October 2013


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While researching a story on how Americans commit crime, we came across a disturbing fact. There’s a significantly higher number of rape reports in Alaska than most other states.

Alaska has nearly 80 rapes per 100,000 residents, and South Dakota is a close second at about 70 rape reports per 100,000, according to the FBI’s 2012 crime report. The next-highest is Michigan with 46 per 100,000.

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Rape often goes unreported, so these statistics may be less reliable than other crime statistics. However, Alaska had a reputation for having a problem with rape before the FBI’s recent crime report came out. In 2010 a poll of nearly 900 Alaskan women found that 37% had experienced sexual violence. This chart also shows how much Alaska has struggled with rape over the years.

How did Alaska get to be such a dangerous place for women?

Two possible causes are its high population of Native Americans — nearly 15% compared to the 1.2% national average — and its remoteness. South Dakota is also a rural state with a a high Native American population of nearly 9%.

Native Alaskans make up 61% of rape victims in the state, and Native Americans make up 40% of sex assault victims in South Dakota, The New York Times has reportedOne in three Native American women has said she’s been raped in her lifetime, according to a frequently cited Justice Department report from 2000. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than women of other races, that report found.

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Nobody knows for sure why Native American women are so vulnerable to rape. Some experts blame alcoholism and the breakdown of the Native American family, The Times has reported. In the past, Native American tribes have not been allowed to prosecute non-Native Americans for raping members of their tribes, which also could have compounded the problem. (Obama recently signed a lawthat gives tribes more power to protect Native women, though.)

In very rural areas, like Alaska, women simply can’t rely on police to come help them if they’re raped. One 19-year-old Native Alaska woman who lived in a village of 800 called the police after a stranger broke into her home and raped her in the middle of the night, the Times reported in 2012. The police didn’t answer, so she left a message. They never returned her call.

One study found that just 11% of rapes reported to the Anchorage Police Department between 2000 and 2003 led to a conviction. This lack of culpability could be another reason for the prevalence of sexual assault in Alaska. As one blogger in the state wrote, “Why is Alaska the rape capital of the U.S.? Because we allow it.”

ERIN FUCHS SEP. 26, 2013

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WHEN men paid Shelia Faye Simpkins for sex, they presumably thought she was just a happy hooker engaging in a transaction among consenting adults.

It was actually more complicated than that, as it usually is. Simpkins says that her teenage mom, an alcoholic and drug addict, taught her at age 6 how to perform oral sex on men. “Like a lollipop,” she remembers her mom explaining.

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Simpkins finally ran away from home at 14 and into the arms of a pimp.

“I thought he was my boyfriend,” Simpkins remembers. “I didn’t realize I was being pimped.”

When her pimp was shot dead, she was recruited by another, Kenny, who ran a “stable” of four women and assigned each of them a daily quota of $1,000. Anyone who didn’t earn that risked a beating.

There’s a common belief that pimps are business partners of prostitutes, but that’s a complete misunderstanding of the classic relationship. Typically, every dollar earned by the women goes to the pimp, who then doles out drugs, alcohol, clothing and food.

“He gets every penny,” Simpkins explains. “If you get caught with money, you get beat.”

Simpkins periodically ran away from Kenny, but each time he found her — and beat her up with sticks or iron rods. On average, she figures that Kenny beat her up about once a week, and she still carries the scars.

“I was his property,” Simpkins says bluntly.

I met Simpkins here in Nashville, where my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and I have been filming a segment about sex trafficking as part of a PBS documentary accompanying our next book. We were filming with Ashley Judd, the actress, who lives in the Nashville area and is no neophyte about these issues. Judd has traveled all around the world to understand sexual exploitation — and she was devastated by what we found virtually in her backyard.

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“It’s freaking me out,” she told me one day after some particularly harrowing interviews. It’s easier to be numbed by child prostitution abroad, but we came across online prostitution ads in Nashville for “Michelle,” who looked like a young teenager. Judd had trouble sleeping that night, thinking of Michelle being raped in cheap hotels right in her hometown.

In this respect, Nashville is Everytown U.S.A. Sex trafficking is an American universal: The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported in 2011 that over a two-year period, trafficking occurred in 85 percent of Tennessee’s counties, including rural areas. Most are homegrown girls like Simpkins who flee troubled homes and end up controlled by pimps.

Of course, there are also women (and men) selling sex voluntarily. But the notion that the sex industry is a playground of freely consenting adults who find pleasure in their work is delusional self-flattery by johns.

Sex trafficking is one of the most severe human rights violations in America today. In some cases, it amounts to a modern form of slavery.

One reason we as a society don’t try harder to uproot it is that it seems hopeless. Yet Simpkins herself is a reminder that we needn’t surrender.

Simpkins says that she would be dead by now if it weren’t for a remarkable initiative by the Rev. Becca Stevens, the Episcopal priest at Vanderbilt University here, to help women escape trafficking and prostitution.

