Masculinity Unmasked

Masculinity is defined as the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men. But, what type of men?

In the documentary The Mask You Live In, director Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores the masculine qualities found in the United States today, asking the viewer to question the harm they are causing to boys. (The film is available online; click here to watch.)  This is Newsom’s second film as part of The Representation Project, following the documentary Miss Representation, looking at depictions of women in the media. Although the discussion and research for The Mask You Live In is focused on the U.S., the film’s message is important to millions of boys and men around the world.

mask_poster_wlaurel-021915_500x745Newsom’s inspiration for making the film came from falling pregnant with her son. In an interview she said,

“It was really important to me that I could nurture a son who could be true to his authentic self, who wouldn’t always feel like he had to prove his masculinity. There’s so much loneliness, pain, and suffering when one is pretending to be someone that they’re not.”

The Mask You Live In resonated with me and my childhood. Each area discussed – sport, relationships, work, etc. – provides opportunities for growth…but also provides opportunities for perpetuating harm. The harm in question is that of patriarchy.

There are three lies about masculinity that every boy learns in America:

  1. We associate masculinity with athletic ability
  2. We associate masculinity with economic success
  3. We associate sexual conquest with masculinity

These three lies pave the foundation for a life of men feeling inadequate.Boys who don’t achieve a fictional level of manliness and are unsupported in alternative achievements live without the self-esteem needed to be happy. As one interviewee notes, “Comparison is the thief of all happiness.” As the film shows, boys and ultimately men struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.

This all starts at a very young age, when boys enter school.

  • 1 in 4 boys report being bullied at school
  • Only 30% of those who are bullied notify adults

(All stats come from the film.)

One of the main reasons for bullying is societies binary view of gender: Men are masculine; Women are feminine. This outdated view of a person’s range of self-identification is framed around femininity being about emotion, relationships, and empathy. Men and masculinity are everything that isn’t these attributes, and any boy who exerts emotion or empathy will be bullied for not adhering to it.

The conservative view of masculinity – one that doesn’t leave room for emotion and relationships between boys – also breeds homophobia. Boys learn very early that if they do anything remotely seen as feminine or loving towards fellow boys that they will be labeled a “sissy” or other sexist language than harms all genders. Society has taught boys that girls are the only one who are free to care about boys.

This inevitably leads to loneliness among boys and men. One way to combat these feelings is to self-medicate, which young men do by taking drugs and alcohol.

  • By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking
  • The average boy tries drugs at age 13
  • 1 in 4 boys binge drink (consume 5 or more drinks in a row)

These social problems are made worse by society’s inability to let boys talk about their feelings, whether good or bad. In the film, a male teach gets a group of young male students to do an exercise. Each takes a mask. On the front they write what image of masculinity they present to society. On the back they write what they are hiding. This simple exercise gets to the root of so many problems, yet is still difficult to build into a reformed education system.

Until everyone understands the root problems of masculinity, boys and men will continue to experience inadequacy, loneliness and the mental health problems these feelings produce. Ultimately, many will turn to suicide if these problems go untreated.

  • Every day 3 or more boys commit suicide
  • For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death
  • Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health challenges seek help

Even in the small village I grew up, we had a fellow student commit suicide. Many students and adults could not understand why it happened. It’s a shame that the teachers and staff in that school were not better trained to understand the root problems discussed in The Mask I Live In. It may have prevented this needless death and other, unseen pain.


Rates of suicide in the United States, The Mask You Live In

In the last century, thanks to the fight of the women’s rights movement, girls and women now have greater equality in attaining educational success. Unfortunately, during that same period of time, men in power did little to change the way boys learn. Schools were punishing boys through humiliation, such as by making them write on the board. Rarely did they ask why is this kid acting out. This has meant that boys are under-performing in school, as compared to their female counterparts.

  • Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school
  • Compared to girls, boys are: 2 times more likely to be in special education, 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, 2 times more likely to be suspended, and 4 times more likely to be expelled

In a world that limits boys’ ability to talk about themselves, most turn inwards and spend their time in solitary activities – many of which spur harmful notions of masculinity.

  • In a week, the average boy spends: 40 hours watching TV, sports, movies; 15 hours playing video games; 2 hours watching porn
  • 31% of males feel addicted to video games
  • 99% of boys play video games
  • 90% of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence
  • 50% of parents don’t monitor ratings
  • The average 18 year old has seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen including 40,000 murders

Even when boys are outside, playing sports and interacting with other boys, they can be prone to the same negative examples of masculinity. Sports encourage play that is violent and competitive. Coaches often act as father figures, which can do an awful lot of good and an awful lot of bad. A coach can instill the same type of homophobic, anti-girl language that recycles through generations of unchanged language.

In the film, when asked “how would you feel if your coach called you a ‘sissy’?” a boy responded that it would “devastate” him. What does this mean for how we teach boys about being a girl.

Sports has the wrong mix of power, dominance, control, moral clarity. A ‘Win at all cost’ culture in sports means winning at the expense of character development. The myth that sports builds character can only become true if coaches teach and model it.

The Mask You Live In documents four male archetypes in media:

  1. Strong silent guy, who is always in control
  2. Superhero character engaging in violence to maintain that control or in order to achieve whatever goal is in front of him
  3. Thug, man of colour, who are pigeon holed into violent roles
  4. Man-child, who is in perpetual adolescence, whose body doesn’t have lots of muscle. He purports masculinity in another way – through degradation of women, engaging in high-risk activities

Media has a definite effect on people’s behavior. If it didn’t, advertising would collapse.

Violence on TV, movies and video games adds to the culture of boys being made to think that ‘real’ men must fight to be respected. There’s a reason the US army trains people using video games. It’s because it gets them used to some of the experiences.

A report on youth violence by the US Surgeon General found that violence in media has the following three effects:

  1. Children may become less sensitive to pain and suffering of others.
  2. Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
  3. Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.

These same forms of entertainment, combined with pornography, push an agenda of dominate men and submissive women – a fundamental lie of masculinity.

  • 34% of youth online receive unwanted pornographic exposure
  • 93% of boys are exposed to internet porn
  • 68% young men use pornography weekly and 21% of young men use pornography daily

Image from The Mask You Live In

These harmful portrayals of both men and women can be overcome through reasoned sex education. Unfortunately, many parent in the United States are opposed to this, due largely to conservative views about talking openly about one’s sexuality and alternatives of sexual identity.

  • Only 22 states require public schools teach sex education

Because of shame around sexuality, porn is sex education for most people. Without sex education in the school and with silent parents at home, many boys turn to their computers for guidance, with terrible consequences. The internet provides “excess in social isolation”.

