Prove it. And other problems with systemic violence

4U0A3174We’re all talking about sexual violence right now. There’s Jian Ghomeshi’s accusation and the violent threats of #GamerGate. If that corner of the internet isn’t your thing, maybe you have heard of Sam Pepper, Tao Lin, disgraced college athletes or the NFL. Pick your subculture. The details change, but the story is the same. Sexual violence has always been a systemic issue. What gets lost in all the back and forth about specific cases is the larger pattern that permeates our culture. There is certainly a gendered component at the heart of this problem, but it’s helpful to occasionally look beyond the rape culture explanation and explore more general power dynamics driving this violence.

One aspect of power is credibility. Any time someone makes a public claim of being assaulted, listeners are presented with a small snapshot of a scenario and instantly make a judgement based on their personal bias. We all do this. There’s the inevitable cry of “innocent until proven guilty” that pretends it’s not taking sides, but those calling for hard evidence or a jury trial are siding with the status quo, which is overwhelmingly in favor of the accused. According to the FBI, 92 out of 100 rapes aren’t prosecuted, and that’s not including the counts of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a call thrown out by people who know that the system has their back. People who aren’t in that privileged position know that it can just as easily flip into presumed guilt if you don’t have the right skin color or genetics. Frat boys can rape drunk girls cause they know police won’t take a drunk girl seriously enough to start an investigation. A well-known media personality can use his fame to manipulate women knowing that his fans will defend him. It’s easy to paint women as crazy vindictive bitches or sexy vixens because there’s a ready-made narrative for that.

That narrative is in the Texas courts, where a defense attorney paints an 11-year-old girl as a spider luring older boys into her web. Or the judge in Montana who gave a teacher a 30-day sentence on a rape charge because the 14-year-old student looked older than her age. Thankfully, these narratives are being called out as inappropriate and dangerous, but they are the legacy of men’s voices being privileged over women’s.

Still, it’s not a simple matter of men vs. women in broad collective terms. There are plenty of women who love misogyny and men who are devoted to non-violence and equality. Gender alone is not a determinant factor in who will or will not be a violent predator. The problem arises when people who are prone to violence are raised in a culture of fear and intimidation that reveres dominance and rewards predatory behavior. When applied to sexuality, we call it rape culture, but more generally, a violent culture presents the world as a grand competition for limited resources, sex, and status. In this mindset, fear is abundant, anger is glorified, and threats are everywhere.

While both men and women can be predators who are quick to anger, it would be disingenuous not to point out that angry, aggressive, predatory men perpetuate the vast majority of physical violence. Women’s predatory methods are more manipulative and psychological. Also, because women have less access to the higher institutions of power, they have a diminished ability to wreak havoc of a grand scale. But that doesn’t mean that all women are benign. Predation is not limited to physical violence. Horrible people of both genders might be after your money, your resources, your time, or your productivity.

It’s also useful to acknowledge that there are both men and women who are extremely vulnerable to psychological manipulation. Gender is a spectrum, and gendered power is also a spectrum. People who use their predatory drive to scam others out of their money certainly come in all shapes and sizes. But naive people who are easy to trick also come in all shapes and sizes. Weakness is not a uniquely feminine trait. There are both men and women who are easy prey.

So, to bring it back to sexual violence, the problem is predators. But beyond that, it’s the enabling of predators through the conflation of normal and predatory behavior. It’s normal to buy someone a drink on a date to start a conversation. It’s not normal to get someone so drunk that they can’t resist any advances. But there’s a middle ground, where you help someone get drunk in the hopes that they’ll loosen up and take risks. Or maybe the middle ground where you gravitate towards people who are prone to getting themselves totally fucked up without much prompting. In these grey zones people aren’t necessarily predators, but they are in situations that lend plausible deniability to those that are.

This is where the slippery nature of proof comes in. In light of plausible deniability, how can you conclusively prove someone’s intentions? Especially when all you have is a survivor’s word that he or she felt totally dehumanized in what should be a normal situation, how do you know who to believe? If the accused is in a place of power in society, the automatic bias of most people will go with him. The audience will hear that he’s just flirting, and surely, there is nothing wrong with flirting! The underlying message to other men is that if this happened to me, it can happen to you. And that is understandably terrifying. So, otherwise decent men get wrapped up in the predator’s game and gather round to call the accuser a liar, a slut, and demand that she prove that he did something wrong.

Now, of course, due process is important and it’s not reasonable to just flip the bias and punish people based on one person’s word. But we can do better by recognizing the unequal power structures at play and understanding that this bias exists. With so few predators actually being held accountable, we have to recognize that the system isn’t working and fix it. Affirmative consent laws are a great move in this direction, but they aren’t enough. We also need to change the cultural norms so that empathy and respect are rewarded more than domination and control. We need to be better at recognizing predators for what they are and not falling into their traps.

