Category Archives: Feminism

Telling women not to go out to avoid rape isn’t about safety. It’s about restricting women’s freedom. Here’s why.

 

 

We’re into Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale (which I’m not yet watching, but I’ve just read the book. Aside: Is it weird that the show has already gone past the book in terms of June’s pregnancy?) And I’m seeing lots of posts from Americans about how the show “is slowly happening in real life”. The parallels regarding forced breeding are obvious. But there are other issues: reading, writing, socialising and freedom of movement. They’re all things that the Handmaids aren’t allowed to do. States like Saudi Arabia restrict women’s movement. Yes, the driving ban has been lifted. But women still aren’t allowed to leave the house, work, or apply for a driving license without being accompanied by, or having permission from, a male relative. But restricting women’s movement doesn’t just happen in The Handmaids Tale or Saudi Arabia. There are ways of restricting movement that are enforced  by social means instead of legal. Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the experiences of women outside states like Saudi Arabia or Gilead are in any way comparable to the experiences of those within. I mention the above two states- one fictional, one factual- to make the point that women’s movement can be subject to legal control. The remainder of this article will focus on the use of social control to achieve similar ends.

Western society pressures women to restrict their movements for fear of sexual assault: don’t walk alone, avoid quiet places, don’t travel alone, don’t go there wearing that, don’t walk home, stay in a group, don’t go out in the dark, don’t visit certain neighbourhoods/parks/bars/cities/countries. From the time they are little girls without even a clear idea of what sex crimes are, they’re indoctrinated to believe they are easy prey- weak, vulnerable, too wimpy to ever hope to defend themselves. Girls are taught to regard themselves as potential victims. Many learn also to regard boys and men as potential criminals- a tad unfair when only 6% of men are rapists (and those tend to be violent in general, not just towards women). Worst of all, women have to expend time and effort in (definitely) trading freedom for (only possibly) avoiding rape. Their dedication is often unnoticed by society.  The genius of social control is that, unlike legal control, no effort is needed. Social control tricks women into doing the work of legislators, courts and police by restricting themselves.

Gillian Flynn, author of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, summed it up in this interview:

“I talk to men all the time who try to make light of women’s situations, and I say, ‘Well, you don’t understand a woman’s day-to-day life. You don’t have to walk through your day saying, ‘Okay well tonight, I’m going to go to this thing, and if I park here, I hope I don’t get raped.’ You know, that never ever crosses your mind.
“I’m not someone who’s a panicky person or nervous about that thing, but you still have to be conscious of that possibility. All women — half our population — have to be conscious of that idea. I was at a hotel the other night, and I thought, ‘God I’d love to go for a run, but gosh, I probably shouldn’t.’I’m peeking out of the hotel window and thinking, if I do that and I get raped, no one’s gonna feel sorry for me. It’s not well-lit, and they’re gonna go, ‘What was she doing out there anyway?’”

 

People who tell women to restrict their movement- parents, teachers, and police being the main ones- will say they’re just trying to prevent women from being raped.

But being on high alert about men is unlikely to help women avoid sexual assault since they’re unlikely to meet a rapist. 90% of rape victims are attacked by people they know, not by strangers in the dark. As confirmed by ONS statistics, women are most likely to be raped in their own homes by their partners, so they’re actually safer going out than staying inside. Furthermore, when the rapist is a partner, there is additional trauma, increased risk of physical injury as well as a risk of multiple assaults. So intimate partner violence in the home should be the priority in rape prevention instead of stranger rape in the street.  Even in those rare stranger-rape cases, brainwashing girls to believe in their frailty and admit defeat in advance instead of teaching them self-defence skills to thwart rape attempts and psychological resilience skills to recover from such attempts and completed rapes, is also a questionable tactic. Instead of teaching teenagers recovery skills society models victim-blaming, thereby instilling self-blame and shame. Instead of encouraging information-sharing about sexual predators so women can protect themselves by avoiding known offenders, #MeToo is decried as “going too far” by naming abusers instead of keeping rapists’ secrets. Instead of encouraging girls to learn to defend themselves and making such classes accessible to adult women who are interested, martial arts and strength training are often viewed as male sports. In fact, stopping women from going out actually makes the streets less safe because they’ll be deserted. Only sketchy characters will be outside. There’ll be no crowds, no witnesses. Encouraging people to step out will increase safety. So we’re actually doing this all wrong.

 

Figure 10_ Victim-offender relationship for rape or assault by penetration (including attempts) experienced since age 16 by women aged 16 to 59

However, just because restriction of movement is not the best anti-rape strategy, that doesn’t by itself prove that restriction of movement is nothing to do with safety. We could just be trying to achieve safety in an incompetent way. The proof is this: if motivation to restrict women’s freedom is to protect them, because one incident of sexual assault is so very, very bad that it’s worth sacrificing your freedom for your entire lifetime to avoid, why isn’t sexual assault taken seriously when it happens? Why do friends victim blame? Why do schools do cover-ups and universities ignore it? Why do parents not take it seriously? Why do communities take the rapist’s side? Why are conviction rates so low? Police, juries, communities, institutions, and families do not take sex crimes seriously. They also demonstrate little empathy or belief towards the victim. Sometimes, the blame and/or shame is placed on the victim instead of the rapist, including by women. Those responses are utterly inconsistent with the idea of sexual assault being insufferable for women. Victim blaming, rape apologism, minimising and disbelief are inconsistent with the idea of sexual assault being even slightly upsetting. So, they can’t regard sexual assaults as all that bad. Therefore, “safety” is just an excuse. It’s not about rape being this supremely unbearable thing we must relentlessly sacrifice everything to avoid. It’s about controlling women.

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Source: baucemag.com

Now let’s look at society’s attitudes to rape in more detail. We’ll start at the national level (laws, policing, criminal compensation and courts), then the community level (the general public, institutions- with a focus on schools and universities- and families. In all of these tiers, the comparison will be between the attitudes which are professed (“rape is bad”) and the reality of how rape is perceived and dealt with (usually, “rape isn’t a big deal”). Obviously this is a generalisation and individuals do exist who take all sexual assaults very seriously indeed. I have met a few. In fact, without some people who take rape seriously there would be no laws against it, so the fact it’s a crime proves that not everyone is blase about it. These particular individuals’ motives to restrict women’s’ movement might well be genuine, unlike the motives of those who don’t take sex crimes seriously. However, we are interested in the big picture, in how our society functions.




The National Level

Laws

Not all sexual assaults are against the law. Upskirting isn’t. Revenge porn became illegal only a couple of years ago. Other countries used existing communications or sexual assault laws to target these behaviours, but the UK didn’t. It seems odd to tell women to repress themselves in order to avoid sexual assault, then skimp on the laws which could much more easily prevent it.

 

Police

Obviously the official position of all police forces is that sexual assaults are crimes. However, the police have been known to release public statements and posters which put the onus on women not to get raped, instead of on the perpetrators. Perhaps the most famous example is the “avoid dressing like sluts” speech which kicked off the SlutWalks. A lot of this material also gives the subtext of “make sure he rapes the other woman”. This is not stopping rape, it is in fact tolerant of rape. It’s also illogical from the police force’s point of view, as their job will be the same whether the rapist attacks Citizen A or Citizen B.

Reporting to the police is pointless for many victims, as the police drop most cases. On the TV programme Raped: My Story, a police officer claimed he “didn’t have the time” to talk to the witnesses and dropped the case. The victim contacted her MP and eventually the case was investigated, referred to the CPS, went to trial and her rapist was convicted. Had she listened to the officer, her case would’ve been dropped at the earliest stage. Another victim reported to the police and they told her it wasn’t rape. Rape Crisis encouraged her to report again through them. This time the police took the case, but by then the rapist had fled overseas and there wasn’t enough evidence to issue a European Arrest Warrant. I have heard of a friend of a friend who was raped in the west of central Scotland. When she went to report it, the officers insinuated it was her fault and asked what she was wearing or if she’d been drinking (with no reason; it wasn’t to do with CCTV or eyewitness reports). She left the station. The rapist is free to attack again. Only 1 in 14 reported rapes result in conviction. This begs the question of why anyone should bother to report at all. All most victims can hope for is to stress the rapist out by the possibility of charge or conviction. But this is at the expense of their own mental health. Even those with strong evidence who get justice have to go through an ordeal unlike any faced by victims of other crimes.

 

Court

In the UK, victims are the ones put on trial instead of rapists. Some victims find the court process even more terrible than the rape itself. Victims routinely face humiliating and irrelevant questions about their underwear, sex life and if they use sex toys. Campaigner Hannah Price explains that the court’s treatment of victims is the reason she will never report her rape, and quotes another victim who told her how her rapist’s lawyer caused her to break down begging for him to stop, resulting in the collapse of the trial.

While only 2% of rape allegations are false- no more than for other crimes, and less than most- victims risk being prosecuted for making false reports. The crime of making a false rape allegation carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. This is true even when they weren’t the person who called the police, and even when they didn’t name their rapist. (In fact, most false rape reports don’t name a perpetrator so nobody is affected). Vulnerable, mentally ill and teen victims are most likely to be prosecuted. And it’s money that talks. In one case that Buzzfeed investigated, the police believed the victim but didn’t have enough evidence to charge the rapist. The rapist- who had an uber-wealthy dad- funded a private prosecution against his victim for lying. When she asked the CPS to stop the case (they can stop private prosecutions if it doesn’t meet CPS thresholds for prosecuting), the CPS did the opposite- they saw the rapist had done all the work for them, so they adopted his case and prosecuted her themselves. This was despite knowing she had bipolar disorder and being warned that she was a suicide risk. She committed suicide out of fear of having her anonymity taken away. After her death, the police told her father she hadn’t lied and should never have been prosecuted.

