Supporting Reproductive Freedom for Survivors During a Global Pandemic

A guest blog by NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

Imagine being trapped in a house with an abusive partner. You’re unable to leave for a variety of reasons. Now, imagine you are in that same situation but there is a stay-at-home order due to a pandemic that is overwhelming emergency rooms and closing social services.  Your resources have been severely limited.

Intimate partner violence is already a national healthcare crisis, and domestic violence-related deaths have spiked around the world, including across the United States, due to COVID-19.

In the very same time frame, anti-abortion politicians in over a dozen states, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Ohio, are doubling down on their efforts to shut down abortion providers and eliminate a patient’s ability to visit and access critical reproductive healthcare at a women’s healthcare center.  Reproductive healthcare is an essential healthcare service for so many and often a lifeline for victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Domestic violence, sexual assault, and reproductive coercion are forms of intimate partner violence that have always been intricately linked with reproductive healthcare, rights, and justice. Domestic and intimate partner violence is also more prevalent among already vulnerable populations, including women of color, poor communities, people with disabilities, and those already living on the margins. Women who experience intimate partner violence are also most likely to experience unintended pregnancies.

As we know, intimate partner violence doesn’t just have the potential to create coercive situations with regard to one’s reproductive freedom, it also has a strong and direct correlation with increased risks for negative pregnancy and maternal health outcomes. A 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that an estimated two million women in the U.S. have become pregnant as a result of violence by intimate partners and about 5% of women surveyed reported that an intimate partner had tried to impregnate them against their will during their lifetime. Reproductive coercion can be a partner refusing to wear a condom or taking it off during sex without informing their partner. It can also be forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will or forcing her to have an abortion against her will.

One analysis of CDC data found that nearly 4% of pregnant women reported being physically abused by a current or former partner during pregnancy and that the strongest predictor of physical violence was if the partner did not want the pregnancy.” There is also research that  shows the relationship between  women who seek  abortion care, and their abuse histories.  Add that all up with the current public health crisis and you can begin to understand just how dangerous this pandemic is for women in unsafe domestic situations.

COVID-19 has already caused a drastic increase in isolation, domestic stress, and other social and mental health issues for so many individuals. It is imperative that everyone, especially victims and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, have access to nonjudgmental, comprehensive reproductive health care at this moment.

Abortion-care providers serve an important role in caring for those in dangerous circumstances. These highly qualified professionals are trained to spot signs of abuse, human trafficking, and coercion. In fact, providers like Planned Parenthood have developed protocols and guidelines to assess and assist patients facing difficult circumstances.

For example, at a local Planned Parenthood in Virginia, when a woman takes a urine test there is a sign in the bathroom telling her that she can indicate on the cup that she does not want her partner to go back to the exam room. Clinic staff will then ensure that she can be examined alone. Planned Parenthood maintains an up-to-date list of resources for victims and tries to ensure that people have a safe space to seek help. Notably, women who experience partner violence, more often than ones who do not, seek out effective birth control methods like long-acting reversible contraceptives after having an abortion. Having control over whether and when she becomes pregnant can mean the difference between facing physical abuse or not, between being killed or not.

Much of the time, victims of intimate partner violence seek out help when their partners are not home or when they are alone. That has become even more difficult with stay-at-home orders, as the resources and outs people usually use in their safety planning become harder to access. Some women may be able to get help from their women’s healthcare providers, such as Planned Parenthood, who are expanding the provision of services to include primary health care during this time of need.

The goal of public health officials during this pandemic with respect to domestic violence and intimate partner violence should be the same as it always was: to provide victims and survivors with as many avenues to access resources as possible and to help them regain control of their lives, which includes safeguarding access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare and abortion care. In some places, anti-abortion politicians are using the COVID virus as a smokescreen to eliminate abortion access without waiting for the Supreme Court to opine on the issue. Cutting off access to abortion care can have an especially devastating impact on patients facing domestic violence at home.

Resources for advocates, survivors, practitioners, and community-members:

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s reproductive resources guide: provides info on accessing reproductive healthcare services and resources in Virginia during COVID-19.

The Action Alliance’s Reproductive & Sexual Coercion Toolkit for advocates: The goal of this toolkit is to help begin conversations and implement policies within sexual and domestic violence agencies that seek to respond to survivor experiences of reproductive and sexual coercion and to help advocates utilize reproductive justice framework in their work with survivors.

The Action Alliance’s #StaySafeVA COVID-19 Media Campaign: Many survivors and community members are unaware that sexual and domestic violence programs are still open and available to provide support during the Coronavirus pandemic. This statewide awareness campaign let survivors know that help is still available. The Virginia Statewide Hotline is still here and ready to help, and so are sexual and domestic violence programs all over the state.


Galina Varchena is the Policy Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

Michelle Woods is the Communications Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

Hailey is the Communications Fellow for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

A Brief Reflection on the Intersections between Race, HIV, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity

As a Black and gay male, I understand the urgency of addressing the HIV epidemic that affects me and others within our community. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, February 7, is a time set aside for us within the Black community to increase HIV education, testing, community involvement, and treatment in an effort to end the HIV epidemic. It is also important to take time to acknowledge distinct barriers to prevention and care that impede efforts ending the HIV epidemic. One such barrier is the unique experience of LGBTQ people in regard to the intersection of HIV/AIDS and domestic abuse.

