The Grammys’ mixed messages on domestic violence

By Hannah Stein, JWI

In between dramatic performances, corny jokes and tearful acceptance speeches at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, President Obama spoke out against domestic violence. Obama reminded artists and the music industry that they have the power to shape a culture that denounces domestic violence and sexual assault. In his video appearance at the awards ceremony, the president encouraged artists to take part in the It’s On Us campaign. Just a week after NO MORE’s eye-opening Super Bowl ad, domestic violence and sexual assault were again in the national spotlight.

After the president’s message and before Katy Perry’s performance, survivor and activist Brooke Axtell shared her own story of abuse. Axtell emphasized the reality that violence is not love, preaching, “authentic love does not devalue another human being.” She spoke directly to the audience and delivered an important message: domestic violence is inexcusable, and we need to talk about it. It seemed that on a night typically known for it superficiality, the 2015 Grammys stood for something bigger.

Or at least they tried to.

While heightened awareness marks progress, there’s a much bigger issue at hand: the entertainment industry continues to glorify abusers.

Sunday’s Grammys sent viewers very mixed messages. Our president demanded that celebrities raise awareness for and stand up to domestic violence, stressing the importance of being proactive. Axtell shared her gut-wrenching story of survival, empowering people around the nation to get help and recognize their worth. Yet among the nominees for Best R&B Performance were two men whose careers include instances of mistreating women, R. Kelly and Chris Brown.

In addition to his indictment on child pornography charges, R. Kelly faced numerous rape accusations throughout the 2000s. He was eventually acquitted of all charges in 2008. Chris Brown, just before the 2009 Grammys, beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna so badly that she went to the hospital. He recently finished his court-mandated community service and faced no jail time.

Adding to the confusion of the night’s message-filled show, rapper Eminem won the Grammy for Best Rap Album. His music is known for praising violence against women, often threatening female icons in his lyrics. He has rapped about hurting women from Lana Del Ray to Christina Aguilera and his own wife. And the recording industry just gave this guy an award? Listening to his lyrics, we should ask what message young people who are learning what it means to be in a relationship receive, when we are part of a culture that rewards violent imagery, or too quickly forgets aggression toward women and girls.

Our culture idolizes celebrities and makes them into role models whether they like it or not. We have to hold artists accountable for their actions, showing that violence is never acceptable. It shouldn’t matter whether a person has one dollar or a million to their name — abuse is abuse, and it’s not OK.

President Obama asked viewers to take the #ItsOnUs pledge to end domestic violence and sexual assault. This is a great start, but it cannot be the only thing we do. Most people feel that taking the pledge means they’ve done their part, but there’s so much more work to be done.

Start the conversation with your friends. Provide support to a local domestic violence shelter. Raise awareness on campus. Every action matters because, remember, it’s on all of us to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

The real game changer: Super Bowl ads

By Hannah Stein, JWI 

The day after Super Bowl XLIX, people aren’t just talking about the athleticism. The commercials alone draw in millions of viewers, and this year (in our opinion!) stole the show. From the NO MORE campaign’s chilling 911 audio to Always’ “#LikeAGirl” for female empowerment, advertisers evoked emotions that most viewers were not expecting.

Domestic violence and sexual assault PSAs are new to the NFL this year. After video footage of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée (now wife) leaked in July, league commissioner Roger Goodell partnered with NO MORE to take a stand. As a result, every NFL broadcast of the 2014-15 season aired PSAs to combat domestic violence and sexual assault, giving the issue a wide, national audience.

And then Super Bowl XLIX advertisements took sensitizing gender and women’s empowerment to another level.

Themes of this year’s commercials included empowerment, domestic violence awareness and the influence of fathers. Yes, the clichéd Victoria’s Secret ad and others that objectify women slithered into the lineup, though these were impressively overshadowed by more significant messages. Nissan and Dove each portrayed the importance of fathers in children’s lives, shifting the traditional focus on mothers as primary caretakers. The Always brand tackled girls’ drop in self-esteem when they reach puberty, challenging stereotypes of female inferiority by asking what it means to do something “like a girl.” Even Coca-Cola addressed cyber bullying, preaching the that “the world is what we make it.”

