4 Things the “Ferguson Effect” Gets Wrong (and 1 big thing it gets right)

4 Things the “Ferguson Effect” Gets Wrong (and 1 big thing it gets right)

Over the past week, both the Director of the FBI and the acting head of the DEA have publicly stated that they think there might be some validity to the “Ferguson Effect.”

The “Ferguson Effect” is an attempt to explain why there has been a spike in homicides in some major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. It states that police officers are now so afraid of ending up on YouTube, that they are reluctant to do their jobs. Or as Trevor Noah puts it, police officers now live in fear of “someone whipping out their phone and brutally filming them.”

Who started it? Sam Dotson, the police chief of St. Louis, Missouri. Last year, after the protests in Ferguson, he said that police were moving away from frontline work and the “criminal element is feeling empowered.” The phrase “Ferguson Effect” has been popping up here and there for months, gaining momentum, but now that it’s been endorsed by FBI and DEA leadership, it’s getting a lot more press.

Unsurprisingly, the White House calls bullshit on this theory, pointing out that it’s based on blatant data cherry-picking.

What the “Ferguson Effect” gets wrong

1. There are obvious correlation vs. causation issues.

If you take a look at Ferguson, MO, the epicenter of the “Ferguson Effect”, you can see that the homicide rate started to rise months before Michael Brown’s death.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 8.29.51 PM

According to The Sentencing Project, crime data is a “cherry-picker’s delight.” Why? Because our leading comprehensive data sources are slow. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey comes out twice a year, but it doesn’t include city-level crime data. If you want city-level crime data, you have to wait for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which are only published annually. So, on a month-to-month basis, everybody’s data is anecdotal. In other words: “If you want to tell a story of crime increases, you can. If not, just pick from a different tree.”

2. Even if we had the data, nobody really knows what affects the crime rate.

The big-picture story is that violent crime has been on a steady decrease for about 20 years now (around the world) and nobody has been able to pinpoint why. The end of the crack cocaine epidemic? Less lead paint? More access to abortion? Hot spot policing? We just don’t know. When Time published an article last year titled “Violent Crime Drops to Lowest Level Since 1978” it stated one possible reason for the decrease is “an increased use of security cameras and cell phone videos capturing incidents.” LOLZ. 

3. It’s offensive to police officers who are doing their jobs.

The “Ferguson Effect” states that the murder rate is rising – people are losing their lives – specifically because police officers are not doing their jobs. This falsely plants the idea that the responsibility for crime prevention lies entirely on police shoulders, and they’re dropping the ball. 

The rhetoric around police hesitation also insinuates that it’s easy to inadvertently commit acts of police violence. It’s eerily similar to messaging around rape that makes it sound like it’s just really easy to “make a mistake.” But the videos that have gone viral do not reveal gray areas. In other words, “Unless you are choking an unarmed man to death who is not resisting, shooting an unarmed man in the back as he is running away or body slamming a calm teenage girl to the floor in front of her classmates, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

4. It’s fear-mongering.

To accept the Ferguson Effect you have to assume there is a “criminal element” out there and the only thing holding them back from total murderous chaos is aggressive policing (clear racist undertones here).

What the “Ferguson Effect” gets right

The “Ferguson Effect” is old-school, emotional, conservative messaging. It combines fear and the “strong father” framework (aka people are naturally evil and need disciplining) with something that appeals to “common sense.” Total power combo.

As Melissa Harris-Perry’s panel explained earlier this month, the “Ferguson Effect” is the kind of conservative myth-creation that happens whenever social movements start making progress. And this one’s a doozy in terms of emotional power, since conversations around crime evoke both corporal fear (someone will hurt me personally) and political fear (the status quo, benefiting those in power, is threatened).

The Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, Marc Mauer, states that the “Ferguson Effect” harkens “back the era of the 1980s when police had crime policy developed by soundbites and anecdotes. We had the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘three strikes, you’re out’” and focus was constantly drawn away from systemic issues, to individual sensationalized crimes.

Even though it’s 2015 and there’s more data available than ever, the conservative emotional messaging game is still on point to cloud the discussion. The “Ferguson Effect” is just the latest in a long history of catchy, loaded phrases like Death Panels, Anchor Babies, Tax Relief, and Welfare Queens.

