Tag Archives: Violence against Women

Girlhood, Interrupted

I’m wearing a helmet, knee and elbow pads, and big, thick mitts on my hands, all in fire engine red. Detective Lopez, a woman who could inspire confidence in a rabbit, is in the room, along with the woman running the video camera. The two huge guys in dough-boy padded suits aren’t really the rapists and muggers they’re pretending to be. So why is this so frightening?  Why is my daughter too scared to enter the room at all?

I grew up full of fear. Fearful of the unknown, which, in the narrow universe of my childhood, was nearly everything. Taught not to rely on but to doubt myself in a tough spot. My mother’s first reaction to many of the things I reported about my forays into the world was a gasp. I’ve worked to unlearn, to re-teach myself. I intended my own children to grow up differently.

Towards that end: the 12-hour anti-rape self-defense training recently offered at a nearby police station. Our group ranged in age from thirteen to late seventies. Four of us were there for and with our daughters, three young teens (one mine), and an unwilling eighteen-year-old whose mother wanted to arm her for the terrain she would soon navigate – a college campus. Our instructors were the formidable Detective Lopez, in her mid-thirties, and Officer Damon, ten years younger. If I had designed role models to teach my daughter self-defense I couldn’t have done better than these two strong, self-assured, and (important to this thirteen year old) attractive young women, both veterans. And if four of us were anxious that our daughters know how to defend themselves, Officer Damon provided a touching counterpoint with her particular concern to train one member of the group: her mother.

The class was open only to women. The police didn’t want to run the risk of teaching defense tactics to potential attackers. Then too, a woman or girl who’d had a bad experience in the past might find herself coping with emotional echoes during the training. An environment without men would feel safest, so there wouldn’t be any in the room, even as instructors. That is, until the final night.

Class time was intensely physical. We were taught to think about risk reduction, about making ourselves look like tough targets to aggressors, who generally prefer easy ones. But mostly we were taught to move. Techniques – blocks, kicks, stomps, punches, rolls, finger jabs, and one memorable procedure demonstrated with a pair of ping pong balls – were thrown at us in quick succession, practiced, reviewed, corrected. We were taught to use our voices. Stop! No! Get off! Rape! I’m not sure why this one was so hard for many of us to remember, but I’d like to think that, like hitting our teachers, what was challenging in the classroom would come much more readily in a dark parking garage.

Like everyone else, my daughter worked at nailing the techniques. She also giggled with another girl taking the class, and texted her friends during breaks. She laughed heartily at everything I did, not nastily but with affection, as if genuinely (and continuously) tickled by my attempts to master tactics.

Every now and again our instructors would stop the action and check in with us one at a time. We’d been told at the outset to expect the check-ins. Told we had to make eye contact with the person asking how we were, indicate that we were fine or that we were not. Meeting another’s eyes is, in a small way, a gesture of assertion. In circumstances in which we were feeling a little awkward, in which we were being asked to use our bodies in ways unprecedented for many of us, the moment of eye contact was yet another demand to locate some self-confidence. That’s how I think my daughter, who until very recently made eye contact with me whenever she spoke to another adult, felt about it.

From the start we were promised that the course would culminate in an exciting pay-off for our efforts, a simulation in which we would put everything we’d been taught to use. Simulation of what? Danger. One by one we’d be attacked in our classroom. It was our task to make it out of the room. It was the task of Dough Boys One and Two to keep us there. When our instructors spoke of the simulation, I noticed that none of us jumped up and down in anticipation. Still it was surprising when two class stalwarts didn’t show up the final night, and didn’t call to explain their absence. It was surprising when my daughter refused to participate.