The reality is that most people are susceptible to getting caught up in fear. The world does contain legitimate threats, and it’s important to address them. But for all the internet fighting about feminists vs. MRAs, it’s important to remember that it’s never going to boil down to a question that can be neatly summed up in terms of gender. There are biases and privileges that matter, but the root cultural problem isn’t simply the patriarchy. It’s the need for control. It’s the need to win, no matter the cost, and the mindset that sees other people as nothing more than players in one’s own game. However, as the ruthless mocking of #GamerGate spreads father through the internet, and reputable media outlets publish Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu and Laci Green, there are signs that the system is changing.

Affirmative Consent is Good for Everyone

Photo:Crop of “BW Embrace" by Tudor from Guelph, Ontario, Canada - Skin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. California is doing something good with the Yes Means Yes legislation. The law mandates clear and conscious consent as the standard that colleges apply to sexual assault cases. However, the law is being criticized as one that will criminalize most human sexual behavior in America, and an over-reach of government in dictating behaviors in the bedroom. These fears are misguided.

First of all, the majority of sex that happens is consensual. If you are totally sure that you are engaging in consensual sex, then this change doesn’t effect you. If you think you are engaging in consensual sex, but aren’t sure, then this law mostly applies to you. Learn to check in now. If you are afraid of this because you think the people you want to sleep with are potentially manipulative liars who are out to get you, then this law actually gives you tools to help protect yourself.

It might seem counter-intuitive to say that affirmative consent laws help protect people against false accusations, but they do. Remember, the law that passed in California isn’t just about changing the standard for consent, but also about widespread education and training. When the authorities in charge of keeping people safe are trained more effectively, they will lead more competent investigations. Our current culture of ignorance allows harmful myths to spread, and that cuts both ways.

Also, if you know the clear signs of consent, you can catalogue them in your head and be less vulnerable to manipulation. Someone who is giving mixed signals is someone who is more likely to accuse you. Conversely, if someone gives clear signals, but still makes a case against you, being able to clearly state the specific signals you received will strengthen your defense.

Another critique of the law is that there aren’t any clear guidelines for how to determine affirmative consent. Do you need to check in every 5 minutes, or is every 10 ok? If you ask someone if they’re into it and they respond by getting naked, is that a “yes”? And it makes sense, sex can be hard to talk about, especially when you haven’t had a lot of it yet.

But here’s the thing. Sex is something that involves adults. If you can’t have an adult conversation about it, you shouldn’t be having it. Puritan norms that make people feel awkward or ashamed of their desires create an environment where predators — both male and female — take advantage of vulnerable people. These predators thrive on a culture of shame and silence around sexuality, and do very real damage to the people around them.

The times when it is most important to get clear, verbal consent are when you are with a new partner or when you are in a relationship that is deteriorating. If you want to have a spontaneous encounter where one person takes charge and the other person submits, you have to be able to say that. If you don’t know what you want yet, you have to let people know you are still figuring it out. If you just want a one-night stand where you don’t get to know the person very well, you have to at least double-check that they didn’t change their mind somewhere between the bar and bedroom.

If you’ve already been doing everything right, then the only side-effect of everyone being clear is that you will get more of what you want and be better able to please your partners. If you are with someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries, or doesn’t make you feel safe sharing your desires, there is now a clear, legal message that that is not ok. If, for any reason, you are not able to give or get a clear “yes,” then you should absolutely not be having sex, and there are real consequences to moving forward.

This is a change to the current norm of how society expects young people negotiate sex, and it should be celebrated by all sides of this debate. It is chipping away at a culture of silence and misinformation that allows predatory people to take advantage of others. It makes the legal definition of consent more narrow, but that is necessary for a competent legal system. Most people out there are good, respectful people, and arming them with better communication will make their sex lives better. But for the people who have been victimized, this is the legal arm they need to hold those predators accountable.

Sam Pepper is a Predator

So, a lot of people have come out with allegations against Sam Pepper. There’s the possibility of a legal case, but even before that is resolved, here are some reasons why you should take those allegations very seriously.

Here's background for people who don't know what this is all about:

First, the sheer number of people coming forward is a good reason to take this seriously. He’s accused of soliciting pictures from minors. He’s accused of groping, and he’s accused of more serious crimes, of which the details haven’t been discussed. Even if there are one or two people jumping on the bandwagon for attention, there is a clear pattern that this man makes women and girls feel violated.

Second, his attempt to convince the world that his street assault videos were planned is manipulative. He is making a spectacle of all survivors of abuse, largely so that we stop paying attention to him. In so many situations, the outrage over these images comes from a personal experience or the personal experience of a loved one. Pulling on that particular heartstring in an attempt to make a “point” about anything other than compassion or justice is a sign of someone who is seeking to take advantage of others.

