Healthy Boundaries and Consensual Non-Monogamy

Preliminary definitions (from morethantwo.com): 

RESPONSIBLE (or CONSENSEUAL or ETHICAL) NON-MONOGAMY: Any relationship that is not sexually and/or emotionally exclusive by the explicit agreement and with the full knowledge of all the parties involved. 

POLYAMORY: (Literally, poly” meaning many + amor” meaning love) The state or practice of maintaining multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all the people involved. 

SWINGING: The practice of having multiple sexual partners outside of an existing romantic relationship, most often with the understanding that the focus of those relationships is primarily sexual rather than romantic or emotionally intimate. 

MONOGAMY: (Literally, mono” meaning one + gamos” meaning marriage) Formally, the state or practice of having only one wedded spouse. Informally, the state or practice of having only one wedded spouse at a time, or more generally, having only one sexual partner or only one romantic relationship at a time. 

Everyone has expectations of the people in their lives. Sometimes those expectations are hard and fast with no wiggle room (ie. I have an expectation of safety and bodily autonomy. Therefore, if you are physically violent with me, I will leave.) Other times, the expectations may be of high importance but there’s an understanding that there’s room for potential error (ie. I have an expectation of honesty but recognize that being transparent can be difficult. I will hold you accountable when you are dishonest.) Whether they’re called rules, boundaries, expectations, understandings, or something entirely different, it’s reasonable and common for people to assert them and expect others to respect them. 

As advocates, it’s easy for us to wrap our minds around this concept in monogamous relationships. We understand that people have lots of different rules and agreements made with their partner: fidelity, consultation about major financial decisions, expectations of home maintenance. However, sometimes relationship rules can assert an unfair level of control. Where that line is drawn is different for everyone Some people might find a rule of “If you’re going to spend over $100, we need to have a conversation about it first” extremely inhibiting. Others might not care. Some people might be totally okay with a rule of “No sexual or romantic relationships with anyone beyond the two of us.” Others might feel limited by this. 

Those of us in the fields of sexual and domestic violence have learned to identify how rules can be used as tools of power and control in monogamous relationships. It’s not uncommon to see relationships where one person controls their partner’s behavior by isolating themtelling them who they can and cannot talk to, and limiting when/how they communicate with othersWe know what red flags look like in monogamy, and how to talk to empower people to make changes that honor their needs, but can we recognize these red flags in consensual non-monogamy? 

As people begin exploring consensual non-monogamy, they can experience a medley of emotions; liberation, trepidation, excitement, insecurity, growth, discomfort. When navigating something new and scary, people often take precautions to prepare ourselves. Even if someone is absolutely stoked to sky-dive out of a plane, they still create a mental and physical safety net for themselvesSo it’s not uncommon for people to establish rules or boundaries when they dive into consensual non-monogamy. In the swinging community, folks might start out with rules of “we only swing together” or “we do not have penetrative sex with other partners”. These boundaries can be to protect the sexual health of all involved, people’s own emotional well-being, or both. Someone beginning to explore polyamory may have an expectation that their partners don’t engage sexually or romantically with their friends, or only with people that they don’t share a social circle withAll of these expectations limit their partner’s behavior or engagement with others. But how do we recognize, and then empower others to identify, whether or not these expectations are healthy? 

All relationships have a level of give-and-take compromise. Sometimes that’s as small as not eating at your restaurant of choice for dinner, but often, it’s bigger. One thing we can be mindful of in determining whether or not a rule in a relationship is healthy is the mindsets of all involved parties. If someone is enforcing a rule or boundary, they should be mindful of where it stems from. Are they feeling insecure, anxious, threatened, jealous? If so, that’s okay. Those are all entirely valid feelings, even in consensual non-monogamy. Awareness of those feelings is an important step, as is taking accountability for the fact that those feelings are theirs to own and are not “caused by” their partner’s actions. A big red flag in non-monogamy, just like in monogamy, is if someone is blaming their partner for their negative emotions.  

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We should look at whether or not people asking for their partners to restrict their behaviors are considerate of how long rules need to be in place. Using metaphorical training wheels makes a lot of sense, but is it fair of someone to impose restrictions on their partners forever? Saying “I know it’s important to you, but I do not want to hear about your relationships with your other partners,” is different from “I feel insecure when you talk about your other partners, but I know it’s important to you. For now, can we limit that talk to light topics, and as I adjust to this, maybe we can begin to discuss things a little more in-depth?” Another red flag is the unwillingness to compromise. There’s a difference in the assertion of control between someone who has an unyielding rule about being Facebook official with their polyamorous partner who is dating three people and someone who says “Visibility is really important to me. If being Facebook official isn’t something you can do, how else can you show people that we’re together?” 

