Racy Instagrams and the Lessons of Purim

iStock_000016984559Smallby Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum

Purim’s almost here, the one day of the year we’re supposed to be moderate in our moderation, even encouraged to abandon ourselves to excess. But this year the holiday falls within a season of such excess in the country’s shared civic life that some of us wonder if moderation – or more precisely, modesty – will soon be only a relic, an artifact, from a more innocent time. We’ve seen that references to private body parts and functions are no longer taboo in presidential debates. We’ve read about a reality star with her own brand of emoji symbols sending out a racy Instagram worldwide, and it’s the ensuing public debate that mirrors, in a way, the stories of Purim. Some celebs took to social media to rail against what they saw as a flagrant display of self-serving and attention seeking behavior while others defended the star’s confidence and demanded to know who has the right to judge a woman for what she chooses to wear or how much of her body she decides to expose. We can wonder what kinds of messages Vashti and Esther would have tweeted.

Purim seems to us – members of Jewish Women International’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community – a perfect time to talk about modesty. Let us explain. Several years ago our Task Force decided to encourage conversations about healthy 21st century relationships. Since Jewish holidays are natural times for special meals and special talk we created a series of Holiday Guides, choosing holiday-related sources and commentary that highlight distinctive qualities common to healthy intimate relationships. For example, in the Purim Guide the issue of modesty comes up in the section devoted to an aspect of health that we call “striving for parity.”

By ‘parity’ we aren’t referring to the commodities market, chas ve’chalilah – heaven forbid. We use the word parity to mean a negotiable state of balance in which men and women have equal power or status, resulting in needs being met without struggle or competition.

In the Purim Guide we encourage use of the multi-faceted stories of both Vashti and Esther to ground conversations about what “healthy” can mean in our time and conclude that parity may only be possible where men take responsibility for seeing women as people, not as objects intended to satisfy male sexual needs. Rabbi Dov Linzer, in a New York Times op-ed, notes: “At heart, we’re talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the man’s sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the claim, ‘she was asking for it.’  …The Talmud acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women…  But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. It is forbidden for a man to gaze sexually at a woman.  …The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze – the way men look at women – that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.”

Rabbi Linzer concludes, “Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call for modesty: learning ‘to walk humbly with your God.’ “

We like that. Modesty is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. And it makes us wonder about Vashti and Esther: in what ways did they both show tzniut [modesty] ? How did they each demand that King Achashverosh see her as a person? Rabbi Linzer’s comments also help us question our current situation: until there’s a cultural shift with more men taking  responsibility for seeing women as people instead of objects, how can we teach young women to expect parity in relationships?

Rabbi Kirshbaum lives in Omer, Israel and is a member of JWI’s Clergy Taskforce on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community. To receive a copy of Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Texts, go to jwi.org.


At Rutgers, Campus Ambassador promotes awareness and conversation to #ChangeTheCulture

By Amanda Foster, Sigma Delta Tau sister

My name is Amanda Foster and I am a junior at Rutgers University and a member of Sigma Delta Tau (SDT). Last spring, I had the opportunity to volunteer as a facilitator for JWI’s Safe Smart Dating program, a workshop that brought my chapter and fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) together to discuss dating abuse, sexual assault and being an active bystander.

As I prepared to lead my small group discussions, I became deeply interested in the way that JWI was working to bring awareness to the dating violence and sexual assault that is happening on our college campuses. It was real, straightforward and engaging. I have friends who have been in abusive relationships as well as some who have experienced sexual assault. The idea that I had the chance to possibly help prevent that from happening in the future – well, I jumped on it!


Safe Smart Dating at Rutgers

Rutgers, like most (if not all) colleges, has a problem with sexual assault. I think there’s a problematic attitude where people think that sexual assault “just happens” or is “bad luck” or that the victim “put themselves in that situation.” Sexual assault is NOT inevitable like people tend to justify it by saying! How crazy is that? How crazy is it that people think that because the statistic (1 in 5 women) is so high, that it is inevitable, that sexual assault is bound to happen!? It is not!

Why are we educating women on not wearing revealing clothes, or to not drink too much or walk home alone? While all of these are important and smart ways to keep yourself safe as a young woman, why are we not teaching men about what consent means? I hope ZBT pairing with JWI on Safe Smart Dating is only the start. I hope that men want to see an end to this just as much as women do.