  • 83% of boys have seen group sex online
  • 39% of boys have seen bondage online
  • 18% of boys have seen rape online
  • Exposure to pornography increases sexual aggression by 22% and increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%

Boys are being conditioned towards violence.

By the time boys reach puberty, society has implanted the worst forms of masculinity, through school systems that allow bullying and punish expression; through media and sports that promote violence. Porn then teaches boys “what women want and how men are supposed to perform”. Both of those are wrong. It’s difficult to think, but “rapists are being produced by our culture”.

Researcher in the film call this the Great Set-Up: “We raise boys to become men whose very identity is based on rejecting the feminine and then we are surprised when they don’t see women as being fully human”. So we set boys up to grow into men who disrespect women at a fundamental level and then we wonder why we have the culture that we have.

Boys enter their teenage years being told that “A man is always supposed to be on the prowl” or “I’d like to hit that” or “I’d like a piece of that” or “I’d like to tear that shit up”. In all of these cases the woman (or sometimes man) is an object, an “it” or “that”. And violence – “hit”, “tear” – is the means to the sexual end. This teaches boys not to see the humanity in girls and leads to a culture of sexual violence against women. Young men are then sent to universities with toxic ideas of sex and sexual expression.

  • Every 9 seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted
  • 35% of male college students indicated some likelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it
  • 1 in 5 female college students is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault

Young men on university campuses represent a recipe for failure: 18 year-olds desperate to prove their masculinity to 19 year-olds. Campus environments provide two things for young men: horizontal solidarity by bonding with your ‘bros’ (hooking up, initiations, hazing); and the feeling that girls can’t do these things (hierarchy – men are superior to women).

The Mask You Live In notes a unique ‘code of silence’ found in American society. This is the conflict between the heart that wants to the right things, and the head that has been conditioned to do the opposite. This is the fear that many men have that prevent them from acting ethically and continues the ‘male peer culture’.

“Choice is rooted in our privilege.”

Not only is sexual violence perpetuated by men, mostly, it attacks both women and men, girls and boys. The culture of silence that our society has instilled into boys prevents them from seeking the medical and mental health services to overcome these violent crimes.

  • Over half of all boys are physically abused
  • 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused
  • Abused and neglected children are 9 times more likely to be involved in crime

America is unique for its culture of guns. These guns are the weapons of choice for many boys and men who seek suicide as an end to their pain – an end with immediate resolve. The films summarizes this as: “Whether its homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when feeling overwhelmed by shame and humiliation.”

“While we as good men don’t perpetrate the violence, we are part of the collective socialization.” Men and the culture that works against progress are the fertile ground that’s required for the violence to exist.

  • Every hour more than 3 people are killed by a gun. That’s over 30,000 lives annually
  • 90% of homicide perpetrators are male. Almost 50% are under 25

The male role belief system is a recipe for violence: Men are defined as superior, women are defined as inferior. And to be a real man, you also dominate other men. Respect is linked to violence. These notions and all that was explored above collectively explain the level of violence that remains in society, as well as the phenomenon of ‘mass killings’ in America.

  • Mass homicides (where 4 or more people are killed) occur on average every 2 weeks
  • 94% of mass homicides are committed by males
  • The youngest mass shooter was 11
  • The rate of mass shooting has tripled since 2011
  • And there has been almost 1 school shooting per week since Sandy Hook

Mass killings across the United States, The Mask You Live In


At its core, The Mask You Live In creates a dialogue between healthy and unhealthy ways to define manhood. These dialogues have for far too long been absent from education institutions and the wider society but are slowly being openly discussed. Debates among men are addressing many long-standing problems, such as ‘aggrieved entitlement,’ where men in positions of power feeling entitled to power and that they’re not getting that power anymore.

The Men’s Rights Movements sees the end result of patriarchy – suicide violence, depression, rape against men – and feels that its the result of women’s liberation without understanding where the struggle really lies. Until men understand that the system that produces inequality between genders (as well as racism, homophobia and other discrimination) is harmful to others as much as it is to themselves, men will never be free.

The liberation of men and boys is inextricably linked to the fight by women and girls against patriarchy. The language and actions of men towards boys must start with peace and respect. Violence can not be condoned in any form; language that assists violence must be countered in every instance. Homophobia must be challenges alongside recognition that all males have the right to be feminine, irrespective of their sexual orientation.

The coming revolution in mental health will help boys open up and discuss their needs with other boys, who were also sitting silent with the same concerns. Parents should take the opportunity to encourage their children to challenge the harmful masculine and feminine stereotypes in society through their words and actions. Individual action is not enough; a new society needs to be created.

Everyone deserves to feel whole. Starting the process of talking about these issues, as early as possible, for both boys and girls, is essential for future improvements to solving society’s problems. Talking across gender line is needed at all ages.

Each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.

Watching The Mask You Live In is a good place to start and should be required viewing in all classrooms.


Equal Pay for Equal Work

Four decade ago, the women of Iceland decided to call for a “day off”. On 24 October 1975, 90 percent of women in Iceland, in both urban and rural communities, did not go to their paid jobs or do housework or childcare at home. They refused to work to raise awareness that women at the time earned over 40% less than men. “As a result, many industries shut down for the day,” writes

Newspapers were not printed since the vast majority of typesetters were women and there was no telephone service. Many schools were either closed or partially closed as the majority of teachers were women.

Flights were cancelled as flight attendants did not come to work and bank branches had to be staffed by executives as tellers took the day off.

Fish factories were also closed, with many nurseries and shops also shut or at reduced capacity.

That sunny day would become an annual tradition in Iceland known as “Women’s Day Off”. The rally in Reykjavik’s Downtown Square gathered 25,000 women and was the largest of more than 20 to take place throughout the country. It was a moment that changed the way women were seen in the country and helped put Iceland at the forefront of the fight for equality.

Five years later, during the summer of 1980, the people of Iceland elected Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother, to be their president. Vigdis was Europe’s first female president and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. Vigdis went on to hold the position for 16 years – years that set Iceland on course to become known as “the world’s most feminist country”. Vigdis insists she would never have been president had it not been for the 1975 protest. “What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,” she says. “It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.” By uniting women from all social and political backgrounds, the day of action in 1975 was able to bring the issues of unpaid care work and wage inequality to national (and ultimately international) attention. The movement carried on the tradition British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst foresaw decades earlier: “We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Pankhurst and other suffragettes, during what is now referred to as the “first wave” of feminism, pushed governments around the world to allow women the right to vote, starting with New Zealand in 1893. Women in Australia got the vote in 1902, followed by Finland in 1906. Iceland was next, in 1915. The 1910s also saw Norway (1913), Soviet Russia (1917), Canada, Germany, Austria, Poland (all 1918), and Czechoslovakia (1919) do the same. Suffrage in US and Hungary came in 1920. The UK saw full voting rights for women later in 1928, following limited suffrage from 1918. Switzerland was one of the last countries in the world to allow women to vote, taking until 1971 to do so! These fights for political equality were followed by a second wave of grievances, ones opening the door to economics.

