Editor’s Note: TW: this article discusses domestic violence and sexual assault. Please see the resources listed at the end of this piece for support.
There’s no shortage of shock and dismay going around, and by now, this isn’t new. What’s new is the options we have to cope. For the first time for most Americans, escape is no longer what keeps us safest, and to call it bizarre is a bit of an understatement. In the self-preservation mode that the brain adopts during trauma or stress (and make no mistake, this is traumatic for many and will take grieving), flight is officially off the table. Fighting does little when you’re trying to stay home and save lives, which leaves fawning and freeze. We’ve found ourselves in suspended animation — a prolonged holding of breath, and we’re communally learning that it can be absolutely terrifying. One group in particular is familiar with this feeling: sexual and domestic violence survivors.
I know I’m not the only survivor who’s experiencing triggers from the pandemic. In a lot of ways it’s not new — having all of your choices and chances at freedom taken away is, at its root, what sexual violence is all about. Therefore it’s not surprising that a global outbreak, a trap by definition in an unsafe environment, brings back seasick memories of the violation that taught me what triggers are in the first place, even if that danger is long past. This emotional aide-memoire can take many forms, and each offers a rare window into survivor experiences. Here are just a few:
- Feeling betrayed by a system — a workplace, a landlord, a community, a government — that you trusted. The spurning doubt that still permeates most of our systems acts as a letdown on a day-to-day basis for victims brave enough to step forward. Even for those of us involved in the healing steps of our trauma, the surprising ways human lives are dubbed expendable during the course of this outbreak have been a stinging reminder of what it was like the first time an institution let us down.
- Feeling like your authority is questioned on your own experience, or what you know is best for you. One of the most common responses survivors are met with after an assault is an urging to come forward, press charges, or seek justice. But the striking reality is that the vast majority of people who come forward don’t choose this route. Between the retraumatization that often occurs in prosecution and the uphill battle of retelling one’s horror again and again (typically only to be met with skepticism), most survivors simply pursue healing, not justice. Yet most well-meaning third parties demand just that: a chance for the legal system to work, however slim. While coming from an earnest place, this too often removes a survivor’s choice, and this is what we are rapidly reckoning with when it comes to American idealities: it is more important to the vast majority of our country to have a choice than it is to stay safe. It’s when our personal choices endanger others that this becomes a problem; just as each decision in the time of COVID-19 has a public safety rippling effect, there’s a big difference between pursuing what’s right for yourself and forcing that decision (or its consequences) upon others.
- Hypervigilance: the unconscious defense systems in place for many a PTSD patient whose brains have endeavored to simply keep them from ever re-experiencing the trauma. An important distinction is that this isn’t a deliberate decision making process — this is the high-arousal, jumpy feeling of being so on edge that ordinary stimuli begin to feel shocking and like a threat. A fun form this takes for one lucky subgroup is the fear of doing others harm. After living through trauma, often the worst possible scenario the mind can imagine (aside from re-experiencing the incident itself) is accidentally inflicting harm on someone else — God forbid a loved one. Sprinkle in a virus that you may not even know you’re carrying and add a general sense of impending doom for humanity and you’ve got a high-anxiety PTSD cocktail.
- For those of us who love someone who has suffered interpersonal violence (statistically, more of us than one might think), the pandemic has manifested the discovery of yet another way we are incapable of mending our friend/sibling/parent/child/partner’s trauma. Take helplessness and raise it to the power of COVID-19.
- This may seem obvious, but it cannot go unsaid: being raped is an extraordinarily isolating experience. The reality is that no matter how many people I relate my story to, no one experienced that moment of panic and domination but me. Sheltering in place is the only effective way we know of at the moment to save lives. But it’s important to keep in mind that for some, this experience has escalated to an extreme what is already too often an isolating ordeal. Feeling like no one can understand what you’re going through is compounded when literally no one can see it.
This is on top of the fact that women (the population most frequently targeted by sexual violence) are already disproportionately bearing the burden of decisions made surrounding COVID-19: they make up 77% of healthcare workers, over 66% of grocery store workers, and 78% of social workers.
To any survivors who might be reading this: your experience matters.
Lots of survivors are experiencing these exacerbated symptoms, and it’s awful. But I know on some level that I’m one of the lucky ones. My rapist isn’t sheltering in place with me.
When escape is not an option
How do we help a person when their shelter becomes their risk? This is what the reality is like for far too many in quarantine — certainly more than most of us are willing to discuss. The thing is, examining violence is exhausting. There are no easy solutions, and that, like the virus, is part of why this is difficult. As humans we want to correct it, reach out and smash the problem, efficiently and quickly. Especially when someone we love is hurting.
[Having] all of your choices and chances at freedom taken away is, at its root, what sexual violence is all about.
