City leaders in Topeka, Kan. voted 7-3 to decriminalize domestic violence last week in a city council meeting.
Although domestic violence is still a crime under Kansas state law, women's groups and survivors are worried about the future implications of the domestic violence law's repeal.
"The fact that we're actually making it not a crime is terrifying," said Justine Johnson, interpersonal violence prevention coordinator at Western Illinois University. "What I'm seeing as an advocate is we're minimizing domestic violence. We are saying, ‘That is easily taken off the docket. There are more important things.' Well, I think survivors would argue against that."
Johnson added the repeal of the city's domestic violence law is a strike at the decades of progress that had been made by feminists bringing awareness to domestic and sexual violence.
"This is causing ripples everywhere in the sense that we have worked so hard to be able to talk about domestic violence and sexual assault and to have survivors speak out," she said. "And now, we're losing ground as advocates and survivors, as people who care about their family members and peers. And to me, it's kind of a slippery slope. What else? What's next?"
Johnson expressed concern for survivors who would lose protection and access to resources if local and federal laws criminalizing domestic and sexual violence were repealed across the United States.
"What does that mean for survivors of sexual assault who are of low socioeconomic status where they can't leave because they don't have the financial resources? They have to stay in that house where domestic violence is legal," she said.
Johnson believes domestic violence and sexual assault are often ignored because they are difficult topics to discuss.
"Sexual assault is a difficult topic for a lot of people to talk about," Johnson said. "A lot of people have trouble talking about sex in general, and we definitely don't talk about sexual assault. So when I talk about it, a lot of people laugh, a lot of people pretend they are not listening, even though I think they are, because they are uncomfortable with this topic and they might be uncomfortable because they might be a survivor or they might know a survivor or a potential perpetrator."
Johnson worked at a domestic violence shelter when she attended University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse as an undergraduate. She said her shelter dealt with over 2,000 victims a year.
"I was always raised in a feminist household where we talked about these issues," she said. "We talked about LGBT rights, women's rights and civil rights. So really, I always knew my work would be in social justice. I really didn't know where, but when I started working at the domestic violence shelter, I said, ‘Everyone needs to be a part of this; everyone needs to be educated.' And, I really fell in love with my work."
She emphasized several points people need to know when working with survivors.
"Anyone can be an advocate for survivors," she said. "Be available. I was available and I was ready to talk when they were ready to talk. Believe them. Believe whatever they say. They are not making this up. Tell them it is not their fault no matter what they did. If they drank too much, wore a short skirt, or went home with someone, it's not their fault. We need to hold perpetrators accountable and offer victims and survivors services. Give them options. We have so many resources on campus and in the community. Encourage them, but never make them go to those resources. Those are the things you should automatically do."
However, she added many victims of domestic violence and sexual assault go unreported. According to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, only 16 percent of rapes are ever reported to the police.
"It's almost terrifying almost how many go unreported," Johnson said. "But if you look at our society, we don't want people to report these generally speaking. So, this campus is making sure survivors know that this is a safe place to tell their story, that there are remedies, that there are people who will listen and we will do whatever we can for that survivor."
Johnson pointed to the University's Counseling Center and Women's Center as resources open to victims and survivors on campus.
"The University Counseling Center is fantastic," she said. "All of the counselors have shown their support. There's a surviving and thriving support group the Counseling Center offers. It really shows we have solidarity for survivors and that survivors have a place to go and they don't need to be scared anymore, and I really encourage survivors to break their silence when they are ready because they have story to tell, and people are ready to listen."
Western hired Johnson in July as coordinator of the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Initiative. As coordinator, she will promote awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault to students, as well as develop new policies and procedures regarding domestic and sexual violence for the University.
"Right now, Western has a sexual assault policy that was last revised in 1995," Johnson said. "It does not have a policy on domestic violence. These are huge things that when we see increases in sexual assault and domestic violence nationally speaking, we need to make sure this University works on updating and shows its commitment to ending interpersonal violence. We need to have policies in place to have some sort of accountability for perpetrators and we're making sure survivors know that they are in a safe environment."
Johnson said, though, the best part of her work towards educating the public about domestic and sexual violence is through informal conversations outside of the classroom and the shelter.
"I was talking to my father, and we were talking about sexual assault and he goes, ‘Well, she was kind of asking for it.' I said, ‘Dad, what if somebody sexually assaulted me?' And, we had an amazing conversation and this topic is super challenging, especially when I'm talking to my father. It's a challenging conversation, but it's one that must happen. One that we need to talk about," Johnson said. "A couple weeks later, he was watching the news with one of his co-workers and the co-worker said, ‘What do you expect? She was drunk.' And my dad said, ‘You can't blame her for what he did.'"