Last August I celebrated my 30th birthday: a milestone for me not only having reached a new decade, but also marking 15 years that I had been doing sexual and domestic violence prevention work. In other words, half my lifetime. I took this opportunity to look back over the past 15 years and reflect on the trends I’ve seen in prevention work across Massachusetts and the nation. There isn’t one approach to prevention that will resonate with everyone. Every program and approach has its own set of strengths and limitations. Throughout my time in this work I’ve come to realize a few things about what works best:
- We can’t just focus on men’s violence against women.
When I started this work, I wanted – desperately – a quick fix to the issue of intimate partner violence. I entered this work because I was a survivor. I suffered abuse and assault in shame and in silence because no one in my community was talking about it. Much of my early work was aimed at simply starting the conversation and raising awareness. Many of my early programs were entitled “Breaking the Silence”- a title widely used throughout the domestic and sexual violence field. We use this phrase because domestic violence thrives in silence. In order to combat it, we first need to raise awareness that it’s happening, even in our own communities. But once we’ve gotten folks to acknowledge that it’s affecting their friends, families, and neighbors, we need to provide them with skills to do something about it.
I found those skills by learning about bystander intervention. I got involved with Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) in the early 2000’s. Started at Northeastern University, MVP had partnered with my high school to train student leaders who would then lead workshops for their peers and middle school students. MVP focuses on leadership development and bystander intervention as solutions to men’s violence against women. At 15, I went through the MVP training and immediately was taken with it. Their approach of peer to peer education really resonated with me as did their bystander focus. I started presenting workshops in middle schools and fell in love with this model. When I was 16, I began interning at the MVP office at Northeastern, working with their staff to provide workshops for adults. I strongly believed in the MVP model as being “the answer” to this issue, and saw no limitations.
When I was 17, my world view shifted. I had been asked to present at an MVP training for teachers. The workshop was co-led by 2 MVP staff, and they asked me and a young man who had been involved with MVP at his school to be the teen representatives. This young man and I didn’t know each other. We began the workshop with introductions. In mine I mentioned that I was a survivor of teen dating violence and sexual assault and that is why I do this work. I then turned to the young man to introduce himself. He was completely frozen- just staring at me. I stared back, confused. Finally, he shook himself, and started to speak- addressing only me, although he was in front of a room full of strangers. He said, “Thank you so much for sharing that you are a survivor of sexual assault. I didn’t know that. It means a lot to me that you said that. I’ve also been sexually assaulted… it happened when I was 5, by a relative of mine. I’ve never told anyone before.” He sat down, and dissolved into tears.
This young man had spent the last two years working with MVP. He was regarded as a leader within the group, and often spoke to his peers about sexual and dating violence. But because his program’s approach was to only focus on men’s violence against women, he never felt he could tell anyone about his own experience. He held this secret for 13 years, and was clearly drawn to this work. Unfortunately, the program further silenced him by not acknowledging male survivors.
I began to take a bigger interest in male survivors of sexual abuse, and focused some of my research in college on this population. I began changing the programs I ran and the language I used to be more inclusive. I met male survivors who participated in the Take Back the Night events I founded at my university. Over and over again, I heard in their stories the silence and shame they experienced, because no one was talking about this issue impacting men- if anything, men were addressed as potential perpetrators. Many of them engaged in self-harm behaviors, struggled with intimacy and trust, or became hyper-masculine to deflect any hint they had been victimized. As I worked on my campus to develop prevention programming, I recognized the need to be inclusive of all survivors.
- A ‘sprinkling’ approach is not ideal.
After college, I moved to Boston and began working with domestic and sexual violence organizations doing outreach and education. At that time, funding for domestic violence/sexual assault prevention was aimed at programs that reached the highest number of participants. This made sense to me- as someone who worked with schools across the state, I wanted to make sure that every young person had some knowledge about this issue and resources available to them. Those of us doing prevention work were going to as many classrooms and group spaces as possible to reach as many young people as possible. Therefore, it was rare that we could return to the same group more than once- we were constantly on the road trying to increase our “reach.” This is what we call a “sprinkling” approach- giving a small amount of information to a large number of participants.
