According to the World Health Organization, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) “refers to behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm.” It poses a threat to 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 10 men, in the United States. The ACLU reports that Puerto Rico has the highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 killed by their partners. To raise awareness about this issue, YSL Beauty and It’s On Us have partnered up to create the Abuse Is Not Love campaign. Through their program, they strive to educate college students about abusive relationships and offer support and resources for survivors. Tracey Vitchers, Executive Director of It’s On Us, took the time to answer some important questions about IPV and what we can all do to help combat this public health problem.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Andrea Mendez: I want to start off by saying how I really admire the work that YSL Beauty and It’s On Us are doing to reduce Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). I want to ask how you’re working to reduce this phenomenon on college campuses.
Tracey Vitchers: It’s On Us and YSL Beauty have been partnering for two years now to develop and begin the distribution of a free-to-use set of programs on college and university campuses. The first program is focused on IPV awareness and the second is on IPV prevention. The programs are built for college students to be trained by the It’s On Us team so they, in turn, train their peers on their own college campus about these issues. We’re so excited to partner with YSL Beauty on these programs, specifically because what we have found at It’s On Us is that IPV is often one of the topics that’s left out of traditional prevention education programming. In many cases, colleges and universities are teaching students about “stranger danger” sexual assault prevention when we know that 85% of survivors know their assailant.
AM: I totally agree. I’ve heard “stranger danger” all too often because I feel that we’re typically told to be careful about who we interact with, but not who we’re in a relationship with. What methods do you employ to spread awareness and focus on prevention?
TV: It’s On Us has a peer-to-peer education model. We’ve created two education modules that students can download from our website on IPV awareness and prevention. The programs come with collateral materials that they can use for training, tabling, postering, and other awareness events around campus. We have also partnered with YSL to develop a new Healthy Relationships card game that asks questions about what healthy relationships look like and the warning signs that somebody you know might be in an IPV situation. This helps folks identify what YSL and It’s On Us call “the 9 signs of IPV.” We also do a lot of promotion of the “Abuse Is Not Love” video with the nine signs throughout our social media platforms and our email list.
AM: On that note, I feel that a lot of people don’t know the nine signs in abusive relationships that you mentioned. Could you expand on that?
TV: In working with YSL, we’ve identified nine signs that can demonstrate if you’re in an unhealthy relationship that could lead to IPV. For example, one of them is technology abuse: this is when your partner is constantly wanting you to share your location with them so they can track and monitor where you are. That’s one of the big ones that we see a lot of young people in college campuses struggling with.
Criticizing the way that you look is another one that we see really prevalent, like when one partner is telling the other that they look ugly, that they don’t like what they’re wearing, or that their dress looks slutty. It’s control—it’s about controlling that person’s behavior. Isolation is another big one: this involves isolating someone from their friends and family. We were recently having a conversation about some of the signs of unhealthy relationships, and somebody I know described it as like being in a snow globe; you’re in this environment that’s highly controlled, and this person’s keeping you in their snow globe and in their storm of behavior. You can’t see through it, and you can’t get out of it. You’re so used to being in that highly controlled environment that it just becomes normal.
AM: That’s such a good metaphor! I never thought of it that way. It’s an easy way to be able to talk to other people about it, especially when the idea sometimes seems too abstract for people to understand.
TV: We hear a lot in conversations about IPV about gaslighting. Sometimes it’s hard for folks to really understand what gaslighting is. It’s when you try to detach somebody from their own sense of reality and bring them into yours in a way that’s manipulative. That’s why I like the snow globe metaphor. I think it’s a good metaphor for gaslighting in many ways.
AM: Definitely, and I think there’s now a lot of conversation about gaslighting. I’ve seen a lot of it on social media.
TV: There’s a lot!
AM: It’s very helpful for you to spread awareness about that because, now more than ever, people are able to identify it in their relationships. So, since these sound like such terrible behaviors, and anyone who’s the victim of IPV is obviously suffering from their relationship, some people wonder why sometimes survivors go back to their offenders.
TV: One of the things that happens quite a bit with IPV is that sense of isolation—that’s when the abuser isolates their partner from friends and family to the point that they don’t know who they can reach out to. In many cases, they’ve lost contact with their support network, or they’ve harmed that support network because the relationship with their partner is abusive.It’s really important to know what the signs are to recognize that what this person’s experiencing is not their fault. It’s often easy for folks who are not in that situation to rush to blame or judge the person who’s experiencing IPV; they might take it personally when, say, the friend stops hanging out with them. But they don’t realize that it’s because their partner is being abusive and manipulative. This can make it difficult for folks who are experiencing IPV to feel like they can reach out; they probably haven’t had contact with someone for a while, or when they reach out to someone, that person might reject them because they felt harmed, not knowing that that person’s behavior was a result of them being in an IPV situation.
That’s why I think it’s so important that YSL has worked with us and other partners across the globe to create the Abuse Is Not Love campaign. It’s helping to educate the community broadly about what IPV is and what the signs are to help other folks recognize that their sister, or even their friend, could be in that situation. In many cases the reason why the person goes back is because they reach out for help or support and they don’t receive it, and they’re blamed. It’s so important for folks to know how to respond in a caring and compassionate manner when somebody in an IPV situation reaches out.
