Commentary Violence

The Rescued Women in Cleveland Were Not ‘Sex Slaves’—They Were Raped

Claudia Trevor-Wright

Conflating the word “rape” with “sex” demeans sex for all of us, but most especially for survivors of sexual violence.

I’d like to take a moment to state the obvious: The words “rape” and “sex” are not interchangeable. On this I hope we can all agree. While the word “rape” has jurisdictional definitions that vary, it generally refers to forcing someone to engage in sexual contact or penetration through physical force, by duress, or otherwise without consent. There is precious little agreement worldwide as to how to define the word “sex,” but I would argue that the participants’ consent to the activity is implied.

It was with this understanding in mind that I found myself listening to the Cleveland Police Department’s press conference in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight from years of captivity. One reporter asked if the three women had been held as “sex slaves.” Later, a New York Times article covering the story also used “sex slave,” but it appears to have been quickly updated or edited to remove the phrase (though there was no correction about that in the piece). In fact, a Google search reveals countless online references to these three women as “sex slaves.” Many of those references are from articles that were published after the women’s allegations of being raped repeatedly came out. The “sex slave” references also come after it was reported that suspect Ariel Castro is the father of Amanda Berry’s six-year-old child and after Michelle Knight’s statement that Castro impregnated her multiple times and forced her to miscarry through brutal physical abuse (which may lead to aggravated murder charges).

A search of the New York Post website demonstrates the publication’s preference for the phrase “sex slave” in articles and headlines (66 hits); the publication used it as recently as May 11 when covering the Cleveland story. The paper also used the phrase in reference to Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted at 11 years old and held for 18 years, during which time she was repeatedly raped and abused. The article, from the Associated Press, is headlined on the Post‘s site as “18 yrs. as sex slave nets $20M.” (Who knew victimhood could be so lucrative?)

The use of the phrase “sex slave” to describe someone’s rape experience poses many concerns, not only for survivors themselves but for society as a whole. It says something troubling about how we view perpetrators of sexual violence and how we view sex.

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You don’t need to be an expert on Ohio law to know that victims of kidnapping cannot give meaningful consent to sexual activity. And while I acknowledge the word “slave” communicates force, I remain unconvinced that using it as a qualifier of the word “sex” makes for an accurate description of what these women allegedly experienced, which is rape. Calling them “sex slaves” conjures up images of 25-cent pulp fiction novels and bad pornography. “Sex slave” feels salacious, and a little bit dirty. It feels qualitatively different than labeling someone a “rape survivor” or “crime victim,” labels which evoke sadness, empathy, anger, and other appropriate emotions. And I strongly suspect it feels different for these three women, and for the people who love them. Consider how it would feel as a parent of a missing child to have that child referred to as a “sex slave,” as opposed to a “crime victim.” As a society, we should strive to do all that we can to avoid shaming survivors of sexual violence, in part by thoughtfully choosing the words we use to describe them and their experiences.

Another problem with this use of the phrase “sex slave” is that it the perpetrators of violence are let off the hook in some ways. It significantly minimizes the severity of their violation of societal norms and the law by putting uncomfortably little distance between what Ariel Castro is accused of doing (rape) and what most well-adjusted people engage in at some point in their lives (sex). This lack of distance makes it easier for people to dismiss a perpetrators’ behavior because it seems more like something they are capable of doing themselves. Naming the crime conveys more accurately the nature of the behavior being described, and appropriately transfers the shame and stigma from the victim to the perpetrator.

Conflating the word “rape” with “sex” demeans sex for all of us, but most especially for survivors of sexual violence. Elizabeth Smart, a survivor of similar horrors, recently spoke out about the damage done to rape survivors when we treat sex as something that ruins people. We do a similar disservice to rape survivors and to everyone who values sex when we refer to rape as a type of sex.

News Human Rights

Advocates: Trans Woman’s Killer Getting 12 Years in Prison ‘Not a Win’ for Trans Community

Kanya D’Almeida

Twenty-two trans and gender-nonconforming people were killed in 2015, almost double the number who were killed in 2014. The vast majority of homicide victims were people of color, mostly trans women of color, according to national statistics.

James Dixon, 25, will be sentenced to 12 years in prison for beating to death a 21-year-old Black trans woman, Islan Nettles, in August 2013 in New York City.

The sentencing date comes two weeks after Dixon pleaded guilty to the top count of the New York State Supreme Court’s indictment against him—manslaughter in the first degree—following the revelation that his 2013 videotaped confession to prosecutors would be admitted as evidence into a jury trial.

Dixon would have faced a 17-year prison term if the jury had found him found guilty.

