Your Weekly Action Scripts

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I was talking on Facebook with some friends yesterday about the fact that the cost/benefit of calling my congresspeople just isn’t worth it for me. I could do it, but it would sap all my energy. I asked for ideas of other things I could do to help, and one of my friends made a great suggestion: write scripts for others who can call. Now THIS I can do! So I’m making it my mission this year (and possibly throughout the entire Trump administration) to identify one issue a week and write scripts for you to contact your Congresspeople, the White House, and any other relevant parties. I’m also going to include some pre-written tweets, so that if you have a Twitter account you can tweet at your representatives.

All of these scripts should be adaptable for letter writing, although if you are planning to write a letter I would urge you to include something personal in your letter as it gets more attention if it’s a unique letter. Apparently postcards also get through more quickly than actual letters due to the anthrax scare, so keep that in mind.

This week I’d like to focus on disability issues, as I complained enough about them not getting enough attention in my last post. There are three main concerns that I have right now in regards to the disability community. I would recommend calling your representatives over the course of a couple days and each day using one of these scripts.

Issue One: Repealing the ACA

Why this is important: Trump and a variety of GOP lawmakers have vowed to repeal the ACA. This is of particular concern to the disability community because the ACA made it illegal to deny someone health insurance based on a preexisting condition. For those with disabilities, this made health care a possibility where it had not been.

Calling script for your Senate and House representative: “Hello, my name is ___ and I am your constituent from [location and zip]. I’d like to speak with the individual in your office who handles calls concerning the ACA.”

They will either transfer you or say that they can help you out. If they do not transfer you, ask for the name of the individual who handles calls concerning the ACA. You can use this name in future calls. Then proceed with the script: “Thank you. I’m calling to urge Senator/Representative _______ to oppose any attempts to repeal the ACA. The ACA made it illegal for insurers to refuse someone based on preexisting conditions. This allowed thousands of Americans with disabilities to finally access important, life saving care, and I urge Senator/Representative _____ to remember those Americans when the time comes to vote on the ACA, and ensure that insurers are not allowed to deny Americans based on preexisting conditions.”

The staff member will likely thank you and may ask if you want a response from the representative. You can say yes or no. They may also take your full name, phone number, and address. There’s a possibility they will tell you that the representative will not do what you’ve asked. If so, you can simply say “I will call again tomorrow. Thank you.”

Calling Script for the White House: This one is a little bit tricky. The main White House comment line (202-456-1111) appears to be closed. You can try it, but it appears to suggest that you use Facebook or the comment form on their website. Teen Vogue (the unexpected head of the resistence) has put together a useful article on contacting Trump’s businesses, as this appears to be the quickest way to actually reach the president. A strong note: please do not harass anyone working for Trump’s businesses. Remain polite.

“Hello, my name is ___ and I am calling to leave feedback for President Trump. As his White House comment line is closed, I am choosing to contact him through his business holdings.”

The person you’re talking to might be confused. They may try to ask you to make a reservation for a tee time or a hotel. If that happens, you can ask for a supervisor and repeat the above line. If they say that that’s not appropriate, simply say “please pass along my comment to your higher ups. I would like my President to receive my feedback. I will not take much of your time.” If they listen, use the following script.

“I am an American citizen, and I am calling to urge President Trump to cease his efforts to repeal the ACA. The ACA made it illegal for insurers to refuse someone based on preexisting conditions. This allowed thousands of Americans with disabilities to finally access important, life saving care, and I urge President Trump to veto any legislation that would allow preexisting conditions to return. Thank you for your time.”

Tweet for senators: @[your senator or representative] vote against repealing ACA. Preexisting conditions make it impossible for disabled Americans to get coverage!

Tweet for White House: @potus do not repeal ACA! Denial of insurance based on preexisting conditions kills disabled Americans.

Issue Two: Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education

Why this is an issue: Betsy DeVos is a problem for a wide range of reasons, but the ones I’d like to focus on are the fact that she did not know what IDEA was when asked during her hearing, and is very focused on school choice and deregulation. IDEA is the legislation that protects disabled students and gives them access to accommodations in their education. Her focus on deregulation is likely to remove many of the protections for disabled students, which are already underfunded and weak. This would likely leave disabled students with little to no support, or put away in separate schools that are not held to the same educational standards as other schools.

