I always find that talking about what it’s like to be in an abusive situation is a lot like talking about a dream you had. There’s a bunch of logic that made total sense at the time, but that you have to do a lot of hand-waving around when you explain it to someone else after the fact.

Delirium is really good at dream-logic.

Of course, when I’m talking about dreams, the hand-waving can usually be glossed over pretty quickly (e.g. “And when I realized that I was only wearing one sock, I was totally relieved, because in the dream-logic this would make it easier for me to…”), and that’s just fine. But when you’re talking about having been abused, there’s a lot of decisions you made while that abuse was happening that allowed, caused, or sometimes even encouraged, the abuse to continue or escalate. And people want to understand, or they think that your actions when you were in it (You stayed! You never complained about x at the time! Maybe you even said you liked it! Maybe there were specific instances that you could have prevented but instead decided to provoke!) somehow mean that the abuse wasn’t that bad, or wasn’t as bad as you’re now making it out to be, because they don’t understand that maybe you were numb at the time, and you’re only feeling a lot of the emotional effects now that you’re out, and all of your life-energy is no longer being completely expended on basic psychic maintenance.

Because the thing is, if you’ve never had to face up to the kinds of twisted logic that we all use every day to get through life and make the world bearable, you don’t realize that the mental gymnastics that abuse victims perform to justify their decision to stay, or to forgive again, or whatever, aren’t that distinct from the hundred little ways that everyone elides good logic every day.

We all put up with ridiculous things, just to get through day-to-day life. Women accept, or refuse to notice, that in order to look “professional” they have to spend far more money (make-up is extortionate, and women’s fashion isn’t built to last half as long as menswear) and far more of their time (the grooming!) just to meet the same level of acceptance as men. Women spend twice as much money as men on apparel alone, and that’s not counting all the grooming apparatuses most women invest in. This means that even if we achieve income parity, women will still be at a significant economic disadvantage, because cultural norms insist that in order to be equally professional, they must spend a much greater proportion of their money on their appearance.

BUT, this absolutely doesn’t mean that all women who wear make-up are bringing it upon themselves. It doesn’t mean that women who “choose” to wear make-up are responsible for their economic disadvantages. And it doesn’t mean that they’re stupid or damaged. It means that they’ve accepted this nonsensical piece of culture-logic, because they can’t see viable alternatives.  And ok, sometimes it means they actually think make-up is fun, but I’m talking about everyday make-up and grooming procedures here, the kind designed to cover “flaws”, the kind that I’m sure you’ve heard women in your life complaining about, and wishing they didn’t “have to” do. This is not the kind of grooming designed to make bold,  self-expressive statements, it’s the kind that many women feel they need to comply with simply to be able to make their actual self-expressions heard, just to earn a  base level of respect.

As I see it, the main difference between this kind of culture-logic and abuse-logic is that we can’t escape the culture in which we live, whereas people in abusive situations often *can* escape their abusers (they just can’t always see the escape route, or the alternatives simply seem worse). Oh, and very few people try to make women justify their decision to continue practicing grooming rituals that they profess to hate; we all understand why they make that decision, and why it would be so hard to “choose” otherwise, whether we’re the kind of person who sees and understands the bargain they are making with the culture at large, or we’ve simply bought so fully into the cultural norms that we don’t even think the stopping is an option – it would simply be unacceptable.

Stepping outside of what you know is scary. It doesn’t matter how much you’re sacrificing to stay in that comfort zone, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like to people on the outside, it’s damn scary. And abuse-logic is the logic that allows you to make the decision to stay, and it’s often oddly comforting despite itself.

And we really shouldn’t demand for it make any more sense than the justifications we have for all the other things we do in life. So I like to talk about my past now with phrases like “but when he said something obviously incorrect just to get his way, I didn’t bother arguing  and instead just agreed, because in the abuse-logic I knew that…” and I think that should be enough.

Righteous rage of the day

[Content note: rape, pedophilia, rape apology]
Currently reading

This makes me so fucking angry:

“I always wanted to protect kids,” he said during one of two interviews at the Miami County Jail. “Somewhere along the line, things went wrong.”

Orly? So, in you story, you were just going along, minding your own business, adopting children out of the goodness of your heart, and then one day you just totally accidentally started raping them? I mean, you never meant for it to happen or anything. And then, once that had happened, there wasn’t really anything else you could do but get other men to also rape them. There just simply weren’t any other options, obviously.

I mean, it totally could’ve just happened to anyone, right? Rape is like a force of nature and no one involved really has any responsibility for it.

Gods. Fucking. Dammit.

