Friday, January 30, 2015

The Community Response to Abuse

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.

Say hello
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.

Believe them
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?


  1. Hi Emma. A lot of the things you have written on this blog resonate deeply with me.

    My ex also hooked me with compassion, just the way you wrote about it (carrot/stick, and it never did get to be my turn).

    What you write about someone's pain and projections ("connecting backward") also seem like ways that I can make sense of my ex-partner's controlling behavior, threats, and manipulation.

    So, it has been a while now since I left, and I have been thinking about him again lately, especially after Minx's recent podcast on the topic of emotional abuse. Also I've been wanting some parts of my old life back, like the communities I left behind. But I don't know how to go about this.

    When I left I was very concerned about my ex having support. I was grateful to all of his friends who rallied around him, so that he would see that, even though I had left, he was not entirely alone.

    However: I do not think these friends are going to hold him accountable for his behavior in any way. I am pretty sure they believe his interpretation of events: that I left suddenly, out of the blue. It's hard for me to trust them because I do not trust my ex. But if I don't challenge his story about what happened, how could they even consider holding him accountable?

    I know it's not really my job to get others to try to get him to change, to address his own destructive patterns of behavior, to be accountable for harm he caused, all of that. I certainly told my now-ex-partner about things I needed him to do differently, while we were still together. I tried over and over to share my experience and my feelings.

    So I guess I am just writing to say: if you have any experience or advice or anything about how to re-enter communities you ran away from, or how to talk to friends of your abusive partner, or how to let go of those communities and/or those people once and for all, or anything along those lines, I would be grateful to read it.

    1. Hi 3b3n! Thank you for writing. It’s always amazing to me how similar the stories are of people who have been abused and mistreated.

      I have come to the conclusion that someone who has successfully manipulated and mistreated me will never be able to hear my experience. As you say, it can’t be my job to hold them accountable. It’s important to remember that it won’t work - as you said, you tried over and over again to share your experience. I did too. Every time thinking “this is the time I’m going to get it right, this is the time I’m going to use the right words and he’s going to understand.” It took me too long to realize that any good faith show of vulnerability would be warped and used against me. And I would wonder, “is that what I said?” “Am I the monster he is reflecting back at me?”

      What I decided I did have the power to do was to share my experience as I experienced it, as I remember it, as I interpreted it, and hope that maybe it will help other people to stay out of or leave similar situations, or to recover with a little less doubt and confusion. That’s worth A LOT. I can also call out misogyny and entitlement and control when I see it in my social network and it’s not so close to home. But I had to let go of the idea that he would ever understand or that he would ever stop or that anyone would ever hold him accountable.

      As far as re-entering communities. Well, for the most part I had to find new communities. I cannot be around the people who have supported him and believed what he says about me. Believing him made me hate myself, trying to fight against it made me feel crazy. The world is to big and life is too short for me to risk subjecting myself to that. There were some mutual friends who showed me support, and they have remained friends. But I did not try to reach out to anyone else. It wasn’t worth the risk. It is HARD for me to have people in the world that I just need to avoid. I’ve never experienced this. I want to be able to patch things up. But this is the way it is. Thankfully it’s a big world. I just went to a poly social in the next city over and was thrilled to meet about 30 people who I had never met before! The world is full of cool people. Don’t waste your time on people who have mistreated you.

    2. Hey again Emma. Thank you for your response. It's good to hear and I appreciate your perspective. If it's not obvious I was hoping to hear that you'd managed to re-connect with people.

      Truthfully the world does not seem big at all to me. I'm not planning to leave the country or even this city. I am broke. I don't have a car. There are only so many spaces for certain things. Poly feels like the least of it. My world feels fairly small and ghettoized. And my ex keeps making friends with the same people as me, even now.

      I am so attached to the dreams of my small communities and the ideas of transformative justice. And I hate being shut out through no fault of my own.

      But I did have an insight after sleeping on it that helped me so I thought I'd share it anyway.

      When I have very specific things I want or need I can almost always figure out ways to get them. Sometimes that does look like reaching out to someone I don't trust wih a specific request. Even in this situation with my ex, that approach actually worked out ok for me the one time I tried it.

      So, in the future, if that's what I need to do, I can trust myself to have the smarts and guts to figure out the best way to tackle the situation. Making sure I am ok and have what I need and have a happy life is a sort of justice since those are things I deserve! I can (to a great degree) secure these for myself.

      What I am mostly going to have to let go of is the idea of justice for him.

      I've decided that if anyone talks about ME I have the right to set the record straight. And if any of these people ever publicly talk about supporting survivors or accountability for those who have been abusive - I might point out that this did not happen here, in this case.

      Otherwise I need to focus on the kind of justice that's more within my power to provide. Like you said.

      And I do appreciate the reminder that the world is a big place, in reality. There are so very many places my ex is not, even if right now it feels like that is not true.

      As far as sharing your experience - I have thought about doing that, too, in a more public way. Right now sharing on a public blog like this seems pretty risky. Were you worried about your safety, doing this?

  2. Sorry if that was too much. I am figuring it out! Thanks again for having this blog.