Category Archives: Intimate Partner Violence

A Picture says a Thousand Words: sending the right message about the realities of abuse through our images

By Becky Owens Bullard

The power of an image is immeasurable, especially when it comes to promoting awareness of an issue that people don’t exactly understand.  When we want every day citizens to engage in an issue they’d rather pretend doesn’t exist, we try to pique their interest by providing a photograph or video that they can associate with the issue – an image that will be burnt in their memory and make the issue real for them. Often times, these images that we use in awareness campaigns and community education on issues of abuse are our best chance of catching someone’s attention long enough to raise awareness and promote positive social change. Unfortunately, to inform our already media-saturated public we often resort to flashy visuals that do very little to accurately portray the crimes we hope to stop.

Image found at

Example: human trafficking.  Try looking up “human trafficking” on an image search and you may see what I mean about exaggerated or inaccurate portrayals of abuse. While there are some clever images (for example,  humans with price tags representing the idea that people are still bought and sold), the photos most commonly associated with human trafficking are of people shackled or locked in a cage. Now think about the movies you’ve seen or the books that you’ve read on human trafficking.  Most have likely contained a story line about someone who was kidnapped by a large criminal operation, thrown into a brothel and “rescued” by someone from their trafficking situation. I can’t tell you how many times I spoke with individuals when I worked on the national human trafficking hotline who were outraged about human trafficking because they had just seen this type of over-the-top image or video on human trafficking.

While these images and media portrayals of human trafficking are fairly compelling and may serve to spark interest or outrage in the issue, they are also misleading. A human trafficking case where an individual is physically chained or caged is not the norm. In fact, the “chains” that keep a victim tied to a trafficker are often the things that you can’t see – fear, shame, hope and love.

So how harmful are images that portray human trafficking victims as shackled, caged and battered? While some may argue that they are just an innocuous way to grab someone’s attention, these images often promote misconceptions about the issue and make it difficult for victims and survivors to speak out about what happened to them. For example, if someone’s understanding of human trafficking is limited to images of slavery, chains and rescue missions and they sit on a jury for a human trafficking case where they hear testimony from a victim who had a cell phone or was able to go to the store alone, that person would likely think, “this isn’t human trafficking.”

And they would be wrong. Cycles of violence and various non-physical forms of abuse are extremely common in both sex and labor trafficking. The failure to clearly communicate these dynamics is damaging to the issue as a whole and is what led me to create the human trafficking power and control wheel while I worked at the national hotline to detail forms of abuse beyond physical violence that occur in trafficking situations.

Image from Identity Magazine

Example: domestic violence. Now try an image search for “domestic violence.” You will likely see images of women and children bruised and battered, being choked, silenced and slapped. Think of the movies or music videos you’ve seen about domestic violence – they are often aggressive and extremely volatile. While we’ve started to get more creative with domestic violence images and encourage people to see beyond the physical forms of abuse (see this portrayal of verbal abuse), it is still all too common that a black eye is what is associated with abuse instead of the manipulation, isolation and emotional abuse that survivors often say are the most damaging. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “it’s not like he punched me square in the face” when I worked as a domestic violence victim advocate in court. The pervasive images of fist punching and serious bodily injury is what the general public, as well as victims themselves, associate with intimate partner and familial abuse.

So how harmful are images of domestic violence centered on black eyes and bruises? Just like with human trafficking, the flashy image of physical injury may seem completely harmless and a way to get a non-interested citizen to agree that domestic violence is a bad thing. But think of that person that is now sitting on the jury for a domestic violence case. When they hear that the defendant threatened the victim and restrained her from leaving the house, but there were no visible injuries, they just might think, “doesn’t sound like domestic violence to me.”  Again, they would be very wrong.

These narrow images paint an incomplete picture of abuse, resulting in unintentional victim blaming. Understandably, the general public may have a hard time reconciling the reality of abuse with the images that they are familiar with and wonder “why didn’t s/he leave if they weren’t chained up?” or “is it really domestic violence when s/he didn’t get hit?”

What’s worse, these images may also persuade victims to minimize their own suffering and think, “I am not a victim because I wasn’t locked away” or “I can’t be a victim because I didn’t get punched in the face.”

While the anti-violence movement has to find thoughtful ways to educate the general public about crimes that affect millions of people each day, it is important to do it the right way. Even though it is necessary to be catchy and inventive to engage individuals who would rather not hear about the prevalence of violence, resorting to exaggerated or inaccurate images that perpetuate misconceptions does nothing but harm victims and survivors while miseducating those who can help us end violence.

So let’s be true to what we know about abuse in the images we use for our education and awareness efforts – that it isn’t all big black eyes and someone chained to a wall. Abuse is complex, psychologically manipulative and incredibly difficult to end without an accurate understanding of its dynamics. It’s time for the anti-violence movement to rise above the desire to be provocative and instead, refocus on our passion of empowering others to end violence by providing images that truly reflect the crimes we seek to eliminate.



Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Human Trafficking, Intimate Partner Violence, Labor Trafficking, Pop Culture, Sex Trafficking, Violence Against Women

Mr. Wrong or Mr. Abuser?

By Erin Meyer

from “Mr. Wrong ft. Drake” – Mary J. Blige

Let me start by saying that Mary J. Blige is one of the most empowering female hip-hop artists of the past two decades and her songs have seen me through many a relationship; the times to celebrate and the times to re-evaluate my choices.

Mr. Wrong” is a song that speaks to all of us.  We have all been there; been in that relationship where you know you aren’t getting what you need, but you still feel that desire, feel that commitment and want to be with him regardless of the cost to yourself.  So if we can all understand this feeling, this draw to the painful, why can’t we understand the cyclical nature of abusive relationships?

What is it about that relationship that makes us say “she should have left…she should have known better”? Is it the physical violence?  Is it that point where we all say to ourselves “if anyone hit me, I would leave him no matter what!”

But most domestic violence relationships don’t start with physical abuse; they start with the emotional.  The emotional abuse leaves just as much of a scar and trains the heart to be more and more vulnerable to the physical abuse as the abuser escalates.  So how do you know when it goes from just the sort-of emotionally abusive of “Mr. Wrong” to the gateway abusive and cyclically escalating abuse of intimate partner violence?

Is it when we convince ourselves that “even though he breaks my heart so bad…we got a special thing going on”. Is that when we tell ourselves that if it gets worse, we’ll be able to leave? That this consuming feeling we have now that “even if I try, no, I never could, give him up cause his loves like that”, will change?

Then it does…

…It is just a bit worse this time; no big deal.  He didn’t mean to hurt my feelings when he called me names and then he took me out to a nice dinner on Saturday night, so he must have felt bad about it and won’t do it again.

…He just broke the window this time.  It wasn’t on purpose.  I just made him so mad because I wanted to visit my family this weekend and he loves me so much, he needs me to be with him.

Drake summed it up perfectly, it’s “a terrible pattern…it goes up and down, it’s just up and down; she’s crying now but she’ll laugh again..” Something the victim convinces herself to be true and a belief that the abuser relies and thrives on.

So if abusive relationships start off so ‘innocent’, how do we know when to get out?

As, on average, an intimate partner violence survivor attempts to leave her situation 7 times before successfully doing so, it is vital that we educate ourselves as a community and understand victims’ mindsets. We must do this so that we can not only recognize the signs and increase prevention, but so that we can also be that support, that strength, for our loved ones when they are ready to explore their options.

Throughout the escalating cycle, abusers have been using isolation and manipulation to make their victims believe that no one will understand what they are going through, and that no one will love them as much as he does.  When a victim tells us her story and we respond with “Well, what are you thinking? Leave that man! How could you stay with him?”, we are proving the abuser right.  We are showing that victim that we don’t understand, we don’t support her, and even worse, that we are judging her and she is alone in this.

Instead we can utilize safety planning resources to help empower survivors to leave their relationships and re-build their lives.  We can direct them to resources, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, for personalized safety planning, local resources, and emergency assistance.

We must understand the mindset of victims and understand that being caught up in these relationships is not so foreign as we might wish to believe.

We must remember, it is not so different from loving a “Mr. Wrong”, and we need support from our communities to be ready to move on.  In the words of Mary J, we’ve done “enough cryin and don’t need no more drama in our lives“.


Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Intimate Partner Violence, Pop Culture, Violence Against Women

Why “it’s just Domestic Violence” is a Dangerous Phrase

By Becky Owens Bullard

This week, a co-worker of mine sent me a fairly upsetting article about the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007.  While you may be thinking that the upsetting part of the article must have been details of the gruesome mass atrocity itself, it was actually something more subtle. It was the fact that after all these years, people still have dangerously little knowledge of the very real, very serious threat posed by domestic violence.


So how does this lack of knowledge about domestic violence relate to the Virginia Tech shootings?  During a wrongful death suit brought by the families of students gunned down by Seung-Hui Cho, law enforcement testified that they believed the initial incident where two students were killed in their dorm room was domestic in nature and therefore, targeted and contained. Defense witnesses explained that because they determined the dorm shooting a domestic incident, there was no reason to believe that a deranged gunman would subsequently unleash mass violence on innocent bystanders.

Of course, their assessment was incredibly costly as Cho went into a classroom just hours later, shooting and killing 30 students and ultimately himself.  Not only was this assessment factually incorrect as no connection between Cho and the initial victims was ever made, it was also fundamentally false in their assumption that a “domestic incident” is always isolated, targeted and somehow a non-threat to the rest of society.

So here’s the problem with the “it was just domestic violence” mentality:  batterers can be incredibly lethal and a very real threat to the entire community.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to perceive intimate partner abuse as isolated and abusers as individuals with “anger issues” as opposed to individuals who create a complex cycle of violence using power and control.  But of all the criminals to minimize the potential danger they could pose to society, batterers who would kill their partners or family members should not be considered a low-risk group.  To the contrary, their manipulative, often calculated, and frequently lethal behavior should be considered among the most dangerous of criminals to the victims they target as well as the community they inhabit.

