Mysteries Abound

I love the internet (bringer of light and knowledge), but sometimes I don’t understand it.

For instance, why has this year old story of a Nigerian businessman, who died after allegedly being raped by 5 of his 6 wives, jealous over his preference for the sixth, suddenly gone viral this week?

Does it capture the zeitgeist in some manner I can’t quite follow? Is it a metaphor for our trying times? For Syria, maybe? Like, the businessman is Art. 2(4) and the first five wives are prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons and targeting of civilians. And the sixth wife is… Sergei Lavrov? No?

Somebody please enlighten me. And in the meantime, someone get cracking on a follow-up story clarifying whether the wives were charged or convicted. Inquiring minds want to know.

“With a Smile on His Face”: New Account of Sexual Assault in Tahrir Square

Another day, another revolution in Egypt. And with that new revolution comes a new outbreak of mass sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square.

This is not a new phenomenon. In February 2011, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was in Tahrir Square to report on the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, when a crowd of men overpowered her crew, stripped her, and subjected her to a prolonged and brutal sexual assault. In June 2012, documentarian Natasha Smith suffered a similar assault at the hands of a mob who stripped her and violated her with their hands as they dragged her, naked, through the square. There have been many more attacks against Egyptian women following the same pattern: a group of men isolate a woman, then surround her with what one activist has called “the circle of hell” – a ring of men who strip and assault the woman, surrounded by outer circles of accomplices who enable the attack by pretending to help the victim, and distracting the crowd from what is happening.

I recently spoke to Joost Schefferss, a 21 year old journalism student from the Netherlands who is currently studying Arabic in Cairo, about an attack that he and his friends suffered in Tahrir Square last Sunday. Thankfully, his group was rescued shortly after the assault began, narrowly avoiding a more serious fate.

Joost had gone to the square with two friends: another male student from the Netherlands, and a young Swedish woman. (His friends prefer not to be identified.) They were accompanied by two Egyptian journalists. Although Joost and his friends had no involvement in Egyptian politics, he felt an “intense strong feeling to go there to see what was going on.” He sensed that history was happening nearby, and thought it would be a shame to miss it.

They arrived at the square in the late afternoon, while the sun was still bright, and spent several hours there without incident. The atmosphere was happy, “like a festival, or something like that.” Helicopters flying Egyptian flags circled overhead, and the crowd cheered them, taking the choppers’ presence as a sign of support from the army. “It was a good atmosphere, great, really.” He took photographs, and tweeted about the excitement of the crowd.

As evening fell, and it began to get dark, however, Joost felt the mood of the crowd begin to change. “Be careful, be careful,” people in the crowd began to say to them, in English. His group linked together to walk single file, “like a train.” Each held onto a shoulder of the person in front of them, with the two Egyptian journalists bracketing the line in front and back, an engine and a caboose.

They began to make their way out of the square. Suddenly, “at a certain moment, the people were pushing, pushing, pushing. I didn’t have any idea what was going on.”

“It kept on going, and I felt a guy pushing me on my back, and again.” He briefly thought that it was merely the density of the moving crowd, but when he turned, he saw that there was plenty of space. Joost realized that the pushes were deliberate attacks meant to separate the group. Surprisingly, their attackers were teenagers. The person pushing Joost was “like a kid, of 17 or 18 years old.”

As he struggled to stay on his feet, Joost realized that his Swedish friend had lost hold of his shoulder. “I started to look, where she is, where she is, where she is? And I saw her, being pushed through the crowds by the Egyptian journalists, to get away from there.”

“She was pushed away, and the other guys were pushing me very hard, front and back.” He tried to follow, but the young woman was surrounded by a group of youths who were sexually assaulting her. “She got touched – hands were all over her whole body, grabbing her.” The two Egyptian journalists were trying to protect her, but they were unable to escape.

The Egyptian boys around Joost and his other friend continued to slam into them, trying to knock them to the ground as they tried to reach the young woman to help her. Joost felt certain that she was the main object of the attack. “That is the tactic of these groups. They push, and they push and they push, and at a certain moment the girl is gone.”

During the struggle, Joost made eye contact with one of the attackers. Horrifyingly, he looked like was having fun. “I looked the guy straight in his eyes… his face was really, really happy. He was enjoying it, definitely. There was a big smile on his face.”

