National Task Force to End Sexual And Domestic Violence Letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee

On the first full day of the 115th Congress, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence (an organization made up of state, local and tribal organizations and individuals who have fought for federal protections for survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking since the 1990’s) submitted a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging them to reject Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination for the nation’s top law enforcement post.

Open Letter to the Judiciary Committee Regarding Senator Jeff Sessions’ Nomination

Dear Member of the Judiciary Committee:
We, the steering committee of the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence (NTF), a coalition of national, tribal, state, and local leadership organizations and individuals advocating on behalf of victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking, write to express our opposition to Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General of the United States of America. We have arrived at this position based upon a review of his record as a state and federal prosecutor, during which he applied the law unevenly, and as a U.S. Senator, during which he supported laws that would afford only some members of our society equal protection of the law. The role of Attorney General requires a demonstrated commitment to providing equal protection under the law—particularly to people who face discrimination because of their race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or other identities. We respectfully submit that Senator Sessions’ record speaks for itself and that his history of differential application of the law carries with it the potential to harm victims and survivors of gender-based violence, particularly survivors from historically marginalized communities. Thirty years ago, this Committee rejected Senator Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench due to well-justified concerns regarding his problematic record on civil rights and troubling history of making racially insensitive statements. These aforementioned concerns, combined with his equally troubling comments on the nature of sexual assault and other concerns raised below, make Senator Sessions an unqualified choice to serve as U.S. Attorney General.  

The position of Attorney General of the United States of America, created by the Judiciary Act of 1789, bears the responsibility of representing the United States in all legal matters in which the country has an interest.[1] Chief among those interests is the affording of equal protection under our criminal, civil and civil rights laws to all members of our society. Under 28 U.S.C. §503, the President’s appointment of an Attorney General must be with the “advice and consent of the Senate.” The process ensures that the person holding the post of Attorney General is one fit for such duty, a person with the intellectual, moral and steadfast ethical capacity to uphold the laws and interests of the United States and to apply the laws equally to all members of society.  