Calling script for your Senate and House representative: “Hello, my name is ___ and I am your constituent from [location and zip]. I’d like to speak with the individual in your office who handles education.”

They will either transfer you or say that they can help you out. If they do not transfer you, ask for the name of the individual who handles calls concerning the education. You can use this name in future calls. Then proceed with the script: “Thank you. I’m calling to urge Senator/Representative _______ to oppose Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos showed during her hearing that she did not know the basics of IDEA, a key piece of legislating protecting disabled students. She has also urged for deregulation of schools, which would further undermine supports for disabled students. This is disastrous for any students who require accommodations and supports to succeed in school, and will put future Americans with disabilities at a disadvantage in employment, life skills, and higher education. Please ensure all students have access to a free public education by opposing Betsy DeVos and demanding support and funding for IDEA.”

The staff member will likely thank you and may ask if you want a response from the representative. You can say yes or no. They may also take your full name, phone number, and address. There’s a possibility they will tell you that the representative will not do what you’ve asked. If so, you can simply say “I will call again tomorrow. Thank you.”

Calling Script for the White House: see above for notes on contacting the White House.

“I am an American citizen, and I am calling to urge President Trump to rethink his decision of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos showed during her hearing that she did not know the basics of IDEA, a key piece of legislating protecting disabled students. She has also urged for deregulation of schools, which would further undermine supports for disabled students. This is disastrous for any students who require accommodations and supports to succeed in school, and will put future Americans with disabilities at a disadvantage in employment, life skills, and higher education. Please encourage President Trump to ensure all students have access to a free public education by finding a different Secretary of Education who will support and fund IDEA.Thank you for your time.”

Tweets for Senator/Representative: I would recommend looking up whether your representative has come out in opposition to Betsy DeVos and select the appropriate Tweet.

For those who oppose: @[your representative or senator] thank you for opposing Betsy DeVos. She is wholly inappropriate for Sec. of Ed and will do harm to all students esp disabled ones

For those who do not oppose: @[your representative or senator] please oppose Betsy DeVos as Sec of Ed. She does not know what IDEA is. We need support for disabled students.

Tweet for POTUS: @potus Betsy DeVos is an inappropriate choice for Sec of Ed. She does not know what IDEA is. We need support for disabled students.

 

Issue Three: removal of all mentions of disability from WhiteHouse.gov

Why this is an issue: it’s fairly normal for an administration to change up the website when they move in, but what isn’t normal is for entire issues to be removed entirely. President Trump has replaced any mention of disability with issues like “America First policies”, because apparently Americans with disabilities aren’t important enough to be on his docket of issues.

For this one, all communications should go to the White House. See above for notes on calling the White House.

Script for White House: “I am calling to urge President Trump to add disability issues to whitehouse.gov. All mention of disability issues was removed when he entered office, erasing the concerns of millions of Americans. Please encourage President Trump to remember these Americans and fight for their rights. Thank you for your time.”

For the White House FB Page and White House comment page: I am deeply concerned that President Trump has removed disabilities from the list of issues on Whitehouse.gov. Americans with disabilities make up 19% of the population, and in the past have experienced serious discrimination, oppression, and abuse. Please return disability issues to the table and include them on whitehouse.gov. Disabled Americans deserve the support of their president, not someone who will erase them from the conversation.

NOTE: you can find the comment page here, and the FB page here. Feel free to adapt and expand this for a postcard.

Tweet for the White House: @POTUS I am appalled that you have removed all mention of disabilities from whitehouse.gov. Disabled Americans cannot be erased.

Look forward to next week’s scripts on Sunday. I hope to tackle some immigration issues. Together we can make our voices heard.

Social Media, Shaming, Bullying

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Today’s post will probably not be particularly coherent. I’m working out a variety of thoughts related to a wide array of topics that all seem to come together in the phenomena of online shaming and harassment. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about the appropriateness of shaming, the role social media and the internet play in allowing people to shame each other, and the differences between harassment and activism.

