Tag Archives: victim blaming

Politics and abusive relationships

Why do people stay in abusive relationships? This question has never been more pertinent, because politically speaking, a lot of people in the UK are choosing to do just that. Let me start by saying that if you decide it is a person’s fault for staying with their abuser and that they must be stupid to stay – you’ll help keep them there.

Loss of self esteem is key to keeping people in abusive relationships. You stay because you think there’s nothing better out there for you. You may even be persuaded that you are so awful that no one else but your abuser could put up with you. Consider what’s happened in the last ten years or so to blame the poor for poverty and to crush the self esteem of anyone who is struggling, and to suggest that nothing better exists.

If someone is persuaded that they don’t deserve nice things, and that their suffering is their own fault, they stay. Telling a person it’s their fault they will go hungry as they’re sanctioned to meet targets is a similar process to telling a person it is their fault you hit them. If you’re subject to blame for long enough, the odds are you will internalise it. If you think you are too clever, too self aware, too well informed to succumb, let me tell you that you are wrong in this, and that minds are fragile and break in certain circumstances. Everyone has points at which they would break and things they cannot resist. Pray you never get to find out where yours is, but don’t imagine you are ‘above’ all that.

You do not save people from abusive relationships by trying to tell them how awful their abuser is. This can cause victims to dig in, defending the one person they are convinced could even tolerate them. You don’t get people out of abusive relationships by shaming them, making them feel responsible, or making them feel stupid because this reinforces everything their abuser has been doing. We do this around politics a lot. It’s not helping.

The only way to help someone break out of an abusive relationship is to re-build their shattered confidence and self esteem. If they can feel better about themselves, they can better see what’s being done to them. The person who finds they are loved, valued, supported and cared for by someone who is not their abuser, can consider the ‘love’ their abuser shows in a new light. It takes time and patience to put back together someone who has been taken apart, but it is the only thing that works.

When people vote in a way we consider self-harming, we have to stop responding like this is because they are stupid. It is exactly the same as telling a battered wife that she is stupid to stay – women in such circumstances already know they are stupid and worthless and that life would be even more terrible if their abuser wasn’t there to sort things out for them. This is exactly the same, just on a much bigger scale. Only when we stop victim blaming can we help people believe they are worth more and should be able to have nice things, and that the way to have nice things is to get away from the person who keeps telling them they cannot have nice things.

It is of course much easier to be cross with people for staying, and to blame them and feel like you have the moral high ground for not being in that mess yourself. I’ve been there. I’ve been broken, robbed of my confidence and convinced I was so worthless that I should be grateful to the person who constantly mistreated me. I felt stupid, and useless and could not imagine I deserved any better. Being treated kindly and being valued got me out of there, eventually. Lifting each other up gets amazing things done. Blaming and shaming keeps people thinking they deserve no better.


Framing the horrors

Trigger warnings. Also, I’m going to use a lot of ‘I’ statements in this blog, not all of them are true of me, this is about the language, not personal experience.

How we use language informs how we see our own experiences, how other people use language shapes how we understand them. We may not be consciously analyzing each other’s words, but nuances affect us anyway. It is a method that is used to manipulate people. Cultural habits of speech can entrench values – and not always good or healthy values. How we frame things can prop up power imbalance, abuse of power, disempowering of sets of people and so forth. I think one of my jobs as a bard is to get people thinking about how the words they hear and the words they use change and shape their relationship with reality.

Let’s consider this more specifically.

“I was raped.”

This phrase casts rape as an event that happened to the speaker. It has a similar ring to “a tree branch hit me on the head” or “I had a cold.” The phrasing disappears a number of things. It disappears the rapist as an active player in the events, someone who had a choice, and autonomy, not at all like a falling tree branch. It seems passive, perhaps unavoidable, like the tree branch and the cold. These things just happen.

“A man raped me” is a very different statement, foregrounding the deliberate action of an individual. Something done to the victim, not an accident, not a falling tree.

We use all the same terms of phrase for other acts of violence and sexual assault. I was assaulted, not someone assaulted me. I was mugged, not someone mugged me. I was a victim of child abuse, not pointing at the adult who abused your child self.

One of the other things this language disappears, is the likelihood of the victim knowing the aggressor. Most assaults are not undertaken by strangers, although these are the ones we are taught to guard against. You are most likely to be killed, assaulted or sexually abused by someone you know. “I was raped” has no known person in it as perpetrator. It implies stranger danger. “I was raped by my boyfriend” has a very different impact. “I was abused as a child by my stepbrother” foregrounds a lot of things that need to be visible. Of course for many of us it isn’t safe to name the aggressor, and we have legal systems that mean you have to be careful about your accusations, but we should all be able to get as far as ‘I was assaulted by someone I trusted’.

The word ‘rapist’ suggests something other, that is not a person. A rapist is something we can imagine as separate, not one of us. It allows us to wriggle out of thinking about it. Or we can picture them like some kind of stage villain, self announcing and distinct. Rapists are here. They are us. They are next to us on the train. We work with them, hang out with them, are related to them. We need to re-identify their presence, their personhood. So many women are raped, it is reasonable to assume that men who rape are present and numerous and not self announcing. A man raped me, not ‘a rapist’.

