Tag Archives: abuse

Gender and abuse

One of the things that really worries me around gender critical/ terf discourse is how they are handling ideas around violence and abuse. What I see from them increasingly is the idea that trans women are a threat to cis women because trans women are men and men are abusive. The only reason they can imagine for trans women existing seems to be that it enables men to access female spaces to abuse women. Let me be clear now that as far as I am concerned, trans women are women and that point requires no further discussion.

Problem number one – female only spaces do not protect women from abuse, and we know this because female only spaces exist but lots of women experience abuse and typically three women a week in the UK die as a consequence of it. Men who are unequivocally presenting as men do not struggle to find opportunities for abuse.

Problem number two is that not all men are abusive. Most men aren’t actively abusive although men who are not abusers often don’t do enough to counter toxic masculinity and rape culture and can benefit from it. Talking about abuse as though it’s just what men do functions to normalise it, which in turn makes it harder to tackle. Abuse isn’t inevitable. Men are not intrinsically predators and women are not inherently prey. We need to hold men accountable, not assume that they can’t help themselves.

Treating abuse by men as inevitable leads to victim blaming and puts unreasonable pressure on women to act protectively. This in turn can have the effect of driving women into women only spaces, hived off from anywhere they might have influence or significance. As a female-presenting person, I don’t want to be hived off in special, women’s only spaces where I can be more easily ignored.

Problem number three is that some women are abusive, and treating abuse like it’s always a gender issue is totally unhelpful and misleading. Women are disproportionately affected by abuse and far less likely to kill, but women can also be abusers and we should not pretend otherwise.

Problem number four exists around the determination to call pregnant people ‘women’. Not all pregnant people are women, and this is especially a problem when the pregnant person is a child, and therefore an abuse victim. Equating pregnancy to womanhood is a tactic being used to distort thinking around abortion in America at the moment. A pregnant child is a pregnant person, and is not a woman. 

When we double down on the ‘rules’ for gender identity, we are more likely to limit women than support the majority of people who identify as female. This usually impacts hardest on women of colour, who tend not to match the definitions of femininity that come from white women. Any attempt at measuring and defining women is going to exclude people, and many of these will be people who have spent their whole lives considering themselves to be female. Attempts to limit and define women invariably play into the hands of people who want to control and regulate female bodies.

The Perfect Victim

CW abuse

When we don’t believe someone who says they have been a victim, this may well be because they don’t fit our ideas of what a victim should look like. It’s worth taking the time to consider those ideas, because all too often they are immensely problematic and serve to support and enable abuse.

The victim is too calm when they talk about what happened. We feel they should show more emotion. The victim is too emotional when they talk about what happened, they seem unhinged and unconvincing. Everyone handles trauma differently, neurodivergence can inform this as well. Focusing on the manner of delivery and not the content being delivered isn’t a good choice.

The victim is not a perfect and blameless person so it was probably their fault. Most people, if you scrutinise them, turn out not to be perfect and blameless in all possible ways. Outside of self defence issues, if someone has been harmed it is because someone has chosen to harm them. Harm is the choice of the aggressor, it is not an inevitable consequence of the victim’s behaviour.

The victim cannot recall everything in perfect detail and their testimony is muddled and confused. Again, trauma does this to people, and human memories aren’t that clear. Tell me what you did on a Tuesday morning, three years ago. Include exact quotes from conversations and the precise time those conversations took place. 

The victim didn’t go straight to the police. This happens a lot, around bullying and domestic abuse. If someone jumps out at you unexpectedly with a knife you probably know that wasn’t ok. If the person you live with just pushed you too hard and didn’t mean to scare you and was only doing it for your own good and was drunk and was just upset about the thing you said… it can take a while to decide to go to the police.

If it was really that bad, they would have left. No. Controlling behaviour is all about manipulating people into staying. Abusers often isolate their victims. When the choice is between staying and homelessness, which one do you pick? Walking away isn’t easy if you have children, and the family courts have obliged many victims to be in regular contact with their abusers.