It’s frustrating that progressives are always two steps behind, weakly shouting “but the data! the data!” Has anyone seen a progressive attempt to reframe the “Ferguson Effect” or change the story around it, as opposed to just saying “no, this isn’t true and here are the facts that explain why”? It’s all very defensive. There’s some great research out there about how to reframe how we talk about the criminal justice system, but so far I haven’t really seen it out in the wild.

If you want to get deeper into how conservative and progressive political messaging strategies work, check out The Political Brain by Drew Westen, and Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. It’s fascinating and great context for following the 2016 presidential campaigns.  

The 21st Century Rape Whistle: How to Think Critically About Tech for Women’s Safety

Originally published on Huffington Post on 11/3/2015.

Tech projects aimed at women’s safety are hot right now: a new one pops up every couple of weeks. It’s easy to get excited about them, because violence against women is a persistent problem, and tech holds the promise of a shiny, new, and groundbreaking solution.

But there’s a lot below the surface. I’ve had many conversations on the subject recently, and what I usually do is point people to Jessica Valenti’s article, “Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than to stop rapists?”. Then I started thinking, maybe what would be useful is a media-literacy style set of questions to help us think more critically about these projects.

Here are 6 questions to ask yourself the next time a product or app related to women’s safety hits your newsfeed:

1. Who is the target audience for this project?

It’s usually college-aged women. This audience is a good fit for this type of product, because there has been significant press around how rape culture affects this group. Rape culture means a culture where sexual violence is normalized, considered inevitable, and joked about (examples here). In rape culture, sexual assault is seen as inevitable, and the responsibility falls to individual women to prevent it from happening by taking self-defense classes, dressing modestly, not going out alone, watching their drink, and GPS tracking their walk home.

So what happens if an assault does occur? It’s her fault. Victim-blaming is easy: just point out how she failed to protect herself. It is really important to understand that there is no concept of “ending sexual assault” in a rape culture. Rape culture dictates that sexual assault is an inevitable part of life, and all you can do is make sure the next victim isn’t you.

Sub-question: Who is not the target audience for this project? Why not? Sexual assault affects every demographic and every community, some – like trans women of color – at much higher rates than others.

2. What is the purpose?

What specific problem is the project trying to solve? Apps like Circle of 6, Kitestring, and Companion, and wearables like safety jewelry have been released over the past few years, with the purposes of connecting women to friends, family, and authorities who can help in an emergency. They usually focus on sexual assault, often referring to the dangers of “walking home alone”, which strongly evokes the image of a stranger rapist in a dark alley (quite literally the least of our problems, since most sexual violence is between people who know each other. I should also mention here that only a tiny fraction of assaults are committed using date rape drugs. Yet these are the two most frequently conjured images in women’s safety tech marketing).

Sub-question: What does “prevention” mean? Preventing an individual assault in the moment is one thing. Primary prevention, aka getting to the root of the problem, is something entirely different.

3. Does the app or device refer to itself as a “21st century rape whistle”?

I’ve recently seen tech safety devices referred to as 21st century rape whistles, or some kind of high-tech mace.


But this tradition goes back even further. Did you know women in the early 1900s were stabbing their harassers with hatpins? Yep. That was 100 years ago. We are reinventing the hatpin.

Sub-questions: What does it mean that we keep coming up with new devices for women to protect themselves? How is this approach working out in terms of solving the problem?

4. How does the project frame the problem it’s trying to solve?

A frame is the context in your brain when you’re thinking about an issue. The three main frames I’ve seen used to talk about apps/devices are: as a women’s issue, an individual issue, and inevitable.

Women’s issue:
How many times have I mentioned the word “men” so far in this piece? Zero. That’s funny, because sexual assault is primarily a men’s issue. How is it possible that we spend so much time talking about women’s role in addressing sexual assault, and so little time talking about men’s? This is rape culture in action. While men are very much involved in perpetuating the problem, we see far fewer calls to men to help address it (and yes, there are many ways for men to be an active part of the solution).

A direct quote from Jessica Valenti’s article that I love:

As former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said after a cabinet member suggested that women be given a curfew to curb a spate of sexual assaults: “But it’s the men who are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay home, not the women.”

Individual issue:
A product for personal use naturally leads us to imagine solutions on an individual level. What does the opposite frame look like? One example of a community/institutional approach is the powerful movement to hold college campus administrations accountable for complying with Title IX rules for addressing sexual assaults on campus. Because lots of schools, who have far more power and influence than any individual with a rape whistle, aren’t even meeting their baseline responsibilities. Check out the big name schools on the investigation list.

