With past seasons of 20/20 out there to watch on Hulu, some tragic reminders exist to remind us that we are responsible for the ways in which we talk about domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment, human trafficking, and stalking. Specifically, two episodes throughout season 40 address the sexual abuse and kidnapping of two seemingly independent stories that are woven together with one universal theme – blame.
Even though both women were teenage girls during the time of their sexual abuse and kidnapping, there are still individuals within their separate communities who firmly believe that they not only encouraged or asked for the behavior, but willingly participated with the individual. Despite the evidence. Despite the arrest and prosecution of kidnappers and abusers.
Defining the Problem
Our need to place blame on something or someone is almost inherent, if not unintentionally taught. It relieves stress in times of grief or highly negative emotions, or it provides comfort in times of pain. Ultimately, it rationalizes a situation our brain cannot comprehend or process due to potential lack of education, understanding, or even shock.
An increased rise of interest in domestic and sexual violence cases, as well as assault and harassment, have lead to a rise in questions across the internet. How could they allow this to happen to them? Why did they not just leave? Who waits this long to report their abuse?
The problem? When we focus questions on how an individual allowed abuse to happen to them, we dismiss their trauma and inadvertently fuel the fire of victim-blaming. While unintentional much of the time and not demonstrated by all, knowledge and self-awareness of this issue can help us in practicing drawing our attention towards the real problem – how an abuser could feel it’s their right to bring harm to another
When our view of a just and happy society is threatened, we can unintentionally question the victim in an attempt to make sense of the shock and assure ourselves that nothing bad will happen to us.
Shifting the Conversation
It takes time and intentional conversations to change the mindset of individuals at a social level. Looking back at the Civil Rights Movement, we know that it did not succeed in a day. It grew from bravery and an ability to spark meaningful conversations that inspired like-minded individuals to unite and connect with others in an attempt to provide education and insight.
Conversational shifts occur when we begin to recognize our internal desires and process domestic and sexual violence as a threat that can be addressed within our community. We take back the social power and control involved normalizing our ability to speak about violence and define a safe and healthy community for all.
So how can we accomplish this?
Speak up when you hear jokes or comments that minimize domestic & sexual violence, assault, abuse, or sexual harassment. When we downplay the acts of an abuser with humor or casual talk, we can minimize the experiences and trauma. Speaking up is defined when we inform others a line has been crossed and have civil discussions that can inspire understanding and empathy.
Speak to your children early and often. Speaking with children about important topics can be hard. We want to protect them, keep them safe, and ensure their happiness. Beginning conversations early (and in simple, understandable terms) can ensure their safety and happiness by levelling comfort levels when it comes to talking about uncomfortable situations, allows them to define healthy relationships for themselves, and inspires a connection to talk to you if something were to happen.
Don’t be afraid to talk and ask questions. Talk with someone you’re comfortable with and ask questions. Inspire the understanding that you are someone who individuals may approach if they are experiencing abuse, and know community resources you can recommend if they want to seek help. Don’t be afraid to question what healthy relationships are and mean for you, your loved ones, and others.
Remember that you are not alone. We cannot pour from an empty cup. Establishing boundaries and remembering that support and information exists is important. Remember that success grows when we work together. Request educational courses for your place of employment, volunteer and receive valuable insight and training, and advocate for organizations that work to end domestic and sexual violence and empower individuals.
Validate the feelings of others & stop using phrases like “too sensitive”. If you’ve told a joke or crossed the boundary of another individual, consider their feelings and apologize for having crossed a line. Explain to them that you respect they have shared their concern and that you appreciate their openness with you. We all have personal boundaries that can make situations uncomfortable. This does not make us sensitive, it makes us human.
Advocate for workplace policies and continued conversations that stand against abuse, assault, and violence. Domestic and sexual violence cost businesses and individuals millions of paid days off each year. Ensure your co-workers are educated and empowered to speak up if they experience any type of domestic or sexual violence at home, in public, or in the workplace.
Know The Process
Even in instances of human trafficking, we see that relationships between an individual and an abuser don’t typically start off abusive.
Grooming, a tactic utilized by abusers to gain trust and maintain power and control over an individual, generally takes place in a relationship before the abuse. In domestic violence, this may often times be identified by the overwhelming attention one may receive, gifts that distract one from red flags, and/or romantic gestures that appear too deep emotional connections. In sexual assault, the abuser may work to build a friendship first and even request that it be a secret. From there, they may provide gifts and make promises that inspire a sense of indebtedness and potential trust.
Healthy relationships can be defined by an equal balance of power and control, meaning that both feel respected, cared for, and loved.
Power & control is maintained in abusive relationships through the utilization of different forms of abuse that appear uniquely in each relationship and may often feel subtle or normal.
The Power & Control Wheel define the various forms of emotional, economic, sexual, and physical abuses that can exist uniquely in each relationship and possibly feel ordinary or subtle. Types include the use of coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, minimizing, denying, and blaming, using children, economic abuse, and potential male privilege.
Understand & Believe
When someone parks their car in a store parking lot and comes back to find their window shattered, we don’t blame them for choosing their chosen parking spot or for having experienced burglary. So why do we continue to question individuals behaviors, choice of clothing, or the time it took them to escape abuse?
Associating with individuals and their trauma does not mean that we have to experience the abuse that they have endured. It says that we understand it does not discriminate in any way, that we know the dynamics of abusive relationships, and that we are committed to focusing questions on why the abuser committed the abuse and not why an individual experienced the abuse.
You. Your mother. Your brother. Your sister. Your father. Your best friend. The person you passed on the street ago one year to the day.
It is not anyone else’s fault but the abuser.
Start by believing individuals and understand the bravery and courage that it takes to vocalize a traumatic experience. Start by questioning how an abuser can take such intimate and personal connections and abuse them so carelessly that they harm others.
Albion Fellows Bacon Center is a non-profit agency serving 11 counties in Southern Indiana. Donate today and join us in the fight against domestic and sexual violence.