Power and control wheel

“LGBTQ Relationship Violence” From the National Domestic Violence Hotline

In his article, Just*in Time: HIV & LGBTQ Domestic Violence, Justin B. Terry-Smith voices the struggles of the intersection of HIV/AIDS and domestic abuse. He details a few tactics of abusers: using HIV guilt as a weapon, taking away or controlling access to HIV medication – this control over medication can be for PrEP, nPEP[1], or antiretroviral HIV medications – controlling access to money and other resources, using social media to manipulate and threaten, and creating or magnifying stress and trauma. All of these tactics can make a person’s HIV diagnosis more dangerous for their health. An abuser’s ability to victim-blame, isolate and control by using social media, and regulating HIV medication is amplified for LGBTQ Blacks and African Americans, who at the same time are experiencing racial disparities within the healthcare and domestic violence services systems. Additionally, resources for LGBTQ people are already limited, and an abuser isolating an LGBTQ partner can be especially detrimental for health outcomes.

According to the United States Census Bureau, we lack equity in economics, insurance coverage, and health.

  • Economics: In 2017, the Census Bureau reported the average Black median household income to be $40,165 in comparison to $65,845 for white households. Also in 2017, the Census Bureau reported that 22.9 percent of Blacks in comparison to 9.6 percent of whites were living at the poverty level. Further, in 2017, the unemployment rate for Blacks was found to be twice that of non-Hispanic whites, 9.5 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively.
  • Insurance Coverage: In 2017, the Census Bureau reported 55.5 percent of Blacks in comparison to 75.4 percent of whites used private health insurance. Also in 2017, 43.9 percent of Blacks in comparison to 33.7 percent of whites relied on Medicaid or public health insurance. Lastly, 9.9 percent of Blacks in comparison to 5.9 percent of whites were uninsured.
  • Health: According to Census Bureau projections, the 2015 life expectancies at birth for Blacks is 76.1 years, with 78.9 years for women, and 72.9 years for men. For whites the projected life expectancies is 79.8 years, with 82.0 years for women, and 77.5 years for men. The death rate for African Americans is generally higher than whites for the following: heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.

“never reported, contracted HIV.” — Gay male, 29, Charlottesville*

The National Domestic Violence Hotline goes even further into the unique mental and physical tactics LGBTQ abusers use to gain power and control, detailing that LGBTQ tactics to gain control are all rooted in homophobia, biphobia, heterosexism, and transphobia. Threatening to “out” a survivor’s sexual orientation or gender identity, denying the survivor’s sexual orientation or gender identity, suggesting the abuse is “deserved” because of the survivor’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and explaining away abuse by upholding the abuse as masculine or some other desirable trait. These mental tactics all serve to isolate the survivor from the LGBTQ community. This is especially damaging for LGBTQ people since there are fewer specific resources for LGBTQ people. Similarly, these tactics can be combined with racism to compound the isolation and damage experienced by the person being abused.

It was a friend. The first gay person I ever knew. I really was reaching out for the first time trying to find a mentor. He was older and I wanted to learn what it was like to be gay in my rural community … but then this [violence] happened.” — Gay queer male, 23, Richmond*

As Black and African American LGBTQ people, we are tasked with managing our health, regardless of HIV status, finding ways to navigate institutions that were not designed with us in mind, stigma that is associated with HIV/AIDS and domestic abuse, and various other societal pressures without much structural or institutional support.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal; it felt normal or not what I thought “domestic violence” was;” –Bisexual female, 20, Richmond*

It is also important to acknowledge and understand the power we have as individuals and as a community to combat stigma accompanying HIV/AIDS and domestic abuse and bring change to existing institutions. Reducing stigma by acknowledging anyone – regardless of gender – can be in an abusive relationship, and that domestic abuse is more than physical abuse; domestic abuse can also be mental abuse and emotional abuse. Stigma reduction also helps in disregarding victim-blaming narratives linked with HIV/AIDS and domestic abuse, respectively. Educating ourselves to understand the circumstances that would lead to a HIV diagnosis or to someone being with an abuser, likewise, helps reduce victim-blaming. For example, understanding that prevention measures such as nPEP and PrEP may not be available due to lack of accessible healthcare options, or unable to access because a person’s abuser is controlling their lives, are two examples of how reducing stigma also reduces victim-blaming.

I believe we as a nation will reach equity in regard to race, gender identity and expression, and sexuality. True equity would mean no one would be able to determine a person’s health outcomes based on their race, gender identity and expression, and/or sexuality. We can and do have the power to combat HIV/AIDS and domestic abuse in all of our communities, across race, LGBTQ identities, and other dimensions.

“I really believe that LGBTQ hate crimes, domestic violence, discrimination and bias are still quite a problem in our time. Since I was involved in a support group for LGBTQ folks (Dignity/Integrity Richmond, now defunct, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s) I became aware of these issues, particularly LGBTQ domestic violence. All of these issues were occurring then and I am quite sure they continue to occur today. For the most part I think LGBTQ folks are aware of these issues but for the most part I think LGBTQ folks, for whatever their reasons, don’t report them or try to deal with them on their own. This is the reason, I think for surveys like this one and I think it’s a good thing.” — Gay male, 51, Henrico*

You can reach the Virginia Disease Prevention Hotline (Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm) at 1-800-533-4148, where counselors answer questions and provide crisis intervention, referrals, and written educational materials regarding Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), HIV/AIDS, and Viral Hepatitis. 

If you or someone you know needs help or resources, contact the LGBTQ partner abuse and sexual assault helpline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1-866-356-6998. Or, text 804-793-9999 or chat: www.vadata.org/chat

*The quotes in this post come from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project 2008 Survey.

