Staying safe in the age of instant relationships
Assistent Opinions Editor Hannah Martin
Originally published on Poetinis
She woke me up in the morning, bawling.
The situation had been getting worse over the week since she had broken up with him. It had taken three attempts to get it through his head that she did not want to see him anymore. The first time, she feared he would show up to the apartment because of how hostile he was about the whole thing, so she reluctantly agreed to see him again. The second time she tried to break up with him, he refused to accept it and pleaded for another chance, telling her how much he loved her. By the third time she tried to end things, he began to threaten her life and the lives of others.
A couple days passed, but after he saw a social media post of her at a bar, he went off the rails and blew up her phone with text messages meant to demean and humiliate her. She blocked him from all social media and he started leaving hostile messages. That morning, when she woke me in tears, he had called from a blocked caller-identification number.
The two met on a dating app, Bumble, and quickly jumped head first into seeing each other. They had no prior relationship or mutual friends. This happened about three weeks and 115 hours of in-person contact into the relationship. And now here we were, afraid for our safety and without a clue as to our options to protect ourselves.
“I think it’s time to call the police,” I gently told my crying roommate. We opted to call a lawyer who informed us of our options. We could visit the Norwalk courthouse and apply for a restraining order, go to the local police station to see what law enforcement advised, or look into campus-provided services.
Feeling safe at school, my roommate opted to head to Whittier College’s Student Life Office to speak with the Director of Student Rights and Responsibilities and Lead Title IX Investigator Siobhan Skerritt. Skerritt directed my roommate to immediately go to the Whittier Police Station to better understand her legal rights of protection, to notify Campus Safety with a physical description of the guy, and to proceed with pursuing a restraining order.
At the City of Whittier Police Station, we met officer Valenzuela. She escorted us into a small room off the lobby that had a table and four chairs. Officer Valenzuela was empathetic and had a sarcastic sense of humor . She seemed to enjoy the “girl talk” that came with discussing the case. She had a short blonde bob haircut and her lips would thin out before each question as she studied her leather-bound, pocket-size flip notebook. “Okay,” she said, “so tell me what happened. How did all of this start?”
When we were finished, Officer Valenzuela tapped her pen on her notepad. “I’m going to put this in as a terrorist threat,” she said. Our eyes widened and we turned to each other. Terrorist? “It’s because he threatened your life, and lives of others,” she explained.
The gravity of the situation settled in and we both exhaled deeply.
A month later, I circled back and sat down with Siobhan Skerritt to talk about dating, harassment, and sexual misconduct. Skerritt immediately honed in on the importance of honesty and setting boundaries.“You don’t owe anyone anything just because they spend money on you or take you out or anything,” said Skerritt. “Consent can be given and taken away. And that’s everything from sexual intercourse to picking up your phone.”
Skerritt emphasized that relationships happen quickly these days and that it is common to have an attitude of “I don’t have to talk about it. We’re in love and we don’t have to understand it.” But, she said, this quickly leads to complicated and often unsatisfying relationships without boundaries.
Sometimes these boundaries are not so obvious, or are blurred by people’s desire to make a relationship work. “[That’s] not fine,” said Skerritt, snapping her fingers. “Because in my head — especially if it’s done in front of other people — you could be doing things to my community where people are afraid to be near you.”
Skerritt sighed deeply when dating apps were brought up. “I see the purpose of [them],” she said, “The thing is, typically what people put on social media isn’t all of who they are. It’s just a part of who they are.”
Skerritt said she has dealt with many cases involving dating apps, both at Whittier and other places. She described the many disclosures that go with these kinds of apps, specifically relating to casual sex that free the app of responsibility for STDs, pregnancy, and other issues because “they recognize that people are just rushing into it for casual satisfaction. Maybe it will end in a relationship, but there’s no substance behind it and there are consequences.”
Skerritt believes that dating apps set relationships up for failure. However, she says that any relationship comes with a responsibility to have difficult conversations in order to understand people’s intentions. She suggested some dialogue. “‘I appreciate the honesty, and it’s not because I’m looking for this perfect person to date. I want to know, can you be honest and can you talk about honest things? I’ve got my own demons. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’m perfect, but I am willing to share that with you.’ Why should that be one-sided?”
When it comes to relationships, Skerritt says if you get a bad feeling in your gut, trust it. You can trust people, but you should confirm that they are who they say they are. She continues, “I’m going to say it again: if you can’t have that conversation, then it’s not worth it.”
Love Is Respect was the first organization to offer a 24-hour resource for teens dealing with dating violence or abuse. They are the only helpline that serves all of the United States and its territories. They offer free, live, and confidential phone, chat, and texting twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. Love is Respect reports that nearly half of college women who are dating experience violent or abusive dating behaviors. Psychological abuse is not always acknowledged as abuse, and often times people are left at a loss trying to understand where to draw the line in a relationship between a bad day and abuse.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, psychological abuse includes: humiliating a person, controlling what a person can or cannot do, withholding information from a person, deliberately making a person feel diminished or embarrassed, isolating the person from friends or family, denying a person access to money or resources, stalking, demeaning a person publicly or privately, undermining a person’s confidence or sense of self-worth, or convincing a person that they are crazy. The 2017 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report put forth by Whittier College’s Department of Campus Safety in compliance with the Clery Act states there were seven incidents of reported rape, one of fondling, two of stalking, and one instance of reported dating violence at Whittier College in 2016.
Recognizing an abusive relationship is not easy; Victims have often been manipulated into believing that they are to blame for their partner’s erratic behavior. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office on Women’s Health provides guidance on how to offer help to someone who may be in an abusive relationship. It recommends helping with childcare or providing transportation with making a safety plan, including a place to go and important items to have packed. The website is also a reminder that you can not rescue your friend. Those in danger must be the one to make these decisions and you should support them no matter what. These friendships can make the difference for survivors.
Ultimately, the restraining order my roommate requested was denied because the court did not find a real and imminent threat beyond a reasonable doubt, or “99-percent certainty” as Skerritt described it. Restraining orders are incredibly difficult to get granted, especially if there is no prior physical violence, because they limit a person’s constitutional freedom to freely move. In the eyes of the law, psychological abuse is not taken as seriously as physiological abuse. As for the police investigation, officers called my roommate’s ex to interview him but did not press charges. He has not contacted her since. If students of the College are seeking any type of support or help they can reach out to Skerritt and our free student sessions at the Counseling Center.