May 082018
 

This post isn’t about anything nice, and definitely not about anything sexy.

But, we need to talk about eugenics.

Eugenics isn’t just that horrid thing that happened a long, long time ago in the Holocaust of World War II.

Well, it started a long time ago, and has shown up in one form or another all over the world – but there’s pretty convincing evidence that the Nazis got the idea from us – us being power-hungry people in the United States. I mean, they probably would have come up with it on their own, but we gave them the blueprint.

We basically showed them how to do it. A bunch of U.S. lawmakers and medical administrators worked federal law in their favour, trying over and over until they found a way to make sterilizing people against their will legal, and easy.

If you want to know more, key “Supreme Court Buck V Bell” into any search engine. Or, read this amazingly well-researched, fascinating, horrifying book: Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.

I’ve got my nerdy, vaguely ironic voice out because this stuff is freaking terrifying and is heart-breaking enough that I want to hold it at mental arm’s length. But I can’t. There aren’t yet enough people who know this history. As I wrote about here, even the sweepingly broad, powerful, far-reaching work of reproductive justice is missing vital pieces of this history.

And, there aren’t yet enough people who know that acts of eugenics, especially unconsented sterilization of disabled people, are still happening.

Why am I talking about this here? How does this relate to sexuality? When we know, for those of us who do know, about eugenics, about forced sterilizations, about the effort to make us not exist and the belief that we shouldn’t exist – for those of us who know all these things – it messes with how we view our own bodies, how we relate to others (including potential lovers), and how we connect to ourselves. It impacts the trust we have in the healthcare system, the way we approach reproductive choices, the way we approach parenting, or the decisions we make about whether to find help from social or healthcare services are keep going it on our own because the potential for judgment, the potential for being seen as less than human, is just too great.

Disabilities advocate Sassy Outwater puts it this way: “That idea
that someone could willfully prevent my body from having children just because I was disabled, even if it was only a historical thing, and is over now…
that never left my mind as I grew up.” Read the rest of this important commentary here and the post the inspired her thoughts.

Apr 152018
 

This piece on disability and sexual assault was published in 2010, long before hashtag movements and mainstream coverage. It’s 2018, and, honestly, I don’t feel as if we’ve made any sort of significant cultural shift.

Each April, we observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Every year we learn about at least one more documentary, local or regional anti-violence organization, or awareness campaign aimed at stopping the nightmare of sexual assault and abuse, or at helping victims of violence pick up the pieces

We’re churning out “awareness” essays and videos until they’re foaming up around our ears, and I have to ask: “Is it making a difference?”

Is there any less sexualized violence?

Are disabled folks facing any less ableism (read: disbelief, dismissal, lack of accessible services) when they seek help after an assault?

What does it mean to empower people if the basic culture permitting sexualized violence hasn’t changed?

I’m a disabled woman with a lot of disabled friends, and I’m tired of feeling fear for them.

I’m a disabled woman with a lot of disabled friends, and I’m tired of my heart hurting because most of them have abuse lurking in their pasts – and for all the friends who’ve shared with me, there are (probably) just as many who haven’t.

I mine the Internet for pieces like the one linked below, and I feel overwhelmed by the sameness of it all. It feels like nothing is changing, except that we have more data to link to, more essays and opinion pieces to show us the variety of chaotic things that happen in a world that sees disability as a failing, or at least as an insurmountable difference, a world that is so broken around sexuality and sexual expression that I don’t know if we’ll ever succeed in turning the tide away from abuse of power. At least, maybe, the sheer numbers of stories supply the data disbelievers always ask for, the “proof” that sexualized violence is a problem, that disabled folks are at horrible risk of being assaulted…

We’re smack dab in the middle of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I look at all the data, trying to find the progress, and wind up just shaking my head.

At least we now give voice to sexual victimization being something that touches people of all genders, not just women.

Here’s your dose of disability history-making for the weekend.