He wants us to believe that he’s not just innocent, but morally superior. He wants people to feel embarrassed for their outrage because he was just playing us. But the very real and raw emotions around sexual violence are not his playthings. It’s emotionally dishonest and it works because it plays into an on-going fight between men’s rights groups and feminists, but it is ultimately a deflection.

Finally, his earlier videos make it clear that he’s very skilled at violating people’s boundaries. There has been nothing illegal in Sam’s videos prior to the street harassment one he claims is scripted, but he presents a clear predatory dynamic. It doesn’t make sense to manipulate just anyone. A predator needs to test the waters. So, they will start slow, invading personal space, being more intimate than is appropriate, and they will escalate as far as they can. A good target is someone who plays along, someone who will smile nervously, either because they recognize they are in a weaker position, or because they have been involved in abusive dynamics in the past and think this is normal.

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The most clear example of this dynamic the “prank” where he handcuffs himself to women. There’s the woman at the end, who is holding her body so stiffly and asking if he can take it off. Up to this point, she’s smiled and played along, but when she asks for it to be over, he escalates. He says he is going to release her when she kisses him, and she looks down for a moment and then agrees. This is not a real choice. This is a man using a physical restraint and his power in the situation to push a woman’s boundaries even further. And then he uploads it for laughs. If this is his public face, it isn’t very surprising that there are women claiming he did things even worse in private.

Notably, even the MRAs on Reddit don’t back this guy. They may believe in his message about bringing attention to male survivors, but they can’t fully put themselves behind a man with such a blatant history of harassment. This is because even though there is a bitter distrust between MRAs and what they call SJWs, both groups include people who have been hurt by predators. They know the real enemy is a manipulative person who refuses to take responsibility for their actions and fucks with people’s heads. And thought it remains to be seen what happens with any legal allegations, this guy demonstrates clear signs that he’s not ok.

Yeah Maybe No got a grant!

Wow! The last few weeks have been huge for this project. The first big piece of news is that Hank Green of the vlogbrothers found my project and offered me their first Nerdfighers Indie Grant. Hank has been working with his brother John for seven years building a small empire on YouTube. They are using the money they get from their pre-roll ads to help out other creators, and I am profoundly honored to be singled out by them and offered this support.

Hank was in town for XOXO last weekend, and he shot this video of me talking about the project:

This support has enabled me to hire Kerri Lynne Thorp as an editor. I met Kerri this summer while working at a grief camp sponsored by NW Documentary and the Dougy Center. We were part of a small team that worked closely with teenagers making memorial videos for their lost loved ones. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, and a great way to meet someone with a deep sense of compassion and ability to work with intense material. With the new footage from earlier this month, there's a lot of re-writing to do, so I am so grateful to have some help pulling the story together. We dove in this past week and things are moving right along.


Yeah Maybe, No Update: Plot Twist

There comes a point in every documentary where the story deviates from the one the filmmaker originally set out to make. Life is full of twists and turns, and sticking with a subject long enough guarantees that you will be there to see some of it happen. It is the thrill of working with reality. I got in touch with Blake to show him a rough cut, and he let me know that he wasn't totally pleased with the story and that he had more to say. This summer has been a really intense one for him. In May, he ended up in the hospital on suicide watch, and has since packed up his life in Portland and moved to San Diego for a fresh start. He's found great support there and is thriving. But in light of this crisis and recovery, he had a lot more to share.

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I made it down there for one last interview, and I remain in awe of Blake's ability to rebound from struggle. He is only 22, but he displays the kind of deep emotional awareness that is difficult for people twice his age. He blew apart my story, but in the best way. The chaos of life brought us to a place of greater honesty in discussing his experiences with sexual assault. The conversation was not easy, but it was from the heart.

We also were able to talk about the new Yes Means Yes legislation that will likely be enacted in California. This is a really important bill that specifies a clear "yes" as the standard for consent on college campuses. One of Blake's experiences was borderline assault, and it is the most complicated one to process. Is he justified in being so upset? Does he get to call it an assault if he never said actually said "no"? It's a huge grey area that this legislation hopes to address.

If you'd like to know more about this law, I recommend this Op-Ed from the New York Times or this article that discusses more of the background and details.

Blake's recovery from depression and suicidal ideation is inspirational. If you or anyone you know starts thinking that ending their life might be a good idea, please know there are people here to help.

