Victims and survivors of domestic violence are all races, genders and faiths. They are married, dating, educated, rich or poor. Domestic violence can happen to anyone. More women than men are domestic violence victims; in fact, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 85% of domestic violence victims are women. One in every four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Reports show that 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault each year.
However, the sad truth is most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police. Only a quarter of physical assaults are ever reported. The prevalence of domestic violence finds its greatest support in the silence of its victims, but with the recent media exposure surrounding it, there’s hope that more victims will step forward and seek help.
I had the opportunity to talk about domestic violence with Carol Gibney, associate director of campus ministry at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. “I think that it’s important that everyone talk about it [domestic violence], and that more and more young women and young men are aware of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” Gibney said.
If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, the first thing to do is to reach out for help (see sidebar). You can speak to a trusted friend, find a therapist, or speak to a mentor. Gibney immediately pointed to the importance of victims finding counseling: “I think first and foremost the counseling center is a good place to be,” she said. “If a student here on campus is in an unhealthy relationship, another place I would recommend, if they [the victim] are someone that has faith, is to bring it to God, to not hold on to it, to write about it. Let it out. I think there’s a saying that goes, we’re only as sick as our secrets. And I think it’s important to let out the story and not hold on to it because that’s how people get sick.”
Another important point — and especially relevant during Domestic Violence Awareness Month — is the value of having conversations about domestic violence and related issues. Gibney said that the campus ministry at Fordham University offers informative talks on various topics, including healthy relationships.
“I think that the way we can change the world is through visibility, through dialog, and through imagination,” Gibney said. “So, I think having safe spaces for people to have conversations is first and foremost what we need to address the issue.”
But why don’t more victims speak up? Why didn’t they notice they were in an abusive relationship from the beginning? Why do they stay? Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions surrounding domestic violence within a relationship is that the abuser wasn’t at one point extremely charming. According to Florida State University’s Institute For Family Violence Studies, “Abusers are also great manipulators. They can be charming, witty, attractive, and intelligent. They tend to hide their violent side from those outside the family and often appear normal and likable to others. Even when confronted with their actions by police, counselors, or in court, they can appear to be much more calm and rational than the victim.”
When I first walked into Gibney’s office, she pointed to a sign on her door and asked me if I knew what it meant. Translated from Spanish it said this, “If you abuse power, you offend God.” At the end of our time together, Gibney left me with one last comment regarding that small yet powerful sign. She said that it’s important for everyone connected to the Church to be comfortable with and well versed in having conversations about difficult topics like domestic violence. “This [domestic violence] isn’t acceptable. God doesn’t want us to be in a situation where there is any sort of abuse taking place or any sort of abuse of power.”