 

Other agencies

In the USA, thousands of rape kits expired before forensic evidence could be gathered, due to lack of funds to test them. The statute of limitations for rape is so short in some US states- just two or three years- that even some kits which didn’t expire were tested too late for the rapist to be charged. Victims were called and told the identity of their rapist, and informed that it was too late to prosecute. Imagine being able to Google the person who raped you and know he got away with it. This funding issue isn’t the fault of the police, but it’s a national-level issue which highlights how unimportant sexual assault is to the American government. Rape victims in America also have to pay for emergency healthcare and forensic evidence collection, while victims of other crimes don’t have to pay. Therefore, sexual assault victims are treated worse than physical assault victims.

Going back to the UK, our Criminal Injuries Compensation Agency (CICA) refused to give compensation to grooming gang victims. This was despite the fact that the abusers were convicted of rape and other sexual assaults- and criminal compensation isn’t dependent on a guilty verdict. Its process is separate to the criminal justice system, so compensation can be given without the accused ever appearing in court. The victims were told that they had consented. New guidelines have been issued to prevent this, but the psychological harm has already been done. Especially considering that these girls were repeatedly failed by police, CPS and social services, whose negligence allowed the sex trafficking to continue for years.

So it’s clear that at the national level rape victims are constantly treated differently- and worse- than other crime victims. The police pretend to see rape as a crime, but their actions don’t deliver. The court’s purpose is to provide justice, but only 1 in 14 people gets justice. The court’s function toward raped women is to traumatise them further as a high price for justice or, more often, a high price for seeing their rapist walk free to rape again. Other agencies deny rape or fail to ensure rapists can be caught. Therefore, what these agencies say and what they do are very different. It is difficult to see in what way any of them are treating rape seriously.




Community Level 

There have been highly publicised cases in recent years, so here I will do little more than name-drop. The phenomenon of entire towns- sometimes including police forces- colluding to protect rapists and drive victims’ families out of town was exemplified by Steubenville, Maryville, and similar cases. Young peers’ slut shaming of underage victims was highlighted by Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicides. Sadly, the bullying they received seems to have been even more of a catalyst for their suicides than the abuse and rape were.

The public’s attitude to victims can be seen clearly in juries’ acquittal of most accused rapists. While people might act like they are opposed to rape, their actions don’t follow their words where it counts the most.

Therapists have also been found to blame both male and female rape victims.

Universities

Universities- including the UK’s top universities- ignore students’ rape reports and most have no reporting system available, refuse to do anything until it’s reported to the police, demand a criminal court standard of proof, or do not tell students they can report. British students are even less likely to be protected than their American counterparts. This is because we have no Title IX equivalent. Universities have no legal duty to deal with sexual assault or even accept a report.

Student welfare services sometimes victim blame survivors– treating them differently from non-survivors, whom they presumably support. I know of a case in which a victim was told over and over by a student welfare staff “you can’t call it rape”- even after the rapist confessed to said staff member. She was also initially refused counselling because “counselling wouldn’t help you, it’s all in your head, it’s to do with your thinking patterns”. The confessed rapist was offered counselling. (Four other students disciplined for non-crimes and minor crimes were not). The university refused to follow its own disciplinary policy by never making a decision on the rape case (allowing him to get away with it) and humiliating and blaming the victim in front of the rapist. All attempts to get justice, encourage the university to adhere to its policy, or raise the issue of victim-blaming were challenged by denying staff misconduct, denying the rape happened and additional victim blaming. After four months of waiting for the decision, the victim went to the vice-chancellor and was told that “this matter can no longer be talked about”. No apology was given for any of the multiple policy breaches or even for the agonising (and utterly pointless) four-month wait. The university has made no commitment to improving the way it handles sexual assault, nor has it updated its policy to reflect the reality that it will not handle any sexual assault cases. So a student reporting sexual assault is likely to believe the stated policy that it will be dealt with, but find instead that they are blamed or ignored and their rapist is the one who is protected. All of this happened at a university which touts itself as mental health positive and frequently stages publicity stunts regarding student mental health, such as provision of therapy animals and awareness talks- all covered in the media to promote an image of a caring institution. Obviously, it’s just a pretense to attract more students (it’s a small university). And it only takes one or two malicious employees to sabotage a well-meaning university’s welfare provision or disciplinary process. While some staff did try their best to support the student, this case illustrates that even in the most mental health aware universities, rape may not be taken seriously.

Cambridge openly disbelieved a victim and suggested she was lying to cover up cheating on her boyfriend- despite CCTV footage of the victim running down the street barefoot, crying and semi-naked. Only four British universities count rape as an extenuating circumstance if a survivor’s studies are affected, resulting in a student who was raped on her year abroad failing her exams. Reforms to support victims were drafted by UK Universities in 2016 but in March 2018, most universities hadn’t bothered to implement them. These are not the actions of institutions which care about raped students. That doesn’t mean individual staff don’t support students, or that some universities haven’t brought in new reporting systems. But it does mean that, in general, the institutional cultures of most universities are indifferent to- sometimes even strangely persecutory of- rape victims.

 

Schools

Schools have similar issues to universities. Refusal to deal with sexual assault, including cover-ups,  is not uncommon as shown by this list of cases reported in the media. In 2011 a 16 year old survivor was expelled from an American cheerleading squad for refusing to cheer her rapist. Peers can also drive survivors to suicide as mentioned above. 16-19 year old Brits are far more likely to victim blame than people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. This may be explainable by lack of maturity, developing cognitive abilities (psychological adolescence- i.e. brain development- continues until age 22) or lack of life experience. Whatever the cause, high levels of victim blaming in this group means that school-aged and younger undergraduate victims may be particularly vulnerable to victim blaming.

 

Friends

From the way most people react to rape on the news, you’d expect them to be empathetic towards friends who’ve gone through the same thing. But friends can victim blame. Victim blaming and disbelief by friends can lead survivors to believe it was their fault. Some survivors think the police will also blame them, so don’t report it. One survivor was told by her friends not to call the police- even though they completely believed her- because if she did, they wouldn’t be able to attend Glastonbury as one big group. These “friends” thought that not being split into two groups was more important than reporting rape. So much so, in fact, that they spent weeks threatening her.

My memories of the night were hazy; the drunken texts with other friends to come and save me, coupled with the injuries I sustained were not.

At the crisis centre the next day, as I lay sobbing on the table being photographed and probed by 4 nurses, I received a barrage of phone calls and threats from certain friends telling me to go home, to not report it. Telling me that no it wasn’t consensual but ‘don’t ruin the group’ and ‘don’t ruin Glastonbury for us all.’…I was receiving 15 voicemails a day with threats…I couldn’t turn my phone on without getting more. I blocked the numbers…Facebook…Instagram, but they’d find more ways to get to me.

I have heard of a student raped at Oxford University whose friends believed the rapist’s story that she was lying to hide the fact that she’d cheated on her boyfriend. They all rejected her for lying and her grades suffered for over a year.

In another British university, a student told her postgrad friend (who knew she had been raped by another student) that more recently she had also been sexually harassed and assaulted by a member of staff. His response was “Why do you put yourself in these situations? Are you that desperate for male company?”. When she replied that the abusers had put her in those situations, he insisted “No. You put yourself in that situation. Or it wouldn’t happen.” The friend worked with trauma victims overseas, including rape survivors. When the student asked if he said the same thing to the victims he supported, he responded “They were rape-raped. They just stepped outside their front door and were raped.” (The student had been raped on the opposite side of the front door- i.e. inside a house instead of outside it.) When asked why the indoor-outdoor dichotomy was relevant to the crimes, he could not provide an answer. This friend used to walk the student home at night after she visited his flat. He acted as if sexual violence was so bad that he was personally responsible for protecting her from it, yet blamed her when it actually occurred.

Obviously there are lots of people who are very supportive to their friends, and some victim-blaming friends may also be supportive at other times, depending on their current mood. However not all friends take sexual assault seriously- even those whose job involves supporting rape victims.

 

Families

Given that the individuals who restrict a girl’s freedoms most fiercely in the name of rape prevention are usually her parents, one would expect that parents would react with concern when, seemingly against their wishes, rape occurs. However this is seldom the case. I have chosen three case studies for careful reasons. Firstly, these are all people I met randomly. A selection of individuals from a group which deals with parental rejection of rape victims would tell us little about how widespread it is. Secondly, these families’ reactions cannot be laid at the door of culture, religion or location. One family is Christian, the other theist, another irreligious. One is of South Asian heritage, another British, another mixed. Two of the women were raised in Scotland and another in two other western countries. The crimes occurred in England, Canada and Scotland. Lest you think that these attitudes wouldn’t happen now, the women were 15, 20 and 25 when the crimes were committed, and all are currently under age 30. So far I’ve listed the girls’ differences; there are a couple of similarities. We’ll look at those after the stories.

It’s a bitter irony that so much emphasis is placed on not letting girls go out, yet “Lila” was raped because her mother locked her out of the house to teach her a lesson after she was an hour late getting home from a party, due to transport issues. The assailant was an adult acquaintance of the family who worked in the legal field, though she first met him at the party. Unknown to her at the time, he was also related to a friend of hers. The man took her from her friend’s home (which the group had returned to following the lockout) and drugged her. The next morning he lied to her that she’d consented and offered to drive her home. Instead her drove her to another building where he raped her for a few hours before driving her home. Her parents had called the police in the morning but they failed to find her in time to catch him in the act. When she got home, her mum told the police she had returned and they interviewed her. Lila lied that she had consented as she thought her mum would want her to keep the rapes a secret to avoid gossip. Despite her being underage, the rapist was not charged with statutory rape as he was related to police officers and lawyers. The police officer told Lila’s mother that if she locked her out again, she could be charged with neglect. Later Lila’s doctor found rophynol in her blood while testing for STDs. That was how Lila realised the first time had also been rape. Lila’s mother actually did want her to report the rape, but never told her this, or even asked then 14 or 15 year old Lila if she wanted to report or why she had lied to the police, until Lila brought it up around seven years later. Lila was affected by depression since the incident which caused her to have anger issues, get suspended and drop out of university more than once. The expulsions and drop-outs affected her education a lot and caused multiple changes of institution. Her parents did not believe she had depression even after diagnosis and expected her to just get over the depression. Her parents’ treatment of her caused Lila not to disclose subsequent rapes and sexual assaults committed by another individual a few years later.

