A-Z of dealing with and recognising abuse.
Trigger warning: This post discusses abuse, violence, sexual predation, harassment, the police, rape culture and that kinda thing. This is also a fairly hetero-focused blog as the vast majority of my experiences with survivors, abuse and the subsequent processes have been in situations where the man is a perpetrator and the survivor is a woman and so it is what I am most comfortable writing about. Finally, I want to make clear I recognise that there are problems with the word survivor, and not all of those who have been abused identify as such. I’d also like to say that I did not write this blog alone but with the help of a selection of the world’s finest combabes I’m lucky enough to count amongst my friends.
It manifests itself in many different ways: abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, even financial. You don’t have to be black and blue to be in an abusive situation. We need to break down these tropes in order to really recognise and fight the many faces of abuse.
B: Believe the survivor.
If your first reaction to an accusation of abuse is disbelief, you’re doing it wrong. Less than one percent of rape allegations turn out to be false. Outing yourself as a survivor is incredibly difficult- your abuse is compounded with abuse. The entire world becomes the judge, jury and prosecution. You are constantly cross-examined. Whether you drink, how many people you fuck and how many shits you had this morning somehow become important. You are called a liar, a whore, a life-wrecker. This experience is not fun, and we do not do this for shits and giggles.
C: Character assassination.
This is a commonly used to discredit those who out abusers. Survivors of abuse are told that they are just out for vengeance, that they’re just trying to ruin the life of a respectable, good man. It’s character assassination, it’s defamation, and it’s only to be expected from manipulative harlots. Because that’s all that we are as women- tropes.
Following from character assassination, often those who raise instances of abuse are told they are dividing the movement. Destroying the credibility of sound activists for the sake of feminism. Which isn’t important. Because it’s not as if capitalism relies on gendered abuse and exploitation- it’s not as if the courts and the police are systematically against women. The ‘good’ work of an ‘activist’ does not render them incapable of abuse; in fact the converse is true. Popularity and reputation breed power, and power breeds abuse. It is those we most respect we need to watch most closely.
Never, ever, ever demand evidence. Placing the burden of proof on a survivor makes it virtually impossible for them to instigate any kind of process: be that one of transformation, justice, or retribution. Further, in demanding evidence you are suggesting you know what constitutes evidence- is testimony of the abused not evidence enough? Do you want cavity inspections (excuse the hetero-ness of that)? CCTV footage? What the fuck is evidence and who the fuck are you to ask for it?
Abusers have no right to be forgiven. And survivors are under no obligation to forgive abusers. Often, seeking forgiveness can be a form of emotional manipulation and it’s important to recognise that.
Gaslighting is text-book abuse. Gaslighting means to manipulate someone into doubting themselves, their memories and their experiences. It is used to re-write abuse and escape accountability.
H: Handling a call-out.
Whether you have been accused of abuse, or whether it’s someone you know, you fucking deal with it. You are not the victim. If you are the abuser, you apologise (and don’t expect it to be accepted), and you acknowledge your wrong-doing and you follow any process demanded of you. You leave social spaces you are asked to leave. You do not contact people you are told not to contact. If someone you care for has been outed as an abuser, it can of course be depressing, but loyalty is not a virtue. 92% of survivors are raped by people close to them- lovers, friends, family members and colleagues- this means that people close to you are absolutely capable of abuse. Recognise that.
The abuse we’re taught to care about is the abuse of pretty, wealthy, white, cis-gendered women. Women of colour face a greater risk of domestic violence than their white counterparts. Being a trans woman means simply walking in the street is a danger. Disabled people are more likely to face domestic abuse, and often less able to protect themselves. Abuse does not just happen in hetero relationships, nor does it just happen in mono relationships, or even just relationships. An intersectional approach to abuse is vital. This is also not to say that those who are oppressed cannot be abusers, or that their oppression justifies abuse. I guess this is most commonly seen with disability, where disabled perpetrators are let off the hook, or are not expected to be held accountable because of their health. This is bullshit and it is ableism cloaked as progression- don’t buy it.
