Futures Without Violence Leadership Award

Futures Without Violence recently presented me and the organization I work for the Futures Without Violence Leadership Award at the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C.  Futures Without Violence called out how our “efforts bridge the gap between advocates and health care providers, and create programs that have improved the lives and safety of countless victims of abuse.” What follows is the speech I gave when presented with this honor.

Leigh-award

I want to thank Futures Without Violence for this award. I also congratulate the other recipients and thank you for your transformative work.

It is humbling to receive this award and I share it with all of you. Each one of us works every day for women, children, and men to have the access and care they deserve.

We are a mighty group and I am so proud to be here with you.

After so many years of advocating for survivors of abuse and working for policies and practices that are shaped by their experiences, I find myself circling back to some of the most important foundations we have.

Self-determination, liberation, bodily-integrity, the freedom to do the things we want—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.

When I think about what it means to do advocacy, what comes immediately to mind are my twin daughters, Basha and Rebekah.

Four years ago, they were Bat Mitzvahed. And as part of the ceremony, they had to write and deliver speeches about the Torah passages that marked their day.  Reflecting on the teachings and finding contemporary meaning.

Two young women with two singular perspectives. Basha talked about Glee (which she watched obsessively at the time). What she took from the show was not just the drama, fabulous singing, and the outfits—what she took were lessons about bullying and homophobia and young people’s experiences both of injustice and of justice.

Rebekah wrestled with her understanding of living an ethical life. What she came to realize is the importance of having an integrity that allows you to be whole, and directs you to live—publically as you do privately.

I am grateful my daughters had this experience. To think seriously, to speak seriously, to have adults listen and take them seriously.

Fast forward to 17, Basha and Rebekah have helped to organize a Feminist Union at their high school. Every week 30 teens show up, 1/3 of them boys, to hang out and talk. They talk about street harassment, rape culture, healthy relationships, international feminism, and gender equality.

That my daughters have had these experiences is a remarkable gift. It is all we want for every girl and every boy. In my work, and our Coalition’s work, we see the power of partnerships that give women and girls, men and boys, the opportunity to exercise their choices, to write their own futures. And, have lives filled with dignity.

I am so very proud to be a part of this movement—and believe that all of us, together, are creating a world of health and happiness, and justice and hope.

Thank you.

Trolls

I just listened to a powerful This American Life story. In Act 1: Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls For Thee, Lindy West talks about her experiences as a writer and the internet trolls that come with that. This might not sound new or interesting. We all know it happens. Many of us who have posted something online have experienced some version of the mean, rage-y, entitled rants of those who disagree with us. But this story ends differently than you might imagine.

Photo by daveynin
Photo by daveynin

This whole virtual world is like a minefield of meanness. Sifting through comments of a post on a hot-button issue can be heart-wrenching. Even when the comments are not directed at me, they still impact me emotionally. (Consequently I’ve created a habit of NOT reading the comments…usually.) As Lindy West describes her daily struggle processing all the nasty words written to and about her, it occurred to me that online harassment can eat away at you like an abusive partner.

What ever happened to human kindness? In this world where we now have to navigate both our online and offline lives, it would be so nice to see some basic manners make a comeback. Employ internal filters! Engage in respectful—and even lively—debate! My kids are six and three and they get the concept. We talk a lot about using our words, lowering our voices, and showing kindness. As they have practiced it, I have watched them get better at it, navigating their own disagreements with compassion. Let’s all give it go. Practice!

In her story, Lindy West went out on a limb (one she did not have to go out on, and one the troll in question did not necessarily deserve) to reach out and share how she felt. The result was remarkable. The troll APOLOGIZED. Yep. They had a conversation and some healing happened on both sides. I probably don’t have to tell you that this is not typical, and is not the best choice for a lot of people experiencing abuse and harassment. But this ending gives me hope that things can get better. Lindy’s strength and capacity for kindness in the face of the crap she wades through on a daily basis is remarkable, just like the hundreds of survivors I’ve met whose strength and resiliency shine in the face of abuse.

Being grateful for chosen family

We bring you this post from Penny Lipsou, our Policy and Economic Justice intern.

However you observe the holiday season, this time of year is traditionally designed for family togetherness over delicious food. Holidays can be a beautiful time to connect with our loved ones, but they can also be overwhelmingly stressful and anxiety-provoking. In this emotional maze of expectations and celebrations, I want to express my gratitude for non-traditional support networks, specifically for my chosen family.