Sources:

The State of Violence in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Communities of Virginia: A Report of the Equality Virginia Education Fund Anti-Violence Project

National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Just*in Time: HIV & LGBTQ Domestic Violence

Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017

The Black Population: 2010

Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2017

Census Bureau, 2018. 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates

The National Domestic Violence Hotline page on LGBT abuse

[1] Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and non-occupational post-exposure prophylaxis (nPEP) are HIV prevention strategies.  They are medical interventions and public health approaches used to prevent infection. (Learn more about PrEP and nPEP.)


Christian Carr is a Ryland Roane Fellow for the Virginia Department of Health and is currently working alongside Minority Health Consortium to help empower the Richmond, Virginia community.

Building Thriving Communities

The 2020 Session of the Virginia General Assembly is off and running—and it is exciting to see an increasingly diverse group of elected leaders consider so many new policy initiatives that have the potential to make Virginia a stronger, healthier and more just Commonwealth for all. In addition to the much publicized, celebrated and long overdue ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, policy leaders are considering measures that would: 

  • Expand access to safe and affordable housing, particularly for those who have faced discrimination in the past, including victims of domestic violence, those with low incomes, and LGBTQ people;  
  • Support workers and promote economic security through increasing the minimum wage, extending the minimum wage to more workers, requiring employers to provide vital forms of leave including paid family and medical leave, and eliminating barriers to safety net programs such as TANF and SNAP for those who rely on those programs when they cannot participate in the workforce; and  
  • Restore agency to all of those who need and benefit from reproductive health services by removing barriers that have been erected in recent years and taking bold steps to protect the reproductive liberty of all Virginians. 

Group of a couple dozen people with arms raised in victory behind a long banner that reads, "Equality of Rights Under the Law Shall Not Be Denied or Abridged by the United States or by Any State on Account of Sex" standing in front of the Virginia State Capitol.The Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit whose mission is to build prevention and health equity into key policies and actions at the federal, state, local, and organizational level to ensure that the places where all people live, work, play and learn foster health, safety and wellbeing, recently published an excellent report on preventing domestic violence. The report describes a trajectory of factors that contribute to high rates of domestic violence and suggests policy initiatives that can counteract those factors.  Three of the most significant contributors to that trajectory toward perpetration of domestic violence are housing insecurity, lack of living wages, and barriers to obtaining health care, including reproductive health care. Imagine what could happen in our communities if these were eliminated! 

Three of the most significant contributors to that trajectory toward perpetration of domestic violence are housing insecurity, lack of living wages, and barriers to obtaining health care, including reproductive health care. Imagine what could happen in our communities if these were eliminated! 

A fourth significant contributing factor is low participation and willingness to act for the common good. One measure of participation and acting for the common good in any community is engagement in the democratic process—working with others to improve your community, using your voice in community forums, and voting.  The 2020 General Assembly will consider numerous bills to make it simpler for individuals to be engaged and act for the common good.  From noexcuse absentee voting to making Election Day a holiday to establishing in our Virginia Constitution that voting is a right for all adults that may not be taken away for any reason—there are many improvements being considered. 

The work of the Action Alliance encompasses not only ensuring effective interventions and protections for victims of sexual and intimate partner violence, but also preventing violence.  One important way that we do this is through building thriving communities where all people can access safe and affordable housing and engage in meaningful and equitably compensated work.  In these communities everyone would have access to the full spectrum of resources needed to be healthy and well, and all people would be valued.  These communities would be sustained by citizens who are engaged with each other and committed to democratic decision-making, protecting and exercising their right to vote.  Consider increasing your engagement during this 2020 General Assembly Session and be a part of bringing us one step closer to future communities where sexual and intimate partner violence might well be a thing of the past.    

Curious to learn more about any of these bills?  You can go the Legislative Information Services website and search by topic to learn more.  Just enter the topic that interests you and the year 2020 for links to bills on that topic.  The Action Alliance will also be providing a report after the Session concludes and the Governor has signed or vetoed most major legislation highlighting new policy that will become law.  You can then be a part of ensuring their effective implementation in your community! 

One important set of bills that we would like you to consider are House Bill 1015 and Senate Bill 297 which establish a new Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Fund in Virginia, and their companion budget items which would make $5 million available for prevention initiatives across Virginia.  Reach out to your local Delegate and Senator and let them know how important it is that we invest in prevention now so that future generations of young people have a greater chance to have lifelong relationships that are healthy and safe.

Looking up at a skylight dome of an ornately decorated hall overlaid with text: "Join us for Legislative Advocacy Day, January 29, 2020, 8am-2:30pm, Richmond, VA, with virtual legislative advocacy happening statewide!"

It’s Time for Virginia to Invest in Prevention

The end of the year provides many of us with an opportunity to slow down, to reflect on the events of the past year, and to spend time in deep connection, nurturing our relationships with friends, family, and loved ones. It’s a much-needed respite before we slingshot forward into the new year. And 2020 will undoubtedly be a big year. With a newly elected state legislature and the most diverse House and Senate leadership in the history of Virginia’s General Assembly, we are poised to see a brand-new set of possibilities on the horizon. From strategic investments to reduce the maternal mortality rate for black women to electoral access to firearms legislation to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the role of sexual and domestic violence survivors and advocates couldn’t be more important in moving these possibilities forward.

Just like the legislature, our movement to end sexual and domestic violence is ready for change. Over the course of the past two years, members of the Action Alliance have engaged in a series of strategic visioning sessions where they were asked to imagine the world we are working toward: what will the future look like when we have achieved our goals? what do we need to be focus on now to reach that future? The culmination of these sessions is a new vision for the Action Alliance which centers a radically hopeful future where:

  • birds flying among clouds in the dawnall people reach their full potential,
  • relationships are healthy, equitable, nourishing and joyful,
  • government and community institutions are rooted in equity and justice, and
  • our decisions are grounded in considering the benefit to future generations.