There have been a lot of stories lately about people using shame or attacks on the internet to change other people’s behavior. Gamergate is one of the most obvious examples, although in that case shame was not the tactic, but rather threats and attacks (with at least one instance of someone physically attempting to injure another person). It doesn’t seem like it takes much thinking to realize that threats (especially death and rape threats) are not acceptable ways to change someone’s behavior, and neither is driving to their house with the intention of killing them. So we have a far end of the spectrum that is unequivocally Not Ok (I’m sure there is a freeze peacher out there somewhere who is apoplectic that I’m taking away their right to say whatever they want. When I say Not Ok I mean that this is a horrible, unethical way to try to change things you disagree with, whether that be women in games or super racist people).

But other examples are not quite as obviously horrible ways to participate in a decent society.

Recently, Gawker did some trolling of Coca Cola in a way that tarnished their brand. Coca Cola was in the midst of a campaign turning negative tweets into happy little pictures, and Gawker managed to make them tweet quotes from Mein Kampf. Was this useful? Was it cruel? It seems like Gawker might have been pointing out the ways that it’s really unhelpful to tritely paper over the actual harms that happen on the internet, especially when Coca Cola actively takes part in some extremely negative, harmful, and oppressive things. But did that message come across, and is it ok to shame or trick them?

At Skepchick, Kerry suggests that trolling a huge company is different from taking the same actions towards an individual. A recent New York Times article documents the ways that backlash to tweets can completely change an individual’s life, leading to them losing their job, developing mental illnesses, and even being afraid to date on the off chance that their date Googles them. The repercussions for Coke were that the company had to pull their campaign. So it does seem that there’s an important difference between using social media to ask someone (or someones) with power to change their behaviors and piling on the shame to an individual to get them to change their behavior.

BUT…one of the most effective ways to push social change is by upping the social costs of behaving poorly. So when more and more people start speaking up and saying that they don’t like shitty rape jokes, or that they won’t tolerate hearing racism and sexism, the more people learn not to engage in behaviors that actually hurt other people. When someone does something that is really a nasty, inappropriate thing (even if it’s simply saying a nasty, inappropriate shame) it does make sense for them to feel some shame, and for others to show their disapproval. Sometimes this does cross over into shaming for shaming’s sake, like name calling or mocking. That seems to be less helpful, although it’s something that happens with or without the internet: it happened in the past in public punishments like the stocks or public executions and whippings. It happens in individual friend groups all the time. It can even happen at larger events like performances or athletics.

So it makes complete sense that some of these shaming behaviors that are actually pretty effective ways of groups policing what behavior they find acceptable or not would move over to the internet. I’m curious if the people who think that this constitutes a destruction of free speech would think the same thing about the instances in which people are shamed or berated for saying shitty things in meatspace.

Of course there are some pertinent differences. The internet lets shaming happen on a scale far larger than most in person shaming ever would. It sticks around for a lot longer, and can get broadcast to a lot of people, even if just for their entertainment. Those differences can lead the shaming to follow someone for longer than it might have otherwise, but the emotional effects of being shamed don’t seem like they would be much different whether they were in person or online.

It seems like there’s a lot of nuance in which behaviors of calling someone out or asking someone to change are actually effective and aren’t horribly damaging to other people. There have to be some repercussions in order for a person to make any changes, but too many repercussions and you venture into “being a total shithead” territory (like death threats). For people who are extremely thoughtful about how they engage with other people this might not be a problem. There are actually people out there who are fairly careful on the internet about how they try to engage in activism, particularly when interacting with an individual.

But the problem is that the internet gives us all equal access. So especially if someone who is thoughtful and nuanced starts a critique of another person online, it quickly becomes a shitfest of insults and shaming, whether or not we intended it to be that way. This can still be surprisingly effective at getting people to understand that they’ve said something horrible, or at educating a larger group of people about a certain social justice issue, but it does seem to come at a cost. That cost involves hurting some people, the people who said something racist or stupid or awkwardly and then got attacked.

When does it cross into bullying?

