By Jillian Gilchrest, age 35
The woman to my left blots at her eyes, trying to stop her tears. I continue to talk, attempting to make eye contact with her, hoping I can convey my empathy with a look since I cannot with my words. I am presenting to eleven women who work at an OBGYN practice. As the training continues, two more women disclose their own abuse. I can tell that the women who work at this practice are close because they feel comfortable sharing their own experiences in front of their colleagues. That doesn’t happen too often.
Nearly everyday, and sometimes multiple times per day, I present to healthcare providers across the state of Connecticut about the importance of screening patients for intimate partner violence. As a presenter, I am in a unique position to observe the exchanged glances between two employees, a nurse’s knowing head nod, the tears streaming down a provider’s face, or a practitioner’s despondent stare at the floor as I present on the various methods abusers use to control and manipulate their partner. I am frequently approached after my training by someone in need of services for themselves or for a loved one.
At first I was taken aback that the professionals I was asked to train were themselves in need of domestic violence services. But, why should I be surprised? Intimate partner violence is incredibly common. And I knew that, or so I thought I did. What I knew were the statistics, that “one in four women” will experience physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. But what I didn’t think about were the individual lives behind those numbers. I think that our use of statistics to describe domestic violence desensitizes us to what it actually is and who and how it impacts those around us.
We don’t know who among us is experiencing or has experienced abuse–whether physical, emotional, financial, sexual, or technological–at the hands of their loved one. I don’t presume to think we will either, but I guess what I would like is for us to actually have the thought. I’m always struck by someone in my training who brings up a television character as their point of reference for domestic violence, especially when it’s clear to me that their colleague a few seats down has been personally impacted. For something that happens with such frequency, we still know very little about intimate partner violence and even less about how to prevent it.
Imagine if one out of every four homes caught on fire. You can’t, right? Because we’d never allow that to happen. In fact, we have created teams of people (fire fighters) dedicated to preventing and addressing it. If one out of every four women we know has been or is being abused, that should upset us. We shouldn’t just accept those numbers as fact, we should recognize them as the woman we work with, or the woman who teaches our children, or the woman who helps us find the cinnamon at the grocery store, or the woman who sells us a new cell phone. And, we should want to help her, right, and prevent other women from experiencing what she has, shouldn’t we?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that men (one in seven) can be victims of domestic violence as well, and women can be abusers. That said, men make up the majority of abusers whether the victim is male or female. This reality, placed within the context of a patriarchal society, contributes to our lack of knowledge about intimate partner violence and our passive response. If collectively, we sought out ways to prevent domestic violence, like we do with house fires and car accidents, we could have an impact.
I challenge each of us to start talking about intimate partner violence–and not by using the statistics. Just as I train healthcare providers to use behaviorally based questions to screen their patients, we should talk about the behaviors that constitute abuse and violence. Excessive texting…belittling comments…limiting her spending or ability to work…requiring she check in and be home at a certain time…forcing her to do things sexually she’s not comfortable with…grabbing her wrists.
Enough is enough. It’s 2017. We have the information and the tools to prevent domestic violence…we just have to want to.