Why the sudden shift in tone from last year’s game?

The explosion of public awareness of domestic violence in the NFL has made the issue impossible for the league’s leadership to ignore. As a result of numerous high-profile cases, relationship violence is finally receiving the national attention it deserves. From incidents involving Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson, football fans who might not have previously considered the magnitude of domestic violence and sexual assault are forced to confront these issues.

Raising such awareness has also influenced the challenge of gender stereotypes, redefining “what makes a man stronger” and what it means to “throw like a girl.” The last six months mark a pivotal change in societal views of domestic violence and gender roles. With its national reach, it’s clear that the NFL has played a role. We’re wondering, what else do you think has induced this shift in focus?

Let us know what you think! Comment here or contact me at hstein@jwi.org to weigh in on this year’s Super Bowl ads.

Stanford, Vanderbilt and bystander intervention on college campuses

By Hannah Stein, JWI

This has been a profoundly important week for the sexual assault movement. On Tuesday, January 27, a Nashville jury convicted former Vanderbilt football players Brandon Vandenberg and Cory Batey of crimes including aggravated rape and unlawful photography, stemming from a 2013 gang assault. Pending sentencing on March 6, Vandenberg and Batey will each face at least two decades in prison.

Just hours later, news broke that last week, Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, a freshman All-American swimmer, raped an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party. Two students happened to bicycle past the assault and, upon noticing the woman wasn’t moving, chased Turner down. Turner will be arraigned on felony charges of sexually penetrating an unconscious person and assault with intent to commit rape on Monday, February 2.

In contrast to the Vanderbilt case, bystanders played significantly active roles in the Stanford incident. Rather than ignoring the situation, the two students dropped their bikes and ran after Turner, tackling him to the ground before dialing 911. Members from the fraternity party also took action, aiding in holding Turner down until the police arrived. Neither Turner nor the survivor was a member of Greek life.

Without bystander intervention, Turner likely would have gotten away with his crimes.

In the Vanderbilt assault, though, countless people witnessed — yet failed to report — the gang rape of an unconscious student. Law enforcement only learned of the incident after school officials saw the assault on video; they had retrieved the surveillance footage for a completely unrelated issue. The woman was unaware of her rape until contacted by police.

In these cases, bystander intervention and technology helped bring offenders to face the justice system.* They played instrumental roles the investigations, aiming to hold the rapists accountable for his actions.

However, this is not representative of many assault cases.

Women are most often assaulted by people they trust, resulting in attacks where no one else is present. This eliminates the possibility for bystanders to step in, when rape occurs in private settings. Because survivors frequently know their attackers, assaults often take place in the survivor or attacker’s home. No bystanders, no security (or other) footage. Without statements from witnesses or proof from surveillance, sexual assault cases boil down to the survivor’s word versus the rapist’s word.

Proving sexual assault is hard. Not only do survivors become crime scenes, but they face more skepticism than any other victim of crime. Undergoing post-assault examinations is often as violating as the attacks themselves, so what survivors need most is support. The best thing we can do for survivors isn’t to question, doubt, or belittle them; it’s to believe them.

College students often find it difficult to intervene once they realize that someone needs help. For this reason, JWI works on college campuses to teach the importance of bystander intervention through our Safe Smart Dating program. To learn more about this program, visit jwi.org/SSD.

*Brock Turner has not yet been tried; the arraignment will take place on Monday. February 2.

Alcohol, athletes and assault: Playing the blame game at Vanderbilt

By Hannah Stein, JWI

In late June of 2013 Vanderbilt officials watched dormitory surveillance footage to address rumors of vandalism. However, what they saw was far worse. A group of athletes — each of whom played football for the university — were dragging an unconscious student through the hallway, snapping pictures and cracking sexually explicit jokes before carrying her into one of the rooms.

