If any criticism can be voiced about Saturday night’s Arts for ACT Fine Art Auction and gala it’s that it never really gave voice to the desperation felt by the victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking or the relief and gratitude they experience when they get help. Perhaps it’s true that the vast majority of the people who attended the event were more than cognizant of ACT’s mission and the work the organization does in sheltering, counselling and advocating on behalf of victims and their families. But don’t we all need to be concretely reminded that in spite of the brutality and complexity of the problem, ACT has replaced hopelessness and despair with courage and empowerment for thousands of men, women and children over the last 35 years?
Those who’ve never experienced abuse either personally or vicariously often wonder why the victim doesn’t simply leave. Setting aside the tacit implication that the victim is somehow responsible for the violence and abuse they experience by virtue of their decision to remain in the relationship, leaving is often fraught with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, not the least of which is impending homelessness.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families. In New York City, 25% of homeless heads of household became homeless due to domestic violence. “So often, people in abusive relationships just don’t know where to go for help,” artist Christine Reichow sagely noted on Saturday night. She donates art each year for the auction because ACT is one place where domestic violence victims can turn for support.
Oh, you wonder in true Ebenezer Scrooge fashion, don’t they have families? Ah, but that’s an important aspect of domestic violence and abuse. Often the perpetrators prey on people who lack strong family ties or social support systems, or they systematically isolate the victim from family and friends.
PADV (Partnership Against Domestic Violence) 2006 Purple Heart with Hope Honoree Nikki Cureton tells how her partner disabled her car, locked the garage door and took the opener with him when he went to work, took away her cell phone and then surreptitiously unplugged the home phone, made her keep the blinds closed and isolated her from her friends and family.
Among women brought to emergency rooms due to domestic violence, most have fewer social and financial resources than women being treated for other illnesses and injuries. “While domestic violence is obviously not confined to lower socioeconomic groups, it can be so much worse for those who have less resources to deal with its effects,” notes donor Karen Jarstad, who believes that artists create art for one of four reasons: “self, show, sale or to save a life.”
But the research does make it clear that lower SES individuals and families have increased exposure. A 1999 study by Browne, Salomon, & Bassuk found that women who reside in households that earned less than $10,000 annually have a 4-times-greater risk of experiencing violence than women in wealthier households. As hard as it is to escape poverty, being poor makes it virtually impossible to escape domestic violence and abuse.
Regardless of class, survivors of domestic violence face high rates of depression, sleep disturbances, anxiety, flashbacks, and other emotional distress. Not surprisingly, domestic violence contributes to poor health for many survivors and their children. For example, chronic conditions like heart disease or gastrointestinal disorders can become more serious due to domestic violence.
And without the counselling service that organizations like ACT provide, girls who witness domestic violence are more vulnerable to abuse as teens and adults, and boys who witness domestic violence are far more likely to become abusers of their partners and/or children as adults. Thusly, the cycle of violence continues in the next generation.
“Any woman or child can end up in a situation where they need the kind of help ACT provides,” asserts artist Tracy Owens Cullimore, who contributes art to ACT every year to help support the work they do.
“We all know someone who’s been a victim,” acknowledges one of this year’s Six Artists of ACT, Lisa Freidus, who has been donating her collages and assemblages to the auction for six years now.
“They helped two of my friends,” reports fine art photographer Doug Heslep, another of the 2013 Six Artists of ACT. He’s been contributing to the auction since 2006, and even though he’s relocating to Orlando at the end of the month, he intends to continue donating to ACT each year. “They’re a wonderful group of people doing important work. That’s why I told [Arts for ACT curator] Claudia [Goode] I’ll always support Arts for ACT, even after I’ve left.”
But while one in three women worldwide and one in four in the United States will be a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault, many endure domestic violence in silence – either out of fear for their lives and those of their children or because, suffering from low self-esteem, they become convinced that they are responsible for bringing the violence or verbal abuse on themselves.
“People don’t talk about it,” acknowledges Karen Jarstad. “They suffer alone.”
Ironically, ACT didn’t talk about it either on Saturday night. (Few read the fact sheet from the desk of CEO Jennifer Benton that’s included in the auction catalogue.) Sure, the subject may have detracted from the upbeat, festive nature of the auction and gala, but how can we as a society expect to deal with a problem we don’t openly acknowledge in public, even at an event whose purpose it is to raise much needed funds to help the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault?
While it may have been inappropriate or even maudlin to focus on the act of domestic violence or sexual assault, it could have only been inspiring to tell the stories of victims who have successfully escaped abusive relationships and are today leading happy, healthy, productive lives.
Of course, that assumes you can find victims who are willing to openly share their stories. That’s neither typical nor easy. Many find that there’s stigma associated with admitting that they’ve been one of the 4 million people to be victimized by domestic violence or sexual assault each year.
[Last year, Lee County experienced 2,770 reported domestic violence related offences. Five resulted in murder; 386 in aggravated assault; and 2,275 in simple (?) assault. Of these, 618 people stayed in one of ACT’s two shelters, which only have a total of 90 beds. Their average stay was eight weeks. ACT answered more than 11,800 hotline calls, provided counselling services to more than 4,100 people, and its rape crisis center performed between 75 and 100 rape exams. On top of all this, ACT provided public education and an intervention group to help batterers control their violent behavior.]