In Your Neighborhood OPINION

The peter principle

Why are men often oblivious and tone deaf when it comes to sexual politics?

Image courtesy of ESPN Facebook page

Aly Raisman, U.S. Olympic gymnast and victim of sexual assault by Dr. Larry Nassar, speaking at the ESPY award ceremonies, which presented the Arthur Ashe "courage" award to 141 survivors on stage.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/23/18
Presenting the ESPY Arthur Ashe courage award to more than 140 women gathered on stage who had been victims of sexual assault was a stirring moment. But it raised important questions: where were the voices of men in authority during those 30 years? And, why are most men so oblivious and tone deaf when it comes to sexual politics?
Will the #MeToo movement embrace talking about abortions and miscarriages and childhood sexual abuse? Will the wave of new women candidates, if elected in November, change the behavior of Congress when it comes to sexual politics? Will the effort by legislative leaders in the Democratic Party in Rhode Island to endorse challengers to incumbent women lawmakers backfire? Will the effort to re-enact pre-existing conditions by health insurers, which would fall most heavily on women, become a key messaging component of the 2018 election campaign?
There is still a dearth of polling information in Rhode Island related to the importance of health care as a 2018 election campaign issue. For instance, imagine if a polling question were to ask potential voters about their opinions about reinstating pre-existing conditions as a barrier to health insurance cover? Even better, imagine if reporters had the gumption to ask candidates running for Governor that question and get the responses on the record? Or imagine, on one of the political pundit talk shows, such as “A Lively Experiment,” if someone were to pose the question to the panelists and moderator: “How many women do you know who have had an abortion?”
As long as the political debate in Rhode Island skirts the conversation about sexual politics in an honest, meaningful manner, putting the onus on women and not on men, it provides cover for the chronic condition of male obliviousness.

PROVIDENCE – To close out the ESPY Awards held on July 18, more than 140 women athletes, victims of sexual assault at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar, gathered on stage to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

“For 30 years, people at the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University all placed money and medals above the safety of child athletes,” said Sarah Klein, a softball player, one of the first victims of Nassar.

“All we needed was one adult to have the integrity to stand between us and Larry Nassar, if just one adult had listened, believed and acted, the people standing before you on this stage would never have met him,” said Aly Raisman, an Olympic gymnast.

“Speaking up and speaking out is not easy,” Klein said. “Telling our stories of abuse over and over and over again, in graphic detail, is not easy. We’re sacrificing privacy. We’re being judged and scrutinized, and it’s grueling, and it’s painful – but it is time.”

It was a profound moment of courage to honor the women survivors of sexual assault at the hands of a doctor on national TV. But it raised perhaps a more fundamental question: where were the voices of men [and women] in authority during those 30 years? Why had they been missing?

Oblivious, tone deaf
When it comes to sexual politics, most men tend to be oblivious and tone deaf, particularly when it comes to the rights of women to control their own health care decisions, to earn equal pay in the workplace, to be protected from sexual violence, and to be protected from sexual harassment in school, on the job, and online.

How can you say that? Where’s the evidence?

Well, one need only look at the efforts by the Trump administration to undercut efforts to promote the health benefits of breast-feeding babies by the World Health Organization, even threatening economic sanctions against Ecuador if they persisted in sponsoring the resolution.

Or, closer to home here in Rhode Island, one could look at the actions by some legislative leaders of the Democratic Party and their decision to endorse the male opponents of several women incumbents who had been outspoken on behalf of women’s issues in the R.I. General Assembly. Not to mention legislative leaders’ unwillingness to bring up specific legislation around women’s issues to the floor for a vote.

Yes, there was some progress in enacting new laws related to protecting women’s health care in the 2018 R.I. General Assembly, including legislation requiring health insurers to provide a full year of access to contraceptive care, legislation to remove barriers to safe and affordable mastectomies, and legislation that allows pregnant minors to access prenatal care without parental consent.

But the failure to act to protect reproductive rights in Rhode Island provided Gov. Gina Raimondo the political opportunity to use the occasion of a bill-signing ceremony on July 19 at Kent Hospital to call for the R.I. General Assembly to do more to preserve women’s access to health care.

“With Justice Kennedy’s retirement and President Trump’s nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, we must take proactive steps to protect women’s rights to choose here in Rhode Island. I look forward to signing the Reproductive Health Care Act as quickly as the legislature can pass it.”

Stark contrasts
The stirring image of the 141 women standing together on stage at the ESPY award ceremony and being honored for their courage in speaking out in solidarity about sexual assault stood in stark contrast in many ways to the position taken by R.I. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who had resisted legislative efforts to codify a women’s right to an abortion in state law, calling such efforts as “irrelevant” and “divisive.”

“We’ve got important bills that are of concern to a lot of people, and I choose to concentrate on everything and not to utilize every drop, every ounce of oxygen on one particular issue which is not of consequence either way. For everybody that wants that, there’s almost someone that doesn’t want it, so it’s just divisive for no real end, no real benefit either way,” Mattiello said, explaining his position in a recent interview.

Being heard
On June 30, Cindi Lieve wrote an op-ed for The New York Times entitled, “Let’s Talk about My Abortion [and Yours].” In her piece, she argued for what she perceived as the need for women to be willing to step up and talk about their abortions, as a different kind of #MeToo movement.

In the aftermath of the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973, which made abortion legal in the U.S., Lieve wrote: “To be clear, women in the United States were still getting abortions; nearly one in four of us will have had one by age 45. They just aren’t talking about it.”