Treating a problem as inevitable only perpetuates it. Think about how persistently advertisers have insisted that men are incompetent as parents and confused by housework. It’s equally offensive to equate masculinity with the inability to control oneself around unwatched drinks and skirts that are too short.

Sub-questions: When you’re looking at the latest app/device, do you notice these or any other frames?

5. Who are the project’s main supporters?

Take a look at the “About Us” section of the project’s website. Are organizations working on violence prevention issues partnering on this project, partnering in development, or advising? Why or why not? Are there any quotes or testimonials from experts in the sexual assault prevention field?

Sub-question: What do you know about these experts? Joe Biden has gotten some great things done, but that doesn’t mean he always gets it. Just because someone is a big name doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a critical approach.

6. Who is talking about it?

Take a look at the press section. If you see lots of great press from tech and business news sources, but nothing from social justice/violence prevention/feminist outlets, ask yourself why. Do some googling and twitter searching. If the project is getting enthusiastic coverage from people who know very little about sexual assault prevention (think: your local news station, or national tech leaders) what does that mean?

Sub-question: What does it mean if you’re not finding anything negative, but the expert community is not saying a word?

Thinking critically does not mean dismissing

A hundred years ago, women used their hatpins for self-defense because they needed to. Today, a woman using a high-tech safety product is doing the same thing. Because she’s still unsafe. So I’m not going to say that the latest women’s safety tech device is useless. What I am going to say is “are we going to be doing the same thing in 2050?” We need to start asking ourselves why we’re stuck in this loop.

That means challenging the way we think about the problem. A focus on short-term, individual solutions keeps us locked in a narrow perception of what the problem is. These solutions do not challenge rape culture. They sustain it.

To quote Soraya Chemaly,

“It’s really hard for some people to understand why anyone, and especially feminists, would reject a new product like anti-rape nail polish — how could you reject something that could help stop rape? But those people are thinking about their individual safety, their children’s safety, and not interested in all in attacking the systems that create the larger problem. That’s not rape prevention, but rape avoidance.”

Other approaches to women’s safety

So how do we challenge rape culture and approach the problem in a different way? I’m not an expert, but the three things I see most often are:

  1. Hold rapists accountable
  2. Support survivors
  3. Focus on early education

Can tech play a role in any of these? For sure. Projects like Callisto, a survivor-focused college sexual assault reporting system, is taking steps towards holding rapists accountable, and social media plays a huge role in connecting and educating people around victim blaming. As far as early education, I don’t know of any tech solutions for things like teaching kids about consent.

There are lots of ways to think about the complexities of this problem, and I welcome your perspectives and resources.

Queen: Do Not Miss This Movie

Queen: Do Not Miss This Movie

Has Netflix suggested Queen to you yet? I watched it, freaked out with joy, and immediately texted my sister, who was all like “yeah, I saw that! It is SO GOOD.”

What a terrible sister, for not telling me about it immediately.

(Just kidding, I love you sister!)


This movie is about a Delhi woman, Rani, who gets dumped by her fiance Vijay two days before her wedding, loses her shit for a minute, and then decides to go on her honeymoon (to Paris and Amsterdam) alone.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.42.30 PM
Or I could just lay in this bed until I die. 

Rani’s a mess, but just can’t stand the thought of missing out on her dream trip (even though her family thinks she’s nuts). At first, when she arrives in Paris, she’s depressed and lonely. But what do you know – it all works out!

This movie strikes just the right balance of serious and silly, and I never wanted it to end.

WARNING: Do Not Watch The Trailer

I’m not even linking to the trailer, because it’s just bad. It’s basically just a mashup of all the scenes where Rani is either crying hysterically or drunk. Why?!? I don’t know. Just trust me on this. Watch the first 5 minutes of the movie instead.

5 Reasons This Movie is Great:

1. It will make you want to travel alone

For a lot of people, the idea of traveling alone sounds scary. Won’t you be lonely? Won’t it be boring without anyone to share your experiences with? It’s easy to fall into a trap of imagining solitary meals, solitary tours, solitary everything.

Ok. Deep breath. 

But in reality, all that loneliness is a pretty unlikely scenario unless you want it to be. Like Rani, you’ll probably meet some cool people, and a few crazy things will inevitably happen.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.34.22 PM
Rani and her new friend, Vijayalakshmi, about to party it up

2. It passes the Bechdel Test, with burping

If you’ve never heard of it, the Bechdel Test was designed to challenge women’s under-representation in films. Here are the three criteria a movie must meet to pass it:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

It’s sadly pretty unusual for a movie to pass the test. But this one does.

