6 Things I Wish My
Church Had Told Me about Domestic Violence
1. It happens. According
to the Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/ipv-nisvs-factsheet-v5-a.pdf),
33% of women and 28% of men will experience some form of physical violence at
the hands of a partner during their lifetime. Domestic Violence is an epidemic
that thrives in silence and stigma. The
more we talk about it, the more we diminish the stigma associated with it and
make it easier for those experiencing it to tell someone.
2. It happens
everywhere. Domestic Violence isn’t a problem that’s limited to certain
communities, ethnicities, or socioeconomic groups. It can and does happen in
all types of communities, including our own.
3. Abusers can be
charming, respected, upstanding members of the community. The more
survivors I get to know, whose stories I hear, a common thread emerges: their
abuser had everyone else fooled. Abusers
are master manipulators. No one starts dating a person who is outwardly cruel,
harsh, and controlling from day one. Who would date such a person? Abusers
start off by being engaging and charismatic, and usually remain so to the
outside world. It’s often only behind closed doors that the Jekyll and Hyde
phenomenon starts to emerge. And yet somehow this ‘monster myth’ persists – we
all think we can spot an abuser at 20 paces.
4. Abuse is more than
just physical – and NONE of it is ok. My church (and hopefully many others
in this day and age of heightened awareness) is pretty clear on the fact that
physical abuse is unacceptable. But abuse is not just physical. It can be
emotional, psychological, financial, and cultural. Does your partner call you
names, put you down, or make you feel worthless? Do they control what you do,
who you see, where you go, what you wear, or how you spend your money? Do they
threaten you or make you feel afraid? These are important questions to ask,
because they can uncover other types of abuse – the scars of which can
sometimes last long after the physical marks have healed.
5. You are not
responsible for the behavior of others, no matter how you dress. This can
be a tricky one for churches. What’s wrong with giving kids guidelines on how
to dress to promote an environment of modesty? The problem is with the
underlying messages that we send – messages that get internalized from a very
young age. When we tell young girls that they have a responsibility to dress in
such a way as to not ‘lead boys into sin,’ we convey that young men aren’t
accountable for their own actions. If you carry this line of thinking to its
conclusion, it’s not such a stretch to start blaming sexual assault on the way
a woman was dressed, or to ask (whether out loud or just thinking it) what an
abuse victim did to ‘provoke’ their abuser.
6. We can prevent it.
I’ll admit it: before coming to work for a DV agency, I probably considered
domestic violence one of those scourges on society that we were basically just
stuck with – something that would always be there and there wasn’t much we
could do about it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Strong community ties have
been shown to be a preventative factor against domestic violence. So something
as simple as getting to know your neighbors can be a step in the right
direction. The way we talk to kids about relationships – all relationships –
from a very young age can make a difference.
“Surprises” instead of “secrets,” defining personal boundaries and
teaching them it’s ok to say no, fostering openness and communication, learning
to ask the right questions…all of these can promote healthy relationships in
young people. We can learn to recognize warning signs, learn what to say to a
friend who might be experiencing OR perpetrating violence (see #3), and be part
of the changing of social norms that excuse abusive behavior or implicitly or
explicitly victim-blame. It’s not inevitable.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I recently
asked a group of survivors (members of our Survivor Speakers Bureau) why they
thought we needed a whole month dedicated to DV awareness. One survivor summed
it up especially well: “We need to make the world understand domestic violence is
real. It can happen to someone close to you and you don’t even know about it,
but if you are aware of a red flag you could save their life.”
I’d encourage you to be a part of this effort to just talk
about domestic violence, and help us bring it out of the shadows. If you’d like
to take this conversation to your faith community, your place of business, or
your child’s school, my organization can help. Visit www.reachma.org for more information.
Kim Priore is the Development
and Communications Officer for REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, a nonprofit
agency providing safety and support to survivors of abuse while also partnering
with community members to promote healthy relationships and prevent future
violence. She holds a B.A. in Religion from Wellesley College and a Masters in
Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.