Guest Post – What is Normal? Addressing Violence with Young People

This week’s post comes from a man that I admire tremendously, a friend and ally from college.

Benjamin SmithBenjamin Smith is in his first year of law school at the University of Oregon where he is looking to focus on Child Advocacy and Domestic Violence Law. Previously he was the Male Involvement Coordinator at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work there was facilitating primary prevention of sexual violence with youth of color and young men in central New Mexico. He graduated from Earlham College in 2010 with a degree in Economics. He can be reached at: bsmith13 |at| uoregon.edu

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What do you consider normal?

I work in the field of primary prevention of sexual violence, and in doing so, I work with many diverse populations.  My focus, though, is with youth of Color, ages 12-18. This is one of the first things I ask them.  I say, “If you see your neighbor reading his newspaper on his porch in his underwear, would that be weird for you?”  They giggle and cringe thinking about the perceived awkwardness. Then I ask , “What if you saw it every day for years, he always does the same thing. Would it be weird then?” They shake their heads, many times even responding that it would be “normal,” and I explain that this is called “normalization.”

But when we get into discussions of what normalized violence they see or feel, the conversation is divergent from how normalization is many times approached. The conversation doesn’t usually, as I first expected, focus on the media and the messages that the youth were constantly being bombarded with but instead often focuses on real violence they were experiencing.

This was jarring for me. Having the privilege of never experiencing domestic and sexual violence, I was confident in dealing in the abstracts of the media and language we use, only to be confronted with a male student, 13, who was almost in tears after a session where we discussed sexual harassment. He came up to me after the program.

“You’re saying it’s wrong to holla at women on the street?”

I sat with him, discussing consent and how the person being called at might feel. He nodded, understanding and agreed with me that being called at could make someone scarred or feel violated, and then looked at me and asked why his father told him to do it whenever they were in the car.

It took me a while to answer, but I responded by telling him that he could make choices about whether to participate in the action or not, to which he responded that he didn’t want to, and would not do it anymore. I felt that this was the best outcome I could hope for, but it brought to my attention the fact that as anti-violence presenters, many times when we identify violence that others many not see, we challenge social norms.  But with that we also have to realize that these norms are a fundamental basis for many youth.

Pushing Back Against Normalization

Generational violence is a huge normalizing factor, and challenging a youth’s parents, or at least their teachings, can be very difficult for some kids. Do I think we need to back off? No. Do I think we need to dumb it down? No. Do we need to acknowledge that violence is a foundational part of many youths live? Absolutely.

Many of my students have seen more in their middle of high school lives than I have in 24 years. These students understand violence more than I do, my academic background, ability to quote theorists and call upon citable data may make me feel like I understand violence. But when a student asks me why they feel weird when their boyfriend grabs them or that they cry at night because of bullying at school, I am overwhelmed with my own hubris.

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