Preventing Sexual and Domestic Violence Before it Occurs
3/1/2011 12:00 AM
by Sandra Molinari
How many times have you heard it said about victims of domestic violence, “Why doesn’t she just leave? She complains but never really does anything about it. She must like it, in some sick way.” Or about rape survivors, “You know, I don’t want to say it was her fault, but…. [fill in the blank: “she was in a dangerous part of town … she had been drinking with the wrong crowd … she was dressed so provocatively, what did she expect??…”]. The horrifying gang rape several months ago of an 11-year-old in a small Texas town and subsequent misplaced focus of the media on the child’s “inappropriate” choice of clothing, is appalling, and another perfect example of victim-blaming.
As a person who has worked in the sexual and domestic violence field for the better part of a decade, I have gotten to know scores of women, men and children who have suffered at the hands of sexual predators and/or family members who claimed to love them. It is a daunting task to convince them that they are NOT to blame for the violence that was perpetrated against them.
Why not instead ask the question, “Why did X hurt Y? And how can X and others be prevented from hurting people in the future?” As a woman in one of my groups once put it: All this empowerment work that is focused on us survivors of domestic violence is great: I can tell you I’m never going to put up with that kind of abuse again! But what about my ex? He’s just going to move on to another woman and start beating her up. What are we going to do about him? Where does the violence end?…
This pertinent question of hers really got me thinking. After years of working with victims/survivors and feeling like we are mostly administering band-aids, my yearning was to get to the root of the problem: let’s shift the focus onto stopping the violence before it occurs, or what we call Primary Prevention. In so doing, we must pose the question: What is the context in which sexual and domestic violence occur? I believe they certainly do not happen in a vacuum, rather, there are many contributing factors that perpetuate them and which seriously need to be addressed if we wish to hand out fewer band-aids and keep the patient from getting injured in the first place.
Before going on, I wish to clarify that other types of approaches to treating and addressing sexual and domestic violence are undeniably important and necessary: victims/survivors need quality interventions for the many physical and emotional consequences of victimization, and we can all benefit from understanding the dynamics of rape or domestic violence in order to be better prepared to protect ourselves from potentially dangerous situations. A good example of the latter is Watch Your Drink “risk reduction” campaigns, designed to make people (often students on college campuses) aware of date rape drugs. The logic is as follows: if Katia keeps an eye on her drink while she’s out with her friends, it is less likely that she’ll be the victim of a date rape drug and potential sexual assault. True enough – Katia has protected herself. But let’s take this a bit further: what about her friend Sarah, sitting across the street in another club? Will she be safe from that same predator? Can we not imagine that the ill-intentioned person who’d originally targeted Katia, might find himself sitting next to Sarah later that evening and decide to prey on her? In no way has a sexual assault been prevented from happening on that given evening; we can only say that one person, Katia, is likely out of danger.
Another example is a project with which I’ve had direct experience, and which is in the piloting stages: it entails providing abusive men in treatment programs (commonly called Batterers Intervention Programs) the opportunity to listen directly to survivors of domestic violence with whom they have no prior relationship. Female survivors come speak to groups of men in a panel format, and tell their stories of suffering, survival and how the abuse affected them and their children, as objectively as possible, without finger-pointing or moralizing. Women have expressed that they felt tremendous satisfaction and empowerment in being able to tell their story to men who exhibit similar behaviors to that of their former partners, and to be heard, quite simply. The primary goal of this initiative – from a prevention perspective — is to help perpetrators build understanding and empathy skills, in the hopes that perhaps something they hear will help them change their attitudes and behaviors toward their current or future partners. Again, a promising initiative, but one that does not necessarily get at the root of the issue of domestic violence.
And so, let us turn to the underlying causes of sexual and domestic violence, and how we might focus our prevention efforts there as well. Some of these causes exist on the individual and relational levels. For instance, it is common to blame alcohol and drug use for these forms of interpersonal violence. Well, yes, but have you ever noticed that most people who have a few too many drinks never cross the line into mistreating their partner, much less committing a rape? There must be more to it, don’t you think? Another common culprit is a perpetrator having witnessed physical violence in the home as a child: this too can definitely contribute to a person’s choice to batter or be sexually aggressive. And in the case of the 11-year-old gang rape victim, one might suspect that the men and boys who perpetrated the assault “egged each other on”; indeed, association with sexually aggressive peers is regarded as a risk factor for sexual violence.
