Where technology and domestic violence intersect

The foundation created after UVA student Yeardley Love was murdered by an ex-boyfriend is creating a new app to get the word out about relationship violence and provide resources to victims. How has this kind of technology changed the landscape for both victims and abusers?

Photo by: JefferyTurner

Humans are wild creatures. We’ve turned our basic need for food into a serious art form, we’ve constructed massive, high-tech temples to industry, and we’ve sent an actual physical object to Pluto (and beyond). Our wars we manage to justify, though deranged shooters still take advantage of our ready weaponry, but within our McMansions, our charming historic houses, our apartments, our dorm rooms, our housing projects, our hotel rooms, our cars…countless human beings give into berserk aggressive and controlling impulses and beat up on other human beings.

I use “countless” intentionally–it’s hard to know just how many cases of domestic violence, relationship violence, or intimate partner violence (whether physical, sexual, psychological, or some combination of all three) are lurking out there. Many foundations are harnessing the power of technology in order to try and reach those who don’t know what to do or who aren’t empowered enough to take action, but that same technology also brings with it another layer of anxiety.

New York Magazine’s soul-wrenching feature on Bill Cosby’s accusers brings to light so many disturbing aspects of celebrity, gender bias, and control, but among them was a recurring theme that–in the 1960s, ’70s, and even ’80s, “rape” was something that happened if you were stupid enough to walk home alone at night wearing a short skirt. Being tricked, coerced, or even just provided with quaaludes that you cheerfully popped, and then having your body used for sport while you were un- or semi-conscious–that would just count as “an unfortunate situation.”

Like with rape, any stereotypes that insist relationship violence only happens to poor, doormat-type women with alcoholic mates are simply not true.

Today’s landscape is a little smoother, but not exactly a flat road. In the ’80s and ’90s, “date rape” was defined and decried, and our definitions began to shift all around. Now, the “No means no” rallying cry has changed into a more intentional “Yes means yes,” and it’s not just a rallying cry in some places, it’s law. You may even have seen the TV ads that encourage young men to say something to their young pals who believe the mantra that you should do whatever you need to do in order to get laid.

There are some differences between sexual violence and domestic violence–the straight-up physical assault that doesn’t necessarily involve sexual encounters, but both are entirely about control. Like with rape, any stereotypes that insist relationship violence only happens to poor, doormat-type women with alcoholic mates are simply not true. In fact, it’s not even relegated to man-on-woman. Same-sex DV or IPV (intimate partner violence) happens all the time, and even woman-on-man violence isn’t unheard of. And we probably would hear about it way more if SV, DV, and IPV were not so incredibly difficult to self-report, as is any situation in which the perpetrator has not only convinced the victim that he or she deserves violent treatment but is also in complete control of every aspect of the person’s life, including but not limited to their phone usage.

Here’s where organizations like the YWCA have been stepping in for decades, with their 24-hour anonymous hotlines and bevy of free resources for the public’s use. But as the demographic shifts, so does the way to tackle the problem on both the awareness (“That relationship you’re in is doing real damage to your body or mind.”) and the help front (“We have the resources you need to get help, and we CAN help.”).

“The delete key on your keyboard is an illusion.”

You may remember Yeardley Love–her family, friends, and a whole lot of people she didn’t even know certainly do. She was the University of Virginia lacrosse player who was beaten to death in her apartment in 2010 by a guy (also a lacrosse player) she had been dating. The One Love Foundation,which was started in her honor, works really hard to educate college-aged kids on what constitutes relationship violence, how you can spot it (whether for yourself or your friend), and what you can do about it.

Though they released a relationship violence assessment app called My Plan earlier this year and are currently at work on another one, One Love isn’t the first to discover how the benefits of technology help their cause. Fatima Smith, Director of Community Outreach and Public Education for YWCA of Richmond, names a couple of apps she feels she can stand behind–Aspire, which masquerades as a news app (and actually somewhat functions like one) but has a nice hidden resource and instant emergency contact functionality in the Help section, and Circle of 6, which sends one message to six contacts simultaneously, along with your location.

On one hand, these apps help out with both awareness and connectivity. “Technology is helpful for people who can’t pick up a phone [in their situation],” says Smith. “There’s also the idea that younger demographics are like ‘I don’t want to make a phone call, I just want to text somebody or get on chat.” While, the YWCA doesn’t currently have mobile chat functionality, The National Domestic Violence hotline does, which lets you access it from anywhere, without having to speak words aloud.

Even visiting the National Domestic Violence Hotline gets you a helpful warning that you should not proceed if you feel like your Internet usage is being monitored.

Even visiting the National Domestic Violence Hotline gets you a helpful warning that you should not proceed if you feel like your Internet usage is being monitored.

Where Fatima Smith starts to get worried, however, is the paper trail left by technology. “The delete key on your keyboard is an illusion,” she tells victims. It doesn’t take a lot for abusers to be able to get a pretty complete picture of where you’ve been online, who you’ve talked to, and even what you’ve said. Smith advises against the use of email in particular. The telephone has the added benefit of allowing them to hear voice tremors and crying, which prompts the person on the other end to react in appropriate ways, be it a trained hotline professional or a friend. But, then again, there’s the risk of being overheard.

