Domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and battering are all different names for the same alarmingly widespread social problem. It affects more people than you think—one in every four people experience abuse—and what we see in the media isn’t the whole picture.
Recently we’ve seen domestic violence news about high-profile celebrities, framed in a typical manner: a male abuser and a female victim. Although every 9 seconds, a woman in the United States is assaulted or beaten, domestic violence isn’t just a problem between women and their male abusers. It affects us all.
Domestic violence affects entire families, endangering the safety and mental development of young children. And elderly adults and disabled family members are often the most vulnerable to domestic violence, due to dependence on caretakers and lack of mobility. Family pets are often treated cruelly too. A study from 11 U.S. cities revealed that a history of animal abuse is one of the four largest indicators for potential domestic abusers.
Domestic violence doesn’t only affect women. More than 830,000 men fall victim to domestic violence every year in the U.S. (National Violence Against Women Survey). Men, women, same-sex couples, and gender variant folks are all victims. Recently, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) survey showed that one in five trans people experienced domestic violence for their non-conforming gender identities.
Intimate partner violence doesn’t begin in adulthood. One in five high school girls has been physically or sexually assaulted by a dating partner. Sadly, eight U.S. states don’t consider a violent dating relationship domestic abuse, leaving teens unable to obtain a restraining order for protection from their abuser.
Domestic violence is closely related to gun violence. While it can, and often does, extend beyond physically abusive behavior to include sexual violence, financial exploitation, stalking, harassment and emotional abuse; tragically, it commonly ends in gun violence. According to an analysis of mass shootings since January 2009 released by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns (a coalition from around the country), “There was a noteworthy connection between mass-shooting incidents and domestic or family violence.” A majority of the mass shootings in the four-year period studied were domestic-violence related.
The epidemic of domestic violence affects every one of us. We need to stop it together. Here are a few resources that help victims, and actions we each can take to make change happen.
The Hotline provides crisis intervention, information and referrals for victims of domestic violence, perpetrators, friends and families. Their toll-free number is available nationwide—helping victims find the courage to act and a local shelter.
As a woman, it’s hard to grow up without exposure to sexual violence of some kind. While I was lucky to get out of my early childhood unscathed, I experienced sexual harassment from several peers beginning in middle school, and was involved in a verbally abusive relationship in high school, which led to choosing a verbally abusive marriage.
Even as I was making poor decisions in partners, my inner voice wondered, “Why am I doing this?” Pushing aside our inner voice is, I believe, one of the key reasons why I and so many other women find ourselves in the less-than-ideal situations that lead to sexual assault.
Sexual Assault is an umbrella term, which includes child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact (touching or grabbing), unwelcome exposure of another’s body (exhibitionism), domestic violence, and rape. This month is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The ultimate goal: raise our children with the core values that help them avoid sexual assault.
Encourage healthy sexuality at a young age
An awareness of what is wrong starts with an understanding about what’s right. And this, parents, is up to you. Sexuality needs to be discussed many, many times: think of it more as a series of moments where you can educate your kids, not one Big Talk. If you’re wondering how to educate your kids about sexuality, check out this great healthy sexuality PDF from National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).
It’s important to keep these conversations age appropriate, addressing different topics at each age. NSVRC offers another helpful PDF with an excellent chart to help parents understand what’s “normal” for sexual development at various ages, and which conversations to have.
Talking to your kids about sexuality is only part of the issue, though. My father was an OB/GYN and my mother a nurse, so I grew up knowing “the birds and the bees.” Yet, I still didn’t make good decisions.
Teach your children that they own their own bodies
At my daughter’s second birthday party, a friend tried to force her daughter to hug mine. My little girl is very shy, didn’t know this girl very well, and didn’t want to. My response? “You don’t have to hug anyone you don’t want to.” It is very important to me that my daughter knows that she owns her body and makes all decisions concerning it. This means she doesn’t have to hug or kiss anyone she doesn’t want to, even if I’m worried the other person might be offended.
While well-intentioned parents have a tendency to force their kids to hug or kiss their friends or grandparents, this practice can send an unintended, detrimental message to kids: Push aside your own feelings to make someone else happy. This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so ‘he’ll like me’ and kids enduring bullying because everyone is ‘having fun.’
If your children are huggers, teach them to ask others for permission to hug (“May I hug you?”). If you would like for them to hug Grandma, you can say: “I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won’t make you do it.” Teach them to respond with a hug, or a “no, thank you.” And mean what you say—don’t let any child feel disappointment or resentment from you. Explain your reasoning to family members, and remind them it’s not personal. Every child goes through stages where they don’t want to offer affection.
This is hardest for me as a parent, actually—I constantly want to kiss my daughter’s adorable little face, and at two, she often responds with a firm, “NO MOMMY!” Not wanting to squelch her currently strong inner voice, I usually respond with, “that’s okay, honey, it’s your body.”
Understand and talk to your kids about teen relationship violence
After years of bullying during middle school, I was desperate for acceptance. When my family and I moved to another state during my junior year in high school, I became involved with a verbally abusive boyfriend. Though the relationship lasted only four months, the damage lasted much longer—and led me to a verbally abusive marriage. While it is embarrassing for me to admit I didn’t value myself, I know that I’m not alone. By talking about it, I hope to help more young girls understand the long-term repercussions of their choices.
Talking with your children about healthy relationships is extremely important—second only to modeling good relationships. If you are not in a healthy relationship, your children are more likely to choose unhealthy relationships for themselves.
So how do you teach your kids about healthy relationships? Point out loving interactions, examples of good communication, and healthy boundaries when you see them, both in the media and in life. And point out examples of unhealthy interactions when you see them, as well.
If you suspect that your child is already in an unhealthy relationship, check out Love is Respect’s “Help Your Child.” This can be a very tricky situation to navigate, so if you need help, definitely get it — from a hotline, a counselor, or a domestic violence counselor.
Concerned and involved parents are key: what we teach our children truly can prevent sexual assaults. In addition, the wonderful charities mentioned in this post provide a wealth of information. Please donate now to help spread the word, fund research, and provide resources to parents, kids, and affected adults.