Voices Against Violence

Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Austin to speak about the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the importance of funding an organization which helps victims find aid in situations of abuse. Funding was cut to $2.9 million because of the federal government’s budget sequestration in January, but Biden says the hotline needs $4.5 million to function.

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Austin on Wednesday to join the National Domestic Violence Hotline in commemorating its 3 millionth call.

Established in 1994 as a part of the Violence Against Women Act, the hotline is the largest resource of its kind for victims of domestic violence and dating abuse.

“This is a bittersweet moment for us,” hotline president Katie Ray-Jones said. “We’re proud of our accomplishments and amazed that we’ve answered 3 million calls, but at the same, we’re saddened that we’ve had to answer 3 million calls.”

Biden, who has visited the hotline’s headquarters three times, said the organization is crucial in helping millions of victims seek help in situations of abuse.

“There is nothing I’ve been involved with in my entire career that I’m more proud of, that I think is worth sustaining, that I think is more consequential, than the work you all have been doing,” Biden said.

According to Biden, violence against women generally has decreased in the last decade, but violence against young women specifically is on the rise. More resources are needed to expand the program and enable hotline advocates to answer more calls, he said.

“What amazes me is why we should have any problem fully funding this operation,” Biden said. “This is an absolute success — no one can argue with what has been done.”

Biden said the hotline needs at least $4.5 million dollars to function. The hotline was originally set to receive $3.2 million in federal funds annually, but because of the federal government’s budget sequestration in January, funding has been cut to $2.9 million this year, according to Biden.

“We drop somewhere around 50,000 calls,” Biden said. “We need more people, we need more resources to be able to service the demonstrable need that is there.”

Members of the UT student organization Voices Against Violence (VAV) praised the vice president for his commitment to addressing domestic violence and women’s issues.

“In the past, women’s issues haven’t always been government’s top priority,” psychology sophomore Lauren La Riva, a VAV member, said. “Biden shows that this issue is obviously important to him and the current administration.”

The Violence Against Women Act provided $500,000 in grant money to create VAV in 2000, according to Erin Burrows, who serves as health education coordinator for the organization.

“The federal funding received that puts things like that hotline and the things we do here [at VAV] into action is really valuable,” said Sydney Wilkins, a student assistant for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. “It’s important for women to know that these resources exist for them.”

The option to text and instantly connect with the hotline appeals directly to high school and college-aged victims, Ray-Jones said.

“That’s the way people prefer to communicate now,” she said. “We’re seeing our phone contact numbers decrease, but numbers to chat and text increase significantly.”

Verizon Wireless recently donated $250,000 to create a live chat system for the main hotline.

“If the tests we’ve done are any indication, this is going to make a big difference in the lives of lots of women,” Biden said.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the article about Vice President Joe Biden in the Oct. 31 issue of the Daily Texan has been corrected. Verizon Wireless made it's donation independently.

National Sexual Assault Awareness Month is over. Within the month of April, a female American tourist in Rio de Janeiro was raped and robbed on a minibus. Two girls under the age of 10 were raped in India, one of whom died from her injuries. In Canada, a 17-year-old hanged herself after enduring over a year of bullying since she was gang-raped at a friend’s house in 2011.

To see these incidents in the news and feel helpless to stop their repetition is frustrating. In a disaster situation, money and donations can be delivered, but it appears as if little but condolences can be sent to a rape survivor or his or her family. The world feels pity, but what’s done is done.

Although it manifests itself in different forms and under different circumstances, rape has no preference. It doesn’t prefer developed or developing nations or discriminate against a certain race or identity. Rape happens, and I certainly don’t claim to have a simple answer on how to prevent it. But rape culture — the way in which our societies view and often judge survivors of sexual assault — can be reformed through education about common misconceptions. 

On the University of Texas campus, the Voices against Violence organization plans frequent campaigns, theater productions, dialogues and events to engage the entire campus and community about issues of interpersonal violence and sexual assault. One of its goals is to solidify the message that rape is not merely a women’s issue, but one of concern to society as a whole. Dialogue is not restricted to feminists; any humanist has a responsibility to initiate it. VAV staff even provide training to UTPD officers each semester on how to appropriately communicate with survivors of interpersonal violence and sexual assault.

Unlike other crimes, rape often results in the blaming of the victim. Instead of highlighting the wrongful actions of the rapist, the survivor is often questioned about his or her actions at the time of the crime, told to be more careful when walking at night or in dangerous areas and equipped with pepper spray or self-defense classes in case of future occurrences. 

After speaking to James Shaw, the founder of the Resist Attack Foundation, I understand the appeal of protective measures against rape. Resist Attack is a nonprofit organization that aspires to provide every woman in America with a bottle of pepper spray. The organization has given out 4,600 pepper sprays in Austin to date. Shaw often organizes meet-up locations on the UT campus for women to distribute free spray. 

Shaw said that he decided to focus his efforts on pepper spray because he felt it was most practical to emphasize one main aspect (self-defense) and that his natural choice was pepper spray. However, Shaw said that he maintains communication with groups such as Step Up, which focuses on preventative rather than protective measures against rape by working to change the attitudes of young men regarding violence against women. 

