why we’re paying attention to roosh

In nonprofit fundraising, you learn to tell only one person’s story. You tell the story of Rachel or Kiara or Buster or Skip, but you don’t tell all their stories at once. Because, in our heads, it’s easy to help one person. Housing Kiara seems within reach. But once you tell three or more stories, the problem becomes overwhelming. Trying to help 11,623 people experiencing homelessness across DC is too much for us to handle. A problem that’s too big makes us feel helpless, and we wind up standing on the sidelines.

“Homelessness” and “rape culture” are problems that sometimes feel too big for us to solve. How can make sure 11,623 people have roofs over their heads? How can prevent 1 in 5 women from experiencing sexual assault in her lifetime?

Enter Roosh V – a single person who stepped up to be our villain. He’s advocating to legalize rape. He embodies the most extreme picture of misogyny. Just like Bill Cosby and Chris Brown and Ray Rice, he is the problem that we need to fight – not rape culture and not patriarchy, just him. And we can take him. It’s so much easier to take down one guy than to dismantle an entire social system, to change the attitudes of an entire community, to address thousands of subtle messages that foster an environment in which aggressive behavior is encouraged and survivors are perceived to be “asking for it” when they experience sexual violence.

Many media outlets and friends of mine argued that Roosh should be ignored. His demonstration shouldn’t be dignified with a response. Click something else, they said.

I agree that we need to draw attention away from individual rapists and toward comprehensive solutions to address rape culture, but I also know what’s effective for bringing people into the fold. I see the way that Roosh is galvanizing people to support my organization, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, and moving people to seek an outlet to get involved in grassroots activism against sexual violence. We may not want to acknowledge this single confessed serial rapist, but taking him down feels so much more feasible for so many of us than truly rooting out rape culture – a problem that’s too big to quantify and sometimes feels too big to fix.

This battle feels winnable.

For many new activists, Roosh will have been the problem they aimed to solve before being faced with the next solvable problem and the next solvable problem until they see that the only way to solve the problem is by addressing its root causes, by having conversations and sharing Facebook status updates with the people close to them to reinforce the message that sexist behavior is not acceptable, by calling out our friends and neighbors when they make jokes about our toddler boys needing to chase that little girl or when they tease our prepubescent daughters by telling her she only plays sports because she wants attention from the boys. Rape culture is rarely as blatant as men like Roosh advocating to legalize rape; it’s about the subtle things we say and do to create an environment where masculinity is expressed through dominance and survivors are blamed or not believed.

But, if Roosh is the reason you’re joining the war, then I’ll take it, because I know that this is just the first battle for many new feminist activists who will be instrumental in bringing about the cultural change we need to truly dismantle white supremacist cis heteropatriarchy.

rsvp here to continue this discussion over coffee!

Stop humanizing abusers; you are not them.

I have many man-identifying friends who see men who perpetrate violence against women, and they want to relate to them. They see men accused of sexual assault, accused of domestic violence, accused of harassment — and they see themselves, potentially misunderstood. You want to understand the men who abuse and assault and harass women. You want to put yourself in their shoes, and you want to make sense of their actions.

But their actions don’t make sense. And you are not them.

This is why we forgive abusers: We want so badly to believe that they are only human, that it was some kind of accident or mistake or miscommunication, that it could’ve been us. We want so badly to believe that they just couldn’t control themselves, that it was some substance or some emotion that made them behave the way that they did.

This is not the case.

Most men do not abuse and assault women. There’s a small percentage of men who do, and they are repeat offenders.

The first time my ex hit me, he said, “You know it was an accident, Jess.” And I wanted so badly to humanize him. I wanted so badly to believe him. I wanted so badly to understand what happened, and so I thought and I repeated, “It was an accident.” I said to the arresting officers, “It was an accident.” I said to my friends, “It was an accident.” Sure, he shouldn’t have been drunk, but he never would have hit me if he weren’t drunk. He wasn’t even trying to hit me, I said; he was just going for the phone, and somehow his hand hit my face. It was an accident.

We want so badly to believe that these are mistakes that can happen to anyone, but they can’t. Abusers know what they’re doing; they know that it’s wrong, and they do it anyway. They know when a woman is incapacitated and unable to consent to sex. They know that when a woman says, “No,” they’re supposed to stop, but they choose to do what they want. To all of you who want to commiserate with men who you fear may be wrongfully accused of abuse or assault, I want to remind you: You are not them. Until you abuse or assault someone, you are not them.

men and control and a date gone awry

“Men do not kill out of ‘love,’ they kill out of a desire to control.”

