Thursday, July 9, 2015

What "Pennsatucky" on OITNB teaches us about high structural risk of rape in rural places (and about the persistence of the white trash stereotype)

Regular readers know that I don't watch television and am generally out of touch with popular culture.  I count on friends to give me a heads up on what I need to know, and that is exactly what has happened with a character who has become prominent in this season's "Orange is the New Black."  The  character is "Pennsatucky," whose "real name" is Tiffany Doggett.  Here's how Salon writer Emma Eisenberg describes her, with some quotes from OITNB author Piper Kerman:
“a young woman from western Pennsylvania who proudly called herself a redneck” ... “Caucasian girls from the wrong side of the tracks.” Pennsatucky struggled with an addiction to crack and had lost custody of her child. “She was like a lost girl.”
Eisenberg wisely notes that "Tiffany's story is absurdly idiosyncratic"--presumably a reference to the fact that Pennsatucky is such an extreme character, by which I mean she is not really typically "rural."  What I am saying is that she and her mother are presented as "white trash" caricatures.  I guess Eisenberg understands that.

Still, Eisenberg thinks Pennsatucky's story--the part that is not idiosyncratic--has  something to teach us:
Pennsatucky and the thousands of other young women growing up in rural communities in Appalachia, and across the American South and West, are ... at high structural risk for rape and sexual assault.
Wow, this is stunning!  Very rarely do people talk about structural disadvantages in relation to white people, even poor ones.  (And to be clear, not all of the people in these rural communities are white; many, especially in the West, are American Indian; in the South, the majority are probably black).  Spot on, Ms. Eisenberg, who continues:
According to 2012 FBI crime estimates, the states with the highest rates of reported rapes per capita were, in order: Alaska, South Dakota, Michigan, New Mexico and Arkansas. With the exception of Michigan, in all of these states about half their populations or more reside in rural areas or small towns—70 percent in South Dakota. In Alaska, where the figure is 55.5 percent, the rate of forcible rapes per year is 80 per 100,000, nearly triple the national average. “We have an epidemic,” Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell told CNN, whose Sean Sutter did a series of investigative reports on rape in the state last year. New Jersey and New York had the lowest rates of reported forcible rape per capita in the nation. 
Recent analyses of rural sexual assault in Pennsylvania—where 60 percent of its counties are rural and home to about one-third of the state’s population—using data from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth and Families found that rates of rape and child sexual assault were significantly higher in rural counties than in urban ones. They also found that the eight highest rates of rape were in rural counties, and included the three most rural counties in the state.
Eisenberg goes into great detail about what we know about rural sexual assault, including why it is even more likely to go under-reported than sexual assaults in other places.  
[I]n rural areas, police officers are more likely to be involved in the victim’s social network, say Ralph Weisheit, David Falcone and Edward Wells, authors of “Crime and Policing in Rural and Small Town America.” Other factors that may cause rural rape to go unreported include lack of cellphone reception and public transportation, substandard road infrastructure, and the long distances that must be traveled to reach law enforcement or crisis centers, which may be hours away or in another state. 
She quotes Susan Lewis who wrote a 2003 Report for the National Sexual Violence Center.
Sexual assaults in rural areas are mostly hidden crimes, hidden both intentionally and unintentionally by characteristics of a close-knit culture or an isolated lifestyle. To varying degrees, rural populations are often marginalized from the mainstream power structure, which holds the opportunities for assistance and services through resources and policy initiatives.
Interestingly, these are all issues I have discussed in relation to domestic violence in rural settings.  I have also discussed them in relation to other legal issues.  See, e.g., the lack of anonymity label on this blog.  

Most provocatively, however, is Eisenberg's observation that #OITNB--in spite of its success at generating "rich cultural conversations about a range of pressing social problems"--has not yet managed to generate a dialogue "about sexual violence against rural American women."

Eisenberg asks the reason for this failure.  

Duh!  It is because rural people are so unbelievably uninteresting and unworthy in the eyes of the chattering classes, those who do the analysis and write the books.  It's about metro centrism, urbanormativity ... (See more here) It's also about the fact that Pennsatucky doesn't represent the type of rural that make us nostalgic.  She represents the type of rurality that makes us turn away in disgust.  To quote the late cultural critic Joe Bageant, “What white middle America loathes these days are poor and poorish people, especially the kind who look and sound like they just might live in a house trailer.”

Jarring as this is for folks like me who think rural people matter, even more jarring for feminists (also including me!) is this commentary on Slate by Jada Yuan, "Orange is the New Black is the only TV Show that Understands Rape."  If you read that commentary, you'll understand the relevance of my noting that, when called for jury duty two days ago, 3 of 23 jurors questioned in voir dire for a criminal case self identified as rape survivors; another one reported her younger sister raped by an uncle now serving prison time for it.  Two of these three were very young women--perhaps 20-25 years old.  Does this mean the current generation are speaking more openly about rape than my generation did?  These women had the option of being questioned privately by the judge, but they declined.  Surely this is a good sign, though we must not become too jaded, too immune to the shock of stories like those I heard during voir dire.  