Mar 102018
 

The Internet is giant! It’s a library that will never get full (at least, I hope it won’t) and has decades of material. Most of us can barely get through news (fake or not) and opinions posted each day, let alone find the gems of the past. This week’s post is from Dave Hingsburger, published way back in 2006. (I think that makes it about 500 years old in Internet-time.) Dave started his blog that year, and has been writing, almost daily, since then.

I’ve written before about how much I admire Dave’s work.

He was one of the first to publicly (at great risk to his career) give voice to the fact that people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are sexual beings, that they have the right to have their loves and desires acknowledged and supported.

Here he is, doing that support.

Today I’m going shopping for a dildo and a butt plug – on work time, on a work mission. There are times I love working in the area of sexuality. This is one of them.

The weird thing is that when I’m actually in the store looking for the purchase, I get kind of shy. I want to yell out “I’M HERE IN A PROFESSIONAL CAPACITY AS A THERAPIST WORKING WITH THOSE WHO ONCE HAD THEIR SEXUALITY REPRESSED – THESE ARE NOT FOR ME!!!”

Read the rest of this terrific post.

Feb 252018
 

Everybody’s getting in on the “let’s publish sex and disability articles” deal these days.

Query Google (or your favourite search engine) for “sex and disability,” and your top results will almost always be from major online and print publications, and will date from the last four or five years. I’m not complaining about this. It’s fantastic that sexuality and disability, separately and together, are getting so much air time.

But like all good things, we didn’t create this conversation from scratch. Today’s voices aren’t the sexuality and disability pioneers the clickbait headlines want us to think they are. Years, decades really, of confabs in living rooms, at conferences, and later on online bulletin boards and chatrooms got us to this point.

Some of these conversations are lost in people’s memories. Some are hiding in obscure, or out-of-print books. And then there’s the Internet, the decades-old Internet with all it’s treasures. Remember, people were getting online in the early 90s, and I’d argue, with no evidence whatsoever, that disabled folks were some of the first to realize how powerful online spaces would be.

So, yes, the Internet, full of treasure – sometimes buried, sometimes obvious, sometimes forever lost to the ubiquitous “404. Page not found” message, which usually shows up when there’s a particularly enticing title and meta-description.

I’ve been digging these online and offline gems out for a while now, and it’s time for me to stop hoarding and start sharing. (though come to think of it, treasure-seeking pirates are usually portrayed as disabled…one eye? artificial leg? Yup, disabled.) So, maybe hoarding is just what we treasure-seekers do.

First stop: FWD (feminists with disabilities) for a way forward

FWD/Forward published essays, interviews, and opinion pieces on feminist and disability topics, “in response to the lack of disability content in online feminist spaces.” They were live from 2009-2011, and closed due to lack of community support. It takes more than passion and commitment to keep a Web site running.

Fortunately for us, some generous soul has archived everything and is keeping the site live…for which I’m incredibly grateful. I was pretty active online when FWD/Forward was happening – and I had no idea they existed. There really aren’t words for how sad this makes me. I could have learned a lot about writing and advocacy from these folks. This was important work being done, and valuable people to know.

I can, and do, get lost in this site for hours. I’ll probably share more favourite pieces over the coming months, but, first, this excellent introduction to disability and sexuality.
Disability and Sexuality 101, or, Do disabled people have sex?

The reason PWD aren’t considered as sexual – particularly “visibly” disabled PWD – is that the idea of “the perfect body” as the only sexual body dominates popular discourse. Additionally, we have the stereotypes of PWD as pathetic or stoic, far removed from the sexual. Not to mention the fact that disabled people tend to be shoved away from the general public. This idea is not due to some inherent aspect of disability that negates sexuality, it’s just bigotry. The lack of recognition for PWDs’ sexuality has meant, less so in recent years, that a lot of PWD aren’t given appropriate sex education. Without proper sex ed, it’s harder to take charge of one’s own sexual life and body. This lack of information has its role in enabling the high rates of abuse against PWD. There is a lot of horrific policing of the bodies and sexuality of disabled women in particular, as you’ll read about on this blog in less 101-type discussions.