Rev. Stevens had been searching for a way for her congregation to address social justice issues, and she felt a bond with sex trafficking survivors. Rev. Stevens herself had been abused as a girl — by a family friend in her church, beginning when she was 6 years old — and she shared with so many trafficked women the feelings of vulnerability, injustice and anger that go with having been molested.

With donations and volunteers, Rev. Stevens founded a two-year residential program called Magdalene for prostitution survivors who want to overcome addictions and start new lives. To help the women earn a living, Rev. Stevens then started a business, Thistle Farms, which employs dozens of women making products sold on the Internet and in stores like Whole Foods. This year, Thistle Farms has also opened a cafe, employing former prostitutes as baristas.

Shelia Simpkins went through the Magdalene program and overcame her addictions. In December, she will earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and then she plans to earn a master’s in social work.

She regularly brings in women off the street who want to follow her in starting over. I met several of Simpkins’ recruits, including a woman who had been prostituted since she was 8 years old and is now bubbling with hope for a new future. Another has left drugs, started a sales job and found a doctor who agreed not to charge her to remove 16 tattoos designating her as her pimp’s property. And a teenage prostitute told me that she’s trying to start over because, “the only person who visited me in jail was Miss Shelia.”

Magdalene and Thistle Farms fill part of what’s needed: residential and work programs for women trying to flee pimps. We also need to see a much greater crackdown on pimps and johns.

Simpkins figures she was arrested about 200 times — and her pimps, never. As for johns, by my back-of-envelope calculations, a john in Nashville has less than a 0.5 percent chance of being arrested. If there were more risk, fewer men would buy sex, and falling demand would force some pimps to find a new line of work.

In short, there are steps we can take that begin to chip away at the problem, but a starting point is greater empathy for women like Simpkins who were propelled into the vortex of the sex trade — and a recognition that the problem isn’t hopeless. To me, Simpkins encapsulates not hopelessness but the remarkable human capacity for resilience.

She has married and has two children, ages 4 and 6. The older one has just been accepted in a gifted program at school, and Simpkins couldn’t be more proud.

“I haven’t done a lot of things right in my life, but this is one thing I’m going to do right,” she said. “I’m going to be the world’s best mom.”

By  , October 12, 2013

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The US National Security Agency (NSA) has upset a great many people this year. Since June, newspapers have been using documents leaked by former intelligence worker Edward Snowden to show how the secretive but powerful agency has spied on the communications of US citizens and foreign governments. Last month, the media reported that the NSA, which is based in Fort Meade, Maryland, had undermined Internet security standards. The revelations have sparked international outrage at the highest levels — even the president of Brazil cancelled a visit to the United States because of the spying.

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Yet amid the uproar, NSA-supported mathematicians and computer scientists have remained mostly quiet, to the growing frustration of others in similar fields. “Most have never met a funding source they do not like,” says Phillip Rogaway, a computer scientist at the University of California, Davis, who has sworn not to accept NSA funding and is critical of other researchers’ silence. “And most of us have little sense of social responsibility.”

Mathematicians and the NSA are certainly interdependent. The agency declares that it is the United States’ largest maths employer, and Samuel Rankin, director of the Washington DC office of the American Mathematical Society, estimates that the agency hires 30–40 mathematicians every year. The NSA routinely holds job fairs on university campuses, and academic researchers can work at the agency on sabbaticals. In 2013, the agency’s mathematical sciences programme offered more than US$3.3 million in research grants.

Furthermore, the NSA has designated more than 150 colleges and universities as centres of excellence, which qualifies students and faculty members for extra support. It can also fund research indirectly through other agencies, and so the total amount of support may be much higher. A leaked budget document says that the NSA spends more than $400 million a year on research and technology — although only a fraction of this money might go to research outside the agency itself.

 

Many US researchers, especially those towards the basic-research end of the spectrum, are comfortable with the NSA’s need for their expertise. Christopher Monroe, a physicist at the University of Maryland in College Park, is among them. He previously had an NSA grant for basic research on controlling cold atoms, which can form the basis of the qubits of information in quantum computers. He notes that he is free to publish in the open literature, and he has no problems with the NSA research facilities in physical sciences, telecommunications and languages that sit on his campus. Monroe is sympathetic to the NSA’s need to track the develop­ment of quantum computers that could one day be used to crack codes beyond the ability of conventional machines. “I understand what’s in the newspapers,” he says, “but the NSA is funding serious long-term fundamental research and I’m happy they’re doing it.”

Dena Tsamitis, director of education, outreach and training at Carnegie Mellon University’s cybersecurity research centre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also wants to maintain the relationship. She oversees visitors and recruiters from the NSA but her centre gets no direct funding. She says that her graduate students understand the NSA’s public surveillance to be “a policy decision, not a technology decision. Our students are most interested in the technology.” And the NSA, she says — echoing many other researchers — “has very interesting technology problems”.

