Healthy relationships are based on communication, love and respect. They feel good. But not everyone’s relationships are positive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in 10 men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime and reported some form of effect related to intimate partner violence (IPV). More than 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
IPV is most often thought of as physical, social, emotional or sexual violence. However, IPV is rooted in power or control over another person; therefore, it can mean any behavior used to exert power. For example, IPV can also be financial (like ruining someone’s credit) or immigration-related (like threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement), as well as many other things. IPV can occur in any very close relationship (the word “intimate” does not mean it is limited to sexual relationships), and it can happen to anyone.
“IPV is a public health epidemic, and there are many different ways people experience it,” says Maya Ragavan, MD, MPH, MS, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Data are still being reported, but, overall, it looks as if IPV severity and frequency has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data have been mostly based on police reports, which may not capture the actual number of incidents as survivors may not always engage with law enforcement for a number of reasons.”
MAYA RAGAVAN, MD, MPH, MS
The COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns caused more people to be isolated with their abusers. However, this is only part of the reason incidences of IPV have increased, according to Dr. Ragavan. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced preexisting difficulties, particularly structural challenges. Starting in July 2020, Dr. Ragavan and Pitt colleagues, in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Futures Without Violence, and the Centers for Disease Control, have been interviewing IPV advocates about survivors’ experiences during the pandemic and what structural issues they have encountered, like racism, unsafe housing, environmental concerns or a lack of child care and other social support. Even before the pandemic, IPV survivors faced challenges when trying to meet basic needs; the pandemic made those challenges worse. Many survivors from marginalized groups experienced multiple inequities in addition to the pandemic.
In the study interviews, IPV advocates relayed stories of abusive partners using the COVID-19 pandemic to exert power and control. For example, abusers shut off partners’ cell phones—something that happened prepandemic but was especially isolating when it happened during the pandemic when so many interactions were virtual. There were also reports of abusive partners taking stimulus checks and not allowing survivors to wear masks. Abusive partners used Children and Youth Services as well as threats to custody and immigration status to exert power and control.
“What’s important to mention is the interweaving between the structural inequities that marginalized groups of survivors face and IPV,” says Dr. Ragavan. “When we think of IPV, we think of it on a personal level. But there are so many structural factors that affect not only the way that abusive partners use power and control but also the way that survivors can engage with different resources.”
Despite the difficulties faced by IPV survivors, Dr. Ragavan says that another compelling part of the study interviews was the incredible amount of resilience IPV survivors and their families have shown during the pandemic. Advocates report that survivors showed enormous strength while working to keep themselves and their families safe. Also noteworthy is how IPV advocates and agencies supported people experiencing IPV, especially during pandemic shutdowns.
“These groups have always been on the frontlines helping survivors, but they were extremely supportive during the pandemic,” says Dr. Ragavan. “In the study interviews, IPV advocates said they came up with creative solutions to continue supporting survivors as the world switched to mostly virtual interactions. Advocates created texting lines and partnered with stores that remained open to communicate to survivors that IPV agencies were still open and available to help. When we think of who our essential workers are, we need to include victim services agencies.”
With most places under shut-down orders for long periods of time, some people relished the time with loved ones and renewed healthy relationships. But people experiencing IPV continue to need support.
If you know people who are experiencing IPV and you want to help but don’t know how, Dr. Ragavan recommends listening to them and validating their experiences. Some things to say are “It’s not your fault,” “I am here to listen,” and “I hear you.” You can also help them find resources that may be helpful for them. It’s important to not take power and control away from survivors by forcing them to make decisions or engage with resources before they are ready.
Many supports and services are available in Pittsburgh and nationally. It is important to remember that victim services agencies include more than shelter (although that is available). They also include support groups, counseling, legal advocacy, help with medical care, child groups and so much more.
VICTIM OF IPV—In this Aug. 18, 2010, file photo, a victim of intimate partner violence (IPV), who calls herself, “Sierra” sits at a safe house in Nevada County, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)