Joost does not know how long the assault lasted, because he was just focused on keeping his feet, and getting to his friend. Suddenly, a group of broad-shouldered, muscular Egyptian men ran up to them and “smashed” away the youths committing the assault. With the Egyptian journalists, their rescuers joined hands to form a circle and made their way through the crowd, out of the square. Joost believes that things could have gotten much worse if they had not been rescued. “We were really lucky, after all.”

Once they were out of the square, most of their protectors disappeared – probably back into the square, to return to their patrol. However, “one of them walked with us to our car, just to make sure we arrived there, as safe as possible.” Joost would like to find the group, to thank them for their help, but has not been able to do so thus far. The rescuers never introduced themselves, so it is unclear whether they were volunteers with an official organization like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, or just concerned citizens.

“The guy who accompanied us to the car, he had a red t-shirt and a red key card with a red card on it, but I don’t know exactly what the red card was from. I also don’t know who he was, where he was from, or what else – I’ve got no clue at all.”

I asked Joost if he had any sense of what the attackers’ motivation might have been. He offered a few general theories, such as the mistrust created by Egyptian ad campaigns telling people not to trust foreigners, and the frustration felt by young men who are unable to get jobs or marry, but while those explanations might explain Egypt’s generally high rates of sexual harassment, they don’t explain the specific phenomenon of mob assaults on women in Tahrir Square. Joost has also heard that there is credible evidence that other sexual assaults were designed to drive women and journalists out of the square. “There were signals that those attacks were structured to get the journalists off Tahrir and make everyone afraid to come there and protest.”

That doesn’t seem to fit his own experience, though. “They could have been instructed by special forces to [attack us], but I really doubt it, because they were so young.” He imagines that if such attacks were planned, the organizers would send “a big group of strong men, to make sure that it happens. Not a bunch of kids.” (He hastened to add that this was just his own impression, however – he doesn’t have enough information to comment about the phenomenon of these assaults more generally.)

Whatever the motivation behind this particular assault, at this stage it seems clear that these attacks are taking place with horrifying frequency. Last Friday, a Dutch journalist was reportedly gang raped in Tahrir, and remains hospitalized for her injuries. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a volunteer organization in Cairo that sends volunteer patrols into Tahrir Square to protect women from attack, received 46 reports of mob sexual assaults on women on Sunday, 17 Monday, and more than 20 yesterday. The victims of yesterday’s attacks reportedly included “grandmothers, mothers with their children,” and 7 year old girls.

Despite the ongoing assaults, however, women continue to participate in the Tahrir demonstrations, and to volunteer with the bodyguard groups patrolling to rescue women from sexual assaults. Three cheers for their bravery, which is an example to us all.

On Luvungi, and the Problem of Evidence in Advocacy

Amanda and I spent the second half of last week at a World Peace Foundation seminar on “Western Advocacy in Conflict.” It was lots of fun. (If your idea of fun involves assorted cheese cubes and extremely detailed discussions of human rights crises. Mine certainly does.)

One of the themes that we hit on repeatedly was the relationship of advocacy to evidence. Because we were discussing Kony 2012 and conflict minerals activism on Congo, this came up primarily in terms of advocacy campaigns that seminar participants felt had distorted or paid insufficient attention to evidence. But it’s a much bigger issue, and one I have been thinking about for a while.

In contexts where the source of human rights abuses is complicated or unclear, advocates must use evidence to demonstrate that their analysis of the cause of the violations is correct, and thereby justify their proposed policy recommendations. As I note in the post linked above, that’s a very different task from the one advocates confront when the source of human rights abuses is clear. In those cases, they collect evidence to document that violations have occurred, and marshal it in support of demands that the violative behavior stop.

The challenge advocates face in situations where it’s not obvious who is responsible for human rights abuses or what would be necessary to halt them is exacerbated by the fact that these are often also situations in which it is difficult to collect information. This problem is highlighted by a controversy about the 2010 mass rape incident in Luvungi currently playing out in the (virtual) pages of Foreign Policy.