One of the other ways we can keep an eye out for red flags is to examine how the person being asked to implement the rule is feeling. Do they feel like they have room to ask for compromise? Is this rule compromising an important value of theirs? Do they fear for their safety or well-being if they say no? Are there power dynamics at play that need to be explored? For example, someone who has been practicing polyamory for over a decade might want their brand-new-to-poly girlfriend to meet all their other partners. If their approach is “Look, I’ve been doing this a long time, and if you really want to be polyamorous, you have to just get over your fears and learn to get along with all the other people I’m dating,” that leaves a lot less room for compromise than “I understand why this makes you uncomfortable, and also it’s really important to me. Is meeting my partners something you’re interested in doing, and if so, how can we make that process go smoothly for you?” 

As advocates, we should be wary of making assumptions when it comes to consensual non-monogamy. Non-monogamous relationships are not inherently unhealthy. People are not automatically victims because their partner is interested in developing or has multiple relationships. Similarly, consensually non-monogamous folks are not immune to engaging in abusive and controlling behaviors. The same power dynamics we see in monogamous relationships can rear their heads in any other relationship structures. In consensual non-monogamy, unfair restrictions and control can be asserted both by people who don’t struggle with jealousy and those who use rules to manage their insecurity. Every relationship deserves an empathetic, unbiased, and nuanced conversation when it comes to determining whether people feel their boundaries are being violated. That’s one step we take to committing to end intimate partner violence for everyone. 


Laurel Winsor is the Events Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance and has her BA in Justice Studies from James Madison University. She is a black belt in martial arts, real-life social justice warrior, baker, climber, sister, and professional hype-man.

Happy 40th Anniversary, SARA!

Last week, Action Alliance staff traveled to Charlottesville to attend the 11th Annual SARA (Sexual Assault Resource Agency) Awards Breakfast. We cherish opportunities to be included in our members’ events and this event was particularly exciting as it also marked SARA’s 40th anniversary. The event honored SARA’s past, present, and the future they see towards a vision of eliminating sexual violence.

Six people standing around a banner that says, "eliminating sexual violence in our community- SARA"

Action Alliance staff celebrating SARA’s 40th anniversary at their annual breakfast.

To honor the past, the morning was filled with stories from current and former staff, board members, and community supporters about the immense and invaluable impact SARA’s services have had on survivors.

To honor the present, we presented Becky Weybright, SARA’s Executive Director, with the 2019 Visionary Voice Award from The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). This award recognizes the creativity and hard work of individuals around the country who demonstrate outstanding work to end sexual violence. Each year, state coalitions select an outstanding individual to nominate for the awards and for 2019 our leadership team excitedly identified Becky as the perfect candidate.

Becky is a thoughtful and strategic leader in the statewide movement to end sexual violence. She’s worked in the sexual and domestic violence field since 1988 and now provides excellent leadership as the Executive Director of SARA. Becky successfully navigates that balance between supporting compassionate direct services and building evidence-informed and effective prevention strategies, recognizing that both advocacy and prevention need to be cultivated. As a director, she genuinely cares about her staff.  She leads by example and has the respect and gratitude for those whom and with whom she serves.  Becky doesn’t hesitate to answer the phone or serve a walk-in client.  She is respected by her community partners for having a strong vision for the agency and creating a space for survivors in the community to have a voice. She is proud to be a part of a team of dedicated staff, board, and volunteers and pleased to support the work of her state coalition.

Kristi VanAudenhove and Becky Weybright holding her clock award.

Kristi VanAudenhove and Becky Weybright at SARA’s 40th Anniversary celebration, where Becky was awarded the NSVRC’s 2019 Visionary Voice Award.

To honor the future, the focus shifted to SARA’s leadership and dedication to prevent sexual violence. Dr. Lisa Speidel, a former SARA staff and now UVA Assistant Professor, carried this theme of honoring the past and while continually pushing towards a more equitable, safe, and thriving future. The road forward requires investing in prevention, taking an intersectional approach to our work, centering community norms that reinforce empathy, supporting healthy sexuality, and teaching nuanced consent skills.

It’s often said by those of us in this movement that we’d like our communities to put us out of business. Until that happens, we are grateful to work alongside agencies such as SARA to ensure all survivors are treated with dignity. Cheers to 40 wonderful years of advocacy and prevention!

About SARA: SARA works to eliminate sexual violence and its impact by providing education, advocacy and support to men, women and children. Their vision is a community free from sexual violence. They are based in Charlottesville, Virginia, and serve residents of Charlottesville, Albemarle, Nelson, Louisa, Fluvanna and Greene.


Kat Monusky is the Director of Resilience & Capacity-Building at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where she works with the Movement Strategies team to lead coalition social change initiatives focused on primary prevention and trauma-informed advocacy.

Thank You Members, Donors and Supporters!

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Our 2018 Annual Report highlights the work we accomplished last year, including milestones in prevention, policy, community engagement, and statewide advocacy. We invite you to view the report online and learn where our energy has been directed recently, and also to see our vision of where the future might find us.