Lila once speculated that the reason why her parents never broached the subject of reporting it was because the rapist’s close relative was her father’s business landlord, so he might have had to move. If Lila had been found to have been harmed by her mother’s neglect, there would also be an increased chance of her mother being prosecuted. Obviously these are just speculations, but whatever the reasons behind it, her parents failed her by raising her to feel shame about sexual assault and keep silent, then further failed to make sure she understood her decision not to report, as well as failing to help her with her depression. Only eight years later did Lila’s mother finally accept that she shouldn’t have neglected Lila and that if she hadn’t neglected her, Lila wouldn’t have been raped- but only after Lila said this. Her mother’s lack of disagreement with these statements felt like a victory to Lila, and sadly it does seem to be a hugely defining moment in her parents’ treatment of her.

Incredibly, Lila’s parents had 9 or 10 miscarriages before she was born and she almost died at birth. She was an only child. Most people would assume she would be very precious and her parents might be overprotective.

This story goes to show that rape victims are often treated cruelly by their families, no matter how much love they may appear to have. This may not be because the parents don’t love their daughters, but because rape is simply no big deal to them.

The next girl kept her rape a secret from her parents out of concern that it would cause them distress. When she finally told her mum a year later, her mum said it wasn’t rape because “boys find it difficult to stop” and told her not to tell her father. It has been suggested that this could be denial, but as this story illustrates the point that restricting movement does not protect women, I have included it here. And while this individual case may be one of denial, not every similar case can be explained away by denial. In another ironic twist, this mother also insisted on her daughter going to the rapist’s house to stay over, when the daughter didn’t want to go as it was a long journey to another district. Previously the mother had vetoed the young woman’s gap year travel plans as too dangerous. It is completely illogical that parents stop their daughters from wanted travel by citing risk, yet cause them to be raped by making them travel when they don’t want to. Sadly, this person completely missed out on her gap year because of her mum- and it was pointless: she was raped anyway, and she was raped “because of” her mum (though obviously her mum isn’t at fault like Lila’s was).

The last story is Ria’s. Similarly, a small part of the reason Ria didn’t go travelling a few years prior was because her mum thought it was dangerous for a woman to travel solo. But it was all for nothing because Ria was raped in Britain. When Ria was a teen she was frequently told that if she had not had the misfortune of being born in a female body, she would be allowed out for an hour later every day. All those lost hours were a sacrifice so that she would not be raped. Both losses of freedom resulted in her being raped despite all of her dedication to restricting herself.

Ria also delayed disclosing to her family in case it upset them. When she did tell her mum, her mum didn’t believe her because Ria said he didn’t stop instead of using the phrase “he continued”. She never bothered to ask Ria for clarification nor told her she didn’t believe it was rape. As the months went on, her mum said that he just couldn’t stop, that men find it hard to stop, it happened because Ria wanted sex, and that she felt sorry for the rapist being in a bit of trouble.

Ria had to wait months until she could see her mum face to face to tell the story.  But as she was afraid to criticise the rapist too much, since her mum was partly on his side, she was never able to tell. Instead she tried to convince herself that it wasn’t a big deal and forced herself not to say anything about what happened or how it affected her. 1-3 hours a day were used to remind herself to keep silent and hide her emotions before getting up.

Ria once asked why her mum didn’t take the rape seriously, to which she replied that Ria hadn’t mentioned it was that bad until recently. This confused Ria as her mum had taught her as a child that all rape was a crime, so shouldn’t all rapes be taken seriously? Another attempt to discuss her feelings was simply diverted onto Ria not caring about her mum when she was a teenager. After a year her mum became impatient and said she should get on with her life. She also revealed that she noticed Ria was very unhappy almost every night (something Ria tried to conceal) but had never bothered to ask her what was wrong. Around this time some of the things Ria had been keeping silent about came out accidentally and she said she felt her mum didn’t care, naively expecting to be comforted at last. Instead her mum was angry and started victim blaming Ria, asking why she let him in and why she “agreed” to have casual “sex” with him, and said Ria was being very hurtful by saying she wasn’t being supportive. Ria was shocked because she had expected an apology but instead she had made her situation much worse by asking for support. She then decided not to continue trying to tell her story to her mum, but to get counselling instead.

For over a year a cycle continued of Ria accidentally slipping out her feelings or actively asking for support, and her mum reacting with anger and victim-blaming. Ria’s mother also claimed that she didn’t take it seriously because it wasn’t stranger rape, and that she was entitled to her opinion that stranger rape was the worst, that a woman who wanted to be a virgin (abstinent until marriage) would feel worse, but Ria had agreed to some sexual activity the second time the rapist attacked her (but not the first time).  Other attempts were responded to with accusations that Ria “shouldn’t have had sex”, that Ria was tackling her, judging her or being too fussy. When the issue of Ria feeling as if she was being blamed for being raped (due to her mother shouting at her) was raised, the solution was given: just don’t be that picky.

It wasn’t until two years after the rape that Ria learned her mother had not believed her at first. The revelation was a relief. Ria’s counselor found this explanation for the mother’s disinterest hard to believe, because the rape being a surprise was common to all parents, yet Ria’s mother used that to justify not believing her. Ria had a desperate need to believe her mother’s explanation so considered quitting counselling in case her counselor revealed her mum’s story wasn’t true. Then her mum further revealed that it was the phrase “didn’t stop” that confused her, because she assumed that meant he stopped a few seconds later. She also thought he might have stopped a few minutes later, which she wouldn’t have counted as rape (even though most rapes only take a few minutes). She hadn’t asked how long it went on for because she didn’t want to pry into Ria’s private life. Ria was then able to stop doubting her mother and return to counseling. The effect of counselling was helpful but limited by Ria’s difficulty in trusting the counsellor not to get angry and because by then she was used to silencing herself. Ria regrets telling her mum as the biggest mistake of her life but knows she has only herself to blame.

Now, as to the similarities between these three girls: they are all either only children or only daughters. The families are all university educated and none struggle financially. Two of the parents have PhDs. Two of the parents worked in the legal field, so were more aware than other parents that rape is a serious crime. Two of the daughters went to private schools for at least some of their education. These girls were privileged and presumably valued by their parents. So if it could happen to them, it could happen to all of us.

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Source: Shutterstock.com

All of these case vignettes show that when rape happens, it is not taken seriously by those most involved in restriction of movement. Parents enforce life-changing restrictions on daughters regarding being out at night and travelling, yet “cause” them to be raped by forcing them to go outside at night or travel. This is completely inconsistent. Parents justify restricting the movement of female children by presenting rape as so dreadful that the trade-off is worth it, then ignore daughters when they are raped. This, too, is inconsistent.

The explanation for this baffling illogicality is this:  Restricting women’s movement is a cultural signal- similar to “virtue signalling”. Parents do it because it’s embedded in our culture, or to display their good parenting ability or show middle-class values of femininity or security. This demonstrates the power of patriarchy; popular culture often pushes the idea that ‘love conquers all’, but clearly parental love is conquered by patriarchy. Many Brits victim-blame female rape victims, and it appears that the fact that a rape victim is one’s daughter does not affect that.

Small children are treated more fairly even though most sexual assaults against children do not go “as far” as rape, and even though child sexual abuse victims aren’t always distressed at the time (due to lack of understanding of what is being committed, or lack of awareness if the child is too young to remember), especially regarding one-off “nonviolent” sexual assaults. While older children, teens and adults are traumatised by one-off assaults and assaults they cannot recall (because they don’t lack understanding and, unlike very young children, older children can recall the beginning and aftermath of assaults, so have a clear understanding of being drugged and raped). This is not to minimise molestation of young children or suggest that recollection of childhood abuse (or being informed of unrecalled childhood abuse such as an adult discovering they were molested as a toddler), doesn’t cause trauma in adults. Of course it does. Childhood abuse can have lifetime consequences including not only the better-known effects like PTSD and depression, but also lesser-known sequelae such as increased risk of obesity.  (Indeed, lack of trauma at the time of the abuse is not confined to children. Sexual violence experienced by teens may also not be distressing at the time due to grooming; the only issues relevant only to young children are those of awareness/memory and understanding). Rather, I am making the point that we don’t care about child abuse enough when it affects older children and teenagers.

Since older children, teens and adults are also affected by sexual assault, may (in some cases) actually be distressed more than young children, are more likely to be physically assaulted or drugged, and are far more likely to experience more serious types of sexual assault such as rape, surely they should be treated with at least as much empathy as younger victims?  However, from the preteen years onward, even those who are still legally children are blamed or disbelieved; only young children and victims of stranger rape are viewed more positively. (This is not to say that young children escape victim blaming altogether- courts and families do scapegoat children, especially when the perpetrator is a family member). The universal hatred of people who rape children doesn’t extend to rapists of teens and adults. The mobs who attacked innocent people because a tabloid falsely claimed they were paedophiles did not attack rapists who targeted grown women.  One might argue that lists of adult rapists weren’t published so there was no similar opportunity. However, these rags know their audience. The reason they chose to publish a list of criminals who had sexually assaulted children instead of a list of criminals who had sexually assaulted adults, or simply a list of sex criminals not based on the age of their victims, is because the public care about victims who are little boys and little girls. Had the tabloid published a list of male rapists who’d attacked women, the responses of readers would probably be “what if the woman was lying?”, “it was a grey area” and “she was asking for it”. All of this goes to show that reactions to victims are illogical.

Older victims suffer the same or more than the youngest victims, so logically all victims should receive the same support regardless of age. However, this is not the case. Older children and adults are victim-blamed, disbelieved or assumed to necessarily never be traumatised as much as younger victims. There is less public outrage against those who rape adults than those who grope children. Lila was regarded as more of a woman than a child due to being a teenager. While she wasn’t blamed or disbelieved, the rapes simply weren’t treated in the same way that they would have been had she been a few years younger.

