An advocate’s playlist

David Bowie died last week. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I started thinking of all the people who have listened to Bowie with me during hard times and good times. I know his legacy is unfortunately more complicated than I’d like, but today I’m focusing on how his music made me feel. David Bowie has been a huge part of the soundtrack of my life and because of that, he’s been a huge part of my domestic violence advocacy work too.

I remember that David Bowie’s music made me and the survivors of abuse I was working with in West Lafayette, Indiana feel good about ourselves―that we should be accepted just as we were and that we could dance while we were at it. I remember being a burnt-out shelter worker in Boulder, Colorado and the album Low was a salve to my soul. And more recently, I remember having an all-out sing-along dance party to Ashes to Ashes after a particularly hard week facing what felt like insurmountable obstacles to getting women the resources they need to be able to leave an abusive partner.

There have been other artists on my playlist too. Artists who make my soul come alive with funk, make my hips move with music, and make my heart regain hope and wonder. Here is my playlist this week as I celebrate life, meaningful work, and the fact that I was lucky enough to be alive on this planet at the same time as so many other greats.

spotify:user:wscadv:playlist:5gDW9dCujCiBX257t21lNK

Living in a state of freedom

You may wonder why I’m always blogging about emergency contraception (EC) and birth control. What does it have to do with domestic violence? Why would an advocate need to talk about this with a survivor of abuse? And why should domestic violence programs have EC, pregnancy tests, and condoms available on site?

If you have never experienced it, it might be hard to understand how birth control sabotage, or reproductive or sexual coercion, is an incredibly powerful way to exert power and control over someone. Imagine someone flushing your pills down the toilet or poking holes in a condom. What about stopping you from getting to the clinic to get your Depo shot? Or forcibly pulling out your IUD by the strings? If you’re in an abusive relationship, negotiations around birth control and whether to have—or not have—children might happen without your opinion being respected or even considered. The harm of this may be invisible to an outsider, but when survivors of abuse are not allowed to make their own decisions about pregnancy, they lose control over the trajectory of their life and their connection to the abuser. And they have to constantly weigh the risks of any act of resistance, any attempt at independence.

Domestic violence advocates know that survivors coming to their programs are experiencing a range of abusive behaviors. But even if they are experiencing reproductive or sexual coercion, it is usually not something they bring up. If we want long-term solutions for survivors and their children, then we need to bring it up. Offering EC and birth control information, and having it available on site, is a liberatory act.

We need to offer it because Plan B or Levonorgestrel (emergency contraception) is effective within five days after unprotected intercourse and is available to anyone, no matter age or gender, without a prescription. We need to offer it so that survivors know we are comfortable talking about sex, birth control (especially forms that are less likely to be felt by a partner), and reproductive health. We need to offer it because access to timely information and practical help can change the circumstances of someone’s life. And we need to offer it because advocacy is about supporting someone to determine their own life—to live in a state of freedom.

A flock of birds and the words "I'm Free"

“Why don’t victims just leave?”

I recently wrote this guest column for publication in Sound Publishing community newspapers.

nomoreThose of us who work at domestic violence programs hear this question all the time. The truth is, they do. Every day we hear from survivors of abuse who were able to find the support and resources they needed to be safe and self-sufficient.

Every day we also hear from people who are unable to leave because they fear the abuser will be more violent if they do. This fear is very real. According to the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review, in at least 55% of homicides by abusers, the victim had left or was trying to leave.

Many people are unable to leave an abusive relationship because they have nowhere to go. Our communities don’t have enough affordable housing, and shelters and transitional housing units are limited. On just one day last year, domestic violence programs in Washington could not meet 267 requests for housing. People often stay with or return to an abusive partner because they don’t have the money to support themselves or their children.

We also hear from people who don’t want to leave, but want the abuse to stop. Research consistently shows that people in an abusive relationship make repeated efforts to be safe and self-sufficient, but there are many barriers—both external, such as limited resources or support; and internal, such as an emotional connection to their partner or a desire for their children to be with both parents—that makes this very difficult.

But here’s the thing: This is absolutely the wrong question to be asking, as it implies that victims are responsible for ending violence. They aren’t. Instead, we should be asking what we can do to stop abusers from being violent and controlling.

“I have a friend who has a sister who…”

Photo by Justin Jensen
Photo by Justin Jensen

I used to do a lot of domestic violence trainings. In fact, someday I’ll tell you the story of when I did 36 trainings when I was pregnant and barfing. But recently I have been training again. And I remembered something. At some point, without fail, a participant will come up to me with some version of this question: “I have a friend who has a sister who has been in a domestic violence situation for years and my friend just doesn’t know how to help her. They’ve tried everything but she just won’t leave and everyone is worried about her and her kids’ safety and it is just a mess. What can they do?”

