Gay, Bisexual, Sexually Abused Male Inmates More Fearful of Prison Rape, More Open to Therapy

There is nowhere to escape in what often is referred to as a “sexual jungle,” especially for the most vulnerable. However, “Zero tolerance” toward prison rape is now national policy thanks to the Prison Rape Elimination Act passed by the United States Congress in 2003. Although this law changed how Americans think about prison rape, few studies have examined how inmates perceive rape and if they feel safe in prison. Even less is known about how their perceptions influence whether or not they ask for mental health treatment while incarcerated.

The most recent National Inmate Survey of 2011-12 of 92,449 inmates age 18 or older shows that among non-heterosexual prison inmates, more than 12 percent reported sexual victimization by another inmate and almost 5.5 percent were victimized by a prison staff member within the past 12 months. In comparison, 1.2 percent of heterosexual prisoners were sexually victimized by an inmate and 2.1 percent were victimized by a prison staff member. These rates are even higher for those with mental illness. About one in 12 inmates with a mental disorder report at least one incident of sexual victimization by another inmate over a six-month period, compared to one in 33 male inmates without a mental disorder.

Using data from more than 400 male inmates housed in 23 maximum-security prisons across the U.S., researchers from Florida Atlantic University conducted a novel study to examine the factors related to fear of rape in prison and the likelihood of male inmates requesting mental health treatment while incarcerated. They focused specifically on prisoners at risk of being sexually victimized in prison: gay or bisexual inmates and those with a history of childhood sexual abuse.

A key finding from the study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, is that sexual orientation and a history of childhood sexual abuse are significant predictors of male inmates fearing rape as a big threat in prison and voluntarily requesting mental health treatment. Findings from the study reveal that nearly 38 percent of gay and bisexual inmates and 37 percent of inmates with childhood sexual abuse fear rape as a big threat.

Compared with straight inmates, gay and bisexual inmates are approximately two times more likely to perceive rape as a threat and three times more likely to voluntarily request mental health treatment in prison. Inmates with a history of childhood sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to perceive rape as a threat and almost four times more likely to request mental health treatment than inmates who did not report a history of childhood sexual abuse. Notably, this finding is inconsistent with previous research that has shown that there is no significant relationship between childhood sexual abuse and feelings of safety among male inmates.

“The consequences of perceiving rape to be a threat in prison are vast and could contribute to violence among inmates as well as negative mental health ramifications such as increased fear, psychological distress, chronic anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide,” said Cassandra A. Atkin-Plunk, Ph.D., co-author and an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within FAU’s College for Design and Social Inquiry.

Inmates incarcerated for two to five years are nearly three times more likely to perceive that rape is a big threat compared with inmates incarcerated for less than two years. Inmates in prison longer than 18 years are nearly four times more likely to voluntarily request mental health treatment in prison. The researchers also found that Black inmates are twice as likely to seek mental health treatment in prison compared to White inmates.

“Knowing that gay and bisexual inmates and inmates with a history of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to fear rape and seek mental health treatment, prison staff can target outreach and treatment efforts for this vulnerable sub-population,” said Mina Ratkalkar, LCSW, MS, lead author and a licensed clinical social worker pursuing a Ph.D. who conducted the study while she was a graduate student at FAU. “Our study shows that these sub-groups of inmates are receptive to treatment, and our findings have implications for both practice and policy in the United States.”

The sample consisted of a nearly equal number of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Black inmates made up about half of the sample, with White inmates comprising about one-third of the sample. Nearly one-third of the sample had previously been in juvenile detention and about one-quarter were incarcerated for the first time in the adult criminal justice system at age 18 or younger.

About 16.4 percent of the sample identified as gay or bisexual. About one-fifth of the men (73) reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, and about one-third of the men reported having received mental health treatment outside of prison.

Why Feminism is Still Important For Social Workers


Feminism continues to be a fraught issue with fractures within the community of feminists, as well as women in general. Yet, feminism is more crucial than ever given the diversity of challenges women are now facing. Feminism has become a focal point again recently largely as a result of the Presidential election and the response from it. This is clearly important for social workers as well, from the perspective of human rights and social justice, as well as from a policy perspective.

The role of feminism came to the forefront during the Presidential election for various reasons, most obviously because for the first time a woman became the Presidential candidate for a major political party in the United States. The treatment and response by the media to a female candidate, in comparison to a male candidate, was highlighted by various commentators. This included incessant references to the candidate’s clothing and appearance, the sound of her voice, and the dichotomy of seeming too harsh or cold vs. too weak.

Sadly, many female candidates are forced to endure humiliating treatment that their male counterparts would not experience. The list of demeaning comments made against Hillary Clinton goes on and on which also impacted the Republican female presidential candidate. President Donald Trump infamously commented on Carla Fiorina’s looks stating, “Look at that face!.. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” These demeaning, misogynistic attitudes and comments were pervasive this election season.

As a result, there has been a strong backlash to what many views as a war on women. This has culminated in the Women’s March, which was estimated to have had three times as many people in attendance than at the Presidential Inauguration. The momentum has continued with more women taking up the call to run for office. International Women’s Day, held on March 8th, also held more significance this year as the Women’s March organizers highlighted the day with calls for strikes from women, and for women to wear red in acknowledgment of the challenges women face.

Yet, there are many naysayers that feel that these efforts are women playing the victim. Some women are vocal that these efforts do not represent them. Political policy impacts all women, and the advantages we enjoy now came from blood, sweat, and tears. This includes the continued fight for equal pay, women’s ability to advance in the workplace, paid maternity leave, and better childcare options—these issues are universal. Aside from this, there is the continued victim blaming of those who have experienced rape on college colleges and a lack of substantial follow-up on the part of the police. Many of those who are prosecuted are given a slap on the wrist, as was the case with Brock Turner.

Sexism and assault of women in the military continue, where most recently nude photos of a female Marine have been posted online. Intimate partner violence and murder of women by husbands or boyfriends are frighteningly pervasive. Seven trans women have already been murdered in 2017 and 27 were killed in 2016.