The two movements in Iceland – the “Day Off” and the election of Vigdis – illustrated the interconnection of economic and political inequalities women face within a patriarchal system. In 1975 there were just three sitting female Icelandic MPs, or just 5 percent of the parliament, compared with between 16 and 23 percent in the other Nordic countries. Globally, women continue to be underrepresented in politics. Without also gaining equal political representation for women, it will be difficult to achieve equal pay for equal work.


Gender pay gap across Europe: causes and effects

In 1976, a year after the strike, Iceland formed the Gender Equality Council and passed the Gender Equality Act, which outlawed gender discrimination in workplaces and schools. Today Iceland has the highest level of women’s participation in the labour market, with heavily subsidised childcare and three months’ paid parental leave to each parent.

Despite these improvements and being the best country in the world for gender equality – the country has topped the U.N.’s Global Gender Gap Report for the sixth year in a row – women in Iceland still earn on average 14 to 18 per cent less than their male colleagues. Currently, there’s no country in the entire world where a woman earns as much as a man for doing the same job. This is know as the “gender pay gap”. According to unions and women’s organisations, this means in every eight hour day Icelandic women are essentially working without pay from 2:38 pm. So, to mark the 41st anniversary of the original “Women’s Day Off,” thousands of female employees across Iceland walked out of workplaces at 2.38 pm on Monday to protest against earning less than men.

In 2005, women left work at 2:08 pm.

In eleven years, less than three minutes has been gained annually towards eliminating the gender pay gap. If progress continues at the same rate, it will take 52 years to eliminate the disparity between men and women’s earnings in Iceland entirely.

The fight for gender equality in 1970’s Iceland is reminiscent of battles in other countries, such as the UK. In 1968, five women led a strike of sewing machinists at Ford Motor Company Limited’s Dagenham plant in London, which employed tens of thousands of workers. (The film Made in Dagenham chronicles the strike.) Ford was making billions in profits while the women in its plant were struggling to pay their bills.

The 187 women made car seat covers and as stock ran out the strike eventually resulted in a halt to all car production. The women walked out when they were informed that they were graded as “less skilled” and that they would be paid 15 percent less than the full rate received by men, both of which were common practices for companies at the time. The strike soon spread and, with the help of the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, ultimately resulted in the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which did, for the first time, aim to prohibit inequality of treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment in the UK.

The striking female machinists from the Ford Dagenham plant who fought for equal pay in 1968.

The striking female machinists from the Ford Dagenham plant who fought for equal pay in 1968.

Research shows that the gender pay gap is not the same among all women. It cuts differently across racial lines. A woman in the US typically earns 6 to 39 percent less than a white man; but a woman of colour earns less than her white counterpart.


The gender pay gap is worse for women of colour.

The older you are, the bigger the gap. A 2014 survey by the Chartered Management Institute and XpertHR on the gender pay gap last week found that female managers earn less than their male counterparts, with the gap increasing with age. At 23 percent, the management gender pay gap is wider than the 19.7 percent in the workforce as a whole.


The gender pay gap varies across age.

The gender pay gap also varies widely from country to country, the World Economic Forum reports. A woman earned only 48 percent of a man’s salary in Italy and 47 percent in Israel.

Burundi, where four out of five people live below the poverty line, is the top country in women’s pay. Women in the tiny African country earn 83 percent of salaries of the men in the same jobs.

In the so-called “developed world” women’s wages come closest to men’s in Norway and Singapore, but even there it’s still at 80%.


The gender pay gap by country.

Why does the gender pay gap exist?

After fighting for the right to vote and to be legally protected from discrimination by employers, women are told that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist. So, to answer that question, it’s necessary to first dispel some of the common myths, according to the European Commission.

Myth #1: More women work part-time, so they should earn less.

Working fewer hours a week means you should take home less pay per month, NOT less pay per hour.

Myth #2: Women earn less because they choose lower earning jobs.

Women tend to earn less per hour than men for the same job whether it is a highly-skilled profession like a doctor or nurse or a lower-skilled job such as a salesperson. The gender pay gap exists across our economy, and in all sectors and occupations.

Myth #3: Men are better educated, so should earn more.

Today, 60% of university graduates in the EU are women.

Women’s equality movements in Iceland and elsewhere, combined with ongoing research, continue to remind us of these facts. Despite major gains in achieving higher education, girls and women have equal access to education in only 25 of the 142 countries. Discrimination from birth through schooling prevents women from achieving their economic liberation. Even worse, Algeria and Iran have the lowest female participation in the labor force with less than one in five women working outside their home.

Men still dominate the worlds of business and politics – Jamaica, Colombia, Lesotho and Fiji are the only four countries with more female legislators, senior officials and managers. Men continue to make up the majority of those in the highest paid and most senior roles – for example, there are just five female Chief Executives in the FTSE 100. Male-dominated companies and legislatures have repeatedly shown their unwillingness to address gender discrimination unless they are pushed by movements seeking change.

New laws need to be passed to overcome remaining barriers to women. More countries should consider passing legislation to ensure paid maternity leave for mothers and should include equal levels of paternity leave for fathers. Until men take an equal share of care work (of children, of the aged, of their spouses), women will continue to face an unfair job market.

Women in business, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, are trying to provide their own solution: corporate feminism. In the book Lean Out, Dawn Foster unpicks how the purportedly feminist message of Sandberg neatly exempts patriarchy, capitalism and business from any responsibility for changing the position of women in contemporary culture. Foster and others point out that corporate feminists want women to work within the sexist system of business without changing its fundamental problems. Gloria Steinem provides a simpler examination: “If you say, I’m for equal pay, that’s a reform. But if you say, I’m a feminist, that’s a transformation of society.”

Another book that questions the current state of affairs is Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal. In her book, Marçal shows that even today, the unpaid work of mothering, caring, cleaning and cooking is not part of our economic models. All over the world, there are economists who believe that if women are paid less, then that’s because their labour is worth less. Until political economies value all women at all levels of society, there will never be an “economic woman” like the “economic man” that has existed for millennia.

The Powerful Need to Invalidate Social Movements

tumblr_mu4239ywbb1r0cemdo1_500As a white man, I rank very high on the ladder of privilege. My skin color and my gender are just two aspects of my identity, which have been prioritized by Western society for centuries. I also benefit everyday from my sexual orientation (heterosexual), my nationality (Canadian), my level of education (two university degrees), my mother tongue (English), my lack of disability (whether physical or psychological) and my age (28). It took me some time to understand this but now I know that, in almost every aspect of my identity, I have immense privilege, which many do not. Unfortunately, many people don’t see it that way. Many people with a similar attributes to myself have not realized their privilege and fight against any evidence to that effect.

