Know Power So You Can Challenge Power

I had the pleasure of hearing Robert Caro, historian extraordinaire, speak two nights ago. Caro’s most famous book is The Power Broker, rightly described by the author as a study of how power works in the form of a biography of Robert Moses. If you want to truly understand how power is wielded by those in authority in the United States, I can’t say enough about how important it is to read this book. I first read it in college, and it blew me away then. Ten years later I now work in government in Albany (where much of the action of the book takes place), and all I can say is that now I know from experience that it is the best thing you’ll ever read to understand how our government – and, really, power in any institutional setting in the U.S. – really works.

So for all of you looking to more effectively speak truth to power, pick up The Power Broker over Winter Break (it’s not, admittedly, the shortest book you will ever read at around 1300 pages, but very worth the time) and start thinking about how you can apply its lessons to your campus when you get back in January.

Student Kicks Ass, Police and Newspaper Not So Much

Last week, a freshman at the University of Florida rescued another woman from a man trying to rape her. The freshman saw the crying woman walking down the street, trying to get away from a man following her. The student pulled the other woman into her car, locked the doors, rolled up the windows and sped away. The other woman had managed to escape from the car of the man after he attacked her, but no one else had intervened to help her as she tried to get away.

Impressive and quick thinking action on the part of the freshman, the sort of bystander behavior that should be celebrated as heroic and a model to emulate, right? And I’m pretty sure that’s how it would have gotten talked about if she had been a man.

Now turn to the actual article. It does pretty well for most of the first two pages, recounting what happens and giving voice to the heroic freshman. Then you hit this quote from the university police:

“Her actions contributed greatly to minimize the threat that was posed by this individual,” Barber said. “Individuals who provide assistance of this nature certainly need to bear in mind the potential dangers that they face when engaging in that activity.”

Well, yes, helping somebody out always has risks, but the freshman was in her car and had her wits about her, so I’m not sure how high the risks really were. More importantly, is that what you would have said if the freshman was a man, Mr. Barber?

Then you hit page three of the article, which is all about how women should know better than to drink or talk to strange men, and blaming a culture that encourages women to drink too much. Really, if you had to take the article to a blaming place, how about blaming the four other people who were on the street when the freshman noticed the woman needed help, and did nothing? How about asking what the patrons of the bar could have done differently to intervene when the woman appeared too drunk to make it home safely by herself? How about blaming the attacker and the culture that says it is ok for him to take advantage of someone’s drunkenness to rape them, a culture this article encourages by putting all the blame on her?

Or how about staying in a place that focuses on women’s strength. Acknowledge the power and strength of the woman who was initially attacked, but who, despite her trauma and her inebriation, succeeded in fending the attacker off, getting out of his car, and making it to a place public enough that people were around who could help her. Acknowledge how awesome the freshman rescuer is – her willingness to risk her own safety to help another, her knowledge of the importance of getting the woman to a hospital, her thoughtful and well-phrased attempts to control the narrative of the event against our cultural narratives of victim-blaming, her commitment to doing the right thing as a bystander. Talk about how other women (and men) could step up to help when they see sexual violence or potential sexual violence happening in front of them. Remember that women are often the knight in shining armor who comes to someone else’s rescue, and celebrate their heroics the same way you would a man’s.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

SAFER reached their online fundraising goal last night! (And even went a tiny bit over!)

Thank you so much to all of you who so generously contributed. Your contributions will help train college activists across the country, so that they can engage their communities and institutions to more effectively prevent and respond to sexual assault.

Real change comes from the ground up, but a little bit of fertilizer and water (in the form of trainings, materials, and mentors) helps change grow faster and stronger. So thank you for supporting SAFER’s mission to strengthen change and empower our next generation of leaders!

Pastor Who Humilated Raped Girl Removed from University Board

Thanks to an outpouring of outrage led by former students, The Rev. Charles Phelps has stepped down as a member of the Board of Bob Jones University. Phelps was the pastor of a church in New Hampshire when a church member in his late 30s confessed to raping a 15 year old girl, also a member of the church, who was impregnated by the rapist. Phelps forced the girl, Tina Anderson (who has asked that her name and story be shared to help others) to apologize for HER behavior in front of the whole church, and then sent her out of state, away from family and friends, to have the child and give it up for adoption. Now an adult, Anderson has bravely pushed for accountability for the crimes committed against her, and this year, her rapist was finally convicted – but until now Phelps remained on the board of Bob Jones, a major Baptist university.

“Growing up in the church, you respect the people that teach you, and to see them so grossly mishandle a 15-year-old is just angering,” said Christine Corneau, of Bristol.

Corneau is a former member of the church and a former student at BJU in South Carolina, where until Thursday, Phelps had served as a member of the school’s Board of Trustees.

