Two years ago today, in a story that shook me to my core, a woman walking her dog found a femur in the desert. She alerted the police, who began a three-month dig, covering a vast area of the mesa near my home. The police found the bodies of 11 women, one of whom was four months pregnant. Many of the women were close to my age and grew up here like me. Were brown like me. Had struggled here, like me.
But when these women were found dead, President Obama did not come to town. There was no jam-packed memorial to mourn their lives cut short. What we had instead were devastated families whose greatest fear had been realized when their daughter’s remains were discovered on the mesa.
As the story unfolded, terrible sounds echoed in my ears. Not the sounds of the shovels in the desert, but the sound of these lives being erased. Not only through death, but through the official description of the events. The women were not brave heroes who faced histories of poverty, abuse and trauma with the best tools they could find. They were “addicts.” And because they used drugs, many earned money the best way they could—by selling sex. And so they were “prostitutes.” The authorities thought the story could begin and end there: bodies found, case closed. 11 more prostitutes dead. Done.
The $100,000 reward for information leading to the killers was rarely advertised, and by most accounts from the families of the missing and dead, the police have been less than enthusiastic about pursuing the case. When challenged on their lack of results they said, “The only suspects we have are dead.”
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I often found myself wondering if that would that fly if these were 11 white college students found buried under a football field.
After the initial news accounts, many of us pounced on the local authorities for the language they were using to describe the women, for the shrug of the shoulders they seemed to use when talking about their “high-risk lifestyles.”
We held monthly vigils to memorialize the women and their lives. Over 400 people came out in force for our April vigil: Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, whites, the young and the old. All held hands, raised our heads, cried and sang.
And I knew we were winning hearts and minds when I received a phone call from the city administration asking me to remove the pink crosses we had left standing in the park because city workers refused take down our memorial, or to disgrace the crosses by putting them in the city dump.
We fanned the flames of something that was already here, in Albuquerque, in our barrios. Compassion, love and heartbreak. Even for women who use drugs, even for women who sell sex to buy them.
And we saw a change. After we called attention to the language the officials were using in the case, we saw a powerful shift in their words. Instead of prostitutes and addicts, they became women, mothers and daughters. The investigation remains open, if slow. The families have been connected, and can draw on each other for support.
There are many fronts on which we continue to fight this battle. There are three bills moving through the New Mexico legislature right now that would help. Together, they would work increase access for substance abuse and mental health treatment for young women and pregnant women. YWU and many other organizations, law-makers, health-care providers and families are working together to create an effective web of services.
These women are national heroes to us. If Obama had come to our stadium to help us mourn, remember, and make sense of these lives and deaths, he might have said this:
I want America to be as good as these women needed it to be. Let’s live up to their dreams, that this could be a country where you can be born without much, but live a life that is safe, and full of promise. Where you can get a good education, a job, a home. Where if you stray from the path, there are nets to catch you. Where you are never found dead, dismembered, and alone on a mesa.
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This piece, the second installment, was cross-posted from Indian Country Today with permission as part of a joint series about the missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
Although Trudi Lee was only 7 when her big sister went missing back in 1971, she wept when she talked about that traumatic event 45 years later. “Sometimes I would catch our mom crying alone,” Lee said. “She would never tell me why, but I knew it was over Janice.”
Janice was 15 when she went missing near the Yakama reservation in Washington. Although her parents reported her missing to tribal law enforcement, there was never any news of the lively, pretty girl. “Mom died in 2001 without ever knowing what happened,” Lee said. “We still think of Janice and would at least like to put her to rest in the family burial plot.”
“It happens all the time in Indian country,” said Carmen O’Leary, coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains in South Dakota, a coalition of Native programs that provide services to women who experience violence. “When Native women go missing, they are very likely to be dead.”
Indeed, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average, according to U.S. Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who presented that gruesome statistic while addressing the Committee on Indian Affairs on Violence Against Women in 2011.
Unlike Canada, where Indigenous leaders and advocates have pressured the government to begin to confirm the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the United States has done little to address the issue.
Although the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) have helped bring attention to this high rate of violence and have begun to address gaps in law enforcement for tribes and federal authorities, there is no comprehensive data collection system regarding the number of missing and murdered women in Indian country.