Often survivors are told that they must seek to rehabilitate their abuser, or shut up. Firstly, rehabilitation comes in many different forms and nobody possesses a magic rehabilitation wand. Sometimes transformative processes really are the way forward- but they are not necessarily justice. If a survivor seeks a process of exclusion, of retribution, even of violence, it is not your place to judge them. Nobody said survivor-led processes are pretty, but they are necessary.
K: Keeping boundaries.
If you’re an abuser, respect the boundaries not only of the people you have abused but of those who no longer want to remain in contact with you. If you’re a friend of a survivor, respect their boundaries: don’t talk about their experiences publicly if they don’t want you to. Don’t name them or their perpetrator. This is their situation to deal with and whilst you might think you know what’s best, you aren’t the one that lives with the repercussions.
Whilst leaving an abusive partner might seem like the obvious thing to do, and, I’m sure anyone who speaks in hypotheticals would say ‘OF COURSE I’d leave my partner if they ever abused me’ that’s not actually how leaving abusive relationships works. Abuse is about power dynamics, and you don’t just walk away from someone who has power over you. They may have financial control, meaning leaving places you in destitution. You may have children and other loved ones an abuser will threaten to hurt should you leave. If an abused person does not leave ‘in-time’ they can be judged and disowned by the very people they need. Austerity means that shelters are turning women away by the thousands. Abusers can control all means of contact with others- your phone, the internet, and your mail. Asking for help is not always safe. If you know someone is being abused and they haven’t left the relationship, DO NOT FUCKING JUDGE THEM. As safely as you can, ask them what will help- do they need money? A place to stay? Childcare arrangements? Leaving an abuser is complex, don’t paint it as an easy decision, you’re not helping.
Abuse is gendered. Get over it. Men are overwhelmingly the abusers- not just of women, but of people of all genders: queer relationships are not free from abuse. As a man, you need to recognise that you have power- often financial, often physical, often social. As a man you need to be vigilant of all abusive behaviour and you need to respect women’s boundaries. If a girl says she’s not interested, don’t act like she’s playing some coy shit- you fuck off and leave her alone. If you’re a man, and people are talking about the gendered nature of abuse, DO NOT DERAIL. If the words ‘women abuse too’ or ‘not all men’ are in your vocabulary, you need to shut the fuck up and own your shit.
N: No excuses.
It doesn’t matter whether you drink. It doesn’t matter whether you take drugs. It doesn’t matter if you’re hetero. It doesn’t matter what you wear. It doesn’t matter if you’re married. It doesn’t matter if you’re poly. There is no excuse for abuse, there is no behaviour or back-story that can justify abuse. Don’t even go there- ever.
If you know someone is an abuser, be pro-active about that. Obviously, the wishes of the abused come first, and you should never assume any kind of process is wanted. Talk to the survivor, offer them your unconditional support, and ask what you can do for them. How can you make them happier? How can you make them safer? Speak to people in your communities- make clear that abuse can not be tolerated. Ensure you have safer spaces policies that are rigorous and you abide by them. Do not defend an abuser or apologise for their actions. Take collective responsibility.
‘Why don’t you go to the police?’ Because the police don’t care. In England and Wales, over 85,000 women are raped each year. A further 400,000 are sexually assaulted. Globally, 1 in 3 women experience violence at the hands of a man. Yet just over 1000 people are prosecuted in the UK. Because ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is more important than safety and justice, the burden of proof is placed on the abused. This means that women who do go forward to the police are cross-examined, their story prodded for inaccuracies. They are subjected to dehumanising examinations- of bruises, of their genitals. They are swabbed and measured and dissected like a fucking frog. Usually, for nothing. Further, police are often perpetrators of violence. They rape and harass women in custody. They raid the workplaces of sexworkers and assault, threaten and manipulate them. And you expect us to go to the police?
Q: Questions. The only one you ever need to ask is ‘what can I do for you?’. End of.
