The first time #MeToo was considerably trending, when everyone was talking about it, and it was all over the news media, I was not in a position where I felt like I could publicly discuss my experiences. Since then, I’ve publicly confronted someone who was abusive toward me (offline), had other survivors not believe me because he told them I was lying (even though he knew I wasn’t, and didn’t deny my allegations, just claimed they didn’t rise to the level of “abuse” and said he “wouldn’t do it again”; they believed him because, I guess, he wasn’t “like that to them” and he’d conditioned them into thinking I was already an awful person—one of these days I’m likely going to write about this kind of “triangulation” phenomenon), fortunately had plenty of supportive people who did believe me (in some cases, based on their own interactions with or exposure to the person), worked hard at processing my trauma (including attending group therapy for abuse survivors for about a year), learned autistic people are more likely to experience abuse compared to the general population (which helped me forgive myself for getting sucked in to being mistreated), and started sharing more content that I hoped would help other survivors.
I haven’t publicly named—on the Internet—the person who put me through my longest stretch of experiencing abuse, and possibly never will (though that really depends on whether or not a need arises in the future). There are many reasons I have made that choice, and we have seen time and again why survivors feel like it’s safer to stay silent. When abusive people are not held accountable, when speaking out lends to receiving backlash, additional abuse hurled at you, and people claiming that you’re lying, or attention-seeking, why would you think it’s worth speaking up? Oftentimes, staying silent is about self-preservation, because the reaction to speaking up can compound the trauma you’re trying to get away from.
There are so many ways people can experience trauma, and just because you think you might not experience something as traumatic if you were in the same position, doesn’t mean someone else won’t. Trauma changes you. Look at how I’ve phrased my first two paragraphs. I haven’t labelled the person who harmed me as an “abuser,” and instead focused on the abuse as an adjective, a doing word. It was something he did, but it does not “define” him as a person. Even after all this time I’ve distanced myself from it, I can’t use that label as a way to define him because he put those words in my mouth and claimed I called him an abuser, as if I was name-calling and saying it to hurt him and paint him in a bad light. He had a lot of great qualities aside from the way he sometimes treated me. He was someone I cared about, and I didn’t want to believe he was intentionally hurting me. He had a tragic history, and called out all the times I unintentionally hurt him, so I thought we were the same. I saw how his penchant for perfectionism was impacting his decisions. I tried to help him understand how to treat me better so he wouldn’t hurt me, too. I was met with gaslighting, explanations that he “didn’t mean to” or “it’s not that bad” or “you shouldn’t feel like that” or “that’s not how I experienced it” or “it’s not abuse because I don’t hit you.” To this day I struggle with understanding if he intentionally put me through those traumatic experiences, or if he was just a clueless jerk. I settled on deciding that it doesn’t matter either way, what matters is how I experienced what I went through.
Of course people who act abusively are going to say their accusers are “distorting” things and they experienced them differently. This is how Marilyn Manson has decided to react to being publicly named. “These recent claims about me are horrible distortions of reality,” is what he was quoted as saying by the LA Times. And you know what? I’m open to believing that it’s a distortion of the “reality” he believes was his experience. But that’s because our toxic society makes people like him think that sort of behaviour is acceptable, because otherwise would he openly admit to such behaviour in the past. It also doesn’t mean the “reality” his accusers experienced is false. It is possible for two people in a situation together to experience and perceive things very differently. Abusive people may even lie to themselves about the harm they’re doing to others because they don’t want to believe they are capable of doing such horrible things, that their actions are having the traumatic impact they’re having. But denying a survivor’s reality is gaslighting. This has become a considerable problem when consent is not openly discussed, but rather assumed. When society keeps on excusing bad behaviour as “they didn’t know any better” or “it was a mistake” and that behaviour is never held accountable. Without accountability, abuse continues to manifest and get worse. Accountability leads to the realisation that there are negative consequences for behaving badly, and maybe it’s worth making better choices that don’t hurt other people.
This is why Trump’s Impeachment trial and conviction is so important. If he’s not convicted, if he’s not held accountable for inciting an insurrection, an attempted coup, then he or others will come forward in the future, emboldened with the awareness that there won’t be any serious consequences should they decide to pursue a similar path.
I was lucky. Publicly confronting someone who was abusive toward me the way I did (offline) eventually led to consequences against him that he wasn’t happy with, and he now knows how far I’m willing to go to hold him accountable, so he’s careful not to slip up again. I suspect he would’ve continued to behave terribly toward me if I hadn’t done so. I don’t know if he’s learned not to treat others the way he treated me, but I still have screenshots and evidence of emotional and verbal abuse to remind me that what I went through was not a lie. I’m still grateful that I never had to go as far as publicly exposing the truth by sharing that evidence online. I didn’t want to ruin his life, I just wanted him to stop treating me badly, and hoped the path I chose would help him learn not to behave the same way towards others. If he didn’t learn anything and continues to treat others the way he treated me, though, and a scandal ever arises, at least I’ll have that evidence to back up others’ claims.