…On a lighter note, I do really, really appreciate that the author of the article also included the following:

Child abuse by adoptive fathers is much rarer than by biological fathers, or by other male relatives and non-relatives, federal studies have indicated.

“This isn’t a typical situation. It certainly isn’t typical of people seeking adoption,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Most abusers of this sort have an interest in a child during a certain period of their development. They are looking for opportunities where they can get access to the kids. They don’t want to have custodial responsibility.”

Fostering and adopting children meant passing background checks and other scrutiny, with home studies and follow-up visits by social workers.

Working against rape myths, and trying to prevent people from using this particular case to shore up their confirmation bias about adoptive parents? Awesome, Ms. Farrar. Pure awesome.

Models of Consent, Part 3 – Yes means yes!

This is part three in a series of posts on consent. Click through to read Part 1 and Part 2

Everyone should read this book!

In Part 2 (no means no redux), we discussed campaigns that expand on the no means no message to include other things that mean no. Ultimately, though, this kind of campaign can fall a little flat, since they succeed only in reducing the circumstances under which implied consent can be assumed. But the thing is, it’s never ok to assume that someone else will consent to a thing you want to do to them.

One of the images I included in part 2 actually does just manage to squeak in with message, when it says “anything but consent means no”. The problem here is that there is still no good definition of consent given. Ok, so we’ve seen soft nos, silence, or stillness don’t constitute consent; but what does?

This is where “Yes means yes” messaging becomes relevant. How do you know someone consents to have sex with you? When they say yes, of course! What I love about this message is that, while it’s exactly as concise as “no means no,” it carries the implicit requirement that you ask permission before you do something to someone. Because of the loophole I had talked about in earlier posts where, when “no means no” is the generally accepted model of consent, abusers can get away with a lot more by avoiding giving their victims the explicit opportunity to refuse consent – since it’s a common experience to freeze up when one’s boundaries are crossed without warning, by not asking permission, rapists reduce the probability that their target will clearly say “no,” and give themselves plausible deniability.

This loophole doesn’t exist in the yes means yes paradigm, wherein the actual intended meaning is usually “only yes means yes,” and in fact, more often than not “only an enthusiastic yes means yes”. (Maybe it should be “YES! means yes”?)

Yes means yes rhetoric has a lot going for it. It’s a paradigm wherein asking for permission is a necessary step in getting permission. And it removes rapists’ plausible deniability. By itself, though, it doesn’t really cover everything – I’ve written before about what can happen when people don’t take “no” for an answer, and bully their target into saying yes. Of course, this kind of behaviour doesn’t qualify as gaining enthusiastic consent, but I would argue that real problem is not in accepting and unenthusiastic no, it’s in the tactics used to get it. This is why “yes means yes” can’t stand alone, and requires a “no means no” counterpart, so that is clear both that 1) you have to ask before doing; and 2) if the person says no, you accept that no at face value.

In some ways, the combined rhetorical messages of yes means yes and no means no create a pretty airtight defense against rape (if and only if people actually abide by the rules of course), and this makes it a really solid model from which to talk about consent.

And yet. I don’t think it’s perfect. In the next instalment, I will explore some of the more nuanced aspects of “Yes means yes” (or, rather, “yes means yes and no means no”).

The “asking for it” narrative

No one ever asks to raped. No one ever asks to be abused. Physical violence is not an appropriate response to anything other than someone else initiating physical violence (or threatening to do so). The person who initiates it is in the wrong, always.

There. Done. Nothing more needs to be said on the topic, right?

That would be nice.

I’m not going to get into the bullshit ideas that if a woman has the audacity to be attractive to someone, that somehow constitutes consent to any and all activities with any and all people who find her attractive. It’s not even worth addressing. It’s just wrong. And I really think that even most of the people who say it know it’s wrong.

I want to talk here about one of the kinds of interactions that can arise in long-term abusive situations (whether abusive “romantic” relationships, parent-child relationships, or any other form of bullying over the long term) that may legitimately confuse some otherwise well-meaning people.

I know that for myself, when I relationships I have been in have fallen into abusive patterns (i.e. when I have been abused), I have been known to play in to those patterns. Because I knew my father’s hot buttons, and what would result irrationally angry reactions from him, I could choose to “set him off”. And sometimes I did.

Because the thing is that it was much easier to take whatever he had to throw at me if I was prepared for it. Setting him off unintentionally was far more painful and left deeper and more lasting emotional scars. I was living with him; it was always inevitable that another outburst would occur at some point – the only thing I had any chance of controlling was when it happened.

