Some Thoughts This Weekend

2009 May 4
by Harriet Jay

I have not been blogging, I know. I feel like apologizing, and then I remember, oh yeah, it’s my blog, fuck you. But I guess I mostly feel like apologizing to myself, since I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been receding further and further into my shell to avoid the many many things I really hate about my life right now. And I can tell that that helps pretty much nothing at all, ever, and yet I still do it. So here is a massive brain dump of several blog entries I started and didn’t finish:

Why Does She Stay

Being deep into my shell, the things that usually interest me enough to spout off about just become one more reason to pull back. Rape, abuse, politics, sexism, racism, The State of the Goddamned World. It all makes me tired, and wanting to disappear and run away and live on Mars with the Martian people and their singing books (I have been reading some Bradbury, yes).

Yesterday I followed a link dump on feministing to read another post about abuse. Specifically, another “Why does she stay” post. It was a good post, though nothing too terrifically new to me. While reading it, I mostly started thinking about the need for this question at all. What whack-ass world do we live in where somebody needs to understand why a woman stays with somebody who threatens to hurt her if she leaves? I mean, if somebody threatened to beat you unless you gave them your money… you would give them your money. Even if you thought maybe they didn’t really have a gun. If somebody threatens to destroy your life, and you perceive that they perhaps have the tools to do so, then you give them what they want. But more than that, for god’s sake, world, don’t tell me you’ve never gotten into a relationship that really wasn’t good for you, that maybe undermined your self-esteem and sense of self, made you feel bad, made you unhappy, and you stayed anyway? Maybe you didn’t call it abuse — maybe you should have — but you can probably now call it a bad relationship and go, “Man, why did I stay with them for so long?” and you and your friends laugh about it and nobody makes big sweeping generalizations about your character, intelligence, and how much you deserve to be hurt, now or in the future.

Anyway, I was already working myself up into a lather, reading that blog post, when I hit the comments. And I should know that that way lies madness, but I started reading anyway. Ugh. Somebody did end up addressing what I’m trying to say here, that the question is “Why does she stay” instead of “Why does he abuse,” that the responsibility is on the woman to explain the situation and why it continues. And, I think, the stigma stays on the woman — she ends up damaged goods because obviously she was broken enough to get into an abusive relationship, stay in an abusive relationship, and then be unable to explain to the teeming masses why she stayed in any way that satisfies their misogynistic needs. I think the start and end point of these assumptions about women in abusive relationships centers around a just-world/meritocracy/caste view that really accommodates oppression (and is meant to). We don’t want to believe we live in a system that effectively legalizes certain forms of rape and abuse, depending on who is perpetrating, who is victimized, and what they were all wearing at the time. So instead we have to believe there is some “logical” reason this all happened — not that we devalue the lives of certain people in certain contexts, but that victims deserve what they get. So if a woman is abused, it must be because she was the kind of woman who gets abused. You know, daddy issues, and poor judgment, and slutty, and stupid.

But, more than that, I started thinking about the massive lack of education about abuse. Even if we were all educated to the gills, obviously, there are always some folk who Just Don’t Get It. BUT (and here is the important BUT) I think one of the major impediments to education about abuse is the recognition of how many of our “ordinary” relationships with others are abusive. Abuse is everywhere. It is not just attracted like magnets to Women Who Deserve It. It is your mom who constantly remarks upon your weight. It is your friend who constantly begs you for lifts and then spends the entire ride telling you what’s wrong with your life and why you are too stupid to fix it. It’s your boss who dismisses everything you say out of hand. It’s your grandfather who will not allow anybody to ever bring up the fact that he is drunk and always has been. It’s your neighbor who tells your other neighbor lies about how you treat your children. It’s your government that lies through its teeth to you and tells the populace that effect is cause and cause is effect and you are poor because you are bad and you are bad because you are poor. And it’s your significant other who makes fun of you when you stub your toe, who you know you can’t bring up the type of wine you like without getting in a fight about how shitty your taste is, who can’t stand to hear about your past relationships, who cries and needs you to take care of them when you ask them to take out the fucking trash for once, okay?

