Power of a Bystander: It Only Takes a Little

This is slightly different from my normal posts or topics but it is so important. Bullying is a huge problem. Everywhere, in schools, the workplace, the street, on the internet. Anyone could be a bully and anyone can be bullied. It doesn’t matter what gender, sexual orientation, race, economic status, or education level a person comes from. This is something that affects all of us.

According to BullyingStatistics.org 35% of kids have been threatened online and 1 in 4 have been verbally attacked more than once.  About 77% of students admit to being the victim of some form of bullying.  One out of every 20 students have seen another student with a gun at school (2010).

70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.  70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month and 41% witness bullying once a week or more (source).

When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time.

The video below shows not only the power of stepping in but what it looks like when someone doesn’t.

via YouTube

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Survivors Reclaim Body Parts

People in abusive relationships are taught (and shown) that their body is not their own, it does not belong to them.  It becomes another thing that their partner uses against them.  It can be vulnerability they weren’t prepared for.  The body can also carry memories of the abuse long after the relationship ends.

Attention: People With Body Parts is a body positivity movement started by Lexie Bean.  She started out collecting letters that friends and family members wrote to their body parts.  She’s about to publish an anthology* filled with letters survivors have written to their body parts.  Body parts that hold secrets, visible scars, and invisible memories.  Letters that focus on reclaiming those body parts and denouncing their partners control over their body.  I love this idea.

An abusive partner often takes control of the other persons body.  This can look like forced physical contact or sex, hitting, pushing, choking, and other forms of physical abuse.  It could be forcing a woman to become pregnant or to have an abortion.  It could be restraining their partner or blocking them from leaving.  Hiding birth control.  Telling their partner how to look or what to wear.

Boundaries are healthy.  Everybody has some sort of boundaries when they start a relationship.  They can change and evolve overtime as a couple gets to know each other and becomes more invested in the relationship.  In an abusive relationship those boundaries are often eroded over time or stripped away at the whims and desire of one person.  There isn’t conversation about how this will happen.  There isn’t consent.  It can be sudden and violating or it may happen slowly over time with manipulation and increasing pressure.

These letters recognize a part of the healing process that I don’t think is talked about enough.  They also recognize that people heal at different rates and that there are many layers to these relationships.  I thought I would give it a try for myself.  If anyone else would like to write a letter to a body part I would love to publish them.  Please use the contact page to send me an email.

Dear Hands,

You have become strong these past few years though I know their was a time when you felt neglected; often reaching out for comfort only to find empty space.  You protected me when you could and soothed injuries when you couldn’t.  You worked tirelessly to pacify his mood swings and write letters declaring love and loyalty.

I remember that day when he stopped noticing you.  He treated you like a nuisance instead of a comfort.  His hand reached to you, but only in secret while the other reached for another woman.  But you are strong now.  You work not only to protect me but to protect others.  You reach now not for him but to be an anchor for others.  Through you I know that they understand.  We are of the same breed.  We are survivors; you, me, and the others.  Through you I can give them comfort and show them they are not alone.  Through you we will change the world.

You survived.

Thank you.

Much love.

____________________________

*The anthology is called Portable Homes and is due to be published on December 10th of this year.

Read the original article where I heard about these letters here.

The Wrong Question

Why didn’t you leave?  I would have left a long time ago.  Don’t you want what’s best for you and your children?  Why did you stay?

Almost anyone who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship hears some form of these words in their lifetime.  What might not be understood by those outside of the relationship are that there are so many complicated factors that play into this.  A better way to ask the question, why do women stay in abusive relationships, might be what keeps women in abusive relationships?  The first question sounds accusatory and produces feelings of guilt and shame.  It makes women feel defensive, embarrassed, stupid, and wrong.  The last thing we want to do as someone outside the relationship is push her further into isolation.  The second question can be answered more readily by women in the relationship.  It acknowledges the fact that there are things beyond their control that play in the decision to stay.

