Domestic Violence: Silence Is Its Greatest Ally

This blog post originally appeared as a commentary on The Huffington Post on February 3, 2015. You can access the original article here.

As many as seven in 10 survivors of domestic violence in the U.S. report that their abusers threatened or hurt the family pet. In some shelters, an astonishing 68 percent of survivors report having been strangled or threatened with strangulation. People whose job it is to provide shelter, legal help, and other services for survivors recognize these two specific forms of control and violence as bright red flags that signal a particularly dangerous pattern of abuse, but the general public typically does not. And even when they fear the worst, most bystanders are at a loss as to what to say or do.

Over the past year, the topic of domestic violence has come forcefully into the public consciousness, spurring national conversations on the need to break the silence around intimate partner violence. The footage of NFL player Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious as well as the rapidly growing movements to address sexual assault in the military and on college campuses have made headlines. This has prompted celebrities, athletes, and organizations alike to take a public stand and to urge others to do something deceptively simple that can have a huge impact: talk about it.

As this challenging conversation evolves, it’s important to remember that the problem is bigger than the act of violence itself. Domestic violence has devastating psychological, physical, and economic consequences for those who experience it–and for the children who are exposed to it. Survivors often suffer from a host of long-term physical and mental health problems that have a significant impact on their ability to live a healthy, productive, and fulfilled life. And it’s not something that happens just to other people; one in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime, meaning that most of us have violence survivors in our lives, though we may not know it.

In our most recent report, A Portrait of California 2014-2015, we looked at three measures beyond GDP that provide insights into how regular Californians are doing: health, access to education, and earnings. Domestic violence arose as a major factor impacting the well-being of California residents in all three categories. This statistic from this report speaks for itself: in 2013, the number of emergency calls for help in California related intimate partner violence was roughly equal to the total number of all other violent crimes in the state put together. Further, 41 percent of women murdered in 2013 in California were killed in circumstances related to domestic violence, the single largest cause of female homicide in the state.

While our recent focus was on California, domestic violence is, of course, a national problem. Because of the complexity of this particular type of violence–it generally happens behind closed doors, and its victims often have family ties to or are financially dependent on their abusers–it is underreported and under-prosecuted, meaning that domestic violence is even more pervasive than these startling statistics suggest. Domestic violence disproportionately harms women, and men make up the majority of perpetrators. But it can occur among people in many forms of relationships and at many ages–including during teen dating, in LGBTQ couples, and in heterosexual couples where women are the abusers.

Research, including our own, shows time and again that domestic violence is central to any discussion of a long and healthy life. Its toll on the physical and mental health of survivors and their families in California, as in every U.S. state, is staggering. So much so, that we argue that victim services and policies to strengthen and enforce laws, while critically important, are not enough; it’s time for domestic violence to become a national public health issue that is addressed with awareness efforts on par with those around HIV/AIDS, smoking, seatbelt and car seat use, and drunk driving. An incredibly effective way to achieve this is to deploy the reach and power of Madison Avenue.

Such an approach is starting to take hold. The National Football League joined the No More campaign, a national effort to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault, and is sponsoring deeply affecting ads during football broadcasts, including during yesterday’s Super Bowl. These ads have increased views of by more than 240,000 per month. This is an encouraging start; the target audiences of the NFL’s campaign – young people and men – are typically the most difficult to reach on the topic.

But there is much more to be done. Using the sophisticated market research, tailored messaging, and multimedia techniques for which the ad industry is famous, additional high-profile marketing campaigns could sell change in at least three areas.

The first is to challenge beliefs and behaviors about women and men that contribute to intimate partner violence, including cultural messages that exalt a violent model of masculinity, lionize aggressive men as our heroes in popular culture, excuse controlling behaviors as typical parts of romantic relationships, and tacitly or overtly accept violence against women as normal. A public campaign could teach young people that healthy, respectful relationships are cool; violent ones, and violent people, are not. Beliefs and norms can and do change. A generation ago, getting behind the wheel after several drinks was unremarkable, even the subject of jokes. Today, it is not only a crime with real consequences but also a behavior that most people call out as dangerous, selfish, and stupid.

The second is to educate the public about the common dynamics and patterns of abuse that are widely recognized by experts but largely unknown or misunderstood by the general public. Being strangled, for instance, is a telltale warning sign of potentially lethal domestic violence. A campaign that flags strangulation and other widely-observed patterns has the potential to save women’s lives and protect countless others, especially children, from the harmful effects of family violence.

And the third is to redefine norms about how we bystanders should react and what, specifically, we can do when we see signs of domestic or sexual violence. Expanding and increasing awareness of and access to bystander programs like the successful Green Dot and UpStander initiatives currently provided nationwide and in New York, respectively, is a good place to start.

Domestic violence is a pervasive, complicated public health issue that requires an equally pervasive and multi-layered response. In addition to legislation and survivor support programs, we need the targeted, road-tested messaging of the ad industry to drive national awareness and begin the process of transforming attitudes towards both survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence. The potential for improving the health, well-being, and economic future for the survivors, families, and communities impacted by intimate partner violence is too immense to ignore.