Here we are on the final day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a week after Earth Day. I’ve been thinking about the many colorful flyers I’ve seen this past month (in real life and on social media), advertising seemingly separate events: One set celebrating Earth Day and another raising awareness about sexual assault, including for Denim Day.
Beyond competing for people’s attention each April, what do Earth Day and Sexual Assault Awareness Month have in common?
It turns out a lot insofar as those of us working to prevent and respond to intimate violence share an interest with those working on the climate crisis. At least, that’s the case that I started to make in Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence Against Women. In that book, I offered some examples of how people concerned about gender-based violence share interests with those concerned about environmental sustainability. For example, when extreme weather or other aspects of climate change force people to migrate or cause armed conflict, girls and women are at risk of sexual assault and other intimate violence, such as trafficking. We have what community organizers call a collective interest in change that prevents extreme weather even though the initial motivations, passions, and expertise that bring us together may differ.
We have other shared interests, too, because climate change and intimate violence are both social justice issues, and both require institutional responses that run the risk of institutional betrayal instead of courage. Let’s take a look at our shared interests.
Both Are Social Justice Issues
People concerned about gender-based violence share interests with those concerned about environmental sustainability because both are social justice issues that affect the health and well-being of communities. Indeed, my colleagues at the University of Denver and others around the globe have shown that the consequences of climate change are not equally distributed. Even as the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt around the globe, poorer people and poorer countries bear the brunt of extreme weather, even though wealthier countries have caused more of the damage to the planet.
This pattern was on display in headlines last fall, for example, when news of devastating floods in Pakistan broke. However, the pattern doesn’t just play out across international borders. Within the United States, individuals living in poverty and in minoritized communities are more likely to be directly impacted by extreme weather as well as water and air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and researchers nationally.
Likewise, intimate violence affects women of all backgrounds. However, economic insecurity and other forms of marginalization and minoritization worsen the situation, increasing risk for some forms of victimization, including murder by intimate partners, and negatively affecting access to services in the aftermath of violence. Intimate violence can also drive economic insecurity, such as by affecting girls’ and women’s school and career trajectories.
Both Are Met With Institutional Betrayal
The connections between these issues go deeper, as I came to understand recently when I had the opportunity to listen to three students present to a group of decision-makers about climate change and eco-distress. Eco-distress is one of many terms, such as climate anxiety, that has emerged to refer to the psychological consequences of awareness of the many negative consequences of a rapidly changing planet.
During the presentation, the students pointed to research showing that eco-distress disproportionately affects children, adolescents, and young adults. When researchers recently surveyed 10,000 children and adolescents around the world about their perceptions of climate change, more than half reported that they were very or extremely worried about climate change. A majority said that they think the future is frightening, while nearly half (45 percent) described that their worries about climate change negatively affect their day-to-day functioning. The research went on to document that children and adolescents assess governments as having failed to respond adequately to climate change—and they feel more betrayed than reassured by government responses to date. In turn, feeling betrayed was linked with greater distress.
It was the betrayal part that stood out to me because my own research addresses the role that betrayal plays in intimate violence and institutional responses. Indeed, we know from decades of research on betrayal trauma theory, for example, that the consequences of victimization are worse when people depend on those who harm them.
More recently, Dr. Jennifer Freyd and colleagues have extended that theory to consider the ways that people depend on institutions—such as schools, faith organizations, and governments—in the aftermath of intimate violence and sexual harassment. Institutional betrayal occurs when the institutions on whom victims and survivors depend cover up, fail to respond appropriately, or allow the conditions to continue where violence and harassment are more likely to occur. Research shows that institutional betrayal is associated with additional harms to victims and survivors.
The same pattern, then, linking institutional betrayal with worse psychological distress after intimate violence, is emerging in terms of youth ecodistress and their assessment of government failures to act. But, here’s the thing: Where institutional betrayal is possible, so is institutional courage—another concept introduced by Dr. Freyd to capture when institutions respond to harm with transparency, accountability, and reparation.
And that brings me back to the students who I heard present to decision-makers about eco-distress. Recognizing that young people feel betrayed by government inaction, the students proposed actions that institutions could take—from developing counseling and support services that specifically address eco-distress to advancing intergenerational solidarity.
Doing More Together
The students’ call to intergenerational solidarity resonated for many reasons—including, again, the parallels to intimate violence. Even as climate change and eco-distress disproportionately affect young people, intimate violence disproportionately affects girls and women. In both cases, we all lose out—regardless of our ages or genders—when young people, girls, and women cannot meet their full potential and thrive in our schools, businesses, communities, and governments. This means that we share an interest—regardless of our ages or genders—in responding to the tangled web of root causes that underlie harms caused by climate change and intimate violence.
As we recognize our collective interest in addressing both climate change and intimate violence, we can discover opportunities for inviting other people to action, too. Consider, for example, that both climate change and intimate violence have serious consequences for human health and well-being— from psychological to respiratory health. Indeed, extreme weather and pollution are driving up asthma in young people even as research reveals links between intimate violence and asthma. This means that we can grow a collaborative network for action that includes counselors and mental health professionals as well as respiratory specialists.
Of course, the list goes on of those whose self-interests are tangled up with ours when it comes to climate change and intimate violence. While April’s Earth Day and Sexual Assault Awareness Month events will soon pass, you have a chance to explore your self-interests in these connected issues across the months ahead—and to say yes to the invitation to take action together to build a different future.
Note: A version of this article appeared earlier this month at Psychology Today here.
Every 90 Seconds is available from Oxford University Press or:
One thought on “What do Earth Day and Sexual Assault Awareness Month Have in Common?”
One of the interesting things I noticed in one of my Humanities classes (probably 10 years ago now), was that art changed as the Industrial Revolution was starting. This is purely anecdotal, and just something I noticed, but the paintings of women, in particular, at that time moved to showing them laying down, often in very receptive, submissive, inviting poses. It made me think that Mother Nature was also being seen as a submissive entity, open for gratification of whatever kind.
Just thought I’d share this observation.
Leanna Stoufer (she/her)https://www.mypronouns.org/what-and-why Lead Legal Advocate? Project Safeguard PO Box 40250 Denver CO 80204 720-337-4468 (o) 720-618-6531 (c) Leanna@psghelps.org
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