The Healthy Teen Relationship Coalition: The Survivor Panel

Last month I had the pleasure to participate in the annual youth conference put together by the Healthy Teen Relationship Coalition. The day long conference consisted of various workshops hosted by local organizations that deal with teen relationships. Myself along with 3 other young ladies were invited by Day One’s Community Educator, Sara Gonzalez, to share our stories of surviving an abusive relationship and answer audience questions. I immediately accepted the opportunity and was more than excited to interact with the participating teens and answer any questions they had.

I arrived at the event approximately 30 minutes early to survey the crowd and found Sara  in the middle of an activity with the teens, discussing sexual assault and acceptable behaviors in a relationship. I sat back against the wall listening to the teens raise relevant questions about sexual activity in adolescent relationships. While I was nervous about sharing my story with such a large audience, I was impressed at the level of maturity they displayed in discussing such serious topics. Most of the crowd seemed well informed, but I wondered how they would react after hearing my story. Society and the media’s version of violence in relationships create an inaccurate portrayal and stigmas surrounding the victim.

After we went around sharing our stories, at 23 years old, I was the oldest survivor on a panel of just 4 young ladies. The others were teens in high school and a young college student. On Day One’s statistics web page, they list New York City and national teen dating violence statistics. The two I find most shocking are, “A high prevalence of dating relationships of young women between 15 and 24 in New York City are characterized by physical violence (22%), coercion (67%) and forced sexual experiences (37%). One in ten teenagers in New York City schools reports experiencing physical or sexual violence in a dating relationship within the past year.” These statistics and the presence of the other panel speakers made me realize that teen relationship abuse is not only on the rise, it is pandemic.

The other panel members and I answered a series of questions following our presentation. The participating teens asked us common questions that most people want answers to. For example, "Why didn't you leave before it escalated?"; "Who did you confide in?"; and "What are the warning signs of an abusive relationship?". While these questions may seem too personal, intrusive, or geared towards victim blaming, I welcome the conversation as a learning experience. Hearing the reality of teen dating violence, from it’s survivors, is essential to prevention and intervention. In the majority of violent relationships, the victim has tried to leave the relationship before and has had some form of violence done to them because they’ve tried to leave. It is not easy to ask for help when you’re feeling ashamed or fearing ridicule.

The signs of an abusive partner aren’t always clear. What we sometimes mistake as someone displaying care, attention, and affection for us, could very well be jealousy, control, and manipulation. There was a parent in the audience who suspects that her teen is involved in an unhealthy relationship and asked us for advice on how she should approach her child. Our natural instinct leads us to want to protect our loved ones and sometimes it can be too aggressive for someone emotionally distraught. We all agreed that it wouldn't hurt her to ask her daughter about the relationship in a caring tone. These situations must be handled delicately without using  the same forceful and controlling tone that the abuser uses.

Each of us continued to answered the questions based on our own personal stories but the overall message was clear; the victim is never to be blamed. Relationship abuse is about one person manipulating the other in order to gain power and control. I am thankful for the other young women that sat beside me, breaking their silence about dating violence. While it takes so much bravery and self-realization to share your story, it is therapeutic. I look forward to participating in upcoming teen workshops. Education and awareness arises from seeking information and being able to have an open and honest conversation.