abuse

The Conflation of Virtue and Weakness

Weakness-Strength1I had a realization about gaslighting recently. You see, gaslighting only works if it’s victim is willing to consider the possibility that their perspective is wrong, if they are willing to consider other people’s perspectives and incorporate new information into their world-view. It works even better when the victim trusts the perpetrator, believes them to be acting in the victim’s best interest.

This is the thing that makes so much abuse so insidious (and also just plain maddening). Predators and abusers literally take advantage of positive character traits and virtues in their victims.

Because being willing to consider other people’s perspectives? This is an absolutely necessary part of making your social justice work intersectional. It is necessary to recognize oppressions that you don’t personally experience. It is vital, in other words, to being able to fight the good fight.

And trusting our loved ones to act in our best interest? Well, this might not be a virtue in and of itself, but being able to do so is a pretty important part of being a healthy human. No one can survive as an island, and sometimes we have to put our well-being in the hands of others.

Abusers take advantage of other positive traits as well. In any romantic context, you’ll get the abusive tropes of “If you really loved me, you’d…” or analogous sentiments, which play on the victim’s desire to be a good partner, and their desire to make the person they care about happy. It takes advantage of the selfless aspects of love, without any reciprocation (Because if you really love them, you won’t ask for anything in return, amiright?)

And then there’s this other thing that happens. Abuse survivors are often framed as having made mistakes, and having allowed themselves to be taken advantage of. You were naive. You were stupid. You were, ultimately, weak.

Trusting people? That makes you weak. Loving someone and being willing to sacrifice yourself for their happiness? Weak. Being willing to consider the possibility that you are wrong about anything ever? Sooo weak.

Even if you don’t have anyone telling you the abuse was your fault, I think it’s very common for survivors to feel like they have to change the things about themselves that made them vulnerable in the first place.

This makes me really sad, because so often this is the way the narrative goes, and we get derailed into trying to figure out how to cure these weaknesses that are really virtues, and harden good people into assholes, instead of actually figuring ways of discouraging/preventing abusive behaviours in the first place. We want to turn the predators into virtuous people, not strip the virtues from victims in order to prevent their future victimhood.

I just wish I knew how to do that. All I know right now is that we need to stop repeating the damaging derailing tactic of examining all the weaknesses and mistakes of the victim. Because I don’t want to live in the world where no one has the loving, caring, open qualities that can make a person vulnerable to abuse. That’s not a solution I can accept.

Welcome, Mentalpod-ers!

Hi! If you just came here from my guest appearance on the Mental Illness Happy Hour blog, I’m really happy you’re here! For starters, I’m working up an FAQ about genderqueerness, so please feel free to leave any questions in the comments here, or email me at valprehension@gmail.com

Beyond that, feel free to browse around, and stay awhile. I’ve taken the liberty of making up a list of posts that you might be most interested in, broken down by topic, but you know, you can obviously go ahead and read whatever you want. You can click any of the topic titles to see all of the posts with that tag, or you can just browse through the posts I’ve hand-picked in each category for you.

But first, this might be a good place to start. This is the post where I touch on almost all of the things that are most important to me, and that I like to talk about. It also tells you all about why this blog is called “Valprehension”.

Gender Identity

  • A Gender identity Primer and Follow-up are two pieces I used to come out to my friends about being genderqueer.
  • Navigating the Gender Binary, in which I talk more about what it’s like going through day-to-day life as a genderqueer person, and some of the challenges I face in a world that regularly requires people to identify themselves as belonging to the binary.
  • Attraction, sex, and gender: what’s going on here?. Here, I admit that I really don’t understand what it means to be attracted to people of only one sex/gender, or how that works. This is a post on which I’d love to have your input, and to hear about your experience.
  • Genderqueerness and the inadequacy of language. Here, I write in more detail about the distinctions between gender identity, gender presentation, and biology.
  • The relative nature of gender presentation. Gender presentation also gets a whole post to itself, because it’s the aspect of gender that (because it’s about how others see us) is in many ways defined for us by other people. And that’s super-fascinating.

Mental Health

  • The breaking point, in which I discuss the near-complete mental break-down I had in March of this year.
  • I could have sworn that I’d written about my struggles with depression, but it appears that my depression ate that stuff, and it never made it onto the blog. It’s certainly a topic you can expect to see in the future, if you’re kind enough to follow me.