When asked this question here are some of the responses we hear.  There is a fear of the abusive partner and his ability to retaliate.  Staying with him provides security.  He may be the only source of income for the family.  If she leaves she will have no money, nowhere to go.  So she has to ask herself is it better to stay or to be homeless?  “Better the devil you know…”  He may have threatened her, her children, or her friends and family.  The most dangerous time is when she’s leaving and she is more likely to be killed.  There may be pressure from her community, culture and/or family to stay.  Sometimes women who leave are blamed, shunned, or disowned.  She may want to keep the family together.  He may not be a bad father to the children.

No one is all bad all the time.  Many abusers are quite charming and friendly at first.  What we know about abuse is that it happens in cycles.  There is a period of “making up” where he promises to change.  And she loves him so she wants to believe him.  Most of the time she doesn’t want the relationship to end, she wants the abuse to end.

It is never just one of these reasons.  It is 2 or 3 combined, and it is more likely all of them.  There are infinite more factors that keep women in abusive relationships, because while we can see general trends in these relationships each situation is different.  Each women and each man has a different story.  The most common reasons that keep women in abusive relationships are low self-esteem/poor self-concept, economic deprivation, witnessing violence as a child, and wanting to keep the family together for the sake of the children.

So the questions why didn’t you leave, or why did you stay, are not questions that encompass the complexity of the relationship and abuse she’s experienced.  Instead we should be asking why is he abusive?  Why doesn’t he stop?

Why do men abuse women?

As an anti domestic violence movement we pushed hard for a woman’s right to leave the relationship.  What we are discovering now is that the pendulum has swung too far.  She has the right to stay in the relationship as well.  I know that sounds a little weird but this is a movement about empowering women.  It is not empowering to fail.  It is not empowering to leave before she is ready because everyone else is telling her it’s the right thing to do.  Sometimes it really is safer to stay.  She knows how to keep herself safe and was been doing so long before she reached out to anyone.  So again, the question should not be about her, but him.

What is he doing to keep her in that relationship?  Why is he abusing her?  How is the larger culture teaching him that it is okay to be violent toward women?

_________________________

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a free, confidential, and safe hotline staffed 24/7.  Advocates are there not only for those in abusive relationsips but for friends, family, and allies as well.  Please call if you are looking for support or answers.

1-800-799-7233

There is Power in Storytelling

I facilitate a weekly support group for the women I serve who have experienced intimate partner violence.  Often times all I do is pose a question or topic and it takes off from there.  I am constantly being surprised and touched by the women in this group and what sticks with me the most is the power in their storytelling.  First of all it allows each woman to see and hear the similarities in each others stories.  They know and connect with other women who have been in violent, unhealthy, and abusive relationships.  An abusive person often keeps his or her partner isolated from their friends and family.  Sharing what they went through helps to break this isolation.  They learn that the relationship they were in was not normal or healthy.  They hear their experiences being spoken in another woman’s voice and they feel connected to something bigger than themselves.  Through sharing they help to break the silence surrounding intimate partner violence.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM) and this week is the Week Without Violence at my work.  For this we decided to participate in something called The Clothesline Project.  This is a project that was started in Massachusetts in 1990 to address violence against women.  It is a way for *women who have been or know someone who has been affected by violence to share their stories by decorating a t-shirt.  After the t-shirts are finished they are hung up on display as a testimony to these women and their stories.  Originally different colored t-shirts meant different things.  For example, a white t-shirt symbolized a woman killed by an intimate partner, blue for sexual abuse and incest, purple for women who were attacked based on their sexual orientation, etc.  But it has grown from there mostly based on availability and economics (white shirts come in larger packs…).  The project has also grown to a world-wide one.

Last week during support group I explained this project and we painted t-shirts.  The experience was an incredibly moving one.  Mostly we painted in silence; each woman lost in her own memory.  But as they began to finish they began to share about their t-shirts.  There were a lot of tears, hugs, and nods of understanding.  This project served to connect this group of women in such a powerful way, more so than the rest of the groups we had done in the weeks prior.

