S.I.N. City

The annual gala fundraiser for Portland Women’s Crisis Line is Safety in Numbers, affectionately known as SIN. To state the obvious it is a play on words: While the buddy system never assures immunity from violence, no one needs to be alone as a survivor of domestic or sexual violence and PWCL can help fulfill that role through the ten digits of its phone number (503-235-5333 or toll free 888-235-5333). On a social level, it is going to take a whole lot of individuals working together to change the conditions that allow interpersonal violence to persist so unnoticed. As a fundraiser, it takes a great number of people opening up their pocketbooks to pay for the infrastructure and ongoing training so there are enough advocates who can answer the 24,000 calls PWCL receives every year, and provide follow-up services to help survivors find the resources to feel safe and begin their recovery. There are a number of reasons to find safety in numbers.

This year SIN was based around the Roaring Twenties, a time of women’s freedom and independence and individual indentity and choice. My first lessons about the 1920s were from Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore in Thoroughly Modern Millie. The film was not exactly a comprehensive depiction of the realities of life in the 1920s, though the rampant contradictions were probably a reality for a lot of women. After the war to end all wars Andrews’s character felt liberated, and became a “modern,” a flapper, so she could enter the workforce and marry her boss. Liberation? Emancipation? Empowerment?

Released in 1967 when women could still be terminated legally if their employer discovered they were married, some bloke probably thought finding a husband through work really was a great opportunity for a woman to break the mould of traditional roles and expectations of women. The film was also wrought with racism, with the plot dependent on an evil Chinese women’s hotel manager capturing unsuspecting lonely tenents and enslaving them into prostitution in her opium den. There was safety in numbers for the women in the film. The evil Chinese madam only preyed on the tenents who did not have large families and social networks so no one would miss them when they disappeared. Sad to be all alone in the world.

Save for the drop-waist, fringed dresses and copious feathers SIN was probably more 21st century than roaring twenties, though I’ve never been inside a genuine speakeasy since they went out of fashion when my grandmothers were young. At the SIN speakeasy, coffee-stained and soiled suffrage posters adorned the stairwell descending into the lower ballroom, which was accented in dramatic black and red. Once inside guests milled around ogling over the silent auction packages with the live band playing lounge covers of contemporary pop hits from the stage. Periodically the auctioneer or emcee interrupted with a reminder about other opportunitites at the party to gamble for the cause. I noticed that even without an opportunity for a charleston, the fringe on my own straight dress flipped wildly on its own just from walking around and greeting guests. It seemed fitting for a party celebrating the empowerment and liberation of our friends and neighbors who are healing from domestic or sexual violence.

The auctioneer, Kelly, a tall woman, too shapely for a traditional flapper dress, has called for SIN for several years, leaving me and others in ever greater awe. She does not call in a traditional way like a gruff auction barker. She sings. She sucks you in. Sometimes it seems worth bidding someone up just to hear her continue. When the up-bidding seems to stop she ags on in a soothing lyric, “Are you sure? It’s just money.” She casts a spell over the party goers who become mesmerized. One year a bidder was so caught up in Kelly’s bidding trance he began bidding against himself. All the while Kelly reminds guests how good they can feel spending their money to support PWCL in ending domestic and sexual violence. Sitting wrapped in the sensation that there really is safety in numbers is part of the enchantment.

By the time all the auction items are bid away and paddles are rested for the evening there is a sense of solidarity. It feels very powerful to look around a costumed room at 100 friends and strangers who paid money out of their own pockets to end violence in our families and communities. That’s liberation. That’s emancipation and empowerment.

I wonder if Andrews and Moore’s characters or the Chinese madam would find themselves at a SIN-like fundraiser in a different time. Would Andrews have called PWCL when her friend went missing? Would the sex worker advocates have discovered the plot and helped the Chinese madam to protect women and encourage them to live a life of dignity and safety whatever their chosen path, instead of trap and enslave them? And I wonder, how many times in the course of one SIN party would Moore’s character need to borrow a pen after succumbing Kelly’s magic charm?

Once again, I left SIN this year believing that we, as a society, really can change our expectations of one another. As the party gets bigger and bigger, ever fewer people will need PWCL because more people will see and believe the violence and more people will intervene. Eventually, more people will understand when they hurt someone and they simply will not do it any more. It will be a great day when very few people experience violence in a relationship and the call volume at PWCL plumets as a result. That will be a long time in coming, but maybe in my lifetime. If we rally together and build strength in our numbers it will happen.

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