And this…this is one case where you do want to read the comments. There’s so much good, honest, thoughtful dialogue here. At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, there’s a strong feeling of connection I just don’t get from so many online conversations today.

If you have a sex and disability resource you’d like to see get more attention – a favourite article, book, academic paper, or what have you, hit the contact form at the bottom of this page and send it my way, please. Remember, I’m looking for older, or more obscure material – let’s say anything more than five years old.

Feb 202018
 

Sexual healthcare is vital for anyone and everyone who’s sexually active, but, between inadequate research, inaccesible buildings and equipment, inexperienced and insensitive healthcare providers, and a whole bunch of other factors, most people with disabilities aren’t getting their sexual healthcare needs met. Before I read this article from the Disability Visibility Project, I knew that logically. It’s my job to know it.

Still, after reading, I’m left without words at the level of trauma and incompetence the writer’s doctors subjected her to. She wound up having major surgery that she might not have needed had she had the same level of access to preventive gynecological care that most nondisabled folks do. I’ll let you read the rest of her story yourself. I salute this woman’s bravery! She’s been through way too much!

And, she’s not the only one. Folks of all genders face these kinds of barriers to healthcare everyday. Biases against LGBQ or transgender folks, or racist attitudes or behaviours, or stigmas against folks who are homeless or unemployed – it all happens within the healthcare system (as well as everywhere else), and can mean the difference between getting quality or lackluster care, or even getting care at all.

Every day, people with disabilities aren’t getting the healthcare they need because the healthcare system isn’t set up to serve everyone’s physical needs, and providers aren’t being trained to recognize their own unconscious biases against disability so they can treat disabled patients with proficiency, and respect.

Ad our culture’s shame around anything sex-related, and prevailing beliefs that disabled people aren’t (or shouldn’t be) sexual, into the mix, and we have a sexual and reproductive healthcare system that is basically broken for people with disabilities.

We need to change this, to ensure that researchers and clinicians know about currently available resources, to inspire researchers to investigate best gynecological practices for all bodies, to make sure healthcare providers have training and experience before they leave school, again with all minds and bodies.

Feb 102018
 

One of the major stressors on disabled people’s relationships is negative (or even incorrect) attitudes and beliefs about disability from outsiders. Yup, it’s the people who have no business commenting on the relationship, or who have no clue about disability, that get most in the way of disabled folks’ intimate lives and partnerships.
Sometimes it’s direct interference – such as the people who make comments about stuff that’s none of their business, or even “warn” a nondisabled person to not get too involved with the disabled person they’re dating or falling in love with

Sometimes the interference comes less from in-your-face comments, and comes more from knowing the negative unsupportive attitudes are out there – and feeling pressure to prove those assumptions wrong.

A prevailing myth about disabled people is that we don’t have a lot to offer a romantic partner, and that we’ll be an energy drain on anyone who gets involved with us. The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability puts it way more bluntly, saying that the prevailing myth about disabled people and relationships is: “People living with disabilities and chronic illnesses are pathetic choices for partners.” Sometimes people make up stories to explain to themselves what they’re seeing, turning our spouses or partners into our friends, siblings, parents, or even payed caregivers. People make up stories about how a disabled person’s inability to wash the dishes, or bathe themselves, or scrub the kitchen floor translates into that person’s inability to be a supportive, responsible partner.

There’s also this general myth about how to be a great friend, lover, life partner – or even child or sibling – really it touches any relationship we’re in, and it basically says that the way we show care towards each other involves doing things for each other. This leaves out all the emotional, psychological, and even spiritual stuff that makes up the structure of a relationship between any two (or more) human beings.

The Real Story: All relationships are about give and take, and while (sometimes) that give and take looks different when disability is thrown into the mix, there’s nothing about disabled people that makes us less able to, or less interested in, caring for our partners. There’s no rule that says that being able to wash the dishes is the only way to show your boyfriend you care, or that being able to bathe yourself without assistance is a requirement for a mutual care-filled long-term partnership.

