We Need to Know Better
When my high school boyfriend told me I was worthless, I believed him.
He didn’t start out that way, as most people who have been in abusive relationships will tell you. After a month of seemingly blissful dating, the negative comments started slowly pouring in. He would grab my stomach and say, “What is this?” implying that I needed to lose weight. He would say that any of my opinions, no matter how trivial, were stupid, often emphasizing that women’s opinions didn’t matter anyway—a message that I was also getting from other male friends and the media. He told me once that my fashion style wasn’t “sexy” enough, but when I wore something trendier the next day in an effort to please him, he scolded me for looking “like a slut.” Nothing I did was good enough for him.
At first, I tried to fight back, timidly telling him that his comments hurt me. But he would only push back harder, saying that I was crazy for feeling hurt by his comments, that he was just joking and that I was too sensitive. At 17, I cared more about him than I had ever cared about a partner, so I tried to let it go.
I started to believe the things he told me. I started to distrust my own feelings, opinions, and body. He was gaslighting me–the act of psychologically manipulating another person to make him or her doubt their own reality.
After high school ended and the relationship dissolved, his hurtful and misogynistic comments stuck with me for years. They contributed to my low self-esteem, development of disordered eating and exercise habits, and my visceral fear of men who showed any signs of controlling behavior.
Months after the relationship ended, I could finally begin to process what happened, but my recovery took a lot of tough emotional work. Many things helped me through it, including a strong support system of friends who had gone through similar experiences, but one of the most important things that kept me going was discovering feminism. It showed me I was far from alone in the abuse I had experienced, and I wasn’t deserving of such treatment just because I was a woman.
I think utilizing school and community settings to educate children and teens about feminist principles, including healthy relationships and communication styles, would be a crucial step to ending violence. Learning about these issues when we were younger may have prevented my abuser from treating me that way, and prevented me from thinking his treatment was normal and acceptable. Middle and high schools should dedicate much more time in their required health classes to teaching about these topics—and they shouldn’t stop at “it’s abuse if he hits you.” Emotional and verbal abuse can be just as painful and frightening, and less visible to those who can help. Teachers, school counselors and community leaders should also be trained in how to spot the signs of teen dating violence and how to respond.
My relationship with this man was much more complicated than I can convey in one post. But his abuse affected me in countless negative ways for years after it ended. If all children and teens are educated throughout their lives about feminist principles, healthy and unhealthy relationships, and how to handle it when they or a friend are either a perpetrator or a victim, I believe that fewer people would have to go through what I did.
We Need To Tell Our Stories
This April, I decided to get my first tattoo. I knew that if I was going to get something marked on my body it had to be something that would remain meaningful to me for the rest of my life, so I decided to create a tattoo representing my escape from a long-term, abusive relationship.
Because my tattoo is in another language, I get a lot of questions from strangers (and friends) asking about its meaning. The tattoo says “Hineni” which in English would mean “Here I Am” or “Here I Stand” (there are various interpretations). To some, it may seem unnecessary or even morbid to put a marker of my experience with domestic violence on my body forever, but each time someone asks me about my tattoo I am encouraged to participate in a dialogue about domestic violence – an act which reminds both of us how taboo and rare those conversations are in our society.
I can understand why it’s difficult for survivors to talk about their experiences with domestic violence: after almost a year of being told that my former partner’s unhealthy and violent behaviors were my fault, I started to believe it. I would get so scared when he would begin spiraling into an episode that I would throw up; I would walk on eggshells around him, not knowing what would set him off; I lived my life in silence – afraid that if I talked to the wrong person or looked at someone the wrong way, I would have to face the consequences. It took several attempts to leave, but I finally did, after an incident that made me fear for my life in a way that I could not excuse, forgive, or forget.
After leaving, I found that silence was comforting. I had become so used to the chaos that I appreciated a moment of calm. But when I chose to break that silence and speak about my experience, I found that there were very few safe spaces for me to share my story openly. I was bombarded with questions:
“Why didn’t you leave earlier?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
These questions only added to the victim-blaming mindset which had kept me from speaking up or leaving the relationship sooner. Thus, I determined that if there was no carved space for me to share my story and turn myself from a victim to a survivor, I would create it myself. And one day, I woke up, headed into the city, and got my tattoo.
