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.
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.
October is the month of frights. We spend time decorating our homes with caution tape, webs, and danger signs, surround ourselves with scary movies, and finding the perfect costume to disguise ourselves. The mysticism that surrounds us this month is reminiscent of a wide scale problem we often shy away from talking about. This October, as we recognize Relationship Violence Awareness Month, I ask you to take the mask off of domestic and interpersonal violence, so we can have an honest conversation about something that is truly terrifying.
The Centers for Disease Control reported that with every minute that goes by, 24 people are victims to sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. Unfortunately, most of these cases are not reported. As a society we have formed a collective silence over domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. High profile cases, like that of NFL’s Ray Rice, paint a single view of relationship violence and put further blame on the victim. Instead of asking why he hit her, much of the focus shifted to why his partner, Janay Palmer, didn’t leave.
In addition to funding, the NFL is committing to host violence prevention education sessions for all 32 NFL teams. Players, coaches, staff, and executives will receive education about domestic and sexual violence as well as information about resources and organizations in their own communities.
Back-to-school carries with it a lot of expected stressors — upcoming exams, issues with roommates, cramped schedules. But these aren’t the only pressures college students face. With 1 in 4 college-aged women identifying as survivors of sexual assault, it is not uncommon to have a friend disclose an experience of sexual violence. Receiving a disclosure from a friend can be extremely disorienting, upsetting, and often overwhelming. This mix of emotions can make assisting a friend a confusing experience. What are the best ways to support a loved one in this situation?
Do assess safety: The first concern when dealing with a sexual assault is the physical and mental well-being of the survivor. Without pressuring the survivor for any specific details, try to gently ask them if they feel safe in their home or workplace, or if they feel like they need medical attention of any sort. During your initial conversation with a survivor, it’s important to remember to pay attention to any clues of mental distress. Depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts are common issues for survivors of trauma, especially in the weeks and months immediately following an assault. If you notice signs of any of these issues, offer resources on both national (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, RAINN) and local (OCRCC, UNC Counseling & Wellness Services) levels.
Do respect the survivor’s choices: Sexual assault is a crime that specifically attacks a person’s autonomy and right to make decisions about their bodies. By listening carefully to the needs of the survivor rather than making suggestions or decisions for them, you are giving power and authority back to the survivor. This is an excellent way to help them feel that they’ve regained some control and normality.
Do appreciate the disclosure: Telling others, especially loved ones, about an experience with sexual assault is one of the most difficult things for a survivor to do. The decision to disclose is fraught with many unpleasant considerations: the possibility of reliving the experience during the disclosure, the chance of being blamed or belittled, the worry that they will be disbelieved or excessively questioned. All of these are very real possibilities being faced by a survivor who has decided to disclose. Respect all of these anxieties, and keep them in mind during your discussions. Thank the survivor for the trust they’ve placed in you, and reassure them that you believe them and would never blame them for what happened.
Don’t get emotional: An emotional response to a disclosure of this magnitude is completely understandable and normal. However, it is best to focus on the needs of the survivor, especially in the moments immediately following their disclosure. An overly emotional reaction such as anger or extreme sadness may be very alarming to a survivor and can make it difficult for them to remain calm. It is also important to keep in mind that the survivor is likely worried about your response and well-being, even in light of their own trauma. Keeping your emotions in check will be one less thing for the survivor to concern themselves with.
Don’t push for details: When tragedy strikes a loved one, it’s normal to want to understand as much of what happened as you can. While it may feel like it will communicate concern, asking a lot of questions could negatively affect the survivor and your conversation with them. Not only will probing questions serve to make a survivor relive their assault, some questions may even sound to the survivor like blame, even if they were not meant as such. Questions like “How much did you have to drink?” and “Why were you walking home alone?” have the potential to sound more accusatory than caring.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself: Although the safety and feelings of the survivor should be a main concern, it’s important to remember that you can’t help anybody without first caring for yourself. Secondary survivorship can be incredibly emotionally taxing, especially if the survivor is someone very close to you. Make sure to check in with yourself regularly, and don’t get lost in the support you’re offering to your friend. You can also access support for yourself from the OCRCC by calling our 24-Hour Help Line or participating in a support group for family and friends of survivors of sexual violence.
While these are all helpful suggestions, remember that what a friend needs most after a disclosure is for you to LISTEN. They won’t expect you to have all (or any) of the answers. The most beneficial thing you can do is to offer them your non-judgmental and open-minded support and concern.
Camille Zimmerman has been a Companion since 2013. She provides support and resources for survivors of sexual violence and is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.
As the leaves begin to change, sweaters come out, and warm beverages become the norm, make sure to remember National Domestic Violence Awareness month. Whether your discussion is over a pumpkin spice latte or while raking leaves, it is up to our network of allies, survivors, and advocates to raise awareness of interpersonal violence. It’s important that we talk about the wider implications of violence, prevention mechanisms, and how to be effective allies.
Initially created by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981, DVAM is an opportunity to unite survivors, advocates, and community members. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines intimate partner abuse as “physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.” Moreover, the Department of Justice notes that domestic violence, the pattern of abusive behavior “used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner,” extends to physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and psychological abuse.