One woman had painted a scene with flowers under a sky that was half sun and half clouds.  She explained that the flowers were for her and each of her children, and that they were growing through what they had gone through.  The smaller flowers were for the children because they were still growing and had so much potential still.  There were both clouds and the sun because tomorrow is always another day.  They had the chance to run and start over, and they took it.  Another woman put what she called her “freedom date” on the shirt; the date she left.  Another women wrote, “I have rights.”  And still another wrote that “love shouldn’t hurt” surrounded by the initials of women she knew who had survived.  Another woman painted a heart with wings in a cage.  On the back was the same picture but with the cage door open.  Still others wrote things like, “Stop the Silence,” “Never Again,” and simply “I survived.”  Others painted a purple ribbon with the names of those they knew who had been killed.

As they explained and held up the t-shirts they shared their experiences.  They named their abusers.  It was powerful for everyone involved.  This week the t-shirts will be put on display with others.  I am excited to share these t-shirts and vicariously be a voice for the women I work with.  For me DVAM is about more than making those in the community aware about domestic violence, it’s about sharing stories and breaking the silence for those who may be in abusive relationships themselves.  It is about connecting survivors with other survivors and letting them know they are not alone.

Clothesline Project

If you ever get the chance to view a Clothesline Project in your community I would highly suggest that you do it.

____________________________________________

*Please note that the language I am using is reflected by the project itself.  Domestic violence can affect anyone and does not discriminate based on gender, sex, religion, economic status, or education level.

For Your Eyes Only

No, I’m not talking about a James Bond movie.  In Spain an organization called Aid to Children and Adolescents at Risk Foundation (ANAR) came up with the idea to create an ad that shows adults and children different messages.  Depending on the angle you look at the ad you either see a child’s face with the words “sometimes, child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it,” or you see the same face with bruises on it and the message becomes, “if somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you.”  It has to do with the height of the person looking at the ad.  Smaller people, ie children, are able to see the message if they are under a certain height.  The idea is that the child can see this message, along with the organizations help line number, even in the presence of their abuser, or aggressor.

I think this is an awesome idea.  In reading some of the comments on the video and other articles I’ve seen something that has come up for other readers/viewers is that this ad is exposing the “normal” or “innocent” children to abuse.  Disclaimer, I do not have children.  But if I did I would have no problem with them seeing this ad.  It is important for children to understand that bad things happen, and that bad things can happen to children.  I also believe in teaching children the correct and real names for their private parts.  Teaching children about abuse, letting them see this ad, is a form of empowering them to have a voice.  Even if that child is not being abused one of their friends might be.  We need to give children more credit sometimes.  They see and notice more than we think they do.  I’m not saying that you should go into graphic detail with a child about the types and forms of abuse but there is nothing wrong with teaching a child to recognize it.  Same thing with teaching them proper names for their genitalia.  First of all the words vagina and penis are not bad words.  They are part of our bodies.  Teaching that they are bad creates a culture of shame.  Second of all if a child is being abused and they do not have the language to express what is happening, or where someone is touching them, it is dangerous.  It keeps children in the dark, and their abusers in power.

So, without further ado here is the video.  What are your thoughts?  Do you think the ad has the potential to do any good?

Domestic Violence and Glorifying a Violent Response

This song, “Never Again,” came out on the 2001 album “Silver Side Up” by Nickelback.  It depicts a domestic violence relationship between a husband and a wife through the eyes of their child.  The song talks about the violence and how the woman tries to protect the child by sending him to his room.  But the child knows what is happening and is afraid the man is going to kill her.  She ends up in the hospital where she lies to the nurse about the injuries.  The song ends with the woman, who’s “had enough,” fighting back and shooting the man.

The first time I heard this song I didn’t listen to the whole thing.  I misinterpreted the whole song based on the first few lines and disgustedly turned it off.  It wasn’t until recently that I thought of it again and managed to hear the whole thing (and look up the lyrics).

I have love/hate feelings about this song.  First of all I think it is a good issue to make a song about.  It is a good way to bring a “private” issue into the public eye.  Domestic violence isn’t something that often happens in public places.  No, it happens in the privacy of homes and on the privacy of the victim’s body.  What I mean by that is bruises and marks are often in places that can be hidden or covered up.