“With this conviction, James Dixon has finally been brought to justice for this brutal and lethal assault,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said in an April 4 statement. “Members of the transgender community are far too often the targets of violent crime. I hope that this conviction provides some comfort to Ms. Nettles’ family and friends.”

Advocates and organizers, however, say the opposite is true.

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“This is not a win for the trans community,” Lourdes Hunter, co-founder and national director of the TransWomen of Color Collective (TWOCC), told Rewire in a phone interview. “James Dixon going to jail will not stop trans murders, it will not bring Islan Nettles back, it will not bring peace to Delores Nettles [Islan’s mother], who for many years sat in anguish as the murderer of her child roamed the streets due to the negligence of the New York Police Department and the New York District Attorney.”

Nettles was attacked just after midnight on August 17, 2013, when she and her two friends encountered a group of about seven men, including Dixon, in West Harlem, according to reports. Dixon, per those reports, stated in his confession that he had flirted with Nettles until his friends pointed out that she was transgender.

He says he then flew into “a blind fury,” first punching Nettles in the face and then striking her a second time while she lay on the sidewalk.

Accounts of the murder vary, with eyewitnesses and prosecutors claiming Dixon punched her several times and even slammed her head against the concrete pavement. Those allegations are confirmed by the New York District Attorney’s office, which concluded that Dixon “repeatedly struck the victim with a closed fist, causing serious brain injury, before fleeing the scene.”

Nettles’ mother, Delores, claims the assault rendered Nettles unrecognizable. At a protest in 2014 she blasted New York City officials for failing to send a detective to the hospital where Nettles lay in a coma; Delores stated, “half of my child’s brain is hanging out of her head,” according to the Washington Post.

Nettles was declared brain dead on August 20, and taken off mechanical support a few days later. Her death prompted large and sustained protests in New York City, including vigils and rallies that drew hundreds of people.

“Nettles was killed at an interesting time: The start of what we’re now seeing to be a more visible national trend in awareness and conversations about trans murders,” Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy with the New York City-based Anti-Violence Project (AVP), told Rewire in a phone interview.

Citing data collected by the AVP, which is the only national organization to track lethal violence against the trans community, Chestnut told Rewire that 22 trans and gender-nonconforming people were killed in 2015, almost double the number who were killed in 2014. The vast majority of homicide victims, she said, were people of color, mostly trans women of color.

Keyonna Blakeney, a 22-year-old Black trans woman, was murdered Saturday in Montgomery County, Maryland. An AVP spokesperson told Rewire that Blakeney is the ninth trans woman to be killed in 2016.

Chestnut told Rewire that Nettles’ death had a deep impact on the community because “the rest of the world sees New York City as a safe haven for LGBT people, but in fact its no different from anywhere else—trans people are still subjected to violence, and in some cases death, simply because of who they are.”

Chestnut said Dixon’s confession invokes what’s called the “trans panic defense”—a legal tactic used to convince judges or juries that a victim’s sexual identity both explains and excuses a perpetrators’ “loss of self-control” and resulting assault. This type of defense has been outlawed in California, and the American Bar Association has called on other states to ban it as well.

“Sadly the media has been focusing on this so-called panic defense, which adds to a really terrible, transphobic narrative that there is something fundamentally wrong with being trans when in fact there is nothing wrong with it,” Chestnut added.

Both Chestnut and TWOCC’s Hunter agree that locking Dixon up will not stem the tide of violence against the trans community, since mass incarceration has proved to be an outright failure in terms of preventing crime.

“Sending someone to prison is not ‘justice,'” Chestnut said. “We need to address the bigger, systemic issue, which is: Why is violence like this allowed to permeate our society? And how are we investing in modes of prevention and education for everyone, so that a young, trans women of color can walk down the street and not be killed simply for who she is?”

“In the United States the life expectancy of a trans woman of color is less than 35 years,” Hunter added. “We can no longer ignore that state-sanctioned violence, including [that] the denial and lack of access to jobs, housing, and health care is inextricably linked to the physical violence we face every day. If you don’t have a job and can’t pay your rent, you may be forced to engage in activities for survival that further endanger your life.”

Ten percent of 6,400 transgender adults interviewed for a national survey had engaged in survival sex work between 2008 and 2009, a number that rose to 33.2 percent among trans Latino/a respondents and 39.9 percent among Black respondents, as Rewire has reported.

Trans communities experience disproportionate rates of homeless and incarceration, with 47 percent of Black transgender people having experienced incarceration.

