Sunday, 10 November 2013

Domestic Abuse: tools and talismans. 10.11.13

When I was a teeny tiny girl, I lived with my mum in a one-bedroom flat.  My mum had to take work home to make ends meet, so she would tuck me in my bed and retreat to the living room to toil late into the night.  The living room was at the opposite end of the flat, right at the end of the corridor.  The corridor was quite short during the day, but in the dark it expanded into an eternally long tunnel full of shadowy nooks and crannies.  I could see my mother’s light in the far distance, but to get to her I had to walk all the way down the terrifying corridor, where all sorts of monsters may be lying in wait.

Being a bookish child with an overactive imagination, I used to be visited by the best class of nightmares on the market.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night, scared rigid by my latest brush with horrors ranging from the post-modern to the primordial, and want my mummy.  She was just there, I knew it, yet she was maddeningly out of reach at the far end of the dark, dreadful tunnel.  Hollering for her was not allowed as it would disturb the neighbours.  I was too little to reach the light switches and make the monsters run off.  We couldn’t leave the lights on all the time, because electricity cost money.  Standing by the bedroom door, terrified by what may lie beyond, I knew I only had two choices.  I either had to face more fears to get comfort for the fears I had already endured, or suck it up and tuck myself into bed without a kiss and a cuddle.  It was harsh.

Once my mother became aware of my predicament, she tried to explain to me that dark-dwelling monsters do not exist.  I understood that she believed in what she was saying, but I simply could not trust the information she was giving me.  After all, I was brought up to believe that hell and associated devils were very real.  The existence of a class of monster made the existence of all other monsters possible, however improbable.  The fact that I could not see them with the lights on said nothing about their presence in the dark; after all, we never saw the ‘roaches in the cellar when the lights were on.  Ultimately, like a true would-be scientist, I refused to accept absence of evidence as evidence of absence.

In an unusual fit of resourcefulness, my mother took two practical steps.  Firstly she found me a glow-in-the-dark picture of an angel to put by my bed.  This was my guardian angel, she told me, who would look after me in my sleep and never ever let me down.  Secondly, she unearthed an ancient flashlight I could use to light my way down the dread tunnel, if the angel was not enough to keep nightmares at bay.  She gave me two very different things, you will notice: a talisman to make me feel better, and a tool that helped me deal with my problem.

Me being me, her second present took a slightly different connotation.  The flashlight she had found for me was so ancient that it was made entirely of metal and took eight D batteries.  It was nearly two-foot-long and extremely heavy.  Clutching it tightly with my tiny hands I thought to myself: “how sweet, mummy got me a cosh.”  I truly relished the knowledge that I could not only see the monsters hiding in the dark, but also give them a good hiding.  That’d teach them to try and scare me, or worse.  I’d show them what happens when you hide in MY closet.  I was young enough to enjoy pretending that I believed in the angel, and I believed the light when it showed me the temporary absence of dangers, but I believed in the cosh the most.  Between the tools and the talisman, happiness returned to the kingdom.

My mother never intended to give me a weapon.  She is a sweet, dear lady who is horrified at any thought of violence.  She had, however, unwillingly taken some key thinking steps that enabled me to give myself permission to defend myself from the causes of my fears.  Firstly, she had not dismissed my fears off-hand; she respected the fact that she could not talk me out of them using logic and that I was entitled to them.  Secondly, she showed me that fears can be fought by using appropriate tools.  Thirdly, she created the expectation that I should be brave enough to confront my fears, rather than succumb to them.  In my little girl’s mind, she made me responsible for managing and responding to my fears.  She would help me find solutions, but ultimately the buck stopped with me.  It is probably the most useful bit of parenting I was ever exposed to.

I found myself thinking back about my flashlight when listening to a talk about Domestic Abuse.  The organisation in questions helps women remain in their homes after a violent partner has been removed[1].  As the talk progressed, I found myself getting increasingly exercised.  Domestic Abuse is a hot-button topic with me at the best of time; to be perfectly honest, if tarring and feathering were brought into fashion as a suitable punishment for convicted abusers I’d gladly volunteer to be the one to wield the pitch.  However, this was not it.  I was getting increasingly heated about what the organisation I was there to support was doing.  They were the Good Guys, and they were making me very, very angry.  It made no sense.

I seethed quietly, rather confused, for a little while.  Then the speaker finally came out with a sentence that explained to me what was going on in my head: “We must help women feel safe.”  That was my problem.  They were dealing more with the FEELING of fear than with the cause of it.  They were not giving women tools; they were handing out talismans.  By doing so, they might have actually helped put women in greater danger.