Additionally, we acknowledge, with immense gratitude, that this work was only possible because of our members, donors, and supporters. From all of us at the Action Alliance, thank you for being a part of the movement to end sexual and domestic violence in Virginia!

If you would like to join the number of people and organizations supporting our efforts, you can learn how to become a member here.

Action Alliance Statement on Sexual Assault Allegations Made Against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax

As the public conversation on sexual assault allegations against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax continues to evolve, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance would like to share a few of the values that are central to the work of the Action Alliance and our statewide network of sexual and domestic violence survivor advocates and preventionists:

  • Choosing to come forward and share an experience of assault can be deeply re-traumatizing. In the movement to end sexual and domestic violence, we work every single day to create an environment in which survivor stories are met with belief, support, and compassion.

 

  • There is no place for character assassination in this conversation. We start from a place of dignity and worth for every human and remind ourselves of that value as we support finding clarity and justice for both parties.

 

  • We seek to nurture a future in which every person has the knowledge and skills necessary to practice informed, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent. This is the antidote to sexual violence and we believe every human is deserving of experiencing healthy and joyful sexuality, centered in pleasure.

 

  • We focus on the harm that has been done and how to repair it, rather than deeming people “good” or “bad”. This is one of the principles of restorative justice. Most people in the world have both been harmed and have committed harm. Thinking of people as either “good” or “bad” creates a false binary and is ineffective in creating the future we believe is possible. We must learn new ways of holding each other accountable that foster growth and connection.

Featured image: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Action Alliance Statement on Governor Northam’s Yearbook Photo

As a statewide coalition fighting for racial and gender justice, we are deeply disturbed by the racist photos revealed in Governor Ralph Northam’s college yearbook and the Governor’s own admission of donning blackface, a racist and dehumanizing behavior. While abhorrent, we must acknowledge that individual acts of overt and covert racism do not happen in a vacuum. They are planted and fostered by broader—and often less visible—ideologies and structures that are driven by and support white supremacy.

Given the structural and insidious nature of racism, it is imperative that the Governor’s actions be viewed through a wider lens beyond his past behavior and his current explanations. If we remain solely focused on one man’s problematic behavior, we limit solutions to consequences for one man and miss opportunities for expansive change.

The injurious legacy of racism and white supremacy in Virginia has created structural inequalities which affect the lives of Virginians every day. Many of these mechanisms are carried out by the state. Harms include voter disenfranchisement, a cash bail system which criminalizes poverty, the trauma-to-prison pipeline, maternal mortality among Black mothers, high rates of intimate partner homicides against Black women, and mass incarceration and surveillance of communities of color, to name a few.

We can and must do better. In keeping with our values of equality and justice, the Action Alliance operates from a racial justice lens. We seek to undermine and dismantle the racist legacy of our beloved Commonwealth and re-imagine a world where the humanity and dignity of all people are recognized and embraced. In order to create a world where relationships, families and communities are healthy, equitable, and joyful, we must think and work broadly to address the underlying factors that drive domination and violence.­­

In this moment, we have all been given an opportunity to listen, reflect and mobilize to address structural racism in Virginia with renewed vigor. The Action Alliance believes that pathways to justice and healing must include listening to individuals and communities most affected, addressing harm with a focus on accountability and reparations, and always working toward wholeness and restoration. This moment calls us to reflect on big questions, such as:

  • What options exist to hold ourselves and each other accountable, for our words and behaviors, past and present, while remaining in community?
  • What can we all, including the Virginia Democratic and Republican parties, do to demonstrate a true commitment to accountability and reparations for historical racism, now and in the years ahead?
  • How can we shape government, institutions and systems so they are rooted in equity and justice?

The answers to these questions will offer us a path forward.

The Action Alliance calls upon our policy leaders to listen to and work with Black communities across Virginia to determine next steps in the hard process of reparations for the harms that have been committed against communities of color, steps that would put Virginia on a powerful path toward wholeness and liberation.


Featured image: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Tikkun Olam

Tikkun Olam is a concept in Judaism that refers to “repairing the world” and is often used to support and protect those who are disadvantaged. The power of Tikkun Olam is that it speaks to the world being broken and the intent to fix (repair) it. For a Jewish survivor, Tikkun Olam could be an important cultural component to the healing process.

This summer, the Virginia Department of Social Services awarded grants to six culturally and population specific organizations to provide new domestic violence services to the underserved communities they serve. Representing communities of color, immigrant and refugee communities, religious minorities and LGBTQ people, these organizations are trusted entities possessing a deep understanding of the barriers people in their communities face as well as the strengths and assets embedded in their communities. The six organizations include:

Tikkun-OlamGreater Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA) is committed to serving Jewish survivors and other religious minorities experiencing domestic abuse. Guided by the Jewish concepts, Tikkun Olam “to repair the world” and Shalom Bayit “peace in the home” JCADA understands how faith can be a source of strength.

Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc. (ECDC) will launch Safe Journeys, an outreach, counseling and assistance program that provides culturally and linguistically tailored case management to survivors. ECDC has multicultural and multi lingual staff who work with African immigrants and refugees in Northern Virginia.

Boat People SOS, Inc. (BPSOS) has supported the Vietnamese community for 38 years and will launch the Communities Against Domestic Violence (CADV) in Northern Virginia. A large number of refugees have a history of trauma having fled unsafe homes and/or communities in Vietnam.  CADV will address two compounding, cross-cutting problems that affect a large portion of Vietnamese Americans: dv and trauma.

Heal Concept Metal Letterpress Word in DrawerSacred Heart Center (SHC), located in Richmond, is a hub for the Latinx community serving clients from the entire metropolitan area. Funding will allow the SHC to provide new domestic violence services including case management, in part through an expanded relationship with Safe Harbor providing culturally specific service.

LGBT Life Center in Hampton Roads provides comprehensive services to the LGBT community from a staff who understands the unique barriers to and opportunities for safety  and healing.  LGBT Life Center will provide crisis services to survivors and their families and will work with Opinion Leaders to raise awareness about domestic  violence in their community and share resources through their social networks.

Also in Hampton Roads, the Hampton Roads Community Action Program (HRCAP) addresses poverty through many programs and strategies.  A specific focus has been on African American families residing in public housing and other neighborhoods of Southeast Newport News.  As a multi-service agency, HRCAP clients have access to a  wide breadth of services including new domestic violence advocacy and counseling for survivors and their families.

We are inspired by the work of our six new grantees who affirm their communities’ cultures and experiences and we look forward to learning through these new partnerships! Chào mừng đến với, ברוך הבא, ሀልሎ አንድ ወልጮመ, bienvenido, welcome!


Alyssa Murray is a Domestic Violence Program Specialist with the Virginia Department of Social Services.  She has worked in the fields of domestic violence, public health, homelessness and education over the last 25 years.  Her first experience working with survivors was at the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society located on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, the home of the Sicangu Oyate Lakota Nation.

Outside of work, Alyssa is a poet, a mom to two teenagers, and a human companion to two hound dogs.  She works with the immigrant community in Richmond and is writing a children’s book about Irene Morgan and Elizabeth Van Lew.

You can contact Alyssa at alyssa.murray@dss.virginia.gov

 

 

 

Children, Families, Survivors, Our Nation, and Humanity Deserve Better Than Family Separation and Family Detainment

George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

During a shameful era of our nation’s history, then-President Franklin Roosevelt isolated thousands of people of Japanese ancestry and forced them into concentration camps under the guise of national security. Although separation of families was not part of the policy, over a thousand people were incarcerated and unable to communicate with their family members. Of those forced into detainment, at least 17,000 were children under the age of ten. Conditions of the concentration camps included overcrowding and excessive police force and brutality.

Now, a little over 70 years since the closing of the last American concentration camp, history has been doomed to repeat itself. In April, the Trump administration passed a “zero-tolerance” policy of forced separation of migrant families – which resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 migrant children from their parents. Then, last week, Trump issued an executive order ending the forced separation and instead replacing it with indefinite family detention, meaning that “children would be held in facilities that are essentially jails with their parents for months, or even years, until they ultimately received legal status — or, more likely, until they were finally deported.”

It has been proven that exposure to such toxic stress in children’s leaves – whether it’s getting forcibly removed from their parents or suffering detainment during their childhoods – has serious, long-term consequences for children’s development. Such toxic stress can lead to stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flooding children’s systems – hormones that over time can start killing off neurons and thus resulting in consequences that may cause not only learning and behavioral problems, but physical and mental health problems as well.

Jack Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, has stated that with each day that children are separated from their parents, their stress responses are persistently triggered – thus “having a wear and tear effect on their developing brains and all of their biological systems.” Not only does this severely impact the 2,000+ children who have already been forcibly separated from their parents, without a concrete plan for their reunification, but also the children who will now be indefinitely detained. Even for families that do not get separated, their detainment can “compromise a parent’s role as ‘parent,’” as well as “undermine the critical parent-child relationship.”

A 2015 report on the harmful impacts of family detention on children stated that children in detention facilities are ten times more likely than adults to experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was also reported by medical experts that detention conditions could have life-long consequences for a child’s academic, economic, and social development. Furthermore, a therapist who worked with many previously-interned Japanese-American clients, stated that such trauma “manifests decades later as depression, strained family relationships, and a lifelong sense of undeserved guilt and fear of authority.”

Studies have shown that as adverse childhood experiences (ACE) – which include parental separation, incarcerated household members, emotional neglect, and physical neglect – increase, so did the risk of experiencing sexual violence in adulthood. This means that by forcibly separating children from their parents or incarcerating them with their families, the administration is subjecting children to adverse childhood experiences that can leave them vulnerable to violence as they grow older.