I met a charming man in Puerto Rico. We had so much fun together. But when I canceled plans with him on the second day because I wanted this trip to be about Max’s birthday, he went over the top to convince me that what he had planned was about Max. He tried to change my mind. He didn’t respect my “no.” He rented a beach apartment for us, made plans that included me but that I was not involved in making. He told me he was going to pick me up from Old San Juan, and I told him I needed more time. He decided the time that he was going to come and just showed up. He called so many times I had no choice but to turn my phone off. He didn’t respect my timeline. He didn’t respect my “no.”

Nothing really happened that was terribly traumatizing, but I’m still traumatized in so many ways from past experiences that, on Tuesday night, I double locked all the doors and even locked my bedroom door. I kept the lights off. I was so afraid that he was going to show up. I imagined all kinds of horrifying scenarios that didn’t play out, but my mind goes there because of my past and because of my work to address gender-based violence.

It made me remember that, even though I’m on vacation, I am still a woman in this world and there’s no way to hang up my hat and stop dealing with sexism for a few days. This is the world we live in, where ignoring a man’s advances can escalate to assault or even murder.

Towards the end of my trip, I was back on email. My work feels so important because sometimes I feel like I’m fighting for my life.

Your feminism must include women who are homeless.

I debated over sharing this story.

It’s a story I don’t share often, a story that I have at some points been ashamed to share, ashamed because it’s taken me years to fully understand and therefore explain the choices I made, afraid because it’s not something that I hear talked about in feminist circles as much as I need it to be and I worry that my experiences aren’t shared among people who are passionate about ending sexual violence. But now, as Interim Executive Director of a small nonprofit that’s working to shift its focus toward the most vulnerable communities, I feel more empowered to start this conversation, and because I don’t think enough people with my shared experiences are in positions where their voices may be heard, I feel like it’s important for me to speak up about sexual violence against people who are homeless. So here I go, baring my soul to you.

I was homeless for about two years – from the time I was 15 until I was 17. I didn’t sleep on the street or on public transit every night; sometimes a friend could take me in – for a night, for a weekend, for a week, for a month. When I did sleep on a park bench or on a subway train, or when I sought refuge from the rain or snow in a Chinese food restaurant that was open late, sometimes someone would approach me with the offer of a warm place to sleep. And sometimes I would accept.

On the nights that I was approached, I had a choice to make: Do I want to be cold and at risk of sexual assault, or do I want to be warm and at risk of sexual assault? I had to ask myself: Do I want to trust that this person wants to help me, or do I want to trust that there’s no one out here who wants to harm me? I had to assess the risks: If he wants to help me, and he takes me home with him right now, I’ll be safe, warm, possibly even fed. If he wants to harm me, and he takes me home with him right now, he will be in complete control of what happens next. If he assaults me, I have options: I can leave and sleep out in the cold where I am still at risk of physical and sexual violence, where I’m likely to be robbed of the little I have; or I can sleep next to my assailant, and I can stay quiet when he says he’s sorry if that wasn’t what I wanted, and I can just say thank you when he gives me some money in the morning to buy food.

In my experience, if you are homeless and you are sexually assaulted, your assailant knows that there will be no consequences. You won’t report it, and if you did, no one will listen and no one will care; you have already been discarded. If you speak up, you may be accused of doing it for the money; you know this because it’s happened to you before. You will not be protected. You will know the risk going into the situation, and you may take it anyway because you know for certain that you’re not safe in public spaces and so you can afford to gamble with the chance of being safer, or less safe, in the home of a stranger. This is your thought process.

I didn’t turn to service providers for counseling to deal with the trauma of sexual assault; I didn’t even think of it. I didn’t see rape as the problem; I saw lack of housing as the problem, and rape was packaged with the solution. I wasn’t sure if I should feel grateful or violated. And now that I’m an adult and an advocate against sexual violence, I struggle to reconcile these identities as someone who works to end rape culture and someone who may have died on the street without it.

