Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sex and violence

It has been a long while since I felt like writing something about this issue. Recent events have been a goad, and a sort of coming-to-terms with things in my life which have taken a lot of years to work through. The two recent events which really affected my reflecting on the issue were the arrest in NY of Doninique Strauss-Kahn, a senior diplomatic person for the IMF, who was charged with raping a maid in a hotel in NY. He was lead off the airplane in handcuffs, just before the plane was going to take off for France. The first response from France that we were told was that they thought he was "set up" for this, in order to put someone else into the top job at the IMF. The woman who was assaulted was a widow, an immigrant from an African country, and her religion is Islamic. She did not know the name or position of the person she accused. To my mind, it was almost miraculous that the hotel staff and police believed her, and arrested him so promptly.
The second case, following closely on the first, was the revelation of an affair between Governor Schwartzenegger and a housekeeper, and having had a child with this woman, who is almost the same age as his youngest child with Maria Shriver Schwartzenegger. The most interesting fact in this case, to me, was that Mr. Schwartenegger's son Patrick has said he wants to change his name to Shriver, to distance himself from his father.
Just prior to these two cases, about a week ahead of them, there was a front page article about rape in the Peace Corps, and the article said that the Foreign Affairs committee in the Senate was looking into this issue, to try to see if the Peace Corps was not properly protecting the women who serve in it, as the average number of rapes each year among volunteers is 22.
One of my physician colleagues asked incredulously whether such a thing had ever happened to me, assuming I would say no. I told him, and another doctor friend, about the case that happened to me, in Paraguay, 40 years ago. I was coming home from a far rural farming cluster of homes to our county seat, after giving a "health" talk related to my work as a health educator in a country town. On a rainy night, I was the only passenger, and was assaulted in the bus at gunpoint, by the bus driver. He temporarily went insane, as far as I could discern, and was not reachable by normal communication means. The doors were locked, and I tried to break a window, but couldn't. What ended up saving me was the reflex of defecating in my pants as he was forcibly removing them, as I was scared and fighting. I got him to let me out of the bus, and went back to the nearest farm house. I was helped to get home the next day by the good folks there. The town and my Paraguayan family were very kind, and I kept shaking and falling apart, but I was believed and supported. I had a good reputation as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and it was in my favor, that the people would believe that it was not something I brought upon myself. The lawyers and policemen and the Peace Corps officers all asked gently whether I would be willing to stay in the country, to try to help prosecute the case: and more than punishing the man, try to get a law passed, to prohibit rape in the country. Up until that time, there was no such law on the books, and the Peace Corps was trying to make them put a law in place, which would help other volunteers. As things turned out, when I left the country several months later, the law had not yet been passed, and we all thought the effort had been futile.
As everyone who knows me knows, I became a physician, an OB-GYN. I partly got this vocation out of the intent and desire to help serve other women who had been so traumatized with rape. Soon, I participated as a health educator in conferences which had to do with sexual violence of all kinds, including both rape and incest. As a physician, when I was an intern, I worked in a hospital in New York which had an average of 10 rapes a night come through our Emergency Room. We had a specific rape kit protocol, and advocates and well-trained and gentle police-women to help the victims go through this protocol of trying to get evidence which could be used in court. We would do our best to soothe them. I was able to understand why so many had become eerily numb and unable to emote. Now, in our hospitals, we have advocates who stay with the victims and they get automatic follow-up counseling, but in the early days there was no automatic referral process, or services provided.
The cases I have seen in my office are much fewer, than in those early days in an inner city hospital. I have tried to be as compassionate as possible, and also always to start the interview with the line "it also happened to me". Women are comforted to know someone else has had this happen, and gotten through it. It is important to share that with help, we can get past this trauma, but acknowledge that it will take time, and that it is ok to need a lot of reassurance, and back-up for safety.
So this is the background story for my facing these two recent cases. And I thought a lot about men in power, and men who take for granted that they can have sexual access to someone besides their wife, besides someone they might pay for this.