With my abusive partner, it was slightly different. It was the tired old story of not taking no for an answer, but not in a physically forceful way. Any time I did not want to have sex would trigger a wave of emotional blackmail, whining and begging. Early on, this could go on for hours before I could “convince” him to accept my initial no. But I could only do this so many times, and eventually I lacked the energy to fight for that long, and instead I inevitably give in from pure emotional exhaustion. I saw no other choice – I just couldn’t argue any more.

As time went on, my energy for trying to stand up for myself waned, until eventually I reached a point where I wouldn’t bother to say no in the first place. I agreed to whatever he wanted, because having things done to my body that I didn’t want was preferable to being emotionally shredded for hours, or being emotionally shredded for a while and *then* having things done to my body that I didn’t want. And when I was in it, in that horrible gaslighty mindspace that emotional abusers can back their victims into, I didn’t seem to have any other options.

But I never, ever “asked for it”. And it wasn’t my fault.

So, when someone tells you about an abusive situation they were in that seems like they “should have known what would happen” if they did the thing they did the “provoked” the abuse, please remember the following things before opening your fool mouth:

1) whatever they did, it did not call for violence, or any other kind of abuse, nor did it force their abusers hand. The abuser is responsible for their own actions. Always.

2) Even if it doesn’t seem like it to you, in the abused person’s mind, what would have happened if they had not “incited” the abuse would have been worse and more painful than what happened. This doesn’t discount the horrific-ness of what did happen, but remember that an abused person spends a good amount of their time feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place, and sometimes the only thing they feel like they can control is when the abuse will escalate, since they cannot choose whether it will happen again – it will happen again and again as long as they are in that abusive situation. And none of it is their fault.


More on the psychology of people in abusive situations, and the kinds of considerations that colour their decisions:

“Why Does She Stay With That Jerk?”

One of Cliff’s answers is particularly pertinent to what I’m talking about here:

6. “I reached out once, and was rebuffed.”
In a rare moment of courage, he–with shaking hands, summoning all his strength–told someone he thought he could trust what his wife was doing to him. They told him to think about her point of view for once, to not use big drastic words like “abuse,” and to take care of his own damn problems without airing his dirty laundry. He just knows that if he reaches out again, it’s going to be the same thing. He’s lucky she didn’t find out about that time and doubts if it’s worth taking the risk again.

Seriously, don’t be the person who makes people feel this way.

Why I didn’t call the cops

Things I have trouble reconciling

(CW: rape, rape apology)

Credit: Winged Wolf on flickr

In light of the Good Men Project’s most recent controversy, and the alleged gang-rape in Steubenville, there’s been a lot written lately pushing back against the idea that consent is complicated, and who can ever really know whether they’re committing a rape? It’s not their fault; they just misread signals, am I right?

Well, no, obviously not. And better writers than me can explain why. People are responsible for their actions, and our culture has handed men (and, to a different extent, women) who genuinely don’t care about consent an extremely convenient alibi that normalizes rape.

And yes, we have many, many people pointing to the fact that the perpetuation of rape myths actually encourages and fosters a culture in which more rapes happen, and in which rapists can pretend that they’re not rapists, or at least, that it really wasn’t their fault, anyway. The thing is, though, that the facts outlined in these studies and writing are somewhat at odds with the points made by the people that say that misread signals aren’t a real thing. If educating people about affirmative, enthusiastic consent (and generally fighting back against rape myths) actually does reduce the incidence of rape, is it unreasonable to assume that there were some people who genuinely misunderstood what constituted consent?

I’m inclined to believe that, no, people should know better. I’m inclined to side strongly with people like Cliff, who put the responsibility strongly with the rapist. But the suggestion that the effectiveness of anti-rape campaigns targeting men (like Vancouver’s Don’t Be That Guy campaign) should be chalked up entirely to the fact that the added rape myth push-back that these campaigns create serves as a deterrent to men who were deliberately capitalizing on rape culture to get away with rape, and that none of it has to do with people actually believing rape myths, and thus perpetrating rape without realizing it isn’t clearly correct.

My anecdotal evidence: I was in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship for a number of years when I was younger. While there were clear instances of boundary violation that occurred during that relationship, cases in which my ex would do things to my body without warning (i.e. without even giving me an opportunity to object until it was too late), the aspect of our relationship that was most confusing, and in some ways, most damaging to me for years after I got out was the fact that (with one notable exception) any time sexual activity was occurred, I at least gave general consent (“yes, we can have sex now”). Ignoring the handful of times that he misused that consent to apply to activities I never intended it to, on a large number of occasions, those “yes”es were the results of emotional blackmail and just general bullying/refusal to take my initial “no” as the last word. But the thing is, (and we actually talked about this in a sideways way shortly after breaking up) he genuinely believed that when I said “yes” it meant not simply that I was giving him permission to use my body, but that I was actually turned on and that I wanted sex. How he thought that I his whinging got me all hot and bothered, I can’t tell you, but I actually do believe that that is how he perceived the situation.

