By Emily Esworthy, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
I have been working with the WeWillSpeakOut.US coalition for over two years, and our underlying mission is to empower churches and other faith communities to “speak out” against sexual and domestic violence and amplify the voices that are already out there.
The Problem of Silence
Anecdotally, we know the Church in general has not been the most inspiring when it comes to the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence. (How many messages have you heard about it in church?) Hoping for concrete data, this June we partnered with Sojourners to commission a LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 US Protestant pastors to gauge their experiences and responses to sexual and domestic violence. The result was a report titled, “Broken Silence: A Call for Churches to Speak Out.”
One of the key findings was that almost two-thirds of pastors (65%) speak once a year or less about this issue, with 10% never addressing it at all. This silence is troublesome and shows that most of our churches really are turning a blind eye to a painful problem that as many as one in three women (and many men) will experience.
Enter Speak Out Sunday
To encourage pastors and other faith leaders to speak out, WeWillSpeakOut.US created our annual “Speak Out Sunday,” which falls on Sunday, November 23, 2014 this year. (For those who don’t worship on Sundays, we encourage you to host a Speak Out Sabbath or Service on a nearby date that suits you.)
Why this date? The United Nations has designated November 25 as the “International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.” This day kicks off the international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, observed from November 25 through December 10. Each year we choose the Sunday that fits best within that time-frame to serve as the faith community’s platform for uniting with these global efforts.
But here’s the rub: some pastors aren’t ready to speak out.
I have talked with many, many survivors who have told me their pastor recommended they pray harder or submit more readily to their abusive spouse. Others have said their pastor accused them of desiring their rape or dressing in such a way as to “ask for it.”
Furthermore, the Broken Silence report showed that 62% of pastors provided couples or marriage counseling in response to domestic and/or sexual violence. This is a potentially very harmful response, because it puts the victim in further danger.
There is much to be done to adequately prepare pastors to address sexual and domestic violence. Through WeWillSpeakOut.US we are working to connect these pastors to the theological and practical resources that can be of help to them, and our vision is that churches participating in Speak Out Sunday will do so with ample prayer and preparation behind it so as not to risk revictimizing someone.
Supporting your Speak Out Sunday
Are you ready to speak out? Great! We’re here to help. Our suit of free tools and resources for pastors to use when gearing up for Speak Out Sunday is growing all the time. We have a sermon guide, a recorded webinar, a flyer of hotline numbers to post in your bathrooms, and more. For the full list, click here.
As you map our your Speak Out Sunday, here are some critical things to keep in mind:
· If you speak out, be prepared to have to take action. Statistically, there are people in your pews who have been victims and/or perpetrators of violence, and your sermon is likely elicit a response. We strongly recommend having a licensed counselor present at your service and a private room where they can talk quietly with anyone who may need support.
· Have a referral process in place. If someone discloses to you that they have been abused, you’ll want to have the local crisis centers on speed dial. Find your local centers and shelters here or by using a simple Google search, and then contact them to introduce yourself. They may even be able to provide a counselor to attend your Speak Out Sunday service.
We hope you’ll prayerfully consider hosting your own Speak Out Sunday this year, or at least taking the next steps to prepare yourself and your church to prevent and respond to violence.
Your first next step is signing our Pledge Against Violence, which will put you on our email list and remind you of your commitment to speak out!
Emily Esworthy is a Marketing and Communications Officer for IMA World Health and the Secretariat for WeWillSpeakOut U.S. – a faith-based coalition and movement of diverse faith groups from across the US that joins together with other leaders, organizations and congregations in action and advocacy to end the silence around sexual and gender based violence.
By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
Would you be ready to help someone you care about if you found out that they were in an abusive relationship?
Many people struggle with how to help when someone they know is experiencing abuse in a relationship. There are several steps you can take to help your loved one. We encourage you to print out the checklist below (you can print the picture or the pdf file below the picture), or you can save it to your computer or smartphone so you'll have it if you ever need it. Fill in the name and number of your local agency to personalize it even further.