In Paraguay, after I left, the little daughter in my Paraguayan family grew up to be a psychologist, who teaches about rape and sexual assault, and women's rights, at the university in the capitol. And there are laws now, and my town has had a Peace Corps volunteer in it continuously for over 40 years. The modelling that we began has born good fruit, in the mores of the country. So, it seemed to me, that Peace Corps volunteers over the years may have made an immense contribution in helping women in rural and poor countries all over the world to live safer from this sort of violence. And if we helped the women, we most likely also helped the men and boys. Because some of the rapes which occur happen to young men. And it is often incest, but sometimes it is not a family member who is the attacker.
I know an American midwife who was in the Peace Corps in Yemen in 1980. She confirmed that a young woman was pregnant, with a fetal heart-beat, not a tumor in the belly. The young woman walked out of the clinic where my friend worked, and was stoned to death by the townspeople, right in front of her eyes. The young woman's father was the first to throw a stone. We cannot believe these things can still be happening, in the world we know, but they are.
When thinking about Strauss-Kahn, and his assumption that his behavior was normal or ok, I keep thinking that most likely he also was abused as a child; because relief from abuse sometimes comes from becoming the abuser, pushing the identity of the abused off onto another person. And most likely it is a long-standing pattern.
And then there is the Schwartzenegger case. It is interesting that the woman in the case is a domestic worker. I lived in Mexico, as well as in Paraguay, and it was often the case that the maids were the sexual outlet for the men in the family who hired her. Because people seldom divorced, these liasons were tolerated, over-looked, born by the women in the family as a sort of way to keep the family stability. One did not discuss the subject. If a maid got pregnant, she was sent back home with some hush-money.
What is the underlying reason that these men felt they could have access to these women? My nephew recently asked whether prostitution could be the cause. I think prostitution takes advantage of the behavior of the men, because the women and the children need the money to buy food and shelter, and the necessities of life. If a woman is not married, she may not have an income sufficient to pay the bills, and until the past 50 years, there was no dependable contraception, and often the women couldn't afford it, even if it were there. Even if a woman is married, if her husband can not get enough income to pay the bills, she may consider prostitution to supplement the income, and meet the children's needs, especially if she has no other skills.
Jim Wallis, at Sojourners, recently wrote a blog, saying he believes that until good men start speaking up, saying it is reprehensible behavior, some men will continue to be promiscuous. When other men do not approve of the behavior, we actually will have social opprobrium, to help back up laws proscribing the behavior, and punishing it. But the best answer to reducing and hopefully over time eliminating these behaviors, will be the social opprobrium of good, wholesome men.
I am a Catholic, and I have deplored and been ashamed and confounded by the ongoing revelations of clergy sexual abuse of children. I have hoped for 30 years or more that Cardinal Bernardin's rules would be put in place, to protect children within the Catholic church from this most heinous ruin of the trust of children by men who are supposed to be working for God. But I know that it occurs in other religions, and in people with no religions, and that society needs to root it out, and stop it, because these pederasts are the true bogey-men who are destroying the next generation of children. Our laws need to be clear in respect for all persons, and we need to stop the violence. Violence which is sexually-focused is always destructive, and it destroys and cripples for decades and often whole lives of the people who experience it.
Stopping the violence, and keeping the offenders safe from themselves, is of utmost urgency in every land, every culture, every society. We cannot leave it to their self-discipline, because they are crippled emotionally in this issue, and do not HAVE any appropriate self-discipline. They must be kept apart from the people they might abuse.
One of the most profoundly lovely things that happened in the Jasmine revolution in Egypt was the rescue of an American journalist woman, who was being attacked and stripped by a maddened crowd, who seemingly intended to tear her apart. The women surrounded her and covered her naked body with their huddling, soothing presence, making a wall of themselves between her and the abusers. Would this were the way we take care of all women who have been subjected to sexual violence! Unfortunately in many places, women and men are still being stoned to death for being the victims of this crime. And children are being infinitely hurt, sometimes in repetitive cases, in or out of brothels, with or without being "paid" for their enduring the unendurable.