Often we judge a victim based on what we think we’d do in the same situation. We think we’d fight back, report quickly and recall things in clear detail. This is the kind of thing people believe when they’ve not been traumatised by violence and gaslighting. We think we’d be credible and that everyone would believe us – and let me tell you it’s a real system shock when that turns out not to be the case. You probably don’t think you’ve done things that would make you easy to blame – I was surprised by what was weaponised against me, people often are.

There’s a defensive aspect to it. No one wants to believe they are the sort of person who could become a victim. If the victim deserves it, or is responsible for it continuing then clearly it wouldn’t happen to you and that makes you feel safer and more comfortable. Victim blaming comforts the people who are not victims (yet) and does nothing to change or improve anything. Victim blaming enables abuse, and demanding that a person be the perfect victim in order to be taken seriously makes it difficult for anyone to be taken seriously.

How not to be a punchbag

Once upon a time I had a science teacher who liked to punish the whole class by making us sit with our hands on our heads. I’ve always had poor circulation, so this would invariably mean pain, followed by not being able to feel my hands, followed by prolonged discomfort once we were allowed to put our hands down. I never said anything to him about it because I was afraid that admitting distress would make him more angry. I was also a reasonably good and quiet student being punished for what other people were doing.

I learned early on that if someone upset me, it was best not to antagonise them by making a fuss about it. I have some really problematic habits around assuming I am responsible for everything. If someone hurts me, my knee jerk reaction is to assume it is my fault for getting something wrong, being ‘bad’ in some way or otherwise deserving it. This makes it hard to hold boundaries. I’m not even sure where the boundaries should be, most of the time.

This is a key thing around people not being able to get out of abusive relationships – I’ve been there. When you think it’s all your fault, you don’t leave. You try to fix things. You shoulder responsibility and try to appease, and apologise and do better. When you’re dealing with someone who wants to control and hurt you, this never works, but from the inside it can be hard to see that, and all the while you feel smaller, and worth less, and eventually, you feel worthless.

People project all kinds of things. They project their own fears and insecurities. Many people act as they do because of their own wounding. Some people will attack first when they feel threatened, even when the threat is entirely in their head. There are people who just use other people as punch bags, physically and emotionally. And I know I can’t shoulder that, or fix it. I can’t even help. I’m trying to learn how to get out of the way, at least.

It helps that there are people in my life now who are willing to help me work this through. It’s useful having feedback about what might count as fair or reasonable treatment. But sometimes I am still very much the kid in the science lesson, afraid to tell anyone that they can no longer feel their hands and that their arms are burning.

The feeding of trolls

‘Don’t feed the trolls’ can sound a lot like wisdom, and sometimes it’s the best choice. However, it can also be an excuse for not challenging problems or speaking out against prejudice.

It’s a good idea not to enter into a debate with a troll – the act of debating can feel validating to them and can seem to legitimise their stance. It’s also a good idea not to feel any obligation to defend yourself, or justify yourself to them – don’t treat a troll like their opinion matters to you.

However, don’t ignore bigotry and hate. If you see it, report it, call it out, challenge it – a few words can make a lot of odds. It’s not the troll you’ll make much odds to, it’s the person they were attacking. It’s important to step up and defend and support people who are being trolled, be that online or in  a physical context. If you don’t feel able to challenge outright – you may not feel safe or be well enough resourced for that – put in a quiet complaint to someone who could do something about it. There are many ways to speak out.

Recently I saw online a situation where white people were telling a person of colour not to feed the troll by drawing attention to it. Now, there certainly are issues around not re-tweeting and otherwise giving a platform to trolls. Some of them just feed on attention and clearly don’t care what kind of attention it is. A screen shot is better because it doesn’t give them so much oxygen. However, there are times and places to talk about this. That time is not when a black person is calling out a white person for racism. If you think it’s more useful to tell someone not to feed the troll in a situation like that, you’re part of the problem. Sometimes, the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ line is simply a way to try and shut people down.

