Survivor Leadership Institute Graduation: Celebrating leadership and each other

Sanctuary Client Renata writes about her experience as a member of the Survivor Leadership Institute’s Graduating Class of 2019.

Renata is a Survivor Leadership Institute graduate from the Class of 2019.  Our Survivor Leaders are former clients of Sanctuary, who go through a 12-week training and certification course to prepare them to make system-wide change through advocacy, training, program development, and working directly with other survivors.  Our graduates have completed this 12-week Survivor Leadership Institute, which consists of training in public speaking, vicarious trauma, self-care, media re-exploitation, advocacy, boundary setting, and many other skills.  

The Survivor Leadership Institute has a rigorous application and interview process, as the content of the training program is very challenging and can be triggering.  Each of the graduates has participated in counseling in the past, and to graduate this intensive program, they have leaned on their skills, their strength, their robust support systems and one another in our Survivor Leadership community. They have done the work to make it this far, and we are honored to have them become Sanctuary Survivor Leaders.

We often think of graduation as a milestone marking an entrance to a higher standing and the receipt of a diploma. To graduate also means to move from one stage of experience and prestige to a higher one, such as leadership. On May 13, 2019, the new cohort of survivor leaders at Sanctuary for Families did just that. I’m proud to say I am a part of this tribe, a part of the new cohort and a part of the story that extends before my time and to individuals who remain hidden and still in trouble.

As each of us stood at the podium to speak our truth, we celebrated life. Life after pain. Life after heartbreak. Life after trauma. We joined a brave tribe of survivor leaders fighting for justice, lifting shame, eradicating stigma, and promoting healing—all of whom are doing so with courage and strength that this work requires. Most of us didn’t choose our experiences. We didn’t choose our hurt. We didn’t choose disappointment and struggle. Now we certainly don’t choose what happened in our lives to define us. We choose to stand up, speak up, break the cycle, fight the system, educate the world, and be there for each other along the way. Today we choose to do something. Standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, today we are ready to support others on our shoulders. Our past drives us. Our future excites us. Our present allows us to show up—for ourselves, each other, and hopefully, many others.

For me, and I suppose for many others, healing is a process with ups and downs. It involves empathy and forgiveness—especially for myself. Healing also involves love for myself and others. My fellow survivor leaders and I are here today because the deeply broken people who tried to break us didn’t succeed. Unfortunately for many others, this is not the case. I hope that one day we will focus on the troubled situations that give rise to people who think it’s their right to take the lives of others, in one way or another, but we still have a long way to go. It’s an honor and privilege to stand among individuals paving the way for the justice that many of us never received and as a reminder that this can happen to anyone, and if it’s happening to you, you are not alone. We need to close the chapter on the narrative of broken, fragile, and gullible victims. No one standing at the podium at the Survivor Leadership Institute Graduation embodies any of these qualities. Instead, it was a night celebrating courage, determination, strength, vulnerability, resilience, and hope, along with intelligence, beauty, inspiration, and humor.

I recognize that I get to tell my story because I am lucky, and I survived. But becoming a leader isn’t luck—for me, it’s about being grateful for my life with all its twists and turns, the support of my fellow leaders, and Sanctuary for Families. This leadership opportunity is so much bigger than my story. The truth is that to get where I am today, I had to experience my yesterday. I stand with my humanity intact, and I no longer bear the weight of the lack of it in others.

Graduation night was a testament to the fact that our tribe is getting bigger. Our collective voice is getting louder. As Oprah says, our voices are our power. By breaking our silence and sharing our stories, we are taking our power back. Power we didn’t give away. Power that was taken from us by people we loved and trusted. This is an important distinction I hope others come to accept and recognize as we move away from painting inaccurate caricatures of victims and begin to focus on the individuals, ideologies and systems perpetuating gender-based (and related forms of) violence.

On International Agunah Day, Sanctuary Stands with Jewish Orthodox Survivors

Learn about the plight of “chained women” and how you can support our work within the Jewish Orthodox Community.