As you would expect, there’s a lot of “I’m so sad because this guy dumped me” stuff, but the movie doesn’t get stuck there. For example, there’s a great scene where Rani and her new Paris friend, Vijayalakshmi, are in a cab, talking about burping. And then they practice.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.32.08 PM
Burping practice.

Rani makes friends with both men and women in this movie, defying the movie tropes of “ladies get other ladies through a breakup” or “cool girl hangs out with all the guys.” The mix feels really authentic, and beautiful.

3. All the scenes with the guys from the hostel

When Rani arrives in Amsterdam, she goes to a hostel that Vijayalakshmi booked for her. But when she realizes that a hostel means sharing a room with other people – and in this case, three GUYS, she freaks out. But there are no other options.

At first, Rani is hesitant.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.12.43 PM
“If I don’t make eye contact, they won’t know I’m putting on my bra under this blanket.”

But then she warms up to the guys and they become a weird little family: Rani, Taka from Japan, Tim from France and Oleksander from Russia.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.10.43 PM

They all brush their teeth together in a group.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.19.54 PM

They help each other find nice souvenirs to bring home to their families.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.08.04 PM

They go to the red light district and make friends with pole dancers.

And like a hundred other things. It’s all so, so great.

4. Rani kisses someone! And then it goes nowhere.

Rani insults this Italian chef in Amsterdam by calling his food bland, and he challenges her to cook her food at his stand at a weekend fair and see how she does. Annnnd she is a smashing success. Rani studied culinary arts in college, so she’s a pro – this scene is about her getting back to her passion.

And then she kisses Italian Chef.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 6.55.34 PM
Rani warming up, pre-kiss.

And that’s it! It’s fun, it’s exciting… and she goes right back to hang out with her friends.

5. The fiance comes running back as soon as he gets an inkling of Rani’s new happiness but NOPE. NOPE.

Does moving on actually have a smell that only exes can recognize? Yes, it does. Ciara says it best:

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.50.02 PM
Like clockwork.

So of course, sad-sack Vijay shows up in Amsterdam at the height of Rani’s fun times. Sigh.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 6.59.04 PM
She ignored your 100 phone calls, Vijay. But you showed up anyway.

She *almost* abandons her friends to listen to his endless pleas for reconciliation. But then she comes to her senses, realizes Vijay’s full of shit, and runs off to join the guys for one last rock concert.

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 7.05.06 PM

I love that the way Rani moved on in the movie wasn’t by hooking up with another guy. She wasn’t like “oh sorry, Vijay, but there’s this Italian chef now.” In Rani’s case, the “someone else” she starts loving is her own self. SORRY VIJAY!!!! Go home.

More Reasons to Watch This Movie

There are a couple of deep moments that will take you off guard. And a really great lizard scene. : )

Last thing: Curious about how the film was received in its home country? Here’s a great blog post describing one person’s experience watching it in a theater in Mumbai.

I would love to know what you thought! Post a comment, or drop me a line!

Sex Metaphors, Ooo Yeah

Sex Metaphors, Ooo Yeah

I always thought of metaphors as literary devices, and also as very important things to be able to identify (according to every standardized test). Then I read Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and it blew my mind. Turns out we all use hundreds of metaphors a day, without even trying. It goes deep, people.


Metaphors are a powerful way of mapping a familiar situation onto an unfamiliar situation, and then presto – we just get it.

For example, I’ve been thinking about my “Got Consent?” shirt lately. Whenever I wear it, I mentally prepare myself for random people to ask me questions about consent… and then they almost never do. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that, but the one that sticks in my mind is that the word “consent” just doesn’t evoke much. Maybe people are pretty sure it’s about not raping people, but what else?

It actually represents a huge big deal. A total shift in thinking.

Old: No means No
New: Yes means Yes

The difference is VAST. And it can take a lot of words to explain fully.

But lucky us, we have metaphors to use as a shortcut! Here are two that I love:

Metaphor #1: Sex as a Cup of Tea

Recommended Use: When someone says “but it seems like a gray area”

This metaphor, created by rockstar dinosaur pirate princess in March, is so good. It gets even better the more it expands, so even though it’s kind of long, I’m just going to paste it here and let it speak for itself:

…just imagine instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea.


