Samantha Josephson

Samantha Josephson was killed March 29, 2019. Photo via Columbia Police Department.

The horrific death of Samantha Josephson following her abduction from Five Points has shaken our community to its core. Although this kind of violence provides a sizeable chunk of the entertainment we consume through our various screens, its brutal reality undermines the safety of normalcy in which we carry on our lives. Suddenly, we realize that going about our everyday activities — going out with friends, taking a ride share home — carry possible outcomes we never imagined.

When things are beyond our comprehension, we immediately try to make sense of them. We take complicated situations and reduce them to a single factor. We question what the victim did, or what she didn’t do, we ask what she was wearing, who she was with, how much she had to drink. If we can find any degree of culpability with the victim, we feel we can protect ourselves from the same horror. We can use the victim’s life as a moral prism to ensure it reflects back nothing of ourselves.

While there has been an enormous outpouring of grief, and support for Samantha’s family, it has been devastating to witness the comments attributing her murder to decisions she and her friends made rather than focusing on the actions of her killer.

Horrifying incidents lead to calls for risk reduction, steps that we can take to increase our sense of control over fate. The call to remind everyone to ask ride share drivers, “What’s my name?”, checking license tags against the app, and legislation to require certain illuminated signs are all common-sense precautions to take in an environment that feels newly dangerous.

Risk reduction is smart, but it is not foolproof, and it does nothing to change the ongoing narrative of violence against women that runs through our society.

While crimes such as the one against Samantha are relatively rare, the terrifying reality is that sexual and domestic violence are among the most common violent crimes in America. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 42.3 percent of women in South Carolina have experienced at least one incident of contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking. Only 8 percent of people seeking services at rape crisis centers in South Carolina reported that the person who assaulted them was a stranger. The people who hurt us are mostly those we know and love. If we want to change this narrative, we need to focus beyond risk reduction to an increased investment in prevention and an honest conversation about what respect, trust and consent really mean.

At the federal level, we depend on the protections offered by the Violence Against Women Act, which is currently expired and dependent on congressional action for reauthorization. Our state legislature took a first step by passing Erin’s Law, which requires multi-session primary violence prevention education in public schools from K5 through high school. These acts are not solutions, but critically important tools that we can use to create real change at the community level. Our communities must take the lead in ensuring that children are taught from an early age to respect the inherent dignity of every human being. They must learn to negotiate conflict, set healthy boundaries, and to communicate for healthy friend and dating relationships. These fundamental skills are as critical as literacy in setting our children up to succeed in life.

Community action starts with individuals, so ultimately, eliminating domestic and sexual violence rests on our shoulders. Every day we have opportunities to stand up for survivors and to demonstrate that we do not tolerate violence. A first step is to believe survivors without judgment when you hear their stories or to speak up as a bystander if you see something amiss. Use your voice to encourage your local school administrators and school boards to work with agencies like Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands to ensure that primary violence prevention education is embedded as a core part of comprehensive health education. Talk to your children honestly about these issues so they always know they can turn to you with questions or if they need help.

Our culture thrives on immediate reaction and quick fixes, but the road to ending sexual and domestic violence requires sustained action. While headlines and attention on cases fade quickly from public consciousness, the anger and grief our community is feeling can become a potent force for long term change. Engage in risk reduction strategies and sensible precautions, but also take the necessary steps beyond to build safer communities for everyone.

Sara Barber is executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, and Mary Dell Hayes is executive director of Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands.

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