CFLE Perspectives: Domestic Violence: Let's Talk
While teaching in the fields of family sciences and sociology, I am continuously in awe of the power of education to serve as a motivator for prevention. With no other topic have I found this to be more prevalent than with the teaching of domestic violence. Each semester, I clearly remember the faces and comments of students as I introduce the topic of domestic violence for the first time. Many students reflect back a combination of disassociation (domestic violence does not have anything to do with me) and shame (eyes that immediately shift down or away). I remember clearly too, the comments of students when we end our discussions. Expressions commonly include shock (I cannot believe domestic violence happens this often, even to my peers) understanding (I will admit, I used to blame women for not leaving abusive relationships) and empowerment (I will never be in an abusive relationship again or, I will never again walk away in judgment from someone that needs my help).
One unique aspect of teaching about domestic violence that stands out for me is the difference in teaching a class of all female students (unfortunately, this is generally the case in many family sciences courses) compared to a room of mixed male and female students (my sociology courses contain a rich mix by gender as well as academic major). In either scenario, the conversation begins the same: silently. Yet, given an environment of trust and openness developed earlier and throughout the semester, the results have been similar again and again. In a class of all female students, after the silence settles in, one woman will share a personal experience in response to the question, "What do we know about domestic violence?" The experience is generally her own story of escaping an abusive relationship, or of growing up witnessing the abuse of her mother, or of a friend, sister or roommate in an abusive relationship and that she is uncertain how to help. Once a student shares openly, the wave of reality it creates is palpable; the other students seem to instantly realize that domestic violence is not something that only happens to the anonymous "someone else" far removed from them. Rather, domestic violence happens and is happening to "us." And once one student is brave enough to share their story, inevitably others follow. This too, leaves us all in a state of heightened awareness (and heartbreak) of the high prevalence of abusive relationships. Once this awareness occurs, the introduction of domestic violence education is incredibly powerful because the students now readily understand that they or someone they know is much more likely to be touched by domestic violence than previously ever imagined.
The domestic violence conversation with males in the classroom results in a very different yet equally powerful discussion. To begin, I have never had a single woman share her personal experience with males present in the classroom. While much of the power of the conversation happens prior to education in an all female classroom, the conversation is non-existent until after education occurs in the mixed gender classroom. Most notably, an inspiring conversation begins after we discuss the critical role of non-abusive men in domestic violence prevention. Many men will say at the outset that domestic violence has nothing to do with them, since they are not themselves abusers. Regardless of whether meaningful conversations happen prior to or after education is provided, both men and women express feelings of empowerment to change the society in which they live and to do so in a way that breaks through an us/them (women versus men) view replacing it with an us view (women and men).
There are several resources which I have found to be consistently powerful when introducing the topic of domestic violence. One of the most powerful resources in the mixed gender class has been Jackson Katz's Ted Talk, Violence against women - it's a men's issue. I have found that Katz's call to men to be leaders in the prevention of domestic violence moves male students to a new level of understanding - namely, that eradicating silence about and acceptance of domestic violence by non-abusive men is essential to reduce the appallingly high prevalence of domestic violence at a societal level. It is also exceedingly powerful for men to listen to a man speak out with passion against domestic violence. I have been immensely impressed by the level of passion with which young male students have embraced this issue, once they realize that not only does domestic violence affect them and those they know or love, but that there is something that they can do to help. Katz's Ted Talk has served as an empowering source for women too, as they hear (many for the first time) that they are not at fault for being the victim of abuse.
There are several additional resources that students consistently report as having played a role in increasing their understanding of domestic violence to a level facilitating personal growth, personal change, community action or even a shift in career focus. The Power and Control Wheel as well as the Equality Wheel developed by the "Domestic Abuse Intervention Project" allows some students to recognize, maybe for the first time in their lives, that they were or are in an abusive relationship. They learn to recognize the various behaviors of power and control, beyond physical abuse. Importantly, the reality that women can be abusive in a relationship as well is discussed when looking at the various aspects of power and control. Others report learning, and again some for the first time in their life, what a healthy relationship looks like from the various behaviors of equality presented in the Equality Wheel.
Another powerful resource has been the six survivor stories presented by the Huffington Post entitled, Why Didn't You Just Leave? Six Domestic Violence Survivors Explain Why It's Never That Simple. The short clips allow students to hear from women, in their own words, not only the harsh realities of being trapped in a domestic violence relationship but importantly the complexities of the roles of family, isolation, love, fear, shame and money that can make escaping an abusive relationship so very difficult. And finally, Leslie Morgan Steiner's Ted Talk, Why domestic violence victims don't leave based on her book Crazy Love in which she shares her personal horrors with domestic violence. Steiner contributes uniquely to the domestic violence discussion as she is a Harvard graduate. Students come to the understanding that domestic violence can and does happen to anyone regardless of race, education, or socio-economic status.
Every day I feel privileged to have the opportunity to talk with students about their lives and our society. I am humbled by the power of education to help students help themselves and others. And as it relates to domestic violence, I am in awe of the power of a discussion. Katz ends his Ted Talk with a quote which originated from Martin Luther King, Jr. which speaks to such power: "In the end, what will hurt the most are not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends". Let's talk.
Robin Gallagher, M.A., CFLE, is an instructor of Family Sciences at Western Michigan University and an instructor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University.
Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs. (2011). Equality Wheel. Retrieved from: http://www.theduluthmodel.org/pdf/Equality.pdf
Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs. (2011). Power and Control Wheel. Retrieved from: http://www.theduluthmodel.org/pdf/PowerandControl.pdf
Jeltsen, M. (2014, October). 'Why Didn't You Just Leave?' Six Domestic Violence Survivors Explain Why It's Never That Simple. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/12/why-didnt-you-just-leave_n_5805134.html
Katz, J. (2012, November). Jackson Katz: Violence against women - it's a men's issue [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue?langage=en
Steiner, L. M. (2012, November). Leslie Morgan Steiner: Why domestic violence victims don't leave? [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/leslie_morgan_steiner_why_domestic_violence_victims_don_t_leave
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