So, yes, knowing that people believe us to be less-than (or believe us to be wonderful, just not a wonderful marriage prospect for their daughter, brother, best friend) is stressful. We’re trying to fight stereotypes, and, you know, actually do the work (and the fun) that goes along with being in a relationship. Sometimes that balancing act isn’t so balanced.

Sassy Outwater talks about this beautifully over at Acsexyble.

I reflexively almost push back too hard when in a relationship with an able-bodied partner, try to do more for myself, as if I’ve almost adopted this attitude of not wanting them to fall into a caregiver role. I have to catch myself and work really hard at not doing this, because it’s destructive to self-confidence and relationships.

Click here to read the rest of the post.

Jan 182018
 

It happens when parents send their gay children to “conversion therapy” to “turn them straight.” It happens when doctors withhold sexual health information, or sterilize a patient without that patient’s informed consent. It happens when the medical establishment performs medically unnecessary surgeries on babies because their genitals and other sex characteristics don’t match what medical textbooks say is “normal.” It happens when people with disabilities are denied sex education, or when disabled adults’ relationships are laughed off as “cute little friendships.” It happens when disabled people’s caregivers forbid relationships, separate lovers, and punish sexual exploration.

What happens?

People, usually people in power (like parents and teachers and doctors) are sending the loud and clear message: “We get to decide who you will be. We get to pass judgment on the essence of who you are.”

It’s not limited to people in power, though. Random strangers on the street make decisions about other people’s sexual choices, and sexual expression – it leads to everything from verbal taunts to profoundly horrific acts of violence.

What does this say? It says that the people around us – the ones we trust (or are supposed to trust), and the ones we don’t even know that some of those people believe they own our bodies.

This judgment, this control, this manipulation or ridicule – it all snapped into focus for me when I read this blog post from Dave Hingsburger, drawing parallels between the criminalization of LGBQ and transgender folks and the absolute, often punishing control, that’s been exerted over the sexual lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

It’s the idea of ownership, that people who make these sweeping and controlling judgments of sexual expression are acting like they own another person’s body, as if it’s right and normal to take this ownership, as if they have, or want, “ownership over another persons body, another persons heart and another persons choices.”

Jan 052018
 
A magnifying glass, for looking closer at what's right in front of us.

I wrote a while back about the multi-layered and inexcusable discrimination many disabled parents face.

There’s nothing about having a disability that makes someone less capable of parenting.ser

That feels too obvious to even say, but it’s a truth, obvious or not, that needs to be repeated over and over until people get it, until disabled parents
don’t have to fight tooth and nail to be able to care for their own children.

But, expecting and new parents with disabilities usually face doubt, or invasive questioning, or inadequate services, or loss of child custody, or months- or years-long court cases fighting for parental rights (usually while the child lives in foster care). These actions are taken, we’re told, to protect children. But these situations are usually about disability, not about child welfare. They’re about assuming that disabled adults themselves aren’t any more capable than children. They’re aboutthe lack of education legal, medical, and social service professionals get about disability, and about how that lack leaves room for personal biases. They’re about these same professionals knowingly or unknowingly setting disabled parents up to fail the “tests” put to them to judge their parenting fitness, by not providing parenting information in accessible formats (Braille, audio, large print, plain language) or by not providing accessible equipment (such as a changing table with the right set-up for a wheelchair user needs to reach everything and keep the baby safe).

Now, a new law in Illinois spells out the rights of blind and vision-impaired parents.

Under this law, social workers, lawyers and judges (and anyone else involved in child custody proceedings) won’t be able to use a parent’s blindness as evidence that they should or shouldn’t be given custody, and blindness cannot be a factor in evaluating a person’s fitness to become a foster or adoptive parent.