A great crowd at Rutgers for Safe Smart Dating!

After the Safe Smart Dating program, I applied to be a Campus Ambassador and work with JWI on addressing these issues on my campus year-round. This fall, I worked closely with JWI and the philanthropy chair of my chapter, Ashleigh David, to create a “spa night” fundraiser/program, starting meaningful conversations as well as selling the Girls Achieve Grapeness! nail polish that helps raise money for JWI. The idea behind this program was to get girls in a room in a fun way to raise awareness about sexual assault and start the conversation.

For our first year doing it, it was such a success! It was a spa with a twist – for each part of the spa, we had something to encourage conversations about consent. For instance, instead of magazines in the waiting area, we had ads glorifying sexual assault and encouraged people to tweet about consent. We had YouTube videos about consent at the table where girls were drying their nails. We had girls from all the chapters on campus as well as other Rutgers women join us to get their nails done, watch a makeup tutorial, eat and take pictures in a photobooth. We had salons in the area donate spa baskets and gift cards that allowed us to also do a raffle to raise more money for JWI.

Consent education matters. As JWI’s Dana Fleitman always says, “we don’t want a yeah, we want a HELL YEAH!” when it comes to consent!

Drinking at college is going to happen. Flirting and hookups at college are going to happen. Sexual assault doesn’t have to be something that “happens.”

Being able to be a Campus Ambassador has been a great opportunity for me because I have gotten the chance to help promote something that I believe in. I believe that knowledge is power and by educating college women on issues that are right in front of us all the time, we are better prepared to handle situations ahead. I hope that for the rest of the academic year I can continue to raise awareness and educate the women at Rutgers.

Amanda Foster is a sister of Sigma Delta Tau at Rutgers University and a campus ambassador for JWI.

What happens when we #ChangeTheCulture? Lessons from a nation leading on gender equality

By Rebecca Benoff, JWI

Sexual assault. We hear about it all the time in the news. As a college student, it’s always being discussed on my campus. I know all the statistics because I’ve heard them so frequently and, like most girls around my age, I am a bit overprotective of my drink at parties, fearful of large groups of unfamiliar men and sometimes worried about walking home alone late at night. But beyond all of these things, I never personally felt a visible problem.

It wasn’t until I went to one of the top five gender equal countries in the world that I finally realized the problem. I spent four months studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark and yes, I did many of the typical study abroad things: traveled on the weekends, ate customary foods, drank the local beers, went to bars and tried making friends with locals, spent time discussing in classes and with friends the many cultural difference we felt. Once we got past the amount of bikes on the road and dull colors of clothing, the discussion always returned to the safeness we felt as young women.

Unlike at home, when a group of girls would walk into a bar or party, no one received any “unwanted touching.” Walking down the street: no one was catcalled. Other Danish students we’d meet at a bar wanted to actually talk, not just immediately try to take one of us home for the night. Beyond that, I learned that in Denmark, women tend to be the aggressors in a relationship. That means that girls often will buy the guy a drink. On dating apps and in real life, girls are expected to talk first, which means we would not have to wait for a ridiculous pickup line.

When we delved into some of these examples in one of my classes, I began to realize the underlying cultural differences. When I went to college, I was taught to be afraid: to protect my drink, not walk alone at night, always have my keys ready, never go home with someone you don’t know, etc. My older brothers never received any such advice.

In Denmark, when they have sex-ed in school, boys and girls are taught about healthy relationships, contraception, and most of all, to have fun. Yes, even our Danish resident advisor told us all (boys and girls) to “be safe and to kiss lots of Danish people.” That’s just the culture.

These are all just the concrete differences that being a college student in both the United States and Denmark revealed to me along with the many other female students in my program. The not-so-concrete difference is that Denmark is highly gender equal, both mothers and fathers receive and take paid maternity and paternity leave, women are paid nearly equal to men and women hold 40% of seats in parliament, rather than the meek 18% of women legislators in the United States Congress.

The fact of it is that we in the United States don’t live in an equal country, and this inequality is a massive contributing factor to the culture of sexual assault. Sexual assault is not just a problem on college campuses – it is a problem ingrained in our culture of inequality.

Our culture can change, and it begins simply with empowering young women, rather than scaring them, educating both women and men about healthy relationships as well as equality and treating people with respect, no matter their gender.