Under VAWA 2005, a national study authorized by Congress found that between 1979 and 1992 homicide was the third leading cause of death among Native women ages 15 to 34, and that 75 percent were killed by family members or acquaintances.
And that horrific toll might actually be higher. “The number of missing Native women was not addressed in the study,” noted Jacqueline Agtuca, lawyer and policy consultant for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. “Currently, we do not have adequate information on the numbers of missing Native women in the U.S.”
The high rates of sexual violence against Native women are inextricably tied to the likelihood of them going missing; violence, disappearance, and murder are closely interconnected. “Tribal leaders, police officers, and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed, with beating after beating, each more severe than the last, ultimately leading to death or severe physical injury,” Perrelli said in his 2011 speech.
According to advocates like O’Leary, there is little hard data about missing and murdered women, only anecdotes that tell of the pain, loss, and anger of loved ones. “Missing and murdered Native women are a non-story in this country. You really don’t hear about them unless you happen to know the family. Officially, these cases seem to get brushed under the rug. No one wants to talk about them,” she said.
Indeed, law enforcement officials questioned for this article seemed reluctant to discuss the issue.
According to NamUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, there are approximately 40,000 unidentified human remains either in the offices of the nation’s medical examiners and coroners or that were buried or cremated before being identified. NamUs, operated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is a national repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records. It offers a free online search system.
Troy Eid, former U.S. attorney for the State of Colorado, notes that protocols for taking missing person’s reports and sharing with other agencies vary widely among tribal law enforcement. “Some offices may simply write down the information or may not record it at all,” Eid said.
Eid served on the Indian Law and Order Commission created under TLOA. After two years of field research, he and fellow commissioner released the report, A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer, in 2013. The report describes law enforcement jurisdiction in Indian country as “an indefensible morass of complex, conflicting and illogical commands,” and blames the U.S. government for creating the situation.
Of the 12 tribal law enforcement agencies contacted for this article about procedures for taking missing person’s reports, just three responded: The Navajo Nation of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah; the Barona Band of Mission Indians in California; and Red Lake Band of Chippewa in Minnesota. All reported that they have designated protocols for taking reports as well as computer terminals that can access the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.
As far as tribal law enforcement working with other agencies, federal and local, Eid noted that those relationships also vary widely: “The relationships swing from good to almost nothing, and even to outright hostility.”
To help address such issues under the direction of the 2010 TLOA, the DOJ announced the launch of the initial phase of the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information in 2015, in which tribes would be able to both report and access crime information in the federal NCIC database. Ten tribes were selected to participate in the pilot program and were to receive NCIC terminals. DOJ officials did not respond to questions about the number of tribes that currently have access to the NCIC terminals nor to questions regarding funding for future tribal access.
Although the Tulalip Tribe is among the ten participating in the project, it has yet to receive a NCIC terminal despite offering to pay for it, according to tribal attorney Michelle Demmert. “We need full access now to this database. I doubt that any other municipality or state would need to work so hard to justify meeting the needs of the community,” she said.
Native peoples are not the only ones who are underserved by America’s approach to helping to find and identify missing persons. Reveal, a project with the Center for Investigative Reporting, published an extensive investigation in 2015, “Left for Dead: How America Fails the Missing and Unidentified,” which lays out how U.S. authorities mishandle these reports. According to the article, the FBI refused to provide access to its data on unidentified remains despite requests from Reveal under the Freedom of Information Act.
Clearly, missing persons and unidentified remains are not a top priority for law enforcement. But for Native women, whose numbers may be greater and whose loss may go unreported, the issue reflects a wider systemic failure of the United States to meet its trust agreement with tribal nations.
“There is so much fear and distrust of law enforcement among our people that they are often reluctant to report loved ones as missing or to report sexual assault,” noted O’Leary.
This fear adds to the lack of accurate data not only about missing and murdered women but also about those who have been raped. Contacting law enforcement can bring unwanted scrutiny to women who are victims of violent crime.
As an example of that, O’Leary pointed to the 2015 abduction of Edith Chavez from Minnesota, in which Chavez suspects she was drugged and taken to Williston, North Dakota. She managed to escape and reported the incident to Williston police who refused to take her statement and instead checked her record. The result? They detained and charged her for an unpaid traffic ticket from 2011.