This is unsurprising as ‘unconditional love’ does not exist. We all operate in a culturally-dependent context and family bonds are influenced by culture. Hence, honour killings and forced marriages happen in some cultural contexts but not western contexts, while victim-blaming and not taking rape seriously happen in both.

For those who don’t believe in the existence of patriarchy, other explanations are available (in fact personally I don’t believe patriarchy to be the sole cause- things are rarely that simple). Such as the fact that preteens, teens and adults are no longer little and cute, so do not attract familial attention. It also may be to do with evolution. Caring for one’s offspring, or related young, is an instinctual drive which wanes as those offspring reach adulthood. So parents and close relatives may be simply biologically unable to feel much concern for raped teens and young adults.

The identity of the rapist also plays a part. It’s easy to get riled up about stranger rape- that’s the evolutionary trait of taking the side of your tribe against the outsider. But if the rapist is someone the family or victim knows, it’s more complex. If a victim is lucky, their family may feel that their trust was betrayed, such as if a babysitter molests her charge. Otherwise, patriarchy steps in to blame the victim. The media portrays mostly stranger rape which is actually the rarest type of sexual assault. And the news further covers mostly stranger rapes where there is no interaction beforehand (being grabbed in an alley is more commonly depicted than taking a guy home from a pub, being lured to a deserted spot or accepting a lift, despite all of these being stranger rapes). This is why Lila’s treatment was so different from that of Amanda Dowler (even before it was known she’d been murdered). Lila was abducted and raped by someone known to her parents, so to them it was no big deal.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are things we can do to help survivors avoid parental emotional abandonment. Remember Ria? It seems ludicrous that Ria never learned from her mistakes and continued to attempt to get her mum’s support, endlessly perpetuating the cycle and delaying her recovery (because each rejection became yet another issue to get over, prolonging the timespan). But it’s not as stupid as it appears when you consider that parental (especially maternal) affection is portrayed by society as a near-sacred force. Accepting that parents are flawed, that only child victims and stranger rape will elicit sympathy, and that unconditional love is a myth would help survivors make informed judgements about approaching their family for help. I don’t mean that any of this should be sanctioned, but that young people should be warned about negative reactions instead of schools teaching teens to simply “tell a parent” without a heads-up that without an abduction (Lila wasn’t known to have been abducted until she returned home), there will be yelling, not hugs, and the blame will be directed at the victim and not the abuser. Little else can be done; for under-16s there’s the child protection categories of emotional neglect and emotional abuse, but social services seldom intervene without co-occurring physical abuse. Over-16s have the choice of ceasing contact with family members, moving out, or simply accepting the abuse. I suspect most choose the last option.

We have looked at the national and social levels of our society and found that all do not take sexual assault seriously. Therefore restriction of women’s movement in the name of rape protection is a lie. Men restrict their movements slightly too, and I’m not calling on anyone to deliberately take the dark, quiet road when there’s a busy lit road of equal distance. I’m not suggesting everyone take pains to leave their phone at home and get mysterious about where they’re going just for the fun of it, or ignore people of any gender who are in obviously vulnerable situations. My point is that since we now know it’s all just a lie, we should not restrict women’s movement any more than men’s.

 

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Why does the law force rape victims to share child custody with their rapists?: The legal principles behind parental rights and responsibilities

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In seven states in the USA. rapists can sue victims for custody of any children concieved by the assault.  A conviction is needed to anull rapists’ parental rights. The problem is that most rapes don’t even go to court. Even in the minority of cases where a conviction is secured, these are often the result of plea deals, meaning that the conviction is for less serious sexual assault or for physical assault. Neither will prevent a rapist from suing for child custody.

So victims are failed by the law twice. Their rapist may receive no sentence, while the victim and her innocent child are tied to the rapist for 18 years. The first question we’re likely to ask is, why on earth would the law do this to people? As a feminist it’s tempting to fall back on “patriarchy!”, but although most legal systems were created in patriarchies and are inherently stacked against women- especially in regard to sex crimes- a more nuanced approach is needed. If patriarchy was the sole cause, American law would not remove parental rights in cases of rape convictions, nor would most states have a lower threshold for withholding custody from rapists. The Obama administration incentivised states to amend laws which gave rapists parental rights; it is, unsurprisingly, the Trump administration which is removing them. While at first glance this situation appears baffling- almost deliberately engineered to punish rape victims and their children- it’s important to understand the legal principles behind it, as well as the wider societal context.

First, let’s look at the law. (I didn’t study American law so this is going to be a very brief overview, not a JD level discussion.)

 

The legal context of parental rights arising from non-consensual conception

 

Statutory rape, parental rights and parental responsibility

If we look at how US law treats victims of statutory rape, we can see that victims of all genders are subject to the same parental rights and responsibilities. They usually can’t use their non-consent to avoid paying child support to their statutory rapist. Adults who have children by underage minors cannot have the child removed from their custody on that basis. This is as true in Britain; the only grounds for the court to grant the removal of a child from its parent are those of child protection (abuse or neglect). Therefore, statutory rapists enjoy shared or even sole custody.

 

Nonconsensual insemination and parental responsibility

Conception without consent doesn’t only occur through rape or (arguably) statutory rape. It also occurs when gametes are used for conception without the consent of the person from whom they are taken. One British man’s ex-wife defrauded a sperm bank into using his frozen sperm to conceive two children without his knowledge. He was ordered to pay child support. By contrast, egg and sperm donors are exempt from parental responsibility so they don’t have to pay child support. However, they’re also unable to exercise parental rights. In Scots law, unofficial egg and sperm donors have been granted parental rights even against the legal parents’ wishes. Though a surrogate who “steals” the mother’s child is regarded as the legal mother in Scotland, the biological mother is granted shared custody. The takeaway here is that only an official, legally sanctioned pre-conception contract can nullify parental rights. Hence, the unofficial donors could still have shared custody.

 

Biological parenthood = legal parenthood

So, what does statutory rape, child maintenance and sperm donation have to do with rape survivors being forced to share custody with their rapists? My point is that the law is strict on the biological connection creating legal rights and responsibilities. Note that one can’t exist without the other; donors don’t have responsibilities but they don’t have any parental rights either. In many US states, child maintenance and custody are processed together in a single case. Sadly, this resulted in a woman who’d been abducted and raped at 12 having to share her child’s custody with her rapist, her address disclosed to him and being ordered to move to the state where her rapist lived. (He made a plea deal and was convicted of attempted sexual assault before DNA evidence could be taken from the baby to prove it was rape, thereby avoiding a 25 year minimum sentence and serving just six months). She had a child support suit filed by the state on her behalf after she applied for welfare, and a child custody order routinely goes along with child support suits. (The judge eventually set the ruling aside because the rapist had not requested custody. Survivors whose rapists want custody are not so lucky.)

A paper examining nonconsensual insemination and statutory rape explains that “Thus, child support is essentially a form of strict liability with the justification being that the child is an innocent party, and, therefore, it is the child’s interests and welfare that the court must look to in adjudicating support.” Change “support” to “custody” and you have the legal philosophy behind forcing rape victims to share custody with their rapists.

Therefore the issue may be more to do with children’s rights than excessive protection of fathers’ parental rights.

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My argument would be that non-statutory rape/coercion/exploitation/CSA and CSE should be treated differently from statutory rape due to the harm it causes to the victim parent. (Personally I don’t think statutory rapists should be entitled to child support, but that’s a different issue). However, as few would disagree that survivors shouldn’t be forced to share custody with rapists, and as US law recognises that this is wrong (rape convictions anull parental rights and most states do not require a conviction to anull rights), I won’t elaborate on this. What’s pertinent is that treating rape differently from statutory rape regarding custody is not without its problems. Distinguishing statutory rape (merely sex with a person who only legally can’t consent) from CSE (sex trafficking, grooming, rape) or coercion (e.g. grooming, threats, anything not ‘bad enough’ to be rape under the law) may be difficult. Some adults look back fondly on their statutory rape and refuse to call it abuse, while others were happy at the time but later regret it when they realise they were taken advantage of. It’s easy to see why laws in seven US states require a conviction of (non statutory) rape- it’s easier!

And these issues- the complexity of abusive and illegal relationships, and the strict legal principle of the biological connection creating legal rights- lead us onto the second part of this article: the social context.

 

The social context of parental rights in abusive circumstances

 

Rape and the law

One reason why some US states demand a standard of proof that most victims cannot achieve in the current legal system is that previously it wasn’t known that most rapes don’t result in convictions.

 

The perspective of family courts and social services

Another reason is, it’s important to prevent parents crying rape to stop their ex-partner gaining custody, just like parents shouldn’t cry child abuse or drug dependency. However child abuse and drug use does not require a conviction to anull custody. So why should rape? Perhaps because abuse and neglect cause harm to the child. Whereas rape is harmful to the mother, or at worst only potentially a sex abuse risk to the child.

 

The invisible rape victims who share custody with their rapists

So far we’ve kept the focus on America. But rapists gaining custody of children may happen more often than we think- including in the UK. Most women (and other people with wombs) are raped by friends or family. These victims may be less surprised at a custody demand from an ex-husband, colleague, or fellow student they bump into every day, than they would a demand from a stranger who barely saw their face. The rapist who is present in their victim’s life has the opportunity to display clues as to their intent to sue for custody, or may even express that wish as soon as the pregnancy is known to them, further lessening the victim’s surprise when custody is demanded. Therefore these victims may not publicize the rapist’s custody lawsuit. Most victims never tell police (many don’t even tell their family) so such custody battles may not be identified for what they are.