As we’d been told, sometimes the training brings back echoes of things from the past. For my daughter, the training didn’t but imagining the simulation did. My daughter hasn’t been attacked by a stranger. She’s had experiences with someone she trusted that made her feel intruded upon, violated in a deeply personal way. There is a before and after in her girlhood. A time when it belonged just to her. And another time after, as she describes it, it was taken from her. She tells me that because of these experiences, she is afraid, almost always, of almost anything and everything. Though she vigorously denies it I feel that she had these experiences because I failed to protect her. I long to give her back her intact girlhood. And can’t. So I try to help her shed anxiety. The training was meant to help her be safe and feel strong. I encouraged her to try the simulation. She was firm. She said she feared she might break down inside the cage created by the face-masked helmet and be trapped there with her grief and terror.

I had taken the class myself only because my daughter wouldn’t take it without me. Now I had to ask myself what use I could make of the experience I was about to have. It so happens that I have been under emotional attack and in a great deal of fear myself in recent years, over-laying the fearfulness of my childhood. I decided I could enact symbolically what I’d never quite managed in life. I would end an attack – finally, definitively end it, and in so doing, free myself from vulnerability – from fear. Of course it wasn’t so simple for me, just as it wasn’t for my daughter.

In the lobby all of us, except my daughter, strapped on protective gear. We were reminded that our goal was to escape, not to beat up our attackers. Winning meant getting way. We needed to be reminded of this because in the heat of the moment, the flip side of terror is rage. During one of my simulations I kicked my (well-padded) assailant in the groin, then started to kick him again – only to realize that he’d let go of my arm and I was free to run.

One at a time we were called into the classroom. Those of us left behind, waiting, listened to our classmate’s screams.

Each of us returned a mix of pent up and spent, relieved, victorious. We congratulated each other. We’d been told not to discuss details of the simulations with those who hadn’t been through them, so we talked in a general way about our experiences. Everyone I spoke with agreed that, despite being fully aware that what was happening wasn’t real, the simulations had been terrifying. I’d been right not to press my daughter to go through them, though I was sorry she hadn’t. 

I had wanted my daughter to have an experience of setting her own boundaries and defending them. Of protecting herself. She wasn’t ready. Maybe before relinquishing my care, she needed to see if I was strong enough to provide it. Maybe she needed to see me face the demon and survive.

When I was about to enter the simulation room my daughter took a photo of me in full gear, face obscured by the helmet, gloved fists raised like a boxer’s. I’m Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, all phony ferocity, and reminiscent of the badge he’s awarded in the end, I walked out that night with a piece of paper stating I’d completed the course. The lion’s badge tells him he’s found his courage. My certificate tells me I can join any other class in this method of self-defense, wherever it might be offered. In other words, I can view my training as just begun. If my daughter had faced the simulation that night I might be tempted to feel finished. As it is, I’m only too aware that we’re not. I’d better start looking out for another class. Maybe next time, or some time, my daughter will want to face her own demon, and get away.



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The Bathroom Question

Gender is in the air.

Over dinner recently with friends, a question arose: Do women have a right to women-only space?

We happened upon the subject when one friend spoke favorably of efforts by some schools to desegregate bathrooms by gender. Her argument was that gender-specific restrooms were offensive and inconvenient to people whose gender identity contradicts their anatomy. To women or girls who are afraid of having male-bodied people in their restrooms, my friend would say: trans people are not dangerous by virtue of being trans. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

My friend spoke passionately on this subject. As the mother of a female-to-male transsexual, she has been front row and center to the frustrations, misunderstandings and agonies that permeate the day to day life of a person in transition from one gender to another.

As the mother of a daughter who has been emotionally and psychologically damaged by a man, who carries a legacy of trauma into all her dealings with men, and who would be disturbed to find herself sharing a restroom with someone she knew to be male-bodied, my perspective is inevitably different. I found it striking that my friend, a feminist, was unhesitating in saying that women and girls have no right to space that is defined as female-bodied only.

In the week or so since that conversation, I’ve come across no less than three different articles in widely different publications on what I now think of as the bathroom question, though it could by implication affect all spaces, institutions, activities and endeavors whose access or membership is defined by identity – gender identity, ethnic, national or religious identity, and so on.