Failure to Speak Up for Victims of Violence and Discrimination

A threshold qualification for the position of Attorney General is a deep understanding of the laws s/he is sworn to uphold. Of critical relevance are Senator Sessions’ recent comments on the nature of sexual assault in response to the release of a 2005 video in which President-Elect Donald Trump describes grabbing women’s genitalia without their consent. When asked whether he would characterize the behavior described by President-elect Trump as sexual assault, Senator Sessions responded, “I don’t characterize that as sexual assault. I think that’s a stretch. I don’t know what he meant –.”[2] Federal statutes enacted prior to Senator Sessions’ tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama criminalize “abusive sexual conduct.”[3] The applicable definition for conduct prohibited by 18 U.S.C. §2244 is clearly stated: “the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”[4] Thus, the Senator is either unaware that abusive sexual contact is illegal under federal law, or he feigned ignorance of the laws he was sworn to uphold as an officer of the court for the sake of political expedience.
The Department of Justice has the exclusive authority to enforce the United States’ criminal statutes, including 18 U.S.C. §2244. The Department of Justice also has exclusive jurisdiction over the prosecution of domestic and sexual violence in the District of Columbia[5], most sexual assaults perpetrated in Indian Country, and concurrent jurisdiction over domestic violence offenses committed in Indian Country. Any candidate for Attorney General of the United States, particularly a former U.S. Attorney, should possess a thorough understanding of the legal definition of sexual assault under federal law and under the laws of the jurisdictions in which the Office of the U.S. Attorney has prosecutorial responsibility. The National Task Force has worked collectively for decades to ensure that legal definitions in the U.S. Code and under state and local laws make it absolutely clear that sexual assault is a crime. The job of the Attorney General is to enforce the law without fear or favor. Thus, we expect the Attorney General to enforce federal laws addressing sexual assault without introducing nonexistent ambiguity, because of the perpetrator’s identity. Senator Sessions’ cavalier statement about sexual assault leaves us fearful that he will not vigorously prosecute sexual assault crimes, a practice unbefitting of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.  
Additionally, Senator Sessions’ poor history with respect to fighting for fairness and equity has us justifiably concerned that he will not step in to vindicate the rights of survivors of campus sexual assault and other victims of discrimination. The Justice Department has jurisdiction to enforce a myriad of civil rights statutes, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[6] and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972[7]. These statutes bar discrimination in education based on race, color and national origin and sex (respectively) by educational institutions that receive federal funding.[8] On college and university campuses alone, we know that 20 percent of women are victimized by sexual assault.[9] Absent an Attorney General’s commitment to ensuring that educational institutions root out bias and violence and hold perpetrators accountable, victims of discrimination, harassment or violence based on sex, race and/or national origin will be unable to pursue their education in an atmosphere of educational equity. Teachers surveyed since the election have described thousands of incidents of “bigotry and harassment,” stemming from incidents involving “racist, xenophobic or misogynistic comments,” and/or “derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants, and people based on gender or sexual orientation.”[10] It is imperative that the person nominated to the position of Attorney General possess a demonstrated record of work and support for these impacted communities, including people of color, immigrants, Muslims and religious minorities, members of the LGBT community, and people with disabilities.  
Regrettably, Senator Sessions’ career is replete with actions taken and statements made in opposition to equitable educational access. While Attorney General of Alabama, Senator Sessions fought equitable educational access for poor, minority and disabled students in Alabama even after being ordered by a federal court to remedy the yawning financial disparities between Alabama’s richest (and whitest) and poorest school districts.[11] Additionally, his mischaracterization of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act as creating “special treatment for certain children,” and being responsible for “accelerating the decline of civility and discipline in classrooms across America,” is appalling.[12] In light of these remarks, we are concerned not only about the Senator’s willingness to use the civil rights statutes to protect survivors of both campus sexual assault and other forms of harassment and violence in the education context, but also his commitment to ensuring equal access and safety under certain programs in the Violence Against Women Act for victims of sexual and domestic violence who have disabilities.

Fair Application of Law

We have additional concerns regarding the Attorney General’s role with respect to the fair, even and unbiased application of the law. Victims and survivors come from all racial or ethnic backgrounds, faith practices, sexual orientations, and gender identities: 33.5% of multiracial women have been raped, as have 27% of American Indian and Alaska Native women, 15% of Hispanic, 22% of Black, and 19% of White women.[13] Additionally, 53.8% of multiracial women and 39.3% of multiracial men experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence and/or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes, as do 46.0% of American Indian and Alaska Native women, 45.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native men, 19.6% of Asian and Pacific Islander women (data for Asian and Pacific Islander men is not available), 43.7% of Black women, 38.6% of Black men, 37.1% of Hispanic women, 26.6% of Hispanic men, 34.6% of White women and 28.2% of White men.[14] We know firsthand that many survivors from vulnerable populations hesitate to contact law enforcement or do not trust the court system to address their victimization because they fear, based on prior experience, that any justice system response may not help them. We expect anyone who serves as Attorney General to create a Justice Department accessible to all; the 5th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution demand no less.
Senator Sessions’ well-documented prosecutorial record[15], as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama and as Attorney General for the State of Alabama, demonstrate his propensity to inequitably apply the law to the disadvantage of historically marginalized populations. Senator Sessions’ history leads us to question whether he will vigorously seek to ensure that all victims and survivors of gender-based violence, particularly vulnerable populations and those at the margins of society, have access to vitally needed services and legal protections.