On the heels of this work and in the wake of the 2019 elections, the Action Alliance believes that now is the time for Virginia’s policy leaders to invest in the prevention of sexual and domestic violence.

In 2020, we will ask the legislature to establish the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Program with a budget request of $5 million per year as initial funding. The program will include dedicated staff positions and new grant programs in the Department of Social Services for intimate partner violence prevention and in the Department of Health for sexual violence prevention. Grant programs will support diverse sexual and domestic violence agencies, including culturally-specific programs to provide sustained prevention programming to communities across Virginia.

If you share our vision for a Virginia where we finally see reductions in the rates of intimate partner violence and sexual violence please make your voice heard. Talk to your legislators about the need to invest in sexual and domestic violence prevention NOW. Contacting your legislators is easy – and it becomes even easier when you use our handy Legislative Advocacy Guide – you can reach out via email, pick up the phone, or make contact on Facebook, Twitter, and in some cases, Instagram. You can find contact info for your legislators here.

A new Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Program will fund vital, evidence-informed activities like:

  • Ongoing school-based and after-school education teaching young people the skills required to build healthy relationships;
  • Education for parents and families – in coordination with Community Services Boards, in-home visitors, and allied professionals – to foster positive parent-child attachment, support developmentally appropriate communication and expression in youth, and build social-emotional learning skills;
  • Training and tools for school administrators, faith leaders, and peers on ways to create healthy, violence-free environments – including recognizing and responding to harmful behaviors that may be risk factors for future violence;
  • The coordination of multi-disciplinary community coalitions that address issues like VA Family-life Education (FLE) instruction, trauma-informed service provision, and community safety and cohesion.

Programs like these are the cornerstones for ensuring community-wide health and resilience—a key factor in preventing future violence. It is time for Virginia to invest in a robust and effective sexual and domestic violence prevention infrastructure. Preventing sexual and domestic violence is a necessary investment now and for our future.

In many ways, Virginia is on the brink of monumental change. But it will take all of us to help craft and guide this change. So here’s what we’re asking you to do:

Looking up at a skylight dome of an ornately decorated hall overlaid with text: "Join us for Legislative Advocacy Day, January 29, 2020, 8am-2:30pm, Richmond, VA, with virtual legislative advocacy happening statewide!"

 

  • Register and join the Action Alliance for Legislative Advocacy Day on Wednesday, January 29th, 2020!  It’s always an amazing experience to see survivors, advocates, and allies roaming the halls of the General Assembly lifting the voices of survivors and advocating for policies that will help prevent violence and ensure conditions where every person has the opportunity to thrive.
  • Talk to your legislators about the need to invest in sexual and domestic violence prevention NOW. Contacting your legislators is easy – and it becomes even easier when you use our handy Legislative Advocacy Guide – you can reach out via email, pick up the phone, or make contact on Facebook, Twitter, and in some cases, Instagram. You can find contact info for your legislators here. The more our policy leaders hear from us about this issue, the more likely they are to take action and make significant investments.
  • Sign up to receive Policy Action Alerts from us. Be the first to hear about our latest Action Alerts, legislative events, and the work we’re doing to create safer and healthier communities for everyone. We promise we won’t spam you, we’ll never share your personal information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Policy leaders want to hear from you about how investing in prevention, reducing offender access to firearms, expanding access to trauma-informed healthcare for survivors, and other issues that are important to survivors will help to create a Virginia where all families and individuals are safe and cared for! You can see the full list of the Action Alliance’s 2020 legislative priorities here.

We’re excited to work with you to expand the frame of the possible in Virginia in 2020.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence.

Rectangle broken into two squares. Left square is a block with yellow in the background and white lettering that says "The Honeycomb Retreat: Art and Activism." The right block is a photo of about ten pieces of art work made with different media and utilizing different colors.

The Honeycomb Retreat: Art and Activism

This past July, the Action Alliance hosted its first ever Honeycomb Retreat, a social justice art and creative expression retreat. We brought together young people ages 17-23 from all around the state to come together to use art as a healing tool and as a form of activism. We framed art as a means to create social change, to envision a world free from intimate partner and sexual violence. With our group of 17 fellows, the participants, we convened with our three artists-in-residence— Hieu, Jackie, and Virginia— who acted as mentors in both art practice and implementing social change, and other activists, organizers, artists, and educators from across the country who facilitated workshops. The retreat was split between free art space and workshops, and the goal was for fellows to use what they learned or discussed in workshops and respond or reflect upon that topic in their art.

The Honeycomb Retreat aimed to connect with young people in Virginia, offer workshops on advocacy, healing and organizing, and build leadership opportunities within our state-wide coalition. The name Honeycomb was inspired by the idea of fractals, a pattern that repeats itself on both the small and large scale, as expressed by adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy:

What we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system. Grace [Lee Boggs] articulated it in what might be the most-used quote of my life: Transform yourself to transform the world. This doesnt mean to get lost in the self, but rather to see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and the planet.


I was hired to help plan and organize the retreat in February. I was a senior double majoring in English and Art History at the University of Richmond and happened upon the intern listing via a school email. I was drawn in by the vision that the Action Alliance looked toward, a world in which all are free from gender-based violence by using an anti-racist framework. I had never worked in a non-profit and was nervous for what was to come in the following months. Nonetheless, I was excited to see where the retreat could go and how it would impact everyone who would be involved.