Sickening. That’s the only word I can think of to even remotely describe the case. As details have emerged, I am horrified that she knew nothing until law enforcement informed her. Yes, the woman knew she had blacked out. But no, she didn’t think she had been assaulted. Why would she have? That night she went out with people she trusted and wanted to hang out with. Co-defendant Brandon Vandenberg was her friend.

The defense subpoenaed an expert to testify that the co-defendants were drunk the night of June 22, 2013. During jury selection they asked potential members to define what it means to be drunk. They asked how alcohol affects the brain and what implications that might have. The defense spent so much time focusing on the objectivity of intoxication, yet every aspect of “being wasted” is subjective. Two drinks for me does not equal two drinks for you, as our alcohol tolerances differ. So how can you define intoxication when such ambiguity exists?

Our reactions to and interpretations of the Vanderbilt rape case are nothing but subjective. This presents itself through social double standards, especially when it comes to partying. But let’s think about this for a second. A police officer detains an intoxicated driver who then cries, I’m too drunk to be responsible for my actions! How would you respond? I hope you’d laugh at the absurdity of this remark. I certainly would. How many times have you heard of someone talking his or her way out of a DUI? It just doesn’t happen.

So why should sexual assault be any different?

Co-defendant Cory Batey testified that he was too intoxicated to know what he was doing. Rather than accepting responsibility for his actions — all of which, by the way, were caught on camera — Batey played the blame game. It was Jack Daniels’ fault. The college culture made me do it. My friends pressured me to do it. Yet even after identifying himself in the video and then apologizing to the victim, he refused to change his plea to guilty. Despite the concrete evidence of his crimes, Batey truly believes alcohol is to blame for his actions.

According to the defense, intoxication serves as an excuse for atrocious behavior. Perpetrators of sexual assault are often given the benefit of the doubt, especially when alcohol is involved. However, this doesn’t go both ways. When victims drink too much, they tend to face more criticism than compassion. Society tells women to limit drinking in order to prevent getting raped. But at what point does society hold rapists accountable? The focus on accountability has shifted in recent months, but we won’t be able to truly progress until we start preaching don’t rape instead of don’t get raped.

UPDATE: On January 27, 2015, co-defendants Brandon Vandenberg and Cory Batey were found guilty of four counts of aggravated rape, one count of attempted aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery. Vandenberg was also found guilty of tampering with evidence and unlawful photography. Their bonds have been revoked and sentencing is scheduled for March 6.

The Forward, take note: Voyeurism is violence

By Rabbi Marla Hornsten, West Bloomfield, Mich., and Rabbi Ari Lorge, New York, N.Y., co-chairs of JWI’s The Clergy Task Force Against Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community

The Clergy Task Force Against Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community of Jewish Women International takes strong exception both to the choice to include Rabbi Barry Freundel as one of the “Forward 50″ and to Editor Jane Eisner’s defense of that choice. The shameful accusations leveled against Rabbi Freundel were considered serious enough for the civil authorities to place him under arrest. The disgraceful and abusive actions attributed to Freundel hardly warrant celebrating his notoriety. The editor’s recourse to technical criteria of “impact” established under previous leadership does not respond to the question of the appropriateness of a choice, which is surely to a large degree a subjective one. The Forward is not just any Jewish newspaper, and its choice of who to call attention to has consequences.

What is truly dismaying is that The Forward‘s defense of that choice focuses on alleged abuses in the conversion process, as if that were the issue. The issue is violence against women. As JWI Vice President of Programs Deborah Rosenbloom wrote in response to the use of “voyeurism” to describe Freundel’s actions, “voyeurism is part of the continuum of violence against women, a continuum with catcalling on the less severe end and violent rape on the most severe end.