Furthermore, women and girls continued to be sexually exploited through human trafficking networks. This is due largely in part because our society condones selling women and the demand persists. Until recently children who were caught prostituting, some as young as 10, were prosecuted in court instead of viewing them as a victim in need of help. Even today not all states have yet adopted Safe Harbor laws, viewing “child prostitutes” as culpable in some way.

Worldwide women continue to experience gender-based violence. In Pakistan, Saba Qaiser was shot in the head and left for dead by her father as part of an honor killing. She miraculously survived but saw no justice as she was pressured by the community to forgive those who shot her, letting them off the hook legally. India is experiencing a rape crisis, with 34,000 cases reported in 2015. 200 million girls and women alive today have experienced female genital mutilation. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war, including in Syria and Iraq, by ISIS militants.

Now is not the time for inaction or denial. Clearly, we still have a long way to go to achieve social justice for women in the United States and worldwide, and these issues have a direct connection to social workers and those we serve. The silencing of Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor has ignited a new rallying cry, “never the less she persisted”– and so should we all in this fight for fairness, equality, and justice.

Rape Culture — How Do We Address and End it?


Trigger warning: this post contains challenging references to rape and sexual violence.

I was moved by Madeleine Holden’s piece in The Spinoff today, about Brock Turner, the 19- (now 20-) year-old Stanford student athlete sentenced to six months imprisonment after raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. It’s a passionate bit of writing, angry actually and, rightfully so, Holden asks the question, “What culture raised Turner to become a rapist?”

She concludes:

“… rapists are absorbing our cultural attitudes about rape, and then they are raping … women. It’s not an academic exercise, and we have enough evidence to show that our dialogue around rape isn’t harmless or separate from the real world in which rape takes place. Perpetuating rape myths contributes towards a culture in which rape happens often and is punished little; a culture that believes, on some level, that men are bound to rape and women invite rape by acting in certain ways.

“That is the real problem.”

I agree, partially. Here’s what I think the real, real problem is: We’re doing little, if anything, to address Holden’s real problem. Which, of course, is because we don’t think the real problem is a problem.

That’s far too many problems in one paragraph.

I’ve been watching the Turner story develop over the last week or so. I’ve felt angry, aghast, helpless, sad. I admit, I’m not altogether sure about how I feel or what I think about Turner not being sentenced to the maximum 14 years sentence. I’m conflicted. In the context of our current judicial system it doesn’t give justice to Turner’s 23-year-old victim. However, I don’t think sending a 19-year-old to prison for the same length of time as his life would do anything to solve the problem of rape culture.

I agree the system favours the likes of Turner (“young, white male athletes from prestigious universities … treated leniently by their schools and the legal system”). But the same system is also biased against people of non-white, poor and underprivileged backgrounds.

I also agree it treats rape victims abysmally. So we begin to add another element to rape culture: the judicial system.

What has shocked me the most has been the comments made by the two prominent adult white men involved: Judge Aaron Persky and Turner’s father. Persky: “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him… I think he will not be a danger to others.” Turner senior: “His life will never be the one that he dreamt about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

Here we see the effect of both system and culture manifesting themselves in beliefs that Turner’s upbringing will result in only one incidence of offending and that the incident’s consequence on Turner is more impacting than that of his victim.

Part of the real, real problem is not holding these adults to account because it is they who personify and perpetuate the culture of rape and the system that lets it continue. Admittedly, Persky has been called on his attitude (well, actually probably more his light sentence) by demands for him to be removed from his role, but Turner’s father seems to have escaped any ire apart from Holden’s (I won’t repeat her words, they stand for themselves). It seems the right to free speech translates into a father’s right to raise a rapist.

If we took a real stance against rape culture, Turner’s father’s attitude would be deemed a crime in itself. Is it any wonder a 19-year-old young man would see raping an unconscious woman as a legitimate way to get a bit of action with such fatherly advice?

Rape culture is a problem of society. It’s a problem of generations, history and patriarchy. Rape culture needs to be targeted by many more institutions than the judiciary. Boys, I believe, from as young as ten or 11, need age-appropriate education about consent, sexual violence and intimate respect throughout their schooling. Male teachers need similar professional development.

Rape rehabilitation programmes need to target all offenders, as well as parents, teachers and other significant adults in the lives of juvenile offenders. Judges need professional development until such time as, hopefully, rape is seen as a socially-caused aberrant behaviour deserving treatment rather than punishment.

Victims of rape need skilled and sustainable support and access to restorative processes that address the impact of the behaviour. Restorative processes need to acknowledge the role of individual, parental, educational and social failure to prevent the behaviour.

If you think I’m being soft, that those men just need to pay for it, so be it. I write this out of compassion and genuine concern for humanity, as we are all affected adversely by rape culture. If we continue to believe it’s enough to just blame the offender, we must consider how this is any more fair and effective than blaming victims and saying they ask for it.

This could be the beginning of a real solution.

More Common Than Not: Sexual Violence Among LGBTQ Persons

Photo Credit: Buzzfeed

In a first-of-its-kind national report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a comprehensive set of data on intimate partner violence, titled “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.” This data provides insight into the prevalence of sexual violence, categorized by factors such as gender, sexual orientation, frequency and age at first victimization. The intent of such a report is to serve as a benchmark for prevention, education, and social service efforts at reducing sexual violence.

While reviewing the data, I was struck by the astronomical rates of sexual violence against individuals identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. According to the report, 46.4% of lesbian women, 74.9% of bisexual women, 40.2% of gay men and 47.4% of bisexual men report being victims of sexual violence, respectively. These numbers highlight the frightening reality of sexual violence facing individuals identifying as LGBT.

To help shine some light on what factors may be driving this data, I sat down with Alicia Allen, of Spectrum Recovery Solutions. Allen, a relationship counselor and sex researcher, answered some of the questions I had and offered her unique perspective on this staggering problem.

