THE BLOG
10/24/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

'Silence Encourages the Tormentor, Never the Tormented'

diego cervo via Getty Images

Every time I look into the eyes of a victim of domestic violence and listen to her or his story, I can see and hear how important it is for them to speak safely about what they've endured. In the decade I've worked with survivors and advocated on their behalf, I've come to understand that nothing amplifies violence like silence. As Elie Wiesel said, "Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

That's why I've committed my career to amplifying the voices of those who are too often unheard.

Many take our freedom of speech for granted, especially in a noisy election season, or when the Supreme Court denigrates its importance through decisions like Citizens United. But for too many victims, the freedom to speak up about the nightmare of domestic violence is still a dream.

For a long time, domestic violence was a problem without a name. As long as it wasn't discussed, it wasn't possible for individuals to address it or for communities to unite around their shared experiences and demand change.

A generation of brave survivors has led us out of that darkness, including those who established October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But many more roadblocks remain in our way.

First, the scene of the crime is often the privacy of one's own home. Abuses at the hand of a partner or lover are no less terrifying and damaging than those committed by strangers -- sometimes even more so -- but they can also be even scarier to report.

Second, the power dynamics at play are entirely about silencing victims. Perpetrators try to control and intimidate their victims long after the physical abuse ends, making it even harder to talk about.

Third, even though domestic violence is happening right in front of us, even though it happens to and by people we know and admire, we're still not comfortable as a society having an honest conversation about it.

Fourth and finally, when victims do find the courage to speak out against abuse, the tables turn. Women are called outrageous slurs -- crazy, hysterical, liars -- all designed to undermine their credibility. I know something about the way our culture tries to silence and stigmatize women like this; I lived through it myself in the very public way.

Women are also asked insulting and irrelevant questions -- "What did she say to him to cause that reaction?" -- as though any answer could justify or nullify the abuse she's suffered.

We saw this happen very publicly in the extraordinarily case of NFL star Ray Rice, when the victim's character was questioned as much as the offender. People asked, "Why did she marry him?" and "Why does she stay with him?" -- seeking to blame the victim.

This behavior and these stigmas hold us back. They dangerously stand directly in the path of gender equality -- and a society free of violence.

There are a lot of good people working hard to break down these walls, including the advocates I worked with at Sanctuary for Families and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles, and other organizations that support survivors of domestic violence. Many of those organizations joined a statewide coalition I co-founded to successfully advocate for legislation that protects victims of intimate partner violence regardless of their sexual orientation and relationship status.

That legislation allowed countless victims of same-sex intimate partner violence and teen and elder victims of dating violence to break their silence for the first time and seek civil restraining orders, ensuring that by speaking out they wouldn't risk their own and their families' safety. These individual and collective acts of breaking the silence and raising our voices are crucial to progress, to ending the violence, just as the act of "coming out" has been crucial to progress on gay rights.

It's equally critical that we make our voices heard at the ballot box, where we can make progress on such issues. This November, our ballots will determine whether extremists committed to rolling back women's rights will get promoted to Congress, governors' mansions and state houses across the country. There are referenda on several states' ballots designed to limit women's access to the health care they need -- and designed to turn out conservative voters. I'm proud to be running for office in California, a model in many ways for its progressive legislation protecting survivors, and I know that if we keep moving California forward, the country will follow our lead.

The good news is that young voters and progressive voters have a record of turning out enthusiastically to affect change. The challenge is that our interest wanes in local and state elections like this year's. We can't forget that most real change starts much closer to our houses than the White House; most legislation that affects our everyday lives is debated and determined in state houses and city councils.

That's why I'm running for a seat in Sacramento. My commitment to my community is that I will always raise my voice to defend and protect survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. I will never stand for silence that comforts the tormentors. But I also can't do it alone: You must raise your voices with your votes.