Every time my heart breaks. Again. My heart breaks for the asker, the sister, the survivor, the kids, the abuser. All of us. And I wish I had a better answer. But here is what I say:

It is hard to see someone you love and care about struggle. It is painful to see people making choices that we disagree with or find unfathomable. I get it, I do. And I also get that it is really hard for the survivor to make those choices and know that people disagree with them. We cannot imagine what it must be like for her. But I know that she is making decisions based on what she thinks will keep her safe or safer or sane. And in order to stick with her, we all need support. We need help to be there day in and day out. The good news is that there is support available. Domestic violence programs offer support to friends and family, not just to survivors themselves. The most important thing that all of us can do is to stay connected to the survivor. Connection directly counters and resists the abuse and isolation that survivors face.

So go forth. Reach out. Ask her: “What would make things better? How can I help with that?” I know it is hard to offer help and be turned down. But know that each offer is planting a seed and reminding her that you are there. Be there so that when she needs you, she can find you. No one deserves to be abused.

So hang in there and get support for yourself because when she calls on you, I want you to be ready.

Thank you. No really, thank you for staying connected and breaking that isolation. We need you. It takes all of us and we’re in this thing together.

What does it take to believe a woman?

We bring you this post from the Executive Director of a domestic violence program in rural Washington.

The domestic violence agency I work at often buys supplies that our clients need but can’t always afford, like diapers, toiletries, and contraceptives. Easy access to birth control supports a survivor’s control over their body, and promotes their safety and independence. Recently, I walked into our community’s only pharmacy to buy some Plan B. The young woman behind the counter asked me for ID and went into the back room.

planb2Her: Here you go, all set.

Me: What did you do with my ID?

Her: Checked to see if you are over 18.  (I think this is funny – I’m 39.)

Me: There are no restrictions on buying Plan B, so you don’t need to know my age. I work at the local domestic violence agency and for my clients, being asked to show ID can be scary if their abuser monitors what they are doing and checks public records. It is also scary for people who are worried about their immigration status.

Now the pharmacist comes out and joins the conversation.

Pharmacist: That’s not true. On the Plan B package it says “For Women Over 17 Years of Age.”

Me: It’s old packaging (wondering just how old the packaging is). The law has changed. Plan B should be able to be purchased as over-the-counter medication. I don’t have to show identification.

Pharmacist: That’s not true and it is my choice how to dispense it.

This same conversation continued over a few more visits. I brought in articles and the new federal regulations—none of it seemed to matter to the pharmacist. Then my town gathered a small team of community members interested in women’s reproductive health services that were available locally. One community member went back to the pharmacy, and while the same “it’s just not true” argument ensued, another visiting pharmacist broke into the conversation and said we were right. He confirmed the changes in law we had already shown the local pharmacist.

This pharmacy—the only place in town to buy Plan B—is now in compliance with the law. And while I’m very happy about that, I still find it frustrating that my local pharmacist would not listen to what we were saying (read: what we women were saying) and would not change the pharmacy’s practice until a man said our information was correct. How many laws that affect women’s health are ignored when women are telling the truth?

To see, to speak, to persuade

Last week I was sitting through the jury selection process for a domestic violence related-crime. Day one: I was questioned alone about where I worked (spoiler alert—the Washington State juryCoalition Against Domestic Violence). Do I know prosecutors? Do we work together? Yes, and yet I am not dismissed. Day two: I realize I am intentionally being kept on by both the prosecution and defense. They ask me questions and see how others react. My role is either educator or provocateur. At first I’m annoyed, but then I realize I’m in a focus group I could never assemble. I get to listen to a group of random adults talking about domestic violence.

I watched how easily the entire group was swayed by the person leading the conversation. The defense attorney told a story about his young children fighting. It is patronizing to suggest that kids’ fights are comparable to one adult using coercion against another to control them. Yet nods of understanding and a feeling of concurrence with the defense swept the room. Throughout the day the defense attorney kept referring back to this story. Each time enforcing the idea of domestic violence as a simple fight rather than the complex reality of how fear and power dynamics affect a person’s options, autonomy, and safety.

When it was the prosecutor’s turn, he asked why someone who experienced abuse might stay in a relationship. The responses felt like a psycho-analysis of the alleged victim’s behavior. She is co-dependent, in a love/hate relationship, grew up in an abusive home. I spoke up, suggesting that she may have tried to leave and was not able to get help, or her partner threatened to hurt her or her family unless she returned home, or she did not have enough cash immediately available for an apartment. The room is with me now, heads nodding.

In the end, no surprise, I am not picked to be on the jury. I think everyone there would agree that violence against your intimate partner is unacceptable—but everyone had a different understanding of what that actually looked like and who should be held accountable. It was too easy to judge the victim’s behavior and too hard to understand all the ways an abuser’s tactics can impact their partner.