The Community Response to Abuse (re-blogged from Navel Gazing)

So, stop what you’re doing and go read this post over at Navel Gazing.

Let’s take a look at some of it, and let me say a few things.

When I first tried to articulate what I thought the community response to abuse should be, the only thing I could really think was that abusers need good friends. The kind of friends who are willing to tell them when they are not being the best that they can be. And survivors need good friends. The kind of friends who will be on their side, who will believe them, who will protect them, and who will provide unwavering support when their inner support fails.

I agree with this. The simple fact is that as human beings, complicated as we are, we have the potential to harm others and to take harm from others in a myriad of ways. I have made mistakes and hurt partners myself, and regret doing so immensely. I’m glad that I have friends who are willing to honestly point out where I err, and I am glad that my friends have been there to help me through my own traumatic experiences from both partners and metamours.

Both survivors AND abusers need community support.

Specifically, survivors need protection and validation and abusers need support for accountability.

Again, agreed. People who hurt others, especially if it’s part of a pattern of behavior (and especially if it’s ongoing and unacknowledged) need the people around them to not only keep pointing it out, but also be willing to be ready to support them when they are ready to take steps towards whatever kind of reconciliation or at least personal improvement may be possible.

In most cases, I think that those who hurt other people will be able to find a path back to respectability and welcome by any community. In the cases where they cannot find that path, then the community needs to know about those people in order to make a more informed decision as to what kind of relationship to pursue with those people.

People who don’t want to change will often tell you that they don’t change because of the way that you are asking. This is horse puckey. Change is a personal matter, and it’s hard no matter what. If you want to change, no amount of assholery will be able to stop you. If you don’t, no amount of gentle crooning will make it happen. However, having said that, when we threaten community members who do not support community standards, what we do, mostly, is encourage them to hide their bad behavior.

Change must come from within. It starts with the recognition of wrong-doing, and moves through understanding the cause of the behavior and how it is seen by others. Those who feel attacked, criticized, or maligned by accusations will often find a way to camouflage, rationalize, or re-direct attention from their behavior.

Two of the biggest seeds are the invalidation and naming of another person’s experience and the sense of entitlement over someone else’s choices. Look for it, in yourself and others. Call it out. We can all weed the garden. Remember,

This is my experience. You can not know my experience.
That is your experience. I can not know your experience.
These are my choices. You are not entitled to control over them, you are not victimized by them.
Those are your choices. I am not entitled to control over them, I am not victimized by them.

Look for systemic oppression, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about why it’s ok. Challenge the stories, and think about how to best support someone who wants to change.

Word. This is a problem which all communities must face, as the atheist community has been facing issues related to harassment and feminism in the last few years. We, within the poly community, have some things to learn about how to deal with accusations of abuse.

How to be the friend of a survivor

Give them a safe space away from their abuser
While you may still be friends with their abuser (remember, abusers need good friends), understand that if you invite both people to the same space, you are actually only inviting the abuser. Try to also create events that are safe for the survivor. If you do not, understand that you aren’t a friend anymore.

I cannot emphasize this enough. I have (and I’m not the only one) avoided a plethora of social activities over the last year to avoid a specific person who I knew would be there, even if the social event was in my neighborhood and would be attended by friends of mine. I have avoided being around this person because almost any memory of him causes a miniature panic-attack. The sound of whistling still gives me chills, because he whistles tunes much of the time. For months after I left his house, the sound of his notification, on someone else’s phone, would cause me to become highly anxious that he was around.

I did not want to be anywhere near him. And the couple of time in the last year I was, it was terrifying and upsetting. Luckily, that is all fading (the nightmares still come around now and then), so I will no longer be hiding, but the fear, anger, and trauma still exist.

We need to be aware of accusations because a victim will avoid their abuser, often for a very long time.

Be willing to distance yourself from people who display abusive behaviors
Sometimes you can’t be a friend of someone who is abusive unless you support their beliefs. It’s hard to fracture your community that way, especially when it is already small. It’s hard when you realize that maybe you can’t just invite everyone to your party. But you know who doesn’t have the choice that you’re struggling with? People who have been abused. Our lives are about avoiding places our abusers are going to be, about losing friends, about being incredibly careful about where and how we share our experiences and about not being able to go to parties. Suck it up.