1. According to the study, the rates of sexual violence among individuals within the LGBT community are significantly higher than in the heterosexual community. What are your thoughts when you see these statistics?

I find it incredibly tragic when I hear about sexual violence against any individual, but especially against those who are marginalized by society because they don’t fit the mold. For me, these statistics show how we, as a society, have not done our part to protect all our members. While the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 was extended to include the LGBTQ community in helping those affected by domestic and sexual violence access resources, this is not enough. We have failed to create a safe space for those who have been assaulted and to provide adequate outreach and education to those who are at risk. We need to have these programs starting in the schools and going into the communities. Bottom line is that we are not providing protective factors or practicing harm reduction.

2. It is interesting to note that the rates of sexual violence among bisexual men and women are much higher than in gay men and lesbian women. What might be a reason for this?

This is a very important question that needs to be addressed. As for why this is, I have to say that we need further research before we can start speculating on causation. As the study shows, almost half of the bisexual women who responded experienced their first rape between 11 and 17 years old, as opposed to only 17.4% of the heterosexual women surveyed. Not only that, but both bisexual and heterosexual women reported that their perpetrators were exclusively male. So, people are taking those two statistics to try to say that women become bisexual because they were raped by a man. This simply is not true. Unfortunately, we as a society do not accept the natural fluidity of female sexuality over the lifespan. Regardless, we have no concrete answers as to why bisexuals are at the greatest risk for abuse. However, we do know what is needed is prevention and education. We need to be proactive to help combat intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

3. What role, if any, do factors such as discrimination, social norms, and policy play on the rates of violence against members of the LGBT community?

This is a really good question. As I stated before, society plays a large role. It’s a dialectical role. The LBGTQ community has gained momentous rights in the past couple of years through advocacy, education, and rallying of the public. However, there are still big pockets of our society that hold onto antiquated and inaccurate notions about sex, sexuality, and gender. We are still struggling with the “blame the victim” mentality. “She was dressed like a slut.” “What was he doing out that late at night in that guy’s apartment?” Things like that. Then there’s policy. In the same year where the US Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, they also shot down The Student Non-Discrimination Act that was created to protect LBGTQ children from bullies. The wonderful organization dedicated to advocating for the LGTBQ, Give A Damn Campaign, has reported that almost 90% of LGBTQ youth have experienced verbal and physical abuse AT SCHOOL. What message are we sending when we do not protect the most vulnerable among us, our children?

4. How can social workers and mental health professionals be more sensitive to the needs of LGBT clients who may have a history of sexual or physical violence?

With this study, we as clinicians know that the possibility of a trauma history is increased when working with our LGBTQ clients. The first thing we have to do as clinicians is understand our own value system. Do we hold even the most benign of prejudices? Then we need to use a systems perspective to look at how well informed we are of the environment of our clients. Do we know what our clients face on a day-to-day basis in their homes, workplaces, school, etc… And finally, and I cannot stress this enough, we need to have a trauma-informed practice. When we use the trauma informed approach to therapy, we appreciate how intrusive the trauma is on our clients’ lives and how it can be an obstacle to both physical and mental wellbeing. Having a trauma informed practice means integrating this knowledge into our policies and procedures. With this approach, we are saying that from first contact we will create a safe place for growth and healing for our clients.

5. Is there anything social workers and mental health professionals could be doing better to help reduce the rates of sexual violence among members of the LGBT community?

There are three things that we can start with:First, know the community. That means be aware of what the LGBTQ community experiences from both a macro and a micro level. Keep yourself educated on laws, practices, and policies that are discriminatory in nature. Know what resources are out there to help combat this. If there aren’t any or they are not enough…then get involved.

Second, educate the community on what bulling, intimate partner violence, and the bystander effect looks like in our everyday lives and strategies to combat these.

Finally, advocate. Advocate for equal protection. Advocate for effective and accessible resources. Advocate for change.

What Racists and Child Rape Apologists Have in Common


I remember interviewing two women back to back for a federal research project. Both women were black. They were mother and daughter. They told me, a stranger, about their story of someone raping them.  Yet, they never told one another. On that day, they both asked me not to share any details with the other.

These interviews took place in a major city that was heavily protested in 2015. Covered by all the three letter major news networks, breaking news, trending on social media, #BlackLivesMatter. But a decade prior, we were interviewing women who were slowly dying in that city. They were in a state of existing as a direct result of rape/sexual abuse.  There would be no protests for them.

No breaking news.

No hashtags.

No one would ever be outraged about the fact that someone or several folks raped them over and over again. And now, it was killing them a little bit each day.

I know your fear

I understand your fear.  Black men are often accused of raping white women as stated by the shooter who killed 9 parishioners in a Charleston South Carolina church.  The fact is rape is like other crimes. It is intra-racial.  White men are more likely to rape white women. And on and on. See keep in mind, people are more likely to be raped by people that they know. That masked stranger in the bush stuff is rare by comparison.

But y’all can’t let our fear of racism keep us from addressing this monster in our community. Beat them back on this like we beat back that other racist crap.

FYI…I hear y’all talking. “We have other things to worry about in the community.”  

Estimated 3.1 million Black rape victims and 5.9 million Black survivors of other forms of sexual violence. These don’t even include people who will take the secret to the grave.  Y’all, these numbers are too high for folks to be playing and procrastinating?

Seems like all you have to do is make one simple statement:

The problem of black men who prey upon black girls/boys must be discussed and addressed. Just that statement forces hell to come undone. I don’t think that the child rape apologists realize just how much they have in common with the racists that they despise. Yet, they use the same techniques.



“But what about black on black crime?”

“What about black on white crime?”

Child Rape Apologists:

“But what about girls who “date” older men?”

“What about white men who aren’t held accountable?”

Neither group would be concerned about these issues outside of using them for the purposes of distraction.  They aren’t concerned about the accuracy of the information.  They aren’t concerned about the victims.  Their sole reason for bringing up these points is to distract people attempting to solve a problem from coming up with a solution.

Victim blaming


“The kid ran from the police.”