 

Domestic violence and child custody

Furthermore sexual assault is not uncommon in domestic violence, so some custody battles which arise from abusive relationships may have involved rape. This raises the question of how cases where rapists want custody of children not born from rape be treated. The harm to the mother of contacting her assailant is likely to be the same whether or not the child(ren) were conceived by the assault. Yet one could argue that it is grossly unfair to punish a criminal by removing his parental rights when his fatherhood has nothing to do with his crime. Situations where it is unclear whether conception resulted from rape or from consensual sex a short time earlier/later also pose problems.

It is notable that domestic physical violence survivors have to share custody of children- despite the trauma suffered by some survivors being similar or worse than the trauma suffered by some rape survivors. Domestic and intimate partner violence tends to have a much longer duration than a single incident of rape. It sometimes carries similar hallmarks to some sexual attacks such as physical restraint, imprisonment inside the home, psychological abuse and physical assault. So this raises the question of whether physical abusers who conceived children in abusive relationships should have rights. But they do. Physical abusers who are considered to pose a threat to their victim or the child have supervised custody, but it is custody nonetheless. Only a risk to the child can result in parental rights being removed. Further, parental rights are usually not removed completely; a parent who loses custody may still be granted supervised contact and has a say in the child’s education. This applies to parents of all genders including adoptive parents.

 

Conclusion

While the idea of a man ‘owning’ his biological children (and sometimes any woman he sleeps with) is patriarchal, I don’t think there is consistent evidence that Law’s patriarchal history (and present) is the sole or even major factor at play. The laws of different legal systems bestow parental rights and responsibilities regardless of how children are conceived. Statutory rapists can receive child support from their victims and, since most single parent families are female-headed, female statutory rapists are perhaps more likely to have sole custody. Men who didn’t consent to insemination are nevertheless given responsibilities as well as rights. The survivors who are forced to share custody aren’t the victims of outdated or unusual laws. Rather, the inhumane way they are treated is embedded in the principles of western legal systems.

In conclusion, the issue of how the law should treat rapists who want parental rights is, morally, clear-cut. However, in legal terms it’s less clear and raises a lot of questions about how abusive parents more generally should be treated. The first step would be for the seven states to fall in line with the others and abolish the need for a conviction, instead using a civil process to determine whether rape was committed. The civil standard is already used in the process of assessing state compensation for rape (in the states which provide criminal injuries compensation to victims of crime). As to how other sex crimes such as statutory rape and coercion should be treated, not to mention children born from physically abusive or extreme psychologically abusive relationships, hopefully in future we’ll see a change towards protecting victims, children and innocent family members, while guaranteeing parents’ rights wherever appropriate.

It’s also important to remember that the news of necessity features survivors who are free to speak out and sometimes willing to waive their anonymity. Behind the headlines there are many more victims of rape and sexual abuse being forced to share custody with their assailants in silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why British Campus Sexual Assault Victims Can’t Get Justice From Their University- But Americans Can

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First published on The Fifth Column, 2/10/17.

Students, sexual assault survivors and campaigners in the USA are riled up, and rightfully so: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last week rescinded Obama-era guidance on universities’ duties to deal with campus sexual assault. But just because there’s a relative lack of public debate on the issue in Britain, doesn’t mean it’s not happening or that British universities and colleges are dealing well with campus sexual assault.

Let’s take a look at the legal situation in the USA first, then compare it to the UK.

 

The ‘Dear Colleague’ guidance

The 2011 guidance, known as the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, didn’t create new responsibilities for colleges. It simply stated what they had to do in order to comply with Title IX (a law regarding gender discrimination in educational institutions which case law has held includes investigating sex crimes). Prior to ‘Dear Colleague’, many universities simply disregarded Title IX and ignored survivors, refusing to take reports of the incidents at all. The situation didn’t suddenly turn rosy afterwards, either- not all universities have systems for reporting sexual violence, and it’s easy enough for a university to claim there isn’t enough evidence. But empowering students to know their rights made it easier for them to report and follow up their cases instead of being told ‘We don’t deal with that.’ DeVos has turned the clock back to 2011.

 

DeVos’ current interim guidance

Universities used to use the USA’s civil court standard, the ‘preponderance of evidence’ (in the UK, that’s the ‘balance of probabilities’). Now, according to DeVos’ new interim guidelines, university administrators can choose between that standard, or the higher standard used in criminal courts. Let’s think about that for a minute. Why do student rape victims choose to report to their university? Usually, it’s because they’ve already reported to the police but the case wasn’t taken to court due to lack of evidence. Other reasons are that they don’t want the rapist to be jailed (most sexual assault victims in the US and UK know their assailant, especially in the case of campus sexual assault), or they don’t want to go through the added trauma of a court case that’ll take up most of their time at university, and instead choose to rely on their university for protection.

Most rape cases don’t reach court and most accused who are tried, are acquitted. (Universities usually aren’t allowed to investigate if the police are investigating, due to concerns of compromising the police investigation, meaning that all campus sexual assault cases were rejected or not reported to police).

In these circumstances, a student cannot reasonably be expected- especially without access to forensic science testing and CCTV footage- to prove that they were raped to a criminal court standard. This requirement is even more cruel to students who have already been rejected by the criminal courts on the basis that their evidence isn’t up to that standard. It’s telling these victims that any kind of recognition of their trauma or sense of justice is impossible. Universities have realised this- some had already abandoned the criminal standard pre-2011. This raises the possibility that DeVos’ interim guidelines are actually pushing the US back even further than the Noughties in terms of women’s rights and campus safety.

According to Abbey Childs, an advocacy organisation founder and campus rape survivor, the provision of residency changes and no-contact orders to protect victims from their rapists rests on universities’ ability to use the civil standard. By removing it, DeVos is removing survivors’ safety. Rapists will find it even easier to get away with their crimes, as expulsion and suspension will also be off the table.While it’s important to recognise the reality that, on campus as well as off it, most perpetrators are male and most victims female, it’s equally important to note that the new guidelines affect male victims just as badly.

 

UK universities

Many Americans are angry with DeVos. But the situation in the US is still better than it is in the UK. US campus rape survivors can sue universities under Title IX. Their universities know they may face real legal consequences if they mishandle sexual assault complaints.  British campus rape victims have no statutory protection. We don’t have any equivalent of Title IX, and no education laws more generally. Without national guidelines, students have no legal rights if they’re sexually assaulted on campus. Universities can literally do nothing, and even elite universities often do just that. While Oxford University has been subject to a legal challenge, its policy still allows it to avoid dealing with sexual assaultcomplaints. In 2014 Oxford reportedly did deal with a rape of an unconscious student- by giving the rapist “a minor reprimand”.

It’s not that campus sexual assault is less of a problem in UK. One in three female students and one in eight male students have been sexually assaulted at UK universities. It’s just that- unlike the US- there’s no law; so very few court cases; so no news- so no debate.

 

The Zellick guidance

The 1994 Zellick guidelines place no statutory duty on universities to investigate sexual offences. Instead, they suggest telling students to call the police. However, we now know that- on and off campus- rapists are usually known to their victims, most victims don’t report to the police, most reported rapes don’t reach trial, and those that do tend to result in acquittal. Therefore, the Zellick guidance, while possibly relevant to cases with strong evidence, and rare cases of stranger rape, isn’t suitable for what we now know about sexual assault. The Zellick guidelines were reviewed in 2016.

 

The 2016 guidance

The new guidelines, which pertain to all types of student crimes (not just sexual assault), suggest using the UK civil standard of the ‘balance of probabilities’ in ascertaining guilt. They are a significant improvement on Zellick. The new guidelines go far beyond merely telling victims to report to the police and encompass all of a victim’s (and accused’s) needs including mental health, safety, rights during the disciplinary process and dealing with the aftermath of a trial. Having a clear reporting mechanism, ensuring victims are supported to continue their education and (in cases of sexual violence) referring to external counselling agencies is recommended. However, these guidelines are also not statutory. Universities which fail to abide by them face no consequences.

 

Legal action against universities

The only way to ensure a UK university or college deals with sexual assault is to appeal a decision of no action or a finding that a complaint is not upheld. However, this is only possible if the university has accepted the complaint in the first place (some British universities don’t even take sexual assault reports) and where the disciplinary system allows appeals. As there are no statutory instruments, universities can only be sued under normal civil law. In Scotland, a delict case for causing emotional harm could be brought (this would be called ‘torts’ in England). Even then, universities cannot be legally compelled to deal with rape complaints. They can only be sued after the fact for causing harm by ignoring or mishandling complaints.

British civil suits are more likely to fail and more difficult to litigate, due to the absence of a clear Title IX statutory duty. All students can argue on is the university’s failure of its basic duty of care. Add to this the fact that all civil cases are long and expensive, and students are very unlikely to be able to bring them (less chance of winning a case means a greater likelihood that the student has to pay all the legal fees, and a much lower probability of a lawyer doing the case on a no win no fee basis). Universities know this and therefore there is little motivation for them to change. The cycle of few civil suits, little press coverage and no awareness of the issue of campus sexual assault seems set to continue.

Motivational meme

I don’t think I’ve ever done a short ‘n sweet blog post. I’m usually into analysis of news stories or commenting on gender equality or human rights issues. The most light-hearted post was probably that last one about archetypes of women in Game of Thrones. So, here it is:

 

I’m prone to long and vivid dreams. Gunfights, car chases, interminably boring conversations with friends, driving around central Scotland and the Highlands, and run-ins with bitchy strangers…my dreams have it all. Anyhoo, a few weeks ago I dreamt I was writing. That’s not all that unusual for me- I can dream about writing poetry and use the fragments to compose a real poem after waking. But this time, I was writing a motivational meme. This one:

 

Care for yourself as tenderly as you would a child

Guide yourself as surely as a parent

Stay as true to your originality as a spouse

Adore your talents as completely as a lover

Don’t take yourself too seriously, just like with a friend

Focus on your strategies as fiercely as if against an enemy

Worship yourself as ardently as an acolyte

Determine your own path as resolutely as a god

Be your own child, your own parent, your own spouse, your own lover, your friend, your enemy, your devotee and your god.

