For too many decades domestic violence and rape crisis agencies’ impact has been constrained because our focus (often determined by funding) has been limited to only one piece of the solution to these problems- crisis and support services for survivors. These services are critical, but they
- address the issue far too late– after the victimization has happened, and
- place the responsibility for solving the problem on the very person who is the victim of the actions.
In no way am I diminishing the importance of this work. Every day at Wellspring we help victims of abuse to break free, heal, find a measure of justice, and emerge as survivors. But there are two other pieces to this puzzle that need to be addressed before we can solve it.
We need to focus on the actions of the person committing the abusive behavior, not on the victim. In the past year, we’ve seen a shift in holding offenders accountable. The year’s news stories have been peppered with incidents where public figures (athletes, celebrities) committed acts of relationship or sexual violence. While the ‘sensational tweet of the moment’ social media coverage of these incidents spans the gamut from voracious public shaming to prurient nosiness into the private lives of celebrities, the sheer volume of coverage about high-profile abuse has resulted in more thoughtful conversations about character– with important career consequences. Where I hope we get to with these discussions is not the sensational, career-ending consequences after actions suddenly become public, but instead instilling character and ethical leadership as equally important attributes for excellence in one’s field. Often talent, and its sidekick fame, buy privilege–that carte blanche that we offer to excuse, cover up, or ignore habitual abusive actions. Hopefully, we’ll invest more resources in changing attitudes so that success depends not just on athletic, artistic or intellectual skills, but on character also… and this value will be taught early and often, to all.
Holding people accountable for their individual actions is important, but that’s addressing the issue on relationship at a time. So change will only happen as quickly as we can ‘fix’ each relationship. True change comes from realizing that we all need to be part of the solution. Ending relationship and sexual abuse, is about changing social norms. When Wellspring staff work with kids in prevention programs, we teach then about bystander intervention– the skills they need to know so that they can take action in a situation. The title of a recent news article Here’s How You Can Stop A Sexual Assault Before It Happens caught my eye. It’s a discussion about the role of bystanders. And it’s got a very potent message about how traumatized bystanders are when they’ve witnessed an assault, but through shock, confusion, or not knowing what to do, they didn’t do anything to intervene. That feeling of helplessness can haunt them forever. Programs that expose youth (or adults) to the ethic of intervention and provide strategies they can use in situations prepare them. I especially like that the focus changes from a victim/perpetrator solution to a broader focus. The concluding words of the article sum up that difference quite eloquently: