By Teresa Huang (Theta Omicron, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Content warning: This post includes references to domestic violence and dating abuse. If you or someone you know needs help, visit loveisrespect.org, call 866-331-9474 or text “LOVEIS” to the same number.
“Has something like this happened to you?”
It’s a question I’ve gotten repeatedly throughout my decades-long commitment to dating abuse awareness and prevention organizations, from my early days performing with Dean’s Educational Theater to my current role as a board member for national nonprofit Break the Cycle. Every time I get the question, I give the same answer –
“No, but that doesn’t mean dating violence isn’t a part of my life.”
As an undergraduate Alpha Chi Omega member at the Theta Omicron chapter at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I helped to organize chapter fundraisers for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, raising money to support the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. But I had no personal connection to the subject of domestic violence. In my mind, DV was about physical abuse between husbands and wives. It was still a concept outside of me.
As a college student, I was focused on the ups and downs of finding love – crushes on guys who didn’t like me back, the fun of dating in a big city, the agony of fighting with someone you care about, getting hurt and getting a new crush. Like everyone my age, I was growing up and figuring out the world. I never saw a connection between my life and domestic violence.
After graduation, I became an actor and got cast in a one-woman show called The Yellow Dress by Deana’s Educational Theater, a company that uses theater to promote healthy relationships and educate student and military audiences about dating violence, cyberbullying and sexual assault. I performed the play all over the country and facilitated almost a hundred post-show talkbacks about the topics presented in the show. When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, I started volunteering with Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit that inspires and supports young people ages 12-24 to build healthy relationships and create a culture without abuse. I traveled to local schools throughout southern California to present their Start Talking curriculum in smaller groups, usually one classroom at a time, which allowed much more interactive discussions and one-on-one conversations.
I learned so much about the topic of dating violence during my years working with Deana’s Education Theater and Break the Cycle, finally making the connection between the concept of “domestic violence” and my experience “figuring out relationships.” I came to understand how abuse can show up before marriage, and for young people, the effects of dating violence can be more prevalent and harder to identify, but just as dangerous. One in three young people experience physical or sexual violence, or both, from a relationship partner. That statistic still shocks me to this day. The first time I heard it, I immediately thought, “That’s a third of my Alpha Chi Omega chapter!” Young women between the ages of 18-24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence, almost double the national average.
This was also when I learned that abuse is more than just physical. It’s a pattern of abusive behaviors that an abuser uses to exert power and control over their victim. It includes emotional/verbal abuse (name-calling, threats), sexual abuse (unwanted assault, tampering with birth control) and even digital abuse (excessive texting, tracking passwords). Abuse has many forms, and all are equally if not more damaging than physical abuse.
Meanwhile in my post-college life, I saw firsthand how widespread dating violence could be. Now that I knew the warning signs and could recognize different types of abuse, I could sense when it was happening around me.
A coworker once came to work with a bandage on her chin, laughing about how her boyfriend got upset about her terrible cooking skills. People offered sympathy but then went about their day. I pulled her aside and told her that his abuse wasn’t OK and gave her the phone and text number for Love is Respect’s dating violence hotline. I didn’t push her to talk about it; I just wanted her to know that I was there to listen without judgment and that she wasn’t alone. She quit a few weeks later, and while I don’t know what happened with her situation, I still recall how this felt to me.
At another job, I arrived one morning to find my cubicle neighbors chuckling about an envelope on a male coworker’s desk that was addressed to local police with a note on top asking us to mail it if he didn’t show up for work someday. He said it was about his relationship, and my coworkers teased him for having a “crazy” girlfriend. Later that day, I found a private moment to talk to him, and he explained the envelope contained evidence that his girlfriend was abusive, including copies of emails she’d sent and statements he had written. I immediately gave him the dating violence hotline number and kept checking in with him to let him know I was there to listen and be supportive. Eventually he called the hotline, made a safety plan and left the relationship.
These are just two of many experiences that showed me that dating abuse is a topic everyone should be educated about. Abuse can happen to anyone, and it does happen to people you wouldn’t expect. I’ve come a long way since my early days as an undergraduate raising money for Alpha Chi Omega’s domestic violence philanthropy. I now have a deep awareness and understanding of the topic, and in my current role as a board member for Break the Cycle, I’m committed to educating others about dating abuse and healthy relationships.
Domestic violence awareness and healthy relationships conversations are a part of my life because they’re a part of all our lives. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I invite my sisters to learn more about the different types of abuse and early warning signs to watch for, and to identify local and national resources that offer support and legal guidance. You may discover that these topics are already a part of your life too. You never know when you’ll be in a position to help someone in need – or help yourself. And always remember the biggest message to pass on to a friend or to take in yourself – you’re not alone. Everyone deserves a safe and healthy relationship.
Teresa Huang is a television writer living in Los Angeles, currently writing for MacGyver on CBS. She is a proud board member of Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit that inspires and supports young people to build healthy relationships and create a culture without dating abuse. Her superpowers include power napping, parallel parking and spending too much money at farmers markets.