Helping someone who is in an abusive relationship can be very challenging, but there are steps you can take to provide support to them and help promote their safety.
By Christine Murray, Kristine Lundgren, Gwen Hunnicutt, and Loreen Olson
Members of the Traumatic Brain Injury and Intimate Partner Violence Research Group at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Note: This blog post is also being published on the Stop Abuse Campaign blog. You can find this post by clicking here.
In recent weeks and months, the National Football League (NFL) has faced intense scrutiny over its handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence perpetration case. The case dominated the headlines as two separate videos emerged, showing first that Janay Rice was left unconscious by the assault in February, and second that Ray Rice delivered a powerful punch to her face that knocked her unconscious. The graphic video left many people reeling about the severity of the abuse, as well as the minimal repercussions that Rice faced initially.
As an interdisciplinary group of researchers who study the risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among survivors of domestic violence, we watched those videos through a different lens. We saw an example of one of the many types of domestic violence that places the victim at risk of experiencing a TBI. We cannot comment directly on Janay Rice’s health, but the video depicts that she lost consciousness, and loss of consciousness is one of the symptoms associated with an injury to the brain. In fact, it is the first symptom listed in the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee’s Protocols Regarding the Diagnosis and Management of Concussion.
The NFL knows a lot about concussion, which is a mild form of TBI. In December 2013, the NFL donated $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund research on understanding and diagnosing TBI. This donation was made on the heels of a $765 million settlement that the NFL made in August 2013 with former players who sustained game-related injuries to the brain. Professional football players face a high risk for TBI. Current research--which the NFL does not dispute in recent court documents--suggests that as many as one-third of former players will experience one or more brain injuries with negative, often chronic health consequences.
For at least two decades, the NFL has been studying and developing policies and protocols to prevent, identify, and respond to TBI among its players. As a result of these efforts, the league implemented rules designed to prevent TBI, such as banning the types of hits that are most likely to result in an injury. Furthermore, they adopted protocols that provide guidelines for examining injured players to determine the potential for TBI immediately following an injury, for managing symptoms, and for determining when players can return to play. Some of the major requirements of these protocols include that players who experience an injury which poses a risk for TBI must be assessed immediately, and if a brain injury is suspected, the player must be removed from the field right away, and then follow a detailed, phased process that involves daily monitoring in order to be gradually and safely reintroduced to game play.
Any doubts that the NFL does not recognize fully the severity of TBI should be erased by the protocols’ stipulations that, during each game, each team is assigned an Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant to provide an objective evaluation of potential TBI, and at each game there is a designated athletic trainer whose role is to watch the game from the stadium booth and be a spotter for potential TBI, using both direct observation of the game and video replay.
Of course, the NFL’s policies and protocols regarding TBI address the actions of players on the field, and the NFL’s role and responsibility for protecting the safety and wellbeing of players’ relationship partners could be debated. However, the NFL is practicing a dangerous double standard when it takes the issue of TBI so seriously among its players, but ignores the harm of potential TBI resulting from a domestic violence event perpetrated by those same players. Based on the five steps in the NFL’s Return-to-Play Protocol following a diagnosed TBI, Ray Rice may have missed more games had he been the one knocked unconscious in the elevator, rather than the two games he was required to miss in accordance with his initial suspension from the NFL for knocking Janay Rice unconscious.
Although there is growing recognition of the potential for TBI among survivors of abusive relationships, to date there has been relatively minimal attention to this issue in both research and practice related to domestic violence. However, current research suggests that as many as 30% to 74% of all victims of domestic violence who seek services from battered women’s shelters and emergency departments have a TBI (Kwako et al., 2011). Unlike other populations in which there is greater attention to the dangers of TBI--especially professional athletes--survivors of abusive relationships typically have far fewer resources and less immediate access to assessment and rehabilitation services when they experience a potential TBI. Furthermore, the cyclical nature of abusive relationships means that survivors who experience one TBI are at a greater risk of reinjury. Multiple TBIs place survivors at risk of even more serious physical and mental health consequences.