However, while the above risk factors are important to consider, I’m not convinced that they are sufficient: I believe it is crucial that we look at the bigger picture as well, the underlying causes at the community and societal levels. For instance, what does it say to young people when there are weak community sanctions against rape? Case in point: what was the town’s reaction to that assault of a Texas schoolgirl? According to the media, it would appear that some residents felt great concern about the perpetrators having to “live with this for the rest of their lives” yet very little compassion was expressed (publicly, at least) about the victim, and evidently many folks from the town and across the nation had harsh words for the victim and her family. In this context, could we not conclude that victim-blaming is more acceptable than promotion of safe communities and respect for women and girls?
There also exist various social norms that are supportive of sexual and domestic violence in our country, that need to be substituted with others that would lead toward greater gender equality and the elimination of many forms of interpersonal violence. To begin with, we could focus on narrow definitions of masculinity, limited roles for women, violence, power and control, and silence/privacy. No simple task, yet a crucial one because these are norms by which an entire society lives, even if many of us consciously and actively work to replace them with healthier ones in our own daily lives.
Efforts made in the larger societal context will inevitably interact with those put forth in communities, families and with individuals. For instance, can you see how working to weaken social norms of power and control and violence might positively impact the judicial system (with victims of rape and family violence being treated better by law enforcement and in the court system), enhance family environments, and thus trickle down to altering individuals’ otherwise hostile attitudes towards one another?
Alright, you say, this makes sense, but HOW do we begin to address these underlying causes of sexual and domestic violence? For a start, any efforts we undertake need to be strategic and aimed at changing things for the good of large groups of people, rather than focusing solely on changing individuals. Next, initiatives ought to be long-term (we didn’t get here overnight, and sustainable change takes patience and time) and comprehensive (again, addressing risk factors at all levels). Finally, communities must be engaged and mobilized to address domestic and sexual violence based on their own specific needs – there simply is no cookie cutter formula.
Some noteworthy examples include the following. In Austin and elsewhere, successful programs have been put in place to teach youth to be active bystanders in situations of sexual harassment, bullying, or dating violence: it is a beautiful thing to see a teenager step in to defuse an escalating situation among his/her peers! A few campuses around the country have worked extensively with college football players on breaking down gender stereotypes, and as a result these young men now display gentler, more sensitive expressions of masculinity. What better choice of a role model than the all-American football star, to begin to alter young men’s attitudes and behaviors towards women?
Finally, and most importantly, I believe preventing sexual and domestic violence before they occur involves working in the name of social justice: broader issues of poverty, unemployment, and various oppressions (sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc.) must be seriously addressed in order for true social change to take place for the entire community. Unless we work towards eradicating the social injustices that provide support for violence in our society, any changes that occur can only be at the surface level. Awareness and education campaigns in our current social and economic landscape, for instance, may help people to better serve victims/survivors and make some people feel safer; but ultimately, if society as a whole continues to view women and girls as less worthy of respect and dignity than men and boys (or People of Color as less than White people, gays as less than straight, etc.), then dynamics of violence, power and control, and hate will continue to dominate our relationships at all levels. And rape and domestic abuse will not cease.
Sexual and domestic violence are issues that belong to ALL of us, not just because they affect so many of us personally, but because the entire community is affected in one way or another: a child molested may grow up to be a predator in my neighborhood; your co-worker whose ex-husband is stalking and threatening her might one day come to your workplace and go on a shooting rampage; degrading images of women in magazines, videos and on the Internet means all women are at risk of violence. And by extension, all families are at risk of suffering and trauma. And so it is WE, the community and society at large, who must take responsibility for finding long-term solutions and stopping the violence before it happens. Won’t you join me?
Sandra Molinari lives in Austin, Texas and has worked with survivors of sexual and domestic violence since 2002.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published at hippymom.com
This has been republished with their permission.