The problems though, start with the myths portrayed in the song.  People often think that when the abuser becomes violent it is out of anger, or rage, or that there is an external factor such as drugs or alcohol.  The truth is that the abuse happens in cycles and it is going to happen whether or not the abuser is drunk, high, or angry.  It looks like this.  Tension builds.  The victim becomes fearful and feels like she is walking on egg shells around the abuser.  Then the incident happens.  Some sort of violence occurs, whether it is physical, mental, emotional, verbal, spiritual, etc.  After this the abuser tries to reconcile.  He apologizes, says it was an accident, that it will never happen again.  Then the “honeymoon” phase occurs.  The incident is forgotten and the abuser is on his best behavior.  But this can only last so long and soon the victim starts becoming worried that it is going to fall apart.  The tension builds.  It can take weeks, months, or years to complete a cycle, or it can happen several times a day.

Either way the “incidents” are going to keep happening.  The abusers goal is to maintain power and control over the victim.  It may look like anger from the outside but he is very much in control and knows exactly what he is doing.

The other problem I have with this song is the ending.  In the end it says that she’s had enough and she shoots him.  It is glorifying the victims violent response to the abuse.  In a way it is encouraging the notion that the only way out is a return of the violence.  It is suggesting praise for such a response and in return minimizes any other response.  The woman in this song is strong because she did something about it and ended the violence.  What about the women who don’t?  The ones who run, or even the ones who stay?

People are pretty unforgiving towards a victim who stays.  A domestic violence relationship is extremely complicated.  It may look clear-cut to those on the outside but it is anything but.  I explained the cycle above but there are also feelings involved.  Yes, it is possible for a victim of domestic violence to love her abuser.  He is not violent all the time.  And if she does leave the chances that she will go back are high.  She often has to leave and come back more than once before she can leave him for good.  That is why I do not like the ending.  It implies that these women, the ones who stay, are weak.  They are anything but.   The most dangerous time is when she tries to leave.  They are not stupid, or blind.  They are surviving.

So the song makes for a mostly good message.  But it only focuses on the violence.  From the abuser and eventually the victim.  It is a good start I suppose and it does get people talking about something that most of us would rather not think about.

**Above I refer to the victim as a woman and the abuser as a man because that is true the majority of the time.  I understand that men can be victims, women can be abusers, and violence happens in gay and lesbian relationships.**

The Shock Value in Advertising

**Trigger Warning**

A new campaign by a British organization called This is Abuse attempts to tackle issues of abuse, rape, and assault in relationships.  The website offers a variety of resources including, myths about rape, how to know if you’re being abused, how to know if you are abusive, and how to get help.  It really is a well done campaign.

The thing that has attracted the most attention though is their ads.  I even heard a morning talk show talking about the campaign ads while I was at work.  The show was discussing how far is too far and if these particular ads cross the line.  Below is the first ad I saw titled “If You Could See Yourself.”  The idea is that if you were an outsider and could see yourself would you call it rape.  It focuses on the fact that the majority of people who are raped are done so by a trusted friend, family member, co-worker etc., not by a stranger.  Please be aware that the video may be triggering and it is difficult to watch.

The first time I saw this ad I couldn’t help but cringe.  It stirred up terrible emotions inside of me.  But then I remember thinking how powerful it could be.  Not everyone who rapes another person would later regret it or recognize their actions as rape.  But bringing awareness to the fact that pressuring someone into sex that doesn’t want it is not consensual and therefore is rape.  It is not always recognized that way.  The word rape is scary and something that happens to other people.  People do not always think about the fact that rape can happen in loving relationships.  It can happen in a committed relationship where two people are dating.  It can happen in a marriage.  That is why I think these ads are a good thing.

The morning show I saw was talking about using the “shock value” in advertising.  They were saying that this particular ad bordered on going too far and just wanted to shock people to get them to watch it.  While it is true that we are becoming desensitized to violence and it takes more and more to shock us, I do not agree that this is the case with these ads.  Rape and sexual assault are shocking and rightly so.  The fact that it happens at all should shock people.  If we become complacent about this we lose an important piece of our humanity.  Sure, maybe little children should not be allowed to watch it but teenagers who are just starting to date need to know that pushing someone beyond what they are comfortable with is not okay.  Of course, it is not only teenagers but it is a place to start.  I almost think that something like this would be good to show in schools as part of the sex education curriculum.  Granted I do not have children so I do not know if I would feel differently if I did.  Those of you that do have kids what are your thoughts?  Is this ad too shocking and did they go too far?

