April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
In the United States, 10 million men and women experience domestic violence each year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That includes physical and sexual abuse.
Jennifer Guthrie is an assistant professor of communication studies at UNLV. She's studied domestic violence and sexual assault, the stories of survivors, and how public conversation around this issue is changing.
Guthrie said during the 1970s things changed and more people were willing to talk about domestic violence and tell their stories. Before that, it was treated as something that was supposed to be kept in a family.
“Even though we’ve made a lot of progress, there is still a lot of work to do, in terms of having the public understand what domestic violence is and how harmful it can be,” she said.
While most people understand extreme violence needs to be stopped, some people, including those in abusive relationships, don't realize emotional abuse can be just as destructive.
"A lot of survivors I interviewed and worked with at the shelter discussed how emotional abuse can be tremendously harmful," Gutherie said, "Some survivors who suffered intense control, psychological abuse, their partners played mind games with them, belittled them, chipped away at their self-esteem didn't even count their experiences as domestic violence, because they thought it is not as bad as physical violence."
Besides realizing that domestic abuse can include emotional abuse, many people don't realize sexual assault can be part of a whole system of behaviors that abusers use to control someone, Gutherie said.
“More often than not, folks are sexually assaulted by someone that they know,” she said.
She said when working with survivors it is important to listen to their stories to understand those patterns of abuse.
Gutherie said one of the biggest questions people have about people in abusive situations is: why doesn't she or he leave?
“Why don’t they just leave. There are tons of reasons that survivors don’t leave,” she said.
Many people in abusive situations have been cut off - by their abuser - from people who could help. They often don't have resources to leave and for many children are involved in the situation. There is also a feeling of shame. Gutherie said survivors tell her they feel "stuck." Some people in abusive relationships feel like their abuser might change, but Gutherie asks, “Do you want to be the one who finds out?”
She said those who work with people in abusive relationships really have one goal.
“The ultimate goal is to help survivors find safety, health, and wellness,” Gutherie said.
Jennifer Guthrie, assistant professor of communication studies, UNLV
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