Part of this comes from the compassion fatigue that can ensue when we’re told that death is an acceptable component of the everyday. But part of it comes from the misinformation surrounding those realities.
This is the part we can change.
Let’s start by debunking a few myths.
Power and Control Wheel – Understanding the Power and Control Wheel | Source: TheDuluthModel/YouTube
Myth: All physical violence all the time.
Fact: Yes, at some point things escalate to this. But the psychological toll of domestic abuse is at points just as detrimental as the physical. For many, it’s more like walking on eggshells. Every point of contention could become a catalyst for worse. Setting this person off is an ever-present dread, and now the stakes are higher than ever.
Myth: Victims provoke the violence.
Fact: Nobody asks to be abused, period. But what we know about the cycle that violence often takes is that a target’s safety is often more compromised when external stressors ramp up, especially financial ones (no one needs reminding of the communal toilet the global economy resides in currently). Outside sources of tension are not the cause of domestic violence — it is the choice of an individual and the reinforcement through willful ignorance, minimizing, and lack of consequences that the individual’s behavior may get from the community which result in abuse. But we know that parallels run high with incidents of abuse and of financial tension. It is never the victim’s fault.
Myth: Staying put in a domestic abuse situation is the worst option.
Fact: There’s nothing tolerable about abuse. That being said, there are plenty of reasons survivors may stay with their abuser, and those have only become more complicated in a time of such worldwide instability and fear. What’s worse: enduring this version of “normal,” or the risk of homelessness during a global pandemic? Never mind that the event of leaving is often the most dangerous time period for a survivor and their loved ones. Thanks to risks of passing the virus, the outside world can seem to present just as much danger as the inside, especially for survivors with underlying health conditions.
Myth: Abuse is a private issue between the abuser and their target.
Fact: People who inflict harm are usually fairly creative about doing so. Harm to a survivor’s loved ones, pets, and even children is a frequently-used tactic to threaten or demonstrate control. This is especially amplified when our country’s foster care programs are overwhelmed with the effects of COVID-19, and entering the system feels to many like a sentence to the pandemic’s front lines. To top it all off, essential workers across the board are facing threats to their child custody due to the continued exposure they endure on a daily basis to the virus. It’s a hellish time to have one’s custody challenged. This is just one more reason it behooves us to bear down and remember: it’s a cultural, institutions-wide problem that leads to domestic abuse, and it’s all of our job to fix.
Justin Timberlake Cries a River While Eating Spicy Wings | Hot Ones | Source: © First We Feast/YouTube
There’s a parallel here that needs to be named. Choosing personal discomfort for the benefit of our loved ones is an experience with which most of America is suddenly and bitterly familiar thanks to self-isolation measures. In no uncertain terms, it’s been difficult for everyone. But imagine if staying at home was only the tip of your sacrificial iceberg.
It’s the kind of math no one should ever have to do
If you’re feeling overwhelmed reading by now and need a self-care breather before continuing, a video of sea otters holding hands can be found here.
So what can we do, knowing how dangerous staying at home can be for some? (Spoiler alert: it’s not violating social distancing mandates until it’s safe to do so.) But it could be a bit of creative transformation in terms of what advocacy really means now.
The fundamental starting point in so much of this is where we hold accountability. Most advocates are trained (heavily) to be wary of victim blaming. But this is even more important when the stakes are so high in avoiding escalation. This is because at the end of a quarantined day, what might feel the most viable for the survivor is to stay and continue to endure the abuse.
How to Support Domestic Violence Survivors During COVID-19 | NowThis | Source: © NowThis News/YouTube
This may seem shocking, but it was true before COVID-19 ever reared its ugly head. Part of this is built in with the threats that are so common in cycles of domestic violence: those who harm others will often qualify a greater escalation with “if you ever left….” It’s no accident that leaving a relationship is often when survivors are in the most danger, because of the promised anger that an abuser displays when their level of control is threatened. So rather than risk a ramp up in aggression and insisting a survivor stay, it’s more important than ever that we instead build safety plans and support.
[It’s] a cultural, institutions-wide problem that leads to domestic abuse, and it’s all of our job to fix.
Safety planning: the advocate’s role in putting the choice back in the survivor’s hands has never been more important, even if our first instinct is to shut down the harm at all costs. What does this really look like when safety is the lesser of two evils?
Pod-mapping is a fantastic tool to help answer this question. Thanks to the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, there are structured conversations that advocates can have with a survivor to redirect from potential peril and instead look for other forms of stability in the community. Finding (and being) other sources of support is crucial for folks whose situations may concern us, and the practice of getting very specific in identifying these players can save lives. It starts in the inner circle: most people have one or two other close humans they can call in a crisis. Beyond that are the people in our lives who show supportive potential: with a bit more trust and friendship fostered, these are “maybes” on a survivor’s list of folks to call should things become emergent.