We lose the men when we say ‘I was raped’. We lose the clarity that, often what we’re talking about is something a man has done to a woman. Yes, I know it doesn’t always work that way, but mostly it does. Rape is a crime with a distinct gender bias. This is another reason it would be helpful if we could start foregrounding the rapist when we talk about this stuff. It might help us not get bogged down in ‘not all men’ conversations if we started by being a bit clearer about who had done the things in the first place. Saying ‘I was raped, I was assaulted’ lets people decline to hear who was doing it.

How we talk about things informs how we feel about them and think about them. We need to move away from victim blaming, and one way we can push towards that is to change how we phrase things so that the perpetrator remains firmly in view.


Healing, and playing the victim

Devote too much attention to your experience of being a victim, and someone will come by and knock you back. Wallowing in victimhood, you will be told, is bad, and wrong and just keeps you in that victim place and you should shut up about it and move on. We have a culture that does not give any of us much space for supposed negative emotions – grief, rage, pain, and so forth are to be tidied away and denied. It can also be uncomfortable for people who are fine, to hear from people who are not, because it may challenge assumptions and beliefs, expose vulnerability and/or complicity.

A person who has been a victim – be that of exploitation, abuse, assault, emotional, physical or psychological mistreatment has a process to go through. Abusers tend to be good at victim blaming. There will be reasons for what happened and the victim will have been faced with the reasons enough times to believe them. This happens because you are bad, you deserve it. You aren’t worth a proper wage, or respect, or kindness. You don’t properly qualify as a person so human rights don’t apply to you. Hearing those reasons keeps the victim in a situation. However, oppression can be bigger and systematic – as with racism and sexism. Your people deserve no better. Your gender has less value to this community.

In order to change anything, the victim needs to see their own victimhood. They need to recognise that what happened was not fair or deserved. Often this process means connecting with others who have had, or are having the same experiences. It is easier to see what’s wrong when you see it happening to someone else. In swapping notes, victims gain insight, courage and confidence. At this point, it is not unusual for non-victims to pile in and complain about the pity party, the reinforcing of the idea of victimhood. I’ve never experienced sexism so you other women are clearly the problem. I’ve never experienced racism so I don’t think it exists… and so forth. It doesn’t help.

When people recognise the abuse, and start picking apart the mechanics of the abuse, they become able to make changes. They get out of the relationship or the job, if it’s that easy. They start protesting and demanding equal rights – which evidently takes decades if not longer. There comes a point when the victims start demanding that the non-victims pay attention and make some changes.

If you don’t let people recognise their victimhood, you don’t give them the space to get angry and change things. If you don’t let people swap notes about their exploitation, you don’t let them organise to make change. If you don’t let victims speak about their mistreatment, you will never see what in the system facilitates it. You stay comfortably inside the system that is facilitating abuse. That’s no doubt why it is easier to complain about the pity party, tell people to shut up, and denigrate them for ‘playing the victim’. Otherwise we might have to deal with our own advantages and complicity, and that would be uncomfortable. It is easy to put personal comfort ahead of social justice.

Abuse and exploitation are not things that happen away, in private arrangements. These things happen in the context of cultures we are part of – systems, laws, balances of privilege that we are all upholding. If we make it the business only of the victim to work out how to turn that around and become a survivor, the underlying causes of abuse and exploitation remain, with our tacit support.


The urge to judge

It’s not a new thing, this idea that, with a casual glance at someone’s life, or body, we can determine what’s ‘really’ going on and judge them accordingly. The notion of the ‘deserving’ poor versus the ‘underserving’ has been with us for a long time. The refusal to accept that most chronic illness means good days and bad days. A person on a bad day is not faking it, what they could do on a good day is not the measure. Mental health difficulties are unhelpfully judged as not trying hard enough, making a fuss. So, why are we so keen to judge based on little or no real insight?

Firstly because it can let us off the hook. If the problem isn’t real then with an easy conscience, we can decline to help. We don’t have to change ourselves or the systems we operate in. It’s a lazy choice based on putting personal ease ahead of other people’s real needs.

We are taught to fear the idea that someone else could get something for nothing. But, it’s the lazy poor we are to be suspicious of. Not shareholders. Not those with big expense claims against the public purse. Not people who inherited and don’t need to work. Those with money are welcome to more money for doing nothing, those with no money we don’t want to move money towards. This is old, and its purpose is transparent as soon as you stop to look at it.

We are more afraid that some people might get something they aren’t entitled to, than we are concerned that people who need help should get help. We are willing to punish the many on the off-chance of hampering a few who want to play the system. Our politicians have encouraged this.

Judging a person with issues and victim blaming is a standard tactic for bullies. If the victim is making a fuss, a drama queen, attention seeking, or anything like that, then the bully has more scope to keep attacking without consequences. Overt judging and shaming of others can be a smokescreen to hide violence, abuse and mistreatment.

In judging people, we can feel superior to them. When life is short of lifts and ego boosts, it can be tempting to denigrate someone else just to feel bigger than they are. If other people support us in this, we can feel even larger and more important.

Those who are poor, ill, and struggling are a vulnerable, easy target for haters and blamers. It’s the demographic least able to fight back, least likely to have energy or resources to take you to court or otherwise seek justice and rebalance.

We like to think we know. We like to think we’re clever enough to see exactly what’s going on in someone else’s life. We think if something wouldn’t hurt us, or make our brains stop working then it shouldn’t be a problem for anyone else either. We are persuaded that our life experience is a fair measure of someone else’s struggles.

What it means, when we walk this path, is that we only judge other people, and never have to judge ourselves.