It’s that time of year again. In a state that barely has real seasons, trees actually start to change color, and the temperature drops below 80 — it’s finally October. For students, that means midterms are right around the corner. For parents, it’s time to start thinking about trick or treating. For everyone in between, pumpkin-flavored delicacies emerge to spice up every meal of the day.
But let’s not forget that October also means the start of Relationship Violence Awareness Month (RVAM). Relationship violence – sometimes referred to as intimate partner violence, dating violence, or domestic violence – is the occurrence of interpersonal violence within an intimate relationship or after the relationship has ended.
Some of you might be thinking that you’re already aware of domestic violence or that you already have a fairly good concept of what it is, but I challenge you to think more deeply about it this month. Generally, the dominant narrative is a man beating or otherwise physically hurting his wife. But in reality, relationship violence doesn’t always look the way you think it might.
We often forget that those who experience psychological or emotional abuse, sexual assault, and financial abuse all relationships — not just marriages and heterosexual relationships — are victims of domestic violence as well.
Relationship violence is based in one partner’s desire to exercise control over another partner, and that control can be realized using a variety of tactics of manipulation and abuse. These tactics often involve isolating the victim from their family and friends, working to lower their self-esteem, and coercing them to do things they don’t want to do.
It’s important to think through the way these tactics of control can show up in any relationship, not only because they are violent behaviors in their own right, but also because they are often warning signs of physical abuse to come. About half of both women and men have reported experiencing psychological aggression in a relationship, and 24.3% of women and 13.8% of men in the United States reported experiencing severe physical violence in a relationship. It’s also incredibly difficult to leave an abusive relationship, thanks to these control tactics.
It may be surprising to hear that sexual violence can fall under the umbrella of domestic violence. After all, we tend to separate the two out so often, even in advocacy work. There’s domestic violence shelters, and then there’s rape crisis centers. There’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and then there’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But about 46% of reported sexual assault occurs within intimate partner relationships. So really, the two are much more intertwined than we might otherwise think. Yet, it can be hard for people to understand that rape exists in the context of relationships, too. That’s likely because our culture doesn’t do a great job of communicating what consent really is.
Sexual consent is a freely given, affirmative, clear “yes”. It’s fluid; just because someone’s in a relationship (even if they’re married!), it doesn’t mean that they no longer have autonomy over their own body. Married people, people in committed relationships, and people who have agreed to have sex with other people before are still allowed to say no. They’re allowed to not “be in the mood”, and they’re even allowed to say yes, take off all their clothes, jump into bed, and then change their mind—and that’s okay. No one is ever entitled to anyone else’s body. Employing coercion or force is exerting control over one’s partner — That’s where domestic violence and sexual assault overlap.
The two both come from the idea that one person is allowed to control someone else — that it’s okay to expect one’s partner to submit their body and their rights to them. Sexual abuse — like physical violence, psychological aggression, financial abuse, and more — is a means of manipulating and dominating one’s partner to achieve control. All these examples can be classified as relationship violence.
If you’re looking for more ways to get involved locally this October for Relationship Violence Awareness Month, the Compass Center and UNC-Chapel Hill both have a full schedule of events in honor of RVAM.
Remember that you are worthy of love and that you do not owe anyone else your body, your mind, or your peace. If you or someone you know is experiencing relationship violence, you can call the Orange County Rape Crisis Center’s 24-Hour Help Line for support and referrals at 866-WE LISTEN or the Compass Center’s 24/7 Domestic Violence Hotline at 919-929-7122. And as Relationship Violence Awareness Month begins, remember to take care of yourself.
Emily Hagstrom is a UNC student with a double major in Political Science and Public Policy, and a minor in Women and Gender studies. Emily is a new volunteer at the Center, assisting with social media and outreach. On campus she works closely with two student groups, The Siren and CAGE, and is committed to being an advocate and an ally for those who have experienced discrimination and trauma.