I really don’t know. I don’t know how much responsibility we can take for the ways that companies respond when an employee has said something stupid. Calling for someone to be fired doesn’t seem relevant (unless that person is heading up some kind of policy or their actions would affect their own or their coworkers abilities to do their jobs). But sometimes when an employee is the source of bad PR, it’s in the company’s best interest to let them go. Are the internet masses responsible? Was it bullying or shaming to say that a person’s actions were gross or racist or bad? How does it change if that person has 170 followers vs. if they’re a CEO or entertainer?

Our gut instinct says that those in the public sphere should be willing to put up with some flak, but is it really fair to say that they deserve the kind of overwhelming shaming, criticism, and mob mentality that can come when a celebrity screws up on Twitter? How responsible do they have to be for the fact that their words and actions influence more people than the average joe?

Even if you’re one of the Good Ones, how responsible is it to join in the criticism if you know others are going to jump in and take it to a ridiculous extreme?

Guys I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know how much hurt is the acceptable amount of hurt to ask the privileged to put up with. I don’t know when criticism moves to bullying moves to harassment or how to decide what amount of privilege shields you from the worse end of that spectrum. I know that it’s really important that there are repercussions when someone says something racist or sexist or shitty or oppressive because saying those things actively harms the more vulnerable people. I just don’t know how.

The Things I Carry

WARNING: Emo poetry ahead. 

 

Every morning when I wake up, I know there are things I must take with me

No matter what I am doing, I fill my pockets and my pores with the things I carry

When my feet touch the ground as I stand up from sleep

I know the weight of them.

 

Before I rise, my mind is full with the List.

It steamrolls over me and leaves its imprint:

What You Must Do To Be Acceptable.

I pick it up and pull my body skywards.

 

I walked from my bed to the bathroom and add the pills I take each day

settling in my stomach

Next to the heaviness of the breakfast I will not eat

I dress, placing the anxiety of eyes over my body

I have my bare essentials.

 

Today I carried a backpack.

A simple case for:

A laptop to channel words that build and build upon me

Reminding me that I never have enough words

A book of memories

joyful things I forget to read

A wallet, heavy with emptiness

A notebook, filled with fragments of days that I forgot to live.

They repeat themselves and I don’t remember to move

The loss of time on my shoulders

 

I remember to pick up my lover from his slump on the floor.

His sadness is large, black

But his legs don’t work today and so he uses mine

 

With my keys, I take the criticisms I heard yesterday and the day before and the day before

stretching back before memory.

Things begin to get heavy now, but it’s early

Before I leave, I turn back and pick up the hours of therapy I own

Each week

A prize for the size of my waist.

These are the things I take from the table before I begin.

 

As I walk through the day I collect things to put in my pockets

The letter from my landlord, rejecting a request

A note from the insurance, ending my benefits

The phone call from my mother, revealing secrets I didn’t want to know

They swell to bursting.

 

It is noon

I pull on my running shoes, and I feel the minutes I sweat falling on me

The time I am alone in my mind

The ripping breath I cannot end

Each mile is a requirement that I must complete, or I will drop everything

These are the rules, and I know that I cannot put down the things I carry.

 

Back to work, and my anxiety is large

growing and growing on the angry words that fly

A friend calls. I struggle to pick him up.

My legs are becoming weak.

 

As I walk from work, I take the knowledge that my hours were not enough

I have not, I have not, I have not-

done enough.

 

An hour with my therapist, and I know I have not been Good Enough to myself

I pick up the diary card

The numbers are wrong

Bad numbers go in my pocket.

 

When I get home, I tumble, headlong into bed

Dropping everything.

I carry too much these days.

Social Media and Honesty

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This is the second of two follow up posts to a liveblog of a panel about social media for nonprofits. Here I’d like to focus on the fact that the internet often brings out the honesty in us: we say things we wouldn’t say otherwise, and very often these are nasty, negative things. Many people think this is the worst thing ever to happen and it means none of us should ever go on the internet and we should totally just accept that that’s how the internet is because duh it’s the internet (hyperbole, hyperbole). However there are some things about this bald honesty that are really positives, and which we should take advantage of.

The first element of this is that it exposes people who are really quite horrible. People feel more free to say sexist, racist, and cruel things online than they do otherwise. It reveals a lot of the things that they are likely thinking underneath but have learned to hide. That means that those of us who understand why these things are inappropriate can call them out and explain what’s wrong with their actions, as opposed to face to face interactions in which they hide their true feelings and we can do nothing about it.

