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Entries in violence against women (23)


When Do Depictions of Sex Constitute Assault?


In June, a story of “girl power”-style revenge made the rounds on social media. Reportedly, a woman sent unsolicited penis pictures she had received to the sender’s mother, despite his protestations. Meanwhile, an ongoing debate in Britain about what—if any—depictions of sex should be banned has resurrected the age-old question: Does pornography cause rape?

Both stories raise interesting questions about the limits of privacy and consent.

Most of us agree that when adults voluntarily share generic photos of themselves with friends who consent to viewing them, this is no matter for censorship or state intervention. There is, however, less agreement on how much autonomy we should have when those images involve nudity or are explicitly sexual. Some jurisdictions ban “hard-core” or “extreme” pornography, while others place limits on the “obscene.”

Part of the problem is that we do not have a homogenous view of what constitutes pornography or obscenity in the first place. The difficulty in stating clearly what we believe is immoral or wrong was memorably captured by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, when he stated that constitutional protections of free speech clearly did not protect “hard-core pornography,” a concept he couldn’t define, though he was certain he would “know it when I see it.”

It was also recently highlighted by a successful grassroots campaign to push Facebook to implement better guidelines on what content the social networking site should take down. The campaigners argued Facebook wrongly identified breastfeeding mothers as “obscene,” while leaving up photos and speech they felt advocated violence against women. Facebook argued it routinely removed hate speech, while leaving up humorous, though offensive, content.

And the difficulty is at the core of the current debate in Britain about a 2008 act that prohibits the possession of “extreme pornography,” defined to include images produced for the purposes of sexual arousal of acts that, if real, would likely cause serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts, or genitals.

Last summer, this act was put to the test in a case against a London mayoral aide who was charged with possessing images of a sado-masochistic nature. The images depicted friends and acquaintances of the aide, who, the prosecution does not contest, had consented to the pictures being taken and shared. The aide was ultimately acquitted after a very public trial, but lost his job. Those who advocate for maintaining and expanding the prohibition of “extreme pornography” argue that such images, in themselves, are a form of assault, and that they cause more violence by trivializing abuse.

It is important to note that a causal link between pornography and violence has not been proven. A 1991 study of criminal data in four European countries concluded that incidences of rape had not increased more than nonsexual violent crimes as pornography had become more easily available. This was confirmed in a 2009 study, which concluded that evidence for a causal relationship between exposure to pornography and sexual aggression is slim and may have been exaggerated.

So the real question is whether pornography (or sexual imagery) in and of itself constitutes assault. And this depends on consent and affects privacy. Rape apologies aside, there is no longer confusion (at least in the law) that anyone forced to carry out a sexual act, on or off camera, is a victim of assault. In other words, pornography constitutes assault when it depicts individuals who have not consented to have sex, let alone to having it filmed.

Pornographic images also constitute a form of assault when they are thrust on people who have not consented to seeing them. This is the case with unsolicited penis pictures, and is the reason those forwarding such pictures to the sender’s family and friends (or the public in general) argue that thrusting them on others is par for the course.

To be sure, claiming privacy rights over penis pictures you have imposed on someone who did not want to see them is like suing for libel when publicized security camera footage shows you robbing a bank. Then again, there is something slightly off about forwarding photos you did not want to see on others who likewise have not consented to viewing them. In such cases, a more ethical (though much less immediately satisfying) course of action would be filing a complaint for aggravated harassment.

But not all pornographic images are wrong. Photos that have been taken and shared with the full consent of everyone involved, including the recipients, should not be banned, but rather benefit from privacy and free speech protections—because such images are not assault, but sex. And surely we would be hard-pressed to think of anything more private than that.


Argentina Considers Bills That Could Criminalize Sex Trafficking—But Also Buying Sex


As I arrived in Buenos Aires this week, the Argentine Congress started discussing two bills purporting to deal with human trafficking. According to reports, one bill seeks to establish prison sentences for individuals who buy sex from victims of trafficking, while the other seeks to penalize anyone who buys sex at all, regardless of whether the person providing the sex is a consenting adult. (The government is not suggesting legislation to criminalize sex workers themselves.) No one would contest that actual sex trafficking is a problem in Argentina and that something should be done about it. The question is if it is ever helpful, in policy terms, to lump together trafficking and sexual exploitation with the buying and selling of sexual services between consenting adults.