Art is an act of problem solving. This is a potent refrain stated by artist-in-residence Hieu Tran and later echoed by countless fellows throughout the retreat. The phrase suggests a refusal of passivity, something that one must engage in, a conscious and thoughtful action that must be done in order to find a solution. Both within the space and outside of the retreat, problem solving was required. The fellows collaborated on banners, prints, sculptures, working to overcome and undo any obstacles that they ran up against in the creative process. In much the same way, the Action Alliance Staff engaged in the same action, albeit not with banners but with planning workshops, space coordination, food donations, and more. All things Honeycomb Retreat were a whirlwind, and staff, fellows, and artists alike were nothing short of busy bees. The weeks and days leading up to it were a flurry of meetings, Target runs, and arts and crafts.


A group photo of 25 people all wearing the same gray t-shirts with a single yellow honeycomb piece posed together in about four rows.

Action Alliance staff, artists-in-residence, and fellows from the 2019 Honeycomb Retreat.

The Saturday before the retreat began, I attended a talk at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) given by Gregory Sholette about the intersection of art and activism as it pertains to institutional critique. He described the practice of institutional critique as bringing visibility to. This resounded deeply as the retreat began and, in practice, we all began to consider what it meant to bind art and activism and what we were hoping to make visible. As it applies to art, activism is two-fold. First, deconstructing both the definition of what art is and what art can be. Second, what it can do.

The goal of the Honeycomb Retreat was to use art not just as healing practice but also as an organizing tool. We wanted to shift the perspective that art only existed in the sphere of self-service, as a remedy to burnout. As the week progressed, I think this shift became visible. One fellow remarked when prompted by the question what is art: It is expression. For freedom. For release. For honesty. For truth. Another stated that it is heritage, resistance, power, struggle, whatever you need it to be in that moment. We were crafting art to be whatever we needed it to be. Our artists-in-residence helped to encourage the idea that art could do something beyond just existing passively without thought. Jackie, Virginia, and Hieu all used their work across mediums such as illustrations, screen printing, or theatre to bring visibility to something. This act of bringing attention was consciously done in the hopes that the viewer on the other end would be moved, motivated, and/or inspired to create change. In a matter of days, the fellows were bringing their dreams of Black mystics, of the imagined tales of Lizzo and Reggie Jr (her trusty snake companion), of living unafraid, to the visual world via canvas, poetry, or paint.

The fellows started art-making timidly on the second day, the first day with partitioned time for art. They worked under the advice of the artists-in-residence, checking in about technique and composition. Some fellows painted a banner that Hieu conceptualized based on a Vietnamese board game. Others used printing blocks made by Jackie, such as a whale on a bicycle or a block declaring They/Them. And as they attended more workshops, on topics such as healthy relationships, sexual healing with plant medicine, and community care, they found what provoked or what moved them to expression. It was like we lit a fire, resulting in everyone trying to create as much as they could as time allowed.


Two people leading a workshop at the Honeycomb Retreat with posters hung on the wall in the background.

Emily Herr (left) and Raelyn Williams (right) facilitate a workshop at the 2019 Honeycomb Retreat.

One of my own sources of worry about the retreat was presenting a workshop. I wore a dress with a bee pattern for bravery, hoping that if I could ornament myself externally in the Honeycomb theme then, hopefully, I could internalize it as well. My workshop was on the history of museums and galleries and how that history is rooted in colonization, imperialism, and white supremacy which in turn shapes the modern-day institution that tokenizes marginalized people. I also had Richmond muralist Emily Herr as a co-facilitator to discuss what it means to create socially-conscious work and exist outside of the museum sphere. We wanted the fellows to learn that they could and should call themselves artist without trepidation. However, if the title felt awkwardly fitted, to still recognize that what they create can be impactful.

On our last day, Friday, after a barbeque out in the blazing midday sun with tabling from local organizations such as the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood, Side by Side, Health Brigade, and the Virginia Student Power Network, we closed with a visioning graphically facilitated by Emily Simons. One of the questions we asked our fellows was: “Based on the different art skills you built and the workshops you participated in this week, what do you want to do next? What are you excited for next? What’s your vision for a world without sexual and intimate partner violence?” and someone responded, Excited to see the change we are going to create. I love the duality in their use of create. Activism and art are both something that one creates out of a need for visibility, a deep desire to see change in the world. I am extremely thankful for the retreat and the ability to connect with so many amazing individuals. The Action Alliance has become a part of my hive and for that I am truly grateful.


Raelyn Williams is an intern at the Action Alliance with a passion for art and social change. 

Unpacking the Billy Graham Rule, Especially for Political Candidates

Last week news broke that Rep. Robert Foster, who is running for governor in Mississippi, denied ride-along access on the campaign trail to a female reporter, Larrison Campbell, unless she had a male colleague join her. Foster based his refusal on a promise he made to his wife that he would “never be alone with another woman he wasn’t related to under any circumstance, be it in an office, a farm or a truck.”

Rep. Foster is not the first politician to reference such promises, also known as “Billy Graham rule,” named for the evangelical leader who was a strong proponent of this vow never to spend time alone with a woman other than his wife. A couple of years ago, news circulated about how Vice President Mike Pence had similar practices of not eating a meal alone with a woman other than his wife.

At first glance, it may seem noble and an act of loving commitment that a husband would respect his wife by honoring wishes that he never be alone with another woman. Yet the basis of such an agreement illustrates rape culture and its continual use perpetuates dangerous premises that contribute to violence in our society. Moreover, its use by political candidates and others in the workplace reinforces gender inequality and discrimination.