It is with love and gratitude, both to Blake and to all of you who have made this possible, that I am diving headlong into finishing this project. Blake's new revelations have thrown me a little off schedule, but I am more excited than ever to share this story. This excitement will carry it forward. Thank you again. <3

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Max Temkin and Rape Culture

Over the weekend, I heard that Max Temkin had been accused of sexual assault. For those who don’t know, Max Temkin is one of the creators of Cards Against Humanity, a popular and often offensive card game. The accusation started semi-privately with a Facebook post, then spread through her network until it reached Max, and he wrote a blog post denying that it ever happened. The accuser responded with her own post, revealing her name to be Magz and offering her side of the story. I see no reason to believe either of them are lying. She’s not gaining anything in this situation, so I have no reason not to believe her. And when he says he didn’t, I don’t so much hear that he is innocent as he is ignorant to how rape works and is afraid to admit that he might be a rapist. I don’t need to know the details of this particular accusation to know that one of the main challenges sexual assault advocates face is educating people on what rape looks like. A lot of energy goes into telling people that silence does not equal consent, a lack of “no” does not equal consent, flirting does not equal consent, etc. When Max writes that it’s hard to communicate boundaries, he is admitting that there was not good communication between them and he has no idea what she was thinking.

Another road block is the very misguided practice of not teaching quality sex-ed in high schools, so people get their information from porn, movies or peers who don’t necessarily know how sex works. Kids see movies where there’s an aggressor who gets pushed away, but keeps trying until the girl relents. That tells girls that pushing someone away is useless, and tells guys to be persistent. This is a rape dynamic that has been played off countless times as just how it works.

Another huge problem in getting people to understand sexual violence is fighting against the idea that it’s a stranger in the bushes with a knife. This line of thinking says that a persistent guy who ignores boundaries is just a guy whereas a predator uses drugs and weapons. Therefore, a lack of drugs and weapons means a guy is not a rapist, regardless of how pushy he is. Advocates are also combatting the idea that rape always involves genital intercourse. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 2012 that the federal definition of rape changed away from language that specified forcible penile intercourse to the more-inclusive: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

The incident between Max and Magz took place in 2006, well before this updated definition was the law of the land, and well before the current national conversation about enthusiastic consent. It is telling in Max’s response that he points out that they never even had sex as a reason why this couldn’t have happened. Recall that two years ago, when the Steubenville story was making national headlines, one of the boys involved in the case is quoted as saying, “I didn’t know it was rape.” Those boys in Ohio never actually had genital intercourse with the girl, but still, they were guilty.

Another telling line in Max’s denial is that he calls it “an awkward sexual hookup.” I recently spoke with David Lisak, one of the leading researchers and forensic consultant about sexual assault dynamics. His work is the source of the oft-cited statistic that 90% of on-campus rapes are committed by serial rapists. This breaks down to 67% of rapists having an average of 6 victims, and 33% with just one. The serial rapists are true predators who are often “undetected rapists” in that they fit in and are generally seen as good guys. However, they are people who get off on the lack of consent and seek out weak targets to exploit. The other rapists are also undetected, but they differ from the serial predators in that they only do it once and generally don’t enjoy the act of raping. As they get more knowledgeable about sex, they become better at communicating and reject the unhealthy scripts that they picked up from pop culture. Magz herself states that she doesn’t think Max is a serial predator, so if we take her assessment as truth, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t, then Max would fall into the 33% of rapists who make a mistake and actually change their behavior.

So, if you are a sexually naive college student who has no idea what rape really looks like, should you be held to the same standard of punishment as someone who is serial predator? Or should we downgrade it to a lesser crime — perhaps the sexual equivalent of involuntary manslaughter, whatever that is. In any case, you are not innocent. Max writes that Magz never confronted him or reported as evidence that he is not a rapist, but again this reveals ignorance of how rape victims normally behave.

It is common for a person who was raped to not immediately recognize that it happened. They will interpret the incident as just bad sex, or maybe an awkward hookup. This is a way of maintaining control over the situation. As Magz writes, she was angry at herself for “putting herself” into that situation. This is the norm with victims, who blame themselves are therefore are not going to make a report or confront their attacker. In fact, Magz says that it took hearing other stories for her to recognize her assault for what it was, which follows the narrative that researchers like Lisak expect to find when working with victims of sexual assault.

It would be so gratifying if Temkin would come through all of this and just cleanly apologize. Instead of issuing a denial, it would be amazing to see him say that he was a young idiot and that he’s sorry. Because for all the pain and confusion he’s feeling from being accused of sexual assault, her pain is worse. This is bad for him, but nowhere near what it is for her. Even if this wouldn’t rise to the level of being legally prosecuted as a rape and we can rationalize it as mutual ignorance, sexual violations hurt in a deeply personal and intimate way. They threaten the survivor’s ability to trust and form positive relationships. There are no winners in this situation.