The two cases examined below show this backlash and are similar for a number of reasons. First, they are social movements fighting inequality in society – one on the basis of race, the other on gender. Second, they both utilize the Internet and social media as tools for communication and organizing, including Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Third, both have been met with criticism from privileged people outside their movements trying to invalidate their message. This point has far-reaching importance as invalidation by outsiders can be found across nearly all social movements and includes acts of denial, shame, ignorance and faux compassion. Fourth, they are largely centered in North America and Europe. Finally, each of the two cases below shows the difference in understanding between outsiders with a cursory understanding of the field they are questions and academics who rebut them.


“Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular, it is important that we say that…”

Black Lives Matter.

This explanation of what is implied by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement comes from a law professor responding to complaint from a first-year student. The student (or possibly, students) had been so offended by the professor wearing a BLM shirt that they wrote a two-page complaint. The letter said wearing the shirt was “inappropriate” and “highly offensive.” Further, it said “we do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors,” and urged the professor to avoid “mindless actions” that might distract students at a law school where not everyone is passing the bar.

The professor, Patricia Leary of Whittier Law School, responded. She wrote an impassioned and thoughtful response. (The full exchange can be found here.) Professor Leary unpacks many of the student’s premises, such as whether tuition allows students to make demands on their education and institution, in her six-page response. The ones I found helpful specifically addressed the student’s claims that the BLM statement “is racist and anti-law enforcement”. These thoughts, held by many Americans, have resulted in counter movements, the so-called “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” slogans.


Following BLM, whites and pro-police groups came out with their own thoughts on which “Lives Matter”.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) originated in 2013 as a hashtag on social media, campaigning against violence and systemic racism toward black people. It has now grown into a global movement. The BLM movement is addressing the long history of police violence against African Americans and raising consciousness through protests. Law enforcement in the United States has a racial bias, as evidenced by the Guardian’s database on police killings and stories in their series The Counted. Blacks are killed more often than whites. Other minority groups, Native Americans and Latinos, also face higher rates of police violence than whites.


Americans killed by police in 2015.


Americans killed by police in 2016, as of October.

These statistics hide the stories of men and women shot by police and often killed. Stories like the shooting of unarmed people, like Charles Kinsey, who had his hands up and said he was unarmed when Miami police marksmen opened fire this year, or Oscar Grant, who was killed on New Year’s Day 2009 after being shot in the back while lying on the ground face down and handcuffed. These incidents were filmed, preventing the police from disputing the facts. In other cases of death by shooting, like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the police officers who acted were found to have previous incidents of excessive force. Often these police receive little to no punishment, which sparks anger within the American American community.

These recent cases, following the history of slavery and racial segregation, are what many white people, including the anonymous student, are trying to invalidate. As Leary explains,

“Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion.”

This is the core misunderstanding of people, like the anonymous student, who attack social movements. BLM is focusing on a problem. It doesn’t exclude anyone from debating the issue. It is not only Black Lives Matter, but, rather, Black Lives Matter too.

A focus on racial profiling and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system (which I’ve previously written about), in addition to police brutality, are important human rights problems in the U.S. Discussions on police violence often intersect with disability and poverty, which also go ignored by many.

not-in-serviceSaying “Blue Lives Matter” does nothing to address police brutality. It is an attempt to deny the claims of the BLM and replace them with equal footing for police officers. In the cases noted above, where they were unarmed, victims were shot regardless of the threat they posed to police officers. This is a serious problem, found across the U.S. and needs to be addressed, not ignored.

Similarly, saying “All Lives Matter” is a denial of the history of racial inequality and its results. Rather than listening to victims and researching their claims, many white people will go on the defensive saying things like “You’re not the only ones.” Yes, white people are killed by police, although at a much lower proportion than minority groups. Rather than addressing this problem, which affects everyone, people who shout “All Lives Matter” are attacking the one actually doing something about it, namely the BLM movement.

Who Needs Feminism?

While studying in the UK last year, I heard about a conference on the issue’s affecting women. As someone new to the area and hoping to help create change, I was hoping to attend. Unfortunately, they were excluding men from applying.

At first, I took offense. Shouldn’t I be able to attend? Don’t my opinions and voice matter? I was wrong on both counts. Men should never dictate what women can discuss, or who can attend such discussions.

Like the case of Professor Leary and the anonymous student above, many men (and women too) will think their voices are being discriminated against in situations where women discuss issues that affect them. This is epitomized by the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) and online debates.

On social media, people have expressed their solidarity with women’s rights and issues with hashtags like #YesAllWomen and #HeForShe. They also posted photos of themselves with statements starting with “I need feminism because …”.

This was countered by people on social media, like Facebook group Women Against Feminism, who wanted to show why they “don’t need feminism”.

Rather than seeing the first group’s grievances and saying, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better”, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests, the second group denies their claims and feels feminism is the problem. Many of the anti-feminists claims do not match what is found in reasearch, as Lisa Cumming points out. Men and women don’t have the same rights and opportunities. The suffragette movement, which was the first wave of feminism and led to women’s right to vote, is just one example of this inequality and why feminism matters.

In a large number of cases, these posts attack feminist’s character rather than the issues. When they do discuss issues, the anti-feminists question why men aren’t talked about more by feminists, since they’re 50 percent of the population.

This is exactly what happened when Lauren Southern, an online commentator for The Rebel, a Canadian media platform, posted a “I Don’t Need Feminism” video on YouTube. Lauren argues points familiar to the MRM, including male suicide, sexual assault against men and custody of children. In fact, these are the three issues that are repeated ad infinitum by MRM proponents. These three concerns are, unsurprisingly, discussed by feminist writers as well.


In a reply to Lauren’s video, Jenna Christian addresses each claim in detail. Jenna notes that “feminism helps us understand and confront not only the violences and inequalities facing women, but also the problems facing men.” On whether feminism is sexist, Jenna responds that “there are real and serious inequalities that continue to face women, and it is not unreasonable or sexist for a movement for gender equality to focus primarily on those problems” (emphasis added). This is very much in line with the idea of exclusion that I’ve been talking about and how many outsiders may feel.

On male suicide, male workplace deaths, male combat deaths, and male homicide deaths: “feminists demonstrate how norms of femininity and masculinity entrench ideas about appropriate male and appropriate female behavior, which deeply shape the conditions of these male deaths.” Through many examples and references, Jenna goes on to explain how feminist theories help to explain domestic violence against men, men raped in prison, male privilege, child custody following divorce, and the other critiques by Lauren. In all, it provides a successful rebuttal.