Here is the second ad that deals with abusive relationships.

This is Abuse

“It’s OK to Tell:” A Thriving Survivor

“Lauren Book grew up in what looked like a stable upper class home. But over six years, Lauren was sexually and physically abused by the family’s female nanny. Her memoir It’s OK to Tell challenges commonly held ideas about sexual abuse, and she speaks with host Michel Martin. (Advisory: This segment may not be suitable for all audiences.)”

Below is the audio segment.  Here’s the link to the transcript as found on NPR.org.

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=150286297&m=150286288&t=audio

” True surviving does not begin until the perpetrator is out of the survivor’s life. That’s when true healing and the work really, really begins…”

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.  According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) every 2 minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted.  54% of victims never report and 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.  Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.  1 out of every 6 women is the US have been the victim of rape or attempted rape and 1 in every 33 men.  15% of victims are under the age of 12.  93% of juvenile victims know the offender.

While statistics are important they are only about half of the story.  When we focus on sharing numbers we run the risk of making the person, the survivor, nothing more than a number.  So, while I share these statistics at the beginning I want to really focus on stories this month.  Stories of survivors, of the progress we’ve made and things that are being done, and of ways you can help or get involved if you choose to.

I use the word “victim” among the statistics because that is the language used by the police and when doing numbers.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, for the rest of the time and conversations that ensue I will be using the word “survivor.”  This is done very intentionally because that is what these people are.  They have survived.  I want to honor and focus on the strengths in them.  The word survivor gives power whereas the word victim takes it.  I also recognize that both women and men are survivors.  Most survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and rape are women though, so please forgive me if I exclusively say women or focus on the stories of women.  This is not meant by any means to minimize the experiences of men.

I want to start off the postings this month with a story.  She has agreed to let me share this with you.  Any identifying information has been removed or changed at her request.  Please note that the following story may be triggering as it talks about abuse and assault.

“I was so young when I met him.  We went to church together and he told me that he liked me.  We would hang out, going to movies, the park, and anywhere else our parents were willing to take us.  By the time we could drive we were spending almost all of our time outside of school together.  He was so sweet at first.  He bought me a necklace once just because.  He’d bring me flowers and surprise me with hand written notes.

The older we got though, the more I wondered about what we had.  He didn’t want me hanging out with other people and yet he would just disappear sometimes.  I would find out later that he was hanging out with our mutual friends and telling them things like I was sick.  He would also go out with other girls.  I didn’t know it at the time but he had another girlfriend.  One that he did all the same things with.  He pushed my physical boundaries until I hardly recognized them anymore.  We’d watch a movie and he would put his hand under my shirt.  I moved away hoping he would get the message but he didn’t.  He just followed me, closing me into the corner of the couch.  He never said anything, he just did it.  It was like my body belonged to him and therefore he could do whatever he wanted.

Then he moved away.  I found myself relieved instead of sad.  And happy instead of torn up.  I thought I could move on with my life and forget about him.  That I could take time to sort through the baggage that he had left me with.  But then I saw him again.  We ended up going to a camp together.  At first I didn’t feel anything.  I might have even been happy to see him because he was not an all bad person.  We did have fun together.  And he had once been sweet to me…

We ended up staying up talking after everyone had gone to bed.  Talking turned into tickling and I knew we were going to a place I didn’t want to be.  I tried to stop, to move away, I told him I was tired and wanted to go to bed, but the next thing I knew he was on top of me.  Like always he didn’t say anything.  He just started grinding against my body.  I was so frightened.  All I had to do was call out.  There other people right down the hall who could have helped me.  But all I could think about in that moment is that they wouldn’t believe me when I told them what had happened.  I thought I would be blamed for being alone with him.  I started to cry.  So I just laid there, very still, hoping he would get the message.  Eventually he did, either that or he became bored with me being unresponsive.  He kissed me on the cheek and said goodnight.  Then he left me there, under the cross, crying and unsure of what to do.