On the eve of Purim, the Jewish Orthodox community observes Ta’anit Esther to commemorate the plea of Queen Esther – a Jewish woman who saved her people during their exile in the Persian Empire. Like many Jewish women today, Esther was trapped in a forced marriage to the king of Persia and spent years fearing her husband might kill her.

Today, Sanctuary joins advocates around the world to observe the International Day of the Agunah – a day marked yearly on the Fast of Esther to bring awareness to the plight of the modern-day agunah, or “chained woman” – and stands in solidarity with Jewish Orthodox women in New York and across the world who have suffered from get-refusal and are trapped in unwanted marriages.

According to Jewish law, a marriage can only be dissolved once the husband voluntarily grants a get, or religious divorce, to his wife – something many men refuse to do out of malice or to use as leverage when negotiating financial settlements and custody arrangements. Get-refusal is thus a form of domestic violence by which the husband asserts power and control to deny his wife the opportunity to separate and move on with her life. Orthodox Jewish women in these situations are called agunot, or chained women, for they are not allowed to remarry. For agunot, any new relationship they have is considered adultery, and their children will be considered illegitimate if conceived outside of marriage.

At Sanctuary, we recognize get-refusal as a form of gender violence that harms women, their children, and the wider Jewish Orthodox Community. In 2015, seeing that many women seeking help with civil and religious divorces had virtually nowhere to turn for help, we launched the Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project. In the years since, we have provided clinical and legal services, shelter, and economic empowerment to hundreds of Jewish Orthodox women and their children. Furthermore, we have actively engaged with rabbis, community leaders, and peer organizations, to build a network of advocates committed to raising awareness about domestic violence within the Jewish Orthodox community and protecting the rights and wellbeing of survivors.

Please consider demonstrating your solidarity this International Agunah Day by donating to Sanctuary’s Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project.

Attorney General Endangers Women and Children with New Restrictions to Asylum Law

Attorney General Sessions’ decision concerning Matter A-B- reverses decades of asylum law and puts at tremendous risk the lives of women and children who have suffered horrendous domestic violence in their home countries. Read our statement.

Our Statement

Sanctuary for Families stands with survivors of violence in condemning yesterday’s announcement by U.S. Attorney General Sessions to overturn Matter of A-B- — a case which he referred to himself and one in which he directed immigration judges to deny asylum to survivors of domestic violence.

That heartless decision reverses decades of asylum law and puts at tremendous risk the lives of women and children who have suffered horrendous domestic violence in their home countries. It also leaves vulnerable victims of other human rights abuses including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The United States has long been a safe haven for immigrants who have been persecuted and cannot rely on their own governments to protect them. This decision by A.G. Sessions eviscerates that safe haven, limiting the types of cases in which immigration judges can grant asylum and thereby increasing the likelihood that women, children, and others will be sent back to their persecutors.

Hon. Judy Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, stated:

“At Sanctuary for Families, too many of our clients bear the scars of unrelenting intimate partner violence that occurs in countries where no government or authorities will intervene. For many, a forced return to their nation of origin will be nothing short of a death sentence.”

Lori Adams, incoming Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, said:

“This callous move by the Attorney General threatens the lives of those seeking refuge in the United States, after having suffered tremendous violence and believing that this country would stand by its promise to protect those who cannot find safety in their own countries. It is a huge step backward for this country and an atrocious way to treat vulnerable immigrants who came here seeking our help.”

This decision was issued in the wake of other brutal immigration changes including a sharp increase in the criminal prosecution of asylum-seekers for “illegal entry” and a practice of separating mothers from their babies and young children at the U.S.-Mexico border to detain them in separate immigration jails, for the stated purpose of deterring families from making the journey north to seek protection in this country. It is cruel and inhumane to treat mothers and children as pawns in a political game.

Sanctuary for Families and other legal services and human rights organizations will continue to work together to push back against this incremental erosion of the rights of asylum-seekers to seek protection in this country. We invite you to stand with us and to fight for the rights of all survivors of gender-based violence.