People warned me of reverse culture shock when I returned home, but more than anything I am empowered and more confident from my time in Denmark and disgusted at the culture of inequality that we allow to persist. Sexual assault is a byproduct of an unequal culture, but we have the power to change the culture, from policies such as paid leave, to the way we talk to friends and family about relationships.

Where will this cultural change begin? It can start with the policies but it can also trickle up from our generation. With increased attention on college campuses and sexual assault, our generation can not only change the culture surrounding sexual assault, but also the culture of inequality. What will you do to change the community you’re in? How are you working towards a more gender equal society? It’s time we stop accepting inequality as the norm in the country, in our communities and on our campuses.

Becca headshotRebecca Benoff is a senior at The George Washington University and recently finished a semester abroad at the Danish Institute of Study Abroad in Copenhagen. She is studying Psychology and Judiac Studies. She is a summer 2015 Marketing and Communications intern with JWI.


By Haley Lerner, JWI

Sitting in my Psychology 101 lecture hall on my first day of classes at Emory University, I looked around at the 200 students furiously taking notes as the professor droned on about experiments conducted by random researchers that I had never heard of. Coming from a high school where my graduating class consisted of 100 people, I was quite taken aback by the fact that the professor did not know my whole life story, that we couldn’t call the professors by their first names and that we were actually supposed to raise our hands if we had something to say.

As I quietly sat on my computer in the back of the class, mostly paying attention but occasionally online shopping, I observed an interesting phenomenon that I had been taught in class but had never actually noticed in action: there is quite an obvious difference in the ways men and women participate and ask questions in a large classroom setting. Men would confidently raise their hands during the middle of the professor’s lecture to ask a question, or would even call out when they weren’t given the attention they thought they deserved. However, women would often sheepishly raise their hands and begin the question with “Sorry but…” or “Wait – sorry…” or “Sorry, I missed that…” or  “Sorry, can you repeat that?” or “Sorry, I just have a question…”

So, as women we’re “sorry” for being self-advocates, “sorry” for having questions and “sorry” for not being perfect?

Sorry, but I’m pretty sure that we’re not actually sorry for any of this.


via Flickr

Recently, Kim Osborne, a Digital Manager at Golin, spoke at a JWI Summer Series event for college interns about ways in which young women can make the most out of their summer internships. She discussed the concept of “sorry, not sorry,” and how women are often afraid to speak up for themselves in a professional setting.

Even when we as women get the courage to go up to their boss and ask for another assignment or to take them out to coffee, we generally preface the proposal with “sorry…” “Sorry, I was just wondering if you had anything else for me to work on.” “Wait, sorry, but do you have time to go grab a quick cup of coffee this afternoon?”

Just because it may be in our nature to be polite and respectful to our superiors, that does not mean that we must apologize when we didn’t do anything wrong, or feel embarrassed to ask a question.  As Osborne emphasized, being a young female professional means making your voice heard in an environment where it is sometimes uncomfortable to do so. However, asking these questions and taking this kind of initiative is the only way to advance in the professional world and become better versions of ourselves.

So next time you talk to your boss or raise your hand in class, think about the motivation behind your question and understand that you have a right to ask it. Realize that you’re not sorry for being curious, excited or passionate. Take initiative to make sure that your goals are accomplished and understood by others.

And lastly, make sure that other people know that you’re not sorry for any of it.

Haley Lerner is a summer 2015 intern at JWI.

BONUS LINKS: Recently we in the JWI office have been discussing this piece by Ann Friedman: “Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?”

Like, have you ever noticed that women apologize too much? Sorry, but just humor me for a second here. What if, um, how we’re speaking is actually part of what’s undermining us in the workplace, in politics, and anywhere in the public sphere where we want to be taken seriously? I think it could be time for us all to assess how we’re talking. Does that make sense to you, too?

It reminded us of this great sketch by Amy Schumer, which will hit home for many women.

JWI’s Summer Series for Interns is off to a great start!