The push to eradicate trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation is a legitimate goal for any government—in fact, it is an obligation. In Argentina, this objective has gained particular urgency in the wake of a decade-long, largely unsuccessful legal investigation into the abduction and forced prostitution of a young woman. In relation to that case, Amnesty International and other groups have criticized the lack of effective protection in Argentina against gender-based violence in general and trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation in particular.

But the evidence suggests that Argentina’s latest approach to address the problem may not be the best one. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has carried out studies and generated guidance on anti-trafficking initiatives. The organization has come to the conclusion that brothel raids and “rescues” that treat all sex workers as victims of violence contribute to decreased safety for sex workers by forcing many of them to move constantly from one place to another, undermining the social networks that can help to keep sex workers safe.

UNAIDS suggests that governments should instead take a nuanced approach that on the one hand recognizes the autonomy of individual adult sex workers and clients who act on their own volition, while on the other clamps down hard on sexual exploitation. In this context, sexual exploitation should include not only trafficking into forced prostitution, but also violent acts against voluntary sex workers (such as rape) and the use, offer, or procurement of a child for commercial sex acts.

The question is, of course, if there is such a thing as voluntary sex work.

In general, people who believe governments should treat trafficking and sex work as one and the same would answer “no” to that question. To this group of advocates, sex work is inherently violent; they believe that the people who say they engage in sex work voluntarily are in reality forced to do so by circumstances or structural disadvantages they may or may not see. The goal for such advocates is to eradicate sex work, rather than trafficking, and the assumption is that the criminal law is an effective tool in advancing this goal.

It is undeniable that sex workers, like everyone else, make decisions about their lives and livelihoods that are at least in part informed by the opportunities available to them. For some sex workers, opportunities are severely limited because they belong to a disadvantaged group in terms of gender, income level, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and many may have chosen a different path given a different context.

It is also undeniable that the notion of exchanging sexual services for money makes many people very uncomfortable. I would venture that most parents would rather not see their children having sex for a living. And it is certainly true that many people would prefer not to see sex workers at all, leading to initiatives to curb street solicitation that often do little to promote sex worker safety.

However, it is not clear why our discomfort with sex for money should lead us to disregard, wholesale, the decisions made by sex workers themselves. When I did research on access to reproductive health services in Argentina, I spoke to women who felt empowered by their sex work, because it was the only relationship in which they felt they had some measure of control. And when I did research on discrimination based on HIV-status in the Dominican Republic, I spoke to women who were mortified that sex work was the only avenue open to them after they were fired from hotel and factory jobs. Both groups of women had made decisions in an imperfect context, but neither group would benefit from brothel raids and the blanket criminalization of their clients. In fact, treating these women as if their choices do not matter is unlikely to empower them to overcome structural abuse.

In Argentina, trafficking into forced prostitution remains a problem. However, not all sex workers are trafficked or remain in commercial sex work against their will. As Argentina’s congress—and many other countries—debate how to deal with both of these issues, they would do well to remember that to be effective a policy approach must be grounded in evidence and supported by those who are meant to benefit from it.


Ending Violence Against Women Shouldn’t Be Controversial—But it Is


Each year around March 8 (International Women’s Day), representatives of world governments come together to draw up a statement that is supposed to communicate the notion that women and men are equal. This has been a key tenet of international relations since the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945, so one would think it would not be terribly controversial.

One would be wrong.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women, which has met each year since 1946, tries to set aspirational priorities for women’s equality, and it largely succeeds in doing so. However, for the past several years, members of the commission have disagreed so vehemently about what “equality” means that, in 2012, the meeting ended at an impasse. One week into the 2013 commission meetings, it seems possible that this year’s negotiations are headed down the same path. 

