The Invisible Abuser — Thoughts on Speaking Out and Knowing

I wrote this several hours ago and am wanting to publish something, but not feeling up to editing/re-reading anything, so here we are, thoughts unvarnished and edit-free. 

This place is currently a very, very secret chord, as I don’t have very many readers. I suspect this is at least partially due to the fact that I haven’t quite figured out my audience yet–I vary between wanting to write to the “advanced patriarchy blamers” on whose blogs I comment and whose traffic sometimes stops by here and using this as a space to work out arguments I need to make in real life, where sometimes it’s hard to even begin to express my political opinions through the layers of unquestioned conditioning. Maybe that’s not why nobody’s reading me, but regardless, it’s something that I struggle with as I’m finding my voice.

This is one of the latter. I had a rough week last week for a number of reasons, but one of them was that on Saturday, I attended a bit of an impromptu rally protesting hate crimes against LGBTQ people. The impetus behind it was that the preceding week, three 20-something year old men attacked, beat and yelled homophobic slurs at two men who were leaving the gay bar downtown. The incidents were separate–the perpetrators were the same, but the men weren’t leaving together, so these guys stuck around after beating the first guy to take on another. The hate crimes investigator for the Hamilton police department was at the rally, and indicated that he is aware of a staggering number of hate crimes against gay people that go unreported, and spoke very supportively encouraging people to come forward as part of erasing the invisibility of this violence.

The organizer of the event was rightfully pleased with the turnout that came together on one day’s notice, in the snow and on a not-very-warm December day. In addition to members of the LGBTQ community organizations, the police and the local media, people came from a couple of the unions or labour groups in town and made me fall a little bit more in love with Hamilton with what they said. The last thing the organizer said was “If we can do this much in a day, think how much we can do in a year?”

Which is a nice thought, but this is the one that made me depressed. Because unfortunately, it takes something in-your-face and on-the-surface and extreme to make most people bother to say anything, let alone pick up a sign and protest. The reality is that we can’t multiply that action by 365 in a year, because we can’t make people continue to care that much extra with every passing day that they’re not hearing about hate crimes and the kinds of violence and fear some people live with every day.

When I heard about these beatings, I was admittedly surprised that this level of blatant homophobia was right there down the street from me. I hear about this stuff all the time–on the internet. Not here, not right where I live. Not perpetrated by people I walk by–possibly even people that I talk to–every day. I’m a bit ashamed to admit I was surprised, because it isn’t like I really thought it had gone away.

What this kind of crime brings to the surface, for me, is just how much I’m uncomfortable admitting that I am in contact with people who actively participate in violence. This old post from Kate Harding is something I go back to repeatedly in thinking about why to bother saying something against the seemingly small manifestations of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The choice quote:

‘Cause the thing is, you and the guys you hang out with may not really mean anything by it when you talk about crazy bitches and dumb sluts and heh-heh-I’d-hit-that and you just can’t reason with them and you can’t live with ‘em can’t shoot ‘em and she’s obviously only dressed like that because she wants to get laid and if they can’t stand the heat they should get out of the kitchen and if they can’t play by the rules they don’t belong here and if they can’t take a little teasing they should quit and heh heh they’re only good for fucking and cleaning and they’re not fit to be leaders and they’re too emotional to run a business and they just want to get their hands on our money and if they’d just stop overreacting and telling themselves they’re victims they’d realize they actually have all the power in this society and white men aren’t even allowed to do anything anymore and and and…

I get that you don’t really mean that shit. I get that you’re just talking out your ass.

But please listen, and please trust me on this one: you have probably, at some point in your life, engaged in that kind of talk with a man who really, truly hates womento the extent of having beaten and/or raped at least one. And you probably didn’t know which one he was.

And that guy? Thought you were on his side.

That line comes back into my head a hell of a lot of the time, and usually, it’s about fighting the sense of complacency, futility or irrelevance that pervades the universe, but for some reason, this week has brought out something else–that guy. I’ve talked to that guy. I have to have talked to that guy in the course of my daily life.

It’s not like I’m unaware of the invisibility of rapists/abusers when we talk about “abused women” and “survivors” and passive-voice them right out of the conversation. And it’s not like I don’t know that they don’t have a big scarlet “R” tattooed on their foreheads, and that they’re generally capable of pretending to be normal human beings. It’s not like I don’t know I’ve met rapists and abusers, since some of them have chosen to rape and abuse me.

