Section: Opinion

More than just physical violence

Limited conversation on dating abuse excludes the various emotional and psychological aspects

If you ask most people what they think of when they hear the term “dating violence,” chances are you’ll hear lots of pitying descriptions of battered women, etched with black and blue bruises, bearing swollen lips and broken noses as battle scars.

Well-intended dialogue about intimate partner violence — including discussions prevalent throughout Take Back The Night and other all-campus awareness events — often perpetuates this characterization of abuse as primarily physical.

There is perpetual emphasis on the feelings of physical violation and the lack of safety survivors often experience in the aftermath of romantic and sexual abuse. 

As a survivor of dating violence, I greatly appreciate the campus-wide attention  that this issue is receiving. Yet I think we need to broaden the scope of our understanding.

Our focus on the physical components of dating violence, while completely merited and legitimate, often occurs at the exclusion of discourse on the psychological violations rampant within abusive relationships.

During this year’s Take Back The Night event, multiple survivors bravely shared their experiences with physical partner violence, eliciting empathetic and thought-provoking discussion.

Still others told stories of emotional abuse, sharing the cruel words spewed by unrelenting perpetrators. However, I noticed something that struck me as unusual, and ultimately silenced me up until this point.

Posters advertising the event, strewn about campus, made ample mentions of physical and sexual violence, as well as offerings of self defense tips and classes. Rarely, if ever, did references to emotional abuse appear, despite its integral part in the cycle of dating violence.

As the week progressed, I noticed that the majority of my fellow emotional violence survivors had not actively attended the Take Back The Night events. 

When I asked them why, I got essentially the same answer every time — something along the lines of, “I haven’t experienced dating violence; my partner only emotionally abused me.” 

This answer startled me into awareness, and I hope it does the same for you.

Though well-intended, our limited conversations about intimate partner violence are excluding sectors of survivors from the dialogue. What’s worse, this exclusion sends them the message that their experiences aren’t as valid or important as those of physical violence survivors.

There’s a reason why my friends didn’t share their stories, and there’s a reason why, when telling mine, I prioritize the physical violence I endured, despite its paling in comparison to the effects of the emotional abuse that I still feel today. The reason is a fear of disregard, the kind felt every time campus dialogue prioritizes bodily over emotional pain. 

I know, of course, that my experience is not universal, and that plenty of survivors feel most scarred by the physical components of relationship abuse. I also know and appreciate the effort fellow activists put into engaging the campus in discourse over relationship abuse issues.

Still, I ask of you, the student body and faculty, to start paving the way for all survivors to speak out, and to work to erase the notion of a normative physical abuse narrative that dominates our dialogue.   

Hayley Yussman ’18 is an English and political science major from River Forest, Ill. Contact her at yussmanh@kenyon.edu.

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