Several months (and many miles in my car) into this, I had another experience that shifted my world view. I was speaking at an assembly at a private school. These engagements were perfect for the sprinkling approach- several hundred students in one assembly! I offered to stay after and talk to anyone who needed support. A line of students and teachers formed all the way down the hall, waiting to talk to me. My presentation had triggered experiences that needed to be addressed. The assembly was during the first period and I stayed until after school had closed listening to stories and offering support. As I drove home that afternoon, I began to think about all of these other “one-off” engagements I had done- times I had come into a classroom or a youth group and presented this information and then just left. And while I would leave information about hotlines and services, I began to wonder if this sprinkling approach had stirred up a lot for participants without providing them with a deeper connection to support. I began to wonder if I was doing more harm than good.
- Understanding the role of trauma connects prevention work to healing work.
I moved to California and began interviewing with rape crisis centers and domestic violence organizations. In one interview, my future bosses asked me what I believed was the most effective approach to violence prevention. I waxed poetic about bystander intervention, and they nodded and asked, “But what about trauma? What about looking at why people abuse?” I was stuck. I hadn’t really considered these topics as necessary for the classroom work I was doing- I had only focused on naming the issue, raising awareness, and providing the tools on how to stop it… I hadn’t thought much about the conversation of why.
Asking “why violence?” or “why do people hurt each other?” is a vital part of the prevention conversation. If we can explore the reasons why, it allows us to think about how this can be prevented before it starts. But as a survivor, I struggled with these questions. After my assault, the question “why?” haunted me, and often drove me down a dark alley of self-blame. Some folks who heard my story asked questions like, “Why do you think he did it? Did you do something to make him think it was okay? What did you do to make this happen?” When it came to my story and the men who hurt me, I had no interest in understanding why they did what they did. But as a preventionist, I realized this was a bigger question I needed to explore.
In California I learned a trauma-informed approach to prevention. For 5 years I went to high schools, middle schools, and juvenile hall programs, using a multi-session curriculum called “Ending Cycles of Violence.” We talked about the idea that “hurt people hurt people” and that this is an explanation NOT an excuse. We talked about healing, and we talked about the shame that makes it difficult to tell someone about our pain. I spent a lot of time talking about male survivors. My students- male and female- understood how difficult it might be for a man to talk about being victimized. Some of them identified with that concept personally. One senior boy said he had been raised to only have anger as a reaction to bad experiences… which led him to getting into a lot of fights at school while his mom was battling cancer. Another talked about being homeless, and how embarrassing it was to be hungry all the time at school. He, too, turned to violence to deflect attention away from his perceived weakness. They were able to articulate that their behavior was a product of their traumas, and influenced by the limited ways that men are expected to express themselves. This combination was contributing directly to a cycle of violence. Through these classroom conversations they were able to think beyond just being labeled “bad kids” or excused as “boys will be boys;” they were able to think together about how to interrupt that cycle.
I also started providing direct service- individual and group counseling to kids who were victims of sexual and/or domestic violence who were now incarcerated or on probation. Almost every kid I met at Juvenile Hall had been victimized in a variety of ways- an incredibly high number were victims of sexual trauma and domestic violence.
Throughout my years in California, I saw how connected prevention work is to healing work. All of the young people I met in the classroom or in counseling sessions who had been arrested for pain they caused others were reacting to their own pain, and they didn’t have the resources or support to know how to begin the healing process. I also had the blessing to get to witness incredible healing and change happen in these young people’s lives.
Early in my work I looked at approaches like MVP as being THE answer- now I look to them as part of the answer. There isn’t just one reason that leads to someone hurting others, but rather a combination of factors. We cannot address individual acts of violence without addressing the culture in which they occur. We also cannot just look at the culture without recognizing that our experiences with trauma and our access to support impact the way we are able to react to and integrate cultural and social norms.
Each year, there will be new YouTube videos, new stories in the media and new technology that both inspires and changes the conversation about dating and sexual violence. The very way we define dating relationships continues to change among young people on an almost daily basis. Here at REACH, we strive to work in partnership with schools and organizations to fit our work into the ongoing conversation and help to keep these issues at the forefront of the dialogue. The work we are doing has the power to change social norms and prevent future violence. This happens over time, in large and small groups and one-on-one conversations. This happens when all of us feel that we are an important part of the conversation and that we each have a role to play in creating healthy communities by ending domestic violence. We hope you will join us.