Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump)

August 3, 2016

Sometimes I wonder when my thoughts about the world won’t have something to do with Donald J. Trump. I’m hoping by the second week of November. But his shameless attack on U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan’s family after their emotional appearance at the Democratic National Congress last week actually inspired me to have a hopeful thought. Seeing Clown Prince Trump claim he’s sacrificed as much as this grieving Gold Star family sent what few military families were still on the Trump Train jumping from the caboose. Trump tried to recover by waving around a Purple Heart that wasn’t his and claiming that he’s wished he’d gone to the Vietnam War (instead of taking all those rich kid deferments).

KHAN

Trump’s Islamophobic comments aside, the important part of this narrative was Khizr Khan’s passionate assertion that the the Republican nominee was devoid of empathy: empathy for veterans, empathy for the families of troops killed in combat, and empathy for the Vietnam Veteran whose Purple Heart he gladly took and showed off at a campaign rally.  “This person is totally incapable of empathy”, Khan told CNN. “I want his family to counsel him. Teach him some empathy. He will be a better person, but he is a black soul.”

Trump (and his authoritarian followers) aren’t the only people who need a lesson in  empathy. The lack of empathy knows no creed or color. But, unless you are a sociopath, there is hope that it can be learned. I’ve written about it in this blog and I teach it and I’m trying to maintain it when I talk about Trump supporters (which is getting increasingly difficult after the billionaire’s daily assault on core American values).

Here’s where this glimmer of hope from the Trump-Khan “feud” links to rape culture. And here’s where feminists can find unlikely allies. Every man has some female he loves, right? A mother, sister, daughter, wife, girlfriend, gaming store clerk. One would assume that they don’t want that female to be sexually assaulted. So if that dude learns that there is a good chance that she will be or already has been (a one in six chance by the most famous study on the topic), he might feel something: anger, maybe guilt that he doesn’t worry about being raped, hopefully concern for the (potential) victim he cares about, and MAYBE concern for other women he doesn’t even know. Empathy.

Ferber

I wrote about this power in a chapter I published in the 2004 book, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. An emotional connection to a female can allow even the most committed right-wing hate-monger to build empathy towards others, including the people they are supposed to hate. So many hate group members left that world because a female impressed upon them how they are the victims of hate every single day as potential targets of sexual violence.

There’s a second link. I think most men, even the war-loving Trumpists that want to “bomb the shit” out of somebody, understand the complexity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When my dad was in high school he had a teacher who was a “shell-shocked” veteran from World War II. The not-empathetic 1950s kids (you know, when America was “great”) would make the sound of bombs falling to see the poor guy dive for shelter. What a hoot. Now we all have an idea of the ongoing hell many of our troops suffer when they return from war. We might not agree with the war, but we are all in agreement that those people served in conditions that the rest of us could never imagine and we owe it to them to take care of them and be mindful of the triggers of PTSD. Gone are the days of joking about vets who “go all Vietnam” when they get home. Maybe that was a contribution of President Reagan, maybe it was the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, or maybe it was the result of thousands and thousands of vets demanding their stories be heard.

PTSD def

Well, I’ve got some important news for you. Those thousands and thousands of women who have suffered from sexual violence can also suffer from PTSD. This includes a lot of women you know, maybe more than you could ever guess. You think there are a lot of reminders of war in the daily life of a vet? Ask a rape survivor about the daily reminders of sexual violence in America. It doesn’t have to a news report, or a rape scene in Game of Thrones, or a Robin Thicke song. It could just be in a setting or the sound of a man’s voice. I am looking out my window right now and across the bay is Cancun. That word alone surely brings back some nightmarish memories for many women (as I wrote about last year).

rapePTSD

I’ve known so many women who have suffered sexual assaults, many when they were very young. Those scars last lifetimes and are heartbreaking. I’ve had female students in my criminology classes burst into tears when I talk about rape statistics. I now give a “trigger warning” before I even bring up the subject. You wouldn’t dream of telling a war vet to “just get over it,” so don’t expect a rape survivor to be on some magical recovery path that the guy who did two tours in Afghanistan isn’t on either. Like war vets, rape victims have a much higher rate of suicide. Both need our open hands, not dismissal.

And there are surely others who suffer from some variation of PTSD, including police officers, abused children, and the millions of Americans who have been incarcerated. These are all people we care about. So if you are a conservative who cares about veterans and police, you can totally care about returning inmates and women living in a culture that has normalized rape. And if you are a liberal, the converse is true! Empathy is a powerful thing! It can even turn Mr. Rambo Republican into a feminist. Let’s care about others besides ourselves. Really care.