But hell if I want to think about that when I’m interacting with people in my daily life. It’s one thing to think about my workplace as one in which it would be extremely unsafe to come out as queer (which is bad enough), or one in which gender role assumptions and fat-phobic and woman-shaming body expectations fly around literally constantly, and serious sexism pervades the treatment of our female boss, but it’s completely another to be constantly conscious of the possibility that someone in that office is actually going to beat his wife or rape the woman at the bar when he goes out tonight.

I can speak out against the little things and I can know the big things are out there. But a lot of the time my coping skills can’t handle knowing the big things that are right in front of me.

9 thoughts on “The Invisible Abuser — Thoughts on Speaking Out and Knowing

  1. BetaCandy says:

    Mind if I make this all about me? :D Sorry, but this stirred up something personal I hope is meaningful to more people than me, but it might not be. And yet, here I go.

    I grew up on the other side of the fence. I knew real misogyny from early days, and for not being oblivious to it – for looking around the office and saying, “Well, there’s a hundred men here, so about 25 are physical abusers, and god knows how many emotional ones” – people chided me, said I just wanted to look at the negative, didn’t want to be happy. I guess that’s what they mean by ignorance is bliss.

    I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed at NOT being aware of it like I am. Just for treating me like crap when I’ve already been treated like crap and it’s not my fault I have this knowledge that no one wants to have. Denial was never really an option, and it’s never a preferable option.

    But what do you do? I challenge men who say shit like that – I return their serve with a nasty male stereotype (but in a light tone, since no one takes you seriously if you sound “too negative” about it, god forbid), or make fun of how stupid what they just said is, and invariably they back down and say they’re just kidding. But so do the crazies. One of the hallmarks of a sociopath is their belief that deep down, you want to murder and dismember and rape people just like they do, only you don’t have the courage. I doubt it’s any different with abusers who aren’t quite sociopaths, either.

    So, in a way, there’s not much you can do directly. Not that’s going to change anyone’s true feelings, anyway. I’m not even sure you can rob them of their support structure.

    But you know who could? Other men. If all men who do NOT hate certain people stopped making those jokes or shrugging off hateful behavior toward certain people, the crazies would at least perceive that society is against them. It won’t stop all of them, but it would have an impact.

  2. purtek says:

    All about you = no problem at all. Writing like this, publicly anyway, is meaningless unless a reader can find a way that it’s applicable, and turn it back around.

    I’m amazed at my own capacity for denial, sometimes–I shouldn’t be capable of this kind of denial, but apparently it’s the only way I can function in this world. As to whether I should feel embarrassed by it, I’m not sure, because it is a survival mechanism, and you’re right–not only could I maybe not make a dent in that structure, I would likely find myself being a lot more afraid than I generally am.

    It’s that “other men” factor that’s part of my ramble in here–both that yes, they’re the ones who can get to it, and to remind myself of the privileged spaces I myself occupy so that I can be debunking the ones that don’t actually affect me without as much risk.

    If that makes sense…I’m pre-coffee, which is never good.

  3. Richie says:

    I’ve found it almost impossible to get this across in a social context, which is when most of this actually occurs, because the more men are watching, the less likely they are to engage in any self-examination. I’m sure there’s some sort of formula, but I’m also pre-coffee.

    I think writing things works, because the reader is experiencing it on their own and the only person they have to admit they’ve made mistakes to is themselves. If my formative experiences with feminism had been with actual feminists rather than things feminists had written, I’d probably have been defensive to the point of not listening, leaving in a huff and writing one of those interminable “I thought about this for a long time…” posts (you know, the ones where over-privileged people define somebody else’s experience by imagining what it’s like for them, without thinking to actually ask). I’ve gotten a couple of emails (literally two) from male readers who’ve said I’ve made them think about things, which is encouraging.

    As far as talking to guys who actually have beaten and raped women, I know that for a fact about three guys I’ve met up with socially. Obviously it’s more than that, but with those three guys I knew for certain, because the victims actually came out and told me. This paragraph has literally taken two hours to write, because if I go into too much detail then anybody who knows me offline – they’re hugely unlikely to be reading this thread, but still – will be able to put two and two together and work out who was who and everything. And each time I heard it from the women and their friends, and each time the abuser was just some middle-class white guy who was interchangeable with me as far as most people were concerned, and this all happened when I was still quite young – I obviously have to stay vague – so I wasn’t fully set in my ways and a lot of myths about abuse never really settled with me as a result. I hope that all made sense; this paragraph is a patchwork quilt made out of about two dozen others by this point.