AM: Definitely. I feel that these circumstances usually create a narrative where the survivors are typically blamed for staying in these relationships or going back to them. How do you suggest we begin to change this narrative?
TV: It’s really important to realize that this can happen to anybody. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is: anybody can be affected by IPV. When we start thinking about it as something that anyone can experience, I think it helps to create empathy and compassion. Programs like It’s On Us and YSL’s Abuse Is Not Love campaign help to create that understanding that will hopefully lead to compassion and that culture change. So, when they think about somebody who could be experiencing IPV, they realize that that person’s a person, and they matter, and their experience matters. In many cases it’s easy say “He hit her, so I understand why she would leave,” but then they say “He was being emotionally abusive to her. That isn’t that big of a deal. He didn’t hit her.” It shouldn’t have to have physical violence for somebody to take that harm seriously.
I think there also haven’t been enough conversations about how people who perpetrate IPV are more likely to perpetrate other kinds of violence. If you look at mass shootings in the US over the last 15-20 years, the majority of perpetrators of mass shootings have a history of intimate partner or domestic violence. Oftentimes it’s the women in their lives who try to come forward, and they’re not believed time and again, and the violence escalates. We need to be believing women and creating structures of belief for them.
AM: Since survivors are often turned away and denied proper assistance when they go to police for help, where else can they find the aid and support that they need?
TV: In college communities, schools have Title IX offices that are responsible for supporting and taking in reports of IPV and other kinds of sexual and domestic violence. There’s also health centers and confidential therapy services that students can reach out to for support. In many cases there are also peer-to-peer survivor support groups that exist on campuses. You can usually find them on the schools’ website, through the health center or the Title IX office.
For folks who are not at school, local domestic violence agencies can be really helpful. I think they’re often mischaracterized as only helping women who are older in a situation with an abusive spouse. Domestic violence agencies and shelters provide a range of holistic support services that help anyone from a child who’s experiencing sex abuse to an elderly person who’s experiencing violence. It’s really critical that folks know that their local agency can support them either through healing circles, protective orders, or just helping them get out of that living situation.
AM: I don’t think a lot of people know about these programs. It can be difficult—at least in Puerto Rico—because these programs are not as talked about. If you know someone who is going through IPV, how can you offer your support to them?
TV: One of the best ways is to reach out and check in. Just ask them how they’re doing, and say “Hey, if there’s anything going on, we can talk about it. You can trust me. I’m a safe space.” I think, in most cases, people don’t come forward because they don’t know how that person is going to react, and they’re often afraid that reaction might be negative or victim blaming. If you’re able to establish a space where trust is built, the simplest thing you can say is “I believe you” and “What can I do to support you?” Just those simple phrases can be the difference between someone leaving that abusive partner or not. It can be the difference between them seeking the resources that they need or not. So, we always encourage our students to really show up from a place of compassion and willingness to listen to somebody who’s confiding in them because that could literally save their life.
AM: I couldn’t agree more. But I fear that sometimes survivors are very hesitant to come forward, and typically keep it to themselves. Are there any signs for you to be able to tell that someone is going through IPV?
TV: One of the really tell-tale signs is if somebody is in a new relationship, and you start to see them pulling back from activities that they previously enjoyed—that’s one of those first signs of isolation. That’s an opportunity to step in and say “Hey, is everything okay? Is something going on?” Even in cases where isolation isn’t happening, we see moments where students witness something that doesn’t seem right, but they don’t know how to step in. For example, one of the things that we hear quite a bit is “While I was at a party with my friends, my friend’s boyfriend had a bit too much to drink, and he started insulting her.” Those accusations are often warning signs that something isn’t right, and that’s an opportunity to step in and say “Hey, what he just said is not okay. He’s tearing you down in front of your friends. Let’s go to the bathroom and chat for a second.” Just get them out of that situation and have that opportunity to talk to them, either in the moment or even afterwards. Just creating that entry point to start that conversation often opens up that door because a lot of times people just need to be prompted with the right question, and then the floodgates open.
AM: Definitely, I think sometimes people tend to see those situations happen, and they might just dismiss it, saying “Maybe it’s just a one-time thing” or “They’re just drunk.” So, it’s really important to remind people that this isn’t right, and you shouldn’t just dismiss these little clues because often it’s not going to be as obvious as physical violence.
I’ve noticed from our conversation and statistics that most survivors of IPV are women, and one can infer that this is largely a gender-based issue. Do you believe offenders operate under any specific gender stereotypes and biases?
TV: What we know from research is that the majority of perpetrators, of all kinds of sexual violence, tend to be repeat perpetrators. Oftentimes, their behavior starts off by simmering, and it becomes like “I got away with calling my girlfriend this in front of her friends,” so now they internalize it as “That’s okay behavior. It’s okay for me to do that.” Then, oftentimes, that escalates, and it becomes physical violence, leading them to commit acts of sexual violence. We know, at least based off of the US, that students who are most likely to perpetrate sexual violence tend to fall into one or two categories: they tend to be either men who participate in Greek life, and are in fraternities, or men who are student athletes on college campuses. It’s not all fraternity men, it’s not all athletes—it’s about 5-6% of them, but they are responsible for committing the vast majority of incidents of IPV and sexual assault within their campus community.