The current dangerous double standard within the NFL regarding TBI experienced by players on the field and TBI resulting from a domestic violence incident underscores the need for more resources and cultural change--both within the NFL and in the general population--that will prevent further violence, provide support to survivors of abuse, and hold offenders accountable. As the NFL faces increased calls to work to prevent domestic violence among its players and take action when it occurs, one specific area in which the NFL can respond is by applying its vast resources and knowledge base surrounding TBI to improving resources for survivors of domestic violence who are at risk for sustaining this type of injury.
Kwako, L. E., Glass, N., Campbell, J., Melvin, K. C., Barr, T., & Gill, J. M. (2011). Traumatic brain injury in intimate partner violence: A critical review of outcomes and measures. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 12, 115-126. doi: 10.1177/1524838011404251
By Juliette Grimmett, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
Founder, Chrysalis Network
I cannot recall a Thanksgiving dinner that did not include me starting up a discussion about sexism and gender-based violence (GBV). There have been times where I facilitated activities on my parents kitchen chalkboard about how the use of problematic words like “bitch” and the pervasive, all-encompassing term “guys,” are dismissive of women and contributes to rape culture. I’ve explained that my partner and I encouraging our two young boys to wear whatever makes them happy, even if it is glittery shoes or pink-heart leggings, is a form of sexual violence prevention. And I’ve talked about how we must change our narrative surrounding GBV to focus on the perpetrator and not the survivor, such as shifting the question from “Why did s/he stay?” to “Why did s/he abuse her/him?” My beautiful and open-minded family listens, interacts respectfully, and often expresses gratitude for these talks.
We all have different roles within our family and circle of friends. One of mine is to start conversations about challenging and uncomfortable issues, particularly with the people I know who do not do this work. I am mostly happy to have this role, though at times the pressure to start the conversations can be overwhelming. I wish that my daily conversations and thoughts about women’s safety and gender equality were also their norm.
Over the past two years, as a result of pervasive media attention focused on sexual and dating violence, particularly on college campuses, I have felt a remarkable shift among my loved ones. They have tweeted and posted relevant articles on Facebook, referenced actual cases in our discussions, and my 75 year-old uncle called to tell me about the front-page article of the NY Times on campus sexual assault. People in my life are now creating space for these conversations, along with public figures like Diane Rehm from National Public Radio, John Stewart from the Daily Show, Brian Williams from NBC Nightly News, and perhaps most importantly, Vice-President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama.
Of course GBV on college campuses is nothing new. My story of rape from almost 20 years ago is no different than the ones we hear about today. Further, countless women, people of color and members of LGBTQI communities have been talking about this violence for decades, demanding action and accountability. While those of us doing this work are frustrated with how long it has taken to get to this meaningful national dialogue, we are equally inspired that this shift has occurred within our lifetime. I think of how different the aftermath of my assault would have been if it happened today. Survivors voices are beginning to be respected and perpetrator accountability means suspension or expulsion, not social probation as it was in my case.
Almost all of us have heard at least one story from the courageous survivors throughout the country who are holding their institutions of higher education accountable for mishandling their sexual assault, specifically as violations of Title IX. The White House (the White House!!) has launched a national campaign Not Alone that provides resource information on how to respond to and prevent sexual assault on college and university campuses and in our schools. We are also learning about the long-awaited Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE) signed into law in March 2013 as part of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization. Campus SaVE, designed as a companion to Title IX, was developed to increase transparency about the scope of sexual violence, guarantee survivors enhanced rights, provide standards for institutional conduct proceedings, and provide campus community wide prevention educational programming. Dating and domestic violence and stalking are clearly identified as components of sexual violence in Campus SaVE, which had been unclear in Title IX. Additionally, Campus SaVE currently defines primary prevention programs as: “programming, initiatives, and strategies informed by research that are intended to stop dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking before they occur through the promotion of positive and healthy behaviors and beliefs that foster healthy, mutually respectful relationships and sexuality, encourage safe bystander intervention, and seek to change behavior and social norms in healthy and safe directions.”
