Sunday, 3 February 2013
Careful with the label gun - my little hissy fit on abuse. 14.05.2012
I’m currently having one of those ongoing circular conversations with my best friend regarding one of my past relationships. It started off with him describing something may ex did as “abusive”. Before you grow concerned, the behaviour in question had nothing to do with violence or indeed anything he did in the house – it was a different kettle of fish entirely - but it started me and my friend off on this recurring debate.
My friend’s argument is that the behaviour can be classed as abusive because of its intentions. My response, up to this morning, has been a peevish, rather high-pitched “oh no it isn’t!”, combined with a stomping of my tiny feet. Yes, I am aware that this is not the way to conduct rational discussions, but hey it was the best I could do at the time, before I had a good think about it.
My initial reactions to my friend’s allegation were mixed. It is an interesting approach and gives me a very clear-cut point of view on the situation that I did not have before, as I was too involved in it. It does, most probably succinctly and correctly, sum up my ex’ intentions; it neatly excuses why I felt so upset by his behaviour, too – it was, after all, carried out specifically to hurt me. I was abused, hence was upset. Hey presto, it all makes sense and doesn't suggest a weakness on my part. The neat "abuse" label tidies things up hugely. I am the injured party. My partner is the nasty man who wanted to injure me. The fact that I was unable to resolve the behaviour successfully (stop it, in essence) is no longer a failing. I am, in fact, suddenly a little hero for managing to eventually escape the clutches of an abusive man. Hark at me getting out of an abusive relationship! Lots of women never manage, you know. Medals and rosettes all round. You can cut the cake.
So, why the knee-jerk reaction on my part? Please note that unfortunately I'm not talking about kneeing the jerk in this instance. I wish. Oh, I do wish. I'm talking about the fact that every time the "a" word gets used, I turn into a stroppy three year-old. The word vexes me hugely. I flatly refuse to be associated with it - I tried momentarily but it just doesn't fit. But why?
Driving down the road today, I was randomly reminded of a sentence another friend of mine said back in the days when we used to hitchhike. You see a lot of the world, hitchhiking, but you see even more of people, or at least a certain side of people. You learn how to carry yourself. You learn how to read people. You learn how to plan and prepare for all eventualities. You also learn, ultimately, about calculated risks, the possible results of your mistakes, and the fact that shit happens sometimes, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.
My friend, describing a rather unhappy event in her hitching career, came up with one of those statements I shall never forget: "Nobody can rape you if you refuse to withhold your consent."
Yes, we were hardcore in those days. Yes, we were doing stupid, risky things, and you can class any bad consequence of our actions as self-inflicted. And yes, my friend's approach can be seen as a way of lying to herself, of masking the reality of the situation in order to be able to carry on, to avoid being overwhelmed by events with a huge emotional impact. It is, however, also entirely true – difficult to achieve perhaps - but true. If you truly can control the way you think of a situation to that extent, you can change the nature of the event taking place.
Rape is in the eye of both the rapist and the raped. However, and fortunately, you don't have to care about anyone else's point of view. If your point of view is strongly held enough, and rings true in your own head, everybody else's can be utterly disregarded. So, this man wants to take something from you, and appears willing to take it violently. You are not going to win this one. You have assessed the situation and you know that this battle is lost. You can, however, change the situation, if not in reality, at least in your own head. Give him the damn thing. He can't take it from you if you've already given it to him.
I wonder how many people reading this are shouting at this point. Anybody who thinks that I'm excusing rape, diminishing its seriousness and consequences in any way, suggesting that the raped is somewhat complicit in the event taking place or that women should "go along" with it, please take some deep breaths and start reading back from the top. I'm purely talking about the approach a friend of mine took to an event in her life. It worked for her. I don't know if it would work for anyone else, me included. I did find it relevant and interesting and that is all.
I'm using rape here for two reasons. Firstly it is quite possibly the most extreme form of abuse I can think of, or rather that I choose to think of - I know there is much worse, and I really don't want to send my brain there. Secondly, it was actually a very present risk to me and my associates for a large proportion of our lives. In fairness, it still is. Whether you choose to accept it or not, it is an incredibly prevalent event, which affects a huge proportion of women. Yes, we probably did more than most to put ourselves in harm's way, but the truth of the matter is that "staying safe" doesn't keep you safe, and both general statistical studies and my personal experiences support this. I struggle to think of any female friend of mine who wasn't at some point at the receiving end of some degree of sexual violence. The point is that, as hitchhikers, we were extremely aware of the risk of coming a cropper and had to accept it as part of our daily activities. But I digress.
