It’s Time to Imagine a World Without Domestic Violence

Domestic violence has, I have no doubt, been around about as long as gender has.  It exists in every society, and impacts people of every racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic group, though admittedly at different rates.  One in three women around the world will experience some form of intimate partner violence in her lifetime, the statistics tell us.  That is terrifying. We should be outraged at the prevalence of this violence in the world around us.

But for some reason, too often, we are not.

Until the 1970’s, domestic violence was not even considered a crime in the United States.  It would be considered assault to beat up a stranger in an alleyway, but if it was your wife, it was somehow considered a ‘domestic issue’.  Those familiar with the history of the anti-violence movement may recall that initially, anti-violence efforts were not conducted through recognized institutions as they are today; they were simply the efforts of women helping other women, giving them shelter when they needed it, helping them plan ways out of dangerous and unstable marriages.  We have come a long way when it comes to helping survivors of domestic violence: the Violence Against Women Act helps to fund programs designed to provide much-needed services, including shelter, to survivors of domestic violence; legal agencies in many cities offer pro bono services to low-income survivors who need help navigating the legal system; the Affordable Care Act funds domestic violence screenings conducted by medical professionals to help catch the signs earlier.

I spend 40 hours a week working with survivors of domestic violence.  I know the ways that the system offers help, and the ways in which it makes that help sometimes difficult to access.  But I also know that so much of our work on domestic violence is focused on mitigating the effects of domestic violence, to helping people who have already been hurt.  It is my opinion that we do not spend enough time or energy or resources stopping domestic violence before it happens.  By the time an individual needs shelter, or confides in a doctor, or reaches out for legal advice, it is too late.  Much of the damage is already done.

Today, October 1st, marks the start of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States.  Throughout the month, feminist organizations and domestic violence-specific organizations alike will fight to bring attention to the rampant problems of intimate partner violence in the U.S.  That’s important work, and I’ll absolutely be a part of it this year.  We need to talk about how likely it is that an individual will experience abuse in the course of their lifetime; we need to publicize the resources available to intimate partner violence survivors who need help; we need to call attention to the various kinds of abuse that an individual can experience, because all the PSAs in the world that show black eyes and bruises cannot capture the full spectrum of tactics used by the perpetrators of intimate partner violence.  Those are conversations worth having, conversations we must start having.

They are conversations I wish we were starting to have earlier.

I believe it is time for us to start imagining a world without domestic violence.  The road to get there is difficult, and I cannot speak to what it might take for societies outside the United States to reduce or eliminate domestic violence; I won’t pretend to have that knowledge or authority.  But it is my belief that, if we were to even imagine an America without domestic violence, we would have to start talking about it very differently than we have been.

We would need realistic portrayals of what domestic violence looks like when it is shown in our popular media.  Not all domestic violence leaves black eyes; even other forms of physical violence (especially choking) are underrepresented in our current discussions about domestic abuse.  But far more than that, we are ignoring by and large the other problems that pervade the landscape of domestic violence: gaslighting, emotional abuse, financial control, sexual assault, sexual coercion, pregnancy coercion, and so many others that are used by abusers to gain and maintain control in relationships.  People are never going to recognize abuse for what it is if they only think that being hit counts (and before anyone says anything, there are absolutely individuals who don’t realize they are experiencing abusive behaviors because they have not been hit).

We would need to talk about healthy relationships in our schools, starting at a younger age.  I don’t just mean consent education, of which I have been a long-time proponent, but I mean a larger discussion of what a healthy relationship looks like.  We aren’t talking about the importance of respect, or what coercion looks like, or what the warning signs are of abusive behavior.  Adolescents in the United States are still listening to songs that frame masculinity (or even sometimes femininity) in terms of relationships and sexual behavior, some of which glorify emotional abuse or other unhealthy relationship behaviors, and too often they aren’t receiving a counter-argument from their peers, their teachers, their families, or the media, because no one wants to think about the need to have an explicit conversation about what respect actually looks like.  People believe that you can just “demand respect” but what, exactly, does that mean?

Our conversations are getting better; TV shows are slowly but surely moving towards talking about relationship issues and getting into problems like domestic violence.  Advocates and activists are pushing for consent education (and so are our politicians), but we need more.  More conversations, more books, more media, more laws, more education, and we need it all sooner.  And yes, we need more resources for survivors who are currently struggling with the effects of intimate partner violence.  We need more interventions for families with children who witness violence in the home.  We need more shelters that are able to take people outside of jurisdictional funding limitations.  We need greater access to trauma-informed rehabilitation programs in prisons.  As a society, we need to look for these opportunities to break the cycle, to change the conversation.  We need to look for these opportunities to work towards a future without domestic violence.

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~ by Randi Saunders on October 1, 2015.

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