Reframe: Episode 83

Why Sexual Violence is a Social Disease, and How to Help Find the Cure

Reframe Episode 83

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Every 75 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Most of these cases will go unreported, and this has led Dr. Veronica Barrios to ask: Why? Of all the crimes that occur, why is it that violence against ourselves and our bodies is the least reported of all crimes?

As a Miami University assistant professor of family science and social work, Dr. Barrios explores the barriers that prevent many victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault from reporting their experiences, as well as what can be done to change this culture of non-disclosure.

Additional music: Broke For Free, “Black Lung.” Lee Rosevere, “Under Suspicion.” Little Glass Men, “Golden.”

Read the transcript

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast by the hosts and guests may or may not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Miami University.

James Loy:

This is Reframe. The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


Every 75 seconds, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. That means by the end of this podcast, there will be another 24 people. And over 1100 by the end of the day.

And here’s some more alarming statistics … according to, which is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization -- every 9 minutes that victim is a child, and on average 1 out of 3 women will be assaulted, in some way, in their lifetime.

Most of these cases will go unreported, and this is one of the unfortunate realities that Dr. Veronica Barrios is trying to change.

She is here on the podcast today, and can you tell us – big picture - what you study?

Veronica Barrios:

Sure. So big, big, big picture. Violence. Just interpersonal violence and sexual violence.

James Loy:

Dr. Barrios is a Miami University assistant professor of family science and social work, and aside from violence in general, she is more specifically interested in the culture of non-disclosure, which is what pervades most of the US right now.

Veronica Barrios:

So what I study primarily is: What are the barriers that exist for people to report whether formally -- so to authorities -- or informally to friends and family, that they've been assaulted, or they've been a victim of violence?

James Loy:

Today only about 20% of all cases are formally reported. So the vast majority are not.

Veronica Barrios:

So, I was curious why? Why of all the different crimes that occur in our society is that the violence against our self and our body is the least reported? And I’ve often joked in class, you know, if you walk out of class and your car is gone, you're gonna call the cops. You walk home, you go back in your home, it's been broken into, you’re gonna call the cops. You know, you're getting beat up in an alley … someone's going to call the cops, you're going to call the cops … if you can. Or you call after and give a description.

And yet, when you're raped, you're usually not calling the cops. But I wanted to really understand what is it that stops us from talking about this?

James Loy:

We will answer that question, as well as what we can do to start changing the culture of non-disclosure, and what you can do if you or someone you know may be experiencing violence. That’s all on the way, and more.

[Music Break]

James Loy:

Dr. Barrios, thank you for being here today to talk about this topic. One of the first things that jumped out at me as I read through your research is that you equate sexual abuse and intimate partners violence, or IPV, with a public health crisis, which is an interesting comparison, and not one I think most of us equate with these issues. So can talk about why this is, or why it should be reframed as a public health problem?

Veronica Barrios:

Sure. So every 75 seconds someone's assaulted. How is that not public health? I mean, COVID is a serious issue right now. Right. But it's not one out of three people getting COVID. And yet, it's one out of three women being assaulted. If this was a medical disorder, we'd be all over it in terms of a public health issue. But it's not a medical issue, in its most direct form. It's a personal issue, or so it's seen as such. It's an issue of violence that you're experiencing as an individual, and you should get out of it. And so, therefore, it stays out of the public realm.

Also by staying out of the public realm, we as a society, our government, our institutions, don't have to do anything about it. So for example, with the MeToo movement, you get a little more of that public health perspective when you have all these random people saying this has happened to me.

But think about who it was that made that a public channel. Tarana Burke didn't get the publicity that some of our Hollywood women did. And so, you start to see what I call the intersection of race, class, and gender there -- where a black middle-class woman wasn't heard. But a wealthy white woman was. And as far as saying this is a major issue, right. And when Tarana Burke was talking about it, she was talking about little black girls being assaulted on a regular basis. And in Hollywood, they were talking about actresses being assaulted as part of their job, their line of work, or getting casted.