In her article “What Happened in Luvungi? On rape and truth in Congo”, reporter Laura Heaton delves into the events at “ground zero of Congo’s rape epidemic.” The August 2010 rebel assault on villages near Luvungi in North Kivu became front page news of the UN’s failure to protect Congolese civilians. The International Medical Corps (IMC) team that arrived on August 6 reported a shocking number of rape victims among the survivors. Ultimately, the UN concluded that 387 women and girls had been raped over the course of the 4 day attack.

In her trips to the area to follow up on the recovery process, however, Laura found reasons to doubt the official account. Speaking with survivors, she had the uncomfortable feeling that “a psychological element seemed to be missing” and thought perhaps the women had been coached. A local healthcare provider told her he had only treated 6 rape victims in the immediate aftermath of the rebel incursion. He said that most of the people seen at the local clinic at the time were treated for disease or for injuries incurred fleeing the rebels, but their records were altered after IMC arrived.

Laura was unable to reconcile what she was being told with what the UN and humanitarian aid workers had reported. She wondered if the numbers had been intentionally inflated, either to draw attention and funds to Luvungi, or, potentially, to protect the identities of the true rape victims.

Responding to Laura’s article, two aid workers who were part of IMC’s team in Luvungi in August 2010 vigorously contest the allegation that IMC misrepresented these events. I spoke with one of the authors, Will Cragin, who said that when he arrived in Luvungi, “there had essentially been no patients seen since the beginning of the attacks” because of the distance to the clinic and insecurity in the area. He added that once there, IMC neither retroactively revised past patient logs, nor classified incoming patients who did not report rape as sexual violence victims.

Will also thought it unlikely that the community colluded in deceiving the humanitarian workers and UN investigators in order to net media attention and aid money. He noted that ICRC and Heal Africa continue to provide psychosocial services in the community and that it’s “hard to believe that [these] women would carry on this story for so long.”

I am in no position to assess the truth of what happened in Luvungi, but the alternate narratives, each supported by eyewitness accounts, underscore what is so difficult about advocacy in complex conflict situations.

If we accept the evidence that the Luvungi numbers were inflated, we’re likely to classify this episode as emblematic of the negative effects of characterizing Congo as a place primarily defined by rape. I’ve written about this before, and share the concerns Laura identifies about the incentive structure created by a disproportionate focus on sexual violence.

But as Will and his coauthor, Micah Williams, point out, rape is a vastly underreported crime in Congo (as it is elsewhere), and “current funding remains woefully inadequate.” If we take the official Luvungi numbers at face value, we might think instead that this is one more piece of evidence that eastern Congo is in the throes of a rape epidemic in desperate need of increased international attention.

The policy prescriptions indicated by these competing interpretations of evidence are starkly different: less focus on sexual violence initiatives or more. Reason enough to be careful about what we think we know, and how we know it.

 

 

WTF Friday, 2/1/2013, OMG Seriously WTF Edition

Somali journalists protest the imprisonment of their colleague. Photo credit: Badri Media

From the six month old Federal Government of Somalia, a step-by-step primer on how to undermine your fledgling regime’s “please help us have a country” PR tour:

  1. Hire rapists into your police force.
  2. In the event that a citizen accuses your police force of rape, refuse to investigate the alleged crime, and throw her in prison for good measure.
  3. Subject her to a two-day interrogation without assistance of counsel until she recants the accusation.
  4. Chuck her husband in prison, too.
  5. Track down any journalists who have interviewed the alleged rape victim, and imprison them.
  6. Charge everyone with “insulting the government” and various other made up sounding crimes.
  7. Rinse, repeat.

All in all, a process guaranteed to make donor countries look at your security forces and think “State capacity is the best. Let’s send these guys some more money!”

What If We Responded to Sexual Assault by Limiting Men’s Freedom Like We Limit Women’s?

Calls for Men to Be Blindfolded in Public
In response to claims that men are unable to restrain themselves from committing rape if they see women in skimpy clothing, members of law enforcement agencies around the country have called for men to blindfold themselves when they are in places where they might encounter a female wearing a tank top or a short skirt.