Take Action

Donate to support Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Program

Call your Senators and Congressional Representatives and use the script below:

“Hi, my name is NAME, I’m from CITY, STATE, and I’m a constituent of SENATOR / REPRESENTATIVE NAME. I’m calling today to ask SENATOR / REPRESENTATIVE NAME to stand up for victims of gender violence, those escaping gang warfare, and LGBTQ+ people, and demand that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reverse his decision on the Matter of A-B-. Sessions’ decision to deny asylum to those persecuted by private actors is a cruel step backwards for our country. Please speak out. Thank you.”

What You Didn’t Know About Cyber Sexual Abuse

Cyber sexual abuse, commonly known as “revenge porn,” is often misnamed and misunderstood. Spring Communications Intern, Lauren Altus, shares five key facts everyone should know about cyber sexual abuse.

Lauren Altus is a communications intern at Sanctuary and a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins University.


‘Revenge porn’ or ‘cyber sexual abuse’?

Cyber sexual abuse, commonly known as “revenge porn,” is often misnamed and misunderstood. In fact, it is difficult to find a simple, coherent definition for this form of abuse.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “revenge porn” is defined as: “Revealing or sexually explicit images or videos of a person posted on the Internet, typically by a former sexual partner, without the consent of the subject and in order to cause them distress or embarrassment.”

This name misrepresents the crime for several reasons. First, it is not about revenge, and second, it is not about porn. Revenge suggests the victim did something to deserve this crime, in effect placing blame on the victim. Less a tool for revenge, cyber sexual abuse is more often used as a way to maintain control over the victim.

For example, thirty-year-old Amanda’s physically abusive husband constantly told her that if she ever tried to leave him he would share damaging photos of her with her family, friends, and even use them in attempts to gain custody. When she finally did leave, he did just that: posted photos of her—even ones taken without her knowledge—on social media. Now, Amanda lives in constant fear, wondering who might see these photos and how might it affect her and her children.

This example drives home our second issue with the term ‘revenge porn’. Porn, though this may not always be the case, is generally considered consensual. Like in Amanda’s case and in others Sanctuary has seen, the photos and videos that are shared are sometimes taken unbeknownst to the victim or are photoshopped or “spoofed” (manipulated using photo editing software or other technology). Even if the photos are taken consensually – i.e. within the context of an intimate relationship – posting these photos online without the consent (and often without the knowledge) of the victim, is a nonconsensual act. For these reasons, we must call this crime what it is: cyber sexual abuse.

Over the last few years, cyber sexual abuse has become an increasingly common form of abuse due the omnipresence of social media in our lives. It’s also one we’ve seen highlighted in the media. From Jennifer Lawrence’s computer hack to Rob Kardashian posting nude photos of Blac Chyna, these instances have revealed the dire need for both legal protections and a better societal understanding of cyber sexual abuse.

Many people are quick to assume that every photo has been taken with the consent of the victim. Others think cyber sexual abuse can be written off as a joke, or that if their state has no law against it, it is okay to post photos of this nature.

Sanctuary attorney Lindsey Song, who has represented a number of victims of cyber sexual abuse in Family Court and with criminal justice advocacy, is the co-chair of the citywide Cyber Sexual Abuse Task Force. Below, she helps break down some of the stigmas surrounding victims of this form of abuse and tells us the five things we may not have known about cyber sexual abuse.

1. This is not just a millennial issue

There are many ways in which someone can become a victim of cyber sexual abuse, Song warns, and they can be anyone from a teen sexting to an eighty-year-old in a photoshopped image.

For example, thirty-five-year-old Molly did not send, or even take, a naked photo when she became a victim of cyber sexual abuse. Her ex-boyfriend photoshopped a photo of her face onto naked images he found online, and then sent those photos to people in her hometown where Molly was ostracized from her entire family and support system. She was then forced to rely on her abuser financially.

When Betty, a 60-year-old woman, broke up with her abusive boyfriend, he reacted by sending an intimate photo to multiple men who then tried to contact Betty online. The situation escalated until Betty had to quit her job as a nurse out of fear that her abuser would continue to send the photo to her coworkers. A New York police officer told her that this was her fault for sending the photo in the first place.

