The first time it happened was 15 years ago. Jessica Wilson, a hair stylist who works at Salon 448 in Wood Dale, Illinois, was told by a client that she had been raped by her husband who had also verbally abused her. New to the industry, Wilson didn’t know what to do.
“You can just listen and express sympathy and empathy but there’s really nothing you can give them,” Wilson said.
With many cosmetologists like Wilson unsure how to help clients facing abuse, several states, including New York, have passed legislation to equip them with the resources to recognize symptoms of domestic violence and sexual assault and refer victims for help. New York’s law was passed in June 2019 and went into effect in June 2020. It requires all new cosmetology applicants to read two handouts and watch a one-hour training video online. The materials are also available to New York cosmetologists renewing their licenses, but as of now are not mandatory.
The training could have been especially helpful this past year with domestic violence cases on the rise during the pandemic. But few stylists interviewed said they have heard about the law or know that resources are available. Lana Kurayeva, the owner of Shear Bliss Salon in Manhattan, said her employees get training from the Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding safety and health standards when exposed to potentially toxic substances but have not received any information on dealing with domestic violence.
“None of this training is about domestic violence,” Kurayeva said. “I don’t even think that exists in our industry yet.”
And yet it does. Since last June, newly licensed cosmetologists and those renewing their licenses have been able to access the training materials on the Department of State website. They consist of a printable handout on power and control and how they relate to abuse, a pamphlet on recognizing abuse and a 45-minute YouTube video. The materials discuss how cosmetologists can identify different types of abuse, they debunk misconceptions about how a survivor or perpetrator of abuse looks or acts, and they offer resources such as hotline numbers and chat rooms.
Because the training is only mandatory for cosmetologists applying for their first license, most veteran stylists, who renew their license every four years, have not yet viewed the materials. Several stylists working at Manhattan salons, including Salon West, Curl & Co. Hair Studio, Shear Bliss Salon and the iconic Astor Place barber shop, said that they hadn’t heard anything about such training.
New York State has more than 100,000 licensed cosmetologists, according to the Department of State, which oversees licensing of these professionals. Since the law took effect last June and the course became mandatory for new cosmetologists, 9,166 individuals have obtained new licenses. Yet, according to YouTube, as of March 10, 2021, the training video has been viewed only 8,526 times. The website is open to the public, and new cosmetologists need to affirm that they have viewed the materials when completing their application.
The state is working to publicize the material more widely, said Janine Kava, a spokesperson for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, two offices that partnered with the Department of State to distribute the video.
They will work with the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault to connect cosmetologists with local providers so the stylists and others can direct clients to programs and services as appropriate, Kava said. “That work is currently being developed.” Kava noted that the department does not yet have details or a timeline of how this work will be developed.
Cosmetologists are particularly useful sources in identifying domestic violence as they are able to recognize emotional signs of distress as well as physical changes in their clients—from scratch marks, to bruises, to pulled hairs. They’re also sources who clients trust with very personal information.
“With stylists, I feel like people, both men and women, are comfortable talking about everything because they spend so much time with us,” said Kurayeva, of Shear Bliss Salon.
The legislation was “a very practical way to deal with the issue of domestic violence,” said Neil Reilly, director of public affairs for New York State Sen. Brian A. Benjamin, the bill’s sponsor. “This is an issue we have seen rising in New York City, and we wanted to address it.”
In the United States, millions of people are affected by domestic violence annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey. About one in four women and one in ten men have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime according to the survey, with women between the ages of 18 and 34 the most at risk.
With domestic violence rates rising during the pandemic, it’s especially important to find ways to support victims of abuse, said Victoria Pilotti, president of the Center for the Women of New York, a nonprofit focused on women’s economic independence.
“Whether it’s a hurricane, a tsunami or a pandemic, domestic violence increases because of the economic downturn and being trapped with the abuser,” Pilotti said. “They’re no longer going to work, there’s no more reason to separate from the home, everyone’s together.”
New York City has also seen an increase in first time abusers during the pandemic, said Pilotti. For example, she noted, couples are spending so much more time together and an abused partner has less privacy on the computer or phone.
“So the survivors don’t have an opportunity to call for help,” she said.
New York isn’t the only state that has had issues implementing this type of legislation. In Illinois, where domestic violence training is mandatory for all cosmetologists, some salon owners and stylists say that the legislation and training could have been more helpful. The main reason: because there is no single set training program that is developed and regulated by the state, the quality varies widely. Many independent organizations offer training, and there’s no consistent curriculum. Wilson, the stylist from Illinois, said the training she received has not provided her with the resources needed to support someone in crisis.
“The first year it was required, my mom and I went to do the training together at the beauty show in downtown Chicago,” Wilson said. “We really thought it would be more informative. The biggest takeaway myself and other hairdressers had was to not disclose our stories of abuse or to give clients advice but to just listen. There were no handouts or resources, so I didn’t even know why we were taking the class.”
Pilotti, of Center for the Women of New York, believes governments need to start working with nonprofits and local advocates to improve the training programs.
“By partnering with social services and advocates, they could make this training more available and give people more resources,” Pilotti said.“But, so far, I do think it’s a step in the right direction.”
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic or intimate partner violence, call NYC’s Domestic Violence Hotline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at (800) 621-HOPE (4673).
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.