“For years, we have been told that men don’t understand how to respond to the sight of a woman wearing, say, gym clothes – that as far as they are concerned, if they can see the outline of her body, then that’s an invitation to sex that they are simply unable to refuse,” said one police chief. “If that’s true, then we have no choice. We want women to be safe, and there is apparently no way for some men to reasonably restrain their own behavior once they catch a glimpse of cleavage, so all men will have to cover their eyes while working out, going to bars or clubs, or relaxing at the beach.”

Popular radio “shock jocks” Skeezer and the Gooch have gone even further, arguing that men should be blindfolded at all times while in public, on the grounds that “it’s not just skimpy outfits, some dudes get turned on by random stuff like women wearing athletic jerseys and sneakers,” making situation-specific blindfolding insufficient to preserve women’s safety.

Unwise to Allow Men to Go Out Alone at Night?
A local coalition of religious leaders, concerned about recent studies showing that an average of 6% of men will commit a sexual assault during their lifetime, and that nearly all sexual assaults are committed by men on their own or in groups, are urging parents not to let their sons go out at night unless they are accompanied by a mother, sister, or trusted female friend.

Mens’ groups have responded with concern, pointing out that this may leave some men unable to complete the tasks of daily life, such as going to school, working, or socializing.

In response, the religious leaders said that they “understand that this may be an inconvenience for some men,” but that “the minor difficulties this imposes on men are nothing when compared to the lifelong horror sexual assaults cause their victims.” “Really,” said the organization’s leader, “almost any limitation on men’s freedom is better than the risk that they might sexually assault someone. That’s just common sense.”

Time to Admit That Some Jobs May Just Be Too Dangerous for Men?
Recent allegations that Jimmy Savile raped numerous children while working as a television presenter for the BBC, have led to widespread calls for television stations to avoid allowing men to do similar jobs.

“We know that not all men are rapists, and that some men can probably be trusted to present tv shows safely,” said the director of Televisions Within Borders, a professional group that promotes the welfare of TV hosts and the people they cover. “However, now we know that some men can’t. And why take the risk? There are plenty of qualified women who can do this job instead.”

Voices from the blogosphere agree. “You wouldn’t send a cocaine addict to do a Good Morning America segment about a big pile of cocaine,” said a blogger who calls himself “UltimateMindz.” “Letting men be TV presenters is basically the same thing.” That post has since been shared more than 180 times on twitter, and has garnered nearly 2000 Facebook “likes.”

Supporters of this movement point to the fact that there has not been a single recorded case of a football coach raping a child since all college football coaching staff were replaced by women after last year’s Penn State abuse scandal.

Deans of 25 prominent journalism schools have taken a more moderate position, however, urging television programs to do more segments on bodybuilders and military contractors – subjects who are seen as safe for male presenters to interact with because their physical strength leaves them less vulnerable to assault. That way, the deans argue in a widely-circulated letter, male presenters may be able to remain in their jobs, albeit in a role with less visibility and almost no opportunity for advancement.

(If you’re wondering where this post came from, see, e.g., here, here, here, and here.)

Rape and Numbers

Amber Peterman, Dara Kay Cohen, Tia Palermo, and Amelia Hoover Green have an excellent piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs on the difficulties associated with getting an accurate picture of wartime sexual violence and the prevalence of “false facts” about rape during violent conflict. They raise two issues that I found particularly worth repeating.

First, that while rape is generally underreported, the underreporting isn’t evenly distributed through the population. In other words, it’s not the case that a random 1 out of every 10 victims turns up to a hospital to report an assault. As Peterman et al. point out, the sample is likely to be biased in favor of those who can most easily get to a medical facility and those whose injuries place them most in need of medical care. Consequently, conflict researchers relying on hospital data may draw inaccurate conclusions about both the geographic distribution of the phenomenon, and its character.  (In case you don’t spend as much time thinking about wartime rape as I do, and this is therefore not obvious, the logic regarding the type of the violence is that severe injuries are more likely to be produced by gang rape or other particularly brutal assaults.  If the data only includes women who have suffered horrific injury, we may conclude that a conflict’s sexual violence component is characterized by atrocious conduct and group attacks, and thus miss a significant spike in rates of less violent single perpetrator rape.)