 

I tried putting it on a purple background:

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It’s probably too long to go viral. I think it’s pretty good for someone who was asleep when they wrote it, though!

How Game of Thrones Debunks Archetypes of Women

It wasn’t so long ago that Game of Thrones was widely criticised for its initial portrayal of female characters as powerless victims. In my view, the disconnect between the books and TV series was the main factor in these concerns: scenes such as Sansa’s (Jeyne Poole in the books) abuse was shot for TV in a way which emphasised a male character’s (Theon Greyjoy’s) reaction; scenes critical of male-on-female violence were cut. Perhaps just as importantly, the books’ presentation of systemic oppression of the poor, disabled and even children- not just women- was not as apparent onscreen.

Obviously, all that changed during Season 6. Now, with Sansa as acting ruler of the North, all the contestants for the Iron Throne are women. (Unless Gendry shows up to stake a claim as Robert Baratheon’s bastard). However, Game of Thrones has gone further than simply having powerful female characters. Intentionally or not, both the show and the books take down classical archetypes of women which have existed in the west for centuries.

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The Mother Archetype

The Westerosi seven gods include the Mother, Maiden and Crone- a reference to goddess triads typical of Norse and other ancient religions. The Mother exemplifies traditional notions of feminity:

HIGH SPARROW: Ah, “As water rounds the stones, smoothing- -”

MARGAERY: “Smoothing what was jagged, so does a woman’s love calm a man’s brute nature. A wife salves her husband’s wounds, a mother sings her son to sleep.”

-Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 7: The Broken Man

Game of Thrones explores this traditional ideal of motherhood and pushes it to its extreme. Cersei’s love for her children leads to mass-murder by blowing up the Sept. She walked through King’s Landing naked to protect her children, fearful that a trial would expose their bastardy. And she protects them despite them being born from a decidedly non-traditional relationship with her brother. The more a mother loves her children, the more she must do to keep them safe. A mother’s love means she must kill to protect. She has to violate the very norms of feminine modesty (by being naked in public) to protect them. And she has to love her children even if she created them out of nonconforming relationships. Cersei is the mother archetype’s logical conclusion. The maternal love that religion (personified by the High Sparrow) valued necessitates brutality. Game of Thrones proves that gender norms make no sense because following the norm contradicts it.

The religion reflects societal values of women as destined only for marriage and motherhood, as is revealed in the same conversation:

HIGH SPARROW: You have a duty, Your Grace. To your husband, your king, your country, to the gods themselves.

MARGAERY: It’s just…the desires that once drove me no longer do.

HIGH SPARROW: Congress does not require desire on the woman’s part, only patience. The king must have an heir if we are to continue our good work.

In earlier episodes, Ned Stark explains to Arya that she won’t do any great deeds but will marry a great man. Cersei tells Sansa that unlike her twin Jaime whose destiny was glory, she was sold off to Robert Baratheon “like a horse, to be beaten whenever he wanted, ridden whenever he wanted”. In the show, she implies the domestic violence by saying “And you will be [cruel, abusive] Joffrey’s [queen]. Enjoy.”

However, most of the female characters violate these norms.

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Deviant Women

Most of George R.R. Martin’s female characters are deviant in some way from the Westerosi/patriarchal norm of the passive, appearance-valuing, chaste woman.

In Westeros, as in patriarchal societies, women don’t fight. In the A Song of Ice and Fire books, it is only the deviant women (Molestown whores) who take up crossbows to defend the Wall from Wildlings. However, some characters get around this to avenge friends and family.

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Arya is a killer, taking revenge for her family just like a man would. Her reply to Ned Stark in Season 1 that marriage “isn’t me” is echoed in Season 7 when her direwolf Nymeria chooses to continue to lead her pack instead of resuming a life as Arya’s pet. Arya forges her own destiny; like her wolf, she can’t be tamed. Understanding this, Arya whispers “That’s not you” as Nymeria walks away.

Brienne fails to conform to feminine ideals due to her height, body type and appearance. She responds by rejecting all aspects of gender norms, dressing as a man and fighting like a knight. She’s mocked for it, but succeeds in avenging Renly. Having found a home in Winterfell as Sansa’s sworn sword, she’s also found respect and a worthy role. And she won’t stick out so much now that all the girls are training to fight. Brienne also confounds gender norms: she rejects them, but she is a maternal protector to Sansa and Arya. So she fulfils gender norms while simultaneously violating them. Similarly, the wildling Ygritte participates in warfare and presumably would not be considered pretty or chaste south of the Wall, but is a loyal lover to Jon Snow. Female love and protection are not limited to strict gender roles.

There are other ways of deviating from the imposed norm: by gaining and wielding power. Danaerys and Cersei rule over people and kingdoms which have never had a female Khal or queen. Lyanna Mormont rules Bear Island and supports Jon Snow’s command that girls must train to fight for the first time. Sansa helps Jon in war councils and the leadership of the North, and is now a temporary ruler during Jon’s absence. Ellaria of Dorne and the Sand Snakes fight as well as or better than men, as does Yara Greyjoy, who leads some of the ironborn and aspired to be their queen.

Even in the first seasons when female characters were often abused, the female characters Cersei and Sansa and the good male characters Tyrion and Bran acknowledged domestic violence and marital rape instead of accepting it, despite its legality. Danaerys and Jaime prevent sexual violence even more in the books than in the show. Though the female characters were born into a world where violence against women was rife, they were capable of assessing their situation and deciding it wasn’t right. It’s also a notable point that Westeros is not as dissimilar from our reality as we like to think; rape was legal in the UK until the early 1990s if it occurred within marriage, as seems to be the case in Westeros. Domestic abuse was not recognised or dealt with by police until the 1970s in the US. Husbands continue to be able to abuse wives in other jurisdictions.

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The Madonna-Whore Complex

Game of Thrones also has a lot of fun with the Madonna-Whore complex, also called the virgin-whore complex. According to Thought Catalog,

The term “Madonna-Whore Complex” was first coined by – you guessed it – the father of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Though much of Freud’s work has either been disproven or is widely regarded as invalid (to put it nicely), his archetype-based complexes live on. The Madonna-Whore Complex is known as the distinction men draw between the women they desire and the women they respect – with the implication that those two categories are mutually exclusive.

The idea is that women are either mother-figures/virgin figures- innocent and nurturing. Or they’re sexually empowered- which is incompatible with being, in modern terms, “girlfriend material”. You might have heard of the complex as  ‘good girl vs bad girl’ or ‘nice girl vs slut’. It lives on in our own time, despite being at least as old as the Medieval era Game of Thrones is based on.

Sansa vs Shae

In Game of Thrones, the Madonna-Whore complex/Virgin-Whore Complex is centred on Tyrion. He’s literally in a love triangle with a virgin and a whore. His wife Sansa Stark is a virgin and remains such for the duration of their marriage. His secret lover Shae was a sex worker and is often referred to and self-describes as “a whore”. However, the relevance and importance of the concept of sexual innocence is interrogated in the books: Tyrion decides he can’t trust his wife as “[Sansa] might be maiden between the legs, but she was hardly innocent of betrayal”. Her supposed ‘purity’ is therefore pointless. According to the Madonna-Whore complex, Tyrion should love and respect Sansa while desiring and disrespecting Shae. Instead, he respects them both, loves Shae and has a limited and self-controlled desire for Sansa (in the books) or no feelings toward her (in the show).

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Tysha

Game of Thrones further turns the complex on its head by revealing that aged 13, Tyrion married a 13 year old girl, Tysha, then was told by his father Tywin that she was a whore Jaime had paid to take his virginity and make a man of him. In the books Tywin further makes his point by forcing Tyrion to watch and participate in her gang-rape and pay her for the “sex work”. After freeing Tyrion from prison in Season 5, Jaime confesses that Tywin lied: Tysha was never a whore, but Tywin believed she married Tyrion for the family’s wealth so she was therefore a “whore”. Tyrion then goes to confront his father and, heartbroken at finding Shae has slept with him, he kills her. He asks Tywin where Tysha went after the gang-rape and murders his father for calling her a whore.

Tysha’s story questions the “whore”/”slut” label and its validity. Tywin called Tysha a whore when it suited him. She wasn’t the wealthy, titled wife he wanted for his son, so she had to be disposed of. For Tywin, she wasn’t even a person- he didn’t think he was punishing her, but instead teaching his son a lesson. Tywin also had his late father’s girlfriend whipped through the streets naked “never dreaming that the same fate awaited his own golden daughter” – Cersei, who was also called a whore by detractors. The take-away here is that “whore” is a label applied by men, and arbitrarily. Cersei was Tywin’s daughter so she wasn’t a whore to him, but women he didn’t know (Tysha, his father’s girlfriend and Shae) were. The men who slept with the “whores”- his father, his son, and Tywin himself- were not labelled.

Game of Thrones also pushes the “slut” trope to its breaking point with Pia. In the books, Pia is a servant at Harrenhal who uses her beauty to get Lannister soldiers into bed…or cupboard. Some of Gregor Clegane’s equally unsavoury companions decide that this means she’s always available to them- whether she wants to or not. Jaime Lannister executes them for rape, with the last rapist protesting that Pia had consented at other times. This scene seems to be asking, ‘OK- if someone is a ‘slut’, then, well, so what?’ The idea of a “slut” seems to be that the woman is always available (sexist ideas pose women as passive, so ‘sluts’ are “available for sex” instead of “pursuing sex”) and for some reason, this is interesting or scandalous. As the Pia story shows, however, ‘sluts’ don’t actually exist in this way as nobody is consenting all the time to everyone. They aren’t “always available”. And so if someone is more interested in sex than average, well, so what? George R.R. Martin was ahead of his time with this one, as rape victims’ sexual history was allowed as evidence in rape cases until the early 2000s in the UK. The last rapist’s comments would therefore actually have been accepted as evidence!

