Shantelle Gaynor: From arcade star to crusader against domestic, sexual violence

Shantelle Gaynor appears on Starcade, a 1980s gameshow. She now heads Relationship Violence Services in Missoula and has been a leading voice for change around domestic and sexual abuse.

Today, Shantelle Gaynor is the director of Relationship Violence Services in Missoula County. But first, she was a fierce competitor on Starcade — an 80s gameshow where a child challenges an adult in Super Pac Man, Buck Rodgers and Tempest, along with the day’s other hot arcade games.

At 8 years old, with Farrah Fawcett curls, Gaynor exudes quiet confidence in both her gaming and softball abilities (yes, she can knock the ball out of the park) as she goes head to head against 45-year-old Harry. This confidence was not unfounded: she nearly doubled his point total, bringing home an array of prizes that would make any child feel like a millionaire.

Gaynor has carried this sense of self-assurance into her adult life as she confronts the relationship between trauma and sexual violence in Missoula.

“Since I was in college, I was an activist at the Women’s Center,” Gaynor said. At that time, both policies and conversations around sexual and domestic violence looked drastically different. “Marital rape wasn’t fully illegal until the 90s,” Gaynor added.

Gaynor worked with colleagues and fellow activists to transform society’s narrative of sexual violence in various populations of Missoula—first directing outreach for the University of Montana’s Student Advocacy Research Center, then providing resources and sexual violence services to the rural community of Seeley Lake. It eventually included grant writing for Relationship Violence Services.

Now, with the aid of her colleagues, Gaynor has sharpened the focus of Relationship Violence Services with prevention in mind, offering programs to the general public in addition to services for survivors.

Gaynor’s office adheres to the philosophy that consent and violence affect everyone, and everyone could benefit from learning preventative and restorative strategies. As a consequence, she has partnered with middle schools, high schools and the Montana University System to implement primary prevention programs.

Gaynor also helped institute the local Make Your Move program, which hosts bystander intervention and other training programs for bars and other establishments across Missoula. She has also brought these services to rural communities in Seeley Lake and Mineral County.

Gaynor teamed up with community partners to institute the local Make Your Move campaign, which hosts bystander intervention and other training programs for bars and other establishments across Missoula.

As research in the field expands, data shows that domestic violence is not necessarily inevitable or predisposed. There is a link between PTSD, trauma and perpetuating domestic abuse, according to a study in the British Journal of General Practice.

Gaynor has made this a focal point of her work, underlining a little-known truth: most domestic abuse offenders are survivors of violence themselves.

“When you grow up with trauma, you’re far more likely to experience homelessness or houselessness. You’re far more likely to become an I.V. drug user,” Gaynor said. “You’re far more likely to do poorly in school and in jobs. You’re far more likely to take other risks like not wearing a seat belt, not wearing a helmet or driving erratically.

“So when we start looking at all the different things that our community wants a response to, if you start looking upstream and asking what the seeds of the problem are, sometimes the seeds of the problem are growing up in a high trauma home,” Gaynor said.

All of this, Gaynor said, will lend to greater community safety and more economic growth, with less road accidents and more well-educated, productive citizens. She does not, however, expect to circumvent trauma in its entirety.

“Trauma is part of the human condition. We are all going to experience it, whether it is a car accident or it is living in a home with an abusive parent,” she said. “The way that trauma is going to impact us really differently depends on our resiliency and our community’s response.

“When a community doesn’t respond, the chances that’s going to compound to be a bigger problem are high. And if our community responds, well, you’ve got resources at school, you’ve got resources at the courthouse, you’ve got resources from law enforcement. And then we can break the cycle of trauma. And healing is part of the human condition, too.”

The reality, Gaynor said, is that there are multiple sources of relationship violence. Some match our typical portrait of an offender: they are sociopathic or otherwise married to power, unwilling to see the wrong in their actions. Others are situational offenders whose actions are triggered by negative events, such as losing a job or a death in the family.

The latter genre of offender is likely to have experienced childhood or adolescent violence, and consequently respond to certain traumatic events with violence. As such, the pandemic has had divergent impacts on different families.