AM: I think that’s something people typically forget about: that it’s repeat offenders, instead of one-time incidents, so it’s really important to notice the pattern. Do you believe there’s any stigma that male survivors face when coming forward about their own experiences with IPV?
TV: I think it can be more difficult for men to come forward because there’s so much of a cultural narrative about “That can’t happen to men,” like “Be the man. Why would you let that happen to you?” However, we know that men are also survivors, whether they’re straight or gay. We know that LGBT men are at a higher risk for all types of sexual violence, including IPV, than straight men. But it can happen; you can have a straight, white, cisgender guy who experiences IPV. In many cases they don’t realize that it’s happening to them because no one has ever talked to them about it. It isn’t until after somebody points it out or has the conversation with them that they recognize that what was happening to them was IPV.
I share this sometimes: my partner was in a very abusive relationship for two years, and his partner, who is a woman, started off as very emotionally abusive, and it escalated into physical violence. It took the act of physical violence for him to realize “Oh, wait, this isn’t normal. This isn’t okay” for him to start talking about it. That was when other people started to say “That’s abusive. That shouldn’t have been happening to you.” But he was never educated on it because we don’t talk to boys and young men about this issue in the same way that we talk to girls and young women. So, for him it was like this world-jolting moment. It took the physical violence for him to realize “Oh wait, it never should’ve gotten to that point, but it did because nobody taught me that this behavior was not okay.”
AM: Yeah, I definitely think it’s really important to have those conversations with men as well as women growing up, and on college campuses they really need to be a part of the conversation. I’ve noticed that violence from a woman to a man is typically normalized in media. It’s even used as humor, which dismisses the problem.
TV: Exactly, violence is never okay. The media does play a huge part in normalizing this behavior. I think we’ve started to see media counter that narrative and say “Hey, this isn’t normal behavior. This isn’t okay.” I think about the incident between Rihanna and Chris Brown years ago. He beat her up brutally after she took his phone because he was getting text messages from other women, and she thought he was cheating on her. There was a research project done at that point with young girls to gauge their reaction to what happened. I think the researchers went into it thinking “These girls are going to be shocked and appalled that he hit her.” They ended up being completely taken aback by the fact that the girls were like “He told her not to touch his phone, so what else did she expect?” It was because they had seen so much of this behavior in media, and it was normalized.
AM: Oh my God!
TV: Yeah, I remember that when that study came out, I was just shocked and appalled.
AM: I’d never heard of that study before. I’m even more concerned now, which I didn’t think was possible, because that’s something that’s so obviously wrong.
TV: But again the cultural and media narrative was like “Well, what did Rihanna do? Did she overreact?” So much of the narrative was about how she provoked him like “She hit him back.” Self-defense is permissible. If somebody’s hitting you, you need to put your arms up to stop them. I think we see some of these conversations happening now more openly with the television show “You” from Netflix. Have you seen it?
AM: I haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen a lot of content about it, so I have an idea of what it’s about.
TV: It’s a textbook case of IPV: stalking and harassment that escalates. It’s opened up a lot of conversations. Penn Badgely, the actor, has been very open about the role, and how harmful that narrative is. He really tried to portray this character as like “You should not glamorize him. You should not think that this behavior is okay.” It portrays a lot of the things that people experience as part of IPV, like love bombing, and frames his behavior as “I just wanted to know where you were to keep you safe” when the behavior was stalking. It’s opened up these conversations that I think are really important to have, as opposed to when the Chris Brown and Rihanna situation happened and the narrative was like “Well, I don’t know what else she expected.”
AM: It’s a really dangerous narrative, and I’m glad that “You” has opened up the conversation about it. I’ve also noticed young girls romanticizing his behavior, which is also a really big discussion point. It’s been a problem in the media for a long time, since even “Twilight” started.
TV: Oh my God, “Twilight” is so problematic! “Fifty Shades of Grey” is another example. Why do we think it’s sexy? It’s not okay.
AM: Exactly! We keep reproducing these plots and these characters, and it’s usually seen in a positive light. We’ve gotten so much better, but there’s a lot of work left to be done because it’s still seen as romantic. It’s so harmful, especially for teens, who tend to be a little more impressionable or more likely to absorb these messages in media.
TV: Your brain isn’t even developed until your mid-twenties, and you’re learning these lessons that you’re internalizing. That’s why it’s so important to have these counter-narratives that are positive and supportive of healthy relationships.
AM: I couldn’t agree more. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about this. I’m sure our readers will greatly benefit from all these insights and information.
If you are in Puerto Rico and are seeking assistance or refuge from IPV, you may click here for a comprehensive list of hotlines, programs, and shelters.
Similarly, if you’re a student at University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez (UPRM) who would like to reach out for support from your campus, you may find information about our Title IX offices by clicking here. You may also reach out to Siempre Vivas, a UPRM association dedicated to offering support services to survivors of IPV.