Second, that sometimes rape isn’t underreported. In fact, in contexts where the status of rape survivor can confer benefits, it may be overreported. Peterman et al. note research by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern in the DRC (which I discussed last year) and by Mats Utas in Liberia suggesting that women know that identifying themselves as rape victims is “an efficient way to procure material assistance from aid agencies.” This incentive to misrepresent further obscures efforts to accurately capture the scope and scale of sexual violence.

The article is short, smart, and interesting, so I encourage you to read it in full.

On Mac McClelland’s Tale of Reporting, Rough Sex, and PTSD

(Posts on Hamdan and DSK will hopefully be coming soon, but first I’m going to discuss what turned out to be the favored write-in candidate for my next post: many of you emailed me asking for my reaction to reporter Mac McClelland’s article about her own struggle with PTSD.)

McClelland, who writes about human rights and foreign affairs for Mother Jones, developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a series of difficult reporting assignments in Haiti, during which she interviewed rape victims and was also herself the object of predatory sexual behavior. She has written a number of pieces about her healing process, including several that chronicled the self-defense classes she took at the behest of her editor. And then, a little over a week ago, she wrote an article for GOOD magazine in which she chronicled her PTSD in more detail, and described how having violent-but-consensual sex with someone she trusted helped her to overcome her trauma:

“And just like that, I’d lost. It’s what I was looking for, of course. But my body—my hard-fighting, adrenaline-drenched body—reacted by exploding into terrible panic. The comforting but debilitating blanket of tension that’d for weeks been wrapped around my chest solidified into a brick. Then the weight of his body, and of the inevitability of my defeat, descended on my ribcage. My worn-out muscles went so taut that they ached. I stopped breathing.

I did not enjoy it in the way a person getting screwed normally would. But as it became clear that I could endure it, I started to take deeper breaths. And my mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful, even when he suddenly smothered me with a pillow, not to asphyxiate me but so that he didn’t break my jaw when he drew his elbow back and slammed his fist into my face. Two, three, four times. My body felt devastated but relieved; I’d lost, but survived. After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose.”

Her essay has been greeted with derision, vitriol, and worse – especially from her fellow journalists. Marjorie Valbrun, writing for Slate’s XX factor blog, called it “offensive,” “shockingly narcissistic,” and “intellectually dishonest.” Reporter Damian Cave tweeted that she was a “geisha to the NGO republic.” And 36 female reporters and Haiti researchers signed an open letter to GOOD, claiming that “the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible,” and that

“[McClelland] paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.”

The various critiques fall into three rough categories:

  1. PTSD isn’t real, it’s just San Francisco therapy-speak for “having a bad day,” so McClelland must have been a self-obsessed narcissist to write about it as if it’s something to be taken seriously;
  2. PTSD is real, but McClelland either had no right to develop it or was faking it, because reporting about other people’s trauma doesn’t seem like it should be that hard; or
  3. McClelland was allowed to get PTSD, but isn’t allowed to write about it being triggered by reporting from Haiti, because that might give people the impression that bad things can happen in Haiti, and that is clearly racist and colonialist.

I find these reactions confusing. The piece in question is a personal essay about her own struggle with PTSD. It wasn’t reportage on Haiti, or anything else for that matter. So why all the snarls and slashing claws?

In the interest of lighting candles instead of cursing darkness and all that, I figure I’ll address each of the arguments in turn.

PTSD = Not Really That Real?

In fairness, none of the responses I read came right out and specifically said that they think PTSD is fake. However, I have to believe that many of them think that. Because why else would they call McClelland “narcissistic” for developing it? I assume that when they hear that a person has caught malaria, their response isn’t “That self-obsessed bitch! Doesn’t she know that other people have been bitten by way more mosquitoes, and never had a problem?”

Flashbacks and vivid nightmares might be less obvious than 104-degree fevers, but that doesn’t mean they’re made up. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – it’s totes real, y’all! Not a fake thing that people like to claim they have, just because the stigma of mental illness is so super fun!

Perhaps the easiest way to conceptualize PTSD, if you’ve never experienced or encountered it yourself, is as an emotional allergic reaction. With physical allergies, your immune system becomes over sensitized to a physical substance, and will react so strongly when it encounters, say, a peanut, that the result can be serious injury or even death. PTSD can be thought of as the emotional version of that: the body’s emotional system won’t stop fighting, even when it’s no longer necessary. It’s a severe, involuntary over-reaction of of the brain’s normal responses to trauma, and the results can be devastating – the mental equivalent of anaphylactic shock.