The only question left is – Is it possible for Donald J. Trump to learn empathy or is he a sociopath. America’s soul hangs in the balance.

PTSD

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Cancun: Where the U.S. Government Sends its Rapists

Aug. 10, 2015

Whenever somebody tells me, “I love Mexico! We went to Cancun just last year!” I want to beat them senseless with their selfie stick. Let’s get this straight. Cancun does not count as Mexico. It’s an American strip mall built in the land of the Mayans. It is a city created to lure gringos who want a nice beach in another country but don’t want to deal with grubby foreigners (or even their currency). It’s a fabricated vacuum that has very little to do with the great, vibrant nation of Mexico.

CANCUN1970

Cancun was created in 1970. (So I’m older than Cancun.) At the time there were only three coconut farmers living there. (The 2010 population was 722,800, not counting douchebags. bachelorette parties and roofie suppliers.) The Mexican government invested in nine hotels and America’s favorite spring break destination was born. Clubs, hotels, and all your favorite American restaurants, like Hooters and McDonalds, are all positioned not more than 50 feet from ATMs that spit out Yankee dollars. Don’t speak Spanish? No problema!

So on Saturday night we decided to have a little excursion into a bizarre alternative universe where basic laws do not apply. We hopped a ferry off our tranquil island home and journeyed into the belly of the beast. Andrea and I and her sister Viri hoped for best. How bad could it be? Surely not the heart of darkness.

CoBro

Arriving in Puerto Jaurez we let Viri get the taxi to the club district because my American accent would have doubled the price. The cab driver told me, “Drink mucho tequila! Tequila! Tequila!” We were quickly recruited by a bouncer to come to the “hottest club in Cancun,” called La Vaquita, the little cow. (I don’t really get the cow thing. Udders?)  So when you get to this area before midnight, the clubs are front-loaded with dancing girls to lure the bros in. They are essentially strippers who have been imported from north of the border to attract customers. (None of the women looked like Latinas, not that Cancun club owners should proudly exploit their own.) After the clubs are packed, these women head home, hopefully to some safe space, before doing it again tomorrow.

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So we got cut a deal since it was one dorky guy and two beautiful women. Only about $35 each cover charge and he slapped our wrist bands on. And that came with an open bar, so an endless stream of sugary daiquiris and piña coladas headed our way. But then our waiter, Luis, just started bringing the trays of shots, one after another. I got the hint that the goal was to get the ladies extremely fucked up so they would be more “fun.” I started dumping my shots off the balcony so I could regulate and keep my cultural anthropologist hat on straight. I noticed the club next-door was Dady’O, the place Kim Kardashian goes to shake what her selfies bought her. I thought about running in and taking a massive dump in her honor but fish tacos have got me a bit irregular this summer.

One thought I had was how little dance music has changed in thirty years. (Just check out the 1983 dance mix of Human League’s “Fascination.”) But instead of extended dance versions you just got half a song before the next jam for the ADHD generation. As the clubs started to fill up, the DJ switched over to American hip hop and all your favorite hits where some rapper demands to have his dick sucked. (Can we please have a moratorium on dick sucking references in rap songs until there is an equal number of jams about going down on the muffin?) For every killer Jay-Z cut there were five super-misogynistic songs to dance to with your ass grabber. We were hoping that one-hit-wonders like Soulja Boy were now working at a Walgreens, restocking maxi-pads.

The last ferry back to Isla Mujeres was at 12:30 a.m. and since I’m no party-pooper we decided to go all night and catch the 5 a.m. ferry home. I may be a 51-year-old academic, but if there’s a good beat and you can dance to it, I’m yours for the night. And on and on to the break of dawn.

RandyAndi

We made our way across the street to the famous Mandala club and got in for free (again, I was with two beautiful women so I guess the logic was that at least one woman would be available). And we never paid for drinks there either (although we might have walked out on the bill, but who could tell with the jets of steam blasting out the ceiling at odd moments.) Like La Vaquita, the club was full of American bros on the  prowl. Viri had some dude try to drag her away but she used her “No speak English,” defense to escape the guy’s grasp.

Mand2

Mandala had a better dance floor and a “show.” And by show I mean female dancers who were dressed like the escaped from Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby prancing around while one climbed into a giant champagne glass and some bored employee poured a big bottle of bubbly (water, actually) on her ass. Worth every penny we paid to get in. And the bros shouted rude things at her because that’s what bros do.