Additionally, the aforementioned fear of authority that results from the trauma of being detained during childhood can prevent the currently detained or separated children from seeking help later on in life if they experience sexual or domestic violence. Regardless of the outcome of immigration policies – whether these children are deported from the United States or if they’re given a path to citizenship – this fear of authority instilled in them from a young age will likely continue to haunt them long after the inhumane immigration policies are removed.

Similarly, this cruelty towards undocumented immigrants – as epitomized by the separation and detainment of young children – will further increase the fear of authority for undocumented persons currently living in the US. Various reports have already shown that many survivors of domestic or sexual violence do not seek help due to their fear of deportation. In fact, according to a NY Times article published in 2017, reports of sexual and domestic violence among Latinxs across the country have had a sharp downturn since the 2016 presidential election – which many experts attribute to the increased fears of deportation. And now, with this cruel and immoral immigration policy, this fear of authority and fear to seek help will likely only worsen for undocumented survivors of violence. This means survivors may be forced to stay in unsafe situations and have less access to support.

If children are not immediately reunited with their parents and if our nation continues to impede reproductive justice by revoking parents’ rights to parent their children in safe, supportive environments, we will be a nation that traumatizes children and fails to protect and support survivors of violence. First Focus, an organization dedicated to prioritizing children and families in federal policy decisions, suggests child-friendly alternatives to detaining families, such as community-based programs that address families awaiting their immigration proceedings. Not only are such programs significantly more cost-efficient, ranging from 70 cents to $17 dollars a day instead of the $373 daily cost of detaining a mother or child, but they allow children to live in a home setting, enroll in school, and can assist their families in connecting to crucial legal assistance and social services.

Today, I ask us all to remember. Remember our past. Remember our nation’s – and humanity’s – shameful times, as to not repeat them. And remember our most glorious times – the times when we exhibited kindness, the times when we protected those who were most vulnerable, the times when we made sure that good triumphed over evil. And, many, many years from now, may we remember today as a time when families were safe, when children were protected, and when humanity remained steadfast in the fight for justice.



Featured image source: https://www.zazzle.com/immigrant_justice_mini_poster-228432137731714096



Maryum Elnasseh is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.

Meet Laura Chow Reeve, Youth Resilience Coordinator!

The Action Alliance is thrilled to introduce to you Laura Chow Reeve, our new Youth Resilience Coordinator! Laura comes to us from LA, Philly, and most recently Jacksonville Florida. She took a few moments to talk with us about her path, her loves, and what lights her up about prevention work. 

Laura, what’s your story?

I’ve moved across the country, bouncing from coast to coast, three times. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, but most recently, I lived and soaked up some magic in Jacksonville, FL (and its surrounding natural springs).

While in Jacksonville I worked directly with LGBTQ+ survivors of sexual violence, and I have always been invested in working with youth and doing social justice and anti-oppression work. For the past 6 years, I have worked with Girls Rock Camps, programs that use music and creative expression as tools to fight for intersectional gender justice. I first started at Girls Rock Philly and continued to do work with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, an international network of over 100 camps, in various roles. (I encourage you to check out your local Girls Rock or Queer Rock camp! I’m a proud supporter of Girls Rock! RVA here in Richmond!)

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I have a MA in Asian American Studies from UCLA where I completed a collection of short stories that explores intimacies of the queer mixed-race body through magical, speculative, and fabulist forms. While at UCLA I also helped co-found a workshop for writers of color on campus and taught undergraduate Gender Studies and Asian American Studies Classes.

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I’m currently working on a collection of short stories and have a novel project still very much in its infancy. My writing has been published online and has been anthologized. One of the most exciting moments in my writing career was when LeVar Burton read my short story “1,000-Year-Old Ghosts” on his podcast LeVar Burton Reads. I am also the Southern editor of Joyland, an online magazine that publishes fiction and non-fiction.

What lights you up about prevention work?

For me, prevention work is anti-oppression work and vice versa. I love having big movement building conversations, using our brains and hearts to imagine the world we want to live in and then build towards that vision together. I also love the day-to-day, working on new curriculum, sharing resources, and supporting folks doing prevention work in their communities. I feel fired up when we talk about the ways in which prevention work is connected to transformative justice, racial justice, economic justice, reproductive justice and queer liberation, and even more so when we start doing that work with other folks in our communities.

If you were an animal (besides a human), what kind of animal would you be and why?

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There is this short story by Ken Liu that I love called “Good Hunting” about shape-shifting fox spirits (huli jing, Chinese mythological creatures/spirits). I want to be a shape-shifting fox spirit.

What’s one goal you have for your first year as the new Youth Resilience Coordinator?

I’m excited to explore new ways to engage with youth in our space, whether that look like a camp, youth training opportunities, or a youth advisory council! I’m about to head to North Carolina to observe NCCASA’s Young Advocates Institute in July to get some inspiration. I hope to dedicate lots of energy into clarifying how we make space for youth leadership and voices in our work at the Alliance.