When I was Chair of the Nashville Coalition Against Domestic Violence, we hosted a training where nationally renowned speaker Mark Wynn presented on the lethality of batterers to a room of detectives, attorneys and service providers. The room got very quiet when he showed a video of a batterer who opened fire at a court house after a domestic violence hearing, shooting at his wife, police officers, and anyone that was around. We all worked at the court house on domestic violence cases and the individuals this man had gunned down could have been any one of us. This was an important reminder of the danger that an abuser poses not only to the victims and witnesses we worked with, but also to each of us.

So, as I read the article on the Virginia Tech case, I couldn’t help thinking how frustrating it is that we as a society still struggle to acknowledge the dangerous and serious nature of domestic violence. Even to the extent that a  gunman on a college campus can be downplayed because it is probably “just a domestic incident.”

Then, I saw the great contradiction – below the Virginia Tech article was a news reel of additional breaking stories and wouldn’t you know, there was an article on a shooting at a court house.  The gunman, who was on trial for sexual assault in which both his ex-wife and daughter were testifying against him, opened fire killing one bystander, wounding several others and even taking hostages (neither of which were his ex-wife or daughter).

While we have made great strides in domestic violence awareness and education, this glaring inconsistency with the news story above where a conclusion was made that a domestic shooting poses no greater threat of mass violence to the larger community, was yet another reminder for me of how far we still have to go.

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Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Intimate Partner Violence, Violence Against Women

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

By Becky Owens Bullard

While getting into the holiday spirit this year, I have been listening to some classic Christmas tunes on my Bing Crosby Pandora radio station, humming along and doing the usual gift-wrapping or card-writing tasks of the holidays. But amid all of this holiday cheer, the radio station kept playing a song that, no matter what version, made me uncomfortable. What song about the holidays could make me feel kind of ill to my stomach or tempt me to give the infamous “thumbs down” on Pandora?  Well, some may have guessed it and others may be surprised, it’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Image Source: Starbucks CD

Now, please don’t label me a grinch just yet and give me a chance to elaborate before shrugging me off as a classic “Debbie-downer” trying to ruin a perfectly good holiday song. Believe me, I would prefer never to mix the holidays with gender inequality or violence against women, but this song isn’t your usual “Frosty the Snowman” innocent and cheerful tune.

It was a few years ago when someone first brought the lyrics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to my attention as “creepy” and I thought they must be mistaken about this cute and quirky tune that had most recently been in the holiday film “Elf” with Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell (granted, they sing the tune while Deschanel’s character is showering without knowledge that Ferrell’s character is in the bathroom with her singing along – but he is an elf that doesn’t know any better! Right?).  So I decided to read the lyrics and when I did, I felt confused as to how this song was a holiday classic.

While the tune seems sweet and harmless, the lyrics communicate something else. Apparently, the song’s two parts were originally written as a “mouse” and a “wolf”, with the male part obviously having the intention of devouring the female in some shape or form. This is apparent from the lyrics and may seem innocuous until you pull out some phrases.

For example, at one point the female part asks the male, “say, what’s in this drink?” giving the image of a spiked drink and some type of dishonesty about what is in it. Then, after much wavering, the female part states explicitly “the answer is no” and even asks the male to “lend [her] a coat.”  However, the male part appears to ignore her inquietude completely, slyly responding with gems such as “how can you do this thing to me?” and “what’s the sense in hurting my pride?” to get her to stay. Throughout the song he characterizes her leaving as harming him and even at one point guilts her by stating, “think of my lifelong sorrow if you got pneumonia and died” – right, but you won’t give the girl your coat?

So maybe not the type of classic tune you would want to play at family time during the holidays, right?  But with 1 in 3 adolescents experiencing dating violence, 2/3 of rapes perpetrated by someone known to the victim and 1 in 4 women abused in their lifetimes, this song communicates a deeper form of predatory male on female dating violence that I would just as soon be completely absent from holiday celebrations.  And with the female as the “mouse” or the prey of an obviously devious male “wolf” character bent on getting what he wants from her in this song, I do not feel warm fuzzies or holiday cheer – I feel, well, creeped out.

Nonetheless, in the end the song resolves with both male and female (wolf and mouse) agreeing that it really is cold outside and one can only imagine, the wolf has caught its prey. While the resolution appears fairly consensual, is this really how we should continue to characterize dating and intimate partner relationships? As some game of cat and mouse (read: predator and prey) that give cause for men to get what they want (no matter how they get it) after wearing women down from their original resolve?  Or maybe when the female part says “the answer is no” that should be the end of the night, with the man respectfully stating “I’ll lend you my coat.”

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Filed under Intimate Partner Violence, Pop Culture