Here is the NYT's commentary on Season 3, Episode 10, "Unlucky Pensatucky."

On the incidence of sexual assault and rape in the histories of women who get caught up in the juvenile justice system and the wider criminal justice system, read this.  Here's the lede from Timothy Williams' report in the NYT, coincidentally today.
As many as 80 percent of the girls in some states’ juvenile justice systems have a history of sexual or physical abuse, according to a report released Thursday. The report, a rare examination of their plight, recommends that girls who have been sexually trafficked no longer be arrested on prostitution charges. 
The study, “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” found that sexual abuse was among the primary predictors of girls’ involvement with juvenile justice systems, but that the systems were ill-equipped to identify or treat the problem.

Rehabilitating Jimmy Carter (but not necessarily rural folks)

Nicholas Kristof's tribute to Jimmy Carter, now the longest living ex-president in U.S. history, appears in today's New York Times.  This excerpt speaks to the rural identity issue that dogged Carter.
The press and chattering class have often been merciless to Carter. Early on, cartoons mocked him as a country rube using an outhouse or associating with pigs, writers pilloried him as a sanctimonious hick, and in recent years it has been common to hear that he’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitic (This about the man whose Camp David accord ensured Israel’s future!).
Here's my question:  does it take distancing Carter from the rural milieu to rehabilitate him and his reputation?  or in rehabilitating him, do we also lift up and rehabilitate (perhaps even honor) the rural roots associated with him?  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Courts must confront the burden of distance

That's the headline for my Op-Ed published this week in the National Law Journal.  In it, I criticize the Texas legislature in regard to the obstacles they place in the way of citizens' exercise of their fundamental rights--including the right to vote and the right to to get an abortion.  In turn, I criticize the Fifth Circuit for finding that these laws do not place an undue burden on the exercise of these rights, including for the rural poor.  Lastly, I criticize the U.S. Supreme Court for failing to grapple with the distance issue in a way that makes clear to states and federal courts that the burden on the rural and the poor is one that takes more than grit and determination to overcome.  In short, I challenge federal courts to engage rural spatiality in a more realistic way--and to stop articulating an urbanormative jurisprudence.  Read more here.

My earlier academic article on this topic is here, and an earlier op-ed, from January, 2015, in the Austin-American Statesman, is here.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Is it attachment to land or place that sets rurality apart? or is it grit and determination?

I think that is what Kirk Johnson is suggesting in his "Assignment America" piece on Sandpoint, Idaho, population 7,577.  Johnson contrasts what is happening in Sandpoint--surviving--with the loss of small towns throughout the West.  Indeed, the population growth in Bonner County, Idaho (population 41,585 in 2014 according to Census Bureau estimates) may be the reason Johnson chose to feature it.  Johnson writes:
In the all-important sweepstakes of the West — where are people going, and staying — Bonner County, population 41,000, beat out Denver, Seattle, Silicon Valley and other booming urban hot spots, according to census figures. Only 13 other counties in the West did better last year in the net measure of drawing newcomers and holding on to the ones it had.
Johnson notes that the West has become the most urban part of the nation, in terms of where people live, even as "drought, climate change, and economic instability are all bearing down on rural western life."

As the headline for this blog post suggests something else that grabbed me about Johnson's story  was his analysis of what causes people to stay in Sandpoint--even those who didn't grow up in the area.  He suggests that it is attachment to the land, or perhaps more broadly to "place," and he links that to grit and determination.

Johnson shares several anecdotes--from the 1800s to the present day--of folks who have migrated West and stayed.  After sharing one story of a woman from suburban Connecticut who followed a man to  Kodiak Island, Alaska.  The man was long gone, but the woman had stayed:
[T]he land had grabbed her, and so she stayed — held fast by fate and something still more mysterious. 
The common thread over and over? A bold act of risk. If movement was the tidal surge that filled the West with hopefuls, then the laying down of a wager after that — trying something new rather than moving again — was the illusive force that kept them. And then they kept betting, through losses and long odds that chased others off.
Migration, for some at least, was just a prelude to the grit that really defined them. 
Clearly, this is the story that Johnson wants to tell, and I admit it is an appealing one.  But he also doesn't ignore rural poverty.  
And even among the more isolated or poor, risk-taking endures. Deep in the woods outside Sandpoint, I found the Jennings family in a small house with the bumptious chaos that only small children and loose-running dogs can create. 
He quotes Denise Jennings who, along with her husband Silas, grew up in the area.  They have four children.  They have seen  many relatives move away in search of higher wages, and though both work, together the Jennings earn just about $27K.  Jennings comments:  
Things have gotten tougher.  ... But we’re still here, still trying.
Economists have observed this pattern in small communities: Individual decisions make a difference--and "the smaller the town, the bigger the potential impact."

But Johnson also gives due to the other side of the coin, the forces against the rural West.  He quotes Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado who observes:   
More water will be going to the cities, [but] People still want the rural West.  That’s what you’re seeing at Sandpoint — they’ll fight to keep it.