 “The man stood still.” “The woman looked him in the eyes too long.”

“The child had a toy gun.”

Child Rape Apologists:

 “She looked 18.”

“These girls know what they are getting into.”

 “Hey, that is the legal age in some states. She is old enough to know better.”

“Looking like that, at 15, what did she expect?”

Biased Victim characterization

Both of them tend to misname the victims.

Racists:  Those people are thugs, juveniles, (racial slurs) Everything and anything but children.

Child Rape Apologists:  Those girls are fast, hoes, sneaky, liars, grown, (slurs).  Everything and anything but children.


Racists: In cases of police brutality which is the main focus of #BlackLivesMatter, perpetrators are rarely held accountable, their victims are numerous.  Their victims aren’t accurately counted. The system is engineered against victims.

Likewise, it is extremely hard to get a conviction in a child rape case.

Child rape apologists:  Perpetrators are rarely held accountable, their victims are numerous.   Their victims aren’t accurately counted because most do not come forward. The system is engineered against victims.

Sexual Violence Victims

As we fight against police brutality we at least have the benefit of technology on our side.

But, see we can’t arm little girls and boys with cameras everywhere they go.  Our only hope is to make the adults smarter.  (I literally sighed after writing that sentence)

Fellow people, all I keep thinking as I bounce around and read your postings on various social media platforms with your victim blaming, distractions, and bold characterizations; is how bold you all are.

You say what you say with such conviction and you don’t even know anything.

What you don’t know

I’m not talking facts, figures, and stats.

I mean, I often want to tell these folks, “You don’t even know whether or not your mother is a Survivor.”

Do you know that?

What about your Sister?  Your best friend?

How about your father? Brother?

Your children?  Nieces? Nephews? Cousins?

Promiscuity, low self esteem, depression, substance use can all be side effects of sexual abuse, you know. You knew that they were hurting, but you just couldn’t figure it out. You just couldn’t reach them. View below a survivor telling her truth:

Giving Students Therapy is Not the Answer to Dealing with Microaggressions in Education

This article is continuing analysis of the Atlantic’s article, Coddling of the American Mind written by authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff . The authors believe that ‘political correctness’, or reacting to ‘microaggressions’, is damaging students’ intellectual and emotional wellbeing on university campuses. In an earlier article, I considered what microaggressions are and some of the unsaid assumptions and attitudes of the authors as well as taking into consideration their backgrounds.

In short, microaggressions are small and unconscious acts of oppression, such as erasure, using someone’s identity (sexuality, gender, race) as an insult, assimilation as a compliment, and assuming badness or deviance as a result of someone’s identity. Here, I want to consider more of Haidt and Lukianoff’s content, beginning with their concern:

“What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?”

I’ve already noted their victimising, legal vocabulary – ‘polices’, ‘prosecutors’, ‘strict control’, ‘authorities’, but it is worth bearing in mind. In fact, American college campuses are surprisingly lax in their response to problems around race and sexual assault. Sexual assault is common on college campuses and misogynistic language is rife, yet policies, discussions, and ‘messages’ around dealing with rape and sexual assault properly are lacking.

Likewise, there are examples of students who have not faced consequences aside from criticism and discussion after chanting actively racist slurs on film, and there are a great many incidents of verbal or physical racism with no real consequences to the perpetrator (although, as the last link shows, there are also cases that do have real consequences, such as court cases).

Essentially, it’s difficult to believe that whilst overt cases of aggression are not being dealt with effectively, college campuses are somehow ‘policing’ microaggressions. In fact, the authors later go on to give an example of pro-‘trigger warning’ policy that was “subsequently retracted in the face of faculty pushback”, which does not suggest ‘policing’ or ‘victims’, but people who were listened to.

Haidt and Lukianoff’s lamentation that words can be treated as a “form of violence” is also somewhat problematic. They state it as though words and actions are completely separate. For example, by saying “You don’t look like a lesbian” as a compliment, you are performing the act of reducing the status of lesbians.

There are other ways that words perform actions, such as “I now pronounce you X and X” being the act of marriage, and “Sold” being the act of ending an auction. In fact, the part of the brain that responds to social pain (e.g. social insults) is the same circuitry of the brain that responds to physical pain. Additionally, words can be worse, as the damage of psychological abuse equals or outweighs the damage of physical abuse. So whilst words are clearly not the same as physical violence, that doesn’t mean they can’t be violent.

Now, let’s move on to another point they make: “Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile”. These statements are curious. Firstly, somebody with a mental health or wellbeing ‘crisis’ is at risk of significantly harming themselves or others.

Most people, most of the time, are not in a state of ‘crisis’, nor would most students claim to be. And the problem is framed as the inherent fragility of the students, rather than emotional distress being a rational response to the way things are at the moment. They hedge this with “We do not mean to imply simple causation, but…” and then go on to do essentially that.

There is no mention of the fact that American college prices are utterly extortionate, and unemployment high in the young. America has been at war for most of students’ lives. Privacy is now essentially nonexistent, people’s very bodies are becoming objects as women and men are increasingly exposed to unnatural and unrealistic ideals. Lives are doctored through social media, so everyone else looks like they’re doing great while the gap between the haves and the have-nots in America is bigger than ever. More people are going to university, making it more competitive, yet job prospects are poor. This wasn’t always the case with university degrees.

Indeed, the two well-off men who wrote this article forgot, or just didn’t know, that the biggest predictor of ‘mental health’ and wellbeing problems in any society is its socioeconomic inequality.

That’s right, Socioeconomic inequality, and America does not do well on that front. On top of this, socioeconomic inequality is directly threatening university students. It seems staggering, if not downright insulting, that anyone could claim in light of this that students’ suffering is primarily due to their own faulty thinking patterns and oversensitivity to ‘triggers’.

Regarding ‘triggering’, the phrase ‘trigger warning’ can indeed be used thoughtlessly, or overmuch. Pre-discussions about potentially upsetting content, however, aren’t unreasonable. We often have these in my doctorate; it teaches us to trust and understand our rational and emotional responses together, wisely.