Abuse is goddamn everywhere. And we are all taught that abuse, in some contexts, from some people, is expected and normal and acceptable. We even have little platitudes we share with each other to internalize the blame. So your parents sometimes lose it and call you a little fucking monster? Well, hey, it’s tough being parents, and you need to love your family no matter what. So your significant other once snarled that she wished you were dead? Well, relationships are hard work, you have to compromise, and maybe she was on the rag, you know how women get! Did your friend blow up at you when you asked if you could have your CD back? You’re not going to end a friendship over something like that, are you — or maybe you’re not a very loyal friend. So your boss pinned something on you that totally wasn’t your fault. Well, you need to learn to accept abuse sink or swim, that’s what business is like!

For those of you who have gone through the process of trying to remove this kind of toxicity from your life, then you know how fucking angry everybody else in your life gets when you cut out the abusive people. This is, I think, very similar to what happens to ex-addicts who tell their drug-using friends they’re done using. Whether or not those drug-using friends are addicted themselves, they’re likely to get uncomfortable, angry, or upset at you, because your choosing a sober life quite possibly reflects upon their choice of a drug-addled life. And if they are not completely and 100% satisfied with their drug-addled life, then it will reflect poorly on them, and their decisions, and what lies in store for them in the future. When I cut my paternal family out of my life — because they are abusive as all get-out and my grandpa beat me — my sister lost her shit at me. HOW CAN YOU FAMILY IS FOREVER YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW IMPORTANT YOUR FAMILY IS AND IT’S NOT LIKE YOU’RE PERFECT YOU ARE SO SELFISH AND STUPID. I told her I didn’t agree with her, but she can live her life how she likes, and if family is important to her, great, I can respect that, and I just ask the same in return. To which I got an earful of HOW CAN I RESPECT SOMEBODY SO SELFISH. I try not to take all that personally, because I understand that my choosing to live a different way is a constant reminder that she could, too. And, I think, for most people, facing that they have made a choice to continue abusive relationships is unbearable; it’s easier to imagine that this is the natural state of things, and the people who opt-out are foolishly and arrogantly rebelling against the way things are.

Only when abuse seems to reach a certain level that is culturally defined as “abuse” do we get to condemn it. And even that’s sketchy: rape is abuse, unless she liked it; hitting is abuse, unless she provoked you; verbal abuse is wrong, unless she stayed; insults and bullying are abuse, unless you took it. Even when we get to the most extreme end of the continuum, there are reasons and excuses and extenuating circumstances: murder is wrong, unless she had a dick. Basically, abuse is wrong, unless you A) choose to abuse somebody who is culturally unvalued (and please note: being abused ever once in your life makes you culturally unvalued, even if you weren’t before) or B) get away with it. And so, the people who do experience the culturally sanctioned definition of abuse get — as a final prize — to experience all the projected vitriol and dissatisfaction that others experience daily. Because you would never put up with such a thing, you would never allow yourself to get into such a situation, you would never be so stupid as to be abused, and you would never be so weak as to admit it. To maintain the illusion that we are not surrounded by abuse, that abuse is not a daily reality, and that it is fucking damaging, we need to maintain an illusion that the people who are actually abused are fundamentally different than us, rather than living at the extreme end of the continuum we all inhabit

OMG The Childrens

The bear and I had very different experiences of sex and relationships in high school. This is due to a number of factors: different town, different time (bear is older), different life experiences leading us to make friends with different kinds of people, and gender. Bear’s high school years were full of people dating and some of them having sex as they got older, and that sex being on a continuum of good fun sex to awkward teenage fumbling sex. My high school years consisted of everybody I knew having sex as freshmen, and that sex being on a continuum of fucking horrifying rape to slightly less horrifying but unsatisfying, unprotected, and unprepared sex with severe emotional and physical consequences to all involved.