It could be any other form of abuse, I'm just using one I know and a lot of people can relate to. In fact, the alleged "abuse" I suffered, as I said, was of an entirely different nature.
That's the rub, isn't it. You "suffer" abuse. You "are subjected" to abuse. You "escape" abuse. Abuse is a neat one-way stream. Someone throws shit your way, and either it hits you, you dodge, or sometimes, rarely, you manage to throw it back. In all of those situations, however, you are a victim. You are not complicit in the abuse, that's true, although accusations of co-dependency and the like can be thrown about. But ultimately abuse buys neatly into our tendency as humans to examine life as if it was a fairy tale. I'm Red Riding Hood, he's the Big Bad Wolf. I'm good, he's evil. It's all very black and white.
There's only one problem with this assessment. It's dangerous bullshit. What it essentially states is that I had no active part in the situation, so I am absolved from it. The unpleasant flipside is that it implies that I could do nothing to control it. If you look at the facts without taking a moral stand, you must however admit that my predicament was, like it or not, partly my responsibility.
1. I picked the guy. Yes, I didn't know what he was like at the time, I'm not a bloody masochist, but I still picked him. Error of judgement. Backed the wrong horse. "Plain silly" or even "bloody stupid", in some people's books, because I "should have seen it coming". And don't some people enjoy telling you that. Shame I misplaced my crystal ball earlier that year.
2. I watched a situation develop. Yes, he was bigger and meaner than me, with big pointy teeth, but still, I sat there and just watched it, for a short while. I'm not sure that there was anything I could have done, but still, I did nothing.
3. He took actions which I found painful and objectionable, "I found" being the operative words here. I shall never know how much the actions were designed specifically to cause me distress, as the man's head is his own dominion and I would not want to get in there even if I could. I'd get my aura all dirty. But, regardless, I could have mentally filed them differently, and subsequently felt very differently about them. Instead of thinking "why doesn't he care?", "why is he doing this" and other permutations of the wail of the helpless, I could have thought "how dare he!" I took a certain approach. That was entirely of my doing and is my responsibility.
As it happens, at this stage, instead of neatly falling into the role of abused, I went off and started causing my own share of trouble, because that's what I'm like. Trying to bully or repress me always causes the same reaction, which always seems to shock and astonish the poor attempted perpetrators. I appear to turn from a dormouse or other small, cutesy rodent, into a rampaging rhino. That's just me, though. I'm sure it would have been worse for a lot of other people, and equally a lot better for people better equipped to deal with the situation. Hell, if I'd been equipped to deal with it, I'd have stopped it at stage 2. Still, it's not a competition. I'm not judging myself or anyone else by comparison.
Eventually, things got too bad and I scarpered. I didn't stand to fight; I got the heck outta Dodge . It was possibly the safest, most sensible response to the circumstances, but hardly heroic. Not that I'm bothered by that. I still can't see, however, why I'm accruing brownie points for making a stupid choice, not being able to manage a situation, and finally disappearing into the distance making a sound like the Road Runner. Apparently that is an indication of the fact that "I'm being too hard on myself", and I quote. Sorry, I just can't see it. It might be because of the dust. Beep! beep !
The important thing here is that I will hold until my dying day that I was not abused. Yes, he quite possibly tried to abuse me; only he would know, if he's that self-aware. Maybe it wasn't intentional, maybe he just acted callously and carelessly. I'm sure as hell not going to ask him. At any rate, it does not really matter because he did not manage to abuse me. He did not manage it because I refused to buy into the fairy tale. I took the fangs off the Big Bad Wolf, and behind those I saw a man like any other, whose behaviours were undoubtedly questionable. But do you know a person who's never done anything questionable? I don't. I know I have.
The moment you stick the "abuse" label onto the situation, you diminish me. You excuse my errors in judgement and my feebleness in dealing with the events, I come out all clean and smelling of roses, but you turn me into an innocent victim. A VICTIM. Fuck that.
So, what's the moral of the story? I'm not sure I have one. I'm not advocating a convoluted form of mental gymnastics as a cure-all for bad situations. I'm not saying that "empowerment" makes everything better, particularly as it's one of those unfortunate words (like "holistic" and "positive") that have been misused so much that I keep away from it as if it was a plague carrier. I am definitely, however, advocating care in sticking labels to events and people, or accepting the easy, convenient labels that people so enjoy using. You might be trying to make things neater and tidier in your own head, but you can end up creating victims that were not there before, and one of those victims could be you.