This is all the more frustrating because the main theme of this year’s meeting is violence against women. This is not a new, obscure issue that should require more than two weeks’ discussion to reach an agreement about steps forward. Prevent, protect, prosecute, punish—it is not that complicated.

More to the point, violence against women requires urgent attention. At least 1 in 3 women has been beaten, forced to have sex, or otherwise abused at some point in her life. Most often the perpetrator is someone she knows, and frequently it is not a one-off incident. Furthermore, domestic violence contributes to a culture of violence; boys who witness their fathers beat up their mothers are, as adults, twice as likely to abuse their own partners as those who grew up in homes without violence.

Many politicians and government officials are also complicit in violence against women. In Egypt last month, parliamentarians tried to make the sexual assault of female protesters the responsibility of the women themselves, arguing that if they hadn’t been on the streets in the first place, they would never have been groped, harassed, and raped.

In Somalia, Lul Ali Asman Barake, who says she was gang-raped by police officers, was jailed for telling a journalist about her attack. Barake was released this week, but the journalist remains in jail.

And this past Monday, Kenyans were given the option of voting for a presidential candidate who is being sought by the International Criminal Court on charges that include orchestrating sexual violence against supporters of his political opponents in 2008.

In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that government officials have a hard time agreeing about how, and even if, to end violence against women—after all, some of them represent leaders who believe victims are at least as responsible as their perpetrators. Indeed, Russia, the Vatican, and Iran, whose representatives have reportedly derailed negotiations the most this year, all have recent records of punishing women for speaking out, demanding justice, and simply being female.

So I am not surprised that these negotiations have not gone smoothly. I am, however, appalled. And you should be too. Today, on International Women’s Day, contact your foreign ministry or head of government and tell him or her that you expect to see an agreement in New York next week. A consensus outcome at the Commission on the Status of Women may not necessarily lead to gender justice and equality. But without an agreement, it will be clear to perpetrators that individuals in charge are not planning to clamp down on abuse.


How Do You Prove That Discrimination No Longer Exists?


This week, the U.S. House of Representatives finally passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which reauthorizes funding for the fight against domestic violence in the United States. The bill passed after a prolonged partisan fight over specific protections for Native-American women and lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. Also this week, the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court questioned the need for the promotion of equal voting rights, and, in particular, the continued need for oversight of equal rights in states that historically have discriminated against African Americans.

Each story elicited a pundit storm of outrage over the partisan divide on discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or sexual orientation. Many politicians and justices quoted in the press perpetuated the notion that liberals care about discrimination while conservatives do not.

But that would be an oversimplification.

At the heart of the discussion about the need for both VAWA and the Voting Rights Act is a fundamental disagreement about what governments should do about discrimination, and, even more so, what they shouldn’t do.

That difference of opinion is what led Justice Antonin Scalia to refer to the Voting Rights Act—a law that was conceived of as a tool to overcome racial entitlement among whites—as perpetuating a sense of racial entitlement among non-whites. By portraying people of color as receiving, or rather demanding, special treatment, Scalia converted the legal protection of equal rights into a situation of enforced discrimination.

It is also why some Republicans cited “inclusiveness” as the reason they supported explicit benefits for generally underserved populations in VAWA, while other Republicans claimed to vote against these benefits for the very same reason. While the former acknowledge that some women need to be explicitly named in order to be visible to policymakers and service providers, the latter promote the notion that by treating everyone the same, we will somehow magically be equal.

Simply put, the difference is not so much whether someone cares about discrimination but rather if they choose to see the full range of its reach. With some notable exceptions, most people across the political spectrum recognize flagrant forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The real divide is on how much we believe can and should be done to overcome historical disadvantage and internalized prejudice. Should the government allow quotas in universities to promote race and gender equality? Should states actively promote a diverse workforce?

International human rights standards are clear that affirmative action can only be legitimate while it serves a purpose; when a situation of historical disadvantage has been overcome—that is, when those who were meant to benefit from affirmative action genuinely are equal—the special measures must go.