In my time as a sexual assault researcher, I have only seen a man apologize once, and it was a man living in poverty in Alaska who had nothing to lose. Max Temkin has a lot to lose, and the system that allows him to be ignorant to the fact that he crossed a line is the same one that almost requires he paint her as a liar, or more generously, misinterpreting their encounter. It would be extremely gratifying to see him go beyond that to really understanding that he messed up. But if he did that, how would we all react? Would we demonize him as the evilest kind of rapist, or could the public accept that there are some men out there who make very large mistakes in their youth and then go on to change?

Max Temkin should be held accountable for what he did. Change does not absolve someone from their past mistakes, and Magz has openly said she’s not looking to form a legal case, so hopefully, they can come to a resolution, even if it is in private and we never hear of it again. He has written that this will “now haunt him for the rest of his life.” Regardless of what he does, that might be true. In that way, it is very similar to being a survivor of a sexual assault. But, unless there is evidence that he is a serial predator, there should be a way to hold him accountable without destroying his career. A large donation to RAINN or Men Stopping Violence might be a good place to start.

When Max took the rape jokes out of Cards Against Humanity, he showed that he has the capacity to grow in public and use his platform to promote being more respectful and aware of his privilege. He is currently in a situation like that again, but this time it’s a much harder lesson with much more at stake. There is more public support and awareness for survivors than there ever has been before, and we are in the midst of a cultural shift around sex and consent. Part of that shift is taking the burden off of survivors and holding rapists accountable, whether they were fully aware of their actions of not. Regardless of what Max does, I wish Magz the best on her journey and hope that this whole mess helps prevent more assaults in the future.

Take the High Road: Social Media is a Minefield for Controversial Films

For those not paying attention to Portland’s drama involving the production of Whitelandia, here’s a quick recap. Two white award-winning filmmakers are taking on the issue of race in a documentary about the history of racial segregation in Oregon. They ran a KickStarter campaign where they highlighted prominent members of the Black community as their partners, and raise over $20,000. One of the people initially profiled was Walidah Imarisha who was later removed from the project and then released an essay explaining why she does not support the film. Imarisha’s entire essay is worth reading, but the crux of her argument is that the filmmakers, Matt Zodrow and Tracy MacDonald used her work in their campaign without getting her permission. She criticizes the production for reproducing the oppressive dynamics that their film is highlighting and not being sensitive to the issues of appropriation that plague Black scholars. Essentially, she says that they are typical white Portland residents, who are well-intentioned and fashion themselves allies, but don’t really listen to the Black community or understand what being an ally means.

I’ve been particularly interested in this film from the beginning. As a documentary filmmaker in Portland, I like to be aware of what’s happening in my town. A lot of people in my world were very excited about this film and helped fund it on KickStarter. Beyond that, I’m also making a social justice film on a hugely sensitive topic and always interested in how other, more experienced people handle the inevitable criticism and awkwardness that comes with that. But most of all, I was interested in this film because I have spent a lot of time questioning what it means to be an educated white person who goes into a community that is not your own and tells someone else’s story. I felt that what they were doing was brave and important, and I wanted to see them do it well.

Instead, what I saw was one of the biggest social media train wrecks I have ever witnessed. Whitelandia responded with a post on their Facebook page calling Imarisha’s post, inaccurate, problematic and unproductive. When this post gets rightly criticized for being insensitive, the filmmakers begin fighting with commenters on their Facebook page, demonstrating troll-ish behaviors and eventually going into damage control and deleting most of the messages. In response to a man who asked where the rest of the comments are, they blamed it on a Facebook glitch. [Update: many of the posts have been un-hidden.] In a moment when the community was paying close attention, they lashed out with anger and defensiveness, calling into question their ability to handle such a deeply sensitive topic.

Classic "cite your source" troll. He knows perfectly well she doesn't have one.


When filmmakers are working to amplify the voices of those who have less power and influence in the public sphere, that entire relationship is based on trust. It is deeply important that they have the trust of the community that they are representing, and that they appear trustworthy to their audience. While I cannot speak to the relationship that the filmmakers have with the people who are supporting and appearing in their film, they are currently under very public criticism from a prominent member of the Black community. There are good and bad ways of dealing with this sort of public confrontation. The best way would be a genuine, thoughtful statement that showed that they understand the fraught history of appropriation that people of color, particularly women of color have experienced at the hands of white people.

Instead, this is what they posted when faced with comments telling them to check themselves:

It is important to note that the one “like” this comment got is from Whitelandia.