If the bigots go unchallenged, that leads to all kinds of problems. The victims of the trolls are left more hurt and more exposed if no one supports them or speaks up for them. The bully who goes unchallenged will have no qualms about doing it again. They may feel they speak for the silent many, that their stance is valid and validated and welcome. They may feel brave and heroic in their trolling

I’ve been on the receiving end of well meaning people explaining to me why it is best to ignore trolls and bullies. I disagree. I think we need to draw clear lines. A simple ’this is not acceptable and I will have nothing more to do with you’ statement at least conveys to the troll that they do not speak for you. They are not your hero. It can be really important to convey that.

It also really matters to the victims. If you stand by and do nothing, what you say clearly to the victim is that you don’t give a shit about them. Maybe you still think fence sitting is the moral high ground. It isn’t. Doing nothing always supports and enables abuse and bullying. Doing nothing means you don’t attract the ire of the troll, so maybe what you’ve done is put your comfort ahead of someone else’s wellbeing. As far as the victim knows, you may well agree with the troll. You may support them. You may be happy to look the other way and enable their bigotry. You can make a bad situation worse in this way.

Don’t feed the trolls if you can help it. But also don’t stand by and let the trolls destroy someone.

Most triggers aren’t weird

I’m weary of people telling me that they can’t possibly think about triggers because it’s all too weird, and difficult and personal. It is true that some kinds of triggers are hard to imagine from the outside. I got into considerable difficulty with all things post related at one point, these things happen. However, there are areas of triggering that are really uncomplicated, and don’t take much thinking about or avoidance and that apply to many people.

Violence, implied violence and the apparent threat of violence. This can include looming, pushing, shouting, breaking things, throwing things… anyone with triggers is very likely to be triggered by this kind of behaviour. It is easy to warn people about violence in content you’re putting in front of them. It is also easy to avoid behaviour that makes people feel threatened and triggers ptsd flashbacks. It’s a totally rational response to be afraid for your own safety and wholly reasonable to ask people to act responsibly.

Power loss, loss of body autonomy. Don’t touch people without their permission. Don’t kiss people who say that they do not want to be kissed. Don’t pinch the bums of strangers. Don’t manipulate people into situations that make it hard for them to say no to you. Respect boundaries, take no for an answer.  Don’t make people responsible for things they have no power to fix.

Shame, guilt, humiliation, blame, put-downs, relentless criticism  – these are all popular with abusers and bullies. If you think that these are ok things to do because you have to defend your own fragile ego, you are the problem. If you think these are tools to use to help people, please don’t. Fat shaming being an obvious case in point here. Just no. It’s horrible and counterproductive. Be very alert to when you make people responsible for your emotional reactions. And if they make you angry? That still doesn’t entitle you to hit them.

What goes with this, invariably, is an attitude to distress that is really problematic. These activities go alongside being more upset over being called out than over there being a problem. People who do this will make it a bigger deal that you upset them by mentioning it, than that they did something out of order. They won’t apologise – or you get the ‘I’m sorry you took that the wrong way’ responses. They justify what they do, and they may gaslight you by telling you that’s not what they did, or said, or that your reactions are unreasonable and unfair. They will make it all your fault and you may end up feeling like you have to apologise to them for having felt hurt.

I’ve been working these issues through recently, looking at situations that I’ve found triggering. Most people don’t cause me any trouble at all. People who stray accidentally into my weird, personal trigger areas will, when it’s explained to them, try to be more careful.

There’s nothing weird or mysterious about those broader, more obvious areas of triggering. Most people won’t get anywhere near that behaviour. This is because most people are well meaning and decent. The people who say it is too difficult to think about what might be triggering are, I realise in hindsight, people doing really problematic things. Being triggered by this behaviour is a reasonable response because the behaviour is threatening and suggests all kinds of unpleasant things. Your body remembers the warning signs. These aren’t weird things no one could see coming, these are the very behaviours that traumatise people.

