“Have You Heard About XYZ Case?”
All too often, domestic violence is in the news. Here at REACH we always struggle with what, if anything, to say about these stories that everyone is talking about, or what news stories from other sources to share with you through our social media. This past week, it was Rob Porter. In the past, it was Ray Rice or Chris Brown and Rihanna. The news coverage is often sensational, including disturbing images or descriptions of injuries that could be triggering or re-traumatizing to survivors. Some people have assumed that we as advocates, and/or the survivors we work with, must be somehow pleased with the wall-to-wall coverage of “our” issue with things like the #MeToo movement. In reality, it affects everyone differently, but survivors often tell us it’s hard when you can’t turn on the radio in the car or pick up a magazine in a waiting area without encountering stories of assault. In addition, the public narrative that takes shape around these stories can reinforce the very stereotypes and myths that we are working every day to dismantle. We try not to amplify commentary that does that.
At the same time, while we never want to forget that there are real people at the center of these stories, these public conversations also present ‘teachable moments’ where we can challenge those stereotypes or point out important themes for people who are less versed in this issue. People may ask you for your opinion if they know you’ve volunteered with REACH, or come to our gala, or shared our content on social media. If conversations like this are coming up in your social circles, here are a few tips to move the conversation forward in a productive and educational way.
- This is a real person. Conversation around news stories, and especially people in the public eye, often forget that and it’s important to remind people. Try to keep humanity at the center of the conversation.
- You don’t necessarily know an abuser when you see one. The monster myth is real and pervasive. Similar myths persist about what a ‘real victim’ looks like. It’s okay to gently challenge people who say “He doesn’t seem like the type” or “You wouldn’t think it could happen to her.” You can just say “Why not?” Domestic violence happens in all types of relationships, and in every cultural, ethnic, religious, and economic group.
- There is safety in numbers. Sometimes people assume that, with stories like the #MeToo movement or Bill Cosby, allegations are being made because people are looking to hop on some kind of bandwagon or perhaps ‘looking for a payday.’ REACH’s experience working with survivors has taught us that when one person shares their story, others feel more comfortable doing so. If multiple victims are coming forward with similar stories, it’s likely because those first few gave others the courage to do the same.
- This probably wasn’t a one-time incident. I’ve noticed that local news in particular is fond of the “He just snapped” story. They’ll find one or two neighbors to interview after an assault has made the news, and those neighbors will inevitably say that the couple in question seemed nice and quiet and kept to themselves. Friends and family will say they didn’t see any signs of trouble. Too often the story gets framed as a loss of control, when in fact it was the opposite. Domestic violence is about the establishment of power and control. We also know that it involves a pattern of (often escalating, and not always physical) behavior, and so the likelihood is that this was not an isolated incident. There are reasons we’d like to think that these incidents are out of the ordinary and can’t happen to us. The fact is, we as friends and family won’t see the signs unless we know the signs, and unless we are looking for them.
- It’s not so easy to “just leave.” In any conversation about domestic violence, the question is likely to come up – if it was so bad, why didn’t the victim ‘just leave’? The very framing of this question places the responsibility for the situation on the person being abused, instead of the person doing the abusing. The short answer we often give is: because the abuse worked. Remember, abuse is about power and control (see #4), and when it works, the survivor feels like they don’t have the power or the control to change their circumstances. They may feel isolated from friends and family, may be afraid no one will believe them because their partner is an upstanding member of the community, or they may be financially dependent on their abuser. There are a million reasons people stay, but try reframing the question: why does the abuser abuse? Why do we expect the victim to be the one to put a stop to it?
My colleagues at REACH are constantly out and about in the community, leading trainings and trying to educate communities about domestic violence. The reality is that you are our best tool for doing this. The majority of people may not attend a REACH event or training, but when you talk to your friends, family members, and coworkers around the kitchen table, at the water cooler, or over drinks after work, we can really start making a difference in the way that society thinks and feels about abuse. That’s what we mean when we say TOGETHER we will reach beyond domestic violence.