“Our hope is, of course, that one day our mission is unnecessary. Until then, we’d rather do what we can to help this way,” Shaw said. 

Shaw’s comments illustrate how the preventative approach cannot stand alone in confronting the issue of rape and its side effects. Rather, prevention must collaborate with the message that the responsibility of preventing rape doesn’t fall solely on the targeted person. 

I didn’t understand how misunderstood rape is when I first stepped foot onto this campus. Of course, I thought rape was an awful thing, but I didn’t see how I could personally work to stop it. I didn’t know the meaning of the term “victim-blaming” and didn’t realize that substituting “survivor” for “victim” can help empower those affected by
sexual assault.

My initial ignorance, however, wasn’t the result of a lack of interest, but a lack of exposure. The dismantling of misconceptions surrounding sexual assault is a powerful force on our campus, but it can only work if students confront the ideas promoted by organizations like VAV in their daily lives. 

Sometimes, although not always, all it takes to prevent a rape from occurring is a concerned stranger acknowledging that rape culture shouldn’t be the status quo. National Sexual Assault Awareness Month is over, but its message shouldn’t stop being spread. 

Manescu is an international relations and global studies sophomore from Ploiesti, Romania.

On Tuesday, Nov. 13th, the Daily Texan published an opinion column by Katelyn Sack titled “UT’s response to rape fails to protect students.” Ms. Sack’s column gave readers the impression that UT does not provide adequate services for survivors of sexual violence. This assertion is, quite simply, untrue.

Voices Against Violence is a holistic program operated through UT’s Counseling and Mental Health Center. This program provides resources for survivors of sexual violence and works to educate the university community about relationship violence, sexual assault and stalking. Since its inception in 2001, VAV has spearheaded the University’s efforts to prevent sexual violence and provide resources and services for survivors. Although I am not here to claim the system in place is perfect, I believe that it is important for all UT students to know their options as victims of sexual violence and UT’s programs and policies geared toward providing survivor services.

In the 10 years that VAV has existed, more than 150,000 individuals on UT’s campus  — from orientation advisors and the UT Police Department to incoming freshmen and student athletes — have participated in VAV’s training sessions. These sessions offer information on how to be a safe and supportive first responder when an incident of sexual violence is reported, what sexual violence entails and how to identify red flags.

Ms. Sack suggested in her column that part of UT’s failure concerning survivors of sexual assault lies in how survivors are counseled on campus and what their “best reporting option” may be. To be clear, no one has the power to tell survivors how best to respond to their experiences. In fact, for some, the “best reporting option” may be no report whatsoever. The very notion that any one path could possibly be “almost always survivors’ best reporting option” shows an inherent misunderstanding of a survivor ally’s role. The individual who experienced the violence is the expert on it and how he or she feels about it. Attempting to tell a survivor what is best for them potentially disregards a survivor’s ability to take control of an already difficult situation. No one has the right to take the power to choose out of the hands of the survivor.

Voices Against Violence employs a survivor-centered approach. This means that regardless of how survivors choose to come forward with their story — whether they’re seeking medical attention by calling the 24-hour University Health Services nurse advice line, justice by reporting to the UT Police Department, guidance from a resident assistant, or peace of mind by contacting a Voices Against Violence counselor directly  — VAV has trained all of these individuals to respond appropriately. In line with the philosophy of keeping a survivor’s power in his or her own hands, an appropriate response includes disclosure of all reporting options available to the student, some of which include filing a criminal complaint, civil complaint and/or a University complaint.

Despite Sack’s assertion that a civil suit is a survivor’s best option, each of the options listed above has unique pros and cons that affect every survivor in equally distinct ways. Although civil cases are statistically easier to win, in the event of a student committing sexual assault against a peer, a lawyer may not even pick up a civil case. In a civil case, the survivor is essentially suing his or her assailant for a dollar amount that coincides with the heinousness of the crime committed. If the assailant is a young adult in college, he or she is unlikely to have the means with which to pay that amount — and who can really put a price on the privilege of living a life free of sexual violence? If damages cannot be collected, no one gets paid unless a negligent third party can be found responsible and brought to court.

So, yes, civil cases may be easier to win, but only if you can find the money to pay a lawyer to take the case and if the offender has assets. If a survivor finds a feeling of closure in seeing his or her attacker pronounced guilty, that is the survivor’s choice to make, whether through a civil or criminal suit.

In the end, the best support an ally can provide is respecting the power a survivor has over his or her life. The process of creating a safer campus is, as always, a work in progress. Until sexual violence is eradicated, there is more work to be done. But if you are a survivor in need of a place to turn, look to your family. Look to your friends. Look to your fellow Longhorns. We are here and we will listen. We can help.

If you would like to speak to a counselor trained in issues related to relationship violence, sexual violence and stalking, call the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center , which is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., at 471-3515 and request a VAV appointment when scheduling.

If you need to see someone immediately, please come to CMHC on the 5th floor of the Student Services Building and ask to see a Crisis Counselor. No appointment is necessary.

If you would like to speak to someone over the phone confidentially and anonymously, please call UT 24-hour telephone counseling at 512-471-CALL (2255).

Wilkins is a member of Voices Against Violence’s student organization and an economics and international business junior from New Braunfels.