Laura can be reached at lchowreeve@vsdvalliance.org or 804-377-0335 x 2109. Drop her a line and welcome her to Virginia!

What really happened during the 2018 Session? An advocate’s guide to politics and new legislation in VA

The 2018 Virginia General Assembly (GA) adjourned “sine die” on March 10th – with legislators having passed 919 of the original 2,778 bills that were introduced during their 60-day session. A lot happened in those 60-days. But with all eyes turned to the ongoing debate over Medicaid expansion, one thing that didn’t happen was an agreed-upon state budget. Given this, House and Senate members will reconvene in Richmond for a governor-advised special session beginning April 11th. During this time, lawmakers will focus on the specific task of producing a $115 billion-dollar, two-year budget for the Commonwealth.

The following is an update on what really happened and how it really happened in the 2018 GA session, with a few sprinkled in predictions for where we’re headed and how that direction might impact everyday advocates, survivors of violence, and the communities and families that we serve in our work to respond to and prevent sexual and intimate partner violence in Virginia.

The political backdrop

With civic engagement and public protest on the rise in 2017, Virginia’s electoral base produced an unprecedented change in the makeup of the state legislature. Voters brought 19 new faces to the halls and committee and subcommittee rooms of the GA in 2018, with an overwhelming majority of these new faces being younger, browner, more immigrant, more LGBTQ, and more gender diverse. In both the House of Delegates and in our Governor’s Office, these new faces appear to be more reflective of and responsive to the various communities that make up our Commonwealth. These faces are also, overwhelmingly, Democrat. The 2017 elections brought the House of Delegates to a much more balanced split of 51 Republican seats to 49 Democrat seats. Needless to say, there was a vastly different energy abuzz in the GA this session. And with this new energy abuzz, there were also a set of new politics, voting strategies, and trends that quickly began to emerge within our legislature.

Data captured by Virginia’s Public Access Project (VPAP), a nonprofit nonpartisan organization providing insight into politics in Virginia, provides us with a clearer picture of the impact of this nearly even House split in 2018.  Looking at rates of recorded party-line votes – these are votes where Republicans or Democrats voted unanimously on an issue – we find that House Republicans were 57% more likely to vote party-line in 2018 than they were in 2017. That’s a jump from 20% Republican party-line votes in 2017 to 77% Republican party-line votes in 2018. Democrats, on the other hand, were slightly more likely to vote independently.

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Source: Virginia’s Legislative Information Service, URL: https://www.vpap.org/visuals/visual/party-line-votes/

While some political forecasters predicted more bipartisan collaboration in 2018, this wasn’t always how things panned out. Given the nearly house split and the new trends in committee and subcommittee party-line voting, those bills that sought to do things like make reporting easier and more trauma-informed for sexual assault survivors on campus, or require consent education as part of the Family Life Education curriculum, or protect LGBTQ Virginians from housing and employment discrimination – all wonderful steps in the direction of achieving equity and cultural change – were either defeated or significantly changed as a result of party politics and voting practices. Though our legislature may not be entirely ready for sweeping social change, the good news is that they did agree on a handful of bills that would be beneficial to survivors and the advocates who serve them. Let’s take a look at a few of those now.

Highlights from this session: laws impacting advocates and survivors

Changing VA’s Family Life Education Curriculum: Consent, Sexting, & Boundaries

Right now, education on the “law and meaning of consent” are permissive elements of the Virginia Family Life Education (FLE) Curriculum. Meaning that should a parent allow their child to participate in FLE programming in a public-school system that includes consent education teaching about consent might show up in school-based instruction. Building on their bills that made this possible in previous years, Delegate Filler-Corn and Senator McClellan set out to make the “law and meaning of consent” a mandatory part of Family Life Education in 2018. Unfortunately, these efforts were blocked, on party-line votes, by a House Education Subcommittee. However, the Senate and House did pass a bill that requires any high school FLE curriculum offered by a local school division to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the prevention of sexual harassment using electronic means (read: sexting and digital harassment) and the importance of personal privacy and boundaries (read: bullying, harassment, and bodily autonomy). This bill also permits any FLE curriculum offered by a local school division to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the prevention, recognition, and awareness of child abduction, child abuse, child sexual exploitation, and child sexual abuse (read: Erin’s Law). Just like the issue of consent education, any instruction on child abduction, abuse, or sexual exploitation is permitted but not required. The bottom line: these are improvements to the code, but we’ve still got some work to do!

Dismantling VA’s school-to-prison-pipeline

Early on in the session, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus announced a series of bills intended to curb the school-to-prison-pipeline and promote conditions that ensure every child reaches their full potential. Of the four major bills introduced, two of them were passed. Students in pre-k through third grade are now protected from being suspended for more than 3 days or expelled from attendance at school (with exceptions for “certain criminal acts”). Similarly, another bill reduces the maximum length of a long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days (with certain exceptions). These bills set us in the right direction and offer our lawmakers the opportunity to engage in discussion with those communities and advocates who are directly impacted by the school-to-prison-pipeline or trauma-to-prison-pipeline. That’s a good thing.