It’s hard to face an enemy who won’t show its true face. If people are constantly hiding their racism but still acting on it in subtle ways, it continues to have impacts but is much harder to call out and change. Giving people a forum to voice their true opinions allows those opinions to be honestly engaged with and hopefully changed for the better.

But the other element of this is that it allows all sorts of unpopular opinions to get into dialogue together: sometimes these are even POSITIVE opinions. We get to hear from people who normally are not allowed to speak: people who practice BDSM, trans* people, people with mental illness, immigrants…all of these honest experiences are put out there to intersect with the opinions we hear every day. And perhaps hearing these true experiences will help those with negative stereotypes to move beyond the simplistic impressions they have of others and find a real understanding of difference.

Sometimes these bald-faced opinions are things we need to hear. Sometimes they’re things we hear all too often but never so clearly stated. But honesty, in my opinion, is rarely a bad thing. It can be difficult to hear and should generally come with compassion, but if we want to improve as a society, we need to clearly know where we are and how people see the world.

Of course being baldly honest when you’re acting as the representative of a company is not the best policy, but individuals being truthful about their opinions will probably help us to understand what the problems in our society are and how to fix them.

Live Blogging North Star NonProfits: Tweet Her? I Barely Know Her!

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This post is a liveblog of a presentation by Cameron Bloom Kruger.

Social media exists alongside all other kinds of communication with our audiences, but we have to think about where our communications might overlap with the communications our audiences would like to use. We should aim for that sweet spot. Oftentimes, social media is that sweet spot, but we need to be strategic about which social media we’re using.

Social media is like real life only online. Social media is a conversation, and we need to strategically decide which conversations we want to be a part of and which conversations we have the time to effectively be a part of. Here are some analogies of the different types of conversations you might have on social media:

Facebook is a coffeeshop: you’re sitting and having a conversation, might tune out that you’re in public. Be personal and unique. Oftentimes it gives you a false sense of privacy. Intimate in public.

Twitter is a crowded bar: too many people all talking at once. You can yell if you want, but you don’t always want to do that.

LinkedIn is a networking event: you have your business card and you want to make connections. BUSINESS. This isn’t the place for being unique, it’s the place to get a job.

Google+ is a conference lunch. A circle of people mostly isolated from other conversations. If you want to break out and move to a different table you can, but most people won’t.

The Internet is Leaking: can these communications affect and break into real life? Absolutely social media affects our “real world” (a term I’m not wholly comfortable with because the interactions we have online are absolutely real). The feelings we have about a brand that appear online carry over into our in person interactions with that brand.

More often than not, the emotions associated with social media are negative (according to studies about people’s impressions of social media interactions). We see a lot of arguments, blocking, and discomfort from online conversations. The feeling seems to be that because there is a wall of technology, individuals can be more real, more raw and say things they wouldn’t say normally. Kruger seemed to indicate that this is a bad thing, and for branding it often is, however in a follow up post I’d like to address why this bald honesty can be a tool for good online.

Cautionary Tales: we could be driving conversations in positive ways. Here are some things not to do.

If content is fire, social media is gasoline.

One example is Adria Richards. We don’t always need to say exactly what we’re thinking on social media, and we need to be careful to think about the consequences once that gasoline fire gets started. Again, Kruger indicated that Richards’ behavior in this case was inappropriate because she could have handled the situation less publicly. I find this example unfortunate because there has been a lot of ink spilled over the gender politics of this particular incident, something I’ll touch on in a later post. Suffice it to say that social media often gives a voice to those who are rarely heard otherwise, and this may have been an example of that.

Don’t feed the trolls! Trolls: People who hide behind anonymity and try to get an emotional reaction. Essentially Kruger suggests that we shouldn’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage with those people who are ragging on you because it will inflame things. If you can capitalize on that negative attention, do it, otherwise don’t escalate the situation.

Jumping on the bandwagon: don’t do it. You don’t need to post about everything in the world that happens just because other people are posting about it, and you absolutely don’t need to try to capitalize on serious issues. If something relates to you, then post about it.

