Speak Out: Efforts against sexual assault at UNC

By Alison Grady

As we begrudgingly return to campus after fall break – perhaps one filled with visits with family and deep fried Krispy Kreme burgers – we return knowing that we have just two months left of fall semester.  This, presumably, will mean lots of studying for exams, lots of time spent with friends before winter break and, hopefully, two months of safety for everyone here at UNC.  As we saw at Project Dinah’s Speak Out event on Wednesday, October 12, unfortunately, this last part is often not the case for many of our fellow students.

At the event, we heard members of Project Dinah, Men@Carolina and UNITAS read anonymous stories of UNC students’ experiences with interpersonal violence that had been posted to the blog, speakoutunc.blogspot.com.  Some of these stories were reflections of abuse that had occurred years prior, some were about abusive relationships that they had dealt with while at Carolina, others about assaults by so-called friends, and one included words of hope to survivors, letting them know that things will get better.  While listening to these incredible stories, I looked around at my friends, acquaintances, and strangers; many sat crying, others comforted crying friends, and others seemed almost shocked – how could these attacks happen at UNC, they seemed to wonder.

How does sexual violence continue to happen with minimal discussion surrounding it in most circles at UNC?  Why are there still people who claim that they do not know anyone who is a survivor of interpersonal violence?  Earlier this year, The Daily Tar Heel reported that the number of reported assault cases had nearly tripled in 2010 compared to 2009, rising from 6 to 17.  While this news may seem frightening, those who work in sexual violence prevention know that the vast majority of sexual assault cases are never reported, so it is likely that the total number of assaults at UNC did not rise; instead, more people may have reported that year. Sadly, as one of those people who lives in the world of sexual violence prevention, I feel as if I personally could name 17 people who were assaulted in 2010, and many of them never reported their attacks.  The total number of assaults, then, is most likely significantly higher than the 17 that were reported.

My hope is that, through events like Speak Out, people will become more aware of the prevalence of interpersonal violence as well as the effects that it can have on victims and survivors.  Through an increase in education, perhaps survivors will see in these people someone that they can trust to talk to about their own experiences.  When people recognize just how huge a problem sexual violence is, then — through their increased education surrounding the topic and recognizing that they have friends who are survivors — it becomes difficult not to join the efforts to eradicate sexual violence from our university – and our community, state, nation, and finally, our world.

I encourage everyone to become HAVEN and One Act trained.  You will learn an incredible amount through the Haven training about what sexual violence is and how to be an ally to a survivor of interpersonal violence.  Through One Act, you will learn how to be an active bystander and prevent interpersonal violence from occurring in the first place.  With more and more Haven allies and more and more members of the UNC community who are both able to recognize dangerous situations and willing to act, perhaps soon we will be proud of being part of a university that is safe for everyone.

More coverage of Relationship Violence Awareness Month events to come!

Alison Grady is a senior peace, war & defense major with minors in philosophy, politics & economics and women’s studies. She is a blogger for the Carolina Women’s Center.

Breast Cancer Awareness: “pinkwashing” a devastating disease?

By Leah Josephson

Pumpkins and pop-up Halloween shops aren’t the only symbols of October. In addition to seasonal Pumpkin Spice Lattes at Starbucks, pink ribbons, those ubiquitous symbols of one of the leading killers of women, have cropped up in stores, online and across campus in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Pink ribbons are meant to raise awareness, symbolize “survivorship” and help raise money meant to help find a cure for breast cancer. But what does simplifying a complex and damaging disease into a symbol of femininity really mean for women who have experienced breast cancer? Why are women who have battled breast cancer encouraged to embrace their ordeals as growth experiences? Should they really be considered “survivors” or victims?

Critique of the breast cancer awareness movement and its iconic pink ribbon has been growing steadily. The documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., which examines the use of pink ribbons to sell products, arguably commercializing breast cancer (sometimes without any direct benefit to breast cancer research), is due out in theaters in 2012.

NPR recently featured the books Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich, who is in remission from breast cancer, and Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health by Gayle Sulik on its show Talk of the Nation.

I happened to catch the program in my car and was struck by Ehrenreich’s impassioned interview.

Ehrenreich said that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was bombarded with optimistic and inspirational words (and, of course, products emblazoned with pink ribbons). But these things didn’t make her feel any better about her life-threatening condition. Ehrenreich felt that they were gimmicks that “pinkwashed” the truth – that breast cancer could kill her, and there still isn’t a cure.

Ehrenreich critiqued the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s framing of breast cancer as a “journey” and a normal part of womanhood, something women experience together, running around a high school track at fundraising events. But breast cancer isn’t normal. Why doesn’t Komen encourage women to get angry and demand a cure?

