Rutgers holds Empty Chair campaign to raise awareness for domestic violence


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Photo by samantha casimir |

The Empty Chair campaign aims to help students understand domestic violence by creating a physical representation of normally abstract numbers.


Sometimes, an empty chair in a classroom suggests something far more grave than the an absent student having a common cold.

Since 2003, the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA) has held the Empty Chair campaign.

Aimed at increasing awareness surrounding instances of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, the campaign creates a visual representation of the effects victims of violence experience, said Lisa Smith, coordinator for domestic violence services at VPVA.

Empty purple chairs, each representing a student forced away from campus, will be set up in student and recreation centers around campus through Thursday, Smith said. Attached to each chair are fictitious accounts of violence based on real student experiences.

“It’s important for all of us to be aware and informed about domestic violence because it’s happening here at Rutgers. I don’t think that’s a big news flash. it is something that is impacting our students either because of relationships that they are in themselves or through somebody very close to them,” she said

By representing the effects of this violence in the physical world, VPVA hopes to affect people in a way the media usually fails to do, said Maria Alba, a student staff member of S.C.R.E.A.M. Theater.

In media and on the web, statistics about sexual violence are common, the School of Arts and Sciences junior said. While the numbers may be striking and are effective at raising awareness, they are abstract and may be dismissed or face diminishing returns over time.

“To actually physically see the absence of a person in a classroom or physically see the chair that is symbolizing the severity of this issue, I think is really good at capturing people’s attention and getting them to think about the extra consequences of this violence,” she said.

Victims of this violence experience a wide range of negative effects aside from the immediate physical effects of abuse or sexual assault, Smith said.

“There are a lot of emotional responses — depression, anxiety … it can really run the gamut,” she said. “In fact, some people might say that the emotional effects might even be worse than the physical effects sometimes.”

The issue is made worse by the nature of abusive relationships, she said.

Abuse often comes in waves, she said. Following any instance of abuse, the perpetrator may apologize and promise to not abuse the victim again.

Eventually, she said, the inevitable will happen and the abuse will start again.

Victims also often have trouble leaving an abusive relationship, she said.

“They may stay because they think it’s going to get better. They may stay because they feel it’s up to them to fix it, particularly if the survivor is a woman,” she said. “Women are socialized that if there is something wrong in a relationship we’re supposed to fix it.”

Those experiencing abuse or who believe a friend is experiencing abuse are encouraged to contact VPVA, which acts as a confidential resource, she said. Except in cases of impending self harm, harm to others or child abuse, she said the office is not required to report anything students say.

Solving the issue will require help from everybody, and everybody is affected, Alba said.

“This issue is important because it affects everybody in the world. a lot of times this is seen as a women’s issue or an issue that just affects women, but in reality the numbers are high and we know that men and women are victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse,” she said.

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Nikita Biryukov is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. He is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @nikitabiryukov_ for more.


Nikita Biryukov

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