The question, of course, is how to determine the exact moment when everyone truly has equal opportunities. This is a question that necessarily will have different answers for different people. Recent studies suggest that discrimination is still a reality for many of the subgroups that benefit the most from both the new incarnation of VAWA and the Voting Rights Act: Blacks, Latinos, working women, and Native Americans. Still, the American public just reelected a Black president, and the minority leader of the House of Representatives is a woman. In other words, systemic inequalities persist even though some people manage to escape their consequences. In this situation, perhaps the best test of whether temporary special measures are still warranted is conversational. When we stop talking about how strange it is that President Obama and Representative Pelosi got to where they are, there will be equal opportunity for all.

Of course, the courts cannot use conversation as a legal test to determine when to mandate an end to temporary special measures. Conversation can, however, be a rule of thumb for the rest of us until such time where it is no longer remarkable to find African Americans or women in positions of power.

In the meantime, the onus should be on the government, including members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court, to prove when affirmative action has run its course, both when it comes to the prevention of domestic violence and voting rights.


Violence Still Prevalent Despite Progress on LGBTI Rights in Latin America


As 2012 came to a close, Sao Paolo joined the jurisdictions that allow same-sex marriage. The joy this news elicited is absolutely warranted. However, it may cover up the fact that equal marriage rights do not mean the end to hostility against those who aren’t straight.

Arguably nowhere is this truer than in Latin America.

First the good news. Latin America has been making unprecedented advances on same-sex marriage and related issues these past couple of years. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, as the first country in Latin America, right after Mexico City (the largest metropolis in the region) did the same in 2009. In early December 2012, Saba Island in the Caribbean followed suit, and Uruguay’s lower house passed a same-sex marriage bill. And then, as mentioned, later in December, Sao Paolo did the same. Meanwhile, the transgender rights regulations that were pushed through by Argentina's government earlier in 2012 are considered some of the world's most progressive.

Bearing all this in mind, one might be excused for thinking that Latin America is an accepting and safe place to live for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

That would be the wrong conclusion.

For decades, those who don’t look or act straight have been targeted for violence across the region. Brazil has been dubbed “the world champion in the murder of homosexuals” and in 2012 the brutal murder of an openly gay man in Chile highlighted the surge in violence against gay men and transgender individuals in particular. The main LGBTI organization in Peru, MOHL, notes that every 5 days a lesbian, gay, or transgender person is killed in that country. In 2011, the leader of an LGBTI organization in Mexico was beaten to death. Meanwhile, in December 2012 the Peruvian police put forward new regulations that prohibited police officers from having sex with a same-sex partner in a “scandalous” manner.

While this ban was almost immediately repealed after public uproar allegedly caused a split in the cabinet on the matter, it offers a clue to how support for same-sex marriage can co-exist with extreme violence against LGBTI populations. And that clue is the word “scandalous.” In essence, what the repealed regulation sought to control was not so much sex with a same-sex partner or same-sex relationships, but rather how those relationships would “look” in the public eye.

It is this same logic that is at play when individuals targeted for violence and murder in Latin America (and elsewhere too) are those who most visibly challenge gender norms: transgender men and women, “effeminate” men, “butch” women, or androgynous individuals who do not easily fit into a gendered box. These individuals are primarily being punished for not conforming to prevalent gender norms in their appearance and public behavior, rather than their private lives. Within this logic, same-sex marriage can be seen as conformity rather than revolt: it is an indication that same-sex couples are “just like” different-sex couples and therefore not threatening the status quo.

Of course, anyone who has ever dated someone of their own gender in Latin America will know that hostility extends far beyond those who don’t conform to prevalent gender-norms. Holding hands in public for two men or two women is a transgression some believe merit violence regardless of what each of the two looks like. This, apart from the obvious fact that nothing can or should excuse violence against any of us for any reason, including gender expression and sexual orientation.

This situation should serve as a reminder that legalizing same-sex marriage can only get us part of the way to full respect for LGBTI diversity and rights.

And perhaps more to the point, the coexistence of same-sex marriage and brutality against LGBTI communities in Latin America should make it clear that we must attack the larger fallacy at stake: the notion that only those who look, speak, talk, think, and live like the majority deserve equal rights and protection.