Corneau and many others had taken to social networking sites, calling on BJU to remove Phelps.

Check out I Support Tina Anderson for more on the story and to see one of the petitions that helped push Phelps out. This is a great reminder that alumni can be an important source of change for their colleges and universities – your former school relies on your support, so make your voice heard!

38 Hours Left to Help Fund Student Activism

SAFER’s online fundraising campaign is winding down, and they are getting close to their goal. Please join us and help fund trainings for student activists trying to change their campuses sexual assault policies. Below is the email that I sent to all of my friends, asking them to give – will you send an email of your own explaining why you read this blog and donate to SAFER?:

Please forgive the mass email, but SAFER, an organization to which I am deeply attached and whose work I am very proud of, is close to making or breaking the mark in their annual online fundraising campaign. Won’t you please consider giving? $12 or $25 goes a long way with an almost entirely volunteer-run organization. For those who have already given, thank you! Will you please consider forwarding this request along to others who might be supporters? For those (Katie!) who have already forwarded, thank you for beating me to the punch!

Right before Thanksgiving, I was at a screening of Miss Representation, and met two young women from the Albany area. When I started to mention SAFER as an organization to check out, one of them said to me, “I refer people to SAFER all the time, they have the best messaging materials on sexual assault prevention I’ve seen.” Not bad for an organization that operates on less than $40,000 a year!

The Penn State and Syracuse scandals of the last few weeks have really highlighted why SAFER exists – universities (and, quite frankly, most of our institutions) still don’t really get that they have a responsibility to stop sexual violence. Will you please make a donation to support all of the students all across the country (from Redwood, CA to SUNY Purchase) who are working to change that?



Public Policy Opportunity for Student Activists

The Drum Major Institute is recruiting the next generation of policy

The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy created DMI Scholars to identify
progressive college activists from underrepresented communities and train
them in the skills necessary to succeed in entry-level public policy
positions. We are pleased to announce that applications are now available
for the 2012 Class of DMI Scholars! To apply, please download the
application here:

*DMI Scholars is a “Public Policy 101” for young people who want to keep
our country moving forward.* Our two-week DMI Scholars Summer Institute
will be in New York City during Summer 2012. There, Scholars will learn to
approach problems through a policy lens and meet people on the frontlines
fighting for fair and just public policy. After our intensive summer
training, we will help students throughout the year explore careers in the
field through internships and follow-up trainings.

With DMI’s network and expertise, DMI Scholars will become the future
Legislative Directors, Policy Analysts and Advisors who fuel the
progressive movement with new ideas and effective advocacy.

Applicants should be sharp, creative college sophomores and juniors with a
passion for changing the world, strong communication skills, and an
interest in exploring public policy as a vehicle for their activism. We
strongly encourage students of color, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ
community and students from low-income and working class backgrounds to
apply. All expenses are paid.

* *

*Application deadline: January 31, 2012.*

Download the application at To apply, please send application materials to

Bystanders, authority figures, colleges, and sex abusers

I’m certainly not saying anything new when I say that among the most troubling parts of the situations being revealed at Penn State and Syracuse is the silence of people who should have known better when faced with allegations of the sexual abuse of a child. The revelations from Syracuse this week that the (former) police chief knew that an accusation had been made in 2002 and did nothing to investigate only add to the sense of disbelief many people feel – how can people charged with protecting public safety so willfully disregard the safety of children? While the investigations, not just of the alleged crimes, but also of the failures to intervene, to report, to investigate, to care, need to continue, I think a fair measure of cultural soul-searching is also called for.

That colleges and universities ignore, discourage reporting of, or outright cover-up sexual assault and sexual abuse accusations is hardly news to SAFER. We’ve spent more than a decade helping students fight to get their campuses to develop a culture of doing the right thing when it comes to sexual assault, so we know how hard it is. We know how much silence there has been, and how hard it has been for survivors. By coincidence, Syracuse’s first basketball game since Bernie Fine was fired was against Eastern Michigan, which gained some notoriety a few years ago when they were slapped with the largest fine levied to date against a university for its failures to comply with basic campus safety laws. EMU lied to the campus community about the death of a student who had been raped and murdered on campus, knowing that the assailant was most likely another student, for two months.

Many factors allow this behavior, and I want to explore a few of them, because I don’t believe that university presidents or coaches or police chiefs are unusual in their willingness to turn a blind eye to sexual abuse. I think that we all run the risk of being like them, and while that does not in any way absolve them of blame, it does obligate us to question ourselves. We all need to think through now what we would do if someone told us they had been raped, so that we are ready to do the right thing when it happens. What that right thing is may depend on the situation (any accusation of sexual abuse of a child should be promptly reported to the police – depending on your job and your state, not doing so could be a crime in and of itself), but start with believing the survivor who is talking to you.