Shantelle Gaynor, direct of Relationship Violence Services in Missoula.

Many relationship violence organizations have seen an increased rate of domestic abuse as yet another public health toll of COVID-19, with increased time together exacerbating already present conflict. This has been proven true on an international level. On one day in April, the French police reported a nationwide spike of 30% in domestic violence, according to the New York Times.

Still, Gaynor presents an alternate picture.

“In some families, we’ve seen a reduction in violence as the COVID-19 financial response was coming in because their family had more resources than ever. So depending on stressors in your life and the typology of violence that you’re experiencing, it could be a stress enhancer or inhibitor with that financial support.”

While this does nothing to mitigate those experiencing increased physical and emotional suffering due to lockdown, it does point to the nuanced and unpredictable patterns of domestic abuse offenders.

Unfortunately, research is limited because the field is so young, and as Gaynor said, “Data collection is inconsistent and relies on multiple systems that don’t talk to each other.”

And while protests like Take Back the Night catalyzed a shift in the public’s mindset around reporting and litigating sexual violence, according to the American Medical Association, it is still the most unreported crime, with only one fourth of survivors reporting to the police.

The lack of information and reporting is most apparent in Montana’s marginalized groups, specifically the BIPOC and LGBTQ community.

“There are so many reasons for violence to be kept underground, like when you’re already in a stance of having fewer rights,” Gaynor said. “There are also the structural reasons that would stop people from reporting. It used to be that if you were in a same-sex relationship, you couldn’t get an order of protection based on relationship violence. It had to be under stalking, and then you had to prove it happened multiple times, while in a heterosexual relationship, a single assault could get an order of protection.”

This policy only changed 6 years ago. Folks in the LGBTQ community experience sexual violence from strangers at nearly twice the rate of heterosexual people, but “trans women, particularly trans women of color,” experience sexual violence at a much higher rate, Gaynor said.

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, around half of all transgender people experience sexual assault in their lifetime, including up to 65% of Native American transgender respondents. Native Americans are generally twice as likely to experience a rape or sexual assault compared to all races.

“Predators look for vulnerability, whether it is somebody who is not going to be believed by law enforcement because they have a substance abuse disorder or they’re houseless or they’re a person of color,” Gaynor said.

Around 79% of African Americans—in comparison with 32% of white people—say the way racial and ethnic groups are treated by the criminal justice system today in the United States is a big problem. As such, many cities have turned to restorative justice programs for cases of sexual and relationship violence—such as Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and the Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project.

These programs seek to repair harm and empower survivors while simultaneously rehabilitating the perpetrator.

“It’s really hard to get people to mediate that level of power and control and what all the coding in a relationship might look like,” Gaynor said. “So this is a place where I would heavily turn to research.”

Yet she remains optimistic about the future, arguing that it could expand the limited options for survivors and better meet their needs, all while holding offenders accountable without simply punishing them.

When everything aligns, Gaynor said, “it can be really kind of magical. So I would imagine eventually we’re going to evolve towards something like that.”

While Gaynor has reinvigorated Missoula’s office for Relationship Violence Services and reintroduced education and conversation into the lives of students and bargoers, she’s uncertain about the future of the broader movement.

“There’s a new generation that’s largely folks who got into social work or criminology, and they’re coming out in the field. It doesn’t have its activism the way it used to, because it’s not as much about personal experiences. People are coming out professionalized,” Gaynor said. “So I guess my open question is this: What’s going to call people to the movement? And what’s going to help the work keep growing and expanding?”

After the most recent digital rallying cry in the 2017 #MeToo movement, public attention has again shifted. The pandemic is forcing relationship violence programs to rethink everything about how they function—from digital advocacy to criminal justice.

Gaynor prescribed “blending what we’ve gained from professionalizing with the spirit of progress and innovation, excitement for the work, and bringing new people in.”

Audrey Pettit is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at the Missoula Current. She welcomes any constructive discourse about her reporting; you can contact her at agp2147@barnard.edu