Senator Sessions’ Opposition to Protections for the Immigrant and LGBT Communities

We are concerned that the positions that Senator Sessions has taken on immigration and LGBT individuals pose grave threats to vulnerable victims of gender-based violence. His consistent support of immigration policies that increase the barriers to safety for undocumented victims of sexual and domestic violence victims pushes immigrant victims further into the shadows and harms families and communities by allowing perpetrators (batterers and rapists) to abuse, traffic and assault with impunity. During the consideration of two major comprehensive immigration reform bills, as well on various other occasions, Senator Sessions has sponsored amendments and stand-alone legislation to limit the availability of critical safety net assistance for immigrants and increase barriers to protections from abuse and exploitation by penalizing local jurisdictions that fail to engage in immigration enforcement activities. He has made no subsequent statement that indicates that he would rethink these punitive policy positions were he to be confirmed.
His failure to support, and sometimes active opposition to, progress and protections for the LGBT community leave us gravely concerned that if confirmed, he would not stand up for the rights of the LGBT community generally, and particularly with respect to LGBT victims of violence. He opposed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is of particular concern as we witness a spike in harassment of minorities and bias crimes over the last several months. Additionally, he supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He also opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Senator Sessions’ record sends the message to marginalized survivors that their experiences will not be understood, nor will their rights be protected, if he is confirmed as the Attorney General.

Opposition to the Violence Against Women Act

We are also concerned that the nominee voted against the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization of 2013. Seventy-eight out of one hundred senators supported the bipartisan bill; Senator Sessions was in the distinct minority. The 2013 Act addresses the gaps in law that were uncovered through outreach to and surveys of programs and service providers and domestic and sexual violence victims themselves.
Our analysis revealed that many survivors were not able to access services and justice to the extent they needed. Of particular note, we found that LGBT survivors often lacked access to justice and support based on their gender identity or their sexual orientation. We also learned of the deplorable lack of access to justice faced by survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault on tribal lands. VAWA 2013 included provisions that removed one of many barriers that prevent access to justice for American Indian and Alaska Native domestic violence survivors. The 2013 statute’s provisions expand and ensure that immigrant survivors can access VAWA protections, allowing survivors to come out of the shadows, help hold batterers and abusers accountable, and enable law enforcement to protect community safety. VAWA 2013’s goal of ensuring equal protection of the law was rejected by Senator Sessions, who cast the bill’s advancements toward inclusion and equal protection as political maneuvering and, in that light, voted against the bill. The Attorney General is tasked with ensuring that VAWA’s protection and programs are available and accessible to all. Senator Sessions’ opposition to the VAWA protections and his prosecutorial record leave us gravely concerned that he would not vigorously or consistently apply these protections.

Conclusion

The 14th Amendment provides the inalienable right that every person receive equal protection under the law.[16] Senator Sessions’ senate record of strenuous objection to protections for historically marginalized populations, coupled with his record of selective prosecutions, demonstrate his unwillingness to protect marginalized victims’ access to justice and disqualify him from holding the position of Attorney General of the United States, a position charged with the responsibility of securing justice for all. Selective application of the law and outward hostility towards victims of sexual and domestic violence in historically marginalized populations has a chilling effect on their willingness and ability to seek services and protection. It drives sexual violence, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking underground, something we have made great strides to avoid. The Attorney General of the United States must be an individual committed to protecting the inalienable right of equal protection under the law to all within United States’ jurisdiction. Moreover, his minimizing comments about the nature of sexual assault call into question his dedication to enforcing the law and providing justice to victims of this serious crime.
In short, we oppose Senator Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General of the United States and we ask you, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to ask him direct questions regarding the concerns raised in this letter, and to advise the President, pursuant to the prescription of 28 U.S.C. §503, that Senator Sessions’ is unqualified to hold this post.
Yours truly,
The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence
The Inquisitive Skink

About the Vagina Lollipops:

Once again, Food Works is processing an order for our chocolate Vagina lollipops. Here in the kitchen I have heard a lot of comments and some questions as to why we do them. This is an attempt to explain why a domestic violence shelter program like Food Works is participating in the promotion of the sale of vagina suckers. Hopefully after reading this, you can address the same questions and comments when they come your way. Or not….as you have no obligation to agree with the points I make.