The notion that men and women cannot exist in a space without a sexual encounter occurring continues false narratives of women as sexually-charged vixen who constantly seduce men. It also perpetuates the idea of men as powerless and unable to control themselves as they “fall victim” to the wiles of sexually-charged women. Moreover, an agreement between husband and wife suggests a lack of trust between the two individuals. No part of these stereotypes illustrates a healthy relationship.

At 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles, group of men holding a sign that says, “Men of quality respect women's equality.”

At 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles, group of men holding a sign that says, “Men of quality respect women’s equality.” Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Foster also rationalized that in the age of the #MeToo movement, it is “safer” to keep to his promise so that he cannot be falsely accused of sexual assault because his opponents are looking for any signs of impropriety to use against him in the campaign. False accusations are exceedingly rare although the idea get lots of media attention. It’s far more common that sexual violence goes unreported than it is that false accusations of violence are lodged.

It’s time that we shift from a culture in which (potential) victims are told to watch out for themselves and take precautions to avoid violence to a culture in which we focus on correcting the conditions that prompt perpetrators to commit violence. The onus should not be on the would-be victim to act or dress a certain way as they move around in society. Rather, would-be perpetrators should have the tools needed to control their actions.

Beyond these personal relationships and whatever agreements Foster and his wife have, Foster is running for public office. Excluding women from participating in the work around him is detrimental to gender equality. Women will be left out of important conversations, unable to seek or possibly even know about job opportunities, excluded from positions of power, and face reduced earning potential. All of this repeats the cycle of gender injustice.

Excluding women from participating in the work around him is detrimental to gender equality. Women will be left out of important conversations, unable to seek or possibly even know about job opportunities, excluded from positions of power, and face reduced earning potential. All of this repeats the cycle of gender injustice.

The Action Alliance envisions a world filled with healthy relationships and free of violence. To move closer to this vision, we’re calling out and correcting faulty assumptions society holds of how people exist and interact, and we’re working to help breakdown rigid gender norms. Learn more about primary prevention at: http://vsdvalliance.org/prevention/about-primary-prevention

Feature image: At 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles, group of men holding a sign that says, “Men of quality respect women’s equality.” Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash


Elizabeth Wong is the Coalition Development Director for the Action Alliance. She is committed to building relationships that advance social justice and equality.

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Recognizing Non-Verbal Consent: It’s Not That Hard

Let’s play a little game:

I’ve got some pictures here of nonverbal cues and actions. You look at them and categorize them under “Is open to having a conversation right now” or “Is closed to having a conversation right now.”

I think it’s fitting to say that none of these people want to have a conversation. The signs in the first image that they don’t want to talk include the furrowed brow, bitten lip, and the fact that they’re looking away from the person taking the photo. The second is someone whose arms are crossed with their head turned down. The third shows someone turned away and actually putting their hand out to push away or stop someone.

Let’s do this exercise again: categorize these images under “enjoys what they’re doing” or “doesn’t enjoy what they’re doing.”

Again, I think it’s safe to say that none of those people were enjoying what they were doing. The first image shows a person who disliked whatever they were drinking, made clear by their scrunched eyes and pursed lips. The second shows someone physically in pain, as indicated by being hunched over and grasping at their chest. The third shows people clearly disinterested and tired, as indicated by their hanging heads.

We’re expected to, and capable of, picking up on nonverbal indicators every day. A presenter is expected to survey a room to determine if the audience is engaged, and if they are not, the presenter is expected to modify their presentation. When our significant others come home and slump onto the couch with a haggard expression, we get the sense that they’ve had a long and hard day. We can usually identify physical signs of intoxication, like slurred speech and stumbling, without having seen someone consume alcohol.

Of course, we cannot be sure without asking. Someone may look angry and we might assume it is directed towards us for something we did but upon further conversation, we may come to understand that they were actually feeling frightened or defensive. Or they may be angry, but with somebody else. Or they may be angry with us, but for a reason we knew nothing about. There tends to be more than meets the eye, so asking questions and having an open dialogue with someone is critical to getting a complete picture of how they’re thinking and feeling.

Last month the world was briefly abuzz on the heels of Babe.net’s story about Aziz Ansari. I won’t be doing a full summary now, but here are some basics: Babe.net approached the anonymous Grace about a night she had with Aziz Ansari and Grace recounted their date and subsequent sexual interactions. Grace detailed the many times she expressed her lack of consent through non-verbal means; removing her hand from his groin after he repeatedly moved it there, pulling away, and ceasing movement altogether, including not moving her lips when being kissed. She also talked about the numerous ways she showed her lack of consent verbally: asking him to slow down and chill, responding with “next time” when asked repeatedly “how do you want me to f**k you”, and flat out saying “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.”

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Grace eventually left, feeling hurt and violated, and informed Ansari via text that he made her feel extremely uncomfortable and ignored her verbal and non-verbal indications. Ansari apologized via text, saying he “clearly misread things in the moment” and was “truly sorry”.

In a public statement, he said:

“In September of last year, I met a woman at a party. We exchanged numbers. We texted back and forth and eventually went on a date. We went out to dinner, and afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.

The next day, I got a text from her saying that although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable. It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.

I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”

With this article came a flood of commentary, from news stories to op-ed pieces to Facebook posts. But I remember the first response I saw. It was an opinion piece from the New York Times titled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”

As the title alludes, the author believes that because Grace didn’t explicitly say “no”, Aziz could not have been expected to know that she didn’t want to engage in any sexual activities. The author goes on to say the simple fact that she was naked with him in his apartment was enough to assume that Ansari was going to try and have sex with her. It is arduous, problematic work, on par with mind-reading, for Ansari (or people in general) to figure out what these complex gestures and expressions mean. And a lot of people seemed to agree with the author’s assertion.