Emotional and Sexual Abuse

  • The “asking for it” narrative. Because I think that everyone who has ever been abused has spent years blaming themselves (I know I did), I think it’s important to talk about why we feel this way sometimes, and also where the idea that victims of abuse are “asking for it” comes from.
  • Stranger on a train. A guest blogger talks about the constant stream of boundary-crossing that women experience in their day-to-day lives, and how that effects her interactions with people.
  • “Abuse-logic”. Here, I talk a bit about what happens in the brain of abuse victims, and some of the mental gymnastics we do to convince ourselves that it’s not that bad, that we should stay, and that it’s really all our fault.
  • Abuse-logic and memory. This one is about how the effect that abuse has on a person’s brain sticks around long after the abuse has been escaped. I guess it’s mostly about why (in my experience, anyway) so many people answer the Shame & Secrets survey question with “Some stuff happened, but I don’t know if it qualifies as sexual abuse” and then go on to describe clear abuse.

Abuse-logic and Memory

I find it extremely difficult to talk, or write, or think clearly about the fact that I spent some years in an abusive relationship (which I’ve written about before, here and here. And it’s not that the thoughts are clouded by emotion – I can be dispassionate about most of my memories from that time. It’s something else entirely that’s going on.

Here’s the thing – the ways in which that relationship was abusive were definitely kind of nebulous, and not clear-cut examples of your standard after school special an abuse. And even now I’m often like “well, you know, it was kind of abusive, but not like super abusive” with whatever caveat I might have about it. One of those caveats is “I mean, it’s not like he raped me or anything.”

Except that, you know, I can actually point to a whole litany of occasions when he did sexual things to my body without my consent (up to and including penetrative acts, in case you’re a purist about these kinds of things).

So, honestly, I have no idea why I kind of just (conveniently?) forget about these things all the time.

I know it took me years (literally, *years*) after the fact to actually link any of these incidents with the way I felt about him and about our relationship. But it’s still hard for me to actually integrate them into any narrative of things – it’s like the way they’re stored in my memory is incompatible with the way other memories are stored, and they just don’t fit together. They’re random isolated islands of memory, oddly context-less, and my brain resists attributing any sort of causal relationship to them and anything that happened to me since, or any feelings that I have.

Even at moments like this, where I explicitly remind myself that actually, you know, he did rape you, I mostly don’t feel the truth of that statement. It’s not internalized in any way. Or rather, I suspect it’s already really deeply internalized, but that it’s somewhere that I can’t actually access consciously. Part of me resists it very strongly, to the point that I am entirely uncomfortable providing any kind of details about the incidents I’m referring to above.

I mean, I guess it shouldn’t matter what the details are, and it’s not like I feel like I have something to prove*, or that somehow sharing the actual story would allow me to get external validation on the fact that what happened was fucked up**.

I really think a lot of this links back to the kind of thing I was talking about in my post on “abuse-logic”. Being gaslit has a distinct effect on the ways that you understand the things that are happening to you in an abusive relationship. If, every time you have a moment of clarity, every time your brain wakes up enough to tell you that this maybe isn’t ok, your experiences are denied, ignored, and minimized, you’re told that your memory is incorrect, or that you’ve misinterpreted things, over time you develop an inherent distrust for your memories of the events in question. I don’t know why so many of us fall for it, either. But we do.

And unfortunately, the effects last well beyond when we manage to escape the cycle. Even though I know, intellectually, that my memories are accurate, and that my refusal to interpret them in the ways he insisted I should is valid, still I can’t interpolate these things into my existing narrative in any real way. Still, I can’t stop instinctively second-guessing myself, and doing the kind of generous rewriting that I had started doing as a matter of course when I was in the relationship. Because that’s the other thing. I was gaslit so much in that relationship that by the end, I never even confronted him with things, because I could have his side of the conversation with myself. I could tell myself exactly what was wrong, and exactly why I was being unreasonable, and I would do so because it was less emotionally draining than talking to him about it. And, by the time the relationship had developed to that point, the largeness of the pile of things that had been shoved under the rug to keep me in the relationship made me more and more reluctant to even look directly at each new piece of the puzzle.

The narrative is clear when you actually look straight at all of the facts pieced together, but the full picture is also just too scary to contemplate, and so I usually don’t put the pieces together, and certainly never more than one or two at a time.

And so it’s hard, but I’m getting better at reminding myself that it actually was that bad. It’s far enough away from my day-to-day life now that it looks smaller in the distance, and I’m processing it and putting the pieces together. And maybe one day I’ll stop minimizing my own experiences of it, I’ll stop second-guessing, and I’ll trust my interpretations. But I don’t think that day is quite today.

*Of course, I very often do feel like I have something to prove. This is exactly why I’m so often internally dissembling about whether it was “real” abuse.

**I’m actually perfectly comfortable framing the whole thing as fucked up, and that’s a depiction I can feel the truth of. It’s just the words abuse and rape that I can’t get to really stick in a way that’s convincing to myself, even though I would have no trouble if the same story was told by someone who wasn’t me.

“Abuse-logic”

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.

Also:
Why I didn’t call the cops