Nettles had been forging a pathway for herself out of this cycle of poverty and violence when she was killed. Hunter said Nettles had just moved into her first apartment, was attending school, holding a steady job, and was an active member of the community, even volunteering at a local homeless shelter—all of which may have contributed to the wave of protests that followed her death.

“There are all these ‘respectability politics’ involved in narratives around trans lives,” Hunter told Rewire. “For instance, Nettles was not engaging in street-based sex work or trying to ‘trick’ people about her identity; when Dixon questioned her, she proudly affirmed that she was trans. Basically she did not fit easily into the stereotyped narrative that the media likes to present about trans women.”

Hunter said a broad coalition of local advocates supported justice for Nettles and her family members. While these advocacy efforts almost certainly played a role in pushing the District Attorney’s office toward a resolution of the case, Hunter says it’s important to fight back against the notion of “respectability.”

“We need to stand up and fight for all trans lives, not just the ones that are deemed ‘respectable,’ because no trans person deserves to die,” Hunter said. “Given the historical lack of [effort] to bring closure to these heinous crimes, the only appropriate response for D.A. Vance is to launch a concerted effort to re-open all cold cases of trans murders in New York City.”

“This is why we say ‘Not One More,’” Hunter said, referring to TWOCC’s video campaign. “At the core of this campaign is the message that we cannot be silent, we cannot wait until a trans woman of color is murdered to celebrate who we are and raise awareness and visibility around our lives, and around the women whose lives were taken away without them being able to experience the happiness and joy that is entitled to all of us as humans.”

Culture & Conversation Violence

‘Eclipsed’ Brings Liberian Women’s Choices—and Choicelessness—to Broadway

Kanya D’Almeida

While the play shines with moments of resilience and sisterhood, it is at its core about the brutal choices women are forced to make in wartime.

There is a bullet-pocked shelter. There are colorful baubles hanging on a wall. A lamp on a rickety table in the corner. And an Oscar-winning actress under a dirty plastic tub in the middle of the stage.

A devastatingly simple set, subtle touches of everydayness, and a powerful ensemble cast are just a few of the elements that combine to make Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, now on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, an absolute sensation. While the play shines with moments of resilience and sisterhood, it is at its core about the brutal choices women are forced to make in wartime: how to make it through another day, how to salvage a scrap of dignity when all sense of decency is gone from the world.

The play opens with the seemingly unremarkable act of one woman braiding another’s hair, but we quickly learn that their ragged clothes and shabby surroundings are not just marks of poverty but of conflict: the tail end of Liberia’s second civil war (1999-2003). The women on stage are the “wives” of the ubiquitous but never-seen “C.O,” the commanding officer of a rebel army who routinely rapes his captives. “Number 1” (Saycon Sengbloh) and “Number 3” (Pascale Armand) are sheltering a young girl (Lupita Nyong’o) who has escaped a marauding band of rebels in the hopes that she will not become “Number 4.” This hope is quickly dashed when the girl is raped one night as she ventures outside of the bunker to “do wet.” With that, she is initiated into life in “the compound,” as they call it, which the characters believe is a safer place for a girl than the lawless world “out there,” where she might be raped by multiple soldiersinstead of just one.

It is this vicious logic, and the illusion of choice, that carries the audience through an exploration of survival tactics women are forced to adopt in wartime, such as speaking in a coded language that dulls the sting of reality. The “wives” never use the word “rape”—instead they talk of “laying with the C.O.” They don’t use real names—either an attempt to avoid memories of life before confinement, or a mark of internalized dehumanization—referring to one another throughout as Number 1, Number 3, and Number 4. They develop a degree of intimacy that is perhaps crucial to sharing a small space and daily horrors: They use the same sodden rag to wipe themselves down after each ordeal. And they bicker, as sisters might, over chores, clothes, and the pecking order in their little world.

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Each time it ventures too close to an impossibly dark abyss, the play rescues itself with moments of lightness and biting comedy—a testament both to Gurira’s skillful script-writing and Liesl Tommy’s direction. The trio’s discovery of a romance novel (which turns out to be a biography of Bill Clinton) brings frequent reprieve from the fog of war, especially their penchant for referring to Monica Lewinsky as Clinton’s “Number 2” wife. And even Number 3’s unwanted pregnancy—the result of one of her many forced encounters with the C.O.—offers moments of humor as her belligerence grows along with her belly and her increasingly frantic attempts to style her hair. But we are never allowed to forget. Just as the banter begins to lull the audience into the illusion of comfort, the lights dim and the women scramble to stand to attention, hands behind their backs, facing the wings where, presumably, the C.O. is deliberating whom to spend the night with. Silently, one or the other points a finger at her chest to verify that she is the chosen one, and walks off stage toward the commander’s quarters.