Jenna and Lauren decided to continue their online discussion. Jenna provided a prompt looking at the devaluation of femininity. Lauren provided a second video, adding points on income inequality, which Jenna addressed. The conversation didn’t move any further.

One point which is very telling is that Lauren, in her second video, states that Jenna provided “no proof that feminists speak for men’s issues”. This is strange since Jenna has two posts before filled with citations of feminists speaking on men’s issues. It’s unclear if Lauren even read the critiques of her video. (It’s also important to note that the media platform that Lauren works for and that hosted her video is staunchly anti-feminist. Rebel Media, among other views against basic human rights, denies all claims made by the trans* community and denies that there is anything apart from a men/women binary.)

I find this exchange between Jenna and Lauren interesting for two main reasons. It’s interesting that two women are discussing issues related to men. It’s interesting not because they can’t discuss men’s issues. It’s actually the opposite. Women can research the problems of men. And men can research the problems women. Or more simply, everyone can research gender.

The cognitive dissonance within the MRM and anti-feminist media is important to note. On the one hand, MRM proponents will deride anyone who undertakes gender studies, saying that they really should have studied in the heavily male-dominated fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) so they can get a job. Then, on the other hand, those same people will criticise gender studies for a (perceived) lack of inclusion of the issues that affect males but not encouraging men to switch from STEM to gender studies to research said issues. It’s as though they want the gears of industry to keep on turning while never questioning the struggles of the people who turn those gears every single day. It’s really hypocritical.

x_lon_polandabortion_161003-nbcnews-ux-1080-600The other reason I find it interesting is that anti-feminists seem to have a small worldview and a short memory. It wasn’t long ago when women, in North America and Europe, couldn’t vote, hold public office, attend university or own land. These victories were just some of the advancements in the process for equality. A process that continues today.

People opposed to feminism and women’s liberation also seem to ignore the news, because there are plenty of countries where it’s needed. Recently, the people of Poland have protested in the streets against the government’s planned reproductive rights laws that would limit abortion. Poland already has extreme laws that force many women to undergo illegal abortions that risk their lives. The protests worked, forcing the government to back down.

Following the release of a damning Human Rights Watch report in July, the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian went viral in Saudi Arabia, with women of all ages tweeting for a change to the system. An unprecedented petition calling for an end to the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia has been put before the kingdom’s government after gaining over 14,000 signatures.

Who needs feminism?


Further Implications

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Instances of people rallying against BLM or feminism are useful in understanding privilege in society. To understand white privilege, it’s important for whites to unpack their invisible knapsack and understand the historical context of racial inequality. Women and men opposed to feminism should look at what feminists actually say. They might be surprised by what they find (and how much of it agrees with what they are concerned about). These two cases are useful in addressing other social movements and the invalidation that outsiders thrust upon them.

In the fight for marriage equality and adoption for same-sex couples, campaigners have been countered by religious conservatives, who play the victim and say homosexual marriage is an affront to ‘traditional’ marriage. Marriage is a social construct that has changed over time and excluding same-sex couples is hurtful. Religious groups also say that “kids do best with a mom and a dad” while ignoring the plight of orphans or abused children within heterosexual couples. Opponents do not see homosexuals as their equals and seek to punish them for this belief.

Both of these issues for same-sex couples played out in Mexico last month. Thousands of people in Mexico City have protested against a government proposal to legalise same-sex marriage, which they say would undermine traditional families. Opponents to the change in constitution also believe that reforms will make room for same-sex adoption (currently illegal in Mexico). A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City has said that President Peña Nieto’s proposals felt like a “terrible stab in the back” to the Catholic hierarchy with whom he had previously had a good relationship.

A similar backlash occurred in the U.S. before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, where evangelicals needed to hear some hard truths: “No one is going to make you be gay. Preachers will not be forced to marry gay people. It will not become illegal to be a Christian. God isn’t going to destroy America.” I’m sure the same will hold true for Mexico and the rest of the world.

The notion of invalidation can apply to international issues as well. When in comes to global poverty and the obligation of wealthier nations to provide foreign aid, many people will say that politicians should “helping those here” first. Following flooding in the United Kingdom, politicians and the press used the opportunity to attack foreign aid. Similarly, opponents of foreign aid also oppose providing sanctuary for refugees and victims of war on similar grounds. It’s difficult to see why no one has responded by asking: “Why not do both?”

In these cases – All Lives Matter, Men’s Rights, traditional marriage, etc. – there is a trend in defending the status quo. The powerful sections of society – commonly, rich white men – attack anyone who questions their power, rather than addressing the inequality that results from their ingrained privilege. They use conservative elements of media, government, business and religion to help fight their cause. As shown above, people in the public also help fight against their own causes. They push back against racial, gender and sexual equity. They also push back against notions of compassion for the impoverished and victims of war.

Racial justice movements, like BLM, question the police and criminal justice system that has evolved from slavery and racial segregation. Feminists have also campaigned against the violence of police and the military, as well as economic inequality, political representation and reproductive rights. Same-sex marriage is opposed by orthodox religion and also acts to question its moral supremacy. Intersectionality brings these discussions of race, gender and sexuality together, along with age, disability, colonialism, language and more.

Let’s hope that everyone can join together to fight for social justice and equity.

Finally, “All Houses Matter”:


Liberté, égalité, fraternité pour qui?

In recent weeks, a series of French municipal decrees de facto banning “burkinis” and, apparently, any other skin concealing beach outfits worn by Muslim women were made in about 30 French towns. Women have received fines and armed French police have ordered some women to remove their clothing, as seen on a beach in Nice:


This treatment of Muslim women in France has put a lot of doubt into my mind of whether the motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity” (liberté, égalité, fraternité) still applies to all French residents. Liberty involves the social and political freedoms to which all community members are entitled. Equality means all people within a society have the same status in respect to civil rights, freedom of speech, and equal access to social goods and services. Fraternity, although highly patriarchal and better represented as solidarity, is a kind of ethical relationship between people, which is based on compassion. The ban on burkinis, or any other style of dress associated with an identifiable group, runs counter to all three of these principles.

Women are not allowed the freedom (liberty) to choose what they want to wear on a beach. A Corsican mayor who also banned the garment said that the burkini was “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach.” This mayor, like others, is wrong on many counts. No one has the right to be free of offence. In fact, that runs counter to freedom of speech. Just as a person has the right to wear a revealing swimsuit free from sexual harassment, so too does someone wearing full coverings, like a long-sleeved shirt, a wetsuit, or a burkini. As a London woman reflected on how the ban connects to her own past:

“This display of men controlling how women dress reminded me of my humiliation at an open-air pool in Ruislip in 1957 when I, beautifully suntanned and wearing a bikini, was ordered by loudhailer to leave the pool and dress suitably. Nothing changes, just a further reason – religion and terrorism are the current excuse.”