This law establishes “procedural safeguards that require adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Yes, you read that right. A state law was drawn up and enacted to make sure a nearly 28-year-old federal law is followed. Not just that, but the Americans With Disabilities Act protects people with many kinds of disabilities. This law focuses only on blind parents.

Why not more inclusive? I don’t know, except to guess that whoever proposed this law has a personal stake in making sure that blind parents aren’t discriminated against. That’s awesome, but I wish they’d been more forward thinking to include all recognized disabilities, or at least some categories, such as sensory and physical disabilities.

As it stands now, this extra state protection applies to only a small part of the disabled parent population. If you’re blind, and you’re an Illinois resident, you’re good, but, knowing that disability discrimination touches everyone, and that it can have disastrous consequences when children are involved, I can’t help wishing that the time and effort taken to draw up extra legal protections couldn’t be used to create protections that are more wide-ranging.

On the hopeful side, perhaps the passing of this law will raise awareness among policy-makers and activists.

***

For more data on parents with disabilities in the United States, check out this post I wrote about the 2016 White House Forum on Parents With Disability. (Just an aside: It’s hard to imagine this forum happening in the current political climate.)

Or, see why I included parenting in target=”_blank”>this list of “need to know” data for healthcare providers.

Nov 142017
 

Last week I had the privilege of being on a panel about stigma, sexuality, and disability with Andrew Gurza and the cohosts of The Pulse.

We managed to squish a lively discussion of flirting, dating, stigma, self-disclosure, and loads more juicy stuff into a 35-minute radio segment.

The best part is that the show was recorded, and turned into a Podcast – and it’s up there on their Web site, right next to shows they’ve done on adaptive tech, travel, TV and movies – and more serious topics like the underemployment of disabled people, and the lack of services for Indigenous people with disabilities.

I really appreciate that the staff of The Pulse included a show on sexuality, acknowledging that it’s as big a part of life as all these other pieces.

You can listen to this conversation about stigma, sexuality, and disability at the following links:

Oct 212017
 

In 2014, I was getting ready to move across the country, so my activism was mainly limited to reading articles and joining Twitter chats. Here’s what I wrote for that year’s “Decolonizing The Anti-Miolence Movement” conversation, which coincided with Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

As always when I post these older pieces, I share this one with the caveat that my writing style, and the way I discuss and analyze social issues, has changed in the last three years. But, I do stand behind everything I’ve said here (even if I’d put it differently now) so I’ve chosen to just edit a few bits for clarity and leave the rest as is.

***Original Post Starts Here***

I’ve been taking part in the Save Wiyabi Project’s teach-ins on decolonizing the anti-violence movement. It’s hard to say important things in 140 character chunks, but we’re doing it, and I think it’s powerful. No, Twitter chats won’t change policies, but they will inform people, they will (or at least I hope they will) change the way activists do their work.

For me, talking with people of colour and Indigenous people–framing feminist issues around decolonization, poverty, community, and more–feels like coming home.

My formal feminist education (read: Women’s Studies degree) started this way.

Yes, I am beyond grateful to have had a first Nations woman, a First Nations scholar, as my first Women’s Studies professor. Some of my classmates didn’t appreciate this opportunity to learn quite so much. They objected to the amount of material about First Nations people. I guess when they signed up for Women’s Studies 100, these young women, pretty much all white and mostly middle-class, expected to learn about themselves.

Yes, Women’s (or as it’s more commonly known now) Gender Studies does give students the opportunity to learn about themselves, much as the consciousness-raising groups of the 60s and 70s did. But, I say, if you want it to be all about you, go to therapy (and that’s no dis on therapy).

After all, the class we were taking was Women’s Studies, not Feminist Studies, so talking about the experiences, histories, beliefs, thoughts of many groups of women, not just the ones whose experiences mirrored our own, not just the ones who made what is commonly remembered as feminism happen, only makes sense.

Telling the story of feminism as “this was the first wave,” “this was the second wave,” and, “Oh, look, here’s a third and fourth wave” only tells part of the story. Framing feminist issues around the issues the leaders of these movements experienced and raised only tells about some women’s lives, of some people’s lives.