The clubs in Cancun are open to the street which gives pedestrians a peek at what they’re missing and also allows people inside to interact directly with street vendors. What is painfully obvious is the large number of children who are working well after midnight, selling trinkets to tourists. Around 2 a.m. we took a break to grab some food on the strip (with about 10 different sound systems at full volume) and we’re approached by a sad-faced 7-year-old boy selling bracelets. Viri asked him why he wasn’t home in bed and he said his dad had died so he had to work. It was heartbreaking. You don’t want to support this exploitation of children, so I just gave him my bottle of water a sympathetic look and wished that Mexico had the same child labor laws that the U.S. does. Andrea had spotted a woman selling necklaces with a 9-month baby on her hip and chased her down to ask her why she would expose her child to all this noise well after midnight. Turns out it wasn’t even her baby, she was using it for the sympathy factor. The child seemed listless and doomed but it’s hard to judge people that are forced into this globalized cluster-fuck.

If we had been at a production of Les Mis, this would have been a quaint but sad historical footnote. But it was August 2015 and it put a downer on the vibe. It’s so odd that Americans are invited here to party their asses off while small children beg at their spray-tanned feet for pesos. And just down the street they can buy some of those children for sex as Cancun has a healthy sex-trafficking trade in the heart of the club district.

So, hoping to stretch out our adventure with some fun dancing, we headed back to La Vaquita and our open bar. But the night had passed some tipping point and all those free shots meant there were scores of barely standing females with the douchebag predators making their move, grinding and groping. It became clear at that moment that Cancun must be the date rape capital of the western world. Bros of every stripe (American, Mexican, Armenian) floated around to find the drunkest girl to “pick up.” An obese Mexican guy grabbed a petite girl on the dance floor by the hair and tried to pour a beer down her throat. I threw a handful of ice from my daiquiri at his head and she slipped away. Another guy had tried to do the same thing to Viri a little earlier and I had to give him the “don’t fuck with my hermana” look.

Just Do Me

It got bad. Like open season bad. Part of me resented having to stay sober so I could cock-block these rapist wanna-bees. Part of me was angry that these women were making themselves vulnerable to these assholes. But the biggest part of me was angry that men still see this sexually aggressive behavior as acceptable just because “everyone is shitfaced.” “It’s not rape if we’re both drunk!” It makes it hard to cut loose when you are thinking about all the reality-checks coming the morning after. Petite Girl ended up hooking up with a bro in a backwards ball cap and a tank top that said “Just Do Me,” while DMX rapped, “I gotta get my dick sucked.” I’m sure they’ll live happily ever after.

As 4 a.m. approached, we decided we better beat the rush and find a taxi back to the ferry port. Outside the club there was another gauntlet of vultures too cheap to pay the cover for the club. They were just hanging out in the street waiting for drunk women to come out and then zoom in like seagulls picking off baby sea turtles who just want to make it to the sea. Viri came out before us and some Pitbull-looking-motherfucker was on her tail. And he had a sidekick to insure his game. I had to position myself near her to send some kind of signal. But how many women don’t have a brother-in-law to run interference?

Openbar

We made it back to the ferry and watched the stars shine from the top deck as we headed back to our beautiful island. It was such a challenging experience. I will dance my ass off to a good Kanye jam and am happy to gulp a cocktail bigger than my head but I felt on guard against the wall of shit that happens every single night in probably every single club in Cancun. The place seemed like a fantasy world for somebody like Donald “Miss Universe Contest” Trump who puts so much emphasis on female beauty, the deregulation of the economy, and the freedom to not be accused of raping your wife. I’m surprised he doesn’t have a hotel there. Look, I know this behavior happens elsewhere and I want people to be able to celebrate the joy of life and “be drunken” (as Baudelaire urged) in a beautiful place like Cancun, but would I want my daughter Cozy to come here when she’s 18 and set herself up for the bro predators? It’s a tough call. But for now, I feel like dropping a bomb on the place would be a good start. What was wrong with it just being a coconut farm? As we approached Isla Mujeres, we saw a shooting star above the ferry and I made a wish for my little girl.

Note: The U.S. government is not sending rapists to Cancun. They come for the cheap beer and steak fajitas. Likewise, the Mexican government is not sending rapists to America. Donald Trump is just a complete idiot.