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The issue of sexual violence against women and girls is in the media too often for us to pretend the incidents are isolated or separate from systemic issues. We struggle to recognise and address some of those issues, such as capitalism and misogyny, while others are universal enough to receive widespread acknowledgement. Most of us agree, for example, that the current economic structure does not work for most of us and it is obvious that the distribution of wealth is disproportionate and not tied to merit or skill.

Connections, however, are not immediately made between economic conditions and violence against women. Coercion is often downplayed and there is a lack of analysis of circumstances under which women and girls are sexually violated.

We are all used to seeing photos of missing girls. Many people ignore them or make dismissive, presumptive comments about the girls without knowing anything about their situations. There is a disturbing willingness to ignore the predatory behaviour of men who take advantage of the vulnerability of girls.

Adults make judgments about the characters of 13, 14, and 15-year-old girls. They label them as “bad” and decide they are undeserving of the resources it would take to not only find them, but protect them from the criminals who specifically, consistently prey upon them.

There are sexual predators who spend time developing relationships with girls. They find out about their lives at home. They get details about the other people living in the home, when they are present and what they can and cannot provide. They find the gaps and make promises to fill them. They do some or all of what they promise. They earn the girls’ trust.

During this time, these predators groom the girls. They set expectations of the girls. Those expectations tend to include the secrecy of their relationship, the dynamics within the relationship like the requirement that they are obedient and deferential to the predator and the nature of the exchange. The girls do not always know what they will be expected to give, but they are made to understand the “love” they receive has to be reciprocated in some way. All along, the predators create an image of themselves that is authoritative. This image may already exist due to their jobs, or it may be impressed upon girls through their interactions.

By the time a girl goes missing, if she is, indeed, “with man,” there has likely been a grooming period. A relationship has been established and the predator is the authority figure and the source of something the girl needs and has not been able to otherwise acquire. Maybe they promise a better life. Maybe they suggest a payment of debt. Maybe it is supposed to be a treat. Maybe it is by force. Maybe an event at home prompts the girl to seek refuge somewhere else. By whatever means, predatory men steal girls away from their homes. Whether or not the girls resist, this is a crime.

The girls’ family members report their absence and the police seek assistance from the public. Members of the public decide they know the story and assign blame to the girl and her guardians. Maybe there are a few offhanded comments about “big, rusty men,” but the girls are found guilty: of being too fast, of wanting to be women, of being duped by men.

They are, essentially, judged for not being the “right” kind of children — those who have what they need, know the right things to do and say, and are, by their material conditions, protected. The parents are found guilty of not knowing enough about where their children are when they are not with them, of not disciplining them enough, of not paying enough attention, and of being focused on other things. They are guilty, in many cases, of having to be away from home to work for long periods of time.

Children are not responsible for themselves.

Girls are children. Before a teacher can take children — in their care at school — on a field trip, the parents or guardians of those children need to give their written consent. Children do not attend doctors appointments without parents or guardians. They cannot drive. They cannot legally purchase or consume alcohol. Girls cannot consent to sex.

When cases of sexual violence against minors are reported, the language used — given by the police — does not make it clear they cannot consent. Phrases like “unlawful sex with a minor” are used. This certainly does not help. People continue to read it as girls choosing to have sex with men rather than men preying upon girls who cannot legally consent to sexual activity.

We all know of stories of religious leaders, teachers and family members taking advantage of children, whether by use of force, threat or manipulation. These adults are criminals and need to be held accountable. The children are in need of our support and protection.

As with many other issues, ending grooming, manipulation and sexual violence against girls requires a multi-tier and multi-pronged approach. While some children get the “Good Touch, Bad Touch” lesson early in primary school and some get a version of sexuality education in high school, there is a large gap in time and information between the two.

They are constantly warned about eating too much candy and spending too much time on screens, but what about the predatory behaviour of adults they may already know and trust? They need to be taught to assess situations, determine when an interaction is or is not safe, and how predators may try to get information from them and use it to manipulate them. They need tools to deal with strange situations, not only with strangers or new contacts, but with people familiar to them.