  4. belledame222 says:

    BC: that makes much sense, agreed.

  5. purtek says:

    I’m sure there’s some sort of formula, but I’m also pre-coffee.

    Ooh…formula. I think you’re right. Like the Frank Miller rule for comics, but with penises in conversations. And…I don’t know how to formulate that, um, formula without turning into a man-hating feminist caricature so…that one might be on you, Richie. Sorry.

    Going back to something Betacandy said on another thread here (I think it’s the “Opt Out of Privilege” post)–a lot of times people are quite disparaging of blogging as a medium for change, and maybe it feels small to bother to write something here or create Hathor (which, by the way, I personally think of as very not small at all) instead of trying to write screenplays or whatever, but at the same time, Richie couldn’t have been the awesome force of awesomeness that he is if it weren’t for written spaces that make it safe for him to sputter and bitch and moan for a while before going…oh shit, I guess I am kind of being a prick, aren’t I?

    As to the following paragraph, which took two hours to write and to which I can relate on nearly every level except for not being male and having been told not just by the abused but also by the abusers themselves sometimes repentantly and sometimes less so…I wish I could do justice to the heartbreak that is that paragraph. But needless to say, it made sense.

  6. Richie says:

    Oh, you’re definitely not being a prick! Actually, something I’m still coming to terms with is that, initially, I was writing this stuff for an incredibly anti-feminist audience, but then I quit it after a few months and now the audience is largely people who already agree with me. So a lot of the time I think, well, maybe if I’d stuck around a little more, I might have had an impact on that culture rather than just sniping at them from the margins. But I am glad I jumped ship for personal reasons, because I don’t feel on my own anymore (awwww).

    And I wish I could do justice to those women as well; I’ve started and deleted about half a dozen drafts about it, but it would just be way too easy for somebody who knows me to work out who they were. And apart from the obvious privacy thing, last I heard at least one of them was still with the guy who beats her, so if it gets back to him that she told other people, I don’t know what he’ll do to her. And in another case the abuser’s a member of her family, so same thing again.

  7. Jay says:

    Hmmm….maybe something like…

    Willingness to self-examine for any given male =

    X / (Y – Z) * Q

    where

    X = amount of time previously spent in self-examination
    Y = number of penises in the room
    Z = number of obvious homosexuals in the room, as long as Z is greater than 2 (otherwise, disregard).
    Q = unquantifiable factor based on setting, privelege level of male in question, educational level of male in question, level of inebriation, and type of romantic relationship said male is currently engaged in.
    :)

  8. izzy99 says:

    Earlier this year I got into an online comment argument with a guy that says he is not misogynist, even though he is fond of calling writers “brain washed feminists”.

    I am lucky to live in a gay-friendly town and yet, I do have to contend with gay bashers and I have found people who bash one group, are the same who bash others. That makes me pretty much of a loner among people as having close friends.

    I find close minded people are unwilling to change; there minds were made up around the time they were 5 years old. My father once told me: you can not reason with a child. So I pretty much ignore the stuff from co-workers, except for a simple statement to let them know I am not their kind: a people basher.

  9. purtek says:

    Richie: I wish I could do justice to those women as well

    Actually, what I meant was that I wished I could do justice to what you feel about it, and to the emotion it takes to comment on it on the level that you do. There’s a lot of grief inherent in knowing and in feeling like you can’t do anything about it, and damned if not feeling so alone isn’t important as well. I realize more and more that the victims of abusers aren’t just the ones who are abused, you know? They’re also those of us who love them, who see the abuse, who fear for their lives and who only feel more and more powerless as we get more involved in trying to change it.

    Jay: That formula rocks. I wants to use it all the time. I will now proceed to work on a clever name for it so that I can do so. :)

    Izzy99: I’m coming to realize that there is a division between people who are dogmatic about whatever given political/religious/philosophical belief system they subscribe to, and people who are willing to learn and incorporate complexities into their thought patterns. And one of the problems with the former is that they assume everyone else is like that too, just possibly with a different belief system. This sounds like the guy you argued with online–the principle is that all anybody ever does is spout talking points, and the only choice in life is which collection of talking points you’re going to choose. Therefore, me being a feminist must be just because I signed up for the “feminist” bag of rhetorical tricks, not because I’ve engaged in critical analysis of the facts that have led to my self-identification as a feminist and think that the term serves as adequate shorthand for a variety of my beliefs. And in those cases, you’re right–never the twain shall meet.

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