Primary prevention of sexual violence requires us to fundamentally change the responsibility narrative from survivor behavior to perpetrator and community accountability. Consider the different message that is conveyed in headlines that read “18 year-old college student was raped” compared to “18 year-old college student committed rape.” When the norm changes to make violent behavior and perpetrator accountability the subjects of the discussion, we move forward in ending rape culture. I hope that primary prevention messages will shift our conversations away from casual victim-blaming interrogations of “What was she thinking wearing that?” “Why didn’t she use her pepper spray?” “Why didn’t she watch her drink?” and the soon to be, “She should have used that rape-drug detecting nail polish.” The new survivor supportive and community engaged norm would ask questions that advance positive cultural change such as “Why did that person choose to rape?” “Why do men feel entitled to degrade and abuse women’s bodies?” “How can we redefine masculinity to include love, respect and empathy?” “How can we stop perpetrators from perpetrating?”
The present national dialogue and related possibilities are unprecedented. It helps to change how our culture understands GBV. I believe it would be hard to find a first-year college student who has not heard something about campus sexual assault before coming to college this year. In addition, Campus SaVE requires that campuses educate incoming students on sexual violence prevention strategies, resources, policies (including a definition of consent), and laws. If done correctly, a campus culture is fostered in which survivors are supported, resources for help are clear, and the message of accountability is strong. With institutional structures in place, campus spaces are created in which survivors feel they will be believed and supported and may be more likely to report the abuse they experience. Presently, there is an active national community of campus survivors committed to holding campuses accountable. One tool developed by these activists is the website Know Your IX, a campaign that aims to educate all college students in the U.S. about their rights under Title IX. As survivor Annie Clark shared at a May 2013 press conference, “victims of sexual violence have reached a critical mass where we can no longer be ignored.”
While I am excited about the current climate, I remain guarded. We can require campuses to do all sorts of things, however the real test of success will be when value statements and institutional policies are aligned. Certain questions of commitment, adaptability, and sustainability remain. Will resources for survivors be safe for our LGBTQI community members, male survivors, and people of color? Will encouragement to report incidents be matched with a sensitive and understanding responder? Will the campus do the bare minimum or will they invest significant resources into effective, accessible and comprehensive prevention and response programs? Still, I remain encouraged as I know change has come because my uncle called me. I know change has come because of all the “likes” on my Facebook posts about these issues. I know change has come because this year, on my birthday, I heard this: “Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted; you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.” - Barack Obama, January 22, 2014
You are not alone. You are believed. It is not your fault. Tell someone.
Juliette has over nineteen years of professional experience working with communities, schools, and college and university campuses. During this time she has provided education and training to students, faculty, and staff on issues concerning sexual and dating violence prevention, advocacy, policy, and activism. Her past 10 years have focused on creating and implementing violence prevention and response programs on various college campuses including the University of South Carolina, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and most recently, NC State University where she was the Assistant Director of the Women’s Center. She served two terms on the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Board of Directors as the Campus Representative, and chaired the Legislative and Development Committees. She currently serves as an appointed member of the NC Sexual Violence Prevention Team as well as the Domestic Violence Prevention Enhancements and Leadership through Alliances (DELTA) team. Juliette grew up in Newton, Massachusetts and France, loves the Boston Red Sox, feminism, and being an activist. Most of all, she adores spending time with her two young sons Harper and Sky and her partner, Marc who teaches her to always lead with love.
It's Not About the Steak: How News Reports Miss the Mark When They Report the "Reasons" for Domestic Violence Incidents
By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
One of my simple pleasures in life is reading the newspaper every morning. I love getting up to date about the news of the day, learning about events and happenings in my community and beyond, and getting a daily dose of information about the important issues happening in the world around us.