There may be some valid criticisms to be made regarding the use of the vagina as a symbol for feminism, the women’s rights movement, and the effort to work against domestic violence.  I will leave it to you to imagine for yourselves what those criticisms are.  Some criticism is based, frankly, on the fact that some people are just uncomfortable with talking about anything that has to do with sex and the vagina definitely has a lot to do with sex.

However, and this is a BIG however, there are important issues needing to be addressed locally, regionally, nationally and worldwide.  According to a 2003 U.N. report “ One in three women throughout the world…in her lifetime…will be beaten, raped, assaulted, trafficked, harassed or forced to submit to harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM).  Just as pink ribbons have been used as an emblem for breast cancer awareness, the vagina has taken on an emblematic status in the world-wide feminist movement to bring awareness to the issues of domestic violence, the subjugation of women and rape.  

The U.N. report carried an important message. There is a tendency, however, for information so broadly based across many nations to lose its impact. Localized information might make a stronger impression.
 
Did you know that last year there were 58 domestic violence homicides in Indiana? Think about that. An average of more than one woman a week in Indiana is murdered in an act of domestic violence.  

Between July of 2012 and July of 2013, there were 6,819 women and 4,868 children who sought and received shelter from domestic violence shelters like Middle Way House. These shelters are most often the last recourse. Women and children fleeing violence tend to prefer the shelter provided by families and friends, as long as they have a safe window of time and much of a choice.  Having worked crisis line myself, I can directly attest to the fact that when calls come in, most of the women calling in while attempting to get away from violence do not apply for shelter.  Instead, they work out other solutions.  I am pointing this out to make it clear that the 11,687 women and children that received shelter this past year in Indiana are just a portion of the population dealing with domestic violence. It is also a crying shame that over 3,800 women and children were turned away from shelter last year simply because the programs available were operating at full capacity. There were simply not enough beds to be had. 

The sexual assault situation in Indiana is simply horrid. According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 10.5 percent of all high school-age girls have been sexually assaulted and regrettably it is WORSE here in Indiana, where the numbers are considerable higher than nearly anywhere else in the country. 17.3 percent of girls in grades nine through 12 in this state have reported experiencing rape or sexual assault. The Justice Department estimates that 54% of rape victims do not press charges, and also reports that nationwide there are 207,754 people sexually assaulted in a year. Not all of these victims are owners of vaginas, but the vast majority of them are. While these statistics should shock you, they are not nearly as shocking as what each of these individuals has had to endure. 

What does this have to do with our making and selling Vagina pops? You may be familiar with the Vagina Monologues, a play written by Eve Ensler in 1996. This play is now performed world-wide on a yearly basis and was the result of interviewing over 200 women of all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations about their vaginas.  In 1998, Ensler and others launched V-Day, a global non-profit movement that has provided over $75 million for women’s anti-violence groups through benefits of The Vagina Monologue. Those are much needed funds both world-wide and locally. Here in Bloomington, the vagina pops are sold by the I.U. Women’s student association at events surrounding their production of the Vagina Monologues to help bring awareness to the event and the issues surrounding the V-Day movement. It is hard for someone who does not work around domestic violence issues to feel any connection to the numbers just referred to above and the admitted shock value of these lollipops helps to bring these issues forward in a dramatic way. They are delicious conversation starters. 

I have some additional points of consideration to offer people who are concerned about whether it is appropriate to sell vagina lollipops for Food Works and these points don’t have anything at all to do with the ability to gain funds for shelter services or to advertise the Vagina Monologues. I can’t say it any better than Jessica Valenti, the author of Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters: “What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don’t hold back, now. You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank. Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I’ve even heard the term “mangina.”Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that’s not royally fucked up.”  


