V-Day Panel Seeks to End Violence Against Women and Girls
by Diane Lefer
“One billion women violated is an atrocity. One billion women dancing is a revolution.”
That was the statement sent out by the One Billion Rising campaign urging women around the world to dance in the streets on February 14 and demand an end to violence against women and girls.
While “Break the Chain,” the campaign’s music video, screened in the background, three dozen women and a few men in the meeting room of the Los Angeles chapter, National Council of Jewish Women got up and danced before settling down to the serious business of a panel on teen dating violence.
Teen relationships “mimic adult relationships,” said Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence (formerly the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women). “If we are really going to stop domestic violence, we have to work with the young.”
“It’s more complicated than hitting and physical abuse,” said Barrie Levy. We have to look at emotional abuse as a girl’s self-confidence and healthy functioning are undermined by “a pattern of coercive control.”
Levy, a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and UCLA faculty member, has decades of experience working with families affected by domestic violence and teens affected by abuse in intimate relationships. She offered a typical scenario:
A boyfriend uses verbal attacks and humiliation to stay in control of his girlfriend. He constantly criticizes her, making her feel bad about herself. He’s possessive and jealous, calling or texting her all the time to make sure where she is and to accuse her of being with other guys. He knows exactly how to hurt her and so she is watchful, afraid to upset him. She apologizes all the time. She is aware that she can’t do anything separate from him and so she stops spending time with her best friend. The emotional abuse begins to escalate to physical. In the beginning, sex was special but he’s been rough lately. He uses or threatens to use physical force. He’s pushed her against the lockers at school. Now he’s hit her a couple of times. And she can’t stand the thought of losing him.
What’s wrong with these kids anyway? Just more examples of teens and bad decision making? Lindsey Horvath, Regional Coordinator for the One Billion Rising campaign, asked therapist Ava Rose if science has some answers.
Rose, the director of Women Helping Women, the community counseling and support services at the NCJW, said, “We’re hardwired to stay in connection.” As humans — unlike most other animals — we remain vulnerable and in need of care for many years of life. “Relationships are essential to survival,” she said, which is why “when somebody becomes attached, that can feel like a life-and-death story.” So breaking up isn’t just hard to do: it may feel life-threatening. This is particularly true for teenagers. Contrary to stereotype, “teens are perfectly capable of making good decisions when their minds are calm,” Rose said. But the part of the brain that helps us manage emotions is still developing at that age. Teens therefore “have a harder time calming their emotions down” and that’s when bad judgment comes into play.
But the great part about working with adolescents — the reason Levy loves it — is they are still developing. Which means, she says, “they can change.”
Levy reminded the audience what teens may envision as the ideal romance. “It’s what you see in the movies. He loves me so much, he wants me all to himself,” she said, “but what starts out romantic becomes a prison. You’re locked in and can’t move.”
If we look back honestly at our own lives, “How many of you thought, I want to be in a healthy relationship?” asked Patti Giggans.
And what does one look like? Terra Slavin, attorney with the Domestic Violence Legal Advocacy Project at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, challenged the audience to name a high profile gay couple. Society has changed enough that the media gives us many positive examples of gay and lesbian individuals, she said, but what we don’t see are the healthy relationships.
She also pointed out that lesbian-identified women report abuse by intimate partners at a higher rate than straight-identified women, and for lesbian teens, it may be particularly hard to leave the relationship. “The fear of being outed to family and school is a threat a same-sex partner can use on the other. LGBT youth are still a disproportionate number of the homeless youth — 40%,” she said. “So when an abusive partner threatens to out them to their family, it can mean they don’t have any place to go.”
Giggan’s Peace Over Violence organization has now introduced a pilot program in a few LAUSD schools to train teachers to be aware of the signs of teen dating violence and to take appropriate action. If teachers see a boy push a girl up against the lockers and ignore it or just walk by, it’s “the worst thing that can happen,” she said. It sends the message that people accept this behavior as normal.
Miguel Angel Perez, coordinator of the Male Violence Prevention Project in Santa Monica, acknowledged this as he talked about transforming “bystanders” to “upstanders,” adult men who model a different sort of masculinity for the next generation. “Masculinity is at the root of violence,” he said, “so men need to step up and change the culture about masculinity.”