Even when children have the warnings, information and tools to safely respond to situations, it is not a replacement for specific needs that may be met by going a different route. Economic factors often complicate situations for people who cannot see another way. We have seen, over a long period time, but especially following Hurricane Dorian and now during the COVID-19 pandemic, that we do not have a proper social safety net. The assistance available to people who are unemployed or underemployed is not sufficient. People have always struggled to pay rent, keep food in the home and purchase medication. For many, it is now much more difficult.

It is not unusual for the those who have to take advantage of those who need. Financial institutions do it. Businesses do it. Individuals do it. Some of them are able to make it look like they are helping people, but they are usually helping themselves to much more.

When will we create systems to support the people who cannot support themselves? When will we make the changes necessary for a fair distribution of resources? When will we stop blaming people for their own vulnerability?

To end hunger, we have to recognise the need to develop food security, then learn to grow our own food. To prevent the disappearance of this country, we have to acknowledge the issue of climate change, then build, consume, develop, and fund differently. To end sexual violence, we have to — among other actions — actively reject victim blaming, connect the issue to gender inequality, and understand how it is directly related to socioeconomic conditions.

Sexual violence against children, missing girls and sexual harassment are far too common, casually dismissed and, as a result, underreported. It is never caused by “bad” girls or less than constant supervision, but by the attitude that girls are disposable—one area sexual predators and victim-blaming people seem to agree. The safety and protection of girls is on us, from our attitudes to our actions.

Date for the diary

Equality Bahamas is hosting Women’s Wednesdays: Redefining Leadership at 6pm with guest moderator SDG Focal Point, Regional and International Partnerships Aneesah Abdullah. Ms. Abdullah will be in conversation with women leading in various sectors including business and non-governmental organizations about women’s leadership beyond the stereotypical traits and expectations. The conversation will focus on the importance of feminist leadership, what we need from leaders in various sectors, and the value of leaders who are willing and prepared to advance women’s rights in law, policy, and practice. The session will be held on Zoom and streamed at Facebook.com/equality242.

Published in my weekly column in The Tribune on February 3, 2021.

Most of us know Bill Cosby as Heathcliff Huxtable. He is a doctor married to lawyer Clair Huxtable and father of five children. He is a funny, playful character with endearing eccentricity. Everyone loves Cliff, and wishes he could be their father. The Cosby family was aspirational, and The Cosby Show gave us somewhere to be when our own lives, homes and families did not quite manage to bring us joy. Young black people got to see themselves on television in a positive light. Doctors and lawyers, split-level homes, families they could support and the ability to work through anything that came along. Bill Cosby had come to represent all of this. Positive representation of fathers and husbands, visibility of black families, years of family-friendly entertainment and hope for a successful, happy future.

Now we see someone else.

Accusations of rape and other forms of sexual violence against Bill Cosby did not just start in the past few years. This has been happening — and largely ignored — for decades. One of the most recent events was the lawsuit brought by Andrea Constand in 2005 who alleged Cosby had drugged and molested her in 2004. During the process, 12 women made similar allegations and Cosby denied them all. In November 2006, the lawsuit was settled out of court.

In October 2014, the conversation picked up quickly, increasing in volume and reach, after a clip of Hannibal Buress’ stand-up went viral. Buress takes exception to Cosby’s touting of respectability politics. Buress said, “Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby.” Likely due to the wildfire spread of the clip, the Daily Mail ran Barbara Bowman’s rape accusation wherein she called Cosby a monster. From then on, women have been coming forward to share their stories. Cosby’s colleagues have done their best to cast doubt on those claims, swearing his innocence.

Cosby admitted in a 2005 deposition that he put quaaludes in women’s drinks. There is no mystery around the use of drugs and drinks in sexual violence and it corroborates stories that scores of women have shared about their experiences with Bill Cosby. He drugged and raped women. Some remember parts of what happened to them at his hands while others do not.