In her piece, Lieve also asked “But would it be quite so easy to demonize this common experience if it were clear that the women who have gone through it include kindergarten teachers, clergywomen, Republicans, CEOs, the woman who served your coffee this morning, who cleans your house, who signs your paycheck, who patrols your neighborhood?”

Lieve quoted the activist Renee Bracy Sherman: “Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion. And if you think you don’t, they just haven’t shared their story with you yet.”

Just as ConvergenceRI believes it is the right of women to make their own health care decisions, and that such decisions are private matters, ConvergenceRI also believes it is the right of women to choose to talk about their abortions only if they choose to do so.

Turning the tables
However, ConvergeneRI wondered, what would happen if men in the political arena were to be asked to respond to the following questions:

How many women do you know who have had abortions?

How many women do you know who have had miscarriages?

How many women do you know who have been raped?

How many women do you know who have victims of childhood sexual abuse?

How many women do you know who have been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace?

By the numbers, the evidence suggests that more than a majority of woman in Rhode Island have had either an abortion, a miscarriage, been raped, been a victim of sexual assault or abuse, or been a victim of sexual harassment, regardless of race, creed, religion, color or economic status.

To think otherwise is to be willfully ignorant, a chronic condition which unfortunately continues to afflict many men.

Just the facts, sir
The numbers tell the story, even if many men may have a hard time hearing or acknowledging the facts.

Abortions are commonplace in Rhode Island. In the last 10 years, between 2007 and 2017, there were 31,406 “induced termination occurrences” by Rhode Island residents and another 7,464 by out of state residents, according to the R.I. Department of Health Center Records.

Over that 10-year period, the annual number of abortions has dropped from 4,820 in 2007 to 1,989 in 2017. [What the reasons are for that drop is worthy of some research: was it a result better access to preventive women’s health care and birth control under the Affordable Care Act?

Miscarriages are commonplace in Rhode Island. They are considered “spontaneous fetal deaths” in the dataset kept by the R.I. Department of Health. In 2015, there were 819; in 2016, 747; and, in 2017, 957. However, many miscarriages may go unreported.

To put those numbers in context, between 2012 and 2016, there were 53,752 births, according to the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, an average of about 10,550 births a year.

In 2014, there were approximately 220,111 women between the ages of 14 and 44, and there were 10,823 births; in 2017, there were 10,050 births.

Of all clinical pregnancies, 15 to 20 percent end in miscarriages, according to Women & Infants Hospital Fertility Center.

Translated, every year, 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriages, in addition to the number of births recorded.

Rape and sexual assault are commonplace in Rhode Island. It is estimated that 1 in 8 women have been sexually assaulted during their lifetime in Rhode Island, according to Day One, an agency that is specifically organized to deal with issues of sexual assault as a community concern.

About 44 percent of rape victims are under age 18, and 80 percent are under age 30, according to Day One. More than 59 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported to police. And, almost 9 percent of Rhode Island’s high school students reported that they had experienced sexual violence by someone they were dating or going out with in the last 12 months, according to a 2013 survey.

Another way to calculate the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in Rhode Island is to look at the work of Sojourner House, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, during which time the agency has served approximately 60,000 victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence in Rhode Island. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “We do not just grow old, and yes, we persist.”]

Childhood abuse and sexual assault are common in Rhode Island. In 2017 in Rhode Island, there were 2,404 indicated investigations of child abuse and neglect involving 3,357 children, according to the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook.

In Rhode Island in 2017, there were 169 indicated allegations [confirmed claims] of child sexual abuse.

Perhaps even more telling, children were present in 28 percent during domestic violence events resulting in arrests in 2015, according to the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. And, when firearms are present in a domestic violence situation, women are five times more likely to die, according to reports. Between 2006-2015, 42 percent of Rhode Island women killed by intimate partners were shot to death, according to the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook.

When will men step up to the plate?
Lee Clasper-Torch, the men’s engagement coordinator at the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, believes that men need to pay attention and take responsibility for their actions.

“We believe that domestic violence and sexual assault are essentially men’s issues,” Clasper-Torch told ConvergenceRI. “Labeling them ‘women’s issues’ or ‘gender issues’ gives men an excuse and cover not to pay attention. Men need to pay attention, and take responsibility.”

As the coordinator for the statewide Ten Men initiative at the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Clasper-Torch explained that the effort has the explicit purpose of engaging and mobilizing male community leaders to break the silence about men’s violence against women.

“Sexual assault can – and is often – used by domestic violence abusers as a tactic of power and control,” he said. “While most men are not violent, most men remain disturbingly unaware and silent. Such silence becomes the voice of complicity.”

In its recent Community Attitudes Survey conducted by Ten Men, men shared that they were very likely to intervene if they witness physical violence against women, but extremely unlikely to intervene if they witnessed or heard derogatory or sexist comments about women,” according to Clasper-Torch. “We need men to be active bystanders on all levels.”

To Clasper-Torch, it is extremely important for men to step up and take responsibility – not only for being more fully aware of the “levels of sexual violence occurring in RI” – but also for actually working to change the culture of men’s attitudes and actions toward women and girls that accepts and perpetuates such sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

Your father should know
How would men, particularly men running for political office in Rhode Island [and news reporters], respond to the above questions?

In asking such direct questions of men, the desire is not to violate the privacy of any individuals, men or women, but to point out the fact that most men are oblivious and tone deaf when it comes to the realities of sexual politics.

When will men be ready to have an honest dialogue about the consequences of sexual violence, to grasp the prevalence of abortion and miscarriages, to understand the importance of protecting reproductive health care rights for women, and to take responsibility for their own actions? Good questions.

The wake-up call for that conversation may come on Election Day in 2018.

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