From here I will be taking ‘triggers are too complicated for me to think about’ as a massive red flag. And I’ll do myself the favour of recognising this kind of behaviour for what it is, and getting the hell away from it at the first opportunity.

Mental Health Awareness

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the things I wish to make people particularly aware of, is that for many people, mental health problems are not some kind of tragic accident. There are people for whom wonky brain chemistry is to blame, but for many of us, mental health problems have causes.

Trauma causes mental health problems. This should be pretty obvious. Consider (or look up) the figures for domestic abuse, and sexual violence. Have a look at some of the definitions of borderline personality disorders and ask how those might relate to traumatic experience.

Work stress causes mental health problems. You can’t run people like machines and expect them not to break down. Inhuman work practices (Amazon, I am looking at you) destroy mental health.

Poverty causes mental health problems. Firstly because poverty and insecurity are immensely stressful. Secondly because if you are poor, you’ll have less access to resources that might help you. There will be no money for sport and fitness – activity often being recommended to help with mental health problems. You’re less likely to have a garden or to be able to access green space. Your poverty diet will undermine your physical and mental health. You may be socially isolated as a consequence of poverty. In societies that punish poverty, your self esteem and confidence will be harmed by the stigma of being poor.

If you are disabled, your long term condition may well also be undermining your mental health. Further, being physically disabled radically increases your chances of being in poverty, see above.

We have seat belts and safety rails, lifeguards, firemen, laws about smoking, workplace health and safety to reduce accidents. We take the protection of bodily wellbeing reasonably seriously. We don’t have the same attitude to mental health. We treat it like an individual problem, and not like something that could be damaged by the crimes and negligence of others.  We treat poverty as a personal failing, not a societal one.

Please be aware that mental health problems are not tragic accidents suffered by the unfortunate few. It’s not weakness, or lack of resilience. Unless we take stress and poverty seriously, we’re going to make ourselves ill. Until we deal with abuse in our societies, we will make people ill. When we shame people for being poor, we promote poor mental health.

Guilt and triggering

Content warning – abuse mechanics

There’s nothing like being triggered to bring on the guilt. It kicks in for me around any situation where I experience panic, but once I’m into flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, the guilt comes thick and heavy. I experience the trigger as my responsibility, my fault. I’ll end up apologising to the person who triggered me, for my being so unreasonable and for over-reacting. This makes it hard to even ask people not to do things that bring on high levels of panic in me.

It’s not an accident. The situations where I was most hurt, I was explicitly blamed for what happened. Complaining is a sure fire way to make an abusive situation even more dangerous. And it was, always, always my fault. Maybe because of what I did or didn’t do at the time. Maybe because of a comment I made years previously. Perhaps my being too tired to articulate things clearly made it my fault for not being clear enough. Perhaps I was upset over emotional pressure, which I should not have been because it was fair and justified, for reasons. You get the picture.

This is normal. Abusers blame their victims. It is an effective strategy to keep the victim in place and stop them from seeking help or going to the police. I was told many times that the problem was me – I was unreasonable, over-reacting, and worse still I was told that I was emotionally abusive, an emotional blackmailer, manipulative, cold, calculating… So when things go wrong, one of the places my triggers take me is back into that deep sense of shame, guilt and responsibility. It is even worse for child victims because they have nothing to set it against and no way of even wondering if what’s happening isn’t their fault.

It is so hard to ask for help when you think everything is your fault. It is so hard to ask for kindness or care when you feel like you don’t deserve it. There are regular shoutouts for people with mental health problems to ask for help and speak about our troubles, but that’s really hard to do if abuse is how you got here. It’s hard to ask for help when what damaged you in the first place was also blamed on you. If expressing distress has been dangerous for you, that’s an enduring barrier to asking for help.