Let’s revisit our first three photos: viewing these images, I want you to contemplate a different question: Does it look like any of the people in these images want to engage in sexual activity?

How about this second set of photos: if the surroundings of these images had been changed to intimate settings, would it seem like any of these people were enjoying the sexual interactions they were having?

While these are stock Google images, the point remains: the same nonverbal cues we recognize in everyday situations are present in sexual situations.

If I go in to kiss someone and they physically respond like this:

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I know I shouldn’t continue trying to kiss them.

If I’m having sexual intercourse with someone and they make this face:

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I can safely assume they’re uncomfortable or hurting and I should stop.

The next step after recognizing these cues and ceasing activity is to ask your partner if they are okay. We need to take steps to determine what those nonverbal cues mean. Are they in pain? Are they uncomfortable? Do they feel pressured? Do they need to take a break? Do you need to stop altogether?

Equally important to asking is not demanding an answer that makes you happy. Just because you want to continue does not mean your partner wants to, and they should not feel pressured to put their feelings aside because you’re going to be upset if you stop.

Here’s the thing: I would love to live in a world where people express all their thoughts and feelings directly. I want to empower people to say when they’re comfortable and when they’re not, whether that’s in the workplace, at home, or in sexual situations. But it’s not a one-sided job. We need to ask our partners what they want and how they are. We need to recognize that there’s more than one way to say “no” and express discomfort.  We need to listen to our partners’ wants and needs and respect when they need things to change.

And to begin fostering a culture of affirmative consent and sexual pleasure, we need to stop thinking of sexual encounters as silent movies where things just work out without anyone talking about it. Ongoing, enthusiastic consent requires you to ask, listen, and respect.

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Laurel Winsor is the Events Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice at James Madison University in December, 2016.

 

Raising My Daughters In An Unmuted Society (or Somebody’s Always Got Somethin’ To Say)

As the mother of two daughters I sometimes struggle with the way things are versus the way things should be when encouraging them to become brave, bold, and confident women. I think about things that could have been most helpful for me as I was navigating the path towards adulthood and want to make this path a little easier for them. One thing that would have been helpful is if I felt I was allowed to express who I was and to be comfortable, loving and accepting of all the aspects of me.

Being raised by a strict, Christian mother, I was taught to believe that my body was something to be kept hidden and at times to even be ashamed of. If I dared to push the boundaries and show any skin, wearing a tank top or shorts too high above the knees, I would be ridiculed or referred to by other unflattering terms where I was accused of seeking attention. It was always confusing for me though because regardless of the clothes I had on, I would still receive that unsolicited attention.  It was not until my college years that I realized I liked the way I looked in certain clothing choices and that was okay.

So now, I am raising my own daughters, who are eleven years apart in age, and let me just say, that especially for my oldest, some of her clothing choices would make the little old church ladies I grew up around turn over in their graves! While she is very mindful and respectful of the thoughts of her elders when she is in their presence at church or other functions, she makes certain to never lose her identity in what she chooses to wear. And I embrace that. Do I sometimes hear the gasps from others who would question me as a mother by “allowing her to walk out the house dressed like that”? Certainly. And if I am given the opportunity, I take the time to do a little educating.

By being in this work, but more importantly, by knowing who my daughter is, I know that the thoughts that enter the mind of anyone who might use the way one chooses to dress as justification to pass judgement, harass or excuse sexual violence, are not the thoughts that can put an end to it. Sometimes, I have to put my own thoughts in check because of the societal noise that exists; those thoughts do not empower women and girls to be true to their authentic selves.

mountain bridge

credit: indulgy.com

In my primary prevention work, I often refer to the metaphor of traveling upstream to do some major bridge repair work. But as I talk about repairing this bridge, I had not given much consideration to the tools one must carry in their backpack. Imagine that the bridge that is encountered is located atop this mountain with a heavy stream of water flowing down. In order for me to even reach this bridge, I have to first climb this mountain, and move past all those voices that tell me who I am supposed to be as a Christian woman. I have to put on my noise canceling headphones.

I have to consider this as I raise my own daughters. I am optimistic that the tools my youngest daughter will have to carry in her backpack will look much different than the ones I have had to carry. I am optimistic that her backpack will be light and the only thing she hears coming from her headphones is the harmony that comes when women and girls are loved, respected and treated as equal. The harmony that comes when the noise that attempts to diminish who they were created to be, cannot and will not prosper.

Leslie Conway is the Prevention Coordinator for the Action Alliance and is proud to be a mother, daughter, and sister, working to prevent violence against women and girls.

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Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org

Healthy Teen Relationships: A Youth’s Perspective

As president of feminist club one of my responsibilities is to arrange meetings and guest speakers. Last year I brought in a battered women’s counselor to talk to us about healthy teen relationships. I knew the red flags, I had heard them before, but I like most people did not want something bad to apply to me. My friends told me that I was in a bad relationship, but as I heard the counselor list off the red flags, it became reality.

Her talk about unhealthy teen dating felt like a description of my relationship. At the time, I was not spending time with friends or traveling for fear of making my then boyfriend mad, he kept trying to pressure me into things I made clear that I was not ready for, yelling, blaming, threatening, endless fighting over nothing. I had many wonderful, supportive friends during this time, but I had others that did not deal with what I was going through as well. Being on the receiving end of the advice and support taught me exactly what works and what does not work. It has been said many times before, but it is so incredibly important that I want to say it again: the most important thing in these situations is to be there for the victim of an unhealthy/abusive relationship. Some of my friends dropped me or got mad at me for not spending enough time with them. It was not  that I did not care, it was that I knew he would be mad.