You say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they go “omg fuck yes, I would fucking LOVE a cup of tea! Thank you!” then you know they want a cup of tea.

If you say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they um and ahh and say, “I’m not really sure…” then you can make them a cup of tea or not, but be aware that they might not drink it, and if they don’t drink it then – this is the important bit –  don’t make them drink it. You can’t blame them for you going to the effort of making the tea on the off-chance they wanted it; you just have to deal with them not drinking it. Just because you made it doesn’t mean you are entitled to watch them drink it.

If they say “No thank you” then don’t make them tea. At all. Don’t make them tea, don’t make them drink tea, don’t get annoyed at them for not wanting tea. They just don’t want tea, ok?


They might say “Yes please, that’s kind of you” and then when the tea arrives they actually don’t want the tea at all. Sure, that’s kind of annoying as you’ve gone to the effort of making the tea, but they remain under no obligation to drink the tea. They did want tea, now they don’t. Sometimes people change their mind in the time it takes to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk. And it’s ok for people to change their mind, and you are still not entitled to watch them drink it even though you went to the trouble of making it.

If they are unconscious, don’t make them tea. Unconscious people don’t want tea and can’t answer the question “do you want tea” because they are unconscious.

Ok, maybe they were conscious when you asked them if they wanted tea, and they said yes, but in the time it took you to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk they are now unconscious. You should just put the tea down, make sure the unconscious person is safe, and  – this is the important bit – don’t make them drink the tea. They said yes then, sure, but unconscious people don’t want tea.


If someone said yes to tea, started drinking it, and then passed out before they’d finished it, don’t keep on pouring it down their throat. Take the tea away and make sure they are safe. Because unconscious people don’t want tea. Trust me on this.

If someone said “yes” to tea around your house last saturday, that doesn’t mean that they want you to make them tea all the time. They don’t want you to come around unexpectedly to their place and make them tea and force them to drink it going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST WEEK”, or to wake up to find you pouring tea down their throat going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST NIGHT”.

Do you think this is a stupid analogy? Yes, you all know this already  – of course you wouldn’t force feed someone tea because they said yes to a cup last week. Of COURSE you wouldn’t pour tea down the throat of an unconscious person because they said yes to tea 5 minutes ago when they were conscious. But if you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea, and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea, then how hard is it to understand when it comes to sex?

My favorite thing about this metaphor is that it puts sex into the same category as every other human interaction. Sex is not a magical, passion-ruled, anything-goes, gray-area thing. It’s a regular thing. Like tea.

Metaphor #2: Sex as a Jam Session

Recommended Use: Sex Ed 101

I read this really great book of essays edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, called Yes Means Yes (additional proof that it is great: Margaret Cho wrote the foreword) and my favorite chapter was “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Millar.

Millar explains that it’s totally normalized to talk about sex as a transaction:

                   She “gives it up”

                   He “gets some”

Super familiar, right? Millar goes on to say:

“sex is like a ticket;  women have it, and men try to get it. Women may give it away, or trade it for something valuable, but either way it’s a transaction”

Heteronormative? Check. Phallocentric? Check.

Rape apologists adopt this “commodity model” language frequently when trying to cast doubt on rape by calling it “buyer’s remorse” (also known as “regretful sex”).

Think about how the tea model says “if someone said they wanted tea, and then they changed their mind, don’t give them tea.” The transactional model *really* frowns on this kind of “dealbreaking” after a transaction has been initiated.

But what if we talked about sex as a performance?

Miller uses the metaphor of a “jam session.” Pretty similar to the tea metaphor – if the other person doesn’t want to sing or play an instrument, then the jam session isn’t gonna happen. And a jam session is creative, it’s collaborative, pretty exciting all the way around.

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 4.14.42 PM
If Janelle or Badoula just stopped singing, the show would be over.

Here’s my favorite way that the performance model smashes the commodity model. The commodity model assumes that when a woman has sex, she loses something of value. So if she has too much sex, she basically becomes worthless. Here’s how the performance model contradicts that:

“a musician’s first halting notes at age 13 in the basement are not something of particular value. She gets better by learning, by playing a lot, by playing with different people who are better than she is. She reaches the height of her powers in the prime of her life, as an experienced musician, confident in her style and conversant in her material.”


It’s time to smash the commodity model, don’t you think?

I definitely recommend getting the book and reading the full chapter, because it is so much more complicated and interesting than what I’m able to get into here.

Questions? Comments? Amazing metaphors to share? Feel free to comment or drop me a line!

