Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.
This summer I had the exciting opportunity to come together with staff and advocates from over 80 organizations working to end gender-based violence and support survivors to create the Survivors’ Agenda. The Survivors’ Agenda is an organizing tool to drive and inform policy change that supports survivors of gender-based violence. It combines policy reforms meant to meet the immediate needs of survivors with transformative policy recommendations that address the underlying structural oppression that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—condones and perpetuates interpersonal abuse. The Agenda was revealed in a three-day virtual Survivors’ Summit that acted as both a national convening of survivors and a call to action in this moment.
According to the CDC, “more than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to the the CDC, “more than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” This year’s public health response to COVID-19 has led to increased isolation and stress, contributing to higher rates and new tactics of this interpersonal violence. Domestic violence is a “pattern of coercive, controlling behavior that can include physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or financial abuse.” Other definitions include cultural abuse—using a partner’s culture or identity as a way to put them down, isolate them, and decrease their personal agency. This is one form of gender-based violence, or violence that impacts people based on the ways that they perform their gender as well as society’s cultural norms around gender. Gender-based violence not only encapsulates the specific forms of violent acts one might experience but also situates that violence within a cultural context of the subordination of women and girls.
Solutions to address interpersonal violence need to go further than crisis intervention, risk management, and punitive accountability in order to address the root causes of inequality, dehumanization, and structural violence.
Typically, domestic violence is conceptualized as an interpersonal form of gender-based violence in which one person uses a multitude of tactics to gain and maintain power and control over their partner(s). However, some advocates, often those working with multiply marginalized survivors, argue that domestic violence, and gender-based violence more broadly, is actually symptomatic of a culture steeped in violence. Tactics of interpersonal abuse—gaslighting, name-calling, even physical violence like strangulation—are reflections of tactics of structural oppression that are used by people in power to keep oppressed groups oppressed. Solutions to address interpersonal violence need to go further than crisis intervention, risk management, and punitive accountability in order to address the root causes of inequality, dehumanization, and structural violence.
Whether conceptualized as interpersonal abuse or a reflection of structural oppression, gender-based violence is an experience of trauma. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
More than fifty percent of women who experience intimate partner violence experience symptoms of PTSD. Trauma affects our physiological bodies in measurable ways, right down to the way we cognitively process the world and the people around us. Additionally, traumatic violence can leave survivors hesitant to trust others, slow to build or maintain relationships, and isolated from communities of support.
According to Judith Herman, “The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of survivors and the creation of new connections.”
According to Judith Herman, “The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of survivors and the creation of new connections.” In my research as a PhD student at Heller, I plan to examine this statement and to extend it one step further. I conceptualize an effective response to trauma as one that combines reconnection with the physical body, reconnection with community, and empowered resistance to the dynamics that breed violence in the first place. I plan to examine how there is potential for individual healing and communal change when survivors engage in embodied, collective resistance.
The Survivors’ Agenda, with its comprehensive platform of policy recommendations, is truly an example of how solutions can be imagined when gender-based violence is conceptualized more as a reflection of structural oppression than as a discrete interpersonal dynamic. Calling for a comprehensive policy platform, the Survivors’ Agenda lays out both reformative and transformational policies in community safety, education, healing justice, health care, housing and transportation, workplace safety and workers’ rights, and culture and narrative shifts. The Agenda focuses specifically on the ways that the intersectional identities of survivors (e.g., gender, race, class, immigration status, age, etc.) lead to unequal experiences of violence and access to resources and recourse in its aftermath. The process of developing the platform was an exercise of collaboration, holistically incorporating a full-body approach—accomplished through collective grounding, breathing, and trauma-sensitive yoga—and ultimately calling for policies that resist a culture that tacitly supports gender-based violence.
Trauma impacts all of us. Not only do we all live steeped in a culture of violence, but in this moment in the final months of 2020, trauma is all around us. The series of events that have unfolded in the United States’ response to COVID-19, the awakening of much of the country to the physical violence exercised by police on the bodies of black and brown people, and the political implications surrounding the impending election constitute circumstances that are physically and/or emotionally harmful—and, in some cases, life-threatening. Our way of life and our mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-beings are, at least, on shaky ground. The lessons learned from advocates engaged in the Survivors’ Agenda can translate to all of our lives. We need to see the violence and trauma that we are experiencing in our individual lives as connected to structural power and oppression.
So, what can we do about it? We can be civically and politically engaged, holding the needs of survivors and our own trauma at the forefront of our minds. We can hold space both for reform and transformative policies. We can think of policy interventions in holistic, comprehensive ways that include the unique needs of survivors. We can find strength and healing in our connections with the people in our lives. We can intentionally inhabit our bodies, thinking about bodies as integral parts of ourselves, not just liabilities that we need to guard against infection. We can use our own agency to impact the ways our government and our communities are run. We can vote. We can take to the streets. We can connect meaningfully with others who can do the same. In this moment of national trauma, as we near the end of 2020, and in Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we are not helpless. We must act with urgency.
 Often used interchangeably with “intimate partner violence” or “partner abuse.”
 Rutherford, A., Zwi, A. B., Grove, N. J., & Butchart, A. (2007). GLOSSARY: Violence: a glossary. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (1979-), 61(8), 676–680.
 SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative. (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. Retrieved from https://ncsacw.samhsa.gov/userfiles/files/SAMHSA_Trauma.pdf, p. 7.
 van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
 Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. Basic Books; Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. North Atlantic Books.
 Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. p. 133. Basic Books.