Last week, Cosby was found guilty of aggravated indecent assault and could face up to ten years in prison. Not yet sentenced, he is free — though confined to his Pennsylvania home — on $1m bail. His legal team is likely to appeal and almost a dozen women have civil suits pending against him. Responses to the verdict vary greatly. Some are celebrating and recognise the #MeToo movement for its role in calling for justice in high-profile cases of sexual violence. Some express their certainty that 60 women lied, and Cosby is innocent. Others pretend to be on a line between the two, claiming they want women to be safe and access just justice, but do not think it is right to send Cosby to jail for a crime white men have committed and evaded prison.

“They are trying to ruin a black man’s legacy,” they say.

“Those women were lying. Their stories are too similar,” they say.

“They definitely lied. Their stories don’t match,” they say.

“Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein are still free, so why does Cosby go to jail?” they say.

We can talk about race. We can talk about how much the US justice system hates black men. We need to talk about the systems — white supremacist and otherwise — that have allowed white men to terrorise women and never have to face the public disgrace and consequences they deserve. We simply cannot have that conversation as a way of excusing or protecting other criminals. We cannot use that conversation to detract from the ongoing conversation about sexual violence, particularly perpetrated by men in positions of power.

We cannot have a conversation about race at the expense of women. It has always been far too easy to forget the black community includes women.

People look at Bill Cosby through Heathcliff Huxtable-coloured glasses. They see the loving husband and father he played on The Cosby Show. They see the weird sweaters, hear the funny jokes and feel the sparks of hope and pride at seeing a happy black family on television. They confuse the character with the actor — the real person, Bill Cosby. They ignore the power dynamic that emboldened Cosby and allowed him to sexually violate women and get away with it for a long time. They see a cultural icon.

Compare the rhetoric of the pro-black anti-woman rape apologists in support of Cosby with his respectability politics campaign that registered high on the self-hatred scale. He framed the issue of racism in the US as a black people problem — one AfricanAmericans created for themselves and can solve for themselves. How? By wearing their pants differently, of course. By changing the way they speak. By giving their children more Anglo names. A few changes in behaviour would be all it took to end racism forever, right?

If you have never heard Bill Cosby’s speeches denigrating black people — especially young black men and parents — start with the “pound cake” speech he made on the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Apply his logic to his situation. He says a black man did not have to get shot if he did not have pound cake in his hand. He did not have to go through these trials if he did not always have quaaludes in his pocket.

Maybe Cosby only got to court because he is black. Maybe the system is rigged. Maybe there is something to be angry about. If so, we need to carefully think about what should make us angry.

Is it that a black man is charged and convicted of a crime of he committed, or that a white man is not charged and convicted of a crime he committed? Do we want to fight for the freedom of black sexual predators, or do we want to fight for justice to be served, regardless of the identity of the predator? We need to deal with our inability or unwillingness to separate people from their work.

R Kelly is not even a discussion in most spaces. He has been known to violate young women and girls for years. Story after story reveals his predation. We are horrified by the accounts of those who get away, but many of are not bothered enough to stop supporting him.

By now, we should all understand that we do not have to take money out of our pockets for him to make it, but just playing a song on YouTube helps to finance his den where the women are cut off from family and friends, must ask to go to the bathroom, are completely subject to his abuse and control. Does this disgust you? Is it changing the way you consume?

How far have we come since the OJ Simpson trial? Think about all you consider before coming to a decision on high-profile cases. Race, gender, age and popularity tend to heavily impact judgment. There are stories we immediately dismiss and positions we feel obligated to take.

It is not easy to consider multiple identities, but we must. We need to find ways to be honest with ourselves about our own biases, learn to value justice, and resist the call to automatic solidarity. People are not always as they seem. They are not their work and they are not what they pretend to be. We have to look at what they do. When it comes to justice, our favourites cannot be exempt.

 

This was published in The Tribune on May 2, 2018.