is to treat society’s sleep deficit as the gigantic, systemic, clusterfuck of a problem that it truly is.

Goodnight.

Goodnight.

10 Travel Tips for Adventure Ladies

In about a month, I’ll be leaving the U.S. to embark on the biggest adventure of my life: a 6-7 week trek through South America. Even though I’ve done a fair bit of traveling, mostly in Europe, I consider myself an amateur when it comes to adventure travel and backpacking. But as I plan for this trip, I can’t help but realize that I’ve picked up quite a few tips and tricks along the way–knowledge I’m excited to drop right here and now in this list of my Top 10 Travel Tips for Adventure Ladies.

1.  Use your body as a hiding place for valuables. Okay, I’m not going to go so far as to suggest hiding things in body cavities (not super hygienic, I’m told) but your body is the most secure space you’ve got. First of all, wear a money belt. I know they’re dorky and uncool and yes, they feel like a sweaty pad cushioning your pelvis, but they are effective when used correctly. First of all, do not store your walkabout money in there. It’s not a fanny pack. You are not a kangaroo. The only items in there should be your passport, a credit card and some cash for emergencies. Do NOT use it as a substitute for a wallet. Do not pull it out of your pants when making purchases. It’s supposed to be a secret, guys. That’s the whole point.

If you’re staying at hostels, learn to sleep with your valuables in your underwear. Or, at least learn to snuggle them while you’re sleeping. I developed a system where I’d put my wallet and money belt in my pillowcase under my head and shove my camera and iPod down by my lady castle for safekeeping. Traveling with a smart phone? Guess what! It’s your new boob pillow.

2. If you’re a lady who menstruates, get a menstrual cup. I’m pretty sure God created the menstrual cup as a way to apologize to women for the pain of childbirth and not being able to pee standing up. I’m not kidding around. Get one now. Traveling with a menstrual cup means that you don’t have to fill precious space in your bag with tampons. It means that you don’t have to figure out where to buy tampons in unfamiliar countries, or how to ask for them in a foreign language. They’re also perfect for camping, because who wants to pack up and carry out their used tampons? Not this girl. Oh, and they save you around $200 per year–money that you could be saving for your next adventure.

3.  Wet Wipes are the shit. Seriously. They are way better than hand sanitizer for those times when you want to touch food but can’t find a place to wash up. Wiping down your face, neck, and chest provides serious refreshment on those days when you’re touring in the hot sun. They also double as a shower when the hostel shower is out of order or the sink water smells mysteriously of bleach, or you’re spending the night on a train and would really like to stop smelling so bad. Just wipe down your armpits and crotchal area and you’ll feel like a new woman.

4. If you’re a lady who shaves, stop. I’m serious. Just stop shaving. You’re on vacation. You will never be so free from the pressures of the American beauty ideal. Embrace it. Let it grow. Give yourself a chance to feel what it’s like to grow out your natural leg hair. Discover what it’s like to have armpit hair. I promise you that no one around you will give a crap. Plus, when you return home, your impressive body hair will stand as a testamant to your badassery. Cherish it. You have the rest of your life to deal with stubble and razor burn.

6.  If you’re rocking the sexy nerd look with some sweet frames, bring a back-up pair. I’m serious. I have terrible sight and I wear my glasses every day.  When I was planning a 9-day trip to Belize, my dad warned me to bring a back-up pair. But I was like, “Naw, Dad, I’m fine.” After all, I take very good care of my glasses. I never lose them or break them. What could go wrong? (Oh, my hubris!) Well. One day in Belize I encountered a monkey, who immediately ran up to me and snatched my glasses off my face. Yes. So the moral of the story is that you should always bring back-up glasses because you never know when a monkey will appear and try to STEAL THINGS FROM YOUR FACE.

7.  Take care of the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves. No, this has nothing to do with dieting. It’s about packing light. Literally. I first heard this phrase from some backpackers I met on the Appalachian Trail. They were explaining how they chose each item in their pack with special care. They chose the lightest tent. The lightest sleeping bag. The lightest shoes.** They chose the lightest toothbrush. Even if it’s only a matter of an ounce or two, those ounces add up. If you don’t want to be carrying around a super heavy pack — and trust me you don’t — pack light. Make a pile of everything you need. Then cut that pile in half. Then cut it in half again. (Don’t worry, if you realize you need something, you can always buy it.) Then, choose the lightest versions of all those things. It will be worth it.

**This is why Crocs were invented, people. They were designed for backpackers because they weigh virtually nothing and protect you from stubbed toes when you’re walking around your campsite in the dark.

8. Perfect the art of the assertive “NO.” Tourists are targets, and as a lady, you are a double target. People will want to take advantage of you either by trying to sell you things at unreasonable prices, playing on your privileged-lady-heartstrings by begging for money, trying to steal your money, or sometimes by assaulting you. One of the best lines of defense is the assertive “NO.” Having been conditioned by The Patriarchy to always be pleasing, women are not always good at saying no. A lot of times we apologize when we say no, or we smile. Don’t do this. An assertive “NO” is loud, serious, and unapologetic. Hold your eyes steady and look right at the person bothering you/invading your space/following you/grabbing your arm. Say “No” loudly. Project. It should sound different from your usual conversational tone. Draw the sound up from down in your gut, round and deep. It should reverberate. Practice this in the mirror. Practice it a lot so that in the moment, when you might be scared or anxious, it will come as a reflex.

Of course, the assertive “NO” is not a safety guarantee, but it can be a good way to preempt situations by letting people know that you are not an easy target. Of course, if you feel unsafe you should always trust your instincts and try to remove yourself from dangerous situations and people as quickly as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

9. If something bad happens, seek help and support from friends and counselors from your home country. Every country/culture has its own way of handling or even recognizing sexual assault. Unfortunately, you may not get a helpful reaction from local authorities. (In some cultures, you might experience victim blaming/shaming, or encounter the attitude that sexual assault isn’t a big deal.) Get in touch with people you trust, people from home. If you can afford it, buy a phone card and call a crisis hotline from your home country. If you’re studying abroad, call up your university’s study abroad office or the counselor’s office. Go to an internet cafe and connect that way. Connect.

10. Don’t be afraid to take risks. As Jaclyn Friedman explains so well in her new book about sex, life is never without risk; we can only pick and choose which risks we feel are worth taking. For me, and probably for you, brave adventure lady, travel is worth the risks. On my most recent trip I got stung by fire ants, had a close-enough encounter with a coral snake, and my throat nearly closed up from a freak allergic reaction. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Travel is perhaps the best way to learn how to cope with things going wrong–anything from a cancelled flight to getting caught in a monsoon to getting robbed. When you get home, you will be able to handle anything. You will be a zen master.

Bad things happen in this world. Some of them might happen to you. But staying home doesn’t guarantee your safety, so you might as well see the world. Be brave. Make friends. Try the food.

Go forth, adventure ladies. Go forth.