It also makes us realise things that weren’t a problem for us might still be a problem for someone else – the ‘social learning’ of which Haidt and Lukianoff warn is not learning to fear what others fear, but learning how to empathise with others who are bothered by things that we aren’t. Finally, it facilitates learning, because animals physically can’t learn when overly stressed and anxious.

They say of this: “However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” They appear to use one particular branch of psychological therapy to represent both their argument, and psychology as a whole.

It is difficult to provide an semi-objective reply to authors who have suggested that microaggressions based on societal oppression and ‘anxiety disorders’ are the same thing. It’s a struggle to understand quite how the cognitive leap from one to the other occurred.

The Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) data to which they refer is based on samples of people who have clinical diagnoses of anxiety disorders. The most ‘basic’ tenets of cognitive behaviour psychology suggest that, in people with anxiety disorders, exposing themselves to things they fear will habituate them, so long as this exposure doesn’t result in a negative outcome like a poisonous spider bite or falling off a high ledge.

CBT is effective for anxiety disorders not just because it exposes people to unpleasant thoughts and situations. It also provides through learned experience for individuals to see their fears aren’t as bad as they first thought. However, if your so-called ‘distortions’ are proved true through experience, then you are unlikely to be ‘cured’ as Haidt and Lukianoff suggest. This is why behavioural experiments must be chosen carefully – not to ‘fix’ a positive outcome, but to test reasonable situations. Indeed, Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness suggests that the more you are exposed to negative stimuli over which you have no control, the more likely you are to get depression.

Microaggressions are rooted in real societal inequality. They cause a complex range of emotions, from anger, shame, confusion, self-consciousness, and perhaps fear if the person microaggressing seems threatening. The point is, there is an extraordinary gap between CBT for anxiety disorders, and calling people out on societally oppressive actions and comments.

Now, some people who ask for certain things (e.g. rape not to be included on an exam paper) may have PTSD or an anxiety disorder. However, that is a separate issue to ‘microaggressions’ as a whole, and should be dealt with on a purely individual basis – though I don’t see the problem in at least asking about individual support.

Additionally, we can make the argument there are some ideas we would rather people not be habituated to such as violence, hardcore porn or constant absorption in technology for example. Perhaps society-wide habituation is simply what we call ‘the norm’. In the case of microaggressions, is habituation for the people oppressed by societal power dynamics really what we want?  There is a statement about calling people up on microaggressions which has almost become proverbial:

“If you step on my foot, you need to get off my foot. If you step on my foot without meaning to, you need to get off my foot. If you step on my foot without realising it, you need to get off my foot.”

The last thing we should be doing is habituating people to having their foot stepped on. But this seems to be what Haidt and Lukianoff support by saying: “What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?”.

People from oppressed groups don’t suddenly hit university and therefore enter a “cocoon of adult protection” where discrimination no longer exists. They are, in fact, consistently taught to question their own emotional reactions to microaggressions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt, their entire lives. An example is women being harassed – ‘boys will be boys’, he ‘didn’t mean anything by it’, or the ever-present ‘it was a compliment’. People don’t need more of this.

Of course banning books like Huckleberry Finn isn’t appropriate. Treating such books, concepts and ideas with context, consideration and respect is appropriate. Demonising people based on their ignorant comments is an understandably contentious matter; there are unresolved arguments regarding “letting people learn” versus “when can we stop catering to the privileged”. However, the middlespace between intellectual freedom and respect is still being hashed out.  And people who have systematically been ignored and oppressed are angry. They have every right to be.

In their deep analysis of how this ‘situation’ came about, Haidt and Lukianoff fail to see that oppression and microaggressions may be becoming more prevalent discussions points on college campuses simply because people from traditionally marginalised groups are now more likely to go to universities in the first place.

Haidt and Lukianoff suggest “students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses”, but don’t seem to consider that this is exactly what people of oppressed demographics are doing by being vocal about microaggressions. They are probably pretty good at navigating the ‘offence’-laden system actually, having got to university in the first place. Now they’re trying to change it.

Perhaps we don’t want to prepare students for ‘the workforce’ as it stands. There is still racism, sexism and homophobia, particularly at higher levels of employment. There is still a gender pay gap. People’s income is still more likely to match that of their parents’ income, their skin colour, and their gender, than that of their potential. Why would anyone suggest people take therapy to get used to this system, rather than trying to change it? There is a balance to be had with dealing with and accepting current circumstances, whilst also committing to make changes where possible.

Is it not more reasonable to suggest that during their university education, students start to think about the actions that their words perform, instead of pretending ‘academia’ and ‘intellectual debate’ happens in a vacuum? Might it not be academically important to consider the context of one’s ideas, where they come from and why, and moreover in whose interests these ideas work?

If these ideas are perceived to be dangerous, and “fear of federal investigations” and “fear of unreasonable investigation and sanction” are rife within institutions, then perhaps it is not the students who should be receiving therapy for their dysfunctional thinking patterns.

Perhaps, instead, we should deal with the cognitive distortions within the system.

Domestic Violence Survivor Pushes Against the Dark

03142013-TW-Shavonia West2
Shavonia West – Survivor and Domestic Violence Advocate

Driving home at night, she can identify the make of a car from nothing more than the shape of its headlights in her rearview mirror. Walking up the driveway to her house, she can pick out the distinctive silhouette and shadow of each familiar object in her yard.

It’s a skill she’s learned out of necessity, because in that darkness West can see back to the morning nearly two decades ago when she opened her front door and stepped into a world of fear, a world she would come to know intimately in the minutes, hours, and years to come.

“I try to be strong, but it’s not always easy. A lot of memories get stirred up,” admits West, speaking from her office at Sarah’s Refuge Crisis Center, where she works as a domestic violence community educator.

In 1995, West, then 19, broke off a relationship with 26-year-old Joseph Muller. Shortly afterwards, Muller began turning up unexpectedly at locations West frequented, first at ballgames, then at the homes of her friends and her aunt.