The only things I know of that truly help with this are as follows. Boost self esteem and confidence – make an active effort to lift people and they may be able to handle all of this better. Take triggers seriously, even if they don’t make sense to you. Your understanding the process is irrelevant. If someone trusts you enough to flag up what triggers them, it means they think you won’t deliberately hurt or punish them. If you can honour that, you might be able to do a lot to help them feel safe and to heal. And if someone gets very weird with you and starts apologising for things that were not their fault, and especially if they seem scared when apologising, it’s a pretty reliable sign that they have some serious issues and need your care.

Who should change?

CW abuse

I’ve been poking about on the NHS website. I notice that medication to deal with trauma is something they offer to victims who can’t have meaningful therapy because their domestic abuse is ongoing. I’ve read page after page about coping with triggering and how to manage PTSD symptoms on websites designed to help people with mental health problems. I’ve read what content there is about how to support sufferers – be patient with them, listen – good stuff, but lacking something.

What I’m not seeing is the mental health advice about not triggering people. I’m not seeing the pages about dealing with workplace culture and bullying. I’m not seeing the advice to people about how to curb abusive behaviour and treat partners better. The Relate website is full of advice about what to do if you are upset, frustrated or annoyed in your relationship. It doesn’t say much about what to do if you are terrified, or in overwhelming distress, or what to do if your partner ‘makes you angry’ so that you feel justified hitting them.

It’s always the victim who has to change. It’s the victim who is expected to do the work, put the experience into perspective, take the meds, and become more resilient. Where is the content about how we do more to look after each other?

Everything I have thus far found online about PTSD therapy seems to start from the assumption that it was a one off event, never likely to happen again and that once you feel that you’ll be fine. Given the stats on abuse, child abuse, domestic abuse and people being made ill by their workplaces, it’s hard to see how this can be helpful. There are so many traumatic things people go through that aren’t one off events, but part of their daily lives.

If you’re wounded and struggling, all I can really offer you right now is solidarity and this thought – just because the majority of resources are focused on fixing you, does not mean it is you who are broken. The sick society that harmed you, is broken. The people who inflicted the damage, are broken. You need to feel safe – you should be able to feel safe. Safety does not really come from you changing the story about what happened, or working to minimise it. Safety comes from living in a culture that doesn’t encourage, condone and generally facilitate abuse and bullying. There’s nothing more healing and restorative than getting to feel safe.

Supporting Victims

If someone you know is a victim of bullying or abuse, there are things you can say and do that will really help, and well meaning things that can make the situation worse.  

Being ‘neutral’ can feel like a moral choice. It isn’t. Doing nothing always supports bullies and abusers and enables them to continue. It always undermines the victim. If both people tell you they are the victim and you don’t know what to do, look at the power balance. If all else fails, support the person who is asking for comfort and safety not the person who is asking to punish someone. Abusers will gather support to pile further abuse on victims, and you can avoid becoming part of this.

Listen. Really listen. Don’t bring assumptions with you or ideas about what you would have done differently. Don’t assume that because the bully is nice to you that they wouldn’t do this. Bullies and abusers cultivate supporters – how else could they operate successfully? They are in control of what they do, and will deliberately isolate their victims.

Micro-aggressions are a real thing. If the individual events described to you seem trivial, remember to look at the bigger picture. If someone is facing a constant drip of poison, put downs, humiliations, criticism, being overloaded, being blamed and the like than the damage done will be greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t dismiss bullying on the basis that it just looked like one small thing. Also remember that experiences that aren’t a big deal for you might feel very different to someone else.

Don’t try to explain, justify or minimise the abuse. There may be a time in the future where understanding why would be helpful, but right now the most important thing is that the victim feels safe and supported. Don’t make the bully and their issues the more important thing. Being hurt, being a former victim, being under a lot of stress, having mental health problems – these things do not make it ok to hurt other people. Many hurt and damaged people manage not to hurt anyone else. It’s not inevitable and no free passes should be given.