So, is he an unbelievably selfish and self-involved douchebag who may have been genuinely unable to tell the difference between turned-on me and emotionally-exhausted me? Absolutely. Is he a rapist? Yes. Did he know that he didn’t have meaningful consent in those cases I’ve just described? I’m not so sure.

And to be very, very clear, I am not suggesting that this is somehow my fault. It’s entirely on him, and the fact that he bought in to the myths perpetuated by rape culture. The point I’m trying to make is that some people seem to genuinely misunderstand the concept of consent. Ozy Frantz recently wrote a post describing how this misunderstanding plays out in conversations around alcohol and consent. And this post actually gives me a frame from which to figure out where my logic might be going wrong.

It’s very important to note that in Ozy’s post, zie isn’t talking about how people’s misunderstanding of that idea that a drunk person cannot give meaningful consent causes them to commit rape; it’s actually about how the misunderstanding of what constitutes “drunk” causes people to reject the whole notion that drinking removes the possibility of consent, since tipsy people can and do consent. It’s about how unclear communication on the part of anti-rape activists is preventing people from letting go of rape myths around alcohol. Thus, I think it’s about the ways in which regular people (the ones who manage not to rape people) allow actual rapists plausible deniability around whether they knew what they were doing.

The way I understand it, then, is that the theory espoused by all of the writers to whom I have linked here (all people I respect and have been reading for years) puts people in a taxonomy as follows:

1) People who see through rape myths. These people have the power to bring more people over to their side through the power of education (Yay!)
2) People who do not (yet) question the rape myths that our culture perpetuates. These people are not themselves rapists, but do espouse and communicate views that enable rapists, and will often defend rapists by spouting rape apology, but are not actually at risk of committing rape themselves, because they actually care about other people, or something(?)
3) Rapists (and potential rapists who haven’t had a good opportunity to rape). These people deliberately take advantage of rape culture to get away with rape. They are aware, on some level, that what they are doing is not on the level, even if they do not define it as rape.

The theory suggests both that people can move from group 2 to group 1 through education, and that people from group 3 can be prevented from acting on their desires if the loopholes that they are taking advantage of are removed (i.e. if the group of people defending them and implicitly approving of their actions through rape jokes and the like). In this theory rapists are still just would-be rapists who haven’t been given the opportunity to rape, which is a little too deterministic for my liking. I think the lines (between these groups) are actually a little blurrier than we’re making them out to be.

I also realize that my entire theory is hinging on my own experiences, as out-lined above. And the thing is, if I simply stopped counting the times I was bullied into “consenting” as rape, all of this confusion falls away. Because the other instances I hint at are clear examples of sexual assault and rape. And either way, the ex is a rapist. But if those instances wherein I genuinely believe that he misunderstood my “consent” are also rape, then what does this do to the idea that this kind of misunderstanding doesn’t really happen, or is always deliberately constructed?

I suppose that you could say that the moment he continued to badger me after I said I wasn’t in the mood, he revealed himself as belonging solidly in group 3. He certainly failed to respect/acknowledge my feelings and needs as a general thing in all aspects of our relationship. But I still hold that this stemmed not from a genuine lack of concern for my well-being, but rather from a genuine inability to understand that not everyone felt the same way he did about everything. (Or is it an unwillingness? This is the crux of it, isn’t it? And I can’t answer that question, even though I would honestly prefer to define it as an unwillingness, since that would simplify things. Maybe I’m just not ready to go there yet.)

Maybe this whole exercise has just convinced me that the hole I perceived before I started writing isn’t actually there. I don’t know though. The idea that there is just a group of people out there who will commit rape if given an opening, and that’s just how it is, doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that these people can’t be educated out of that, that we have to rely on educating their enablers so that the openings disappear, just can’t be correct, can it? Is there something I’m still missing? Honestly, I’d appreciate input on this one. What do you think?

Edited to add: on further consideration, maybe the thing I was missing isn’t all that complex. The thing is that people who deliberately behave in the ways that rapists do probably can’t just be educated out of it with information – they probably need some kind of mental health intervention. And anti-rape activists can’t provide them with that. many feminists are, however, working toward reducing and eliminating the stigma around mental illness, and the barriers to accessing mental health assessment/care, which actually means that this portion of the problem is being worked on to some extent. (Also, in this model, the question of whether my ex was unable or unwilling to understand what he was doing to me becomes somewhat moot; whichever word is more accurate, he is not doomed to remain unable/unwilling – he just needs (needed? I don’t really know what his life’s been like in the meantime) to work on himself.)