Sounding like a robot: Don’t respond to people with form letters. Be real. Actually listen to what they’re saying.

These things don’t move us forward. Start small, target a particular audience and engage with them narrowly.

3 Tips:

1.You are the brand. People want to talk to YOU not a logo.

2.Contribute more than you receive-put out good content and you’ll reap the benefits. Not just about you.

3.Learn to listen. Be a good conversationalist. Find out what people have said about you.

All of these tips are incredibly helpful, but I will say that there are some important differences between social media as an individual vs. social media as an organization, and that many of these tips have been fiercely debated when it comes to being an individual on the internet, particularly a woman or other minority person on the internet. Don’t feed the trolls is only the most infamous of these. When using social media as an individual who is representing an organization, it’s a hard balance to find, but it’s one that we should be thinking about with more nuance than “should” and “should not”.

It Doesn’t Fit The Script: Assault and My Life

TRIGGER WARNING: Rape

I don’t talk about rape much. Or at least I don’t talk about rape and my own life much. I don’t think I have important stories to tell. I don’t want people to know about my sex life. Rape is very much a part of my life: most of my best friends have been raped, blamed for their rape, slut shamed…My most conservative friends become suddenly liberal when rape comes up because their friends and loved ones have been raped.

 

And I talk about rape culture, and I talk about how horrible these incidents are, and I tell people how upset I am. But I don’t talk about myself. I won’t ever label it rape, I don’t think. There was no penetration involved. He did stop, eventually. But I do have a story, and it’s not one that follows The Script. I think it’s time to tell that story because I am so sick of hearing what rape looks like or what assault looks like and never hearing my story.

 

I was assaulted slowly, wearing everything from underwear and a tshirt to sweatpants and a hoodie. It happened through words, with someone I loved, with someone I was dating, with someone I trusted. It was on a college campus, at all times of day and night, in public, in his room, in my room. It was in my home, in his home…it was without alcohol or drugs or violence. And it was still unacceptable, and it was still not my fault, and it was still without my consent. This is what happened.

 

When we first started going out I had an active sex drive. He was afraid of sex. I respected that, but encouraged him to stop thinking of sex as something scary, negative or wrong. I told him it was ok to want sex. Eventually he started to listen, and found that he enjoyed sex. However I have a bizarre sex drive: it comes and goes for months at a time at its own whim. And a few months into our relationship, it turned off. Completely. I understand that this is something that would bother a partner. I understand that it would be difficult to deal with, frustrating, disheartening. I did my best to explain how I was feeling, find ways to be intimate, express my love, and be there for him when I could. I tried to keep our relationship functional even when I found I couldn’t in good conscience consent to sexual activity.

 

Unfortunately, his response was to demand sex from me. My assault didn’t happen in a night. It didn’t happen in a week. It was a sustained campaign of emotional manipulation. Each night was a struggle: I would go to bed with pants and a shirt on and he would beg me to take them off, telling me he needed to feel close to me. Some nights he would succeed, others I would try to fall asleep as he lay petulantly beside me because I had chosen to keep my clothes on.

 

He would try to touch me and when I asked him to stop he would say I was making him feel unwanted. When I told him that I wasn’t interested in sex, he told me that I had led him on by telling him I wanted sex before. He would cuddle me and I would edge away. He would edge closer. He seemed to make it clear that my body should belong to him: that he could grab or kiss any part of it he chose whenever he chose. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he said he just wanted me to feel good. It made him cry when I said no. He told me that he couldn’t feel close to me any other way.

 

Sometimes I would listen to him. I would tell myself I owed it to him to do what he was asking because I loved him and he loved me, and I was making him feel unwanted and unloved, damaging his already low self-esteem. I worried I would make sex even worse for him if I didn’t give him what he wanted now. How could I be so cold and cruel? Why wasn’t I loving him? What was wrong with me that I could care about him so much and then withhold something that would make him happy?