1) Suspicion of accusers. We have whole boatloads of false cultural tropes around the idea that people (especially women) lie about being raped – people throw “Duke lacrosse” at us all the time as if those two words somehow conclusively proves that there is no rape on college campuses – even though research funded by the US Department of Justice suggests that the false reporting rate for sexual assault is lower than it is for some other crimes, and that when false reports are made they almost never involve an identified assailant known to the survivor.

Where do these cultural tropes come from? Most rapists are men, men have historically controlled our media, and still largely do, and (see point 2 below) people in power tend to believe and support other people like them in power more often than not.

Sexual predators also deliberately prey on those least likely to be believed – the Penn State case has drawn national attention to these kinds of behaviors, where vulnerable children without strong support networks and from the kinds of class backgrounds looked down on or belittled by many Americans are sought out by predators. In adult cases, in addition to targeting women whose race or class may isolate them on campus, predators also look for those struggling with mental illness or substance abuse or a history of being abused – and then will use those challenges to undermine survivors’ accusations if they do report.

Moreover, being abused or assaulted can create mental health challenges that cause behaviors that we then interpret as reducing an accuser’s “credibility.” To cope with the stress of an attack, your mind can suppress some or all of the memories of the event for varying lengths of time. Being assaulted can lead to low self-esteem, substance abuse, depression, and other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It can take survivors months or years to face what happened to them and to have the courage to report it, and they may not remember all the details fully when they do.

I think there is also a, very human, desire to distance ourselves from these kind of horrific events. “If it could happen to him it could happen to me or my child” is a very scary thought, so we create reasons why that couldn’t be the case, reasons that push blame onto the survivor and distinguish “them” from “us.” He wanted it. She was drunk. He’s just seeking attention. She’s making it up to cover up for her bad behavior. Unacceptable, but an understandable impulse we all have to challenge within ourselves.

Much uglier, and almost as deep, however, is the sexism and homophobia that undergird so many of the dismissals of accusations of sexual violence. Far, far too many people, sometimes consciously, more often unconsciously, treat women and gay men as unreliable narrators of their own experiences. They cling to ideas of (straight) men being more truthful than women, of women and gay men “crying rape” vindictively or for attention, of women and gay men “leading him on” or “giving mixed signals.” Our cultural homophobia and sexism runs deep enough that too often we push these stereotypes onto abused children, as seems to have happened at Penn State and Syracuse, and in plenty of other instances as well.
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Thank you

My inbox has been filled the last few days with thank you messages from not-for-profits and candidates I support, and I realized that, as corny as they are, I want to send a thank you too to all of the SAFER folks.

Working with SAFER has been one of the best parts of my life over the last few years, a volunteer experience that truly changed who I am and what I can do. It is so inspiring to know how many inspiring people there are around the corner, across the state, or a phone call away. I am constantly amazed by the work that students are doing on their campuses – the energy, the commitment, the creativity, the conviction blow me away. You are all making your corners of our world better every day, and I thank you for it.


It never ceases to amaze me – among the many, many things that constantly amaze me about living in the middle of a conservative backlash – that I got better sex ed as part of a state-mandated curriculum in VIRGINIA twenty years ago than most people in public schools anywhere get now. It wasn’t particularly insightful or feminist or anything (and at the time it seemed pretty limited), but it didn’t tell you that you were likely to die if you had sex outside of marriage, it didn’t lie about the effectiveness of birth control, it didn’t engage in slut-shaming or normalize “date rape,” it didn’t reinforce dangerous and out-dated gender norms, and it presumed that we would be making decisions about sex, so we best have a little bit of information to make those decisions with.

This Sunday the NY Times had a fascinating article about sex ed in a Quaker school in Pennsylvania that sounds like the best sex ed being offered in the country right now. Imagine treating sex as something pleasurable that also has some risks and teenagers as people with complex thought processes and desires, and then trying to figure out what kind of information will help them be happy with whatever decisions they make about sex.

Lots of things worth reading in the article, but I wanted to borrow the metaphor that Al Vernacchio, the teacher of the class, tries to instill in his students for talking about sex. Rather than baseball, he suggests pizza. Imagine what a difference it would make in our culture if we substituted two boys high-fiving in the locker room over “we agreed on mushrooms for the pizza last night” or “my girlfriend wanted mushrooms on our pizza last night” or even “I talked my girlfriend into trying mushrooms on the pizza last night” for “I got to third base last night.”

Pizza toppings are up for discussion and compromise, as you try to figure out a pizza order that will satisfy both people. There’s no shame attached to liking or disliking a particular topping. There’s no competition, no way to “win” at pizza ordering. And we’d all think it was pretty damn rude to order a pizza without checking in with the other person about what they wanted. Sounds like a pretty healthy metaphor to me.