This aspect of the pink ribbon movement to me is typical of society’s feminization of women. Even their big, scary diseases are reduced to a strip of pink satin and some Estée Lauder Wrinkle-Lifting Serum. “Celebrating” women’s experiences rather than inspiring them to protest a society that devalues women’s health facilitates complacency rather than a sense of urgency for finding a cure.

Some breast cancer awareness campaigns are even outright sexist. Slogans like “Save the Tatas” and “Don’t Let Cancer Steal Second Base” commodify women’s bodies and misrepresent the only important reason to fight breast cancer (in case we’ve forgotten, that’s saving women’s lives), especially when in reality many women lose their breasts in treatment.

UNC English professor Dr. Jennifer Ho, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, started the blog “No F****** Pink Ribbons” to reflect on her experiences without the “rhetoric and marketing and branding that the pink ribbon symbolizes.”

“I will be fairly blunt about what I’m going through and will not be invoking the standard narrative tropes of other breast cancer supposedly-inspirational rhetoric (the whole “journey” metaphor for example will NOT be used here),” Ho wrote in her blog’s introduction.

She spoke at an event on campus last year, using humor and straightforward, decidedly non-rosy language to encourage women to resist the darker side of the pink ribbon and become their own informed, empowered advocates.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation has invested over $2 billion for breast cancer research, education, advocacy, health services and social support programs since it was founded in 1982, an incredible accomplishment. But it has also undoubtedly engaged in “pinkwashed” rhetoric that may be harmful to women in some ways.

How do you feel about “pink ribbon culture”? Is it possible to raise awareness without commercializing breast cancer and reinforcing sexist stereotypes? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Leah Josephson is a senior journalism and French double major and women’s studies minor. She is communications assistant at the Carolina Women’s Center.

Mean Girls, “fat talk” and Love Your Body Day

By Cara Arizmendi

In honor of  Love Your Body Day on October 19, Carolina Women’s Center volunteer team leader Cara Arizmendi contributed this post about women and “fat talk.”


“I thought there was only fat and skinny, but apparently there are a lot of things that can be wrong with your body.”

This humorous scene from the movie Mean Girls is a shockingly accurate portrayal of the dynamics of what has been called “fat talk.”   In this scene, the members of the “Plastics,” the most popular girls in high school, and Cady, the new girl, stand around a mirror putting themselves down, criticizing everything from their pores to their hips.

The girls who are considered the most popular, most attractive girls in high school feel the need to self-degrade as a group.  After everyone but Cady finishes criticizing their body, they turn to her, waiting for her negative body statement, because without one she is not conforming to the standards of girlhood and womanhood.  These are the dynamics of the pressure to engage in fat talk.

Sociologists and psychologists have studied fat talk as the tendency for girls and women to engage in negative body talk.  While fat talk most often includes statements about weight, such as, “I missed my workout and ate too many desserts” or “I hate that my jeans don’t fit me anymore,” it can include any number of body putdowns, such as the ones from Mean Girls.

In addition to the tendency to engage in negative body talk, psychologists have found that despite the frequency with which it occurs in groups of women, women do not actually gain enjoyment from fat talk.  So why do it?  While psychologists cannot pinpoint what causes fat talk, they do know that there is actually a perceived pressure by girls and women to engage in fat talk once one person in the group has initiated negative body talk as a conversation, despite the fact that girls and women do not actually enjoy it (Britton 2006).

While Mean Girls pokes fun at fat talk as a form of commentary, other movies seem to be promoting fat talk as a form of normalcy.  For example, Kristin Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids, a film considered female-friendly, expresses concerns about not being as skinny as one of her “frenemies.”  Movies with these scenarios are creating a form of cultural fat talk.  Film creators make movies featuring women who self-degrade their bodies as an attempt to create relevant characters for women.  However, because Hollywood favors skinny actresses, most of the women self-degrading their bodies are also conventionally attractive, thin women.  When these celebrities complain about their bodies on screen, it sends the message that even celebrities’ slender bodies are not good enough, increasing the pressure on average women to engage in fat talk.

What do we do about fat talk? 

First, try not to self-degrade your body in conversations.  From personal experience, I know that sometimes I think it will make me feel better, but it never does.  And while I do think we should talk about our insecurities, fat talk is not a productive way to do so.  Fat talk does not make anyone, the speaker or the listener, positive or happy about themselves.

Second, whenever someone begins to self-degrade, try to turn it into a positive conversation by talking about positively about your friend or yourself, or by starting a conversation about the negative effects of fat talk.