 

Somtimes I would try to let him do what he wanted. I would try to kiss back. But I couldn’t fake the enthusiasm, and when I just lay there, letting him paw all over me, he became upset: “I want you to like it!” he would tell me, as if it were my fault that I weren’t enjoying his forcible fondling. He made it clear that he got off on my pleasure, and that I had to be enjoying whatever was happening. He would stop if I wasn’t enjoying myself, but not because I wasn’t consenting, because it wasn’t fun for him if I didn’t join in. I owed him not only my body, but my willing joy as well. When I did manage to fake some enthusiasm he ignored every possible sign that I didn’t want physical intimacy.

 

On top of the physicality, he emotionally made it clear that my body belonged to him. He became jealous and possessive. He told me that he didn’t like me wearing short shorts because “then other guys would objectify me”. He tried to forbid me from swing dancing because he thought it was too sexual and was on par with cheating. He kept asking where we could draw the line. What was so different about a hug, or a dance, or a cuddle than sex?

 

All of this was happening as he became more and more depressed. This was in the midst of my eating disorder and depression, and I could see him falling into patterns like my own. He would tell me that his parents thought it was my fault, that I had given him an eating disorder. I knew that was crazy, but I couldn’t help but think that his unhappiness was my fault, that I owed him some joy for all that I had taken from him. I could see him falling apart in front of me, and how could I not feel guilty for that?

 

And finally, I broke. I had been fighting with myself for weeks trying to continue to say no, to watch him cry after I told him no, to remember my own boundaries and my certain knowledge that I shouldn’t consent just because he wanted me to. But finally he told me that I had ruined sex for him, and that if I didn’t have sex with him right that very night, he would never have sex again. He would turn off that part of himself completely. I shut down. Mutely, I nodded my assent to whatever he was doing, but I couldn’t make myself do anything but lay there. I started crying, despite trying not to. I turned away from him so he wouldn’t see. He was kissing me and touching me, and he would ask me if I was ok, and I would blurt out a choked “It’s fine” and he would keep going, until he finally saw me crying. He rolled off of me and walked away to sulk. I don’t remember the details. I don’t remember what all he did. I don’t call it rape because I don’t know what happened, I just know he touched me and I was crying and he knew I didn’t want it.

 

Of course some people will tell me this was my fault, that I should have seen the signs, that I should have just left. That’s easy enough to say when you aren’t the one in love, when you aren’t the one hanging onto your own emotional well being by a thread, when you don’t think that if you leave he might kill himself. Yes, I had choices in this situation that could have ended it, but I did not choose to manipulate and terrorize another human being until they thought they had no choice but to give me their body in order to keep me sane.

 

This same kind of incident has happened in three of my relationships. It is not uncommon. But this is not the narrative of rape. If I were to report this incident, I would be laughed out the door. I pretend it didn’t happen for the most part, except when asking my current partner to be particularly careful about boundaries. This is considered normal in relationships. The idea that I owed him sex is normal in relationships. But it hurt me. It made me feel guilty for the fact that I felt violated and hurt. We need to be honest about how common this is, how manipulative it is, and how it is, in fact, assault.

Shame is Not The Answer

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Shame is an emotion that seems to infiltrate almost every aspect of our lives and society. The media has been having a field day with shame lately: people should be ashamed of homosexuality, they should be ashamed of having sex, they should be ashamed of what they eat, they should be ashamed of being racist and sexist, or they should be ashamed of being too PC, they should be ashamed of not exercising, they should be ashamed of being dirty…any perceived fault seems to bear stigma along with it. People like to make each other feel ashamed because it’s a really fast way to get the other person to shut up. Even in social justice circles, where I generally agree with the end goals, shaming is a technique that gets used to illustrate to people how bad and wrong their behaviors are. My very informal Twitter poll showed that people think some bad behaviors truly do deserve shame.

 

Why is shame so popular? Is it really helpful? And what differentiates it from things like guilt? I’d like to suggest that we as a society start cutting back on our shamefest and start finding new ways to illustrate to people that we dislike their behaviors or find their behaviors unacceptable because shame has lots of negative consequences.

 

Shame as an emotion encapsulates a few things. First, it is the reaction to a rejection or judgment from others. Martha Nussbaum posits that the most primitive shame is the realization that we are not an omnipotent center of the universe and that we cannot constantly be catered to. It is the realization that others do not exist solely to fulfill our needs. As we mature, shame becomes the awareness that others might reject us and that our needs might not get met. It is not inherently related in any way to a bad or negative action. It is simply the reaction to others rejecting you.