The makers of Whitelandia are woefully unprepared to be on the internet as the public face of a sensitive film about race. While they are able to create a compelling trailer, and have a good track record with their broadcast work, they have just completed a crowd funding campaign and are accountable to the crowd that supports their work. The website for Whitelandia is thin and doesn’t go into any great depth about who the filmmakers are and who they are working with. It is true that angry commenters on a Facebook page aren’t asking for the information nicely, but they are asking for that information. Being a responsible filmmaker accountable to the crowd means giving them that information rather than engaging in a flame war. Interestingly, a statement to the Portland Mercury’s blog reveals names of who in the Black community is currently working with them on the film, and states that they have contracted with a consulting company. The fact that the filmmakers are willing to talk to a reporter, but not the public, about the details of their production demonstrates how ill-prepared they are for the brave new world of social media and crowd-funded production.

What the makers of Whitelandia seem to forget is that they hold so much power in this dynamic. They have won Emmys and have access to broadcasters and investors. They are part of a privileged community where they can get articles in major publications about their work and hire a highly skilled crew working with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. From this position of power, they are asking other people for their knowledge and work, their life stories, and their emotional struggles. The filmmakers will then filter the story and attach their names to it, as all documentary filmmakers do in bringing powerful stories to a an audience. The whole premise of Whitelandia is that this story hasn’t been told, but given the issues of representation present in the media today, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that there are people in the Black community who want to be the ones to tell it, but simply don’t have the money, skills, and connections to make it happen.

This is not to say that two white filmmakers can’t do a good job working with Black history. It is still entirely possible that Whitelandia has a great relationship with the people who do support the film. We can’t pretend that the Black community is monolithic and there aren’t people who disagree with each other about how to get along with the media and share information. The issue of compensation that Imarisha raises is also a tricky one because it is not standard practice for documentarians to pay people for appearing in films, and most people in the documentary business aren’t getting rich off of their work. That said, this is not a shoestring production being shot on whatever the filmmakers can get their hands on.


In spite of this controversy, I still want to see Whitelandia come out of this ahead. I think that they have been given a fantastic opportunity to do some hard work and be examples of what it means to be humble and to build bridges across racial divides. So far, they have posted that the film hasn’t been made yet, and stating that “the proof [of their non-racists ways] will be in the pudding.” But they need to do better. When people don’t know you, you can’t just demand trust from the community, you have to earn it. And when you are in a place of privlege, you have to look at the wider picture and realize that sometimes it’s not really about you. In this case, it is about the wider pattern of how many times white people in power have taken a Black woman’s voice, appropriated it for their own purposes, and profited.

I didn’t understand the pain of this dynamic until I started reading the work of Black female scholars and listening to what they have to say. And they say it far better than I do. But as people making a film about race, the makers of Whitelandia should understand that dynamic and be self-aware enough to see how they play a role. They need to take a step back and acknowledge their mistake without calling out Walidah Imarisha for misrepresenting them when telling her side of the story. Tellingly, Imarisha’s critique was that she didn’t trust this team with her story, and after witnessing their hissy fit on Facebook, I can understand why.

In situations with such deep painful context, it doesn’t really matter how they perceive their actions in this one instance. The larger truth of the situation is one where a Black woman is speaking her truth and white people who claim to be allies are calling her a liar. It’s ugly, and far worse than the usual “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology that often arises in these situations. To make it right, the filmmakers need to acknowledge her words as valid, at the very least, as a sign of respect for all the work that she has done. After that, they need to grow beyond the he-said, she-said bickering and understand their own racism.

Judging from their posts, Whitelandia is going full-speed ahead whether people like it or not. They are determined to make it, and they should be. It’s still an important conversation to have, and we can all come out better for it. However, they should take this as an opportunity to grow and show how deep racism really goes. Hiring a social media rep probably isn’t the worst idea either. For the record, I am currently banned after writing what I considered to be a thoughtful and respectful post on their Facebook page. It’s been deleted, but I’ve included it here, if you’re curious.

While the filmmakers don’t need to be held accountable for all the injustice that has preceded them, they need to be sensitive to it and act appropriately. While they may see using her work before getting explicit approval as not that big of a deal, she does. In calling her words “problematic” and “inaccurate,” they dismissing a prominent voice in the community. More than questions of who is “right” in this matter, the question needs to be, does the black community trust this team? Because if they don’t, this is just a bunch of white people patting each other on the back for being such good allies without doing the hard work of actually listening to black voices. Or worse, only listening to the black voices that tell us what we want to hear.

They claim that they have people on their side, and that we should just wait to see the film. For a lot of people, that’s not enough. Personally, I want to see them do right by the community and make good work. However, this response is defensive and that’s not a great sign. Fighting with critics when dealing with such a sensitive topic indicates that they really haven’t really examined the power dynamics of what’s going on and aren’t willing to have their views challenged. I’m hoping that’s not true and that they are just terrible at using social media. In the end, it doesn’t matter if they don’t see what they did as that bad, they need to recognize the place of power and privilege they come from in the issue and offer a real apology. I’m still hoping once this cools down a bit, they’ll come back with a more level-headed statement.