Ep 5 Mia Mingus of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective | Source: We Rise/YouTube
Having something of a phone tree established ahead of time can be an essential part of safety planning. Tools like these exist so that if or when a survivor is ready for more intervention than they’ve initially sought, a team is ready with a response to the signal for help, and they know how best to equip themselves. The team doesn’t always mean trained professionals, by the way — it means whoever has knowledge of the abuse, is trusted by the survivor, and is able to lend support.
Those trained to help: even further out in the “pod” are area resources, community outreach, and sexual assault/domestic violence response services. To pinpoint the nearest shelters in your zip code, check out the awesome search tool at domesticshelters.org.
Staying wired can change everything. A plot twist that’s become a bit more nasty thanks to the current troubling times is that only survivors with access to the internet are able to get certain resources. Unsurprisingly, socioeconomic parallels are responsible for the increased suffering of already marginalized folks, and this arena is no different. As advocates, finding solutions that are not web-based is still just as important: hotlines and neighbor wellness checks are a great way to start. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has several brilliant suggestions for anyone sheltering with an abuser during COVID-19 in terms of seeking help, staying sane, and getting through this. They recommend that survivors:
- Create a safety plan, even if it’s not in conversation with an advocate or hotline. An easy to use guide to safety planning can be found here.
- Talk to others about what you’re going through. It’s more than okay to seek help — it’s vital.
- In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has announced a partnership for those experiencing domestic violence to relocate to Airbnbs.
- There exist 24-hour hotlines for every type of crisis under the sun, and personal experience has shown me just how empathetic and valuable they can be. A list of just a few can be found at the end of this article.
- Be kind to yourself. I believe that the tumultuous emotional experience of all of this demands naming. Having the opportunity to articulate that it feels wrong — that we shouldn’t have to be between such a rock and a hard place when it comes to public health and personal safety — feels important. Especially because it’s preventable. The fact that abuse is avoidable altogether infuriates me, even as I type this. On top of all of the rest of the absurd, fevered nightmare that 2020 is shaping into, some people are still causing others deliberate harm. It’s important to remember, as a survivor and a human with love for others: that anger is valid too.
To any survivors who might be reading this: your experience matters. Your daily storms matter. Your voice right now, in an historical moment of so many silenced voices, matters. You are not alone.
A microscopic but important silver lining: the world has been thrust into a collective fermata. In this time, between baking bread and scrounging for normalcy, we get the time and space to consider what is truly worth keeping in our previously working definition of “normal.” If and when we ever get back to it (and they tell me we will), we have a responsibility to do more than hug our loved ones. As grim as it is, this is a window into which parts of our culture are ready to be purged and which should stay. Which ones should and must be built into something better. I would posit that the way we show up (or don’t) for survivors of domestic violence belongs at the top of this list.
This means emboldening each other to speak up about domestic and sexual harm, to break the cycle of abuse and intervene like the neighbors we’re meant to be, and showing solidarity no matter what a survivor chooses. It will take more than a pandemic to change the face of rape culture, but consider this your personal invitation to taking the next step. I never knew of any social change that began with silence.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7, 7 days a week. They are confidential and free. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.
- This site also has a whole page about COVID-19’s effects for survivors living with abusers and how to help.
- Domesticshelters.org has a free and simple search tool to find and connect with any domestic violence shelters in your zip code, as well as helpful info for folks who may have questions about their experiences.
- The app JDoe allows users to anonymously report incidents of sexual violence. This is especially helpful if you’re worried for your safety in reporting.
- The National Network to End Domestic Violence has published a downloadable set of National Resources & Considerations for Safety and Privacy During a Public Health Crisis. They’ve also got excellent channels readily available on their site for taking action to urge Congress to prioritize the needs of survivors during the pandemic.
- Via Futures Without Violence, a health and social justice nonprofit focused on those traumatized by violence:
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 24/7, confidential and free: 800.656.HOPE (4673) and through chat. They also have great resources for finding local service providers.
- The StrongHearts Native Helpline for domestic/sexual violence is available 7:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. CT, confidential, and specifically for Native communities: 1−844-762-8483
- The Trans LifeLine for peer support for trans folks 9:00 A.M. to 3:00 A.M. CT: 1-877-565-8860 This hotline is staffed exclusively by trans operators and is the only crisis line with a policy against non-consensual active rescue.
- The Deaf Hotline is available 24/7 through video phone (1-855-812-1001), email and chat for Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled survivors.
- The National Parent Helpline is available Monday to Friday 12:00 P.M. to 9:00 A.M.CT for emotional support and advocacy for parents: 1-855-2736
- Want to help survivors and organizations that advocate for them? RAINN has a great springboard for ways to donate or raise funds for the cause.
- The #MeToo Voter Response website has a wonderful “Toolkit” for the emotional experience of survivors in COVID-19.