According to the Guardian, the Williston police department did not respond to requests for comment but instead issued a press release claiming Chavez had smelled of alcohol and had been to a casino. Police later dropped charges against Chavez.
“Native women are not often seen as worthy victims. We have to first prove our innocence, that we weren’t drunk or out partying,“ said O’Leary.
This week is all about condoms: Chicago launches a new condom promotion campaign, Australian researchers test a new condom material, kids take a potentially dangerous condom challenge, and Star Wars condoms cover your "lightsaber."
This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.
Chicago Wears Condoms
The Windy City launched a new condom campaign this month called #ChicagoWearsCondoms that was thought up by members of the target audience. Young people working with Mikva Challenge, a nonprofit that trains teens to become more politically active, decided to take on the issue of sex education and sexually transmitted disease.
Heaven Johnson, who started working with Mikva after her sophomore year in high school, explained to the Chicago Tribune, “We decided to focus on sex ed after learning about Chicago’s [sexually transmitted infection] statistics and teen pregnancy rates. … We wanted to start a conversation about safe sex.”
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Another teen involved with the project, Daniel Mercado, said at a press conference, as reported by the Windy City Times, “We came together and talked about becoming more educated about sexual health at our schools including the fact that students should have access to condoms and STI tests. After those discussions we decided that a campaign was needed to get this information out to the public. That’s how Chicago Wears Condoms was created.”
The campaign includes billboards depicting the city’s famous skyscrapers wrapped in condoms and a website with more information, including where free condoms are available at 169 locations across the city. The messages of the campaign are positive, with slogans such as “Stay Safe When You Go Downtown,” and “It Doesn’t Take Balls to Wear Condoms.”
The young creators are proud of the tone. Johnson told the Chicago Tribune, “So many times, we see different ad campaigns made to shame and scare teens about having sex. We want to promote positive behavior and positive practices and get the word out there in a better way.”
Test Subjects Like the Feel of an Experimental Condom
Scientists at Swinburne University in Australia have begun to test a condom made from a hydrogel material to see how it affects sexual pleasure. Hydrogel is made from water and molecular chains called polymers and is said to be thinner and stronger than latex. Associate Professor Joseph Ciorciari, a researcher on the project, told the Sydney Morning Herald, “It’s really unusual to touch. It feels like real human tissue, like when you’re touching someone but they’re covered in a lubricant.”
For initial pleasure tests, participants in the pilot study were asked to touch five materials, including lubricated and non-lubricated latex and the hydrogel. The touch tests involved moving three fingers from left to right across each material up to 80 times. Participants were wired to an EEG machine, which measured the level and location of brain activity as they did the test.
Ciorciari explained, “The hydrogel was the only one that had a strong hot spot at the right front of the brain. We also got a perceptual novelty response, as in ‘oh that’s different, I want to feel more of that.'”
The pilot study was supported by a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation condom challenge. Researchers aim to begin phase two of the trial early next year.
Condom Challenge Goes Viral A new viral video campaign shows teens dropping water-filled condoms onto others’ heads. Business Insider says the videos, which are being posted to social media with the hashtag #CondomCampaign, began with two teens in Japan. In their video, one teen holds the full condom over his friend’s head and drops it. Instead of breaking, the condom stays full and falls over the teen’s head, in such a way that makes it look like his head is in a latex fishbowl. The video got more than 245,000 hits by the end of last month, spurring teens around the globe to do the same.
Some reports suggest that this is a pro-condom education campaign that teens are using to promote condom use and remind their peers that condoms can stretch to fit anyone’s penis and that they don’t, as sometimes misreported, contain tiny holes.
While that’s a noble goal, the videos seem more like teens just trying to have fun and might actually be risky. Latex does not have little holes in it—which makes it good for protecting you against pregnancy and diseases, but not good if it’s covering your mouth and nose. Though no accidents have been reported yet, it is possible that this prank could be dangerous.
May the Condom Be With You
Graphic Armor, a condom manufacturer that specializes in custom-made condoms, has launched a new Star Wars-inspired line called Saber Skins. Fans of the movies can choose from one inspired by Darth Vader and printed with the saying “I will not be your father” or the Yoda version: “Do or Do Not, There Is No Try.” I can’t say that I find either Vader or Yoda particularly sexy, but I suppose these sayings are better than others they could have come up with, like “This is not the [redacted] you’re looking for.”