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Manic Pixie Dream Girls

Though Game of Thrones hasn’t completely avoided using violence against women to show how bad a villain is or elicit emotion from a man, it has at least steered clear of manic pixie dream girl syndrome- when a relationship or friendship with a two-dimensional female character leads a male character to an epiphany or self-improvement. For example, foster sister Sansa’s abuse and birth sister Yara’s capture did not motivate Theon to shed his torture-induced cowardice and help them. He fails to help Sansa by signalling and though he murders Myranda, he doesn’t save Sansa. They escape together. Later, he flees from battle instead of saving Yara.

Game of Thrones might seem a totally different series (regarding its female characters) from its first couple of seasons, but its current empowerment of them was always there in the background. Like most TV shows it’s far from unproblematic, but hopefully the series will continue to improve in the way it deals with gender issues.

 

Vote remain: how EU human, women’s and labour rights protect us from the Tories

 

While the Brexit vs Bremain debate has been- and will continue to be- argued and analysed to death, one very important issue has escaped mainstream attention: human rights. The EU’s European Court of Justice, its laws and its Charter of Fundamental Rights safeguards our human rights more than the European Court of Human Rights. What’s more, the EU’s justice is much easier to access than that available through the ECHR. A case can only be heard by the ECHR once a case has gone through all the domestic courts- which is usually costly and very time-consuming. However, EU law can be applied directly by even the lowest level domestic courts; so if an EU law would mean you’d win your case at the District Court in Glasgow, then win it you shall, and immediately.

EU law protects Britons from age, race, sex, belief, disability and sexuality discrimination (see overview of EU discrimination law here).

 

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights further safeguards our rights to privacy, education, being fairly dealt with by the police, and practising our religion/belief amongst many others.

If Britain leaves the EU, we forfeit all of this protection, forever.

 

 

Privacy

The EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that Europeans have a “right to be forgotten”- i.e. that we can request Google to take down information about us. This gives us an important right that nobody else in the world yet enjoys, and could very well open doors to employment for those of us who have been maligned on the internet.

The ECJ is also in the process of deciding whether the UK’s DRIPA (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act) contravenes EU human rights law. If the UK leaves the EU, in future such cases will have no legal remedy if UK courts uphold the legality of DRIPA-esque legislation, or will have to be referred to the European Court of Human Rights- which is much less likely to safeguard the rights of citizens.

 

Welfare

The EU has struck a happy medium on the contentious issue of welfare. Its rules stipulate that after three months’ residency in another EU country, any EU citizen or long-term resident can claim the same welfare benefits as a citizen of that country. However, this doesn’t mean you’ll be handing over your taxes to benefits tourists- the ECJ has recently cracked down on immigrants who exploit the system.

EU law also provides for guaranteed criminal compensation if you are the victim of a crime while travelling within the EU.

The EU’s Europe 2020 strategy aims to “eradicate child poverty, promote the active inclusion in society and the labour market of the most vulnerable groups and overcome discrimination and increase the integration of people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, immigrants and other vulnerable groups.” The EU Commission’s PROGRESS programme supports policy development work relating to employment, working conditions, gender equality, social inclusion and social protection, non-discrimination and diversity. NGOs and charities- including British ones- can apply for funding. The Citizens for Europe programme provides civil society organisations and think tanks at European level with operating grants covering part of their running costs.

Economic security encompasses unemployment and persistent poverty- things which Iain Duncan Smith, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, should have been concerned about. However, he and our current and previous governments caused widespread poverty, an increase in mental health problems and the creation of over 1,000 foodbanks (free food donated by the public for the hungry). The DWP recently announced it will cut benefits for people in work. Clearly economic security is not the UK’s forte.

And what about other security threats? If we’re debating Britain’s security, let’s not leave some concepts of security out of the debate. Take the concept of human security. According to the UN, human security threats include food security (hunger), and political security (political repression, human rights abuses). Although of course we have it very good in the UK compared to a lot of other places, the recent rise of the relevance of economic security, food security and the human rights abuses aspect of political security is hard to ignore.

Recently, in addition to the several suicides and deaths- including of a former soldier who died starving and penniless after missing an appointment at the Job Centre- directly caused by his policies, he was found by researchers to have caused at least 590 suicides which were not previously known. His welfare reforms are currently being investigated by the UN for breaching the human rights of disabled persons. The latest debacle, as of this week, involves a child who has had all four limbs amputated. Under Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms, the boy has been required to prove he is disabled or the family’s benefits will be taken away. Previous examples of disabled people being found “fit to work” and having their disability benefits stopped include a man with peeling bones, a man who is kept alive by a machine, and a kidney dialysis patient who has suffered 14 heart attacks. Thousands of people who were dying have been found fit to work, as have those who were already deceased when the notification was made.

The DWP’s decision to deprive people of enough money to survive (and barely enough to survive in the best scenario- £73 a week to pay bills and buy food with) will adversely impact the economy. Without enough money to buy consumer goods, there is less demand for products and so less jobs. Less jobs mean more people are unemployed and have to depend on benefits, which means the vicious cycle continues. Duncan Smith’s workfare (a mandatory six months of working for free, avoidance of which results in withdrawal of benefits for up to three years) snatches precious jobs away from the waiting jobless. Meanwhile the government shells out millions on corporate welfare (in-work benefits for employees whose employers refuse to pay them enough to survive, such as Housing Benefit and Work Tax Credit).

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Tory World Map

 

National security

Brits are now much more likely to die from a benefits sanction than they are to die from a terrorist attack. No terrorist attack in Britain has killed over 590 people. The public’s security is threatened by Iain Duncan Smith more than our security is threatened by terrorists.

Iain Duncan Smith has warned that the UK faces security threats if it doesn’t leave the EU. “This open border does not allow us to check and control people that may come and spend time,” he told the BBC on 20th February. However, a key fact which seems to have escaped Mr Duncan Smith is that the EU is obligated to protect its own borders. If Britain leaves the EU, it’ll be on its own. The UK coastline will become our frontier. Terrorists have to pass through the EU border before they get to Britain, meaning there are at least two and perhaps several (if every EU country they pass through checks them) chances to detect them. If Britain leaves the EU, the terrorists would only have to pass one border- our coast.

 

But it’s not just border control that membership of the EU has to offer. As Lucy Thomas, deputy director of Britain Stronger In Europe, told the Daily Mail: “In recent weeks we have heard from a wide range of experts with frontline experience of the fight against terrorism that Britain’s streets are safer in Europe.

Though Iain Duncan Smith may wish to ignore them, the message is clear from the head of Europol, Army chiefs and Home Secretaries past and present, that co-operating with our European allies is crucial to keeping British people safe.

The European Arrest Warrant lets us deport terrorist suspects back to their country of origin, Europol helps our police co-operate with their European counterparts, and EU data-sharing measures allow our security services to access information on threats from anywhere in Europe within minutes.”

In fact, Britain benefits from EU intelligence sharing between all member states, and from the intelligence analysis conducted by INTCEN (the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre). Intelligence is also shared through the European Police Organization (Europol), the Joint Situation Center (SitCen), the Intelligence Division of the European Union Military Staff (INTDIVEUMS), and the European Union Satellite Center (EUSC). This is done for counterterrorism purposes.

The Tories’ policies are also having a knock-on effect for national security. If a country is to be a great power, it needs a healthy economy, educated citizens who can compete in the global job marketplace and in a globalised business world, and a strong or at least adequate military. Austerity (and tuition fee rises- which  he voted for-, the destruction of higher education grants, cuts in education spending etc) will not achieve that. Children need to have enough food to learn. A hungry child or unhealthy, malnourished teen won’t be as likely to do well in school (especially as lack of nutrition can stunt growth including brain growth). They are also less likely to forgo the instant gratification of work aged 16 for two more years of school and then a four-year university stint, during which they’ll continue to be on the poverty line and dependent on the whims of university hardship funds to pay rent- and then be tens of thousands in debt at the end of it. Bottom line: health comes first. People need to be healthy to get an education. The taxpayer can throw all the money they want to at the NHS but when the problem is malnutrition there’s not much the doctors can do about it. Everything- technology, science, business, even tourism, depend on skilled people running the show and (in some cases) competing with foreign rival institutions. If we don’t have a healthy, educated, able to work populace then all of these industries and more will suffer. The military is self-explanatory; the weak can’t fight. And the same rules apply to military technology as they do to technology generally.

We won’t see these effects for a long time. If Iain Duncan Smith’s policies continue now that he is gone- as it seems they are- Britain will gradually become poorer as a nation. The talented few, born or sponsored into greatness, will leave for a more comfortable existence in more prosperous countries. Universities will slip down the rankings as fewer people apply to them and they take all comers- or perhaps they’ll retain rankings but mostly consist of international students. Without enough educated Brits, the same thing will happen to other professions which we currently see with medical professionals: they’ll consist disproportionately of immigrants because British people don’t have the qualifications. Again, this will take several years if not a few decades.

These changes will affect national security. The security services and the upper echelons of law enforcement and the armed forces need the best, not the best from among the mediocre rich kids who scraped into desperate universities.

Our own government, not the EU, is a threat to the UK’s economic, human and national security. NATO is more of a threat to our sovereignty than the EU, as we are required to go to war if another NATO state is attacked.

 

Strategy

Brexit may therefore make the UK more vulnerable to terrorism as we will lack valuable intelligence from the EU. An isolated UK dependent on the US might also be exactly what Putin wants. Brexiters can talk about NATO and the Commonwealth, but it’s, well, talk. At the very least, firm and detailed agreements should be negotiated with Commonwealth States before we leave the EU. They must be specific and binding enough (e.g. they only become void in the event a Brexit is avoided) that those States can’t just back out or water down the agreements. The downside to this is that perhaps States don’t want to waste time negotiating over a situation which might be averted; however there are many Commonwealth nations and if the benefits of trade agreements are made clear, and if the contracts are no more detailed than necessary to secure cooperation, surely a few would be interested. However, though the Commonwealth could- in theory- fulfil the needs of economic security, the relevance of Commonwealth States’ intelligence to terrorist threats against the UK is not clear.