There are many outrageous wrongdoings we simply do not have control over. Whether it’s violence against people for loving a person of the same sex, hate crimes against people who dress outside of their assigned gender, cyberbullying against people who don’t fit a certain standard of beauty, or other kinds of abuse, there are cultural norms that pressure us to not show up as our true selves in the world. This is certainly an issue survivors face as they struggle to safely gain some control over their own lives. In an emotionally abusive relationship, this can look like a change in focus from your partner’s needs to standing by your own emotional boundaries.

There’s a quote that has stuck with me since I first read it: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” When you think about this quote, you can go many ways with it. From discussing how social environments can normalize unhealthy behaviors to noticing how friends can help us feel confident—the people who surround us matter.

Friends are the family you choose.” And when it comes to living from a value-centered place versus living from a place of fear and anxiety, our chosen family is critical in helping us cultivate power and staying true to our inner voice. In my life, I’ve been both intentional and lucky to have a chosen family who loves, supports, and doesn’t give up on me through all the highs and lows. I’m the average of their fierceness, emotional brilliance, wit, and wisdom. They are my lifeblood and I’m eternally thankful that they have chosen to share their life with me. During this holiday season, it is my hope that all people, especially survivors, find the empowering support they deserve.

chosen-family

Yes! No. Maybe?

Many people equate BDSM with abuse, but in fact that community can teach us a lot of great lessons about healthy relationships. You might be shaking your head in consternation right about now. But playing with power dynamics or intense bdsmphysical sensation is not the same as being abusive, violent, or controlling.

In one of my previous lives, I worked for several years as a sex educator for a feminist sex shop. While I was relatively open-minded, I had a lot to learn. Because even if I wasn’t particularly interested in something for myself, I had to be able to speak knowledgably and non-judgmentally with customers, many of whom were trusting me with vulnerable information. In any given week, I might help a 70-year-old woman who’d never had an orgasm or a 40-year-old man struggling to open up to his partner about his desires to explore role play.

I learned a lot, not just about sex but about communication and boundaries and consent and exploration and healthy relationships. All things that you need to engage successfully in BDSM.

Most people, especially when playing with a new partner, have a get-together where they chat about their yes/no/maybe list. The “yes” list is filled with all the activities you know you enjoy, the “no” list is all about the things you do not want under any circumstances. And the “maybe” list can include things you haven’t tried yet but might be interested in or things that might be okay in certain situations.

This list is one of my favorite tools, and anyone—any gender, any sexuality—can use it, regardless of what kinds of sex they like to have. It’s a great way to think about what your own desires are. And when you do it with a partner, you get to see where your interests overlap, where you might do some new exploration, and where the hard boundaries are. This is just one way to get to that “enthusiastic consent” that so many people are talking about right now.

Or you can do a yes/no/maybe list about other kinds of physical and emotional affection. “Holding hands in public—yes! Hand on my neck—nope. Deep kisses—maybe, but only if we’re in a private place.” For survivors of abuse, this can be a useful bridge to regaining ownership of their bodies and their desires. Being explicit about what is and isn’t okay can help avoid triggering incidents and make them feel safer.

Using the list might seem a little silly or even boring, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. If you find yourself tongue-tied when talking about what you want, it can be a great way to lay your cards on the table ahead of time, when you’re more able to think clearly. Give it a try!

Depression in the news

Photo by Eva Rinaldi
Photo by Eva Rinaldi

The death of Robin Williams has hit me hard. I share the collective sadness and shock of it. I also feel overwhelmed by the myriad of reactions in the media and on Facebook—all this commentary about depression front and center. It’s a bit strange to have something you’ve been trying to manage for over 20 years suddenly on everyone’s lips. All I can say is: ooof.

People have got some serious misunderstandings about depression. From well-meaning folk who offer every idea under the sun as a solution with zero understanding that depression isn’t just feeling bummed or being in a rut, to those who wish depressed people would just snap out of it and move on. Here’s the thing: depression can look different for different people. It can ebb and flow, go from manageable to not in an inexplicable instant. And it can profoundly affect relationships—with ourselves, our partners, our children, our friends.

Many survivors of abuse experience depression, and regardless of if the disease was something they were dealing with before the abuse, or something that was brought on by it, survivors encounter these same misunderstandings. For those of us doing domestic violence work, we think a lot about how to stay safe from the external threat of an abusive partner. But the risk of suicide for survivors dealing with abuse and depression is real and scary too.

So, since knowledge is power, please take a moment to check out the following links. Let’s get a more well-rounded perspective on depression so that we can better support those around us.