Third, whenever you see examples of fat talk in movies, TV, or magazines, have a conversation about the negative aspects of it with whomever you’re viewing it with.  Write to filmmakers or magazine editors who include fat talk in their media and explain the harmful effects of self-degradation.

While these techniques may not end fat talk all together, it is sure to create healthy, positive conversations.

Source: Britton L, Martz D, Bazzini D, Curtin L, LeaShomb A. (2006).  Fat talk and self presentation of body image: Is there a social norm for women to self degrade?.  Body Image, 3(3), 247-254.

Cara Arizmendi is a senior Women’s Studies and Psychology major from Chapel Hill.  She is an intern at the Carolina Women’s Center.

Commercial Sexual Exploitation: Prostitution and Sex Trafficking

By Christie Arnold

I recently watched a documentary about the trafficking of women and girls around the world for commercial sexual exploitation into forced prostitution. This film, Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, caused me to question the disconnect that our society makes between prostitution and sex trafficking. Although many people cry out against the enslavement of women in sex trafficking, there is often a failure to recognize that an existing structure of exploitation, which includes tolerated prostitution within the sex industry, is enabling and facilitating the crime of sex trafficking.

Many anti-trafficking and women’s rights advocates view prostitution as an inherently exploitative form of violence against women.[1] By its very existence, the sex industry is promoting the idea that women are commodities. This line of thinking extends to human traffickers who participate in the sex industry by targeting vulnerable women and girls and forcing them into sexual slavery. The UN estimates that up to 4 million women and children are trafficked into the global sex trade each year.[2] The key point: the prostitution in the commercial sex industry itself contributes to the trafficking of women into the sex industry. This illegal trade of women’s bodies exists because (primarily) men believe they are entitled to buy (primarily) women and girls. To meet this demand, women are trafficked into existing structures of commercialized prostitution. As the demand for commercial sex thrives and continually increases, traffickers find ways to increase supply into the commercial sex industry through force, fraud and coercion.

In the United States, elements of the sex industry, such as pornography, strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors, exist mostly uninhibited in cities and towns across the nation. The prostitution that accompanies these entertainment venues is seen as a victimless crime, and so is rarely restricted and often tolerated. Men who are caught soliciting sex from prostitutes, whether in the back room of a strip club or on the streets, are rarely arrested. Through this system, our culture seems to imply that it is natural or acceptable to pay for sex and, therefore, that it is tolerable for men to purchase a woman for sex. Many men believe that it is their right to do this, and our culture supports this thinking by allowing them to do so with few, if any, consequences. Thus, a market for the sale of commercial sex, an avenue for women to be bought and sold as sexual objects, has been created in the United States. And each year, hundreds of thousands of women and children from other nations are trafficked into the U.S. sex trade, into venues of prostitution, pornography and/or stripping.[3]

From this film, I learned that is critical for our society to recognize the links between prostitution and sex trafficking so we can begin to take a stand against the human rights violations that occur in the commercial sex industry. Both prostitution and sex trafficking are violence against women and are severe detriments to gender equality.

Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and advocate for women’s rights, stated in Nefarious that a society can never be truly equal when half of its population is being sexually exploited. This speaks to the harms created when prostitution is allowed or tolerated by a culture. To prevent this exploitation, it is important to speak out against the commercial sex industry and against the underlying beliefs that enable it. For sex trafficking to be eradicated, prostitution must also end. A change in the way our society views commercial sex is needed for the demand that drives both prostitution and sex trafficking to decrease. As more and more people begin to understand the connections between prostitution and sex trafficking, they will be better able to advocate for women’s rights and equality, and to aid in the movement to end commercial sexual exploitation.

[1] O’Connor, Maria. Healy, Grainne. The Links Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking: A Briefing Handbook. 2006. <http://ewl.horus.be/SiteResources/data/MediaArchive/Violence%20Centre/News/handbook.pdf>.

[2] United States Department of State. 2002. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act 2002: Trafficking in Persons Report. Washington, D.C.: Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, United States Department of State; and Arlacchi, Pino. 2000. “Against All the Godfathers: The Revolt of the Decent People.” The World Against Crime, Special Issue of the Giornale di Sicilia: 7

[3] U.S. Department of State, Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report, July 2004. 23.<http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/34158.pdf>.

Christie Arnold is a UNC senior and international studies major. She is a human trafficking intern at the Carolina Women’s Center.