The closest (and most obvious to the British public and the rest of the world) tie remains our ‘special relationship’ with America, which has brought us the joys of unwanted and illegal war, increased terrorism partly as a result of the aforesaid wars, and…er…

As of the time of writing there is absolutely nothing to suggest any concrete steps have been taken to ensure EU-equivalent benefits from the Commonwealth should the Brexit occur. Therefore, assuming that the Commonwealth fails to provide a viable alternative, if the UK leaves the EU it will have to get more cosy with the US to replace all of the lost economic and security benefits. Not only will this be likely to lead to increased resentment of Britain by those who already have a hatred of the west, particularly America, it will also polarise the northern hemisphere- not on a scale approaching anything like the Cold War, of course, but oddly reminiscent: As we know, US-Russia relations and US-China relations are not warm. The UK is a little different as demonstrated with the Chinese President’s visit in 2015, but that may change if the US is the UK’s only ally instead of ‘merely’ the UK’s main and most powerful ally. The UK and US will be on one side, Russia and China on the other.

Relying more heavily on the US is not a good strategic move. One of the basic rules of strategy is to give oneself as many options, as many paths toward one’s goals and as much influence as possible. In the context of the international playground this means forming multiple alliances with States (and non-State actors) who have influence in different regions, provide different economic benefits, and so on. In this way things like a wide sphere of influence and a stable supply of produce are guaranteed, because even if one ally breaks a trade agreement for an essential product, the State is not solely dependent on that ally and so its position will not be much affected. Another example would be if a State used two other States for diplomatic support about intervening in a fourth State. If one ally suddenly decided that no, they weren’t going to try to convince the UN the intervention was necessary, there is still another ally to rely on. (I’m not suggesting this is something any State should be doing, these are simply realistic examples). Throwing most of our eggs in the US basket is bad strategy.

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American Government World Map

There is also economic security to consider. The Brexit backers appear to believe that if the UK leaves the EU, we will then be able- somehow- to negotiate better deals with the EU. However it is difficult to see why the EU would care about Britain when it’s no longer part of the team. It appears much more likely that the remaining EU states will simply continue to trade with each other within the parameters they voted for long ago. Even if this scheme worked, it’s not so much a Brexit as a Stomping Off In A Huff And Sulking Until They Play My Way. Or, perhaps, a Brexit-And-(re)Brentry.

 

 

Women’s Rights

The EU has been promoting gender equality since 1957. The Strategy for Equality Between Women and Men represents the European Commission’s work program on gender equality for the period 2010-2015. In 2012 the Gender Equality Directive stopped insurers using gender as a risk factor. Currently it combats violence and discrimination. The EU’s Women, Peace and Security agenda works to prevent violence against women and girls in conflict zones. The European Social Fund (ESF) has introduced a gender-mainstreaming approach and the EQUAL initiative was launched in 2000 to develop new ways of tackling discrimination and exclusion in the labour market including that which is based on gender.

The EU has also created an Institute for Gender Equality and a Fundamental Rights Agency. Winnet, a network of European Women Resource Centres was created to improve efficiency and transparency of women’s rights NGOs and therefore improve gender equality policies and tools.

Impact assessments on the effect of EU policy on women are carried out by each of the Commission’s Directorate-Generals.

 

The ECJ has previously interpreted “family life” to protect the rights of children of unmarried and lone parents to enable the children to remain living with their parents. Cases include Johnston v Ireland (1986), Eur. Ct. H.R., Ser. A, No. 112, Marckx v Belgium (1979) 2 EHRR 330:342, Berehab v Netherlands (App. 10730/84) 21 June 1988 Series A No. 138, (1989) 11 EHRR 322 S21 and Keegan v. Ireland (App.16969/90) 26 May 1994, Series A No. 290 (1994) 18 EHRR 342 S44.

The Fundamental Rights Agency devotes one of the chapters of its Annual Report on Fundamental Rights to the rights of the child. In 2009 the FRA published a report on “Developing indicators for the protection, respect and promotion of the rights of the child in the European Union.”

The Audiovisual Media Services Directive binds Member States to ensure that audiovisual media services provided by media service providers under their jurisdiction do not contain any incitement to hatred or sex discrimination.

 

The ECJ has ruled on age discrimination in employment, pensions and the retirement age.

When Belgium attempted to deny residence permits for two French nationals on the ground that they were suspected to be engaged in sex work, the ECJ ruled that as Belgium allowed its own citizens to do sex work, denying free movement to French citizens was a contravention of EU law.

More intersectional and specific forms of discrimination haven’t escaped EU notice, either. In 2007, the Monitoring and Evaluation Unit of the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) published a study on lone mothers in poverty, which found that the mothers “experienced stigma and prejudice at the workplace and they felt as if they were looked down upon by their co-workers[14]”. The European Working Conditions Observatory concluded that “A respectful environment at work…would also help more lone mothers to enter or return to the labour market.”

The EU’s ECJ court, its Commission, its laws and its many agencies and platforms do much more to safeguard our rights than the European Court. They also pump money into impoverished areas of the UK to improve the lives of Brits in rural and deprived areas.  If Britain leaves, there will be nothing to stop the Tories doing whatever they please. We will lose the EU’s European Social Fund funding for services (including internet provision) and projects in deprived communities, and though we won’t have to give funding to the EU, it is not likely we will see a penny of the money saved. A government which is dismantling the NHS and destroying our welfare state is not suddenly going to change and pump the saved resources into welfare, education or health.. The scale and scope of the EU’s human rights protection is unique in the world. If Britain leaves the EU, we must be prepared to give up all of the EU’s human rights protections- for which we will find no replacement. 

US Government lost woman’s citizenship records, condemning her to live as an illegal alien

First published on Mint Press News, 10/11/15.

 

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Photo credit: Flickr / U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (SW/AW) Felicito Rustique

 

Sally Anne is a US citizen. She came to the US as an 18-month-old when she was adopted from India by her American parents and became a naturalized US citizen. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lost her documentation during the switch-over from paper files to a digital system.

Sally Anne didn’t even know it until 2012, when she had to prove her citizenship status to renew her driver’s license as a result of a new law — the Real ID Act of 2005.

According to Sally Anne’s blog, Paperless Existence, her previous attorney. Tracie Klinke, told her that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) “has only been using computerized databases as recently as the 1980s. I was adopted several years before then, and the switchover from hardcopy / paper files backed up by microfilm data to digitally uploaded records took place sometime in the early 80’s. It is altogether possible, she clarified, for the agency to have misplaced my hardcopy file during this procedure, in fact it has happened before with other immigrants.”

At first, sorting it out looked easy. Sally Anne’s attorney at the time made a demand for her file via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) procedure.

Sally Anne told MyMPN, “they made a formal declaration via a letter affirming that they have checked their ‘centralized index system’ and my name is not contained therein. However: this completely gainsays the reality that somewhere there exists a physical paper file. USCIS is required by law to maintain those paper files as backup, irrespective of whether the records are contained in their electronic database or not. But they flat out refuse to research any further into this.”

The A-no, or alien registration number, is the identifying serial number to track the records of every legal immigrant — other than those holding tourist visas — who has ever entered the United States. Because Sally Anne doesn’t know her alien registration number, they are refusing to research the matter any further and have stated she has no further grounds to file an appeal. Because she is permanently estranged from her adoptive parents due to childhood mistreatment, obtaining documentation from them isn’t possible.

Being undocumented affects every aspect of Sally Anne’s life. She can’t get a driver’s license — even for a scooter. For years she couldn’t even rent a property and stayed in motels until a landlord finally agreed to let out an apartment to her on the basis that she paid several months’ rent as a deposit and produced affidavits from friends. Without proof that she isn’t an illegal alien, she cannot find employment and is now self-employed as a sex worker. It even means she can’t collect medical prescriptions.

Some of her mental health prescriptions are classified as narcotics, so an ID is required to be presented when receiving them. As Sally Anne doesn’t have ID, no pharmacy would release them to her.

“I spent three days running around to different drugstores and, with the weather in the 90’s, I got heat exhaustion. I began having panic attacks from being off of my meds and also injured my foot walking.”

She finally got the medication by asking an acquaintance to accompany her to a pharmacy. “An acquaintance who would verify they knew me, present their own ID, and then the pharmacist released it to him, and told him he was free to turn around and give it to me.”

Sally Anne’s attorney, Kristy White, is now attempting to get a copy of her US passport or other consular paperwork from India from the Department of State by doing a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request and a Privacy Act request. White is also working with Sally Anne’s representative in Congress, trying to get them to work with the State Department. If the State Department does not produce documents, they will have to file a suit in a federal court and ask a U.S. district court judge to compel production of the records. This is when a court order is issued directing the agency to research their archive center or storage facility and search for the physical paper file.

An email from Klinke revealed that she believed Sally Anne’s physical files are located in Missouri.

White, said “The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services have thus far produced nothing in response to Sally’s requests … Sally’s case is very frustrating because it seems so “simple.” Just a get a copy of her ID from USCIS or from the Department of State. No one, citizen or non-citizen should have to live without an ID or any way to prove who they are. It is very dehumanizing, and I don’t understand people who just shrug their shoulders and walk away from the problem.”

Sally Anne says her Christian faith has become stronger during this travesty and she credits that with the will and determination to fight for her rights. She’s also grateful to all the fans of her blog for their support.

Once everything is behind her, Sally Anne wants to make a positive impact in the life of others. Specifically, she wishes to become an ambassador for foreign adoption, especially that of children from India & South Asia. She will also work to decriminalize sex work in the U.S. because she doesn’t want other women to be treated like a criminal, as she has been.

Sally Anne said, “All I need is for USCIS to dig into their repository where the physical paper files are stored … to get them to look and then they’ll find my file and I turn it over and I can then renew my ID — and life will be back to where it was.”

You can follow Sally Anne on Twitter at @paperless_me and LIKE her Facebook page.

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