Domestic violence survivors are the experts on their lives and their safety. Does that strike you as an odd thing to say? We think of the person doing harm as the one who doesn’t respect the survivor by continually undermining her decisions and questioning her judgement. But sometimes it’s hard for survivors to get respect from anyone, even the people whose job it is to help them.
Survivors are constantly weighing their actions and anticipating the reaction of the person causing them harm. They know what has worked in the past and what will work now to keep the violence and coercion to a minimum. No matter how messy or complicated it looks, survivors know what they need to protect their bodies and increase their safety and autonomy. Survivors don’t need outside experts to tell them how to survive. All we have to do is ask the survivor what she needs, then listen and follow instructions.
So why am I feeling a bit jaded? (That’s a rhetorical question, the answer is sexism). US women were huge winners at the Rio games, and it seemed like no one knew how to properly react. The media were atrocious in their commentary on women athletes—reducing the US women’s gymnastics team to giggly teens at the mall or focusing on athletes’ husbands or marriage proposals instead of their accomplishments.
Seriously, what’s the deal with public proposals? I mean, this one, where a Chinese diver had her Olympic metal moment upstaged by someone who supposedly loves and respects her? And then the media gushed about how getting a ring and this dude was a waaaaaay bigger prize than the silver was? What a disaster. Even she states in an interview that her feelings about it are “complicated.” Gymnast Ali Raisman got a public proposal for a date while live on a talk show and people thought it was romantic (nope). And there was also a Brazilian rugby player who received a public marriage proposal that even gave me, your local feminist killjoy, some warm fuzzies. But then I promptly had to reevaluate my feelings because public proposals are not good.
We’ve been told over and over (mostly by cheesy movies and TV) that proclaiming your love from the mountaintop is romantic. But the thing about public proposals is that they don’t give the person a real chance to say no. And those who do say no are questioned and criticized. This is coercive behavior and an all too familiar technique used by those who abuse their partners.
I’m not saying that everyone who makes public proposals is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But I am asking that we shift how we think about this. If you are thinking about making a grand public gesture of love, think twice. Do you know how this person feels about public displays of affection? Have you previously talked about the thing you are asking? I love seeing the love, really. I want more love. Love for all! But that means having relationships that are built on respect and space to speak your truth.
My colleague said this at a meeting yesterday. I first heard it at our conference last year when the incredible Alissa Bierra was talking about Marissa Alexander. Hearing that sentence again stopped me in my tracks. It is so powerful. Especially in light of the story of Korryn Gaines who was recently shot and killed by police in her own home, in front of her five year old son. (On a tangent, did it not occur to the police that perhaps they should come back another time? Does failure to appear in court really warrant a death sentence?)
But back to that phrase. For years in the domestic violence field, we have struggled to say what we want vs. what we don’t want. We don’t want abuse. We don’t want coercion. We don’t want assault. But that phrase is a gift. It is part of our end goal. It is the way.
Home should be a place of liberation. An absence of violence is not enough. You should be treated with respect by those who proclaim to love you (and those who are “sworn to protect”).
Home should be a place of liberation. You can have opinions in your home. You can disagree about things and have a voice.
Home should be a place of liberation. It should be a place where you can be who you truly are. If you are different from your family (for example a gay or trans teen), you should be loved fiercely.
Home should be a place of liberation. That is what I want. For me. For you. For all of us.
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.
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.
We talk a lot about healthy relationships, we memorize the do’s and the don’ts, we vow to do it right. But even when we know what we are supposed to do, when it comes to real-life circumstances with real people it can get complicated and messy.
For many years, whenever I would visit my family it was inevitable that my father and I would get into a massive disagreement, mostly over politics. I’d take the liberal side, he’d take the conservative side, we’d dig in our heels and try to convince the other person that they had it all wrong. Obviously, this didn’t work out well; usually it would end with me leaving the room in tears. It reached a point where I just wanted to shut down and not engage at all. I give my father a lot of credit, he realized I was checking out and decided that things had to change. He didn’t want our differences to get in the way of our relationship. And I wanted to share who I was as a whole person with my own thoughts and opinions. So we made some ground rules. We agreed to listen to each other, to respectfully disagree, to find common ground. We put love and respect for each other first.
I’m the first to say that our system isn’t perfect, we’ve had to revise and revisit. But we always go back to the ground rules and remind ourselves that a good relationship is our top priority. Because of our efforts my relationship with my father is better and—to the shock of my entire family—we can have tough conversations and still be smiling after.
I believe this strategy is applicable across situations; I’ve applied it to my relationship with my partner. I’ve made a commitment to resolving conflict, creating a system that works for both parties, and making sure each person is being heard and respected, despite differences. It isn’t simple or easy, but it’s doable.