“He was not taking ‘No’ for an answer,” remembers West, who at the time was working at her mother’s beauty salon while finishing her senior year in highschool.

Though annoyed by Muller’s actions, West said she never related her concerns to friends or family members. “I was stalked without letting anyone know for at least a couple of months. I just kept a lot of that stuff quiet because I felt like I could handle it.”

03142013-TW-Joseph Muller
Joseph Muller

After a time, Muller broke off all contact with West, leading her to believe he had finally accepted that their relationship was over.

In the months since their breakup, West had graduated from highschool and was living in a recently purchased home. West says she thought little more about her former boyfriend until she stepped through her front door one morning on her way to work.

“When I came out of the house he came from under the steps,” she recalls. “I could smell alcohol on him. He told me the reason I hadn’t heard from him was because he had been plotting how to kill me for a month. He kept calling me a bitch and saying ‘Today is your last day.’”

After telling West that he was carrying a gun, Muller methodically related his plan to kill her and dump her body down a dirt road in Fayetteville, after which he would drive to California. “He told me he had been saving checks from his job and he had enough money to get out of town,” says West.

Muller told her he had already written letters to his family members apologizing for her murder.

As she turned and attempted to flee, Muller dragged West back inside her house, where he proceeded to rape and beat her.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, November 27. West’s ordeal was just beginning.

Muller dragged West to her car and made her drive towards Fayetteville where he forced her to stop at a gas station.

“I was looking around to see if I could find anything to blow the car up with,” remembers West. Fearful that Muller would hurt others, she made the decision not to reach out for help.

Once they were on the road again, West says she suddenly remembered advice Oprah Winfrey had given during a broadcast concerning women who have been abducted. “Oprah said you should never allow your captor to take you to a second location. If you do, it makes it much easier for them to abuse you and do what they are going to do,” West recalls.

As she began to pray, West pleaded with Muller for any solution that would allow her to live. “I started to lie, saying I was sorry for leaving him. He said the only way I could live was to be with him, to get back in a relationship with him.”

Having convinced Muller that she would take him back, West says he told her to make a right turn at an intersection. A left turn would have taken them to Fayetteville and the location Muller had chosen for her murder.

Instructed to head back towards her home, West was allowed to stop at her mother’s beauty salon to break the news of her and Muller’s reconciliation. Before they arrived Muller assured West he would kill her mother if she interfered with their plans.

Believing that he would be moving into West’s trailer that afternoon, Muller left the beauty salon to collect clothes from his home, located less than a mile from West’s trailer.

After he was gone, West related the desperate nature of her situation to her mother, who immediately called the police.

“We had to go to the local Sheriff’s Office and then I had to do a rape kit,” remembers West.

Muller was arrested at his home and held for trial. Though it was discovered he had prior charges in New York, he was allowed to plea bargain his sentence down to less than two years. “My lawyer at the time advised me to accept the lesser charge so I wouldn’t have to testify in front of him,” says West.

After serving his sentence Muller was released, with the stipulation that he does not enter the state of North Carolina for five years.


Looking back, West says she never recognized any signs of violence in Muller during the time they were together. “He was always very nice to me, he was always buying me gifts,” she says.

Only once during their relationship did Muller show his true face. “We were just talking with some of my family and someone joked around about us breaking up,” remarks West. “He just came out and said ‘She’ll never leave me. If she tries to leave, I’ll kill her.”’

As she looks over a newly constructed poster covered in statistics on teen dating violence, West appears relaxed as she talks about the events that changed her life so profoundly. Waiting patiently for a school group that she’s scheduled to address, the youthful, small statured 36-year-old betrays little of the anxiety one would expect as she describes the details of her abduction.

But appearances, says West, can be deceiving. For years after her attack, she explains, her self-control teetered on the edge of collapse, as day after day she put on a brave face designed to hide her increasing sense of panic.

It was during this time that West realized she had begun focusing on cars driving behind her on the roads at night, had begun peering into the trees around her home, watching and waiting for what she believed was inevitable.

“I lived in fear. I kept waiting for him to come back,” she says.

While West stayed busy working at the beauty salon, the memories were there waiting every night when she returned home, to the same trailer where Muller attacked and violated her.

“I had to relive that over and over,” she states.

Though Muller never attempted to contact her after he was released from prison, West says she had no doubt that, given the chance, he would hurt others. “I knew that if he didn’t get some help eventually there would be another victim.”

Fourteen years after her attack, West’s sad prophecy proved correct.

In 2009, she received a call from a friend who told her to turn her television to WRAL News. According to the newscast, Joseph Muller, age 40, was wanted on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of his former girlfriend, Jessica Ellis of Durham, who had been found shot in her home on June 13.

03142013-TW-Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The report said Muller was armed and dangerous.

“On the news, they said they had no idea where he was,” West recalls.

West would later discover that Muller went to the Sears store where Ellis worked, lured her into his car, and took her to her home, where he shot Ellis in front of a family member.

West says she immediately contacted the detective handling the investigation. “When I told him what had happened to me he said it sounded exactly like the story her family was telling, how he was so nice and loving to her until they broke up, and then he couldn’t handle being rejected.”

West, who by then was a mother of two young children, moved out of her home and lived with her mother for a time. She had received word from law enforcement that Muller’s abandoned car had been found off of Interstate 40, between Warsaw and Rose Hill.

After a month of staying at her mother’s home, West decided to go back home with her the children. Friends and family members kept watch. “I couldn’t live like that anymore, always afraid,” says West.

Three days after returning home, a month and a half after the murder West was notified that Muller was dead, his body found hanging in a Miami hotel room. His remains were identified using information—a panther tattoo and other distinguishing marks—provided by West.


In the days following Muller’s death, West’s life began to change.

“The way I lived before was fearful but functional. After he killed himself, I felt like I could breath,” she reflects.

Through her work in the hair salon, she began to entertain the idea that she could help others who had been through similar traumas.