It is my deepest belief that sometimes you apologize, not because you know you are wrong, but because you value good relationships over always being right. Apologies aren’t just for those times you get caught with your hand in the metaphorical cookie jar. They can be about showing respect for another person’s point of view and acknowledging that they are speaking the truth, even if it is one you can’t see. Especially when publicly dealing with an issue so full of trauma and injustice as state-sanctioned racism, it is vital to have the emotional maturity to disengage from the fight. That doesn’t mean giving up your project, but it means being honest with supporters and above all, showing that you are stepping into this mess out of a sincere desire to be a better person who does everything they can to lessen the burdens of a hateful past.

Should we be concerned about the treatment of young sex offenders once they get caught?

Sad teenGuest Post by Matt McCullough

When discussing sex offenders, there are often impassioned pleas for a harsh punishment. Given the fact that sex crimes can leave life-long trauma on victims, this makes sense. We want to see someone pay for the damage done. These calls for justice don’t allow for any sympathy toward the trauma that the perpetrator will face in the criminal justice system. Some might think that is as it should be, but is that really preventing these crimes from happening again? Thinking about the criminal justice system not only as a system of punishment but also as one of rehabilitation is a challenge. Why do these offenders deserve anything less than the harshest of treatment as a result of their actions? Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., the Chief Program Officer of Juvenile Law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), has taken up the challenge of answering these questions as they pertain to youth offenders. We had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his work.


The main reason why we might look to a rehabilitative practices is that they are proven to be more effective at preventing future crime. A common misconception about youth sexual offenders is that their recidivism rate is high, that is they are likely to be repeat offenders. In fact, the opposite is true. According to Marsh, the recidivism rate for youth sexual offenders is around 10% without any treatment at all. In other words, for many of the remaining 90%, rehabilitation is effective and can be accomplished through community intervention. Screening can be done to determine which offenders are the least likely to be rehabilitated. By looking for risk factors such as cognitive function, impulsivity, boundary issues, lack of empathy, and conduct disorder, it is possible to determine who falls into the 10% of likely re-offenders. Marsh suggests that is the only group that society gains any benefit from keeping separated from the community through incarceration.

For the remaining 90% of youth offenders, research shows that limiting the exposure to the justice system is beneficial for rehabilitation. Many of the offenders are victims of trauma themselves and, often times it is these traumatic events that have led the person to offend in the first place. Interacting with the justice system is in itself another traumatic experience that adds to the original problem and creates more criminal activity. Being exposed to the justice system, especially incarceration, will frequently lead to social learning, called delinquency training, that reinforce the negative behaviors. As Marsh states, “trauma begets trauma”.

In addition, while it is true that early childhood trauma is a factor in the likelihood of committing an initial offense, it is not linked to recidivism. Given this, it is worth considering that research shows that punishment is most effective when it fits the crime in the mind of the offender, is close to the time of the offense, and that the overall exposure to the justice system should be as short as possible, preferably under 6 months. To help accomplish these aims, Marsh has been pushing to have courts adopt what is called a “Trauma Informed System of Care”. In this system, the judge takes these factors into consideration when determining the best course of action for any juvenile offender. Rehabilitation then comes in the form of learning correct boundaries, the ability to self-soothe, and cognitive behavior therapy, ideally in the community while under supervision. Though this looks like the courts are being soft on offenders, it recognizes that young people are still very malleable in their teenage years, and this is the best way to change criminal patterns of behavior.

With what is known about the possibility for first-time youth offenders to change, Marsh hopes that a better approach can be adopted by the courts. He hopes too that this approach will be understood by victims as the best way to reduce future violence and give them a satisfactory outcome. Knowing that the offender has accepted responsibility, has apologized for the transgressions, is taking steps towards rehabilitation and is unlikely to reoffend is generally enough for victims to feel that justice has been served. Especially if the punishment and rehabilitation are conducted in an ideal manner, we, as a society, can be reassured that we are responding in the most effective and compassionate way. The alternative is a punitive system that reinforces negative behaviors which then become entrenched in the offender’s personality, leaving us more vulnerable as a society. Marsh has seen some movements in the courts as the research becomes more clear. It is difficult to do, but having compassion and focusing on reducing trauma for everyone, including young offenders, offers the best hope we have of effectively ending the cycle of violence.

To read more about the work of Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., visit the NCJFCJ website:

And if you liked this post, consider backing this documentary on KickStarter!

Why I'm Making a Film About Rape

I'm running a KickStarter for my new documentary Yeah Maybe, No This is a really difficult, personal topic that I really happy to have distilled into a story that's ready to go public.