This is the gut of the problem. The inherent insult and shame implied in a female word. You can’t get much more female than the vulva or vagina, and this is why they are the strongest emblem for the fight against domestic violence. It is good to promote vaginas, and feminine sexuality as something not to be ashamed of. Shame and insult are the currencies spent by our culture to allow the continuation of rape and violence.  If you have ever attended the Vagina Monologues, one of the most universal reactions of the women in attendance is the proud embracement of terms such as cunt, slut, vagina. There is an empowerment that happens when the ownership of those words are on a woman’s terms, not a man’s. It is part and parcel with a refusal to be shamed or insulted about who we are. When sex, sexuality, and vaginas remain taboo and unspoken they hide with them all those other things that remain unspoken and shoved under the rug……things like rape, sexual abuse and repression. It is hard to uncover and fight what is hidden.

The problem is not just the use of the feminine as an insult.  When someone gets a vagina pop the reactions range from “cool” to an embarrassment to comments that “this is nasty”. Well a vagina is not nasty, nor is the acts of sex brought to mind in innuendos when people laugh and joke about the suckers.

It is a real shame that our society has made sex a sinful thing. Not quite so sinful for men, after all “boys will be boys” but hugely sinful for women. If these sexist attitudes were not holding sway, we would not have to hear about Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide or the Steubenville rape trial. We would not be learning about the 14-year-old in Elwood, Indiana who was raped and became pregnant and then faced ongoing harassment and vicious public shaming from her community

I am extremely tired of the denial that sexism exists. It is similar to how there are tons of people out there that are claiming racism is dead, while the ones making this claim are the very ones trying to minimize their own racist tendencies. The virgin/whore mythology, the good girl/slut stories, the “you must have asked for it” stories surrounding violence and rape…..there are those of us that are refusing to buy those stories any longer.

Hence – the lovely delicious chocolate vagina lollipops.

The Inquisitive Skink

An easy way to support Middle Way House

Hello family, friends, and supporters of Middle Way House,
 
As many of you know, I work for a wonderful nonprofit organization called Middle Way House. Middle Way House is a domestic abuse shelter here in Bloomington, Indiana. Even though many of you may not be able to support the shelter in any other way, there is a very important grant we could receive with your assistance.
Middle Way is currently in the running to receive a $250,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project. In order to receive the grant, however, we need you to vote for our project every day in December.
 
Voting is easy.
 
2.) Click the Vote Button. A box will pop up for you to sign in.
3.) Create an account. The first time you register you may have to find your way back to the Middle Way page, but it shouldn’t be an issue after that.
4.) You can find us by typing “Middle Way House” in the search box in the upper rght hand corner.
5.) Once on our voting page you can press the “Vote” button for the day.
 
You can also text “104741” to Pepsi (73774) (standard text messaging rates apply.)
 
Please remember to vote every day from now through December 31st! Feel free to send this message to all your family and friends — the more people voting for Middle Way, the greater the chance we have of receiving this much-needed grant.
 
Thanks so much for your support!
The Inquisitive Skink

Epitaph

Dear Inquisitive Skink,

I do recall that time, the media, how within a short span, another young woman was murdered by her husband. The community still recovers from such tragedies. Conversations about domestic violence need to be held by adults in the community. Conversations and real information needs to be offered in every school, beginning with middle-school and onward. A required class, for all graduates from high-schools, universities and colleges. Such information would benefit every community well. I think for a real understanding to be developed, each class would be a semester and designed around understanding domestic violence as it exist within our unique communities, the cost (mentally, physically, and spiritual) to the individual, children, community; preventatives, and resources to be aware of if you wake up some morning and find that this is your life.

Women and men, as Maya Anjelou said (not an exact quote) “If a person shows themselves to you, believe them”. If a snake says, I am a poisonous snake, you don’t treat it like a corn snake.

Recently, I participated in two memorial services. The first was a friend, aged 91, and the other, a young woman in her 60’s. Each good-by was beautiful and uniquely different, yet each shared this Epitaph poem by Meredith Malloy. I hope to hold these words ever close within reach of my mind and heart.

