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The signs we miss

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FEBRUARY 12, 2016

Last weekend’s Super Bowl 50 was saturated with social reform in the form of multi-million dollar public service announcements. Colgate preached water conservation through a simple turning off of the faucet while brushing, while PETA ridiculed non-vegans’ sexual libidos. However, one ad particularly stood out for its rather minimalistic and understated content, contrasting heavily with the other Super Bowl ads with celebrity cameos and grotesque CGI caricatures. The advertisement, aired by the No More campaign and funded by the NFL, brought attention to the unseen aspects of domestic violence. It portrays an initially benign text conversation between two friends, illustrated with the blue and gray bubbles of smartphones — including no actors, no special effects and no dialogue. One friend texts the other —“Jess” — to come to a Super Bowl party, to which Jess declines because, “Jake is in one of his moods.” The friend asks about Jess’s safety — a question to which Jess fervently types a response — before eventually giving up and not responding. A haunting few seconds of silence and a subsequent message on domestic abuse close the PSA, insinuating the abusiveness of Jake’s moods, and that many Americans are missing the signs of domestic abuse right in front of them.

The ad illustrates one of the most menacing aspects of domestic violence: its covertness.  The depiction of a text message conversation paints a portrait of domestic violence as a crime with the ability to affect all types of people, regardless of socio-economic class or race, and disproves the typical naive view of domestic violence as another inner-city misfortune. Despite the striking lack of media coverage surrounding domestic violence, its prevalence is alarming. According to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner, and trailing slightly behind, one in four men. It’s clear that domestic violence is far more ubiquitous and not as gendered as most of us may think.

“Jake is in one of his moods.”

Domestic violence clearly affects a lot of people; the numbers tell us that. But what is domestic violence? The California Penal Code defines domestic violence as an act of violence, sexual assault, stalking or threatening by a domestic partner with coercive power in the relationship dynamic. But what type of relationship can be classified as “domestic?” Surprisingly enough, marriage is not the only form. Not only are married or dating couples under the umbrella of domestic violence, but so are exes, family members (including parents and children) — even roommates or housemates may be potential abusers or victims (including fraternity brothers or dorm roommates). For the purposes of simplicity, the term “domestic violence” will hereafter refer to all forms of violence, intimidation or molestation forced upon house-sharing friends, lovers and kin, as implied by the California Legal Code.

At the risk of fear mongering, it appears that even us college students are highly at risk of domestic violence. The University of Michigan published a study citing that roughly 21 percent of college students have reported dating violence by a current partner, and 32 percent have experienced dating violence by a previous partner. These statistics only get more grim when accounting for nondating relationships, as well as the various forms of abuse that may occur. Domestic violence isn’t simply physical or sexual violence between married couples, with the victim being female.

Stephen Murphy is a renowned expert on domestic violence issues in the Bay Area. Deemed a “Super Lawyer” by Super Lawyer Magazine, Murphy is an adjunct professor of domestic violence at the University of San Francisco Law School, vice chair of the Berkeley Commission on the Status of Women and associate director of the Alameda County Family Justice Center — a nonprofit organization providing health and human services as well as legal representation for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking in the East Bay Area. Murphy elucidates the issue of domestic violence as a complicated and insidious tragedy. When asked why a victim of domestic violence would stay with their partner, Stephen responded with a poignant yet sensitive rationale. “The main thing that keeps victims of abuse with their attacker is a beautiful thing called hope. … Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning, and it keeps us believing that maybe one day things will change.”

Annie, a domestic violence survivor and UC Berkeley student, who preferred to keep her last name private, echoed these emotions. “It’s easy (for victims) to justify what we don’t want to accept. … It’s hard to admit to yourself that you are in an abusive situation.” But while many victims never escape the cycle of abuse which may intensify over time, some do fight back. In fact, many victims have been incarcerated for physically assaulting their attacker, or that of a family member or child, as an act of defense. Here, we see a cycle of violence and injustice that are interconnected in our communities.

“The main thing that keeps victims of abuse with their attacker is a beautiful thing called hope. … Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning, and it keeps us believing that maybe one day things will change.”

To better understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship, one must first explore the roots and early stages of domestic violence. Murphy affirmed that domestic violence is not an affliction confined to a particular community or identity. “Think about domestic violence as polio or some horrible virus. … (Domestic violence) will exist anywhere, and it doesn’t isolate itself within certain socio-economic conditions.” Murphy continued to describe the development of an abusive romantic relationship, which may at first begin as something rather suppressed  before evolving into a life-and-limb misfortune. “When the dynamic of power and control, which is common in many relationships, becomes dysfunctional, that’s when we have a problem. … It spirals out of control often because of intense jealousy, deep pain or social or economic insecurity.” Often, this evolution occurs before the victim is cognizant of the fact.