Let’s look at the facts.  Your partner is an abuser.  S/he enjoys hurting you.  S/he does not care that hurting you is illegal, socially unacceptable or even evil.  S/he has already hurt you; s/he hurt you enough, in fact, that you have been able to get the help of the authorities.  The dark fact is that s/he could probably hurt you again, and may well want to.

You want to remain in your home and retain your life, which makes perfect sense.  However, what that means in practice is that your abuser knows when and where to get you so you are at your most vulnerable – alone, unable to get help, or with dependants whose welfare you put above yours.  Running off to Patagonia would eliminate the risk of the abuser getting to you, but you don’t want to do that, and that’s more than fine by me.  However, in order to give you real protection, firstly we need to admit that you have a real problem; one that cannot be dispelled by waving talismans at it or chanting about your “rights”.

Talismans, however, appear to be the main items on the menu, both from the legal system and from the various support groups out there.  From the legal point of view, you may be issued with a restraining order, which is a mighty piece of paper you can wave at your abuser if s/he comes too near.  If they bother you again, the law will come down upon them.  That may give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but there is a glitch with it.  Abusing people is not precisely legal in this country.  If an abuser was already willing to break the law to indulge his/her fancies, what is to stop them breaking the terms of the order?  While I understand that fighting to get a restraining order is an important legal step to take, I can’t say that the order itself would make me feel any safer.

If you choose to access victim support groups, you’d hope you’d get more practical help.  After all, supporting victims is what these groups are all about.  Some of the suggested “solutions” are eminently practical and sensible.  For instance, you may be advised to install a door chain and door viewer so that you do not open your door without checking who is trying to get in – not that you ever should, but as a higher-risk person this is really the time to deal with this.  Provided you have a half-decent door, this actually reduces your risks of a physical confrontation by hopefully keeping your abuser outside while you call in the cavalry.  Increasing the level of security in and around your house, taking practical steps which would also protect you from all sorts of other crime, is a very good idea.

Far too many of the solutions, however, are nothing but talismans.  A prime example of them is issuing recovering victims with personal alarms which are not connected to an emergency system.  All the alarm does is make a racket.  I am rather sceptical of its practical applications.  The way I look at it, most people can make a racket by simply screaming.  If the noise you can make on your own is not going to deter the predator, then mechanically-created noise is not going to make much of a difference either[2].  However, alarms “help victims feel safer”, and that is good, isn’t it?

I’m sorry, but I disagree with that.  Yes, feeling safe is extremely important.  Unless you have been in a long-term situation when you have felt UNsafe, I can’t begin to explain to you how much that colours every aspect of your life.  However, if the feeling of safety is not accompanied by an increase in actual safety, then what we are doing is feeding victims into the meat grinder. 

This approach makes the victims feel safer without actually decreasing their danger.  While it is important to get them out of a fear-induced paralysis, this should only be a part of the process.  It is important inasmuch as it motivates them to take steps to address the problem at hand.  If they are sitting there quaking in fear, it does not matter how many tools you hand to them, because they will not have the power to use them against their abusers when the need arises.  What often gets bandied about as “empowerment”, however, is rhetoric without content, because it only addresses the feelings, not the abilities to deal with the situation.  It tells you how to feel, not what to do. 

Making the victims feel safer gives them a greater ability to enjoy their lives, to be sure.  At the same time, it may cause them to drop their guard hence putting them at greater risk.  What this approach ignores completely is the fact that the victims are not fighting shadows; they are in clear and present danger.  Their feelings of fear are both natural and justified because abusers are a very real danger, not bogeymen. 

It’s easy and comfortable to talk about “empowering victims” by making them feel better.  We can get a warm, rosy glow thinking about how we are helping all those poor little victims march bravely onwards, trusting in their talismans.  And that’s just grand - until someone gets killed, because talismans are not tools; because the feeling wasn’t connected to any actual, practical increase in the victims’ ability to protect themselves; because when you are trying to keep safe from vampires a cross may help you, but when you are in danger from a prowling tiger you might want to choose something rather more practical.  

Telling someone that a key chain alarm will stop an aggressor is the equivalent of handing them a placebo weapon; a toy gun to protect themselves from tigers.  This is particularly the case when that aggressor has already violated a restraining order.  In fact, the alarm may escalate what may have been a purely verbal confrontation into actual physical violence.  The fact is that there is no universal panacea, no magic bullet that works against all people all the time.  True, effective personal safe-protection cannot come out of a one-size-fits-all kit.  However, we are not dealing with practical solutions here.