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike


Now that policing strategies are squarely in the public eye, criminal justice system reform advocates are encouraging the public to take a step further and see the problems with policing as part of a larger, broken system. This is an area where reframing is going to be key.

What does a bike have to do with it? Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and David J. Harris of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School published an opinion piece in The Boston Globe last month that lays out a new metaphor for thinking about the system:

This system is not only wasteful and deeply harmful, it is also woefully outdated. It is as if we have been riding on an old bike with balloon tires and one speed even though we have far more sophisticated vehicles at our disposal. Imagine a public safety vehicle as a 21-speed bike, with enough flexibility to traverse any terrain.”


Ogletree and Harris didn’t pick the idea of a bike out of thin air as a creative way to illustrate their point. On the contrary, they were involved in the strategic construction of this metaphor for three years. Formally known as the “Justice Gears” metaphor, it is the product of intensive research by the Frameworks Institute in partnership with the Hamilton Institute, to determine where the gaps in understanding fall between experts’ understanding of the criminal justice system and the general public’s understanding.

Here’s the Justice Gears metaphor in its entirety:

“Right now our justice system is stuck using only one gear – the prison gear. Think about how a bicycle needs to use different gears for different situations to work effectively and efficiently. The criminal justice system is trying to deal with a wide variety of situations using only the prison gear. We need to have other justice gears for people who come into the system, like mental health or juvenile justice services. We need to change the criminal justice system to make sure it has different gears for different purposes and that it can use the right gear in the right situation. If we do use more justice gears, we can improve outcomes and all get where we need to go.”

The point of this new metaphor is to put a concrete go-to picture in people’s heads when they think about the criminal justice system. Currently, most Americans’ automatic thinking around the subject involves a combination of the following:

  • We jump to public safety, thinking about it mostly in terms of front-line responders: police, firefighters, security personnel. We readily acknowledge that some of these individuals are corrupt or lazy.
  • We think crime is caused by individuals who weigh costs/benefits (rational actors), or by “rotten egg” personalities. To a lesser degree, we think of crime as a result of ecological determinants.
  • We trust that the system is “generally” functioning as it should. We don’t usually think critically about whether the system is working to advance society’s goals, or whether it serves the broad public interest.

The Framework Institute’s report gets into much greater nuance, but a central point is that the general population recognizes that there are problems in the system, but tends to attribute them to isolated individuals. Experts, on the other hand, attribute the problems to structural issues within the system.

It is important to note that African-American and Latino groups in the research study, while still demonstrating a predominant focus on the individual, came closest to the expert view on systemic issues around racial inequities within the system, a finding which comes as no surprise.

Here’s why it’s problematic to have a mental model like our current one, that doesn’t take into account systemic issues: because the model in your head naturally determines the solutions you see. If you think rational actors are choosing to commit crimes, the solution you might see is harsher punishments. If you think bad cops are responsible for police brutality, the solution you might see is stricter policies to establish surveillance around and root out those individuals. Same goes for corrupt prosecutors, crooked wardens, etc. If your mental model is focused on individual “agents”, the solutions you see will be tailored towards those agents.

If you instead see the problem in terms of structural issues, like police quotas, overwhelming caseloads, mandatory sentencing, etc., the potential solutions you see will be very different. The “Justice Gears” metaphor is one element of the reframing process that helps us reorient our dominant cognitive model towards something that positions us to consider a different set of solutions. According to the Frameworks Institute, the two other critical elements for reframing are the values and facts that most effectively reinforce the new narrative around the issue.

They tested the effectiveness of these facts:

  • Neutral – describing the impact of the criminal justice system on all adult Americans.
  • International – comparing stats on the US criminal justice system with other countries.
  • Racial Disparities – comparing effects of the system on African Americans/whites.

And these values:

  • Pragmatism emphasizing taking a “common sense” approach to public safety and criminal justice.
  • Fairness – emphasizing equal treatment.
  • Cost Efficiency – emphasizing fiscal responsibility.

