When I wrote the essay on abuse in polyamorous relationships, I had a lot of trouble with the section on the community response to abuse. I knew it needed to be talked about, but I didn’t know what to say. I was emotionally abused by a partner, and when I left that relationship, the response of the communities I was a part of played a large part in the ways that I did and did not recover. The truth is, the threat of community ostracization played a significant part in the abuse and after, the reality of the ostracization amplified my feelings of shame, and put that much more space between me and my own voice. How often does this happen in small communities? That the nature of the social bonds in the community are used against someone in it? To control them, to silence them and to shame them? As a part of a small community, we may all unwittingly be a part of these kinds of dynamics. But if I could have asked the community to do something differently, what would it have been? I wasn't sure.
When I first tried to articulate what I thought the community response to abuse should be, the only thing I could really think was that abusers need good friends. The kind of friends who are willing to tell them when they are not being the best that they can be. And survivors need good friends. The kind of friends who will be on their side, who will believe them, who will protect them, and who will provide unwavering support when their inner support fails.
I finally felt like I could say something about this after I listed to the poly weekly podcast on abuse. Shannon Perez-Darby, Youth Services Program Manager for The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse, says something so profound and obvious, that I want to amplify it here.
Both survivors AND abusers need community support.
Specifically, survivors need protection and validation and abusers need support for accountability.
Abuse does not always look like what you think it should look like, and it usually occurs behind closed doors. As a community member, it is important to get rid of the idea that you will know abuse when you see it. It is ignorant to think that we will always be able to spot abuse in our communities. Instead, let's try to identify the seeds of abuse, and ask the question:
What does it mean to provide an environment that supports accountability?
Have you ever been called on your toxic beliefs or your bad behavior? I hope so, because none of us are immune. Do you remember how much it hurt? Did you feel shamed and unseen? Were you gently but persistently encouraged to do better? I think we all have a story of changing for the better, of the methods that worked, and the ones that made us buckle down. Some of us didn’t change until someone got angry, or someone mocked us. Some of us remember being shamed and it driving us out of a community. Some of us were only able to change when we felt heard, and we had the space to understand why we were holding onto a toxic belief.
People who don’t want to change will often tell you that they don’t change because of the way that you are asking. This is horse puckey. Change is a personal matter, and it’s hard no matter what. If you want to change, no amount of assholery will be able to stop you. If you don’t, no amount of gentle crooning will make it happen. However, having said that, when we threaten community members who do not support community standards, what we do, mostly, is encourage them to hide their bad behavior.
The methods that will get through to someone are varied. I don’t buy the idea that if we were just all nice that we could stop the bullying. But I do believe, god help me, that everyone is capable of being better. It is the best in us that calls out the worst in us, and we all need a safe space to be imperfect.
So I guess I would call on all of us to stop trying to separate the good people from the bad people, and to focus on nurturing the best in us, and identifying and stopping the seeds of abuse. Seeds that we are all capable of planting.
Two of the biggest seeds are the invalidation and naming of another person’s experience and the sense of entitlement over someone else’s choices. Look for it, in yourself and others. Call it out. We can all weed the garden. Remember,
This is my experience. You can not know my experience.
That is your experience. I can not know your experience.
These are my choices. You are not entitled to control over them, you are not victimized by them.
Those are your choices. I am not entitled to control over them, I am not victimized by them.
Look for systemic oppression, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about why it’s ok. Challenge the stories, and think about how to best support someone who wants to change.
How to be the friend of a survivor
Give them a safe space away from their abuser
While you may still be friends with their abuser (remember, abusers need good friends), understand that if you invite both people to the same space, you are actually only inviting the abuser. Try to also create events that are safe for the survivor. If you do not, understand that you aren't a friend anymore.
Tell the person who is silent and alone that they are not alone and that they do not need to be silent. I cannot overstate this. When you leave an abusive relationship (and when you are in an abusive relationship), you are full of shame and confusion. Every person who comes to you with gentleness and forgiveness shows you that you are not what the abuser said you are. Just say hello.
Be willing to distance yourself from people who display abusive behaviors
Sometimes you can’t be a friend of someone who is abusive unless you support their beliefs. It’s hard to fracture your community that way, especially when it is already small. It’s hard when you realize that maybe you can’t just invite everyone to your party. But you know who doesn’t have the choice that you’re struggling with? People who have been abused. Our lives are about avoiding places our abusers are going to be, about losing friends, about being incredibly careful about where and how we share our experiences and about not being able to go to parties. Suck it up.
This is actually not as simple as it seems. Because people who are abusive almost always hide as victims. If we believe them, unequivocally, we give safe harbor for abuse. But if we are always suspicious of people who report abuse, we do not give a safe space to survivors who already doubt their own experience. Even more uncomfortable is the fact that when I am talking about “abusers” and “survivors,” I am talking about potential that is in all of us. We are all susceptible to abuse, and we are all capable of it.
So I want to say “believe them,” and leave it at that, but I think there’s another step here. It’s a step that requires each of us to look inwards at the way that we are capable of abuse, and at the ways we are capable of being abused. To give ourselves a voice for our own experiences, and to refuse to let our abusive behaviors and those of our friends hide in plain sight.
So I want to propose a meditation. When we really understand the difference between these statements, we will understand how to support both survivors and abusers.
"I was victimized by acts of control" is not the same as "I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control."
"This is my experience" is not the same as "This is someone else’s experience."
It seems simple, but it is not. And I feel that not being able to tell the difference between these things allows us to harbor abuse in our communities and abusive behaviors in ourselves. Being able to see the difference between these statements will allow you to really, truly and solidly hear the story of a survivor. It's not simple, but if it was, we would have figured it out by now. I'm willing to be imperfect while we figure this out, how about you?