In the latest of these articles, a lawyer named James Ehrhard, writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, discussed the Massachusetts ban of last July on gender identity discrimination, and the state’s recent educational guidelines in response to that ban, directing schools to permit students to use the restrooms (and locker rooms, showers, and so on) of their choice, based upon their internal sense of gender, and also to provide gender neutral restrooms. Ehrhard noted that proponents of the law claim that people with gender identity issues make up approximately half of one percent of the population of Massachusetts. He went on to say that the law specifies that a male-bodied person’s desire to use a girls’ restroom trumps the possible discomfort some girls may feel with this situation.

This discussion emerges at a time when we are daily reminded of the vulnerability of women and girls, when reports of violence and sexual violence against women seem omnipresent, from the rape culture of college campuses to the brutally misogynist online harassment of girls by their male peers. It’s within this context that I struggle to understand how and why the needs of half of one percent of the population trump the needs of fifty percent of the population.

My friend’s point that trans people are not, as a group, dangerous to girls and women, is true. Unfortunately, the same can’t so easily be said of men. Some children go in and out of gender identities as they grow. I’ve known several who passed through periods of identifying as the opposite gender only to settle comfortably into the gender indicated by their bodies in adolescence. Shifting, fluid identities could be more easily accommodated in an ungendered world. But we don’t live in an ungendered world. Many of us don’t believe an ungendered world is possible, whether we wish it or not. In my experience with a transgendered ex-husband, “gender neutral” were dirty words. I was told quite forcibly and repeatedly that gender is in fact the most important, most elemental and immutable aspect of being human.

For women under siege, subject to violence, violation, economic, social and religious oppression based upon our female bodies, gender identity and its consequences indeed appear elemental and immutable.   


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IF NOT NOW, WHEN? Changing Gun Laws

By and large, it is women who teach our children. Which means that school violence is often violence against women, as well as violence against children. Witness the six teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.

I was reflecting on this yesterday as I listened to Massachusetts State legislators discuss gun control laws, among other issues, at Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, MA. IF NOT NOW, WHEN? This quintessential Jewish expression of the need to take action and responsibility, said State Representative Ellen Story, applies to gun control if it applies to anything. Seconding Story, State Senator Stan Rosenberg pointed out that the NRA wields political power wildly in excess of its membership of some 4 million, because it is funded by and represents gun manufacturers. Gun manufacturers want to sell guns – the more the merrier. When the NRA refuses to consider any curbs on who can access guns, and what weapons are available, they aren’t defending American freedom. They’re defending gun manufacturers’ right to make a buck.

Who does the NRA speak for? Not me.Image

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Sing Me a Love Song

No matter how you look at it, a day to celebrate romantic love, named for an obscure Christian martyr, is a decidedly odd thing. And I say this as a confirmed, against-my-better-judgment romantic.

I can’t help but think that, unlike most silly things in the world, whoever thought up Valentine’s Day must have been a girl. Do any men actually like Valentine’s Day? Or, like flowered bed linens, kittens and love songs, do they tolerate it because they know they must?

Women and girls – many of us – love Valentine’s. The idea of it anyway. We’re suckers for courtly love, despite knowing well all the real-life complexities behind the fairytales. Despite being the targets for trigger-happy athletes, despite being beaten to death on buses, raped on college campuses, bullied and threatened and abused physically, emotionally, socially in our own homes. Despite economic and legal oppression.

Why don’t we shake off our romantic dreams? Our hopes? What is it embedded in days like this we can’t, or don’t want, to live without?

What Valentine’s Day makes me think of is my father bringing home a big heart-shaped box of chocolates for my mother, and a small heart-shaped box of chocolates for me, every year when I was a little girl. I have few happy childhood memories, even fewer involving my father. Few positive images of my parents’ marriage. This one I never shake. Never even try.

That’s it for now. I have to go – I’ll admit it – out to dinner with my sweetie. It’s Valentine’s Day, after all.

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