By Rachel Schor, JWI

Deborah Rosenbloom, Vice President of Programs & New Initiatives at JWI, and Kimberly Osborne, Manager at Golin in the Digital Connector community, spoke to a room of 50 young professional women on June 24, discussing their suggestions on how to make the most of an internship. The event was the first of JWI’s 10th annual three- part Summer Series workshops for female interns in Washington, D.C. Each woman spoke about her unique experience; Deborah from the perspective of a 15-year experienced intern supervisor and Kimberly from the perspective of a master intern. Summer Series attendees

Deborah spoke first, encouraging the interns to share why they are in D.C. and why they wanted to be interns. What did Deborah recommend interns do to make their experience the best it can be? To take a moment and think about why organizations choose to hire interns in the first place. To always (truly, always) bring a pen and paper everywhere. To make sure to always be up front and direct with the intern supervisor. To come in with expectations and to make sure they are heard by the people who have the power to change the trajectory of the internship. She additionally emphasized the importance of making sure that an intern always asks her supervisor for a reference before leaving the position.  She even said that an intern could go so far as to writing the recommendation herself and leaving it with her supervisor, ready to have it pulled at a later date.

Kimberly spoke after Deborah, coming with 10 different internships under her belt. She was not much older than many of the women in the room which made her very relatable. She started by saying that the best way to prepare for an internship is to set S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Beyond that, Kimberly suggested to invite a supervisor or executive out for coffee to “pick their brain.” Having business cards and a LinkedIn account was universally agreed upon as being important.

Kimberly Osborne speaks to Summer Series attendees.Kimberly said that she had the best interning experiences when she came into the organization with a list of at least three goals that she expected to have done by the time her internship had concluded. She then put these new skills/projects into her “Master Resume,” which she would edit to make the perfect resume whenever she would go to a job interview.  She suggested to contact old supervisors three times a year and to never burn the bridges forged, even if the internship is dissolved before initially intended end date.

After both women had spoken, the floor opened for questions. The young professionals had a number of good questions regarding their personal situations at their workplaces and how Deborah and Kimberly would have dealt with the situations if they were in the position.

Over all, the first workshop in the Summer Series was a huge success!  JWI staff and interns are incredibly excited for the next two events and hope to see new and returning faces.

Are you interested in attending one or both of our upcoming events? Please register at www.jwi.org/summer.

We hope to see you there!

Rachel Schor is a summer 2015 intern at JWI.

The hypocrisy of advocacy and sports

By Hannah Stein, JWI

Our society has a hypocrisy issue when it comes to violence against women. Yesterday concluded Sexual Assault Awareness Month— four weeks of explicit dedication to addressing sexual violence. Through heightened social media activism, White House engagement and cross-campus programming, awareness on the topic has spread nationwide. The month of April raised optimism surrounding the understanding of sexual violence, an issue that has gained noticeable attention in the past year.

This advocacy, however, conflicts with another societal message: athletes are above the law. Last night, former FSU quarterback Jameis Winston was selected as the number one overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. In 2012, former FSU student Erica Kinsman accused Winston of sexual assault, filing charges against the athlete. After conducting a seemingly flawed investigation, the Tallahassee Police Department cleared Winston of the accusations. Kinsman shares her story in The Hunting Ground, a documentary exposing the epidemic of rape on college campuses.

Tomorrow night, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. fights Manny Pacquiao in what ESPN calls “The Fight of the Century.” Mayweather has a long history of domestic violence, including seven assaults against five women that led to arrests. The boxer’s violence does not wane outside of the ring; in 2010, he attacked the mother of his three children until his son called 911. Mayweather only served two months in jail.

What message does this send?

We just spent an entire month talking about sexual assault. Politicians, activists and survivors across the nation spoke out against the violence, debunking rape myths and challenging victim stereotypes. We emphasized saying #NoMore to sexual assault, highlighting the importance of bystander intervention.

But now we’re praising athletes like Winston and Mayweather?

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t advocate against sexual violence and then endorse athletes who perpetrate it. This mixed message is extremely confusing, especially for those who look at athletes as role models. If we want to truly address sexual assault, then we must fully commit to condemning it, even— no, especially when it comes to athletes.

Title IX complaint at American U. reinforces need for campus activism against sexual assault

Title IX graphic

Image via Feministing.

By Katie Gifford, JWI

American University, my home for the past four years, is frequently cited as one of the most politically active campuses on the country. Students lobby and protest for causes ranging from fossil fuel divestment to tuition freezes to sexual assault prevention, and there’s a club for almost every issue you could think of. I personally am a member of the organization Students Against Sexual Violence, which was started last year in response to leaked emails from a banned, underground fraternity known for drugging drinks at their parties.

Since that time, we have advocated for survivor support programs and mandatory sexual assault prevention education, among other things. Some calls have been met, such as the hiring of a victim advocacy services coordinator, and the administration is finally attempting to work with us on other demands.