The winning combination was the value of Pragmatism plus facts about Racial Disparities. Here’s an example of what messaging aligned with this value/fact combination can look like:

“Managing the criminal justice system more responsibly can address some important problems currently facing our country. For example, we know that communities with high unemployment, underachieving schools and a lack of other resources have high rates of crime. This problem particularly hurts children and young adults who may end up in the system. If we take a commonsense approach to solving our communities’ problems, we can decrease crime and enhance public safety. Specifically, we need to identify practical things we can do to address these and other issues. On the other hand, if we spend resources sending more people to prison instead of using proven alternatives, these problems will remain. A responsible approach to criminal justice will make our country safer and help all Americans. The system we have is not doing this. In 2010, seven out of every 1,000 white men in the United States were in prison. By contrast, 43 out of every 1,000 African American men in the United States were in prison. Clearly, the system is not working, and is taking a toll on our society as a whole and on communities of color in particular. We need to address the places in the system where it is not working to advance the goals of our society.”

The idea is that advocates will be able to start using this messaging as a way to start familiarizing the general public with this new framework.

As you might imagine with such a huge issue, the Frameworks Institute isn’t the only organization working on reframing. The Berkeley Media Studies Group released a report in 2009 around reframing violence among youth that touches on similar points, and also gets into some really interesting research around how to counter the distortions in news coverage of crime that conflate race and violence.

Have you seen any other research out there around reframing or other communications strategies? What do you think about the Framework Institute’s proposed framework? I would love to learn more about other perspectives or ideas. Drop me a line!

The Problems With Bystander Intervention Messaging

The Problems With Bystander Intervention Messaging

Bystander intervention – the encouraging of bystanders to intervene before, during, or after an assault – has been embraced over the past ten years as a major step away from victim-blaming messaging, which focused on telling individuals how to modify their own behaviors around things like dress, drinking, and going out alone as a way of preventing sexual assault. But are these two strategies really that different? I’ve written about bystander intervention in a generally positive way before, but recent incidents and other activists’ writing on the subject have made me take a closer look at the problematic nature of this strategy.

Throughout 2014, bystander intervention messaging was in the spotlight in the U.S., with first the launch of the White House’s 1 is 2 Many campaign in April, followed by the Its On Us campaign launched in September, both aimed at preventing sexual assault on college campuses.

As an example, here is a recent PSA released by the Its On Us campaign:

This PSA shows a party scene in which an obviously-intoxicated woman is about to leave a party when a guy grabs her and says “oh no no, you’re not leaving already?” and starts trying to convince her to stay. Then the camera focuses on another guy sitting on a couch, watching the scene, and as he gets up to walk over to them, a voiceover says “This isn’t a PSA about a sexual assault. It’s about being the guy who stops it. ” That’s bystander intervention messaging in a nutshell: when we see something happening, it’s up to us as individuals to respond.

This messaging strategy invokes feelings of community responsibility, which at first I thought was an attempt to reframe the issue from an individual framework to a systemic framework, but it doesn’t actually do that. Bystander intervention messaging does little to illuminate systemic issues. It does not shed light on the pervasive rape culture or the institutions that fiercely protect individuals who choose to rape. As Lauren Chief Elk and Shaadi Devereaux state in their recent New Inquiry piece, “bystander intervention appears less as a weapon in the fight against sexual assault and more like an evolved form of victim blaming.”

Under its warm and fuzzy cloak of community responsibility, bystander intervention messaging keeps the focus steady on the individual level, the only difference being a shift in who those individuals are. If a sexual assault happens, an individual can still be blamed – and that individual we’re all pointing to is still not the actual person committing the assault. It feels a little like a classic “look over there!” sleight-of-hand situation.

This failure to reframe the problem as a systemic issue makes it seem like the community needs to step in because holding people accountable is an impossible goal. It’s not. Particularly when it comes to college campuses, where we know that serial rapists commit 9 out of 10 rapes.

Dozens of colleges and universities are currently under investigation for mishandling investigations and refusing to hold the perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. This is an institutional problem, not a community problem. Schools need to stop protecting rapists, and improve the way they handle sexual assault cases. The overall focus needs to shift from individuals – whether victims, perpetrators, or bystanders – to the institutions allowing the problem to continue.

The problems with bystander intervention go beyond a simple failure to reframe, due to layers of privilege involved. Lauren Chief Elk shared some deeper analysis on Twitter a year ago (and many times since then), including her personal experience intervening as a bystander:


When a woman of color challenged the behavior of white, wealthy athletes, she was the one attacked and monitored. This example illustrates how the mainstream messaging strategy of bystander intervention sells a version of heroism that sounds broadly accessible, but in reality is only socially and legally protected in certain circumstances.

