Time to talk about domestic abuse

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With new developments emerging day by day in the case of Gaby Petito, discussions surrounding domestic violence, which many allege played a part in Petito’s death, are ramping up. 

Petito was killed this summer while traveling across the United States with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. The case gained national attention due to their social media activity, police body camera video footage, 9-1-1 emergency dispatch call recordings, and eyewitness accounts. Laundrie was deemed a person of interest in the case. He departed his home in Florida on Sept. 13 and he was reported missing a few days later. 

The FBI said that last week, Laundrie’s remains were found in the Florida reserve authorities had been combing through for more than a month.

As it is an open case, the Violence Prevention Center of Southwestern Illinois cannot discuss its specifics. Yet, they said they are seeing a trend that rises with each new highly publicized case: survivors seek help at an increased rate. 

“Any time that the nation is spotlighting domestic violence, survivors get brave,” VPCSWI’s Melissa Tutterow said. “Sometimes when national stories break that have positive outcomes where people were able to leave, more survivors will step forward. When you see cases that have negative outcomes, survivors get worried and also take first steps.” 

The Associated Press reported this phenomena relating to the O.J. Simpson case. In 1994 when the story was all over the news, calls to shelters, hotlines and law enforcement saw a substantial uptick. 

While this impact of public discourse is positive, Tutterow issued a reminder that how a case is discussed can have an impact on more than just those directly involved. 

“As we talk about this as a community and you think you’re weighing in on something that’s happening far away from you, the survivors in your life are listening to how you talk about it and so it’s very important to change our language,” Tutterow said, later stressing, “We have to be supportive and we have to not victim blame. The way we discuss this as a community is important.” 

Both she and Melissa Kaufman, the center’s legal advocate for Monroe and Randolph counties, said little things said can make a big impact. 

They explained this can happen unintentionally when one is surprised to hear about abuse. Often abusers paint themselves in a positive light when other people are around, and so it can be surprising to learn they are abusive. 

In turn, certain off-handed remarks may be an automatic response. 

“A lot of times women don’t (report) because they truly feel they’re not going to be believed because people closest to them would say, ‘Really?’” Kaufman said. 

Just as the media sparks discussions on domestic violence, it can also shape the narrative. As an article from the Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences states, “the press, televised news and newspaper articles have been shown to have a profound impact on public perception of crime,” including rape and domestic violence. 

As a 2011 dissertation cited in the article found when media describes the offender positively, the survivor can be painted in a negative light, therefore leading the public to believe the survivor somehow “deserved” the abuse. 

Kaufman said sometimes this is done by pointing out that a survivor lives an at-risk lifestyle or is economically disadvantaged. 

In essence, this perpetuates victim blaming.

“You’re not surprised that that person that lives that lifestyle is being abused by their intimate partner, but you are surprised that the person who lives up on top of the hill with a very nice house (is),” Kaufman said. “Just because I’m not at the same economic level does not mean that I should get abused or deserve to be abused.” 

The Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences article draws on examples of how TV programs and advertisements can desensitize and normalize domestic violence. Sexist jokes and rhetoric can also paint domestic violence as acceptable. 

By asserting such humor is not funny and is actually problematic, one can help counter this perception. 

The article detailed a CNN report on students at a high school making a skit about Chris Brown beating up Rihanna. In doing so, the students attempted to make light of one of the most well-known cases of celebrity domestic violence. 

By not applauding the students at the end of the skit and speaking out against it, the community helped to counter the harmful messages the students’ skit was sending about domestic violence. 

The National Network to End Domestic Violence provides 10 tips for discussing domestic violence, which include practices such as keeping intersectionality in the conversation, how to best hold offenders accountable (with the survivor’s wishes) and how to shift victim-blaming culture. For a link to these tips, visit click here.

Call 618-235-0892 for VPCSWI’s 24-hour crisis hotline. 

(Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment in a series as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Understanding domestic violence is a year-round issue, the Republic-Times is preparing to take an even deeper dive into the topic. If you have an experience you wish to share, even if you wish to do so anonymously, we want to hear from you. Reach out to madison@republictimes.net or call 618-939-3814).

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