The behavior that results from this “mental allergic reaction” can be bizarre and disturbing. One of the first clients I ever worked with was a middle-aged man who was seeking asylum, who also had a severe case of PTSD. As a result, he would do almost anything to avoid discussing his trauma. Because I needed to know what had happened to him in order to file the claim, this was a big problem for our working relationship. He lied to me repeatedly, and often became explosively angry at seemingly random moments. Working on the case made him crushingly fatigued, no matter how much coffee he drank. On one memorable occasion, he fell asleep while talking to me – literally dozed off in the middle of his own sentence.

Another time, I was interviewing a woman about sexual assaults she had suffered as an adult, and she began to impersonate her six-year-old self, who couldn’t be questioned about the assaults because they didn’t happen until she grew up. I’ve had other clients who were initially too traumatized to tell me what happened to them at all, forcing me to suspend work on their cases until after they received treatment from a therapist. It bears repeating that these were asylum cases – winning them was potentially life-saving, so these people had every incentive to cooperate, but their PTSD was so severe that they literally couldn’t.

The thing to draw from these stories, (other than “become an asylum lawyer! Meet vulnerable people, and make them re-live their past traumas for fun and profit!”) is that the symptoms of PTSD can, in many cases, be almost indistinguishable from the symptoms of being an asshole. But there’s a key difference: assholes act that way because they don’t think you deserve respect, while PTSD sufferers act that way because their brains mistakenly think that something is trying to kill them. I don’t know about you, but I think that a person engaged in the activity of “trying not to die” deserves to be cut a bit more slack than a person engaged in the activity of “trying to annoy you.”

Yeah, But McClelland Didn’t Go Through Anything That Bad, Did She? She Must Be Faking, Right?

Nor do I have much sympathy for all the be-internetted mutterings about how ridiculous it was for McClelland to claim PTSD after “only” interviewing a rape victim and not being actually raped herself, or after “only” one trip to Haiti, or “only” whatever else.

For one thing, that’s an unnecessarily restrictive reading of her story, which mentions a number of traumatic situations, including: two trips to Haiti, during which she reported on a brutal sexual assault and mutilation; being the object of sexually predatory behavior by her driver in Haiti, who “cornered her,” an “upstanding member of the Haitian elite,” who stalked her, and a group of convicted ex-felons in Oklahoma who “got handsy” and suggested that she’d be “pretty fun to pass around for lively intercourse;” and the difficulty of reporting on the Deepwater Horizon spill in New Orleans a few months earlier, which had brought back memories of living in that city during Katrina. That doesn’t sound like “only” anything to me.

But even if it were really true McClelland was traumatized by her reporting on the story of Haitian rape victim “Sybille,” that wouldn’t matter. Because not only is PTSD totes real (see above), it also isn’t something that people can control. It’s not like you get to say “sure, this seems bad, but far worse things are happening to other people elsewhere, so I think I will actually not develop PTSD today.”

Again, that’s a courtesy that we extend automatically to people who suffer physical injuries or diseases. If someone loses a leg in a car accident, we don’t dismiss their pain on the grounds that other people lose their legs fighting in wars.

Although I have never had PTSD myself, my personal experience is still enough for me to know that you never know which events are going to leave you traumatized. In my case, my closest actual brush with death – getting run over by a car at age 17 – left me physically bashed up, but emotionally fine. But sometimes exposure to other people’s trauma, through some of the cases I’ve worked on, has on occasion left me a jangly-nerved wreck. For me, those symptoms have tended to manifest in the form of hackneyed-metaphor nightmares (example: I’m in a school that’s bright and sunny, but then I go downstairs and the basement is full of mangled corpses – I get it, subconscious, I get it), and a complete inability to watch torture scenes in movies. Casino Royale left me shaking in my seat, holding my head between my knees and trying not to pass out or throw up.