In the case of our Berkeley community, justice may also be difficult to achieve. Annie noted that denial of domestic violence by college students is rampant, particularly because, “The media paints a portrait of domestic violence as something specific … and college students don’t see themselves in those situations.” She refers to the typical media portrayal of domestic violence as a nonconsensual physical affair between intimate partners, rather than an insidious overpowering and intimidation by friends, family or loved ones, that leads to a loss of security and the rights to live comfortably.

Although domestic violence is not a class-based misfortune, abuse within relationships may be perpetuated by low socio-economic standing. There exist innumerable hurdles in the way of ending an abusive domestic relationship, mostly because of the difficulty in obtaining necessary services. Murphy notes, “The cycle of violence can be stopped in these communities if people can simply access needed resources (health services, legal representation, emotional counseling, child care, shelter).” These resources, such as a roof over one’s head, are vital in establishing a context for independence and self-reliance, allowing victims to escape abuse.

These resources, such as a roof over one’s head, are vital in establishing a context for independence and self-reliance, allowing victims to escape abuse.

These issues of exclusion from needed resources and services were echoed by Michelle Cera, the vice president of community development on the Panhellenic Executive Council. This brand new position within the Greek community of Berkeley was created largely to promote inclusivity as well as accessibility for sororities to diverse resources. Cera noted a number of striking barriers in the way of justice for domestic violence victims within Berkeley itself, such as inefficient and flawed reporting processes and procedures. According to Cera, “No perpetrators of sexual assault in the past 5-6 years have been expelled from school … forcing the survivor to oftentimes have to see their attacker on campus or in class.”

Interestingly, there exists a possible route to safety and justice for victims that is rarely used by students on college campuses. As it turns out, victims of domestic violence, in all its forms, are nearly always granted a Domestic Violence Restraining Order in the form of a DV-100 legal document. A restraining order alleviates many of the anxiety-inducing issues that come with being in the same vicinity of an abuser, as well as alleviating the threat of further abuse.

Thus, there appears to exist an underutilized sort of “legal loophole” to avoid the excessively bureaucratic and ineffective campus reporting and criminal justice system. It is perfectly legal and acceptable in our judicial system for someone who has been victim of dating violence to obtain a restraining order, forcing their attacker to remain at least 100 yards distance. Analogously, a fraternity pledge, who has been victim of hazing resulting in ridicule, physical violence or coercion and intimidation by a fraternity brother who went too far, may obtain legal protection and peace of mind. Recently, there has been much scrutiny placed on college campuses for not following adequate protocol in the wake of sexual violence cases. A DV-100 form grants distance between the victim and the attacker, easing the mind of the victim or keeping them safe during the formal charging process with the campus or criminal courts.

Domestic violence is not a societal problem that can be easily mended; the process is long and arduous. But there are some actions that may be taken in order to ease the process to justice, or at least safety. Unfortunately, the Berkeley campus is lacking in domestic violence resources despite the proliferation of sexual assault resources in recent years. But things seem to be moving in the right direction here in Berkeley. According to Annie, “(The Gender Equity Resource Center) is a valuable and safe place to go for resources. Although there is not a domestic violence support or peer group on campus right now, there are people in GenEq who can help support and facilitate contact with outside organizations.” Annie made clear that in her opinion as somebody who went through the process of seeking safety and justice, the most valuable resource for a victim of domestic violence would be the Alameda County Social Services Agency. As a government service, the agency provides lists and contacts of numerous resources and organizations in and around our community for all aspects of domestic violence.

Analogously, a fraternity pledge, who has been victim of hazing resulting in ridicule, physical violence or coercion and intimidation by a fraternity brother who went too far, may obtain legal protection and peace of mind.

In the meantime, to address the epidemic of domestic violence, we must emphasize domestic violence education in high school and college. Additionally, long-needed campus resources to support victims of intimate partner violence must be instated. Despite the overlap with sexual violence, domestic violence requires vastly different services and resources that most college campuses are ill-equipped to provide. This movement to recognize domestic violence within our communities is making headway, as Annie and other activists across the country are starting to fight to raise awareness of the adverse realities of domestic violence through education. But until we as a society recognize domestic violence as a scourge on all populations that comes in various forms, justice cannot rightly be served.

Contact Ryen Bani-Hashemi at [email protected]

FEBRUARY 12, 2016