There are related models that invoke community support and involvement without transferring the responsibility of assault prevention to community members. #YouOKSis started a lot of conversations about how to safely check in with someone in a street harassment situation to make sure they’re okay, but also to “make the harasser aware that somebody is watching, that somebody is paying attention, that someone is conscious”. The 2014 Feminist Public Works subway ad campaign in Philadelphia took a similar approach, as did the Bell Bajao campaign launched in India a few years ago, in which men were encouraged to interrupt domestic violence situations in a nonconfrontational way to simply communicate that the community is watching. It seems like there is some space for strategies like this to serve as a powerful form of community education and involvement, if the pressure for change remains focused on systemic issues. What do you think?

Men’s Mental Health and Movember

Men’s Mental Health and Movember

The Prevention Institute just released a landscape report on mental health and well-being among men and boys in the U.S. On the whole, things are not looking good. Some of the main findings:

  • American society, fragmented by income inequality, racism, and sexism, produces anxiety and is full of risk and stressors.
  • The socialization of men and boys in the U.S. is at odds with advancing their mental health and well-being.
  • Disconnection and isolation—from community, peers, family, children and culture—are major factors that undermine men’s mental health.
  • Trauma and its associated symptoms of mental and psychological illness are more prevalent in the U.S. than in most other countries around the world, and disproportionately affect boys and men of color.
  • Compared to women, men are at equal or greater risk for mental illness, and yet they are less likely to be correctly diagnosed or to receive needed mental health care.
  • Boys and men of color are less likely than white men and boys to receive treatment for depression —either prescription medication or from a mental health provider—and this difference is not accounted for by socioeconomic or health insurance status.
  • The mental health workforce doesn’t meet the needs of the diversity of cultures present in the United States. The average mental health worker is a middle-aged white woman.

Okay. Take a deep breath, and let’s talk about silly mustaches for a minute before we get back into it.

Movember Mustache
Guess who wanted this report? You got it: the Movember Foundation. Because, as you may have expected, after that laundry list of issues, the report concludes that a luxurious mustache is all a man really needs for total mental well-being.

Just kidding. But it did surprise me that Movember has a serious mental health focus. All I’d ever heard about the organization was that it focused on “men’s health.” According to its website, Movember encourages men to grow mustaches during the month of November to start conversations and raise money for programs focusing on prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health.

None of Movember’s most viral online PSAs mention these three health issues at all.

  • 2012: How to Grow a Mustache with Nick Offerman 
  • 2013: Nick Offerman’s Great Moments in Mustache History and Stachedance
  • 2014: Made in Movember and Why You Should Register for Movember

Movember’s messaging strategy stays as far away as possible from emotionally-loaded words like cancer or mental health. Instead, the ads play on over-the-top (usually tongue-in-cheek) stereotypes of masculinity while downplaying the focus on men’s health.

While there all kinds of issues with the use of gender stereotypes in advertising, it’s interesting to think about the particular ones Movember doesn’t choose to use: there is no militarism or aggression in these ads. Think about it – they could be all about “joining together to fight” or “winning the war against cancer.” The use of humor instead of aggression creates a completely different tone.

I’m not saying that Movember can’t do better. As they draw people in with humor, it is their responsibility to keep pushing the envelope in terms of what images of masculinity they show. I do think they’re on the right track with abandoning a specific awareness-raising mission in their mainstream ads in favor of a fundraising mission that supports valuable research and programs.

Why is specific awareness-raising not the best approach? Let’s go back to the mental health report, which sheds a lot of light on the structural impediments to men’s mental health, and describes how men are conditioned from a very young age not to seek help, and socialized in many ways not to develop support networks.

The socialization piece immediately made me think of Tony Porter’s TED talk, “A Call to Men.”

In this talk, Porter describes something he calls “the man box”, which is a set of severely-limiting characteristics key to men’s socialization in the U.S.

Tony Porter's The Man BoxAlmost all the things in the “man box” make mainstream messaging around men’s mental (or physical) health issues a challenge. Going back to what Movember is doing, it becomes more clear that they’re working under some serious constraints. After all, how can you talk about mental health without bringing up emotions? How can you talk about cancer without bringing up a need for help? The “man box” is really limiting, and I would love to see some other successful campaigns around men’s health that push these limits.

The Prevention Institute’s report confirms that community-based prevention programs around men’s health are effective, and that we need more of them. I definitely recommend reading the full report, which gets into all kinds of fascinating nuances around this issue and how best to address it. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t have any recommendations on what to do about the racism, sexism, income inequality, trauma, or overall stress of life in America.