The support system is often dealing with "empowerment" through addressing feelings rather than the actual issues.  This worries me greatly.  When did we start caring more about people’s feelings than about their physical welfare?  When did people’s rights become more important than their survival?  It’s got to be a lot easier to exercise your right to the pursuit of happiness when you are alive and breathing, and ideally out of hospital and with all major limbs and organs present and intact.  But no, we focus on “awareness” without real understanding and “empowerment” without any real power.  We are handing out victims a lot of hot air.  Some of them seem to be buying it.  Meanwhile, the scared little girl inside my head keeps reminding me that nobody seems willing to talk about handing victims a cosh.

[1] Yes, there is a gender bias.  Yes, I know that Domestic Abuse can and does also affect men.  The bias was put there by the organisation in question, not by me.  And yes, it that annoyed me greatly, too.

[2] Alarms can be louder than screams, but particularly in urban settings we can be exposed to so many artificial alarms that most people fail to respond to them.  I reckon the increase in volume is probably counterbalanced by the decrease in the perceived significance of the noise.  Furthermore, unless you have actually dealt with the victims’ fear paralysis under adrenal stress, they might never get to push the button.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

My close brush with date rape. 31/10/13.

Last summer I narrowly avoided becoming a rapist.  Before you start shouting, the whole horrid event wasn’t premeditated in any way, shape or form.  I was minding my own business dancing in a beer tent when this Sweet Young Thing rolled in and commenced to bounce.  Bounce, bounce, bounce – it wasn’t the best dancing I’d ever seen, but it did it for me.  I couldn’t stop gawping at it, and it only got better.  Bouncing is hot work, you see, so off came the jacket, and that was good.  Then off came the t-shirt too, at which point I felt compelled to manifest my appreciation.  I wasn’t up to reciting sonnets, what with my jaw being sore from having hit the ground, but apparently that wasn’t a problem.  A generic “oh, that’s NICE” accompanied by vague hand waving to qualify the areas I thought particularly noteworthy seemed to do the trick, as the Sweet Young Thing latched onto me like a limpet and proceeded to suck my face.

Things were getting a bit crowded, so we retired to a secluded dark corner where we could get to know each other better in peace.  It was there that I realised that, on close inspection, the Sweet Young Thing was even prettier than I’d thought, but very young indeed.  We weren’t talking illegal, but we were definitely in the realm of “if that condom had burst back in high school…”  It felt a bit, well, creepy.  Nice, don’t get me wrong, but creepy.  It got worse, as the Sweet Young Thing was also clearly very, very wasted.  I was drunk enough to think that I could dance, but I was by far the most sober person there.  In fact, I was sober enough for a rather unpleasant question to pop into my head: had the Fine Young Thing been less plastered, would I have found myself enjoying the same reception? 

The sad and humbling truth is that it was seriously unlikely.  In fact, the words “not on a bet” sprung to mind.  Having been involved in a number of discussions about date rape, I decided I was entering what was plainly a danger zone.  Had I carried on, knowing that the most likely reason I was able to was my partner’s alcoholic intake, I would have been committing a despicable act.  I hurriedly extricated myself, made my excuses, and bravely fled back to my lair.

You might think this is a resounding result on the part of the rape awareness campaigners.  Unfortunately, you’re wrong.  Apparently I got the whole drunken sex thing wrong.  And the reason I got it all wrong is that I failed to consider a key factor in the equation – he was a guy, I’m a girl, and different rules seem to apply.

I discovered the error of my ways when I got involved in a discussion about the “all rape is about Power&Control” dogma, which never fails to boggle me.  It may be the accepted wisdom of the age, it might be published in books, and people with a lot of letters after their name might hold it as truth.  However, it just doesn't tally with what I've seen.  For my sins, I have spent a large proportion of my formative years in the presence of people off their faces on alcohol and drugs.  I have seen a lot of regrettable sex resulting from a combination of raging hormones and people’s brain being out of order.  The motivation behind the sex was not to injure or exploit the victim in any way.  It was purely a case of people whose brains were temporarily turned into mush really wanting to get off.  It was the result of biology and chemistry clashing into a horrible train wreck, but there was no premeditation or malice to it.  This does not make that sort of behaviour any more acceptable, but it does make the Power&Control explanation not fit.  And yes, I know that "the plural of anecdote is not data", but when you have to discount evidence to make a theory work that, to me, raises some serious issues.  