When you don’t have housing, you don’t have time to cope with the emotional trauma of sexual assault. When you don’t have housing, coping with emotional trauma seems like a privilege. When you don’t have housing, you need to focus on getting your basic needs met so that you can prevent yourself from being re-victimized, again and again and again. When you don’t have housing, you’re constantly exposed to physical and sexual violence – so much so that it becomes a fact of your life. When you don’t have housing or you’re on the verge of homelessness, sometimes sexual violence is packaged with the solution – whether it’s a place to stay for a night or long overdue repairs to your public housing unit.

Here are some numbers to think about:

Your feminism must include these women. Your feminism must work to create safe public spaces for them. Your feminism must work to make them safe from sexual violence. Your feminism cannot claim to be intersectional and inclusive if your feminism does not include all women – young and old, cis and trans, black and brown, housed and unhoused.

vigil for people who died while homeless in dcnames

The photos for this post were borrowed from Miriam’s Kitchen. Here’s how you can give them money.

2015: Imperfect but enough

I have thought long and hard about what I should resolve to do this year. I thought it should be something related to self-care or social justice, but a friend helped me realize that I’m already doing a pretty good job at taking care of myself and my community. 2015 was a tough year. So many exciting things happened – we marched in Capital Pride, we traveled, I’ve had the opportunity to work full time on an issue that’s so close to my heart. But somehow my mind always wanders back to the break-in, to the fact that my landlord left me without a proper door for two months, to the identity theft that followed and the way it led me to cling to a manipulative partner, how powerless and alone I felt, how I spiraled downward and turned to men, searching for someone to save me.

And in the last few months of 2015, I started to see, again, that I have an incredible community of friends and chosen family supporting me, showing up to celebrate my birthday even though I barely ever make it to their parties anymore, showing up to babysit and give me a break from my parenting duties, sending me Christmas presents even though I never remember to shop for gifts in time for the holidays, having me over for dinner and play dates even though I never host anymore because I still haven’t bought a proper kitchen table, taking me in on Thanksgiving when my plans fall through, and literally giving me their money so I can focus all my energy on work that’s so important to me.

When things got tough, you were all there.

2015 was a transition year. I was navigating the world of toddler parenting and nonprofit leadership and being in my mid-twenties. I started dating, but this time as a mother and a survivor of domestic violence, which added so many complicated layers. It’s been a learning curve, and I’m still learning, even though the year has changed.But I’m feeling optimistic.

Here are some of my favorite moments from 2015:

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Max’s Up-themed first birthday party

 

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The circus!

say her name vigil

Remembering black women and girls like Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley Jones who have lost their lives to police brutality. (Related, this is the day that Max learned to say the word “Now!”)

our resilience

The day after the break-in, when Max and I were safely snuggled in a friend’s bed.

cherry blossoms

CHERRY BLOSSOMS

self care

Vince’s pool and half-day summer Fridays

pride

Marching in Capital Pride

The day that Max found out about minions (and we also went to Philly with this awesome, confident, successful superwoman):

nyc pride

Catching the end of NYC Pride with a friend who is always, always, always there for me – calling me out on my bullshit and calling me up on the phone he bought me when my kid washed mine.

los angeles mikes bday

Amazing times with amazing people in Los Angeles (not pictured: the incredible Hanna Scott)

scandal

This wonderful, beautiful shero who inspires me to be positive and to love myself and to shame tinder creeps and watch Scandal.

mayor bowser

Hanging with my fabulous friends and also a mayor on Women’s Equality Day

helping hand.jpg

Working alongside this fantastic feminist LADAY who instantly became my best friend, fiercest advocate, and partner in Elite Daily article critiquing.

Wedding season:

sara and max

The hilarious lady who has given me and Max an extended family, who I can’t sit in silence with for ten seconds because we’ll burst into laughter about something that happened probably eight years ago.

scrabble

Scrabble in the Sculpture Garden with Max and the strong and smart woman who inspired my New Year’s Resolution, who stuck by me even when I wasn’t fully present, who was endlessly patient and thoughtful and kind.

This day that we spent literally just painting things and jumping on the bed:

Christmas with someone who has supported and encouraged me over the years and consistently reminds me to take care of myself:

Ringing in the New Year by marching toward a more just and equitable community:

Shut Down Chinatown

A new year always gives us a false sense of fresh starts and clean slates.

I used to look forward to fresh starts. I craved them; I needed them. I changed cities, changed jobs, changed my name – constantly searching for a new life, a clean slate, a way to start over and leave the past behind.

But I’m not searching for a fresh start anymore. I have come to realize and accept and appreciate that I am my past. The hard times and the great times are what have made me who I am – imperfect but enough.