Because by my estimation, from what I’ve seen, survivors only reach the point of publicly naming those who’ve harmed them when all else has failed. When they have not been held accountable, and they go on harming more people, continuing to get away with things with no consequences.
That’s why—if you’re someone who still somehow believes that abuse is not that common—you might not hear about it so much. Speaking up and speaking out publicly comes with consequences many are not willing to bear. Victim-blaming and shaming is real. Never fault a survivor who is unwilling to put themselves through that experience. Speaking out tends to come from a place of strength, desperation, desire to protect future potential victims, or a combination of these factors.
The criminal justice system is notoriously bad at offering accountability against abuse. Emotional and psychological abuse aren’t even criminal offenses in most jurisdictions. We can try and measure the effectiveness of using the criminal justice system to prevent future offenses, but “Recidivism rates are not true reoffense rates” and “Research has clearly demonstrated that many sex offenses are never reported to authorities.” (Source: “Adult Sex Offender Recidivism” by Roger Przybylski, Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Aprehending, Registering, and Tracking). There’s no clear way to know for sure how successful trying to hold someone accountable this way will prevent future offenses. Perhaps some people just get better at not getting caught. Holding people accountable through the civil courts often requires finances that many survivors don’t have access to (especially if they’re victims of financial abuse) in order to pay for a lawyer, access to legal assistance, and/or legal fees; and incredible emotional strength to sit through reliving their trauma by speaking about it in front of a judge. And if you are able to afford those things, good luck proving your experience if you don’t have any evidence of physical and/or sexual abuse, or if the “worst” you suffered was emotional or psychological (“Worst” is in quotes because there are plenty of cases where the lasting effects of emotional and psychological abuse are actually more impactful than physical or sexual abuse).
So if survivors find it challenging to seek accountability through the court system, they’re pretty much left to fend for themselves, to figure out what’s the best way forward to help prevent future abuse, either directed toward themselves, or other potential future victims.
If you’re unsure whether or not you might be a victim of abuse, check out the resources available on identifying abuse at the National Domestic Violence Hotline website. If you need to talk to someone and you’re in the US, call them on 1-800-799-7233. They also have a live chat through their website. If you think you might be an abusive person and want to change, they have resources for you, too. The first step is recognising you might have a problem, which is incredibly hard to do. And, as the National Domestic Violence Hotline states, “Many of the factors behind abusive behaviors are learned attitudes and feelings of entitlement, which can be difficult to unlearn.”
Even if you don’t think you are abusive, it’s a good idea to read up on all the types of abuse and associated behaviours (it is way more than physical and sexual violence), and make sure you’re not acting like that towards anyone (whether they be people you care about, people you don’t like, or complete strangers). In a method I now understand as DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender), the abusive man I confronted sometimes claimed I was abusive toward him (and it felt like he often saw himself as a victim, as seems to be the case with self-identifying ‘incels,’ which he didn’t identify as but related to), so I worked hard at understanding abuse, to make sure I was avoiding abusive behaviours—because that’s what you should do if you want to make sure you’re not hurting someone you care about when they say you’re hurting them—all while his abusive behaviour escalated (if he cared about me as he said he did, he should’ve been making the same effort I was). Plus, if you’re able to refrain from reactive abuse, then it does assist your credibility as a survivor, rather than leaving room for people to claim, “they’re both problematic.” This is incredibly hard, mind you, and requires a lot of self-work and self-respect, two things that are commonly denied to you when you’re suffering from abuse.
Abuse is a societal issue and the only way we can even attempt to make changes at a societal level is to keep discussing it, and create an environment and atmosphere where those abusive behaviours, learned attitudes, and feelings of entitlement are far less acceptable. These conversations need to be part of comprehensive sex education programs, it needs to be taught in school. I know if I’d learned about unacceptable behaviour in relationships in school, I would’ve had an easier time of identifying it and walking away before I experienced the level of trauma I did. I also believe if those who’ve acted abusively towards me had learned this in school, that could have prevented at least some of them from being abusive. Such classes also likely would’ve helped me treat certain others with more respect at a younger age, and/or not dealt out reactive abuse. I don’t think it necessarily helps to label someone as an abuser, which can commonly lead to a defensive reaction rather than a change in behaviour. Focus on the problematic behaviour and what changes can be made. If they refuse to listen or make changes, then accountability may involve extracting them from your life.
If you still don’t understand how to recognise abuse, for goodness sake, do some of your own research. I already included links to a few good resources sprinkled throughout this entry, to get you started. Another great thing to read up about is why people stay in abusive relationships, since that seems to be one of the hardest things for people who’ve never been in such a relationship to grasp. Stop asking survivors, “Why didn’t you just leave?” and read that resource.
Please note that, whilst the personal experience I described in this post was a fairly typical gendered experience with abuse, I tried to keep the generalities as gender-neutral as possible, because survivors and people who abuse can be any gender. I have also experienced abuse from my own gender. One of the downsides of being bisexual, I’m afraid.