The media is inundated with stories about sexual harassment involving public figures. These stories are not new news; sexual harassment, assault, and abuse of females are sorry chapters within the patchwork history of the human condition. Sexualization of girls and women can have unexpected long-term results that derail lives: it can result in victims’ being incarcerated in a system of blind justice.
A vocabulary primer is helpful for grasping the magnitude of the problems:
- Sexual Abuse. As defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), sexual abuse
is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent. Most victims and perpetrators know each other. Immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Sexual Harassment. The S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) definition includes the following elements:
- It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
- Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
- Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
- Sexual Assault. The S. Department of Justice (DOJ) defines sexual assault as
any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities [such] as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.
In Directions in Sexual Harassment Law, Reva B. Siegel looks at sexual harassment since the antebellum period. Before, during, and after the Civil War “Americans often blamed women’s sexual predicament on women themselves; both slaves and domestic servants were often judged responsible for their own ‘downfall’ because they were promiscuous by nature.” According to Siegel, the historical mindset on sexual harassment and rape was based on a male-propagated assumption “that women in fact wanted the sexual advances and assaults that they claimed injured them” (emphasis in original).
Evolved human thinking on the subject correctly labels sexually harassed and abused females (and males) as victims, thereby rejecting the offensively stupid rationale that any person would welcome a forced sexual encounter or a hostile sexualized work environment. No one welcomes or encourages sexual assault or comments that are received as sexualized barbs that cause emotional pain and unstable work, social, or educational environments. In the current me, too environment of victims of sexual marauders, men’s attitudes and conduct toward females has to be changed on a personal and a mental health level.
The unevolved contemporary thinking about sexual allegations is equivocal and categorizes as untrue allegations unless proven to the doubter. What is the standard of proof? The notion that if it’s true if proven, then some action should be taken against the perpetrator, aligns with the stupid idea that victims want sexual advances and assaults. How many victims’ contextually corroborating experiences does it take to shift doubt to acknowledgment?
How Many Victims?
While the media reports of harassment and sexual abuse focus light on complaints against politicians, actors, and corporate moguls, what is the scope of the conduct upon girls and women in this country who are victimized by men who don’t hit the media’s radar? What’s the connection between the ugly sexualization of girls and women and female incarceration?
According to a recent fact sheet produced by the Sentencing Project, “The number of women in prison has been increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than men since 1980. Women in prison often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV, and substance abuse problems.” The number of women in state and federal prisons in 2015 was 111,495.
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) July 2015 update sheds light on why incarceration of women has increased so rapidly: physical and sexual violence in childhood and domestic violence—now referred to as intimate partner violence—in adulthood. Here’s a sampling of the findings:
- Experiences of physical or sexual violence in childhood are reported by approximately 60–70% of incarcerated women or girls.
- Experiences of adulthood intimate partner violence are reported by approximately 70–80% of incarcerated women.
- There are multiple pathways from victimization to incarceration among women and girls:
- Many of the behaviors that lead to arrest and incarceration of women and girls . . . includ[e] running away/fleeing, self-medicating with drugs to dull psychological and physical pain, and using violence in defense or retaliation.
- Victimization can lead to economic strain and limited opportunities for financial independence, leaving women and girls to engage in criminalized activities such as drug sales, commercial sex work, and theft or fraud.
- Bias and prejudice may increase vulnerability to incarceration among women and girls who are homeless, experiencing mental distress, and using substances, all of which are associated with victimization, as well as those who are marginalized through race, ethnicity, immigration status, and other demographic factors.
If It’s True
The idea that it’s true only if there’s credible evidence of wrongdoing harkens back to the wretched rationale of a female’s wanting the sexual advances/harassment. This view attempts to trump the accusers’ experiences with a verbal middle finger. The research supporting the link between women’s abuse histories as a risk factor for ending up in prison speaks to the far-reaching impact of sexualizing girls and women.
The abuse creates a pathway of devastation that calls for looking at how the criminal justice system’s policies and practices fail to recognize the relevance of victimization in the context of women’s and girls’ behaviors and experiences. Judges should be able to consider the role of domestic violence during sentencing, including for the murder of a battering, abusive spouse. Courts should be allowed the discretion to bypass mandatory minimums set by the state and to give abuse survivors shorter sentences or let them avoid prison by sentencing them to alternative programs.
A recent People article focused on Wendy Maldonado, who spent a decade in prison for killing her abusive husband. Wendy’s is a macabre, heartbreaking story indicative of the Catch-22 situation women all over the world find themselves in for desperately killing a villain that, in so many cases, puts women and their children at risk of death.
The judge who sentenced Wendy said on the record that it was “the worst case of domestic violence that any of us has seen.” By her own report, Wendy had “no choice but to kill her husband, Aaron, after enduring years of relentless, sadistic abuse that included regularly being strangled until she blacked out and having 17 teeth knocked out. Using the if-it’s-true qualifier, we’ve got to ask what’s wrong with a system that sentences a woman such as Wendy to serve a decade in prison for self-defense.
Your comments and thoughts are always welcome.
- Please see Pass the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act at org. Being pregnant while in prison can be a horrifying and deadly experience.
- In my September 14, 2017, post Ban the Box, I wrote about the pressing need to pass California’s AB 1008 that would eliminate a job application question of whether the applicant had ever been convicted of a felony. On October 14, 2017, California passed AB 1008 when Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law.
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