Given the circumstances of Freundel’s arrest the choice by The Forward is regrettable in itself. The defense of that choice, which cites “breaking the cone of silence” around conversion and the increased awareness of the word “mikvah,” regrettably misses the point — which ought to be the abuse and violence against women that the actions of which Freundel is accused embody.

Sorry, TIME. “Feminist” is here to stay.

By Sasha Altschuler, JWI
Sasha Altschuler headshot
If someone called me a feminist, I would take it as a compliment.

I feel extremely grateful to be growing up in a time when women are thriving. Women are graduating college at greater rates and are excelling to new heights in business, politics, philanthropy and medicine. When I saw the Time magazine poll asking readers to vote on the word they would ban in 2015, I was pretty angry to see that it included “feminist.”

Before this term is condemned, I would like people to understand the true meaning of the word. Feminists believe in the political, social and economic equality of men and women. Feminists believe that women should not earn 78.3% of men’s earnings. In 2013, the average difference in men’s and women’s earnings was $10,876 annually. Someone who believes this isn’t fair is a feminist. Someone who believes that men and women deserve the same rights is a feminist.

And feminism isn’t just for women. Men are feminists when they believe in these issues too. As UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson said, “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?”

So why is the term still stigmatized, taken by some to mean extremist, man-hating people placing their needs above everyone else’s in society? People think feminists portray men as the enemy. Taylor Swift recently stated that “a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.” Women (and men!) are realizing that believing in equality of rights and opportunities constitutes being a feminist, and they are owning it.

As a recent college graduate, I am aware of the importance of Title IX in creating equal opportunities for men and women. What I don’t think about too often is the fact that Title IX has already been in place for 40 years. Growing up, I couldn’t fathom a time when my gender might have limited my opportunities in college. My parents always told me, “You will be successful. You will excel in anything you set your mind to.” That sentence was never followed by, “But don’t aim too high, because you’re a woman.”

The only time I felt held back was when I told them I wanted to run for president of the United States. I thought that wasn’t out of the question at all because I had good grades and wanted to help people – the qualifications any 8-year-old would deem necessary.

“You can’t run for President, sweetie. You are Canadian.”

Electing a woman to the presidency in this country seems inevitable, and I believe it will happen in the foreseeable future. Though I was once upset it wouldn’t be me, I am glad to live in a time when 8-year-old American girls can dream of when it will be their chance to proudly lead this country.

It is a blessing to grow up in a time when women are excelling and my mind knows nothing else. I am surrounded by intelligent, successful, motivated women every day. I have friends who are working hard to be lawyers, family members equipped with talent to run their own TV programs and women who I know will eventually be the CEO of a company.

Instead of fixating on what it perceives to be annoying buzz words, perhaps Time should learn the true meaning “feminist” – someone who supports a movement that has made society better for everyone.

If someone called me a feminist, I would take it as a compliment.

Stories of DVAM: Caroline Griggs

This past August in Oklahoma City, 20 year old Caroline Griggs was shot and killed in the middle of a park surrounded by school children when her estranged boyfriend, 25 year old Ricky Knowles opened fire. Knowles had a history of violence, including arrests for domestic assaults against Caroline.

For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we are honoring the women who lost their lives at the hand of their husbands and boyfriends by sharing stories of those who have been affected by the lethal intersection of gun violence and domestic abuse.

More than half (54%) of women killed by guns in the U.S. are murdered by a current or former dating partner or spouse. Federal law only prohibits the purchase of guns by a person who has been convicted of a felony, not a misdemeanor crime like domestic violence. The loophole in the current law is allowing domestic violence incidents to escalate to murder when an abuser can lawfully purchase or possess a firearm.

These are the stories we hear daily in this line of work. Stories like Caroline’s remind us why we work so hard to strengthen gun laws and spare the lives of American women.

Tell Congress to support closing dangerous loopholes in federal firearms protections for victims of dating violence and stalking.