Epitaph


When I die

Give what’s left of me away

To children

And old men that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,

Cry for your brother

Walking the street beside you.

And when you need me,

Put your arms around anyone

And give them

What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,

Something better

Than words or sounds.

Look for me

In the people I’ve known or loved.

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live on in your eyes

And not on your mind.

You can love me the most

By letting hands touch hands,

By letting bodies touch bodies

And by letting go

Of Children

That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die, People do.

So, when all that’s left of me

Is love,

Give me away.

I’ll see you at home

In the earth.

Meredith Malloy

The Inquisitive Skink

Remembering Jannifer

I don’t know why Jannifer has been on my mind lately.
Sometimes I think it is odd how a person’s life and death can affect someone.

Jannifer was someone I thought I was going to get to know better, and then didn’t get to do so. My friend Leslie ran a program popular with a lot of homeschoolers called Children’s Garden, and Jannifer had generously allowed full use of her house for the myriad of art writing and music activities Leslie had created for them. Jannifer herself wasn’t there during Children’s Garden most of the time. I do have memories of Jannifer handing over delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies to a swarm of kids; her helping with the May Day Maypole dance (Leslie was famous for these…..what a tangled cheery funny mess!), and sharing a rolling eyes humorous moment when her son and Leslie’s son had been tormenting my daughter Jenna with a dead lizard. Jannifer was easy to be around and possessed a very kind and bright spirit.

Nine years ago, I got the children herded like cats into the van and headed to Leslie’s house…..Children’s Garden hadn’t been held at Jannifer’s for some time. I rarely watched or listened to the news so was oblivious to what was going on in the world. Hopped out of the van and was immediately greeted by Leslie flooding with tears with the news of Jannifer’s murder. I and other moms did our best to shake of the daze of the how – what – why – impossible – no no no no no no no! experience so that we could be there for Leslie whose pain was like that of someone who had lost a sister.

The Herald Times description of that day is here:

A normally quiet neighborhood southeast of Bloomington awakened to sounds of gunfire and police helicopters early Tuesday morning.

Most of the residents of Bluebird Lane and Robin Road were moved to safety or evacuated from the neighborhood between 4:30 and 8:30 a.m., after a report of a man with a gun was received by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department.

Robert Boles shot his ex-girlfriend, Jannifer Cockrell, while she slept in her home on Bluebird Lane.

Because Boles was armed, police blocked off the area and evacuated many of the neighborhood’s residents while they searched for the man, who later shot himself in a nearby wooded area.

About 15 people, including Cockrell’s 14-year-old son, were evacuated by bus about 8:20 a.m. and taken to Jackson Creek Middle School, where the Red Cross set up a shelter in the school’s auditorium.

Prior to all of this Robert had doused his apartment with gasoline and set his apartment complex on fire destroying his and his neighbor’s apartment and sending all of the residents out onto the street for safety. He then gained entry into Jannifer’s house, let her 14 year old son outside, and proceeded to kill Jannifer.

Jannifer had a restraining order against this man. He had transformed from a person who she had thought cared about her into someone whose intense hobby was to control her and make her miserable. He was very good at his hobby. There were plenty of people who spoke about how nice of a man he was and how shocking it was that he would do such a thing. This is a very honest truth from their perspective. What people don’t realize is that most abusive partners look and act just like the rest of us in their non-intimate relationships. The clues you will get about abusive partners are going to come from their victims, not from the abuser.

As I said at the start, I am baffled as to why Jannifer has been popping into my head so much. It bothered me and I looked it up…..the anniversary of her death is tomorrow. I don’t think its about not letting go of grief. Perhaps it is a need to examine it. I am getting older….she’d be 53 going on 54 now, just like me. She would still be playing her mandolin and I’d be still wishing I could make music like that.

If you have a chance to share a Maypole dance with a bunch of kids please do so and sing and dance a bit for Jannifer too.

The Inquisitive Skink