But that banned frat? They’re still on campus, wearing their “letters” and recruiting new members. When approached about these issues, the administration has been difficult to work with or just plain unresponsive.

That’s why I was not surprised when I found out that AU is under investigation following a Title IX complaint. Disappointed, of course, but not surprised. When it comes to Title IX and sexual assault, schools are tasked with investigating any sexual assault charges and making sure that survivors and all students can receive their education in an environment safe from fear of sexual violence. If the school doesn’t live up to its responsibilities, students may file complaints, and an investigation is opened.

On March 11th, while we were on spring break, an investigation into the complaint at AU began. It took the administration a week to notify students, and they only did so after the student newspaper reported it first. This late notification made me nervous. Why didn’t they tell us right away? Did they think they could keep us from finding out? Beyond that, the email they sent included that they would use the complaint to “learn if there is more we can do… to create an environment that is safe, responsive, and compliant with the law.”

As a student activist, this upset me even more. We have been lobbying the school for a year. Why are they just now paying attention, why didn’t they listen to us in the first place? Why did it take this, a national media event, for them to start paying attention? Deep down, I know why. But it’s horrible to realize that the school cares more about headlines than students.

American University is my chosen home away from home. It hurts to know that the administration does not care about students, does not care about me, to such a point that a complaint needed to be filed. It hurts to know that it took a complaint for them to be interested in learning what they could do to make the university safer, as if we have not been telling them for months what actions can be taken.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (#SAAM), and various groups on campus are holding events to support survivors and promote sexual assault prevention. We will take back the night, promote our right to party without fear, and help carry that weight.

I can only hope that the administration finally listens to us and starts taking necessary action to prevent sexual assault on campus, because even one is too many.

Katie Gifford, a senior at American University majoring in International Service and Women, Gender and Sexuality Issues, is a program intern with JWI.

On #EqualPayDay, a soon-to-be college grad faces her future – and the wage gap

By Katie Gifford, JWI

On May 10th, I will be one of hundreds walking across a stage to receive my diploma declaring my graduation from American University. Excited as I am to leave a world of endless papers and exams to start a career in a field I love, I’m anxious.

Not only do I have to find a job, but once I find a job I need to think about whether I will be making as much as I deserve to make, and if I will be earning as much as my male classmates.

Throughout my time at AU, I’ve been bombarded by the statistics. In her lifetime, a woman earns just 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. According to the numbers, one year after graduation I might be earning just 82% of what my male friends will be.

Not enough change: in 2013, among full-time, year-round workers, women were paid 78 percent of what men were paid.

Image via AAUW.

But I’m actually pretty lucky — I’m young, white, not starting a family. Black women earn 68 cents compared to white men’s dollar. Hispanic women earn only 54 cents.

And the pay gap gets wider with age, usually increasing after 35. I’m not planning on becoming a mother anytime soon, but if I ever am, I can count on the “motherhood penalty” to keep that wage gap strong.

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. Women could also benefit greatly from paid sick days and raising the minimum wage. Some legislators are bringing these issues up, but real action must be taken to enact laws that will help close the wage gap.

We’re told that the wage gap is our fault. We’re told that women, unlike men, don’t negotiate for a higher starting salary, which starts us from behind and doesn’t allow much ability to catch up. We’re told that women are more likely to go into lower-paying careers. That we lose company time when we take maternity leave or have to leave work to take care of sick family. We are told that our individual choices are entirely to blame for the wage gap. Some of these may be true on an individual level, but the fact remains that there is a huge, across-the-board wage gap between men and women.

Unfortunately, narrowing the wage gap isn’t as simple as telling women to negotiate for higher salaries. While this can help, women’s labor is simply undervalued, and the pay gap even exists in women-dominated fields.

On May 10th, I will be one of hundreds of bright, shining faces, looking forward to my future in the “real world.” I can only hope that on April 14, Equal Pay Day 2015, speaking up for #EqualPayNow will inspire action to eliminate the wage gap so that my female classmates and I don’t end up thousands of dollars behind our male counterparts, who might not have to think about if they’re getting paid what they deserve.

The pay gap is real, it is dangerous, and it is time to close it.

Katie Gifford, a senior at American University majoring in International Service and Women, Gender and Sexuality Issues, is a program intern with JWI.

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.