I’ve always felt more at home reading feminist writings by women of colour, Indigenous people, and other marginalized groups.

There’s a resonance to WOC (women of colour)and Indigenous writers, a truth-telling that moves beyond the individual…

Maybe I feel so called to these scholars, activists, and writers because even though their work doesn’t reflect my experiences as a disabled woman, they’re a lot closer to what I experience in this world than what a lot of white, particularly white middle-class feminists, have to say. The hot button issues of many white feminists just don’t speak to me as loudly. The “glass ceiling” means something very different to people with disabilities who regularly experience job discrimination before we’re ever hired—and frequently we’re not hired. Sexual harassment on the streets means something very different when our bodies are rendered invisible—when people push past a wheelchair user carelessly bumping them in the head with a grocery bag, or talk to someone’s service dog instead of to them, for example—and sexual abuse becomes much more a threat from people who provide our physical care or are in charge of our medical treatments, education, or rehabilitation.

I think all of us who call ourselves, or have called ourselves, feminist would do better to listen to WOC and Indigenous scholars, activists, writers, speakers—not only around their own lives and experiences (because it’s not often enough that White scholars, activists, social service providers, lawmakers, do this) but around everyone’s experiences. I think we can and need to adopt a more community-oriented approach…

Decolonizing the anti-violence movement means looking critically at the state. Here the state doesn’t mean Alaska or Florida (though both those states, especially the latter, would greatly benefit from learning a thing or two about how to treat people of colour and indigenous people). Here the state refers to institutions like the criminal justice system, social services, domestic violence shelters—basically any institution run by or funded by the government.

Folks are also looking critically at the anti-violence movement—who controls it, what it’s politics are, whether it’s approaches are inclusive of everyone. Looking critically at the anti-violence movement means looking at who it doesn’t serve, and changing those imbalances. It means opening up the anti-violence movement to more diverse voices, not just the voices with the professional degrees and fancy words. It means making sure the service providers and policy makers look like the service recipients. It means not drawing artificial lines between those who help and those who are in need of help.

It’s hard to sum up everything I’ve learned from two-plus hours of nonstop tweets and reading almost two dozen articles.

Two things that came out of these conversations are that the justice system needs serious reform, and, we cannot adequately address the needs of people of colour or Indigenous people who have experienced violence without looking at the historical and cultural factors that have shaped their lives. I’m going to meander through these points a little bit here, touching on ideas that turn what I thought I knew on its head.

The current structure of the criminal justice system is harming more people than it’s helping. For a long time, I’ve bought into the logic that all abusers need to be locked away. Arresting an abuser and sending them to jail, however, often leaves the person who experienced abuse without financial or practical support. Arresting the abuser may not be what the abused person wants, may not be what is best for the household at that particular moment.

If the safest thing, and the thing the abused person wants, is to leave, they’re often limited in their choices for where to go. Domestic violence shelters, aside from frequently being full, or not culturally appropriate, aren’t open to or available to everyone. Natasha Vianna mentioned during the teach-in that many pregnant women aren’t allowed in shelters until several weeks into their pregnancies. Many shelters are not accessible to people with disabilities

Prison, in general, isn’t the answer to the problems of intimate partner violence. I was stunned to read some of the stats in this article.

  • 85-90% of women in prison have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse. (ACLU, 2011)
  • In California, a prison study found that 93% of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. That study found that 67% of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children when they wound up killing their partner. (California Sin by Silence Bill, 2012)

There are more people in prisons, but the rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence have not decreased.

The criminal justice system can do what it’s meant to—ensure justice. Lauren Chief Elk talks in this article about a law recently passed in San Francisco, requiring that all rape kits must be processed within two weeks of collection. This law doesn’t require anyone to report their assault, just makes sure that the evidence is processed in a timely manner if they do choose to report.

