Virtual communities creating spaces for dialogue
Whether the occurrence of domestic violence or just the number of victims coming forward has increased, violence in intimate relationships has reached nearly epidemic proportions. In the United States alone, every minute about 20 people are abused physically by their intimate partners, as reported by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. On a global scale, 30 percent of women in relationships experience violence from their partner, according to the World Health Organization. Though the statistics are unsettling, there has been an increase in awareness in popular culture. Social media can be thanked for promoting the conversation about this prominent issue that affects men and women every single day.
In September 2014, the infamous video of Baltimore Raven’s player Ray Rice punching his then fiancee Janay Palmer in an elevator earlier that year attracted national attention. By the time the video surfaced, Palmer and Rice had been married for six months, and people began to question why she would marry him if he was abusive. Shortly after the video was released, Time magazine published an article titled, “Instead of Asking Women Why They Stay, We Should Ask Men Why They Hit,” that explained the negative consequences of victim blaming and the importance of asking the right questions when it comes to instances of domestic violence.
There are many reasons that victims of domestic violence do not seek help and feel as if freeing themselves of the toxic relationship is impossible, including but not limited to: fear, monetary restrictions and a lack of knowledge about their resources. Additionally, many times the control the abuser gains over the victim causes them to have low self-esteem and feel as if they are unable to escape the abuse, according to The Advocacy Center of Ithaca.
Dana Fleitman, senior manager of prevention and training programs at Jewish Women International, explained the role of control in unhealthy relationships. “Abuse is about power and control. It’s about one person deliberately gaining power to control the other person. When the victim doesn’t do what the abuser wants, the abuser will punish him or her in some way,” she said.
Fleitman described the range of these punishments: yelling, making them feel guilty, violating privacy, and texting or emailing constantly.
Though these different types of abuse exist, often times the general public seems to think abuse isn’t valid until it turns physical. “Often, people don’t take relationship abuse seriously unless there’s physical violence,” Fleitman said. “When a relationship is physically abusive, it is just about always emotionally abusive as well—physical abuse doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
When people ask, “Why didn’t he/she just leave?” in reference to intimate partner violence like the pubic did in response to the Ray Rice scandal, it perpetuates victim blaming which places the guilt on the wrong person. Jessica Teperow, director of prevention programs at REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, articulated the problematic nature of victim blaming. “It [victim blaming] focuses the responsibility on the survivor and says that it is up to that person to stop the abuse…We don’t ask the question ‘why does someone abuse’ as much as we ask, ‘Why does someone stay?’” she said.
Oftentimes the violence happens within formal relationships or frequent hook-up partners, which makes the person especially vulnerable to danger when they try to break things off.
“Breaking up is hard in a healthy relationship, and it’s a lot harder in an abusive one,” Fleitman said. This is because it is likely the abuse will escalate, and because of the isolation that occurs during the relationship, the victim may not have anyone to turn to.
Teperow continued in saying it is common for the abuser to be in a position of leadership or popularity among their peers and can be charming toward the family and friends of their partner.
“The blame is internalized by survivors,” Teperow said. “And it is reinforced by friends and family when they ask questions like, ‘What did you do that upset them?”
Of course, there is also the conflict that arises when even after all of the hurt the abuser has caused, the survivor still loves them or the person they thought they were.
The uproar after the Ray Rice video release inspired Beverley Gooden, a victim and survivor of domestic violence herself, to take to twitter and express her thoughts on the matter. She tweeted, “I tried to leave the house once after an abusive episode, and he blocked me. He slept in front of the door that entire night. #WhyIStayed,” at 11:47 AM on Sept. 8, 2014. Seven hours after Gooden’s initial tweet, 110 tweets including the same hashtag were being posted per minute as stated in Time magazine’s aforementioned article.
Hashtags are used across various social media outlets to string together posts about similar topics. They started primarily on Twitter and allow users to easily find everything related to one particular topic. As social media started as an entertainment based internet tool, it has now become an outlet for news and other messages to be spread in an efficient way. More recently, campaigns like Gooden’s have been spread through tweets, photos and status updates which National Public Radio referred to as “Hashtag Activism” in its article “Hashtag Activism in 2014: Tweeting ‘Why I Stayed.”