Luckily, for me, such problems always went away quickly, on their own. I’ve never needed to go to a trauma therapist, or to have someone punch me in the face during sex. But that’s just good luck. It wasn’t strong moral fiber on my part, any more than it was weakness for me to be affected by my clients’ stories in the first place. Just as it wasn’t any more impressive for me not to develop PTSD after getting hit by a car while walking to class one sunny morning than it was for me not to develop an allergy to peanuts. Just as it wasn’t weakness for McClelland to develop PTSD, or to get over it the way that she did. (As treatment plans go, “have the violent sex you crave with a person you can trust” is quite niche, but I’m glad it worked for her.)

And I’m glad that she wrote about it, partly because her prose is vivid and engaging, but partly because I think there is value in embracing the weirdness that mental illness causes, and the weirdness that can be encountered when overcoming it.

There is also value in writing an article that tells other people that healing is possible, but that the road might be peculiar. I couldn’t put it better than commenter Goodspices, who left this comment on Mac’s article:

“Reading this article is an awakening that the feelings I’ve experienced as a victim of PTSD aren’t wrong, happen to others, and most importantly, can be worked through with help. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for everyone but if it worked together for the good, why should we feel the need for judging her?”


If that’s not a good reason for her to have written and published this article, I don’t know what is.

McClelland Shouldn’t Have Written That Her Trip To Haiti Triggered Her PTSD, Because That Is Clearly Racist And Colonialist

I almost feel like I shouldn’t even address this argument, because I think it is so stupid. Those of you who read this blog know that I have basically zero tolerance for the “land of rape and lions” brand of reporting on developing countries, so I feel pretty comfortable with my ability to tell the difference between that, and a personal essay that includes relevant facts. McClelland’s piece is the latter: she was writing about her own experience of Haiti, and that experience included interviewing rape victims, being stalked and harassed by men who felt entitled to have sex with her, and observing an awful lot of guns. I struggle to see how having those experiences, or writing about them, constitutes racism.

When it comes to the Gang of 36′s arguments, I find myself in agreement with Conor Friedersdorf:

This is what a hit piece reads like when it’s cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular. If you scoffed when Pres. Obama was smeared as having a Kenyan anti-colonial mindset, witness the other side’s answer to Dinesh D’Souza: in their telling, we’re to understand the writer by presuming that she has a colonial mindset. How dare someone travel to refugee camps plagued by an epidemic of gang rape, get cornered by her driver, develop PTSD, and focus an essay about her ailment on “ugly chaos”?


Their tactics are especially galling because McClelland never mentions race in her piece, but that doesn’t stop the signatories from using loaded terms to imply that she is racially unenlightened (a “heart of darkness” dystopia with “savage” men). It’s easy to make a writer look bad when you impute to her ugly sentiments she never actually expresses.

And Una Moore:


That 36 well-respected women working as journalists, aid workers and researchers deemed it necessary to endorse a letter that shames a reporter grappling with PTSD for things she did not even write is evidence of just how widespread support for self-censorship is among a network that, were it to live up to its ideals, would encourage bold self-expression, but instead mobilizes to stamp it out and sow fear of independent thought.

To sum up:

  • I liked the article;
  • PTSD = totally a thing; and
  • People should stop being such jerks about it.

WTF Friday, 6/10/2011

Big thanks to Tara for this gem. Gotta give credit to anyone who can give a humanitarian spin to sex slavery. Bravo.

Speaking of spin, three cheers for Syria’s state TV director, Reem Haddad, for making the country’s refugee crisis sound like a family reunion. I think it’s time for the UN to impose a “no spin zone” on Syria.

Hey, at least he didn’t just compare him to Hitler and take the easy way out. Ratko Mladic, the war criminal of choice for connoisseurs of hyperbole.

What’s My Line?

CNN reports today that ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is investigating the possibility that the Gaddafi regime is pursuing a policy of institutionalized rape against the Libyan rebels.  In the interview, Moreno-Ocampo cites disturbing reports that security forces are using male sexual enhancement drugs to enable the commission of rape.

In a quote sure to add Pfizer to the Chief Prosecutor’s ever-lengthening List O’ Nemeses, he observes: “Viagra is a tool of massive rape.”

Obviously, this is horrifying.  But it is also quite clearly the set-up for the funniest joke ever, if only I knew what it was.  I’m a little distracted at the moment (T minus 11 until wedding day, etc. etc.), so perhaps you guys can lend a hand.