At it’s core, Yeah Maybe, No is the story of Blake, a college student wrestling with the memory of a bad relationship and coming to terms with the fact that he was sexually assaulted. Though it is sometimes hard to wade through such difficult emotional material, I am making Yeah Maybe, No to share a story about what sexual assault looks like when it happens through psychological coercion rather than brute force. I was inspired to make this film because I lived through a similar experience, and because of the manipulative nature of the act, I blamed myself for far too long.

Blake’s story is his own, but there are many parallels between our two experiences. My assault took place when I was 12 at an amusement park. I went with a neighbor who was a bit older than me, and, for the first time ever, I left the house with the intention to flirt. I remember feeling both excited and awkward when there was finally a boy paying attention to me. It is only now that I’m older and wiser that I see how the whole thing followed a clear pattern of assault. It started with little transgressions, like graphic jokes and leaning in too close to see how I would respond. I wanted to impress the older kids, so I played along even though I felt like running. Eventually, these little boundary violations lead to bigger ones until I was alone with one guy, confused and dissociated. I felt something like fear, but mostly just numb.

I knew something big had happened, but I had no words for it other than sex. I grew up in a repressed environment where we didn’t talk about "it" except to say that it was bad and something you did when you were married. Based on the movies and TV I was watching, I thought I was supposed to feel accomplished and cool for being a rebel, but mostly I felt sick and tried not to think about it.

Until my late twenties, I continued to think of this as just something bad that happened. Every now and then, I would wonder if it was rape, but another part of me would shake it off with “boys will be boys” or “what did you think was going to happen?” The word “naive” popped up a lot. By that time I was in my late twenties, I was well-read in feminism. I had ranted against victim-blaming, but it wasn’t until a boyfriend repeated my story back to me that it clicked. I had been sexually assaulted and blamed myself. The metaphorical scales fell off my eyes.

By that point, I was already a documentary filmmaker, and I knew that I would make a film about sexual assault. The fact that I had lived for 15 years with such deeply internalized self-blame had humbled me greatly, and I wanted to tell a story that would help other people in a similar spot.

And that’s when I met Blake. He is a student at Reed College, the same small liberal arts college I that graduated from ten years ago. In 2011, students demanded that Reed do a better job handling sexual assault cases on campus. Reed took this seriously, and not only changed their policy around assault, but also took proactive steps to educate students about consent and healthy sexuality. In Blake’s words, “All aspects of sex where being discussed… it was something subterranean dragged out into sunlight.” Through Reed’s efforts to create a safe and healthy space, Blake's had unprecedented institutional support for his experience.

Outside of the bubble of Reed College, activists, such as Know You IX are putting pressure on colleges throughout the country to change their policies to support survivors. And in January, President Obama announced that the White House has even convened a task force to address assault on campus. We are in a potential moment of change, but it needs to be change that matters. Currently RAINN, the nation's largest organization working to end sexual violence, is urging the white house to focus on taking rapists through the criminal justice system.

Our film speaks with people working alongside the justice system to question the value of sending young sex offenders through punitive sanctions such as the sex offender registry. The fact is that our legal system was built in an era without sophisticated social research, and there is compelling evidence that we're getting it wrong. Education, counseling and community-based efforts to hold young offenders accountable are demonstrably more effective at changing violent patterns of behavior.

Blake does not vilify the man who assaulted him, nor does he seek revenge. Instead, he asks for compassion and empathy from those who hear his story, so that he can move on. He is breaking the cycle of violence in a way that punishment through the criminal justice system cannot. As a survivor, this is the hardest part for me accept.  I want to be angry. I want to rage. But if my goal is truly to prevent violence, I need to look at what works to end it.  Efforts based in empathy and compassion don't just sound good in theory, they work in practice.

I have learned so much from Blake, and part of that is that he's a man talking about what people often think of as "violence against women." I did not set out to find a man to talk about being assaulted, but working with him has challenged me to think beyond my own gender politics that often refer to men as predators and women as prey. It’s not “men” who commit violence. It is rapists and abusers. These people are often men, but the overwhelming majority of men are not. And when men are victims, it’s even harder to for them to come forward than it is for women. Since I started working on this project, I’ve been surprised by how many men have quietly told me their experiences. I feel more strongly than ever that I want to do something to support them.

There is an important discussion that we need to be having right now to bring discussions of sexual violence into a supportive space where we can take real steps to combat it. We do need to put pressure on schools and universities to do more, but we also need to educate the general population so that people stop blaming themselves for what happened. With so much misinformation and sensationalized reporting, it’s hard not to fall into patterns of victim-blaming or disbelief. But that needs to stop. I’m making this film to add my voice to the call for change. I hope you can join me.