And yet as a society, whose story were we willing to hear? And who’s were we willing to ignore? And with most interpersonal violence and sexual violence, that's that same narrative persists. So where are we as a society? What are we continuing to allow to occur right in front of our faces because we don’t want to acknowledge the true vast nature of this disease in our society called sexual violence.?

James Loy:

You talked about the intersection of race, class, and gender when you brought up the beginnings of the MeToo Movement. which I think is a great example. And that gets to something that is very important to your work, which is intersectionality.

So can define intersectionality? Because I think most people would understand the concept but not necessarily recognize that particular term.

Veronica Barrios:

Sure. So we are composed of different socially constructed identities. So let me break that down. When someone sees me, they're seeing a woman. They're seeing a light-skinned woman. When they hear me speak, they might start saying, hmm, maybe Latina, or some other ethnic group. When they interact with me, they might also understand, oh, she's a professor, okay, so she has to have a certain level of education. She has a certain socioeconomic status. What it means is that we are composed of all these social constructs, that then give us power and privilege, or oppression and marginalization.

So for example, when I’m standing in front of a classroom, and they know me as Dr. barrios, I’m respected to a certain capacity. When I’m walking through Jungle Jim’s, and they don't know I’m professor Barrios, they might just be seeing a queer woman, a Latina woman -- depending on who I’m with and how I’m dressed. And so my power and value shifts dramatically, from space to space, depending on how that particular group of people, or that person, is assessing my intersections.

I had one client one time tell me, “I’m not going to the cops to report that I was raped because, as a Latina, those cops are going to assume that I’m, like, over sexualized, and that I wanted it.”

And so, me trying to surface intersectionality for that client would mean, “So do you think that if you were a white woman they would have believed you?” And when the answer is “yes,” that's intersectionality, right. It's showing that there's power to racial ethnic categorization.

When a woman refuses to go report because she's afraid of deportation, that's immigration status becoming the center identity that's causing privilege to go out the window, and her power to drop, and so she won't report because she's afraid of being deported.

When we talk to a 75 year old woman who says that she was assaulted in her home, versus a 25 year old woman that says that she was assaulted on her way home -- who's going to be believed more? The 75 year old woman, based on age, over the 25 year old woman ,who they assume might have been partying or did something to attract that negative attention? That's intersectionality again. Because age is part of that, right?

And so, in all of these different interactions, what I try to say is what is: What is the intersectionality of that individual? And then how does that then impact their -- in my case -- their abilities to report or discuss their sexual violence, or their interpersonal violence?

James Loy:

And again, this is a major theme of your research, especially one of your newest research papers, which you just won an award for. So congratulations on that.

It was about intimate partner violence, and it looked at women’s processes of leaving abusive relationships. Can you describe this research and its importance?

Veronica Barrios:

Sure. So it focused on women, and women who are leaving a relationship. And I worked with my colleagues -- it's actually the data of Doctor Call, who's my second author on this paper. And it really focused on why women leave. Like, what's that thought process like for them to leave a domestic violence situation, or an interpersonal violence situation?

When I saw the data. I was curious about who are these women? So not, like, just what thought process happened, but how did that thought process look different for different women? What was their race? What was their class, religion, language? Like, what were all these other variables that were at play in making your decision to leave?

And so, what this paper did is that it said it's not enough to try to find these cause and effect relationships, or to try to pan out steps, without accounting for the individual that you're studying. And so to cluster creates a one-size-fits-all approach that never fits. Right? Which is why almost all social institutions that provide services fail at providing services to certain groups. Because they're trying to one size fits all, and it's just not a real thing.

So this paper really tried to break down, in understanding the process of leaving, what were the race, the class, the gender? Those are the main categories when you're talking about intersectionality. But beyond that, what was their immigration status? How many children did they have? Did they have children? Were those fathers involved? Not involved? Was there legal involvement? Like, what were all those other pieces? And then beyond just the women, how would police interact with different women? How would hospitals interact with different women?