“Hineni” can mean something different to each person based on the context and interpretation. To me, it means that I will not be a victim, I will not be a statistic, I will not apologize to anyone for the after-effects that this experience has caused me. I will stand up for myself, and other survivors, to increase awareness and prevention of domestic violence.
YWCA’s blog carnival this year asks how our communities can help put an end to all forms of violence, but our communities, our friends, and our families cannot put an end to a violence that we are silent about. I believe that the first step to ending domestic violence is removing the stigma around these dialogues and creating more safe spaces for survivors to share their stories so that those who are still facing domestic violence can gain the support they need to speak out, to leave, and to stop blaming themselves.
I hope that my tattoo can create that safe space for at least one other person and help them to begin healing the way that it has helped me.
We Need To Normalize the Good Stuff
I got into the work of consent and anti-rape education out of fear. Before beginning my collegiate years in DC, I grew up in a small New Jersey suburb that was exactly one square mile; the threats to my safety that seemed to be everywhere in the urban neighborhoods of Washington were seemingly non-existent there. (I’ve learned through my work that violence permeates the lives of all people, regardless of their location, but it’s worth noting that when I lived in my small-town bubble, that concept eluded me.) I went into college filled with warnings and with alert eyes, attuned already to looking for red flags and warning signs of impending doom. My mom’s strategy for keeping me safe was keeping my sheltered: don’t ride the metro alone, don’t go out at night alone, don’t drink, don’t talk, don’t live, don’t breathe, don’t carry cash, don’t carry a phone, but carry a phone, call a friend if you’re worried, try to take cabs. You’re probably familiar with these scripts, because we all are – and we all know they don’t work.
Being actively engaged in feminist activism on my college campus meant that I was barraged, from day one, with sad stories. By the time I turned 20, a majority of my friends were survivors of sexual assault or rape, and all of us had, at time, been in “rescue” situations where a creep wouldn’t leave us alone or our dude friends had to remove us from a situation before it got worse. That made me mad – really mad. And I wanted to do something beyond the important steps of comforting survivors and creating safe spaces for them to share their stories. I wanted to eliminate those stories. I wanted to make sure those stories become less and less normal, less and less tolerable, less and less desensitized by this landscape. In a place where everyone was struggling to move past these situations, I wanted to make sure nobody else ever found themselves in one like them ever again.
I began doing consent education in a peer-to-peer voice using (con)sensual, a poster campaign of sexy pictures that conveyed a message about the importance of consent.
My hope was that students wouldn’t see these posters as condescending or patronizing, and that the style of the campaign would uniquely effect and speak to them. It did. Unlike my mother’s advice, (con)sensual was realistic – it embraced the college lifestyle while simply attempting to normalize a missing element. People on campus were getting drunk, hooking up, and going out to meet one another in social situations – and I wanted to make sure that even after all of those “risky behaviors” were taken, they found themselves in a social climate in which they were respected. Changing a part of the college culture without disparaging the entire structure of it was key: I wanted people who partied to be consuming and acting on a pro-consent message, and I wanted consent to become a normal, fun part of people’s interactions. Instead of trying to change their social lives, I just tried to change their social processes – I wanted consent to be normal, sexy, fun, commonplace. I wanted it to stop being awkward to show respect and stop being weird to try to effectively communicate with someone, even after a few shots or at 3 in the morning. I didn’t want anyone to stop having fun – I just wanted everyone to start being aware that they had the power to make our campus a place free from rape, sexual violence, and relationship violence.
What it takes to end violence is creating communities where it’s seen as unacceptable to violate someone. When we justify, apologize for, and tolerate sexually, physically, or emotionally violent behavior, we’re sending a clear message that we condone it. We need to stop the normalization of violence and move our cultural scripts forward toward a safer, more ethical standard of sexual behavior for those who are hooking up, dating, married, or non-monogamous. We need consent, and we need it now. We need education, we need dialogue, and most of all: we need realistic strategies.
Cross-posted with permission from Feminist Campus
This post is part of the YWCA Week Without Violence™ 2013 Blog Carnival. We invite you to join the dialogue! Post your comment below, share your story and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #ywcaWWV.