There is no compassion (fraternity) in mandating a woman’s choice of dress, let alone forcing a woman to strip in public in front of armed men. Furthermore, this ban is targeting Muslim women exclusively, in clear opposition to the notion of equality. What if Catholic nuns were banned from French beaches, given fines and forced to remove their religious habit? I don’t think that would be tolerated.


Another woman, a mother of two, was fined on a beach in Cannes while wearing a headscarf. “The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police,” a witness of the incident said. “Her daughter was crying.” Her ticket, seen by French news agency AFP, read that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”.

I’ve heard some French politicians cite “secular values” as a reason for the ban, however, I think they are misguided in their terminology. Secularism favors open, democratic societies in which the state takes a neutral position with respect to religion, protection the freedom of individuals to follow and espouse, or reject and criticize, both religious and atheist beliefs. French officials are doing anything but be neutral. Coercing people into embracing religious belief should is no worse than coercing people into embracing anti-religious belief. Both are fundamentalist and both should be opposed.


As Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out, the bans were adopted in the aftermath of two horrific terror attacks: the truck attack in Nice and the church killing in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. In Nice, the administrative court ruled that banning the burkini is “necessary, appropriate and proportionate to the aim pursued in terms of the protection of public order and security” in the context of terrorist threats. It appears that security (securité) may need to be added to the French motto.

But this reasoning is again misleading. As HRW notes, “what in fact these bans serve to do is create a dangerous and absurd confusion between how some Muslim women choose to dress and the despicable terrorist attacks that French people, of all religions, have suffered.” The bans may even worsen security. It increases tensions between communities, fuels Islamophobia, and reaffirms the feeling of injustice felt by some Muslims in France. In just one example, skirmishes at a beach in the commune of Sisco earlier this month left four people injured and resulted in riot police being brought in to stop a crowd of 200 Corsicans marching into a housing estate with a high population of people of North African origin, shouting “this is our home”. State repression will not solve these problems.

In addition to being unfair and discriminatory, the burkini ban is also misogynistic.


The burkini is a cultural and religiously inspired mode of bathing attire, which women choose to wear to make them feel safe from the sexual gaze of society. The ban excludes women from public spaces, depriving them of their rights to autonomy, to leisure activities, to wear what they chose, and of course to practice their faith. As Huda Jawad writes, “such policies and acts of discrimination are examples of how Islamophobia is more likely to manifest itself in a gendered way which targets and affects women uniquely, adding to their misogynistic oppression and religious victimisation”.

Going forward, it appears that the French judiciary is starting to put an end to this shameful ban. France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil D’Etat, ruling for the Human Rights League and Collective Against Islamophobia in France, ordered the suspension of the ban adopted by Villeneuve-Loubet, a small town on the French Riviera. Although the ruling only has direct impact on that specific ban, it should create a precedent for 30 other municipalities with similar rules.

Many other European countries also ban burkas, or face veils. In Switzerland, women face fines of up to £8,000 for wearing a burka. The law came into effect in July following a 2013 referendum. Similar laws have since been passed in Belgium and the Netherlands. The Swiss ban was inspired by a similar French law passed in 2010 and upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014. European judges ruled that the measure aimed at stopping women covering their faces in public was entirely justified, adding that the garment threatened the right of people “to live together”. One must question whether Muslims are also people that have a right to live together.

As described above, these bans are discriminatory, racist and misogynistic. They do nothing for security and seem counter-productive. If we want to create a peaceful society, we cannot greet hatred with hatred, intolerance with intolerance. We need to hold fast to the better elements of society. For France, this means providing all people with liberty, equality and solidarity. Especially when it seems difficult.

Cultures of Sexual Violence

Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. Between 15 and 76 percent of women are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the available country data. Most of this violence takes place within intimate relationships, with many women (ranging from 9 to 70 percent) reporting their husbands or partners as the perpetrator. Across the 28 States of the European Union, a little over one in five women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014).

I have never experienced such violence, however I have witnessed both sexism and violence in separate instances and know how traumatizing both can be. This lead me to take a longer look at the subject.


Human Rights Watch defines sexual violence as “an act of a sexual nature by force, or by threat of force or coercion,” and rape as “a form of sexual violence during which the body of a person is invaded, resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim, with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or other part of the body.” Sexual violence is a global problem, found in all societies, as UN Women statistics show:

  • Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.
  • The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced. The percentage is even higher among those who were under 15 at the time of their sexual initiation, with up to 45 percent reporting that the experience was forced.
  • Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia (31.3 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (14.1 million). Violence and abuse characterize married life for many of these girls. Women who marry early are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.
  • In the majority of countries with available data, less than 40 per cent of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort. Among women who do, most look to family and friends and very few look to formal institutions and mechanisms, such as police and health services. Less than 10 per cent of those women seeking help for experience of violence sought help by appealing to the police.
  • Between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union countries experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work.
  • In the UK, according to the 2009 British Crime Survey, approximately 80,000 women are raped per year. Approximately one in ten rapes is reported, and only 6.5 percent of these result in a conviction.
  • In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence, mostly involving women and girls, have been documented since 1996: the actual numbers are believed to be far higher.
  • Between 15 percent of women in Japan and 71 percent of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • In 2012, a study conducted in New Delhi found that 92 per cent of women reported having experienced some form of sexual violence in public spaces in their lifetime, and 88 per cent of women reported having experienced some form of verbal sexual harassment (including unwelcome comments of a sexual nature, whistling, leering or making obscene gestures) in their lifetime.
  • Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States.

These statistics reveal many truths. Age is a major factor in this violence, as girls face a large share of the instances. Disability is another contributor: 34 per cent of women with a health problem or disability reported having experienced any physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime, compared to 19 per cent of women without a health problem or disability, based on data from the European Union.

Delving deeper, we can assess the cultures within a given country. Unlike the DRC, which has been at war for decades, the United States has seen relative peace for more over 150 years. The U.S. also has a stable economy and strong government functions. Yet, the U.S. still has an extremely high rate of sexual violence. Clearly, peace, wealth and democracy are not enough to solve this epidemic. There are deeper social, economic and political barriers to ending this violence.


Screenshot from The Hunting Ground showing sexual assault instances in universities across the United States.

Behind all of these statistics are the survivors – women (and men) who have faced unspeakable violence and pain at the hands of (almost always) men. Their stories are difficult to hear but even harder to acknowledge and do nothing about. The following documentaries, using the case of the United States, capture these stories and the reasons why rape and sexual violence remains part of cultures around the world.