And so, really moving away from understanding the decision-making process as just an individual's choice, i.e the victim, and moving it towards families, societies, communities. What's going on in those spaces that makes it easier, or harder, for women to leave?

James Loy:

What do you think should or could happen if we understood these intersections more, or acknowledged them instead of this one-sized-fits all approach? What could it mean for different service providers or institutions?

Veronica Barrios:

So it's incredibly complex. And the first line of defense, so to speak, if we're going to go with this public health perspective, is training on what biases… intersectionality goes hand in hand with implicit bias, right. And so, all of the different people involved in responding to a victim -- so let's go straight from “I’ve just been victimized. Now what happens? And I want to talk about it.”

Okay. So if I’m going to call the cops, are the cops coming in trained to work with any type of victim, or a white middle-class woman? What if I’m a man? What if I’m queer? What if I’m trans? What if I’m black? Like, are they trained to work with “me,” whoever that “me” might be?

Maybe I’ll go to the hospital and get a rape kit. Maybe I was sexually assaulted. Is that nurse trained to work with whoever just walked in? The problem is that we're finding that service professionals, such as these doctors, the lawyers and whatnot, they'll say “yeah.” But they're not. Because they're not trained in implicit bias, at least to the level where they're even willing to say, “Hey, I do have bias. We all have it.”

So our inability to acknowledge that we all have some level of bias affects our ability to respond to violence and trauma.

So the first line of defense is that training. Like, where are my biases? We all have them. We're taught them. And it's not just a racial issue. Tt's biased across the board about socioeconomics. It's about education. It's about everything. So training.

If then we were trained, then maybe victims would feel better about coming forward, at least at that formal level.

Informally, you run into the same barriers, unfortunately. What kind of families are we raised in? Are we raised in families where sex is taboo? Because if so, then me telling you I was raped might lead to questions like, “Why were you at their house anyway? Why were you at the party anyway?” Like, that line of questioning.

It's as simple as sexual scripts around teaching young men to get conquests, and teaching girls to play hard to get. Those don't align well, right? Because if I’m supposed to play hard to get, then my “no” might mean “yes” to you. Because I’m supposed to keep going. I need that conquest.

And so, training also then around genders, and gender stereotyping, and gender socializing. And how A] first it doesn't make sense, and B] how it's unsafe. Some of our higher rates of violence are actually in teens. It's kids trying to figure out how to have relationships.

Well, why do you teach me how to drive, but you don't teach me how to have a relationship? That really leaves everyone out to figure it out on their own. And if I’m trying to figure it out on my own, I’m going to blame myself when things happen to me -- instead of really being critical about why did this happen?

When I was in working in the rape center, I used to ask the women why it was so hard for them to talk? And I would break it down. I’d start with their family. “What messages did you hear about rape in your family, or about women?” And then try to help them start to think about, oh, well, if I heard a lot of messaging about how when these type of things happen, it's their fault, it's the woman's fault, then, “I probably don't want to be blamed for what happened to me. So I shouldn't talk about this.”

What would happen was, after a couple weeks, that victim, or survivor, would start to say, like, “So I guess I’m not talking about this because of how everyone else acts” -- or says or what they believe – “not really because I don't want to talk about it. I just don't want to be blamed.”

So shifting that culture. Shifting the culture of all the different groups, that a victim and a survivor may encounter -- so that they're more ready to A] respond and B] listen in a non-judgmental way would be the critical shift that would have to occur in order for us to turn into a culture of disclosure, opposed to a culture of non-disclosure.

[Music Break]

James Loy:

Here’s another fact for you. Not only are most sexual assaults not reported, it’ actually least reported of all crimes, which is another part of what makes the culture of non-disclosure so dangerous.

And it’s not just the biases or perspectives of social institutions that are responsible. The cultural values and stereotypes of friends and families and religion and media, and even those held by the victims themselves can all perpetuate it.

Dr. Barrios, so what do you say to people, maybe those – perhaps especially those – who have never been a part of violence, or sexually assaulted, or don’t know someone who has … maybe they don’t even realize that they too are living in a culture of non-disclosure.