I told my bear a story of a girl I knew freshman year, let’s call her Christine. She was dating some big dumb jock dude who had a ridiculous name, and I would often ask her how her relationship was going specifically so I could say his dumb jock name and giggle. Christine and the dumb jock were having sex, and Christine went on and on about how awesome he was and how the sex wasn’t like any kind of sex she’d ever had (he wasn’t her first — she was 14). She said the other day, after sex, they had taken a shower together. She said she’d never done that, and it was so sweet and wonderful.

I was labeled a “prude” in high school, because I did not have sex and didn’t really go past second base till I was 16. I both could and couldn’t see how that made me a prude. In context, being the only goddamn virgin I knew, okay, yes, that makes me contextually a prude. But I didn’t think there was something wrong with me for not having sex; I was pretty sure there was something really really really wrong with having sex so young, especially considering how limited my options of partners were, and how gross and creepy and rape-y most of them were.

BUT I was prudish enough to be shocked and embarrassed while listening to some people tell sex stories. I remember how red my face got the first time Badger told me she’d given a guy a blowjob — OMG people actually DO that? NO WAI. So, when Christine told me about her and the ridiculous jock having sex, I got all embarrassed, and started wondering if maybe I was just a total prude who needed to get over it and just have sex already. But when she said the thing about the shower, I was just shocked and horrified. Sex belonged to me in some adult realm, and I had assumed when you entered that adult realm, you acquired all the adult realm things available. Such as, long term and committed relationships, the possibility of babies, emotional sharing and intimacy and closeness. To hear that somebody who had had lots of sex in their life had never shared in something so basic as taking a shower together made me extra defensive of my prudishness. Sex, to me, was something that came at the end of all those extra intimate niceities. I was horrified by the idea of having sex before I had showered with somebody, before I had just laid naked with them, before I had felt comfortable enough to just walk around naked in front of them without sex.

Bear again expressed his horror at my experience of sex and relationships in high school, and I realized while thinking it through that by the time I was fourteen, I was the only virgin I knew. Oh, a few friends had started that first year of high school virgins, but they’d lost it by sophomore year. By fourteen, most of my friends were onto their second or third sexual partners. Although, I realized while saying that, there were complicated exceptions. By the time I was fourteen, I didn’t know anybody that hadn’t had sex, but for a few friends, that was because they’d been raped. Some of them were on their third or fourth.

Which suddenly made me connect two things I hadn’t considered before: 1) at fourteen, I didn’t know anybody who hadn’t had sex, and 2) at fourteen, I think I only had one friend who hadn’t been abused (sexually or no), molested, or raped as a child. And that includes the boys, even and especially the rape-y ones.

Bear connected these dots for me, bitterly saying: “Oh, that’s just great! We’re all in a moral panic about young kids these days having TEH SEX, but let’s not talk about the dirty little secret that they’re fucking each other because we fucked them first…”

How Sex Changes After Rape

From this conversation, I started thinking and talking a bit more about why many of the sexually abused friends I had went on to have boatloads of sex. I remember, as a prude teenager, being utterly mystified by this. If your only experience with sex so far was horrible, wouldn’t that make you less likely to seek out more sex? Why did all the abused kids I know seem to seek out more sex, bad sex, unprotected sex, unpleasant sex? And, in the process of this, why did they seem to specifically choose to seek out sex partners among the creepy rape-ist guys we knew?

I had to get a lot older, and do some serious self-education, before I figured that one out. There are so many simple knee-jerk explanations for excessive sexual behavior from abused kids, especially if they’re girls: they’re just total sluts, they’re stupid, they want to be raped (as if “want” and “rape “can conceivably co-exist), the abuse wasn’t that bad, etc.