 

Importantly, shame and guilt are two different things. Guilt is in response to a single action: you feel guilty if you know that your action was immoral or wrong. Shame however, points to the entire human being, or to a characteristic of the whole human being. You feel shame if you believe that you are a bad person, or the type of person that others do not want. Overall, this means that shame is an emotion that tells us there is nothing redeemable about us: it does not give us a path forward, and it does not tell us that we can do better. It illustrates to us our weakness, our broken humanity, and how small and wrong we are in this universe.

 

So why do we love to shame each other so much if shame seems to be such a negative and all-encompassing emotion? Well when we shame each other, we are often protecting ourselves. One of the best ways to keep ourselves from feeling ashamed is by foisting shame on others: we can’t be the weak, subhuman ones if we’re better than THOSE people over there, who are really the bad ones. For a lovely example of this, see Nazi Germany. More often than not, if someone is worried about whether or not they are strong enough, acceptable enough, or safe enough, they create an Other who can take on all of those worries for them: they imbue that other with all the qualities that they dislike about themselves, and then they distance themselves from that other to illustrate just how not weak they are. This is a really nice way for people to feel like they are safe. They surround themselves with what they consider normal, and feel that they are no longer in an unsafe world because all the people around them are just like them and are strong.

 

Another reason that people like to shame is because they feel that it’s an extremely effective way of getting someone to change their behavior. Shame is an extremely powerful emotion, and we like to think that if someone is ashamed of themselves, they will change their behavior. Shame punishments have become popular lately. When some businessmen in New York urinated on bushes in public, they were sentenced to cleaning the street with toothbrushes. We all laugh and feel that they were not really harmed and that they’ll never ever forget this punishment and thus will change their behavior. Shame seems like a wonderful way to express our societal morals. Particularly in relation to things that we feel are really abominable we want someone to feel shame: if you shoot someone, you should be horribly ashamed of yourself. You deserve to feel shame because you are a bad person.

 

But is shame actually effective and acceptable? Most studies indicate that it is not. Shame tends to rip apart someone’s self-identity and leave them without any sense that they can recover or be rehabilitated. It excludes them from the community and does not give them an effective way of moving back into the community and improving their behavior. Shame does not tell you that something is wrong with the way you behaved, but that you could change it and be welcomed back. Shame tells you that YOU are wrong and do not belong. Shame tends to be linked to things like addiction, mental illness, anti-social behaviors, and crime. More often than not it does not lead to improved behavior but rather to more self-hatred and a further distancing of oneself from the community. There are very few examples in which using shame improved someone’s behavior.

 

In addition to the fact that it won’t improve someone’s behavior, shame often damages the individual in extreme ways. Shame can lead to extreme loneliness and antisocial behaviors. It can also cause extreme guilt, self-hatred, self-harm, and other negative coping strategies. For the most part, shame does not allow someone any confidence or self-identity to move forward in life, but pushes them to stagnate and break apart.

 

Now some people suggest that there are different kinds of shame. There is constructive shame, which allows for reparations and forward movement, and there is a more primitive kind of shame that traps someone in a stigmatized position forever. There is not a clear cut difference between the two though. In one case, the shame simply seems to be deserved. Unfortunately, even when shame might be deserved, it still can lead to negative consequences and still makes it difficult for an individual to see themselves as separate from the negative action they undertook.

 

Additionally, these two types can easily meld into each other, and even when we believe that something is a constructive version of shame, we may simply be using it to enforce social norms rather than morals designed to keep people safe and happy.  Shame is a dangerous emotion because a little shame goes a long way, and because the majority loves to fall into moral panics by shaming others for no reason. It is easy for a group to stigmatize others in order to make themselves feel safer, and all too often even well-meaning shame becomes cruel, oppressive, and stigmatizing. While it may be tempting to try to shame others to get them to understand when they’re behaving poorly, shame is not an effective or helpful tool to improve our societies and communities. If we do want others to feel bad, guilt is a more appropriate technique as it points to the specific action they did wrong.