And yet, there are times when my daily newspaper reading turns into disappointment, frustration, and anger over upsetting news about injustices in the world around us. As one who cares deeply about ending intimate partner violence, some of my biggest frustrations come up when reading the paper and seeing stories about new cases of domestic violence. Every new story simply breaks my heart, because I believe that every person has a right to safe and healthy relationships.
Beyond my frustrations when I read about cases of domestic violence, I, like many professionals who work to address domestic violence, get frustrated by the way that this issue is often covered in the media.
For example, I remember one morning a few years ago reading about a man who had beat his female partner, which the newspaper stated happened because she didn’t cook his steak the way he liked it. If you could have read my mind at the moment I read that, you would have heard it screaming, “It’s not about the steak!!!!!!!!” In my view, the reason that man beat his partner had nothing to do with the way she cooked his steak, and it had everything to do with power and control.
If you think that this story about the steak is an isolated incident, think again. Check out these examples of other “reasons” that media outlets gave for incidents of violence in the past month or so. I’ve bolded the alleged reasons for the violence in the list below:
It’s natural for people to want to try and explain why violence occurs. And, reporters have a responsibility to state the known facts of the stories they report. However, reporting overly simplistic reasons for abuse is problematic for at least two important reasons.
First, by trying to identify these situational causes of domestic violence incidents, reporters trivialize the violence and inadvertently misinform readers about the dynamics of abusive relationships. By confusing the real reason that abuse occurs--because one partner is trying to control the other--the wrong message gets sent to the community and perpetuates the stereotype that domestic violence occurs as a result of a unique fight or one person’s inability to manage his or her anger.
Second, by reporting on victims’ actions before a violent incident occurred, media stories imply that the victim may somehow have been to blame for the violence they experienced. These stories suggest that, had the victims just cooked the steak properly, not asked to use the bathroom on a long car ride, or not ate the fried chicken leftovers, the violence would not have occurred. Professionals who work to address domestic violence know, however, that the violence almost certainly still would have occurred, there just would have been a different triggering incident that set it off. Again, the abuse is not about the content of a fight...it is about power and control.
Of course, we need ongoing media coverage about the issue of domestic violence to continue to raise awareness in the community and demonstrate the scope of the problem. But what if, instead of saying that violence occurred because of the specific incident that triggered the reported act of violence, reporters used language like the following: “The perpetrator hurt the victim because they were trying to hold power over their partner”?
Now, I recognize that this is probably an overly idealistic vision for how the media will report cases of domestic violence. However, in order to fully end the stigma surrounding intimate partner violence, it’s important for the media to report on these cases responsibly. Such responsible reporting will help to educate the public about the issue and accurately depict the dynamics of abusive relationships.
By Rachel Miller, See the Triumph Contributor
I’m a football fan, a very big football fan. Football Sundays at our house are sacred. I am also a survivor of domestic violence and an advocate, so needless to say, what has been happening within the NFL recently involving domestic violence has been of particular interest to me. Watching Inside the NFL Tuesday night, I was curious to see how the hosts would approach this very sensitive issue. What struck me most was former Ravens safety, Ed Reed’s, very obvious struggle with how to reconcile who he believes Ray Rice to be, a friend, former teammate, and, as he said last night, a man of “integrity,” and the man he saw brutally assault his then-fiancé, now wife, on that tape. My heart went out to him, in all honesty, because his struggle is a common one.
The statistics tell us that 1 in 4 women will be affected by domestic violence during their lifetime. If you are on Twitter and have been following the #WhyIstayed #WhyIleft feeds, you can see survivors, including me, talking about our experiences and see just how many of us there are. Someone you know is or was in an abusive relationship. While that truth, in itself, can be hard for people to accept and deal with, what appears to be even more challenging for people to acknowledge is that these statistics also mean someone you know is an abuser.