There’s an easy tactic we learned in college Psych 101. Since you can’t ever really know what another person is thinking or feeling, you have to learn to analyze very closely and accurately your own reactions to other people. If you, say, know a girl who is in an abusive relationship, and you find yourself repelled by her neediness and towering insecurity, well, now you know how she feels about herself. And, maybe, now you know how her abuser feels about her, and if you have a fantastic cognitive leaping ability, maybe now you know what behaviors her abuser encourages in her so he can keep thinking of her as repugnantly needy and disgusting. Or if you look at her and wonder, why would she stay with him? Is she stupid? Is she an attention whore? Does she want to be abused? You have just answered your own question, because welcome to every vicious waking thought she has about herself! And you try to burn and salt the ground of an old life with no resources and boatloads of fear when everybody you know who could potentially be providing you with support responds to your story with, “You sound like an attention whore to me.”

So. Why do women who have been abused as children seem to seek out further abuse? Well, let every ugly stereotypical thought you can muster bubble to the surface. Now think of a little girl being told all that by her rapist, by other adults who refuse to believe her when/if she discloses the rape, by peers who have never learned anything about abuse or rape, and by other predators. Do girls with abuse issues sleep around because they’re stupid sluts who can’t control themselves? No, they do it because they think they’re stupid sluts who can’t control themselves, because that’s the reason they were given for why they were raped. And, sure, they could somehow magically acquire the life experience, good sense, and strong sense of self to realize that’s a lie, and then — and then they must admit that they were raped for no reason, AND that their friends and family continuously fail to protect or believe them for no reason, AND that they are in perpetual danger of being attacked again with absolutely no recourse, legal or otherwise. Sometimes it’s easier to believe it’s something you did than face the crushing weight of your utter vulnerability, and the nigh certainty that it will happen again and again.

And — here is the important part for you, as a bystander — they do it because now that they’ve been raped, nobody will think pure thoughts about them again. They’re not virgins anymore. They can’t pretend they don’t know about sex. They also can’t pretend that anybody is looking out for them, that they have a support network. A girl who has been abused as a child is likely to have a family that turned a blind eye to her abuse, may still be doing so. How easy is it going to be to rape them again, with a family that has their earplugs in?

And, unlike virgins, if they make a mistake during the long and difficult process of discovering sexuality after puberty, they’re open to the accusation that they made that mistake because they’re stupid sluts who can’t control themselves. Virgin has a fumbling awkward first experience with a guy she later realizes was a jerk? Tough luck, that’s how we learn. Abused girl has a fumbling awkward first experience with a guy she later realizes was a jerk? Jesus christ, can’t you learn not to date jerks? I mean, get over your shit already. Fucking daddy issues. Girls who have been raped know that they have been corrupted. Whether or not that belief reaches the inner core of them, and they think it in their heart of hearts, they know that it’s fundamentally true because well-meaning friends misinterpret their trauma and sexual confusion as willful and conscious, and predatory men who know they have been raped immediately become sexual with them. Which, again, wasn’t Bear’s experience of high school, but it was certainly mine — I don’t know how many times I saw Badger admit that she had been sexually assaulted by another student, only to have the boys around her start making creepy moves. Because, hey, she’s had TEH SEX, and also, she is utterly rape-able without consequence: obviously she can take it, and obviously, she doesn’t call the cops.

Another reason girls who have been raped or sexually abused might begin to act out sexually is because they have been conditioned to believe this is a legitimate (and necessary) way to gain attention. And I don’t mean “attention whore” levels of attention. I mean a basic amount of intimacy and love and human contact that most people have as a default, and that most people take completely for granted because they have never been neglected and abused. Which means that until they reach the age where their bodies start waking up and going “OMG FIND ME SEX”, most children are getting all their human contact needs met, with no need to seek out additional relationships. But a kid who gets little positive human contact is having very few of their needs met, and will start attempting to get those needs met with any human who is willing to pat them on the head. And if that kid is getting raped, that might be the only time they get touched, or complimented, or hugged. So offering yourself sexually becomes a way to get some very basic and small amount of attention. And if you’re a kid, who the hell is going to take you up on a sex offer? Oh, right, predators. So by the time these kids grow up, they’ve come to learn that the only people they can get consistent attention from are rapists and predators. But but but don’t they notice that there are GOOD people out there, GOOD people who will give them NICE attention and WHY DO GIRLS ALWAYS DATE ASSHOLES