What it does do is make sure that individual law enforcement officers aren’t making decisions about whose rape is more valid.

Should this happen? No. Does it happen? Yes. Discrimination, racism, classism, homophobia or transphobia, moral judgments, are not absent from law enforcement.

Victim-centered justice needs to be the starting point for correcting many of these problems. No, victim is not a dirty word, not always harmful to everyone who’s experienced violence. I initially, as a young feminist, learned that it was. Not all people want to be called survivors, contrary to my previous teachings within feminist sexual assault response circles that we never disempower people by calling them victims. For some people, acknowledging they were harmed, wounded, victimized, by their abuser(s) is crucial to their understanding of themselves.

Victim-centered justice seeks to deliver the power back to the person who experienced violence, however they choose to identify themselves. Victim-centered justice: It’s not about the system. It’s not about the offender. It’s not about the people helping. It’s about the person who was abused. They’re the best experts on their lives. They’re the ones who know what’s best for them.

A victim is much less likely to reach out for help if they know that a whole social service and criminal justice process will be unleashed just by them talking to someone about what’s happening or what has happened.

Yes, many people who are abused frequently doubt their worth, and may be less likely to seek help because of that. Being victim-centered means, though, offering support without presuming what sort of help is needed. The act of offering care, support and choices can help victims find their sense of self-worth, putting them into a position to make the right choices for them at that moment.

The desire to save people is strong. The desire to not see people hurt is strong, but deciding what people need without consulting them, without learning about their lives, is likely to lose you their trust.

I don’t know how this translates when offering support to children. Most people who work with children are “mandated reporters,” which means that if a child shares that they’re being abused, the person they share this with then must contact the police, Child Protective Services, or both. How do we help children not feel betrayed when they share their biggest secret and, next thing they know, their lives are turned upside down by court proceedings, moving house, and other forms of chaos? I really don’t know.

Victim-centered justice includes believing the victim, not insisting that they provide impossible sources of proof. Victims of (intimate partner violence (IPV) are required by the criminal justice system (CJS) to meet impossible standards of proof. They’re required to produce evidence of physical or emotional injury. Short of running a hidden video/audio recording device in the home 24/7, it’s often impossible to document empirical data. Do we have to wait until someone is fighting for their life in an emergency room before we believe them?

ON the other hand, The onus is so often on the victim to escape. That thing people who don’t know any of the inner workings of a situation too often say: “She could have just left.” The prosecution in Marissa Alexander’s trial insisted, despite not having actually been there, that Marissa could have found a way to escape if she was afraid enough. It’s enough for me that she reports not having been able to escape safely. For many people in the midst of a violent event, the questions are: Escape where, escape how…will escaping put others (such as children) in danger?

Black and Native women have been bullied and harassed by the legal system since the beginning of colonized time, so the anti-violence movement’s centering of the legal system as a solution centres white women’s needs over those of black and native women.

Race has and does influence how many victims of domestic violence are perceived. Black women who’ve experienced violence have always been silenced, their experiences have been denied, or blamed on them. The dehumanization of black women, first as slaves, then as invisible but useful domestic help, has perpetuated this idea that what a black woman says just can’t be so. Historically, those times when the United States made it legal to treat black people as less than human really aren’t that far behind us.

The second leading cause of death for black women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five is murder perpetrated by an intimate partner.

So, Black youth are experiencing high rates of IPV that escalate. Perhaps supports we already have in place are ineffective. Are they ineffective on practical levels, or on access levels; that is, do IPV victims feel comfortable, safe, and welcome in accessing existing anti-IPV infrastructure, such as shelters, support groups, social services to change circumstances like poverty, hunger, or homelessness. Do they feel like they have the power and safety in these spaces to work on figuring out what’s best for them, or do they feel cautious and on-guard?