 

The academics who are professionally uneasy with the NSA tend to lie on the applied end of the spectrum: they work on computer security and cryptography rather than pure mathematics and basic physics. Matthew Green, a cryptographer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says that these researchers are unsettled in part because they are dependent on protocols developed by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to govern most encrypted web traffic. When it was revealed that the NSA had inserted a ‘back door’ into the NIST standards to allow snooping, some of them felt betrayed. “We certainly had no idea that they were tampering with products or standards,” says Green. He is one of 47 technologists who on 4 October sent a letter to the director of a group created last month by US President Barack Obama to review NSA practices, protesting because the group does not include any independent technologists.

Edward Felten, who studies computer security at Princeton University in New Jersey, says that the NSA’s breach of security standards means that cryptographers will need to change what they call their threat model — the set of assumptions about possible attacks to guard against. Now the attacks might come from the home team. “There was a sense of certain lines that NSA wouldn’t cross,” says Felten, “and now we’re not so sure about that.”

 

Ann Finkbeiner, Nature,  October 8, 2013

Turning a blind eye. Giving someone the cold shoulder. Looking down on people. Seeing right through them.

These metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. They suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less — a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States.

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A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.

Bringing the micropolitics of interpersonal attention to the understanding of social power, researchers are suggesting, has implications for public policy.

Of course, in any society, social power is relative; any of us may be higher or lower in a given interaction, and the research shows the effect still prevails. Though the more powerful pay less attention to us than we do to them, in other situations we are relatively higher on the totem pole of status — and we, too, tend to pay less attention to those a rung or two down.

A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain. In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, and Michael W. Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have done much of the research on social power and the attention deficit.

Mr. Keltner suggests that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

While Mr. Keltner’s research finds that the poor, compared with the wealthy, have keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions, in general, those with the most power in society seem to pay particularly little attention to those with the least power. To be sure, high-status people do attend to those of equal rank — but not as well as those low of status do.

This has profound implications for societal behavior and government policy. Tuning in to the needs and feelings of another person is a prerequisite to empathy, which in turn can lead to understanding, concern and, if the circumstances are right, compassionate action.

In politics, readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them. The insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare, which would allow patients, including those with pre-existing health conditions, to obtain and pay for insurance coverage, may stem in part from the empathy gap. As political scientists have noted, redistricting and gerrymandering have led to the creation of more and more safe districts, in which elected officials don’t even have to encounter many voters from the rival party, much less empathize with them.

Social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.

Freud called this “the narcissism of minor differences,” a theme repeated by Vamik D. Volkan, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who was born in Cyprus to Turkish parents. Dr. Volkan remembers hearing as a small boy awful things about the hated Greek Cypriots — who, he points out, actually share many similarities with Turkish Cypriots. Yet for decades their modest-size island has been politically divided, which exacerbates the problem by letting prejudicial myths flourish.

In contrast, extensive interpersonal contact counteracts biases by letting people from hostile groups get to know one another as individuals and even friends. Thomas F. Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed more than 500 studies on intergroup contact. Mr. Pettigrew, who was born in Virginia in 1931 and lived there until going to Harvard for graduate school, told me in an e-mail that it was the “the rampant racism in the Virginia of my childhood” that led him to study prejudice.

In his research, he found that even in areas where ethnic groups were in conflict and viewed one another through lenses of negative stereotypes, individuals who had close friends within the other group exhibited little or no such prejudice. They seemed to realize the many ways those demonized “others” were “just like me.” Whether such friendly social contact would overcome the divide between those with more and less social and economic power was not studied, but I suspect it would help.

Since the 1970s, the gap between the rich and everyone else has skyrocketed. Income inequality is at its highest level in a century. This widening gulf between the haves and have-less troubles me, but not for the obvious reasons. Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes. Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.

 

* Text By  Daniel Goleman (NYT, Oct. 5, 2013)

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A single mother who has been working at McDonald’s for 10 years was detained by police last week after she interrupted the company president’s speech in Chicago to confront him about low worker pay.

Crain’s Chicago Business reports that 26-year-old Nancy Salgado was part of a group protesting the event, asking company officials to raise worker wages to $15 an hour and allow employees to form a union without fear of retaliation.

Protestors were detained for an hour, threatened with arrest, and ticketed, according to Chicagoist.

The Real News posted a video to YouTube that contains a clip of Salgado’s outburst as well as an interview with her:

Here’s what Salgado said to McDonald’s USA President Jeff Stratton: “I’m a single mother of two. It’s really hard for me to feed my two kids and struggle day to day. Do you think this is fair that I have to be making $8.25 when I’ve been working at McDonald’s for 10 years?”

Stratton’s response: “I’ve been there [at McDonald’s] 40 years.”

Salgado told The Real News that she still works at McDonald’s (although they cut her hours back) and she loves her job, but she wanted to speak out because she thought her voice needed to be heard.

“It gets harder and harder,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t provide a gallon of milk in the refrigerator.”

 

* Pamela Engel (BI, October 9,2013)

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