A Personal Testimony for Teen DV Awareness Month
By Chandler J. Lewis
When I was growing up, teen dating violence and domestic violence were topics that were not openly discussed in my school or community. I knew that the Battered Women’s Shelter was at the end of our street because sometimes my mother and I would take food and clothes down to them to help out. I knew that some of my friends had abusive parents and that some often tried to stay out of the house as long as they could to avoid being subjected to their parents’ violent behaviors. When I was in high school, we did not even talk about healthy relationships or what it looked like to have healthy relationship behaviors. As I grew up and started to understand more of what was going on around me, I saw that violence existed not only within my own friend groups, but also affected many other people that I knew in the community as well.
As a boy, I grew up in a very respectful and non-violent family. My parents and grandparents taught me to be respectful women and that women were never to be hit or abused. I was taught that men should open the door for women and stand up when they left the table, not because women were different than men, but because as a man, we should treat women with the highest level of respect and dignity. I treated my female friends like I treated my mother, a lady who I respect and love dearly, with respect.
It was not until I went to college that my eyes were truly opened to the widespread levels of violence and abuse that took place between my peers. As a freshman at the University of Washington, I decided to join a fraternity. I thought that this would be a great opportunity for me to get some more close male friends that I could develop life long friendships with. Sadly, my experience was tarnished by what I saw members of my community doing around me, even my so-called “brothers”. During my first quarter at UW, my fraternity hosted a lot of parties and paraded the freshmen pledges in front of young women, encouraging us to get as many numbers as we could so that we could contact them later to increase the women to men ratio at parties. We often joked about how many girls numbers we had gotten. Honestly, I could barely remember the faces of the most of the girls I met. Regardless, me and my fellow pledges would joke about the many sexual endeavors we were pursuing, often using very derogatory terms to refer to the girls we were seeing or had slept with. It did not take me long to realize that lots of the guys around me were acting in very abusive and disgusting ways, often publicly shaming girls as they left our house in the mornings through the front door and yelling names at them from our porch as they ran off our lawn.
The tipping point for me was when one of my very close friends was filmed by her boyfriend while engaging in sexual acts. The boy that recorded her showed the video to his whole fraternity and luckily one of the men in that fraternity reported it and told her about the incident. He was however dropped from that house and served some time in jail as a result of his actions. As one of her best friends, I saw the devastating effect that this incident had on her. Yet, what made me the maddest was the response I heard from the so-called “gentlemen” around me. Many of them thought it was funny. Others joked that they should do the same to their girlfriends. There seemed to be no one that was speaking out about how messed up it was. It did not take me long to realize that being in a fraternity directly conflicted with my core beliefs and values around healthy relationships and what it meant to be a gentleman and a man of honor. I loved my female friends and would never even consider hurting them in any way, no less violating their privacy in such a way or even speaking about this in the ways members of my community did. I eventually dropped my fraternity because I felt that my personal values conflicted with the values that my fellow brothers held and that my membership in such a society left me a responsible party to many of the abuses committed on their behalf.
After dropping my house, I became active in an organization on campus called SARVA, or Students Against Relationship Violence Advocates. I went through a ten-week training program that covered a wide variety of topics relating to relationship violence and sexual abuse. It was during this time that I also began developing my own project, that later turned into a non-profit organization called The Evergreen Project. Even in my SARVA training group, I was only one of two men out of thirty girls that participated in the seminars. Something was wrong with this. It did not make sense to me that if men and women both comprise 50% of the population, why was it that only a small percent were actively having a presence in one of the largest advocacy networks on my campus. It was at this point I knew that I needed to step up my efforts in advocating to my male peers and to the younger generation of boys in my own community.
Over the course of the last few years, I have been able to reflect on what obstacles I have had to overcome as a male working and advocating in the field of domestic violence. I think the biggest obstacle for me was overcoming the fear of being the only one to speak out against observed abuse in my own social circle. I was afraid that people would make fun of me for being a “feminist”. I was afraid people would call me gay because I did talk about the things I did in my personal life with all my guy friends. I was afraid that speaking up would leave me alone and isolated because I was the only one to speak out and condemn the unhealthy and often times violent behaviors of my peers. I think fear was the biggest obstacle for me because even though I knew what was right, I still wanted to fit in and as a new college student trying to find my own way, it was easier to blend in than it was to stand out.
It is because of my own experience that I believe that in order to end the cycle of violence in society, we need to start the conversation early. We need to start talking to our kids about what healthy behaviors are and what abuse looks like. Men need to stop being afraid to speak out and denounce the violence that they see being committed within their own circles. Programs like Take the First Step and Start Talking are great programs to get our youth to start having meaningful conversations about relationships and violence. Beyond that, organizations that focus on the male demographic need to work hard to remove the fear of speaking out and instead make it cool to not be violent. Organizations like loveisrespect target boys between 13-24 to get them involved in the conversation about relationship violence. They help boys (and girls as well) to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors. It is essential that boys of all ages are included in the conversation about violence and abuse. As a man, I know I am “privileged”. I am privileged because I know when I go outside at night, I do not need to be worried about men stalking or cat calling me like a piece of meat. I know I am privileged because I am not looked down on for being a man, as is such with my female counterpart. I know that as a man, it is my responsibility to talk to my peers about the importance of healthy relationships and help make information more accessible. I know that it is my responsibility to continually challenge my peers to commit themselves to live non-violent, non-abusive lives and to speak out when they see injustices. I see it as my job to change the current perspective and look deeper at what it means to be a man in today’s society and not accept the status quo. I challenge all of you out there to not let fear hold you in perpetual silence, rather, use your voice to speak out for those who have no one to speak out for them.