It’d seem like mandatory arrests when police are called to a domestic violence report would be a good thing, but they’re usually not. When the police can’t figure out who the aggressor was, they frequently arrest both people, revictimizing the victim, taking both parents away from children, etc. Mandatory arrests may also take the wage-earner out of the house, as I mentioned above. Plus, murders in States with mandatory arrest laws for cases of IPV are higher than those in states without the arrest laws.
Victims realize that if they call the police, their abuser will be arrested. So, they don’t call, and abuse escalates. You can read more about that here.

Much of this discussion on decolonization of the anti-violence movement uses the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as a starting point for dialogue.

This Act, while helping many people, has benefited certain groups over others. There’s a conflict between the anti-violence movement, which works with the state to draft things like VAWA, depends on government funding, and so on, and groups who are fighting against institutional violence, such as Indiginous people and LGBQ and trans people. For example, people of colour are unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system, and are resisting this targeting. (Yes, racial profiling does still exist, even if it’s not in written policies.) LGBQ and trans people are, and historically have been, targeted by law enforcement for presumed sexual transgressions.

The anti-violence movement is working with law enforcement, so feels reluctant to speak critically about CJS policies that harm people. Workers at domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centres are often reluctant to get too involved in a case of someone whose abusive partner works in law enforcement, because they fear that this will put them at odds with the same system they’re cooperating with on other cases. But, this means many victims don’t get served.

We need to focus on community-building. Arresting abusers and sheltering abuse victims may keep some people safe, but it also isolates people from their networks, and fractures communities. Since First nations tribes and families have been fractured by colonization, we need to do what we can to prevent fracturing from other sources. Only a couple of generations ago, First Nations children were torn from their families and sent to government-run boarding schools where their culture, their very sense of themselves, was stripped away from them. First Nations communities are still feeling the reverberations of that today, in ways only community members can truly know or understand.

The anti-violence movement has become a professionalized field, not as much of the grassroots movement it started out as…so people without the right professional credentials aren’t hired or included. Since people with economic and social advantages are usually the ones who have the most access to education and professional experience, the people working with oppressed communities are frequently not from those communities. Education is not necessary for many positions in social justice and organizing work. The education people get in schools and professional training isn’t better than the education people get through experience. People know what they need, are frequently in touch with what their communities need in ways social service providers, lawmakers, and activists who don’t belong to those communities can never be.

This brings us back to victim-centered justice, not only making plenty of space for a victim to make their own choices, but also recognizing our own biases around what sorts of choices we think they should be making. A shelter worker from a middle-class background may not be able to understand why a woman who experiences abuse in her home and who also lives at or below the poverty line chooses to stay with her abuser—who happens to bring in enough money for the family to eat adequately, if not well. The shelter worker may not be able to understand this both because she doesn’t want to see the woman hurt, but also because she viscerally cannot understand enduring physical or emotional abuse for the sake of having some kind of financial security.

Victim-centered justice involves not judging a victim, regardless of what choices they’ve made in the past, giving a victim choices, not assuming what a victim will want based on how old they are, whether they have children, etc, believe, explain what you can do and find out what the victim needs from you (that is, don’t assume what the victim needs and start giving it to them).

Victim-centered justice is not supporting the jailing of a survivor of violence who has refused to testify at the trial of her attacker.
Victim-centered justice is not saying that someone wouldn’t make a good witness to the crime that was enacted on her body so the crime won’t be prosecuted.

Here are more good practices to follow when supporting someone who has experienced violence.

What are the answers? I don’t know. I think it starts with allowing many systems of justice to work together. The criminal justice system can do what it does best—keep people safe from violent offenders. Restorative justice, which is not, as it is often portrayed, solely or even primarily about about forgiveness and reconciliation, unless the person who has experienced the violence decides is the best option for them. Communities can work on being more supportive of its members, less tolerant of violence.

People from different communities, people who have different experiences and different kinds of knowledge, need to continue to talk.

Want to learn more about decolonizing the anti-violence movement?

What is domestic/intimate partner/relationship violence?

Child survivors and victim-centered justice

Free Marissa, VAWA, and how anti-violence backfires