By Gianluca D’Elia
Since 1989, October has been designated by Congress as National Dating and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In New Jersey alone, the most recent domestic violence report from the state police revealed that there were 61,659 domestic violence-related offenses statewide in 2015. Domestic violence education has made its way to Rider this month, with a series of events dedicated to raising awareness of the issue on campus.
The month kicked off on Oct. 4 with “Charming & Eager or Controlling & Violent,” featuring guest speaker Susan Switlik, the former director of Womanspace, a community organization in Lawrenceville that specializes in emergency response and treatment for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
“The most prevalent thing I hear is, ‘I love him and I don’t want to leave him. I just want him to stop,’” Switlik said. “It is really tough to take it when you have been in love with someone. People don’t always see it. They were in love and think they’re still in love. And then how can you move into a shelter in Trenton when you live in a nice house or your kids go to school in a good district?”
Prevention Education Coordinator Susan Stahley said it is more difficult than it seems for individuals to get out of an abusive relationship.
“Sometimes you don’t have access to the money,” Stahley said. “Or sometimes, to give up living in a house or apartment to go to a shelter where you live with 30 other people you don’t know or like, that can be a problem.”
Though the name of the organization suggests services for women, Switlik noted that while volunteering with Womanspace and as a responder for local police, she has encountered more male victims than she used to.
“Probably five out of 25, a fifth of people seen in the police department [for domestic and sexual violence] were men,” Switlik said. “I did meet one young gay man, but probably three out of the five I personally saw, were guys who had been abused by their wives or girlfriends. There is no good stereotype of who this belongs to. They’re white or black, young or old, gay or straight, married or unmarried, they live in Princeton or East Windsor or Trenton.”
Switlik said abusers use manipulative tactics to keep an individual trapped in an abusive relationship.
“I hear it in the police station all the time. ‘He thinks I’m sleeping around,’” she said. “They all think you’re sleeping around, and it’s to justify why they can beat you up. It’s a huge justification. No guy hits you on the first date. They don’t smack you around when they walk you home and kiss you at night. It takes time to develop that relationship, to really become under their control. It’s about power and control. But they use many other tactics, like saying, ‘No one else will want you.’”
Switlik explained to students that manipulation can often appear in high school and college relationships.
“Usually, with younger people, it starts out very flattering, like, ‘I love your hair that way,’” she said. “But then the next week, if you change your hair he asks, ‘Why did you change your hair? You have to have it just the way I want it.’ And he starts saying, ‘You can’t dress like that. You can’t show off to my friends.’ When someone tells you what to wear, how to look, who to hang out with — those are some of the really early signs of a controlling relationship.”
College students are poorly equipped for dealing with dating abuse, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s “Love Is Respect” project. About 57 percent of college students say it is difficult to identify signs of dating abuse, but 43 percent of female college students have reported experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors.
“It doesn’t happen every day, every week or every month,” Switlik said, describing how difficult it can be for an individual to pick up on a pattern of abuse in a relationship. “It might only be a couple of times a year. But there’s always that tension of wondering when the next time is going to be.”
If you or someone you know has been a victim of dating or domestic violence, consider contacting Womanspace 24/7 at 609-894-9000, for free and confidential advocates, counseling and other assistance available for women, men and families.