#Metoo and domestic violence (DV) have become interwoven conversations in the work of Project DVORA and Counseling & Addiction Services, where issues of sexual abuse and sexual violence regularly arise. Experiences of and reactions to the #metoo movement have been complicated for DV survivors, so we asked Liz Coleclough, Director of Project DVORA and Counseling & Addiction Services, how #metoo and domestic violence are playing out in advocacy and clinical work with clients.
What have you noticed since #metoo has become a refrain in the culture?
For some survivors, witnessing the #metoo movement has been positive. From certain angles, it’s an opportunity to reclaim an abusive experience. #Metoo can offer a platform to channel personal trauma towards a larger purpose — towards prevention and cultural change. It can provide an avenue of solidarity with others, in fight for the same goal.
But other factors can complicate the reality for survivors during #metoo. When people are still processing their own trauma, it can be an enormous challenge to suddenly and unexpectedly see parallel stories echoed back to you from a thousand different directions. Survivors may already struggle with feelings of safety and trust in the surrounding world. The unraveling of #metoo has exposed the pervasiveness of sexual assault. This, in turn, can amplify a survivor’s fear and concern that the world is a dangerous place.
As you note, #metoo is public and pervasive. What impact does that have on someone who is using avoidance as a coping mechanism?
Avoidance is a very common coping strategy for people who have survived trauma. The desire to push down and/or minimize an experience can provide short-term relief. But it can also present problems in the long-term.
Avoidance can leave people unprepared to regulate their emotional and physical responses to reminders of abuse. It can further remove the opportunity to process through the impact of a traumatic experience in a healthy way.
As a result, many survivors have struggled with the #metoo movement. The unyielding exposure to reminders of violence can be disorienting and overwhelming. This is particularly true when people have not built up strategies to regulate their brains’ and bodies’ responses to their own memories. As a result, for some, the reaction to #metoo has been to shut down further, to hide, to even become angry or resentful.
What can sexual abuse look like in a domestic violence situation?
Domestic violence often elevates to mainstream attention through well-publicized but isolated events of physical assault. In reality, DV exists in subtler but more pervasive patterns of power and control. It involves a systematic imbalance within a relationship in which one person’s desires, needs and behaviors continuously dominate the other’s.
The imbalance of sexual power in a relationship looks very much the same. Sometimes, yes, it can exist as violent sexual assault — actions anyone would immediately recognize as abuse. But more often, it exists as expectation, entitlement, coercion, pressure, and lack of concern for the physical and emotional well-being of the other party. Ultimately, abusive partners prioritize their desire for sex and control over the boundaries and safety of their partners. This comes down to a violation of bodily autonomy.
Tell us more about the term ‘bodily autonomy.’
Bodily autonomy is the concept that your body is truly and exclusively yours. You always have the right to set boundaries. You always have the right to determine the level to which you will engage physically or sexually with another person — no matter the relationship or the length of time you have been in that relationship.
#MeToo has exposed hundreds of instances in which one individual has violated another’s bodily autonomy. Many of the stories have involved isolated incidents of assault. But this same violation can take place within intimate relationships. DV and sexual assault intersect when the sexual relationship begins to reflect the notion that one partner’s body is no longer under their control. But, whether inside or outside intimate relationships, people always have the right to determine how they use their bodies. Others do not get to decide that for us.
In consideration of #metoo and domestic violence, JFS asks you to place a bandage on your seder table. A bandage reminds us not everyone in our community is safe and free this holiday. Oppression doesn’t take a break. In fact, domestic violence, and the sexual abuse that can accompany it, can intensify around holidays.