On top of this, be willing to listen to people who have stories of being abused. I know quite a few people who, upon being faced with the stories of what friends of theirs have done, have refused to even hear their stories. In some cases, the victims are dismissed and the abuser not given a second thought.

This is problematic.

It’s especially problematic if the reason this happens is because the abuser turns it around and blames the victims of abuse. Recently, a dear friend of mine broke out of such a spell, and has received a fair amount of dismissal and disrespect from people within the circle of a person who has caused considerable pain and trauma to people close to me. Her crime? she left the inner circle around the person responsible, after going through her own ordeal with him and his family. She wrote about her experience with this falling out here. Subsequently, someone I know could only speak disdainfully about her for having left the way she did while defending the culpable person as being a victim himself.

Those who do not distance themselves will land on the other side of that rift, and will often not be trusted by victims any longer. The unfortunate reality of social and tribal behavior is that sometimes we lose friends merely because they are no longer part of the safe space.

Believe them
This is actually not as simple as it seems. Because people who are abusive almost always hide as victims. If we believe them, unequivocally, we give safe harbor for abuse. But if we are always suspicious of people who report abuse, we do not give a safe space to survivors who already doubt their own experience. Even more uncomfortable is the fact that when I am talking about “abusers” and “survivors,” I am talking about potential that is in all of us. We are all susceptible to abuse, and we are all capable of it.

Let me emphasize something there: “people who are abusive almost always hide as victims.” Holy shit yes. This is hard, I know. Hearing accusations about abuse and other problematic behavior is tough, especially if you know one or more of the people involved. There is almost always nuance and blame to be shared, and knowing what to believe is hard, especially if accusations are coming from all sides.

But when someone who is the perpetrator of a long and established pattern of abusing others starts to claim to be the victim, the terrifying thing is that it often works. Telling the difference, from the outside, is hard as fuck. I get it. I get it because I think most of us, and maybe all of us, know what it’s like to have hurt someone. A person facing an accusation often wants to emphasize how they were wronged, and having the strength of character to look at one’s own crimes is really really difficult. The result is we become defensive, start spinning counter-narratives, and we may even start to concentrate on our own pain caused by others rather than take an honest look at what we have done.

Recognizing this pattern is the only means towards cutting that shit out.

Throughout our lives, we will be both the accused and the accuser, to varying degrees. And having been through that, we can recognize and empathize with all sides of a situation. And from that vantage point, seeing people on all sides claim to be victims, we tend to want to side with accepting that those people are victims, rather than those responsible for the harm.

It’s hard to look at someone responsible for abuse and see it, especially if the look on their face is one of pain. But it’s possible to be in pain and to be responsible, and we need to be able to handle each separately.

So I want to propose a meditation. When we really understand the difference between these statements, we will understand how to support both survivors and abusers.

“I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”

“This is my experience” is not the same as “This is someone else’s experience.”

This is critical, because I am not sure that when people are in a space of culpability, they understand the difference between the statements above, as they pertain to their actions. I have seen examples of the conflation of these statements from people in my life, and this type of distinction has been topic of discussion around me for some time, now.

This is especially relevant to people who seek to, and are good at, controlling narratives. Persuasion is a powerful tool, and if used well it can be a very effective means of manipulation. Those who seek control may view push-back against that attempt as an infringement on them, and perhaps an injury. This is essentially similar to how power and privilege work against those who have neither; they are used to getting their way, and this time they are not.

It seems simple, but it is not. And I feel that not being able to tell the difference between these things allows us to harbor abuse in our communities and abusive behaviors in ourselves. Being able to see the difference between these statements will allow you to really, truly and solidly hear the story of a survivor. It’s not simple, but if it was, we would have figured it out by now. I’m willing to be imperfect while we figure this out, how about you?

We will all fail, from time to time. We need to be comfortable with failure, if we are to process and improve as people.

We as a community, especially our leaders, need to take the time to learn about how to respond to allegations.  When abuse rears its head, they need to not only hear the stories that victims tell, but they need to make sure that they have a means to respond to the accused.

In some extreme cases, there may be nothing to do but to ask them to leave. In most cases, however, there must be room for rehabilitation. But that rehabilitation must keep in mind the place of those they have hurt, and prioritize them. The must be rom for rehabilitated people, but that room should not be next to their victims, and certainly not in a place of authority or leadership over their community.

The community needs to create safe spaces, and those safe spaces must be carved out by those leaders in that community better. We all have more to learn, and more we could be doing better.