Other friends tried to pressure me to leave him. I understand how this would make sense, but for someone in a controlling relationship, the last thing I needed was to be controlled by someone else. The other thing is, however simple it may seem to an outsider, leaving an unhealthy relationship is incredibly hard. This can be because one believes their partner can change, they truly love them, or the partner threatens that something bad will happen if they do break it off.

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Picture courtesy of Diana Kabbani

Once I finally did leave my ex-boyfriend I finally felt free. My friends were there for me after I broke it off. One of the best ways I was able to get over it was blocking his number and social media. People with controlling personalities like that are manipulative and will try to get their partner back with lies and empty promises, that is why cutting off communication is essential. Everyone deserves respect and happiness in their relationship. We all have a duty to do what we can to help victims of unhealthy relationships and I hope this blog post is helpful in doing so.

Diana Kabbani is a student and President of her school Feminist Club. 

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Want to learn more about building teen resiliency? Check out The DO YOU program. DO YOU addresses youth violence, dating and sexual violence, sexual harassment, and bullying by confronting its root causes and enhancing protective factors (also referred to as building resilience) to promote positive development and healthy relationships for age 13-16 years old. The UnCurriculum (the facilitator’s guide for DO YOU uses primary prevention principles and creative expression in a strategy intended to prevent violence before it starts.

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Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org

“No one does that”: Teens and the challenge of teaching consent

 

“That’s not realistic. No one does that,” assessed my (then) 14 year old daughter when she previewed the rough cut of Ask. Listen. Respect., the Action Alliance’s new video to teach teens about consent.

Her comment stung, but she had it exactly right.

We had developed the 1-minute video to be the centerpiece of a new statewide sexual violence prevention messaging campaign. The object: illustrate to young teens a set of concrete examples for how to ask for consent, what enthusiastic verbal consent looks like, and how to respond to “no” respectfully.

The Action Alliance prevention team had decided to focus on consent and negotiation after collaborating with the brilliant minds at Force: Upsetting Rape Culture, who assisted us in conducting a field scan. While the consultants at Force conducted online listening experiments and analyzed the data, we reviewed best practices, consulted with other prevention experts, and held discussion groups with young teens to learn about their lives. The void became clear. Negotiation and consent, two essential building blocks of healthy relationships and (in later, more mature relationships) joyous sexuality, were concepts unfamiliar to young teens.

During the middle and high school years, teens experiment with new identities and new relationships. Every relationship, no matter now short or casual, is a rich learning opportunity that lays the groundwork for future adult relationships. And yet, teaching and talking about the skills necessary to engage in negotiation and ask for consent rarely happens. In my daughter’s words: no one does that.

When we asked middle school boys what consent means, here’s what they said:

  • “I’ve never heard that word, like, in a relationship.”
  • “It’s like, you have to have parent’s consent to order that movie, so like permission?”
  • “Talk about it?”
  • “I don’t know I’m as confused as you!”

Perhaps even more concerning: teen boys explained that their friend/partner saying “no” to them was something they took personally. A rejection.

The Ask. Listen. Respect. video speaks simply and directly to young teens. It shows two teens (about 14 years old) practicing consent. They negotiate how they spend time together (“Want to watch a movie”? “Shoot hoops?”), each hearing a “yes” or a “no” respectfully. In the final scene, one teen asks if the other would like to kiss, and the teen responds with an enthusiastic “yes”. As they lean toward one another, the camera pans behind a tree, the scene ends, and the teens voice over: “Don’t worry about it being awkward, just say what you want…and ask first”.

Parent discussion guide COVER

photo from DO YOU discussion guide

We developed two discussion guides to accompany the video and promote conversations about respect, boundaries, and consent: one for parents, the other for facilitators of teen groups. All materials now live on our brand new Teach Consent microsite to make the materials most accessible to parents and facilitators.

The practices of consent and negotiation are essential to equitable, fulfilling relationships, regardless of a person’s age, regardless whether the relationship is romantic or platonic. Where physical intimacy is involved, these skills provide healthy counterweights to our culture’s pervasive narratives that intimacy “just happens”, and that coercion is sexy, while clear communication is not.

Teaching consent debunks the notion that we all magically just know what our partner wants, what feels good, what turns them on.

Where teens are involved, teaching consent and negotiation gives them tools to build empathy, deepen connection and trust, and helps prepare them to be responsible, respectful partners in future relationships.

To be clear: changing individual knowledge and behavior is one piece in the complex and layered puzzle of preventing sexual violence. Larger oppressive cultural forces related to power and agency, for example, shape individual experiences and choices. And while communication and negotiation are everyone’s responsibility, if a person chooses to move forward without getting clear consent from their partner, what follows may veer quickly into coercion and/or assault. The responsibility then lies solely with the person who advances. No one else’s.

Consent is the non-negotiable, bare minimum we should expect from our partners when it comes to physical intimacy. As such, it is one of the first and most essential concepts that should be taught. Precisely because it seems so foreign to teens at an age when they are experimenting with how to relate to their peers, precisely because many teens are entering into their first romantic relationships which set the tones for future relationships. Precisely because, at least at this point in our cultural evolution, “no one does that”.

 

Kate McCord is the Communications Director for the Action Alliance, a member of the Action Alliance prevention team, and a proud, grateful (and sometimes harried) mama of two truly incredible kids.

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Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org