“I feel like I’ve always been a semi-counselor,” she states. “All my life I’ve been dealing with women who come into the salon who have issues, with verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault with their spouses or mate.”

Last June, after speaking with a client who worked in abuse counseling, West made the decision to volunteer at Sarah’s Refuge.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand why you don’t go to the authorities and a lot of that is driven by fear and uncertainty,” explains West. “I knew what these women were feeling, so I thought who better to help someone like that than someone who’s been through it.”

In October, West was hired on full-time at Sarah’s. In her role as a community educator, she travels to local schools, telling her story and pointing out the warning signs that she missed so many years ago.

Though West has learned to manage the fear, to breathe, she knows that fall morning in 1995 is still with her, acting on her life in ways not always easily understood.

Several years after Muller was convicted, West married a man she describes as verbally and emotionally abusive. “Some of the things he said stick with me a lot more than what happened with the guy who kidnapped me with the intention of killing me,” she comments.

Trusting people, simply letting her two teenagers go off with friends, will never be easy.

But her story, says West, and the lives she can touch and possibly alter through its telling, have offered her a new freedom, a new way of seeing past the darkness into an undimmed future.

“People die all the time. I was one of the blessed ones,” she says, leaning forward, her large dark eyes solemn yet intent. “If I can save one person, it’s worth it.”

Sexual Assault is not a Misconduct Issue, It is a Criminal Issue

Every April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). During these thirty days, survivors, students, professionals, and activists’ march throughout the streets and institutions, campaign on social media, and appear on television to bring awareness to the issue of sexual assault.

There are posters, displays, and drives created to spread the word about the prevalence of this issue—that one in three women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime.  There has already been much discussion about sexual assault, as the media has reported many incidents this year.

From celebrities, NFL players, executives, fraternity members, college students, to the next-door neighbor, it seems we have seen it all. As month of April and SAAM campaigns come to a close, it is important to note that awareness is not nearly enough. Instead, policies must change in order to truly make a social change in the prevalence of sexual assault.

SAAM-definition1The surge of media coverage surrounding sexual assault has focused largely on college campus sexual assaults, and a report from the White House asserts that one in five college women are the victims of sexual assault. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education placed higher education institutions under investigation for “possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints”.

This investigation spurred from complaints filed against colleges by students who were victims of sexual assault and rape, as well as federal audits alleges college campuses actions resulted in the underreporting and mishandling of Campus Sexual Assault complaints. As of March 2015, 104 colleges and universities have been added to the list of institutions under federal investigation.

Many university administrations that are under federal investigation have created a “Sexual Misconduct Task Force” that meets to address the issue of sexual assault on campus. The language within these task forces, orientations for new students, and regular correspondence is noteworthy. It seems that the term “sexual misconduct” is used in times when sexual assault shall be used. This is not merely semantics; it is a matter of legality.

The term “misconduct” refers to when someone behaves in an improper or unprofessional manner. It is logical for universities to use this term in the code of ethics when discussing issues such as cheating or plagiarism. On the contrary, the term “sexual assault” is defined as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape” according to the Department of Justice. It is logical to use this term for a criminal offense.

This dichotomy in semantics seems to be an issue throughout the vast majority of colleges and universities. That is, administrators place sexual assault and rape under campus “misconduct” in official documentation. The question is why?

These are some of the most prestigious educational institutions and the administrators are cognizant of how language greatly impacts one’s view of the institution. By demoting the language of sexual violence to sexual misconduct, universities are placing the issue of sexual assault in the same category as plagiarism. Consequently, reducing the seriousness of such incidences.

By addressing sexual assaults as a campus misconduct issue, the faculty and staff may view such incidents as violations of the student code of conduct. This may lead to the failure to treat these incidents as criminal cases, as they are ruled in federal law. That is, sexual assault and rape are criminal offenses that must be investigated by police departments and tried in a criminal court; if found guilty, perpetrators are charged with a felony.

In the 2015 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Presidents, Gallop found that about one-third (32 percent) of responding presidents agree or strongly agree that sexual assault is prevalent at American colleges and universities. However, few presidents (6 percent) agree or strongly agree that sexual assault is prevalent at their institution. While three-quarters of presidents (77 percent) agree or strongly agree that their campus is doing a good job protecting women from sexual assault on campus.

Notice the contradictions? College and university presidents agree that sexual assault is a problem in America, however very few feel that it is a problem on their specific campus. Could it be that the language used by administrators is affecting how the institutions view the issue of sexual assault?

Maybe if colleges and universities began to address sexual assault for what it is—a crime—there may be less confusion if it is an issue on their campus. Though, the hesitation may stem from administrators disclosing that such crimes exist on their campuses. Yes, if accurate numbers were reported, students would be more timid to attend these colleges and universities. Yet, if administrators treated sexual assault as a crime, then trained law enforcement professionals would investigate these case and take rape cases out of the hands of the Department of Student Affairs which will make campuses safer.

College and university policies must change so that sexual assaults are depicted and treated as criminal cases. By doing so, proper trainings, resources, and judicial processes could take place, lead to prevention and proper handling of sexual assaults on college campuses—nationwide.

Why Aren’t We Talking About Sexual Assault On Campus?

By Leah Greenidge, Rosedad Francois, Valerie Jean-louis, Farah Robles

As children, we embark on various journeys in life from attending our 8th grade dance, making the cheer-leading team or making the varsity sports team in high school. Then, if fortunate enough, its surviving the hectic and often stressful 4 years of college in hopes of obtaining your degree. With this journey comes many obstacles and sadly sexual assault on campus can be one of the harsher obstacles in life someone may experience with many long-term and devastating effects.

Students found guilty of sexual assault on campuses have a high probability of receiving no consequences for their actions. It is usually the victim that has to endure the shame, feelings of embarrassment and anger which may change their outlook on life. Victims are either too scared to report or feel as if they some how caused the events to happen. Most survivors suffer high rates of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and co-occurring drug/alcohol abuse. Due to under-reporting, it is believed that 1 in every 5 women will be sexually assaulted while in college.