Gooden reflected on the way social media helped her message reach many people. “I think social media gives people the opportunity to reach across the globe in a confined space, which can be great for promoting a targeted message,” she said. “You reach an intended audience and potentially gain a new audience. It’s effectiveness really depends on the message, the medium, and the audience response.”
And though nothing on the internet can ever really be deleted, this may not be a bad thing for the legacy of Gooden’s message. “The good thing about hashtags is that they will always be there and people can always find messages of hope and understanding when they click on #WhyIStayed,” Gooden said.
#WhyIStayed took off in 2014, but four years prior the One Love Foundation, an advocacy organization for domestic violence was founded by Sharon Love, whose daughter was tragically killed by an ex-boyfriend. The goal of One Love is to “change the social climate that currently enables abuse to take place and reduce the amount of social capital required for bystanders to intervene” as explained in its mission statement. On Oct. 13, 2015, One Love started its “#ThatsNotLove” campaign and published a video on YouTube titled “Because I Love You” which depicts young men and women showing how the term “I love you” can be used to defend abusive actions.
Since then, the video has been viewed over a million times. Besides its online presence, One Love presents workshops at college campuses around the United States that encourage bystander interference, but most importantly, teach ways to recognize domestic violence.
The presence of this online activism makes it a topic that more college aged students come into contact with on a daily basis, furthering conversation. The One Love Foundation writes in the mission statement that it is trying to achieve awareness by “Meeting young people where they are, on campus and online.” With Digital Marketing Ramblings reporting that 46 percent of college students find themselves tweeting every single day, One Love has the right idea when it comes to reaching its target audience. But, as Teperow put it, “The online dialogue is often generated because of a horrible event… we should have the open dialogue proactively instead of reactively.”
Intimate partner violence happens everyday, and outsiders to the situation should not be reminded of this only when something especially tragic happens, whether it be in popular culture, to their loved one, or to themselves. The open dialogue about relationship abuse should be happening continuously, and one way this can be achieved is by means of prevention/education programs on college campuses.
One of the most dangerous places for women to live, as reported by CNBC in its piece “College rape crisis in America under fire,” is on a college campus. At some schools, there has recently been a high importance placed on awareness of the signs of abuse and ways to help victims. No More, a campaign to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault, listed resources specifically on college campuses that have been established to combat domestic violence. This list included Know Your IX, Students Active For Ending Rape on Campus (SAFER), End Rape on Campus (EROC) and FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture.
Know Your IX is a student and survivor-run organization that aims to teach the campus community about its Title IX rights and political activism, while SAFER, based at Columbia University, is more network-oriented and helps to establish relationships between current victims and survivors of sexual assault.
Teperow said at events she has been a part of on college campuses, students have expressed that more often there are resources available that focus on sexual assault then there are about intimate partner violence. Though sexual assault can be a component in intimate partner violence, the terms are by no means interchangeable. Fleitman agreed, and emphasized the necessity of prevention education.
“Everyone should learn what dating abuse is, how to identify red flags and how to talk to a friend they fear may be experiencing abuse,” she said. “We’re hearing a lot about sexual assault on campuses… but very little about dating abuse — which impacts over 40 percent of college women and nearly 30 percent of college men.”
It is necessary that awareness be raised on the incidence of relationship abuse on college campuses and especially understanding that ‘relationship’ can refer to boyfriend/girlfriend statuses, frequent hook-up partners or acquaintances.
“If we exclusively refer to it as dating violence, a lot of times people don’t use the specific term ‘dating’ to refer to their relationship status,” Teperow said. The first step is having the definition of intimate partner violence be inclusive of the array of relationship statuses that are present on college campuses.
These strides taken by college campuses are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to solving this epidemic in higher education environments across the world. The most important thing though, is to become aware and create allied relationships between the entire school community. When campus communities better understand how exactly domestic violence is defined and how to intervene when necessary, students will be able to find solace in the new resources being put into effect at universities across the nation.
Alexis Morillo is a freshman journalism major who kicks around the patriarchy in her free time. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.