Don’t tell them to be stoical. Don’t tell them it will pass, or not to make a fuss, or not to take it to heart. That’s just a way of shutting people down. If what they say makes you uncomfortable, that really shouldn’t be the most important thing. Your mild discomfort at hearing this is nothing compared to actually living with it. This includes being made to feel uncomfortable about someone you liked.

Don’t ask them to put the wellbeing of the community first. Don’t tell them to be silent for fear they will harm the company or the organisation. Any group that puts looking good ahead of caring for the people in it, is toxic. Any group that thinks its reputation is more important than whether it is enabling abuse, will keep enabling abuse and must be stopped. However important you think the community, or the work the group is doing really is, this stuff will rot it to the core if undealt with.

Don’t make the victim responsible for sorting out the situation. Don’t make it their job to better humour and pacify their abuser. Don’t tell them to put up with it. Listen to them, support them, act to make safer and healthier spaces. If you truly can’t tell who the bully is in a situation, working broadly to improve safety will either sort things out or make it clearer what’s going on. Sometimes people truly believe they are victims because they can’t accept others holding reasonable boundaries or can’t bear being given a ‘no’ as an answer. The person who is able to say no is usually the person with the power in any given situation, and the person who is not allowed to say no is the person who needs your help.

Not being in control of your thoughts

CW abuse mechanics

There is a popular, but highly flawed positivity concept that goes ‘even if you can’t control anything else, you can control your thought and reactions’. It sounds good. It sounds plausible, and empowering, but it isn’t true.

If you aren’t familiar with the mechanics of conditioning, hop over and read this piece on Pavlov’s dogs – https://www.verywellmind.com/pavlovs-dogs-2794989

Conditioning is a process that trains minds and behaviour. The individual being trained does not need to be aware that they are being taught to react in certain ways. You hear the bell, you salivate.  Reinforced by rewards and/or punishments, conditioning teaches your body to respond without your brain even having to get involved.  If you’ve been taught this way, changing your responses is really hard. You have to first figure out what you’ve learned and what causes your behaviour and then you have to either unpick it or replace it. It is easer to replace conditioning with new conditioning, but the process of making new rules and enforcing them is a hard one.

If you’ve lived through abuse, or gaslighting then someone has trained you to respond to certain situations in specific ways. A lot of work goes into that training, destroying a person’s sense of self, their confidence, their ability to hold boundaries or say no. You can come back from there, but it isn’t easy. You can only control your own thoughts and responses after doing a great deal of work to rebuild your mind.

If you have PTSD then your responses to triggers are difficult through to impossible to control. Trauma impacts on you, and you are unable to escape it.  It may be possible to get some control over this – with time, safety, counselling, and a lot of work. For many people, the triggers never quite go away no matter how hard they try to fix themselves.

It’s hard to change your thinking and responses if what you’ve internalised is everything your culture reinforces every day. It’s hard to think differently without examples, role models, maps. Not impossible of course, but bloody difficult. Changing your thoughts is really hard if you have no idea what you could think instead.

You may not be in control of your thoughts and responses. If that’s true for you, then it is possible to change to at least some degree, but not in the way glib positivity statements suggest. Rebuilding, and retraining a mind is hard work and takes a long time. Dealing with learned responses that happen in your body is slow work, and painful, and the bigger the trauma, the harder it is to get over it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we have mammal bodies. We have our animal body chemistry, with the flight, fight, freeze and appease responses wired in. We have urges and hormones, and we won’t always know what’s going on with that. We should be able to control our responses so that those things don’t impact on other people too much, but we may not be able to control what goes on in our heads as the chemistry washes through our brains.

Be patient with yourself, you are a soft mammal, not a perfected thinking machine and sometimes being a mammal is a bit messy.