Disbelief on Campus

Rape culture pervades universities across the U.S. This culture has been ignored by university officials for far to long, leading to terrible consequences:

  • 1 in 5 female college students is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault.
  • 35 percent of male college students indicated some livelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it.

On university campuses, as in other areas of society, survivors of sexual violence face a culture of disbelief. Victims are blamed for the crime, including chastising their dress or alcohol consumption. Routinely, survivors are met with doubt as to whether the crime actually occurred.

In The Hunting Ground, the issue of rape and sexual violence on university campuses across the United States is examined in painstaking detail. Directed by Kirby Dick and released in 2014, this documentary focuses on Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, two former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students who filed a Title IX complaint against UNC in response to their rapes while enrolled. The use of Title IX in campus sexual assault cases became a model for universities across the country.


The film touches on many troubling issues related to sexual violence against women, especially those young of age. Education is a central component of tackling this epidemic. Unfortunately, universities are often behind the times in recognizing this system of violence. In addition to the violent tradition of hazing, university fraternities–“male only” social organisations at colleges and universities–have been found perpetuating messages of violence against their female colleagues.

After a fraternity was suspended for their “Dads, We’ll Take it From Here” banner, an Ohio State University senior responded that their “motive is just to have fun, it is college.” For over 20 years, Bowling Green State University has seen similar banners including “We’ll trade beers for girls” and “Freshman girl training center” that advocate sexual violence against young female students. These are just two examples for one of America’s 50 states.

Routinely, survivors do not receive adequate attention and the crimes they report are seen as fictitious lies. This is a result of poor understanding and training by police officials, most of whom are men. In a 2005 survey for Amnesty International, over 1 in 4 respondents from the UK thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than 1 in 5 held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. Similarly, more than 1 in 4 respondents said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and more than 1 in 3 held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say so to the man. In a 2010 UK survey, more than half of women questioned thought rape victims should in some cases bear responsibility for their attack. These findings are known as ‘blame culture‘.

A lack of policing to report and support services after the crime exacerbate the problem. The U.S. has shown a reluctance to act on sexual violence and rape. An investigation earlier this year found more than 70,000 rape kits have gone untested by police departments across the country. This is a public safety disaster. After Detroit processed a backlog of 11,000 rape kits, police identified more than 100 serial rape suspects. Because the survivors of rape are women and not men, it has been ignored for far too long. Money to test this backlog of kits won’t be enough to protect women. Police and the rest of our society need to stop treating rape survivors with suspicion and scorn and need to admit that rape and violence against women remains a part of our culture.


Pressure to Work

“You do it out of desperation. Not because you want to.”

Several women’s movements have fought and continue fighting for the right to access employment on an equal level as men. However, when women enter the workforce, they are again met with the issue of sexual violence.

In the two documentaries Rape in the Fields, released in 2013, and Rape on the Night Shift, released in 2015, as well as accompanying investigations, the joint effort between PBS Frontline partnered with Univision, the Center for Investigative Reporting and others to shine a spotlight on the nation-wide issue of sexual violence against migrant women in the United States.


Both films examine the issues of sexual violence and rape through the economic lens of low-wage work and the political lens of migration. Undocumented women have limited employment opportunities, which leads to the constant threat of termination or deportation by their supervisors–men with both physical and psychological power over migrant women–and, as documented, sexual violence and rape.

“Sexual violence doesn’t happen unless there’s an imbalance of power,” says William R. Tamayo, a regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “And in the agricultural industry, the imbalance of power between perpetrator, company and the worker is probably at its greatest.”


Rape in the Fields (Violación de un Sueño) tells the story of the hidden price many migrant women working in America’s fields and packing plants pay to stay employed and provide for their families. Farm labour is the most common form of work for migrants who come from south of border. It is also essential to America’s food supply and economy. It is estimated that at least 6 out of 10 of the country’s farm workers are undocumented (Southern Poverty Law Center).

The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report crimes. The federal government estimates that 65 percent of all sexual assault and rape victims never report the crime. Immigrants, especially those who entered the country without authorization, are even less likely to complain, according to academic studies.

Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism reveals persistent peril for women working in the food industry. An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms.

At work, undocumented status makes workers especially vulnerable to abuse, as some employers and supervisors constantly hold the “deportation card”. For instance, if an employer is treating a worker unfairly, a worker who speaks up to their boss can be threatened with deportation. This significantly takes away their rights to stand up for themselves and advocate for their working conditions. Threats of detention and deportation add to the psychological stress of a job that is already unstable by its very nature, varying by season and location (almost half of all farm workers are “migrant” workers who travel to different locations to find work).

Hundreds of female agricultural workers have complained to the federal government about being raped and assaulted, verbally and physically harassed on the job, while law enforcement has done almost nothing to prosecute potential crimes.

In virtually all of the cases reviewed, the alleged perpetrators held positions of power over the women. Despite the accusations, these supervisors have remained on the job for years without fear of arrest.

Meat packing is another side of the food industry. Already dangerous to all workers, the processing of meat is another sector where migrant women face sexual violence. The legal research and advocacy group ASISTA surveyed more than 100 women working at Iowa meatpacking plants in 2009. An analysis of these surveys shows that 41 percent said they’d experienced unwanted touching, and about 30 percent reported receiving sexual propositions.


Rape on the Night Shift uncovers the sexual abuse of immigrant women who clean the malls where Americans shop, the banks where they do business, and the offices where they work. Another major employer of migrants is this type of low-wage service work.

But the way the problem has played out in the workplace largely has escaped public attention. About 50 people a day are sexually assaulted or raped while they’re on the clock, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Any statistic about sexual violence, though, is a farce–only a fraction of victims ever come forward to report the crime.

When they do, companies can hide complaints from the public by settling them secretly before a lawsuit is filed. The results of cases that do make it to court often are cloaked by confidentiality agreements.


The night shift janitor is an easy target for abuse. She clocks in after the last worker has flipped off the lights and locked the door. It’s tough work done for little pay in the anonymity of night, among mazes of empty cubicles and conference rooms. She’s even less likely to speak up if she’s afraid of being deported or fired.

Across the country, janitors at companies large and small say their employers have compounded the problem by turning a blind eye to complaints and attacking their credibility when they report abuse at the hands of their supervisors or co-workers.

In the janitorial world, ABM is the largest. It employs the most cleaners in the country and has a history of facing charges that it failed to prevent sexual violence. It’s among a rare group of 15 American corporations to have been targeted multiple times by the federal government for sexual harassment.


