Over the past few months, many educational institutions have finally recognized the need for genuine efforts to curb sexual assault. In the aftermath of a series of high profile sexual assault cases, including our very own #standwithleah campaign, administrators began taking notice of the injustices faced by victims and survivors of sexual assault. Unfortunately, however, this upswing of sexual assault reform has not been matched by similar efforts to improve justice for victims/survivors of relationship abuse and intimate partner violence. Despite the fact that relationship abuse is perpetrated at a similar rate to that of sexual assault, our practices — especially at Stanford — reflect a deep disparity in the attention given to these two issues.
Relationship abuse constitutes a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a former or current intimate partner. Relationship abuse can take many forms but is primarily emotional, financial, sexual and/or physical.
Stanford’s Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse (SARA) office was created with the intent to serve victims and survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse at equal rates. Unfortunately, since SARA’s establishment, the latter of its purposes has been placed on the back burner. A quick examination of the “Not Alone” portion of SARA’s website makes this disparity exceeding clear. Stunningly, while the words “sexual assault” cover the page, appearing a total of 16 times, relationship abuse is mentioned a mere 3 times. Similarly, the title of SARA’s primary hotline for victims, Stanford Confidential Sexual Assault Counselors, excludes relationship abuse, presenting the service as a resource exclusively for victims of sexual assault. Small rhetorical inconsistencies such as these are not trivial, as they can send a strong message of exclusivity to the student body. Furthermore, apart from the underwhelming amount of information provided on the topic during NSO, the intricacies of and protocol for addressing relationship abuse are largely neglected in campus programming.
Recently, in light of the numerous publicized injustices in the world of sexual assault, the disproportionate focus on the crime has been magnified. Problematically, the newly established Task Force on Sexual Assault fails to even include relationship abuse in its title, and ensuing town hall meetings have all focused exclusively on sexual assault. While the omission of relationship abuse can be partially attributed to the lack of publicity and protest surrounding the issue, this certainly does not excuse its neglect.
In fact, the exclusion of relationship abuse from recent reform demonstrates the minimalistic commitment our administration has to preventing violence against women. Students’ demands for meetings, discussions, and panels on sexual assault have provided the university with a prime opportunity to spread awareness not just about rape, but also about stalking, relationship abuse and intimate partner violence. Instead of doing so, however, our administration has prioritized the short-term appeasement of outraged students over the necessity of reform.
Often, intimate partner violence is mislabeled as an issue that affects men and women at equal rates. While there are numerous male victims of intimate partner violence, and we should not minimize their experiences, it is important to recognize that over 95% of such abuse is perpetrated by male partners against female victims, making the action truly gender-based violence. Thus in order to affirm its commitment to women’s safety, it is imperative that our administration works to minimize relationship abuse’s presence on campus.
Furthermore, recent statistics show that upwards of 29% of college women have been in an abusive relationship. Despite the alarmingly high frequency of relationship abuse, most students do not know the proper avenue for obtaining safety and justice when confronted with this issue. In fact, 58% of college students reported not knowing what to do if their friend were in an abusive relationship and 38% reported not knowing what to do if they themselves were in an abusive relationship. This should come as no surprise when even places — such as Stanford — that pride themselves on victim and survivor services so infrequently discuss relationship abuse.
We should not take the neglect of relationship abuse in campus programming lightly. In the United States, more than 3 women die each day at the hands of abusive partners. As with sexual assault, survivors of relationship abuse and intimate partner violence are subject to harsh victim-blaming attitudes, attitudes that can only be curbed through education. Due to the highly nuanced nature of relationship abuse, it is crucial that sexual assault and relationship abuse be addressed in unison. The grim reality is that victims who report relationship abuse often face significant danger of possible violent retaliation by their partners. Thus, policies that are developed to address any type of violence against women need to consider the safety of survivors of relationship abuse. Failing to prioritize safety planning, for example, can easily turn well-intentioned policies into ones that could harm victims of relationship abuse. As a whole, victims of sexual assault and relationship abuse require many of the same institutional protections, leaving no logical reason for the two to be separated.
We as students can and should expect our administration to play a proactive role in addressing violence against women, rather than waiting to institute change until after public anger surfaces. Thus, I urge SARA to live up to its name and to not treat relationship abuse as an aside, casually slapped on to the end of an acronym, but to rather address it with the severity that its victims and survivors deserve.
Contact Elena Marchetti-Bowick at elenamb ‘at’ stanford.edu