By Casey Gwinn
Recently, a domestic violence prevention organization in San Diego created a “F*CK DV” campaign. Their goal is to shock in order to raise awareness about domestic violence. They are willing to offend in order to raise awareness, inspire social change, and solicit donations. The campaign videos and pictures even include young children yelling “F*CK DV” and flipping off the camera. I think the campaign is well-intentioned. Survivors are sharing their stories and finding some consolation in raging against the pain and heartbreak of domestic violence. Those of us who are survivors of family violence and those who work in the field get tired and angry as we seek to change cultural norms and stop intimate partner violence and related child abuse and sexual assault in this country. We feel rage because of the unconscionable violence and abuse that continues to destroy women, men, and children. We feel rage when our prevention goals are not met. We feel rage when we cannot seem to get through to a complacent media and public.
But the campaign sponsored by Breaking the Silence Against Domestic Violence is not the solution. It is a profoundly crass, negative messaging campaign in the effort to reduce intimate partner violence and related child abuse and sexual assault in the United States. From the start, it will alienate all those that choose integrity in their use of the English language. To focus on weaknesses instead of strengths – to focus on the impact of trauma instead of the mitigating power of hope – to focus on profane and rage-filled expressions instead of celebrations of healing, resilience, and inspiration does not change the norms and values of the culture around intimate partner violence and its consequences. Verbally abusive messaging is not a pathway to hope.
I am sure part of the inspiration for the campaign was the viral “F*CK Cancer” campaign and other causes that have capitalized on the shock value of the word when used by advocates. But those campaigns are not engaging people who have lived through the very use of the word in angry outbursts and life-threatening assaults such as punching, kicking, use of weapons, and near-fatal strangulation assaults. Those campaigns did not have to think about the actual meaning of the word when raising awareness about cancer or other good causes and its crass connotation of violent or aggressive sexual conduct.
We run the first evidence-based camping and mentoring program in the country for children exposed to domestic violence. Next summer, we will have our camping and mentoring program in more than ten states. The children come from Family Justice Centers and other types of multi-agency collaboratives that seek to integrate many services for survivors under one roof instead of requiring victims to travel from agency to agency – telling their story over and over – in order to find pathways to hope and healing. It is built around the science of Hope. Hope is a science and is measurable. Camp HOPE America increases Hope Scores through camping, group mentoring programs, and character building activities in the lives of the children and their parents. It is a values-based, character building program with powerful, published results. It demonstrates how we can change the way trauma-exposed children view themselves and their futures.
Many of the children who come to camp have experienced profound verbal and emotional abuse along with physical and sexual violence. They have enormous internalized rage and anger from all they have suffered and seen. Often the abuse includes profanity and name-calling. The “f” word is used often in their homes and is often directed at them by parents and care providers. They learn to use it and employ it often because of the power of parental and caregiver modeling. Many of our children and the adults in their lives have also experienced the devastating violence of sexual assault and have lived through the actual meaning of the “f” word. They bear deep wounds and struggle to contextualize what has happened to them and to overcome those wounds.
At camp, we discourage rage-filled expressions of the “f” word and encourage children and teens to find other words instead of using the “f” word as a verb, noun, and adjective as is so common now in the culture. Quickly they learn how such verbal abuse triggers other children and adults and demeans and ignores the sacred power of speaking life and truth into the lives of survivors. Children learn to expand their vocabulary and speak words of encouragement and affirmation to each other. They learn to speak words of hope to themselves as well and turn off the ugly, negative, angry self-talk that often fills their heads. They learn to receive words of praise, life and hope from others. Over the course of a week of Camp HOPE America, we see the profound changes in the lives of our children and teens as they begin to see life through the lens of hope, inspiration, and resiliency instead of the hate-filled anger of words like the “f” word.
We can help children and adults exposed to trauma find pathways to hope and healing. We can engage the media to tell the stories of Hope Heroes and overcomers. And we can produce those impacts without crass and vulgar expressions of anger. Ironically, days before The Huffington Post shared the story of the “F*CK DV” Campaign, Post writer Melissa Jeltsen shared the power of Camp HOPE America in her story “The Children Who Saw Too Much.”
I am not naïve. Maybe the campaign will go viral. Maybe Breaking the Silence will raise lots of money to help survivors. Maybe many will embrace it as an outlet for their rage over domestic violence. But I encourage organizations and individuals to be thoughtful about the unintended consequences and collateral damage from such a campaign. If you are undecided about the campaign, click on the links above and read both stories from The Huffington Post again and judge for yourself what approach best points the way to hope and healing for those impacted by domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. Our choice should always be HOPE over rage.
Casey Gwinn is the President of Alliance for HOPE International and the founder of Camp HOPE America.