I like to think that that’s what happiness feels like.

I’m looking forward to making so many mistakes and so much progress in 2016 — and finding the good in every single day.

ain’t i a woman

working mom

This photo makes me so happy because it’s a reminder that I can and I do wear so many hats – mom and activist and feminist and coffee lover and sexy lady and twenty-something and nonprofit executive.

I wrote nonprofit executive on about two hundred thank you cards before that title seemed real. I am growing into the role.

I’ll be back tomorrow or Saturday to write about highlights from this year and my resolutions for next year.

In the meantime, gimme your money.

<3

It doesn’t make sense.

I’ve started this post a few times but couldn’t finish. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed. But I am human, and sometimes we just want to be known. Sometimes we just want to turn to someone who knows us, so we don’t have to explain.

I’ve built a wall, and it just gets thicker and thicker as the years go by. That’s why I need this space to be open and honest and completely vulnerable. To keep that part of myself intact.

I was with my ex about a month ago. I won’t go into detail about how it happened or why I turned to him; I’ll only say the following: There’s one thing he said that keeps playing and replaying over and over again in my head. “You left because you think I hit you. Do you really think I would’ve hit you in front of all those people? It just doesn’t make sense.”

It just doesn’t make sense.
It just doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t make any sense.
It makes no sense.

Domestic violence makes no sense, guys. It doesn’t make any sense because my first thought was, “You’re right. Why would you have done that? It doesn’t make any sense. You’re kind of a normal guy. I know that you’re not, but it feels like you are. It doesn’t make sense. Why?”

Why?
Just, why?

I spent our whole relationship and the entire time afterwards asking myself exactly that question: Why? Wouldn’t it be easier if you just didn’t? Can’t we just be happy?

Why?
It doesn’t make sense.

One of the first times he hit me, the first time I was forced to acknowledge it, we were at an airport among so many people, including the police. The police came over and arrested him and he said, “Jess, you know it was an accident.”

know it was an accident.
It had to be an accident.
Right?
Right?

Maybe this is the closure that I needed. Again. I don’t know why I needed closure again.

A man walked over and said, “I saw the whole thing. He hit her. It wasn’t an accident.”

And yet, when the police told me I had to sign to have him locked up because it was a private arrest, I said, “Let me just call his mom. Let me just call his parents. I just have to talk to someone who has his best interest in mind.”

I was there, and I didn’t trust what I’d seen. I didn’t trust what I felt. I didn’t trust what I knew. I didn’t even trust that had his best interest in mind. At some point, he’d gained so much control over me that I didn’t trust my feelings, my experiences, my reality. It didn’t feel real.

So, back then, when he said, “It doesn’t make sense,” I’d think to myself, “You’re right, I don’t know why I thought that.” And when he said it again, less than a month ago, I thought, “Wow, you’re right – it doesn’t make sense. How could I have thought that happened that way? How could I have believed all this time that it wasn’t my fault?” And then I thought, no, it didn’t only happen once. And, I accepted the different excuses every time — it was an accident, I provoked you, it wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t drunk, if only I had done more to keep you accountable and to help you stop drinking then it wouldn’t have happened; I was so ready to take full responsibility.

And somehow, knowing what I know now, I was almost ready to take responsibility again. I think I even apologized. I think I even apologized.

Today, I know,
I know
it doesn’t make sense.

It will never make sense. And for anyone reading this who may be or may have been in an abusive relationship, I’m so sorry that it doesn’t make sense. I’m so sorry that it’ll never make sense. I don’t know if you’ll recover. I don’t know if I’ll recover. I lay next to men, and I feel nothing. I lay next to him, and I felt nothing — someone I must have once loved. I must have once loved him, right? Right?

Nearly two years of my life, and I have nothing to show for it but a bunch of photos of places that I’ve traveled that I probably can’t show anyway because he’s in so many of them.

It’s weird when there’s a piece of your life, a piece of your past, that you can’t fix. I try to do it so often with my family because I can’t accept that there are some things that you just need to let go of for good.

Sometimes you just need to let go.

Sometimes when you’re depressed, you just need something or someone to blame it on. Maybe that’s why I called.

Or maybe it’s because I wanted to see his humanity. Maybe it’s because I wanted to forgive him. But: forgiveness is not the same as giving someone the power to hurt you again.