Well, I tried to raise those issues and got shot down.  The conversation got bloodier as it went on (and it seemed to go on forever), but these are the main points I picked up:
  1.     How can rape NOT be about power and control? The weak don't rape the strong, do they?  If I can't overpower another person and/or control that other person, how could I rape them?
  2.     When someone's under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and another person can do things to them that, in a normal state of mind, would be against their will, that's control – even if both parties are under the influence, and even if the only motivation is sexual gratification.
  3.     The very act of getting off, taking advantage of another for sexual gratification is a manifestation of Power&Control (so, sex for sex’s sake could be classed as rape).
  4.     Female rapists are apparently an unknown species (“how many female rapists do you know, and where do they hold their meetings?” I was asked).  This is despite admitting to the existence of women happy to exploit the knowledge that if you go to a drinking establishment after a certain time of night you can pick up men who, sober and in the clear light of day, would run a mile from you (so, point 1, 2 and 3 don’t quite apply if you’re a chick).
  5.     Sooooo, if you carry out the activities described in point 4 and you are a man, you are definitely a rapist.  If you are a woman, not so much.  This is apparently kosher, though, because “comparing male and female rape is disingenuous”.  (No further explanation provided.  I am not sure if it’s about plumbing differences and/or penetration – but if it is, it does not make much sense to me as coercing people into giving oral sex is still considered rape.)
  6.      The bottom line was: Why would I, as a woman, want to muddle the issue?

Muddle the issue.  As a woman.  That was the statement that brought home to me what bugs me about what is going on here.  Firstly, we have reached a situation where trying to clarify the understanding of this issue by raising instances that do not fit the current zeitgeist is “muddling the issue”.  To me, that is a clear indication that we’re stopped dealing with theories and we’re firmly into dogma territory.  Secondly and more importantly, the “as a woman” bit is thoroughly correct.  The issue has become gender-specific, and not just because anecdotal experience and statistical evidence show that women get raped more.

As a woman, I have been given, quite literally, a “get out of jail free card”; I can freely engage in behaviour that could send my male associates to jail, because I’m a chick.  While the law does not support this in theory, it supports it in practice.  It is far easier for a woman to report a man after a night of drunken debauchery.  Her statement is likely to be taken far more seriously and gain her professional support, even if it does not lead to a conviction.  Men reporting a similar event are more likely to be met with very little support, veiled contempt or even ridicule[1].

I can only think of two possible explanations for this disparity.  In the sexual realm, either men are perceived as inherently predatory, borderline evil, or women are perceived as inherently defenceless.  Either belief seems grotesquely sexist.  Yes, men are, on average, stronger than women.  I am not discussing the sort of situation in which physical strength or any sort of coercion are a factor, though.  In fact, I'm not even talking of situations when a "no" is uttered.  I am purely talking of those situations in which one party benefits, whether by design or not, from the other party wearing “beer goggles”.

I thought one of the achievements over the last century was that women had gained the right to embrace their sexuality.  I thought we had moved on from the view that getting laid gave young men extra worth, whereas it brought young women shame.  Not so long ago, in my mother’s days, by engaging in the same activity men became studs, women became sluts.  I thought I was better off, but the current view of man-the-predator vs. woman-the-victim seems just as disempowering to women.  By giving men all the responsibility within a sexual interaction and all the guilt when things go wrong, we are also giving them all the control.  They are in the sexual driving seat and responsible for our welfare and happiness, seemingly because we can’t take steps to manage that ourselves.  How is this empowering us?  Yet, this line of thinking is supported by people who are, allegedly, fighting for women’s rights.

I don’t get that.  One of the key rights that the feminists of the past have won for us is that of EQUALITY UNDER THE LAW.  I am writing it in caps because IT IS A BIG DEAL.  If you don’t agree, look at the lives of women in those foreign countries where that equality has not yet being gained; where women can be arrested after a rape, because they are guilty of extramarital sex; where unmarried mothers do not have the right to register the birth of their children under their name; where divorced mothers can have their children taken away by their fathers; where women can’t vote, own property, go to university, drive cars – and the list goes on.  Equality under the law is such a crucial achievement – are we willing to give it up so readily?  And what are we giving it up for?  If you think we are getting some form of superiority, think again.  Yes, we are getting preferential treatment, but that is because we are being granted some form of diminished responsibility because of our gender.  Personally, I find that concept hugely offensive.

Human sexuality is an infinitely complicated subject.  I don’t know what the answer to this riddle is.  What I know is that, unless someone can conclusively explain to me why my mental faculties are less than that of the average male, I refuse to be treated as an inferior person on the basis of my gender.  I don’t care if this implied inferiority gives me extra freedom or it gets me out of trouble; I find it repugnant.  I can’t see how we can advance the cause of equality and fairness between the genders by embracing precisely the opposite – inequality and unfairness.  Until we agree that an action is equally objectionable regardless of the gender of the perpetrator, we are supporting a deeply sexist view of the world.

[1] Then again, if they recounted the event to their friends, it would most likely be treated as worth of jovial mocking at worst, added glory at best.  It would be seen as a mildly amusing slip, rather than a life-changing trauma.  When I told my male friends about my decision to not engage with the Sweet Young Thing, I was chided for “depriving him of an essential learning experience”.  The same would hardly have applied had I been an older man luring in a young girl.