According to an article in Mother Jones,

The NIJ-funded study also examined the circumstances and risk factors surrounding sexual assault on campus, including the role of alcohol and fraternities. Nearly 60 percent of campus sexual-assault victims were under the influence of booze or drugs when they were attacked; one-fourth said their assailant was a frat member. Read Full Article


To make our campuses safer, change needs to happen with school policies and practices to prevent these assaults from happening. Across all demographics, rapists and sex offenders are too often escape paying for their crimes and are free to assault again. Sexual assault in general is a subject that people keep on “the hush hush”, but we need to start talking about sexual assault on campus in order to create a safe environment for students to excel.

We are students passionate about empowering people, and we’ve started this campaign to give a voice to those who don’t have one #‎outofyourshadow

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Conceived from Rape: Miss Pennsylvania’s Story Through a Social Work Lens

In a recent interview with, Miss Pennsylvania, Valerie Gatto, spoke candidly of her conception from rape. According to Gatto’s biography, her then ninteen-year-old mother was raped at knife-point walking home from work.  Gatto’s mother intended to place her for adoption, feeling as though a “traditional family” could better care for her. Her family intervened and helped Gatto’s mother raise her. The beauty contestant desires to use her campaign as Miss Pennsylvania and as a Miss USA hopeful to spread awareness about sexual assault.

Valerie Gatto
Valerie Gatto

Gatto’s campaign has come under fire for its methodology. She is quoted encouraging women to avoid rape by being “present, to be aware of your surroundings.” Through a feminist and social work lens, this is immediately concerning. I won’t lie; I am a brown belt in karate and cross-trained in ground fighting–in part because being a woman makes me a target for violence. Regardless, national anti-violence campaigns should avoid at all costs implying women can and should prevent their own rapes when it is rapists who need to stop raping.

Embedded in Gatto’s public narrative and perhaps less apparent but incredibly important are implications for serving individuals conceived from rape. As a person conceived from rape who is connected to a broader community affected by this issue, I can attest to the prevalent societal gaps in a respectful and understanding approach to these individuals and their mothers. Social workers are in an advantageous position to be allies and close these gaps.

Social work’s strive to see those in the margins and validate their humanity is vital here. Individuals conceived from rape are commonly spoken of as though we do not exist. Perhaps this is what most compellingly draws me to Gattos’ narrative–she expects people to respectfully listen to her when respectful dialogue on this issue is not the media’s norm. Headlines broadcasting the abortion debate refer to us as “rape babies,” “children of rape,” or “children of rapists.”  I was mortified when “rape babies” became the source of a joke on The Daily Show. I cringe when those claiming to be “pro-choice” quickly abandon their resolve for unquestioned choice for women based on rape conception because it’s simply too easy to instead argue that being a mother to “rape baby” must be awful.

I once sat in a small diner on my lunch break when such a news feature flickered across the  TV adorning a bright orange stucco wall.  A lively abortion debate between patrons ensued as I stared at the ice floating in my diet soda.  “I don’t think women should get to have abortions” one man finally bellowed. “Unless it’s rape,” he clarified. “I mean, can you imagine what it is like to be one of those rape babies?” All at once I felt vulnerable–yet invisible.

Gatto’s mother “decided to raise Valerie with the help of God and her family” (source). It is difficult for people to imagine that individuals conceived from rape are loved or wanted by their families. When I reunited with my family of origin as an adult adoptee, friends and family were shocked that I was embraced and welcomed.  One friend said, “I am so glad she wanted to know you, considering the circumstances.”

As a social worker, valuing human relationships and approaching my work from a strengths perspective means I apply these principles to everyone and check my biases when I find myself coming to knee-jerk conclusions about someone’s family. I often remind people, I am a person; I am not what my biological father did.  Gatto’s narrative, my own, and those of many others I am privileged to know are an abrupt push-back to the deficit focused approach that we are nothing more “painful reminders” to families who cannot possibly love us.  Leaving our families unsupported, these assumptions pervade an unimaginable shame.

I regularly receive messages from biological and adoptive parents and from individuals conceived from rape, their children, and their spouses.  How can I tell my child the truth about her story without her feeling shame?…….My husband just found out about his conception; how can I help him deal with the shame he feels?……..Where are the support sources for victims and their children?–I can’t find any.  Shame is so isolating.

Gatto claims her mother would have placed her for adoption had her family not intervened and offered her support.  Here’s another bias that needs to be checked: adoption is not inevitable. Whether in Pro-Life or Pro-Choice circles, or debates between, rape conception is persistently spoken of as though there are only two choices: adoption or abortion. The bias that individuals conceived from rape can’t be loved by their families–that adoption is a way of getting rid of presumably  unwanted children–narrows choices women have to make about pregnancy and parenting.  Whether abortion, adoption, or parenting, survivors of rape are entitled to self-determination and support for their decision.

“Rape babies,” “painful reminders,” “rapist’s baby,” “unwanted”–what Gatto’s narrative reminds me of most is that we tell our stories best.  A few years ago, I discovered my own public narrative featured in a column of an Irish newspaper as a part of the contentious abortion debate in a country with a history of incredibly restrictive abortion policies. I was criticized for my stance on choice as someone who argues for women’s self-determination in health care and who maintains that my mother’s pregnancy choices, whatever they might have been, are none of my business.

When Gatto says she doesn’t share her story for self-promotion but to be an advocate for chance, I believe her. Regardless of how I feel about her approach to anti-violence advocacy, I have experienced and witnessed the shame disclosing conception from rape brings. This is not an easy story to tell.

When another columnist re-framed my story through a stereotypical lens, I was no longer the empowered woman I believed myself to be.  The columnist claimed I came to erroneous conclusions about my own story–that I failed to realize how lucky I was not to be aborted in order to be in the position of advocating for women. I ask you, which would you rather be: free to come to your own conclusions or treated as though your existence is shameful? When we do not honor individuals conceived from rape as the rightful narrators of their own life story, we miss out on everything we could know about supporting them.

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