I went to bed and did not get up until people were packing up to go home.  He acted like nothing had happened but to me everything had changed.  I had to drive home with him in the car, right next to me.  I felt like throwing up and couldn’t even stand to have him bump against me.

A couple days later he caught me getting into my car.  All he said was, “Please, don’t tell anyone.”  Then he walked away.  And I didn’t.  I kept his secret.  I sat through discussions in church about purity and felt dirty.  He made me feel used and disposable.  It has taken me almost five years to even tell this much of what happened.  It was wrong and sometimes I still struggle with how to feel about myself and what happened.”

I want to thank this young woman for sharing her story and you for listening.  If anyone else would like to share a story please use the contact form to email me.  I realize this month of posting will be hard for people but it is important.  Sexual violence is something that is very prevalent and has a lasting impact of survivors and their families.  It is something that needs to stop.  I once again just ask that you remain respectful to the stories of others.  It takes a lot of courage to share.

The Reality in Romantic Comedies

I’ve never really been a fan of romantic comedies, or “chick flicks” as they’re commonly called.  I should like them.  They are the only genre made virtually exclusively for women.  Men role their eyes when the newest movies come out, hoping they won’t have to go see it on date night.  Women beg their boyfriends/husbands/significant others to watch a romantic movie framed with a candle light dinner and some snuggling on the couch.  It doesn’t really sound that bad.  Some quality time over a harmless, feel good movie.  Nothing wrong with that right?  Plus there are some of them that men and women generally agree on as being good.  When Harry Met Sally is one of them.  I’ve rarely heard a bad word about this film.

Even though I might enjoy a romantic comedy now and then, there is still something about them that rubs me the wrong way.  Especially more recent ones.  They seem to reflect what is going on in the larger social context.  Movies like No Strings Attached or Friends With Benefits promote the theme of causal sex outside of a committed relationship (side note, I have not seen either of these).  In general though this genre of movie seems regressive, sexist, and promotes hegemonic masculinity.  Let me break down what I mean.

Hegemonic masculinity has to do with the dominant perception of what it means to be a man.  Men are dominant and women are submissive.  In these movies we see white, straight men with washboard abs.  He is often aloof, most likely a jerk, and only after sex.  I think of movies like The Ugly Truth and What Happens in Vegas.

The woman on the other hand is usually a mess.  Either experiencing a terrible break up or so career driven she has no time for men.  You’re typical “Bitch.”  In the break up scenario we have a wonderful man stepping in and fixing her.  In the career driven track the man enters to show her that yes, she can experience love, if only she would loosen up a bit.  Usually he treats her terribly, leading to some sort of crying scene where she realizes that yes, she does in fact love this asshole that has been making her life miserable.  Does anyone else feel disturbed by these plot lines?  Again they feel incredibly sexist and regressive to me.  They show that a woman can only be truly happy with a man in her life.  Being single is miserable, unnatural, and at the worst a sin.  Even the woman who tells the world she is happy to be single is in fact secretly longing to be swept off her feet.  Scenes are full of women in coffee shops or parks gazing enviously at canoodling couples around them.

Another disturbing aspect of these movies is where the woman takes abuse from a man either because she loves him or wants to change him.  An older example of this is the beloved children’s movie Beauty and the Beast.  Not a romantic comedy but just bear with me.  Belle is literally locked in the dungeon, forced to wear clothing she does not want to, held captive, and continuously being yelled at.  Yet, at the end of the movie we are shown that if you love someone enough you can bring the humanity out of the beast.  This goes beyond sexism to me, and is down right dangerous.  Abusive and obsessive relationships are never okay and we should not be teaching our women (especially the young ones) that  this is acceptable.

So, in the end, we are attempting to put both men and women in a box with these movies. Enforcing the sexist scripts the we have been living into for ages.  Men must be dominant, strong, and independent.  Women on the other hand need a man, mustn’t be too independent, and always want children over a career.  It is a lot to live up to.  For both of us.

I can watch a romantic comedy now and then, but usually not without my blood pressure rising and annoying everyone around me with my snarky comments