  • Learning is fun! Especially when it’s in cartoon form. Check out this comic about depression. Yep, you read that right. (explicit language)
  • Some have said that suicide is a selfish act. I get how someone who has never experienced depression might feel that way, but here’s a different perspective.
  • And this video is about one person’s experience with depression, and his ideas for supporting someone you love who is also dealing with the disease.

Onward. Forward. Every day.

The question can make all the difference

Just imagine you are sitting in your doctor’s office waiting for the doctor and chatting with the medical assistant. Maybe it’s your yearly physical or maybe this is your first visit and you just want antibiotics for a relentless chest cold. All of a sudden she starts running through this list of questions:

  • Have you ever been emotionally or physically abused by your partner or someone important to you?
  • Within the last year, have you been hit, slapped, kicked or otherwise physically hurt by someone? If YES, who? Husband, Ex-Husband, Boyfriend, Stranger, Other? Total number of times?
  • Since you’ve been pregnant, have you been slapped, kicked or otherwise physically hurt by someone? If YES, who? Husband, Ex-Husband, Boyfriend, Stranger, Other? Total number of times?

I would probably answer “no” to all of these questions even if I was experiencing abuse. It is so alienating to boil down the complexities of any relationship to these questions. And besides after I answer these questions, reproductive-coersion-flyerwhat happens? Where does this information go? Will you look at me differently? Judge me and my partner? Do you have any help to offer if I take a risk and tell you anything?

Current healthcare research shows that both finding the right way to ask and connecting a patient to resources is the two-step golden ticket for effective support.

Offering support starts with showing you have some idea about what living in a coercive and abusive relationship might feel like. Futures Without Violence offers a Safety Card with these questions:

Ask yourself: Are you in a healthy relationship?

  • Is my partner willing to communicate openly when there are problems?
  • Does my partner give me space to spend time with other people?
  • Is my partner kind and supportive?

If you answered YES to these questions, it is likely that you are in a healthy relationship. Studies show that this kind of relationship leads to better physical and mental health, longer life, and better outcomes for your children.

Ask yourself: Are you in an unhealthy relationship?

  • Does my partner shame me or humiliate me in front of others or in private?
  • Does my partner control where I go, who I talk to, and how I spend money?
  • Has my partner hurt or threatened me, or forced me to have sex?

If you answered YES to any of these questions, your health and safety may be in danger.

Their information also includes national hotline resources and where to get advocacy services.

I may still hesitate to answer these questions, but I know that the person in front of me is ready to have a deeper conversation and has some resources. Screening for, asking about, or listening for abuse in a relationship is not an end in itself. Providing support and connection is what survivors tell us they want.

If healthcare professionals really want to help, they have to take the time to learn the right questions and get comfortable connecting their patients to advocacy services. Consider helping by taking a stack of Safety Cards (they’re free) to your next doctor’s appointment.

Love Like This

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I have been doing domestic violence work for a long time. Over the years, I have come across lists of the “red flags” or “warning signs” of abuse many times. These lists are helpful for sure. But you know what I’ve rarely come across? A list of what to do in relationships. I’ve seen definitions of healthy relationships, and even some concrete tips for how to get there, but not a whole lot. It got me thinking that we have spent so much time figuring out what an abusive relationship looks like and explaining that to folks, that we rarely take the time to talk about how to have a good relationship.

Healthy and fun relationships don’t just fall out of the sky (wouldn’t it be great if they did!), you have to work at it. So we’ve created something that we hope will help us share how to Love Like This (not like this). We’ll do that by illustrating some typical situations that occur in relationships and giving examples of how to deal with them in a healthy, loving, and respectful way, as opposed to an abusive, controlling, or coercive way. And bonus: it’s filled with cute illustrations of cats—true story.

Check out our Love Like This series and share with us how you are doing with your healthy relationship skills.

Asking outMaking a moveKeeping in touch vs. keeping tabsJealousyFighting fairBreaking up

Dear editor

We—along with the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs—submitted this letter to the editor of The Daily News following the arrest of a domestic violence and sexual assault survivor. We appreciate and applaud the advocacy work Emergency Support Shelter is doing in their community to support victims, their choices, and their rights. 

Dear editor:

Reading about a rape victim arrested on a material witness warrant was alarming. As your coverage noted, arresting the victim “had the added irony of using a warrant to hold the woman against her will so she can help convict someone else of holding her against her will.” Further, an October 10 headline, “Family jailed for refusing to testify against dad” indicates this isn’t an isolated case or practice.