Cargo film screening: A fundraiser for the Carolina Women’s Center

Cargo womanMonday, October 24
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main Street
Carrboro, NC

Speakers: Dr. Donna Bickford, director of the Carolina Women’s Center, and a welcome from state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird

6-6:45 p.m. – Registration
7-8:30 p.m. – Welcome from Sen. Kinnaird and Cargo film screening
8:30-9 p.m. – Q&A with Dr. Donna Bickford and networking

Every day millions of human beings are bought, sold, and traded. Many of them end up in America, invisible to the public. Women and children make up 70% of those trafficked into the United States for sexual slavery. Cargo: Innocence Lost tells their stories with interviews with the nation’s top officials, two victims trafficked into Texas through Mexico, and a harrowing narrative that tells the story of a young Eastern European girl trafficked into San Francisco to work in a brothel. Award-winning director Michael Cory Davis presents a thorough and heart-wrenching look at slavery in America.

As a state, North Carolina is particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Come and learn more about the global and local resonances of human trafficking.

RSVP on Facebook!

This screening is free. Donations will be accepted at the event–the CWC has lost more than 60% of its funding in the past three years. Checks may be made payable to the Carolina Women’s Center.

This event is sponsored by 1000 Cranes, LLC as part of 1000 Cranes Week, Oct. 24-30, 2011.

Mathematics, politics, and equity

Rochelle Gutierrez © 2011 by María DeGuzmán

Who would expect a talk on teaching mathematics to invoke Gloria Anzaldúa, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler?  Not me!  But that is what I was fortunate to experience at a talk given by Rochelle Gutiérrez on Monday, October 3, 2011.

The talk, entitled Cultivando Nepantler@s: Rethinking the Knowledge Needed to Teach Mathematics, dealt with the ways math is conceptualized and taught and how our limited understandings of math perpetuate inequality and discrimination.  Gutiérrez, instead, talked of teaching math as a subversive activity, of challenging the status quo and creating an environment of equity and inclusivity where all students can be visible and supported.

Gutiérrez problematized some very basic societal assumptions – we see math as something done in the head, something that only deals with symbols, rather than recognizing it as a social activity.  We are immersed in cultural understandings that being able to “do” math equates to a higher degree of intelligence and that those of us who “aren’t good at” math are inferior somehow.  We believe that if you use symbols, that’s math.  If you use your body, that’s not.  And yet, Gutiérrez points out, making baskets involves pattern recognition, symmetry, measurement – all mathematical concepts.  Why is that activity, as just one example, excluded from conventional knowledge about mathematics?  Who gets to police the language around what counts as math and how “we” are going to count it?

Different kinds of knowledges are necessary to teach math:  content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, knowledge about students and their communities, and political knowledge.  Political knowledge, in particular, is made invisible.  Everything about teaching is political – from curricular decisions to classroom practices to the location and population of schools.  We must recognize this.  The question becomes:  whose politics are being accepted or followed?  Some of these tensions are being played out in current discussions in Wake County about which students are placed in Algebra 1 classes and which aren’t.  Test scores matter but, in addition, the “professional judgment” of teachers seems to be functioning in a racialized, gatekeeping way.

In some schools, Gutiérrez observed, a number of strategies are being implemented to engage marginalized youth in math.  These include developing professional learning communities, improving and enhancing mathematical knowledge in teachers, and practicing culturally competent/relevant pedagogies.  There is nothing inherently wrong with these efforts, Gutiérrez asserts, except that they are often enacted in unhelpful ways.  For example, when teachers say “I want to empower students,” on whose definitions of empowerment are they relying?  Too often what this means, Gutiérrez says, is teaching them how to succeed in the current system, a definition she wants to challenge.  And, I would add, I don’t think you can empower another person.  You can only help provide the tools and create an environment wherein they can empower themselves.

Other problems exist.  Most of the available research focuses on elementary schools, not secondary schools.  The ways in which we choose to measure and describe the achievement gap are socially constructed and impacted by the structural racism in our society and the ways it operates.  True equity is more than just access to a rigorous curriculum.  We must recognize that teaching is a negotiated process which includes not only teachers and students, but families, colleagues, administrators and (I would add) legislators.

Gutiérrez demonstrates a profound recognition that one cannot be successful by rejecting the system.  We have to teach students how to play the game AND how to change the game, she says.  We can’t ignore the societal and systematic expectations that are currently constructed and reinforced, but we can work to change them.  And – even beyond the politics of social justice and equity – Gutiérrez insists – we have to rediscover how to play through mathematics.

Should you be a teacher of math or a teacher of students?  Yes.


Note:  This lecture was part of the UNC Latina/o Cultures Speakers Series.