The project works, for example, with athletic coaches who may use sexist language to motivate their players. If coaches continue to use misogynistic insults, the assistant coaches and players themselves are encouraged to speak up and challenge this. With fifth-graders, discussions focus on the kids’ idea of what makes an ideal man. What does it mean to be strong? Tough?
Yes, boys need a different concept of manhood and identity. Whether we look at gang violence or the recent examples of Adam Lanza and Christopher Dorner, we see men turning to guns and killing to erase stigma and shame and to reclaim a sense of respect and honor.
Slavin added, “We code masculinity in terms of men. We assume that masculine-identified people are the ones perpetrating violence.” This leads to the automatic — sometimes incorrect — assumption that the more feminine person in an LGBT relationship is the victim.
Altogether, too many teen relationships–Giggans cited an estimate of 25-30%– involve coercive control. And if you think it doesn’t apply in your home because your kid doesn’t date, think again. Many kids today don’t even use that language, Giggans and Slavin agreed. They aren’t “dating.” They are just “hanging out.”
How can you know if your own daughter (or son) is affected?
Levy said a tip-off can be behavioral changes. A girl has become more self-conscious, self-critical. She’s begun dropping activities, afraid to do anything that will get her boyfriend upset. She’s become isolated, not seeing her friends anymore as the unhealthy relationship demands all her emotional and cognitive attention.
So what do you do? Telling her not to see the boy leaves her caught between a controlling boyfriend and a controlling parent. And if you ask her to choose, the boyfriend will win.
According to Levy, a parent should accept that it’s not easy to end a relationship. Focus on keeping your daughter safe. Ask her, Are you emotionally safe? Physically safe? What are you doing to get yourself safe? For example, does she have a way of not being in the car when he’s been drinking? Does she know how to get away when he’s in a jealous rage? At the same time, focus on building her strength and support. Encourage her participation in other activities and a life outside the relationship.
Parents of a boy should be aware if he’s temperamental, volatile, quick to blow up. A mother might hear her son being cruel and critical to the girl. She might realize he’s obsessed with his girlfriend because she notices how he pays constant attention to everything the girl is doing.
Levy acknowledged some of the behavior would be hidden, but “You have to assume it’s worse than what you see.” A boy may try to blame the girlfriend for his behavior with excuses like, You don’t know how she pushes me. Of course a mother wants to believe her son is not at fault. But he needs everyone in his life to point out to him that the way he is treating his girlfriend isn’t healthy.
“The best thing parents have to offer their kids,” Levy said, “is a strong relationship. Your kids should know you’re there to support them and help them make good decisions no matter how you feel about the choices they’re making.”
For parents and other caregivers who want more information and support, Levy and Giggans have co-authored What Parents Need to Know about Dating Violence as well as another book forthcoming in Fall 2013. (When they asked around for advice on a title, parents of daughters wanted to call the book I Want to Kill the Bastard while teenagers suggested Parents — You Don’t Have a Clue.) This spring, Levy will also facilitate a two-hour workshop, Dating Without Danger, sponsored by Women Helping Women at the NCJW. (The date is not yet confirmed but interested parents should contact Abha Verma at 323-852-8522 by March 4 for further information or to enroll.)
Finally, a confession: As I left the meeting to meet a friend and go join the dance, there were memories I couldn’t shake. I remembered when instead of being an upstander, I was a bystander. Junior high. There was a girl in my class, a lovely girl, an honors student, friendly, liked and respected. Then the gossip started going round that she was seeing the local “bad boy” and she was “letting him” hit her. And while we gossiped, we felt ashamed of being girls. Our classmate’s situation made us feel uncomfortable, icky. Even disgusted with her. I used to have nightmares in which she’d be running from that boy, trying to escape. She’d come to me for help, crying and showing me her bruises. In real life, I never tried to talk to her. I certainly hope someone did, that she had a friend or parent who did more than just gossip about her. And then wake at night from bad dreams.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist. Her latest books include The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal, and the crime novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, from Rainstorm Press, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry describes as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Lefer writes for LA Progressive and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. This article originally appeared on LA Progressive.