It's like that old story of the fish that doesn't realize it's living in water. It's just the reality they exist in. So what can we do to start making people, first of all, realize that the culture we're mostly in is a culture of non-disclosure? And then how do we take more steps towards shifting it towards a culture of disclosure?

Veronica Barrios:

So one of the ways I do is a bit controversial. It's one of my classroom activities. And it's an assignment, actually. I tell my students to go interview someone that's been .. someone that's survived violence. And more often than not they go, “I don't know anyone.” And I’ll say, “Maybe. Maybe you're not aware.”

And so, what I’ve had some students start to do for themselves is they post on their, like, Facebook or their Instagram, “Looking for someone that survived violence to talk to.” And then they start to realize -- their different family and friends -- who have been assaulted, and often they cry. Because they never realized it. So they figure out they were part of the non-disclosure culture. And then they interview the person. And that goes all types of ways. And I say that's controversial because on the one hand, they teach us you shouldn't talk to a victim about their experience because it could be re-traumatizing. On the other hand, we know that when a victim is able to talk about their experience, it's cathartic. It's healing. So it's really about: If you're talking to them. It's how you're talking to them.

So you don't need to know the details of the victimization, but you … which is what I focus on. I don't ever ask a victim like, “Oh, what happened?”

I say, “I believe you.” I start with that. “I believe you. It sucks. I know that how widespread this is.” And all of those little statements, very small statements, “I believe you. It sucks. It's widespread.” Gets that victim to go, “Yeah.” And then they break down -- not the details of what happened -- but their experience of being a victim.

So the first thing we can do is if you don't know anyone, it's because you're probably a little under a rock, and you probably haven't asked, or you haven't invited the conversations around violence.

So that's a both/and. You create the culture of disclosure by talking about the topic. People don't realize all we have to do is actually talk about the topic. You want to know about sports, you talk about sports. You want to know about poetry, you read and talk about poetry. You want to know about violence, you read and talk about violence. So that you are knowledgeable enough that a victim, or survivor, says “I can trust having this conversation with this person. They're not going to – like, these are also things that happen survivors – “They are not going to not believe me. They're not going to blame me. They're not going to question me. They're not going to tell someone else,” right. Like, they're going to keep it in confidence.

Once you're doing that, the disclosures start to come. And people will share with you. So we just have to create the space. At its most basic level … at all levels -- from the government all the way down to the grade school teacher to the dad in the house -- if everyone just made it a topic of discussion, people would talk about it. Because it wouldn't feel so unsafe. It wouldn't feel taboo.

James Loy:

You also say … something else that jumped out at me in your research. You say only about 1/3 of all sexual assault victims ever report it. Most choose secrecy. What makes secrecy the “better” choice for most people?

Veronica Barrios:

Yeah. When my option is “I won't be believed. My family's gonna fall apart. I might lose my job.” Like, when those are my options, then staying quiet is better. It's easier. And one of the studies I actually did -- roughly about half of my victims in that study had talked about it, and the other half hadn’t -- the ones that hadn’t were so clear on, well, why would I? That was literally the answer: “Well, why would I?”

Well, what do you mean? Don't you want access to services? And, “Well, what's that going to do? Because everything else is going to fall apart.”

So it's easier to just stay quiet. But out of all the people, every 75 seconds someone's getting assaulted, in some capacity, and only roughly a third or %20 of them are going to actually report it, that's a lot of people walking around with trauma. And yet we're just pretending it's not happening.

James Loy:

I can see how that even just more perpetuates the culture of non-disclosure.

Veronica Barrios:

Yeah. And with the culture of non-disclosure is this group of victims called unacknowledged victims. And these are victims that have had something happen to them, but they don't call it sexual violence, or sexual assault, or rape. They say it was “something.” Something happened. Like, they just brush it off. They don't call it what it is. “I was groped. I was harassed. I was touched.” Like, they're not going to say those things. “It wasn't that serious. So I’m not going to call it what it is.” And that too perpetuates the culture of non-disclosure, unfortunately.