A victim who has taken the plunge and left an abuser often runs into real challenges due to social media, Smith says. She gives an example in her own life–a friend mentioned to her that they saw she had been to such and such place. Not on Facebook or Instagram, Smith was flummoxed, until she realized that one of her friends had posted a photo of her. “Even if you’re not on social media,” she says. “If your friends are on social media, you’re on social media.” And even though apps like Find my Friends are fairly easily turn-off-able, it’s entirely possible to forget in the haste of a quick exit. To Smith, that kind of technology is a controlling, manipulative, and potentially dangerous partner’s best friend.

Hidden apps, like Aspire or the Sojourner Family Peace Center do not scream “I AM REPORTING YOU TO THE AUTHORITIES, ABUSER.” Aspire’s alter ego as a a news app goes even farther by hiding its true function. But, as Fatima Smith wonders, how long will they be effective if they continue to get publicity? Aspire, for example, was spearheaded by Dr. Phil’s wife with a big visible release in 2013. Just a few weeks ago, Snopes reported that there were no reported usages of Aspire that indicated any kind of success rate, but of course there’s value in the fact that it’s distributing resources and encouragement. But all it would take would be a quick Google search of domestic violence app logos for an abuser to know what to look out for.

“I know the aggression that’s built up in these kids.”

Perhaps there’s another way to turn technology into a useful tool for the cause–getting the message out there in a way that The Kids These Days can relate to. That’s what Nick Jones from North South 804 has been tasked with doing.

One Love’s new app will significantly expand on the existing Yards for Yeardley program, which encourages college sports teams to pledge to run a collective million yards. With the app, just regular old individuals like you and me can sign up and start logging yards. “They had the program, but they were looking for a way to…not necessarily gamify it, but encourage people to act and be part of this program,” says Jones. Understandably, he’s reluctant to call anything about abuse “fun,” but we all remember the Ice Bucket Challenge’s insanely quick rise to viral fame. If people remember the gimmick, that’s great. Now they’re more aware of relationship abuse, particularly in a demographic that’s often riding the youthfully exuberant it-can’t-happen-to-me high.

Because oh, it can happen to you, young adults. Nick Jones had been a high school lacrosse coach himself, and, not to single out one sport over another, he knows the aggression that young male and even female athletes are wrestling with. “I know that mentality,” he remembers. “I know that aggression that’s built up in these kids. I know they don’t ever mean to cross that line, but I’ve watched some guys talk to girls and I find myself having to say, ‘You don’t talk to these girls that way. That’s somebody’s sister or daughter. What if that were your sister?'”

Now the father of a toddler girl himself and a guy who is so full of heart you can hear it all over his voice, Jones jumped at the chance to respond to One Love’s call for proposals. In fact, he didn’t even write anything out, just asked for five minutes on the phone. “I followed Yeardley Love’s story from the beginning, and I always wanted to do something to help, and this is something I can do.”

It’s the first of its kind that North South 804 has done, and it’s a big project for Jones and his team. Along with the folks at One Love, Jones has decided to expand the scope, making it a resource app as well as just a way to get those yards in.

“I’ve never gone to a training and not had somebody come up and say ‘This has impacted me’ and someone else say ‘Somebody I know is going through this.'”

“Raising awareness benefits the community tremendously,” Fatima Smith from YWCA told me. “Every time you all [meaning us, the media] contact us to do an interview and you plug the hotline, that’s that many more people who are aware of the service that they weren’t aware of. With every news interview, there’s always a handful of people who had no idea that the YWCA existed, that it’s different from the YMCA, and that there are free resources.

“I’ve never gone to a training and not had somebody come up and say ‘This has impacted me’ and someone else say ‘Somebody I know is going through this.’ I usually have a line of people who want to talk to me afterwards. That lets me know that people still need to hear this. Not only is it needed, as in it’s still happening, but being able to explain it to people who aren’t experiencing it themselves is also necessary.”

Rachel Solomon, who runs Communications and PR for YWCA of Richmond, backs up Smith with a reminder that the Greater Richmond Regional Hotline doesn’t just serve survivors in crisis, “but advocates and friends wondering how to handle situations that were told to them in confidence.” Their specialists can help lead friends and advocates to become non-judgmental, believe their friend’s story, and accept it without questioning who was at fault. “Every survivor’s situation is different,” says Solomon.

The YWCA and One Love both offer free resources, including workshops. Keep an eye out for YWCA of Richmond’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October of every year for ways to help the cause.

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The contact info you need

  • Greater Richmond Regional Hotline: 804.612.6126
  • YWCA of Richmond Resource Page: ywcarichmond.org/help/
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.SAFE
  • One Love Website: joinonelove.org
  • One Love My Plan App: free on iTunes and Google Play, contains enlightening information
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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