Yes, you know someone who abuses their family. Someone you believe is a good person, fun to hang out with, someone you’d trust your secrets to and kids with, abuses their family behind closed doors. I say family because children who witness domestic violence are also victims, and a large percentage of those who abuse their partners also eventually target their children. Believe it or not, abusers look just like you. They may hold a good job, go to church, coach little league, live in a nice house, drive a nice car, dress well, have a great sense of humor, and even volunteer at the local homeless shelter. The image they present, and the image the family presents, tell you nothing about the dynamics of their relationship with their intimate partner. If abusers looked evil or were awful to everyone, no one would ever have anything to do with them in the first place.
Domestic violence and abuse are not only about the act of physical assault(s) on a partner. They are not about a lack of ability to manage anger, nor about a momentary loss of control. Domestic violence encompasses a pattern of behavior that is about gaining or maintaining power and control over an intimate partner or family member. What this means is that what happened to Janay Rice in that elevator is very likely only the escalation of the abuse she was subjected to prior. Most domestic violence starts as emotional abuse. Tactics such as intimidation, denial, blame, isolation, humiliation, gaslighting, and many others create a dynamic of fear within the relationship. It’s not even always fear of physical abuse—fear of retaliation in other ways can be just as debilitating. An abuser can keep a victim under their thumb without ever raising a hand to them.
With this understanding, we need to look at how we interact with those who choose to abuse, because that is what they do, they choose to abuse their supposed loved ones. Only they are responsible for their behaviors, and until every person, in every community, begins holding them, and only them, accountable, they will continue to hide behind our silence. It can be challenging and uncomfortable to have to view an acquaintance, friend, or family member in this light. I do get that. No one wants to confront a friend or family member about how they treat their partner or what may be happening in their home, but if you don’t, who will? If you don’t question why they think treating someone they claim to love in a harmful way is okay, why would they ever think it’s wrong?
I heard every one of the Inside the NFL hosts say “I just can’t believe this from Ray Rice” or something to that effect. They may not be able to see the man they know doing this, but that doesn’t change the fact that he did. If those closest to Mr. Rice, or any abuser, don’t sit him down and tell him his behaviors and beliefs about how to treat his partner are wrong, why would he think he needs to stop or change? I understand that no parent wants to think they raised someone who is capable of abuse. I understand that no one wants to think their sibling, cousin, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, or friend could ever do something so awful. I understand many will want to say that what happens in someone else’s home isn’t their business. I even understand that having these types of conversations with someone is a little scary and very uncomfortable, especially if you have a hard time reconciling the image of the person you carry in your head with the kind of person who abuses their family. What I don’t understand, and never will, is how so many who know, suspect, or have been told that someone they know is abusive stay silent.
Not only do most stay silent, they often choose not to defend the victim when the opportunity presents itself. This may manifest itself in remaining friends with an abuser despite being told that what they have done, or refusing to choose sides when a victim finally finds the courage to leave. It may be in allowing the abuser to badmouth their ex or even believing that just hanging out with them once in a while or grabbing a beer doesn’t mean you approve of what they do or did. Until abusers have to pay consequences within their own circles and communities, they will continue to believe that their behavior and beliefs are acceptable. Until the shame is shifted from the victim to the abuser, domestic violence will continue to be a pervasive problem within our society. What many fail to realize is our willingness to broach the subject with an abuser not only aids the victim, it also helps the abuser, who usually functions in the darkness of silence and secrecy, by turning the lights on and aiding them in confronting their own issues.
If you found out your friend was child molester, would you not take the side of the child? Would you think it was acceptable to hang out with him at the local bar? Would you remain indifferent to the child’s suffering? Would you ignore the fact that they need get help? Somehow I doubt it. Yet when it comes to domestic violence, the reaction is often exactly that. I hear things like “Well, there are two sides to every story.” “No one knows what really happens in someone else’s relationship.” “Maybe she’s just saying that to get back at him or to get the kids.” The problem with these attitudes is that they are not only victim-blaming, they falsely assume that most victims are making it up or exaggerating. The number of false domestic violence allegations is low, very low. In fact, domestic violence and abuse are widely under reported. If someone tells you they are or were abused, they are probably only giving a glimpse into the reality of what they suffered.
We need to be willing to tell abusers they need to get help. We need to be willing to end relationships with those abusers who refuse to see the wrong in their behaviors and get help. We need to be willing to stand on the side of victims regardless of whether or not we can “see” the person we thought we knew abusing. I don’t pretend this is easy or simple, but every time we do, we make it safer for victims to come forward. We make it harder for abusers to live among us. We show our children that abuse is not acceptable in any form and that it is okay to stand up and say so. What we tolerate will repeat itself, so we need to stop pretending like we aren’t tolerating abuse because we are. It is easy to sit back and say intimate partner violence is wrong, or I would never hit a woman. It is much harder to put your money where your mouth is and do the right thing. If you know someone who is or has been abusive to their partner, in any way, emotionally, physically, financially, or sexually, and it is almost a guarantee that you do, I urge you to speak up. Tell them they need help, provide them with resources to get it and if they refuse, be willing to stop tolerating the presence of abusers in your life.
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By Jen Schenker, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
It has taken me a long time to be able to admit that I was a victim of sexual assault; once when I was five and once when I was 19. It took even longer for me to recognize myself as a survivor, but once I did, I knew that I wanted to work with others who had their voices stolen. However, it was difficult to hear other people talk about their experiences when I still had not figured out how to heal from my own trauma.
Every time I told my story I struggled to find the perfect words that would describe what it felt like to exist in a space where someone I loved destroyed my spirit. The English language has so many fantastic adjectives, nouns, and verbs but none of them seemed to do a good enough job. Some say that the arts were created to go where plain words cannot; to abstractly represent the myriad of thoughts and emotions that we humans experience but cannot entirely describe to others. When I heard about FORCE and the work that they were doing with The Monument Quilt, I knew that it would be a chance to recount my journey from victim to survivor.
The quilt is made up of 4’x4’ red squares that survivors and supporters create and send in to FORCE. Once all the squares are completed and received, they will all be stitched together into a massive quilt that will span the lawn in front of The National Mall in Washington, DC. The quilt project allows people to come together nationwide to support one another while also raising awareness about sexual assault. I could not resist the chance to get crafty and have some time for self-reflection.
Yet, how does a story of sexual assault fit into a 4’x4’ space? This was something that I struggled with when I began designing my quilt square. I knew that I wanted to put some sort of message on my square and that I wanted it to have a figure or image that represented my narrative. I finally settled on a quote that has been very important to me and the image of a phoenix to symbolize how it felt to overcome the trauma. Throughout the process of making my quilt square, I found that I had to take a lot of self-care breaks. With each paint stroke and stitch in the fabric memories that I thought were long gone came rushing back to the surface. Neither one of my attackers went to jail and one of them died eight years ago, so many of my questions will never be answered nor will justice ever be served. Time has dulled the pain quite a bit, but those times in my life will always be tainted.
During my moments of self-care and reflection, I realized how proud I was of myself for getting back up after being knocked down. My design started to become a reality and I was surprised by how well my square represented my journey to the present. I started to get excited about the finished product and traveling to Washington to see the squares that others have made. Many of the survivors who will be making quilt squares will do so at various workshops across the country so they will have the ability to meet other survivors and supporters. I think I would have gotten even more out of being able to work on my project while talking to others who have their own stories to tell. My journey is not complete, but I am very much looking forward to the future and I hope others can get as much as I did out of this project.
Jen Schenker is a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro working towards her MS/EdS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. As a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, she is passionate about advocating for other survivors and likes to divide her time between counseling and fighting for social justice. In the future, she plans to pursue a doctoral degree in Counseling and Educational Development, continue advocating, and counsel others affected by domestic violence/sexual assault.