The mood changes with the arrival of the elusive wife Number 2 (Zainab Jah), a gun-toting, jeans-wearing firecracker of a character—based on the Liberian freedom fighter Black Diamond—who has escaped the compound by joining a rebel faction. She comes bearing gifts (cassava, clothing), which Number 1, as the ruler of the roost, rejects on account that they are the spoils of war acquired by stealing from, or perhaps killing, their former owners. The recalcitrant Number 2, who has chosen the nom de guerre Disgruntled, is unfazed by Number 1’s hostility and succeeds in luring Number 4, who in the script is simply named “The Girl,” away from the compound and onto the front lines of war with promises of freedom and power.

While The Girl and Disgruntled take the audience through the terrible motions of raiding villages believed to be loyal to “the monkey Charles Taylor” (the then-president of Liberia whose ouster became the stated goal of two rebel groups), we are introduced to Rita (Akosua Busia), a peace activist dressed in blinding white garments ushering in news that the conflict’s end is near. Her character appears to be a composite of the Liberian women who campaigned for an end to the fighting and played a key role in stemming the 14-year conflict that claimed some 200,000 lives in the West African nation. Nicknamed Mama Peace, Rita heralds change—the entire set rotates with her arrival—and attempts to prepare the women for the coming ceasefire. It is through her efforts to do so that we learn how attached the women have grown to the war: Number 1 to her place at the top of a miserable pyramid; Number 3 to the C.O.—“he’s the father of my baby”; and Disgruntled to her gun and the glamour of armed militancy.

At one point, when she is ordered to leave the compound, Number 1 remarks while bundling up her scarce belongings: “I don’ know what GO means.” It is one of the most powerful lines in the play, symbolizing both the entrenchment of captivity and the enduring impact of trauma, from which there is seldom any escape, in the play as in real life.

The war grinds to an end in a crescendo of fighting in Act II. We see it through The Girl’s eyes as she stands alone on the stage reciting the Lord’s Prayer, omitting the word “heaven” from her supplication, as though she has forgotten the word exists (or is perhaps unable to invoke it in such hellish circumstances). She then delivers a shattering monologue about witnessing a fatal gang-rape and personally tossing the dead girl’s body in a river. It is the climax of one of the play’s major themes, the severing and re-forging of bonds between mothers and their children: We see it in The Girl adopting the name “Mother’s Blessing” as her combat title, even though her actions as a rebel make her wonder if she is cursed, rather than blessed. We see it in Mama Peace’s search for her own daughter under the guise of campaigning for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. And perhaps, most poignantly, we see it in Number 3’s early motherhood: “I never felt a love like [this] before,” she tells The Girl toward the end of the play, while rocking her newborn close to her chest. “I kill and curse for her.”

Just as the play opens with the notion of choice—with Number 1 and Number 2 deciding to offer The Girl protection—so too does its conclusion mirror this theme. For Disgruntled, even as she is rounding up young girls as sex slaves for soldiers, the choice is simple: Feed the hunters, rather than be eaten. For the “wives” in the compound, starvation and routine sexual abuse represent a better option than being “out in the bush” at the mercy of Liberia’s notorious rebels. By the final scene we have learned the names of all but one of the “wives” (Number 1 is Helena, Number 2 is Maima, and Number 3 is Bessie) and—for the time being, at least—the paths they have chosen. Helena throws in her lot with the peace activists, hoping to start fresh in a new camp; Maima remains convinced that only weapons and ruthlessness can save her; and Bessie will stay with the C.O., her tormentor and now the father of her child. Only Number 4—The Girl, Mother’s Blessing—is torn. Nameless and choiceless, she is the last face we see as the lights dim and she stands suspended at a crossroads, a gun in one hand and a book in the other.

As a production, Eclipsed has broken several important barriers. In an interview with Access Hollywood, Nyong’o claims this is the first time a play written by, directed by, and starring all Black women has been on Broadway. It took its time arriving in New York: In a conversation with the New York Times last month, Nyong’o explained that the show stalled at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009 because, “Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined was on then. And there was a feeling that there wasn’t room for two plays about Africa and war to exist at the same time.”

Now that it is here—on a limited Broadway run through June 19—Eclipsed is making room for itself by transcending all historical, political, and gendered boxes and presenting a deeply empathetic and even universal tale of resilience. Asked by the Times back in 2009 whether her play was a political one or a feminist one, Gurira reportedly declined to choose. “In very many ways, my focus as an artist is about getting African women’s voices out there,” she said. “If that ends up having a label attached, I don’t mind, but that’s not how I approach my work.”