The janitorial sector is fundamentally broken. Before the 1980s, most businesses had their own janitorial staff. Then building owners and stores began outsourcing the work to cut costs. This created an explosion in contract cleaning companies. It has caused other abuses against workers, in addition to sexual violence.

To stay competitive, cleaning companies of all sizes have to keep prices low. According to what’s reported to the federal government, janitors earn about $25,500 a year. The primary expense is labor, so wages are the first place where they cut corners.

“The way you make money in this industry is to cheat because the profit margin is so thin,” said Stephen Lerner, who led the first national effort to organize janitors for the Service Employees International Union in the 1980s.

Janitors have claimed that they were forced to clock in using two different names to avoid racking up overtime, Lerner said. They say unscrupulous contractors call them independent contractors so they don’t have to follow labor laws. Segments of the workforce aren’t authorized to work in the U.S., a scenario that makes workers vulnerable to abuses and puts companies at risk for legal problems.

A recent study of 826 low-wage employees working illegally in San Diego County found that 64 percent of the janitors surveyed had been cheated out of pay or suffered some other labor violation. About one-third said they’d been forced to work against their will, and 17 percent of that group said they’d experienced some kind of physical threat, including sexual violence, according to the study from Cornell University and San Diego State University professors.

Corporations are benefiting from a capitalist system where the most vulnerable people (migrant women) are left to fend for themselves against managers who use their power to abuse and sexual assault with impunity. It is a hidden epidemic in the United States and all countries were a handful of human beings are seen as “illegal” and therefore without the right to access protection from and criminal prosecution against these perpetrators.

The issue of sexual violence goes far beyond the personal. Political and economic decisions determine whether the culture of sexual violence is given attention and whether survivors are empowered to come forward to demand their basic human rights. The economics and politics need to shift to encourage all people to have adequate, safe employment and protection under the law.


Alone on the Front Line

Many Americans are told that their military exists to “protect their freedom”. But what happens when the military doesn’t protect the freedoms of soldiers?

In another film by Kirby Dick, 2012’s The Invisible War, the issue of sexual violence inside the U.S. Military is brought to light. In 2010, 108,121 veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma, and 68,379 had at least one Veterans Health Administration outpatient visit for related conditions. Also in 2010, The Department of Defense processed reports of 3,198 new assaults but estimated the actual number of assaults to be closer to 19,000. However, these reports only resulted in convictions against 244 perpetrators.


The Invisible War features interviews with veterans from multiple branches of the United States Armed Forces who recount the events surrounding their assaults. Their stories show many common themes, such as the lack of recourse to an impartial justice system, reprisals against survivors instead of against perpetrators, the absence of adequate emotional and physical care for survivors, the unhindered advancement of perpetrators’ careers, and the forced expulsion of survivors from service.

Interspersed with these first person testimonies are interviews with advocates, journalists, mental health professionals, active duty and retired generals, Department of Defense officials, and members of the military justice system. The film also includes footage, often shot by the veterans themselves, which documents their lives and continuing struggles in the aftermath of their assaults.

Other past incidents of sexual abuse recounted in the film include the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, the 1996 Army Aberdeen scandal, and the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal. The Invisible War uses these examples to argue that the military has consistently made empty promises to address its high rate of sexual assault. These stories culminate with an examination of the previously unreported culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington.

In a 2015 report, Embattled, most victims of military sexual assault told HRW the aftermath was worse than the rape.  After reporting their assaults, they explained they were subjected to physical and emotional abuse by peers and supervisors, poor performance reviews, bad work assignments, loss of medals, disciplinary action – even courts martial and ultimately involuntary discharge. Many told us that they had seen what happened to other survivors and were reluctant to come forward to report their assaults. In fact, fear of retaliation is one of the major reasons rape in the military is still grossly under-reported.

When members of the US military report a sexual assault up their chain of command, they often experience terrible retaliation from other military personnel. Department of Defense surveys find 38 to 62 percent of sexual assault survivors who reported sexual assault described illegal retaliatory behavior.

2016 Human Rights Watch report illuminates the impact of “bad discharges” on military personnel who left or were forced out of the military after reporting a sexual assault. In response to public pressure the military has taken some steps in recent years to improve how it handles sexual assault cases. But almost nothing has been done to reverse the harm to veterans who reported sexual assault in the past. Like Liz, many lost much more than their military careers, and have no effective recourse to correct their records.

The survivors and advocates featured in The Invisible War call for changes to the way the military handles sexual assault, such as shifting prosecution away from unit commanders, who often are either friends with assailants or are assailants themselves.


Positive Change

Documentary films have power. Power to make change.

On February 26, 2015, one day before the theatrical release of The Hunting Ground, a bipartisan group of twelve U.S. Senators, accompanied by the film’s lead subjects, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The act, originally introduced in July 2014, would require universities to adopt standard practices for weighing sexual charges, and to survey students on the prevalence of assault. Signs that the U.S. government is starting to take action following two decades of inaction after passing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

Actions are also happening at the grassroots level. Students are demanding universities become safe spaces, to become rape-free. A notable student action was Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), which involved her carrying a 50-lb mattress to bring attention to her sexual assault at Columbia University in New York City after the perpetrator was found “not responsible”.

student protest

Thanks to watching Kirby’s film The Invisible War, some U.S. officials decided to take action.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta viewed the film on April 14, 2012. On April 16, 2012, Secretary Panetta issued a directive ordering all sexual assault cases to be handled by senior officers at the rank of colonel or higher, which effectively ended the practice of commanders adjudicating these cases from within their own units. In his 2014 memoir Worthy Fights, Panetta states that watching The Invisible War was one of the main factors that influenced him to take action on the issue of sexual assault in the military.

According to The New York Times, the film “has been credited with both persuading more women to come forward to report abuse and with forcing the military to deal more openly with the problem.” The Times also notes that the film helped spur the House Armed Services Committee to hold a January 23, 2013 hearing on sexual assault in the military. During the hearing, Rep. Mike Turner acknowledged the film for illustrating the hostility faced by many survivors who speak up or seek help. The Invisible War was again discussed during a Senate subcommittee hearing on March 13, 2013 in which lawmakers and military officials described the film’s impact on military training programs dealing with sexual assault.

Stories of sexual violence, although difficult for survivors to share, are helping raise the consciousness of societies all over the world and beginning to push citizens, businesses and politicians to make change. Men need to listen to these stories and do everything within their power to change the culture around sexual violence and rape. It can not be allowed and can not be tolerated. Primary schools and the media need to play a part in changing the narrative between boys and girls, men and women.

Universities need to be safe spaces for learning.

Migrants deserve equal protection, regardless of whether they have proper documents.

All workplaces, including within the military, need to have proper reporting mechanisms and support after an assault.

Sexual violence, in all forms, needs to end.