Reducing perpetrator access to firearms

Unfortunately, bills like Delegate Levine’s HB405 – intended to prohibit a person convicted of sexual battery or assault and battery against a family or household member from purchasing, possessing, or transporting a firearm – were cast as unnecessary firearms restrictions and subject to strict party-line votes in the House and Senate. Bills to encourage universal background checks, close gun-show loopholes, and ban bump stocks met a similar fate. These bills were typically defeated in committee and subcommittee rooms or were never voted on at all.

#MeToo: Sexual harassment training for the Legislative Branch

DLike many other state legislatures around the country and amidst the cultural wave of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Virginia’s legislature moved to adopt sexual harassment training as a requirement for the Legislative Branch every two years beginning in 2019. While the discussion over the what, when, and how of this training was highly debated on the House floor, the end result is a move in the direction of responding to and preventing sexual harassment in the legislature (pictured here are House Democrat and Republican leaders, Delegate Watts and Delegate Gilbert discussing the legislative response to #MeToo). This is an area of focus that we hope our lawmakers will expand on and learn from in future sessions, in an effort to build truly comprehensive sexual harassment prevention and response strategies. For examples of what this might look like – and what our Policy Team has been using in our ongoing communications with partners and lawmakers alike – see the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault’s timely white paper, Assessing Sexual Harassment Response and Prevention Strategies After #MeToo.

Resources, cell phone service, and lifted age restrictions for petitioners of protective orders

Building on prominent conversations from previous sessions, Senator Wexton’s original SB426 called for the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and court clerks in the Commonwealth to distribute information on the local sexual and domestic violence agency, community service board, and other social services to petitioners of protective orders (emergency, preliminary, and permanent POs). A great idea, highlighting the power of advocacy in restoring hope and saving lives in our communities, but one that also, unfortunately, created fiscal impact. After a series of twists and turns, this bill became one that would require court clerks to distribute DCJS’ Protective Orders in VA – A Guide for Victims and Domestic Violence Victims in VA – Understanding the Legal Process for Victims of Family Abuse to petitioners of protective orders statewide.

Another change to protective order statute this session – and one that we have reservations about – enables judges to grant petitioners of family abuse protective orders (and where appropriate, any household member of the petitioner) exclusive use and possession of a cellular device. While this new law certainly comes from a place of good intentions – ensuring that survivors of violence don’t lose access to their cellular device, including important data stored on that device – it also has the unintended consequence of allowing the respondent of a protective order access to everything that comes along with maintaining that cellular device: plan information including incoming and outgoing calls/texts, GPS, etc. In this increasingly digital age, it’s not uncommon for us to see a survivor be harassed, manipulated, and stalked through electronic means. Given this, the final bill also includes a brief caveat stating that “the court may enjoin the respondent from using a cellular telephone or other electronic device to locate the petitioner”. We are confident that survivors who are working with advocates in the process of petitioning for a family abuse protective order will be informed about these concerns and will be able to work with their advocate to determine what is best for them/their safety as part of a larger safety planning process.

Another interesting bill (HB1212), carried by Delegate Cline, changes Virginia code to allow a minor to designate a “next friend” in court pleadings and motions. This bill allows a “next friend” – which can be a parent, legal guardian, or individual designated to serve as the authorized representative of an individual who has been determined to lack capacity to consent or authorize the disclosure of information – to sign pleadings, motions, or other papers required by the court. Previously under Virginia law, a minor who was unable to afford an attorney could not sign court pleadings on behalf of themselves and a parent of a minor who was unable to afford an attorney could not sign court pleadings on behalf of their children. This was obviously a barrier to minors – and particularly those from low-income families – pursuing and accessing protective orders (or similar pleadings and motions) within the court system. This small change in the code should make it easier for both parents of minors without an attorney AND minors without an attorney to file for protection orders in Virginia.

Looking forward

As we prepare for lawmakers to reconvene in Richmond, finalize our state budget, and decide on whether or not to expand Medicaid in Virginia, the Action Alliance Policy Team will be working with our members, partners, and lobbyists to amplify the voice of survivors in the ongoing work of this special session and the roll-out of new legislation in 2018. With the intersections of domestic and sexual violence, poverty, and access to healthcare being such prominent issues with which our movement grapples, we anticipate program and survivor voices being important ones for our legislators to hear from. Be on the lookout (via Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) for action alerts and calls for support from our Policy Team in the upcoming weeks! Please also be on the lookout for a full end-of-session report made available to membership by mid-April.