Often survivors are told they have a responsibility to others to disclose their experience- this is victim blaming, it is traumatic, and it’s not fucking feminist. Responsibility lies primarily with the abuser to not abuse again, rectify their behaviour, and respect the wishes of survivors. But responsibility also lies with communities around survivors: their families, their friends, and the political communities they are a part of to ensure that abuse is challenged wherever it crops up- no matter who the perpetrator is. Responsibility lies with the perpetrator and a community to rehabilitate: a perp won’t do it alone, and a community can’t force an unwilling person to change. A survivor only has responsibility to themselves, to care for themselves, to heal, to remain safe.
S: SURVIVOR LED PROCESSES.
I could very easily write an entire blog about a) the importance of survivor-led processes, b) the times they’ve been fucked up, and c) how they’re misrepresented. But, for brevity, I won’t. Instead I just want to say how fucking important they are. Survivor-led processes are not witch-hunts, they’re not vendettas, they’re not abuse. They are genuine attempts to gain closure for a survivor and to keep them safe. Survivor-led processes are a necessary part of decolonizing abuse, of moving away from bourgeois court systems and creating radical spaces where feminism is not an after thought.
Trauma is not made up. It’s not political capital. It’s not some edgy post-structuralist Judith Butler loving myth. It is a thing many survivors live with and it is not to be ignored, dismissed or mocked. Use trigger warnings where appropriate, avoid traumatic conversations where they’re not wanted, look after those who experience trauma.
Learn about abuse. Be vigilant. Abuse is not always easy to spot and easy to solve. As feminists we have a responsibility to familiarise ourselves with abusive behaviours so that we can understand when they arise and fight them. Gaslighting, manipulation, outreach to ‘neutral’/’uninvolved’ people should all raise red flags.
Victim blaming is a cultural phenomena that places culpability on the survivor, not the perpetrator. It is a phenomena that questions the legitimacy of survivors and is fundamental to the functioning of patriarchy. Victim-blaming isn’t always as transparent as ‘Don’t walk alone at night’, and sometimes it’s pretty well disguised. Don’t ever tell a survivor what they should have done, what they should have said, or how they should have acted. Don’t tell them they could have avoided abuse. Don’t do anything but lay blame at the feet of the perpetrator.
Women are overwhelmingly the victims of abuse. Whilst abuse affects everyone, it is a gendered issue and to treat it as otherwise completely erases the reality of the lives that women and gender oppressed people who are targeted as women even though they are not lead.
Okay, I cheated with the letters, so sue me. Exclusion is a legitimate part of anti-abuse politics and intersectional praxis. Exclusion is not just a formal thing, and those who have experiences oppression, survivors included, are excluded from political spaces wherever their oppressor or abuser is welcomed. If you don’t exclude the abuser, you exclude the abused. Exclusion is not about punishment, and exclusion is not, I repeat IS NOT authoritarian. Think about who is more important- who do you need in your space? Whose experiences can really help you dismantle oppression? The answer should be easy. I’ll even give you a hint: It’s not abusers.
Y: Young people.
Young people are disproportionately abused because power dynamics are not in their favour. This doesn’t disappear in radical movements. It’s pretty common for established, respectable authority figures in social movements to sleep with and date younger, newer activists. Of course this in itself is not abusive, but be wary of the dynamics at play. Are younger members doing more of the leg-work? Are they made to shut up more? Are they sexualised more than other members? It might not be quite as repulsive as your stereotypical frat-boy shovelling shit stuff, but this is hazing. Don’t let that shit fly- fighting ageism is part of our struggle as intersectional feminists.
Look after yourself, look after those around you. Self-care is a political act. In fact, it’s political fucking warfare. Your body is a battleground and abusers and their apologists will always try and destroy you, which is why you always put yourself first. If you can, talk to people. Survivors are often forced into isolation, taught that you are alone, nobody believes you, and that you are hated. This isn’t true. There are always folks who got your back. I’m one of them.