[Music Break]

James Loy:

Do you have advice or information for anyone who is in an abusive relationship, or a victim of sexual assault or violence? What should they do, or resources should they seek out. What should happen next?

Veronica Barrios:

So, you know who is the best at keeping themselves safe? It’s a victim who's unsafe. Because they're still with us, and they're surviving that victimology, or that experience. So my advice to a victim, like a victim right now who might hear this is A] continue to do what's keeping you safe, while B] you figure out how to get yourself into a safer situation. Whatever that looks like for you. And so, for example, if you're queer, like a lesbian woman, you probably can't go to the shelter because, guess what, your partner can too. Right?

So how can you continue to keep yourself safe 1) as you have been doing? Because I have found that the strongest people in our society are the ones that have experienced violence. We say they're traumatized and they're hurt, and they are. But they're also strong. And they're resilient. They're surviving right next to us, showing up to work, to school, to class, and still functioning. So continue to do whatever is keeping you safe while, 2) you figure out how to get yourself into a safer environment -- whatever that looks like. It can look like a friend's house. It can look like a shelter, depending on your situation. It can look like moving to a different place. It can look like having a conversation with a particular adult that you trust, that can provide you help.

What has consistently been shown in the trauma literature is that we all just need one consistent person who loves us and trusts us and believes us, consistently. Identify that person, and start to figure out if and what you want to start sharing with them to help you get out of the situation.

As far as resources, they're all around us. They always are. It's if you're ready to access them. If you're ready to step away from that situation. Because you can't force a person out of the situation. That's how people end up back in the situation. And I believe in the agency of the victim to know when they're ready to move on, or move forward. So that when they do, they don't have to keep coming back. I will tell you that that cycling back is about four times people cycle back, before they actually can leave in IPV.

I would say that if you're under the age of 18, while it's super scary to report, and it will turn your life upside down, it'll be your first experience of advocating for yourself -- something that you'll have to keep doing as you get older.

So disclosing: you want to disclose to a school counselor. They'll be trained to help you. Your teachers may not be. Your principal may not be. The principal will know to send you to the counselor, and hopefully the teacher does too. But your school counselor is the one that's trained to help you. And CPS will be called. Child protective services, and it will be gross. But if they can at least keep you away from that perpetrator for a while, that's better than continuing to experience the violence, or running away, which sets you up for a whole other catastrophe in a lot of ways.

James Loy:

Similarly, is there something that people who are not a victim of violence, but maybe they know someone who is, or if someone admits to them that they have experienced violence. How can they help? Are there other things that other people can do as well?

Veronica Barrios:

So if you're the adult to a person under 18, who you know is experiencing violence, please report it. You not reporting it might keep that individual safe in the moment, but it's not keeping everyone else safe that's coming next. So please report.

If they're over 18, it's not our right to report it, because they're an adult. So you want to be that consistent adult in their life, or that person, that friend, whoever you are, that mom, that is believing them, and asking them, “What do you need to help you move out of this situation?” Or, “How do I help you get out of this situation?”

The thing with trauma is that it doesn't only affect the victim. This is the family scientist in me. 100% of every victim that I knew, that I helped, especially younger ones, there was a whole family that was traumatized and victimized as well. And often, the one person that's supposed to support you is part of that family that's also being traumatized, which makes it even harder to provide the support, or to go to them for support. Because you don't want to blow up your family, and you don't want to let down that family member, but you yourself are traumatized. So how can you really help?

So sometimes you need to go outside of your family -- to an extended family member, to a friend, to someone else -- that isn't directly affected by your trauma, and can actually do something about it for you, and with you.

James Loy:

Dr. Veronica Barrios is a Miami University assistant professor of family science and social work.

And this is the Reframe Podcast. Thank you so much for listening. If you know anyone who may also find this information helpful, please share it. We have many more episodes available wherever podcasts are found.