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. Since 2007, Jonathan has worked in the anti-violence and public health fields in various capacities – coordinating primary prevention projects for a state coalition, managing Rape Prevention & Education funds for a state health department, supporting prevention and outreach projects on a college campus, and consulting with national resource centers on violence prevention and anti-oppression work. Jonathan is a sociologist by training and an outspoken advocate for Southern social justice work, LGBTQ youth empowerment initiatives, the movement for black lives, and any space in which people are re-envisioning a world free from violence and oppression. Jonathan is also a pop-culture + pizza + animal lover living in Richmond, Virginia with his partner, their 2 dogs, and a one-eyed cat.


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On Conscious Living: Ending a System of Human Trafficking

Last month, students from around the world participated in my #MyFreedomDay to celebrate freedom and raise awareness about modern-day slavery.

At the Bangalore International School in India, students in the third and fourth grades talked about what freedom means to them.

At the Saint Mary of the Hills school in Argentina, students composed a song about freedom.

At the International School of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, students signed a petition urging governments to take action to help stop modern-day slavery and human rights abuses.

If there’s something we can learn from these concerned students, it’s their care and their desire to raise awareness and take action into bringing about a world of safety and freedom. Though young, they remind us of the innate goodness of humanity, thereby planting the seeds of hope for a better future and inspiring us adults to take action.

When it comes to human trafficking, people sometimes tend to feel detached from the issue. Since – according to their misconceptions – it’s not happening in their backyards, they feel that there isn’t anything they can do about it. That, of course, is not quite true. In fact, since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has reported 40,200 cases of human trafficking – the majority of which are sex trafficking cases – in the United States. Here in Richmond, Virginia, we are ranked the ninth highest in the country for the most reported cases per capita of human trafficking, according to a report published in 2017 by the National Human Trafficking Hotline. And it’s not just about where it occurs or how close it is to us or how much at risk we personally are; it’s about how we can unknowingly be complicit in a system that upholds human trafficking.

For example, when it comes to commercial sexual exploitation of children, it’s important to recognize how we end up contributing to the problem in our daily lives and what steps we can take to dismantle our own harmful contributions. The solution starts with self-awareness—recognizing our own biases, our own flaws, and where we need to improve on ourselves.

CSEC

This diagram shows how various behaviors and other forms of oppression can ultimately lead Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). Life of Freedom Center: https://www.lofcenter.org

Another way to reduce our indirect, but harmful, impact on this issue is by being conscious consumers who are mindful of what brands or companies we are supporting. According to the United States Department of Labor, there are over 370 line items believed to have been produced by child labor or forced labor. In fact, popular clothing companies such as Adidas, Gap, and H&M were believed to have ties to slave labor, according to an article published in Salon. Sadly, this applies to a long list of companies, ranging from Walmart to Victoria’s Secret to Starbucks – who, through prison slavery, exploit people’s labor for profit just like human trafficking does – to Nestle. The same goes for sex trafficking, as well, which has an estimated 4.5 million victims worldwide. For example, are we conscious of whether we visit and support strip clubs where workers are forced to provide commercial sex to customers? Are we researching to make sure we’re not supporting illicit massage businesses that force human trafficking victims to engage in commercial sex?

As citizens of the world, it is our responsibility to be mindful of which practices and which industries our time and money are supporting and ask ourselves if we are – albeit unintentionally – complicit in contributing to modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

Whether it’s through using methods such as boycotting and buycotting to become more deliberate consumers or by doing our part to raise awareness about human trafficking (like the active students who participated in #MyFreedomDay), there are always ways we can help – if even in the tiniest bit – to end human trafficking. One of the most powerful methods to go about enacting change is by addressing the root of the problem.

Like all forms of oppression, human trafficking is intersectional. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there are various recurring vulnerabilities among victims of trafficking, especially sex trafficking. For example, immigration status is a recurring vulnerability; strip club networks often target victims of particular cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Those in vulnerable financial situations, such as individuals who have debt or family debts, are often targets for sex trafficking as well.

This pattern is not unique to the United States, of course; the same goes for those targeted for sex trafficking all around the world. In Italy, migrants from Nigeria who come in pursuit of educational and economic equality are highly at risk for sex trafficking. Even in Canada, the indigenous population makes up just 4% of the nation, yet 50% of those trafficked for sex due to a legacy of poverty and racism. However, by empowering individuals from marginalized communities, supporting immigrant and indigenous people’s rights, and continuing to stand up for racial justice, as well as economic justice, we can help prevent more people from falling into human trafficking.

Lastly, it is important to ensure that there are always safe havens for survivors of trafficking and for those who come from marginalized populations at a risk to be trafficked. It’s not just about providing physical places of refuge, but about creating a society that is, at large, a place of security and freedom. It’s about all of us becoming safe havens ourselves, about becoming individuals who use our own privileges and power to bring about a safer and more just world.

Which practices have your time and money supported this week? What have you done today to empower other individuals? And what will you do tomorrow to embody a safe haven within yourself?

Featured image: CNN: https://www.cnn.com/specials/world/myfreedomday


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.