We oppose this practice. It has devastating impacts for victims; shifts focus away from perpetrators, and can lessen community safety. Arresting victims deters others who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault from reporting by promoting fear of being arrested if they can’t be available to the prosecutor; whether for lack of resources or fear of offender retaliation. Additionally it further penalizes victims who are homeless or cannot afford a phone or transportation. Punishing victims and creating barriers to reporting violence makes our communities less safe. Holding offenders accountable and responsible for violence is what we need.

Jail is not what justice for victims looks like.

Where are you?

I have to admit I want to know where my daughter is all the time, and know that she is safe. She seems so young, beautiful, and vulnerable to me as she seeks greater independence and freedom in her day-to-day life. I am haunted by images of girls her age who have disappeared, never to return to their families, because a man who was a predator took a fancy to them or saw an opportunity.

footprintsappscreenshotSo I decided to get an app on her phone, and mine, that would allow me to see where she was. While installing the app, I thought, why not add my partner? She drives to and from Oregon on a weekly basis, and then I would be able to see where she was and when she’d be home. Done in a flash! Now we all get notices about each other’s whereabouts.

The next day, my partner noted that she knew what time I dropped our daughter off at school, thanks to this app. I found myself checking her location twice during the day. My daughter had lost her phone privileges this week, so ironically, we aren’t monitoring her, which was our intention, but each other. The following day, when my partner texted “I see you’re home!” I honestly was just a bit taken aback. What have I done? The element of surprise in day-to-day life seems to be over! Between this and the banking technology that provides instantaneous info on purchases, it’s a snap to get a picture of my day.

I realized how easy it is to feel obligated to provide this information on one hand, and to abuse access to it on the other. My partner isn’t controlling. But what if she were? It would be extremely difficult for me to see a friend or go to a social service agency without knowing I might be observed, interrupted, or questioned. I could give up my phone or get rid of this application, but if I were in an abusive/controlling relationship, doing either of those things would likely increase conflict and danger.

So what role does privacy play in healthy relationships? I love making a decision about how to spend my time without checking it out with anyone, not because I have anything to hide, but because I am an adult and I enjoy feeling in charge of myself. I also love trusting my partner, and being trusted. Feeling like an independent, decision-making grown-up is essential to my comfort in my relationship. Actively choosing closeness with the knowledge I could also choose distance or privacy keeps things interesting, and keeps me in touch with my choices, limits, and integrity.

And that brings me back to my daughter. It’s not her I distrust, it is other people; I am not sure she is ready to negotiate the big world on her own yet. On the other hand, I don’t want her to learn that closely monitoring a person’s movements is a normal aspect of an intimate relationship; or that she does not have the right to move through the world on her own, making decisions, and having that exhilarating feeling of being free and responsible for herself. So what I am going to do with this app? I think I’ll live with it for a while, but I am already looking forward to getting rid of it.

Are domestic violence victims codependent?

TextingMy therapist friend just texted me to ask: are domestic violence victims codependent? Here’s my crazy-long text back (ok, maybe it was a rant).

No.

An abusive relationship is not a codependent relationship, and therapists should not treat them the same way. In fact, telling survivors of abuse that they are codependent implies they share responsibility for the abusive dynamics in the relationship, which is unfair. I think it’s better for therapists to help survivors tease apart what’s abusive/one-sided power and control in the relationship, and what’s just crappy behavior on both people’s parts. And also to recognize/acknowledge that many survivors act against their own values (e.g., lying, manipulating, being mean) *in response to* and *in order to survive* the abuser’s violence and coercive control. Therapists can help survivors figure out what they want in a relationship, and what type of person they want to be, and then figure out whether those dreams seem achievable in the current relationship. And if those dreams aren’t achievable, it doesn’t necessarily mean the couple will break up – for so many reasons – and in that case, therapists can support survivors to be their best and safest selves even as they endure and cope with an abusive partner. That’s my forty cents!

Also: even if she *is* codependent, knowing that doesn’t actually help her deal with a partner who is more interested in maintaining power and control AT ANY COST than the health of the relationship. Even if she stops being codependent, he will still be an abusive a-hole who may hurt her worse if she stands up to him or tries to leave. The whole point is that domestic violence relationships are fundamentally different from crappy/unhealthy relationships.

And finally, many survivors aren’t codependent; they are dependent! Financially and otherwise – that is a big way the abuser maintains control.

Yes, I really wrote all of that in a text. I guess the question hit a nerve for me. How would you have answered?