Some example of cyber sexual abuse include when a photo is posted online, shown to others, or disseminated, and that photo:

  • Was taken with consent of the victim but posted without it
  • Was taken without the victim knowing (i.e. the victim was sleeping or was the subject of hidden cameras)
  • Was stolen from a victim’s computer or private accounts
  • Was an image that is doctored, where someone has put the victim’s face on someone else’s body or otherwise made the photo appear to be of the victim when it is not
  • Was the result of forced production of an image (i.e. drugging a victim)

The one thing each of these victims have in common? “Victim-blaming in each of these situations needs to stop, because none of those victims consented,” Song said

2. A cyber-attack never truly has an endpoint

Song tells us that cyber sexual abuse can be “life-ruining in ways you don’t expect,” as cyber sexual abuse has “no beginning and end.” This often leaves victims fearful that more and more people will gain access to the photos. Unfortunately, no matter how tirelessly the victims and their lawyers work to remove the photos from the Internet, “a cyber-attack never truly ends” as the photos may be shared across multiple sites and platforms, screenshotted by viewers, downloaded onto various devices, and the full reach of the images is never truly known.

3. It’s not necessarily just photos or videos

Cyber sexual abuse does not just mean one photo is posted and it doesn’t necessarily mean only photos or videos. Attackers can post addresses, places of business, phone numbers, and other personal information so that strangers subsequently stalk the victim, sometimes demanding sex or harassing the victim in other ways. Song says that as a victim, there is a “constant weight on your shoulders.” Some of her clients have been forced to “change their names, move from their homes, and even change their children’s names,” while others have been excommunicated from their families and communities and even attempted suicide.

4. It is not the victim’s fault

This one should go without saying, but many judge victims for “allowing” the photos to exist in the first place. As Song points out, however, if a person gives their personal financial information to an accountant so that the accountant could do their taxes and then the accountant posted that private information on the Internet, everyone would deem this unacceptable.

As a society, we understand and frequently utilize the concept of specific and selective consent. It is only in the context of sexuality and the human body that this point gets blurry. In some instances the victim doesn’t even know the photo is being taken. Many attackers also use threats such as sending the photos to employers and family members in an effort to blackmail their victims. This is why Song urges us to remember “not to slut-shame, not to victim-blame, and that it is illegal to discriminate based on gender-based violence, which is what this is.”

5. The fear never goes away

A victim can obtain an order of protection to prevent dissemination and can report the crime to law enforcement. Victims can also contact websites directly to have nonconsensual pictures and videos taken down. Still, victims often carry around the fear of another post or another e-mail going up worrying and waiting for another attack.

For instance, when Celia decided to enter a beauty competition, her abusive ex-boyfriend decided to post videos of her engaged in sexual acts—ones that were taken without her knowledge or consent—onto pornography websites. He said that he did this in order to “make sure she never lived a normal life ever again.” It worked. Now, Celia is terrified to live her regular life, constantly in fear of what could happen if she upsets her abuser. Even though she was able to flee the relationship, her abuser continues to control her life, and will continue to do so until the law is changed to punish him for this horrific abuse.

In New York City, it is now (as of February 15, 2018) a crime to share, or threaten to share, an intimate photo without the subject’s consent or with the intent to cause harm to the subject. 38 states and Washington DC also have laws against cyber sexual abuse; however no statewide law currently exists in New York. While there are currently several proposals for legislation in New York State, none provide the full protections and avenues for justice that we believe victims need. Sanctuary for Families believes that New York State’s cyber sexual abuse law must establish the threat to distribute content as well as knowledge of content distribution (instead of only intent to harm) as criminal offenses.

If you or anyone you know is a victim of cyber sexual abuse, please reach out to Sanctuary for Families for legal assistance, clinical support, and other resources.

To get involved in our advocacy around cyber sexual abuse, please email Lindsey Song at lsong@sffny.org or Nicole Fidler at nfidler@sffny.org to join the citywide Cyber Sexual Abuse Task Force. The Task Force’s next meeting is on June 14 at 3:30 p.m. and meetings are held approximately every month and a half.