I can tell you from my own experience of having come from an abusive home and an abusive marriage: most normal people don’t get it. People who have not been abused are not going to understand A) how that sort of thing can happen, B) how the abuser can’t have been arrested yet, C) why you are still dealing with this shit forever and ever, D) why you didn’t just leave, or tell a cop, duh, so easy. They don’t know these things because they have never been taught about them, and never by themselves came to the conclusion that these things were important enough to learn about. Which means when you are full of the horrible details of a life of abuse and seeking somebody whom you can safely disclose them to, you’re often faced with Option 1: Somebody who just doesn’t get it and will make a horrified face and say something really gauche and hurtful like “Why did you let him?” or Option 2: Somebody who does get it because they have already been exposed to abuse — either as victims, perpetrators, or both — which also means they may have normalized abuse to some extent. If you’re lucky, like I was for a while, your Option 2 is Badger, my best friend in high school who “got it” and loved me unreasonably. Or, if you’re unlucky, like I was for a while, your Option 2 is Mr. Flint, who “got it” because I fit the inner profile of the type of abuseable companion he was looking for, and he knew that all he needed to do was dole out a tiny bit of unquestioning sympathy and love that I was so so deprived of, and I’d be reeled in. Especially because, with an abusive Option 2, they set themselves up in complete contrast to all the abuse in your life. I am not your father, they say. Was your father ever nice to you like I am? Did he ever understand you? Did he ever let you cry about the things that happened to you? I get it, and you will never find somebody else who will. And when you’ve been raped or abused, you know that they’re not necessarily wrong about that last bit. The proportion of the population that doesn’t ask you, “Well, then, why did you stay?” with a disgusted look upon their face is remarkably and banefully small.

And, the last reason I learned along the way for why abused and raped girls seem to seek out further rape and abuse: they’ve just come to accept that this will happen anyway. If you grow up, as most girls do, thinking your virginity is some kind of prize, or at least something sentimental, and then it’s ripped away from you… well, you’re faced with cognitive dissonance. Either your virginity was a super prize and now it’s defiled, or your virginity wasn’t any kind of prize at all and you have not been defiled. You gotta pick one or the other. And most girls will pick the other. And, let’s take virginity out of it, if you believe that sex is something to be shared between two intimate partners in a sweet and loving way, and then experience a horrifying degradation, well… either you were wrong about sex, or you were right about sex but will now never experience that kind of love and intimacy, because you have been scarred for life. Basically, if you value a thing, and that thing is destroyed, you can either cry over your destroyed valuables, or flood the market until it’s not valuable anymore.

And, too, with the many many girls I knew who had been raped and abused multiple times, I think they just began to expect it. It became too much work, each time, to try and pick up, shake it off, and start life over again with a plastic smile and no support for your trauma. That’s a boatload of work and effort, especially if you’re doing it on your own, and especially if you’re a kid. And, especially if it happens so consistently that you have no reason to believe it won’t happen again, and all your work to be normal and not Abuse Girl will be scuttled. So, you could keep going on trying to have the normal relationships you are supposed to have, and eventually be horribly abused, or you could find the abusers before they find you, offer yourself voluntarily, and hopefully pre-empt your eventual rape. And, hey, you might get lucky and find one potential rapist who will protect you from the other rapists by claiming you as his personal rape-girlfriend. And then you know exactly when, where, and how you’re going to be abused.

This is what abusers look for and encourage in victims — a fatalistic sense of inevitability — and non-abusers don’t do much better. By failing to admit the epidemic that is rape and abuse of women in this society, we set up a false dynamic: there are women who get abused, and there are women who do not get abused. There is an invisible line that separates the two, and once you have crossed over, you can never go back. You can never again not have your motives or sexuality questioned, or your state of mind, your hysteria. You can never again find rape jokes funny, or feel comfortable with those who do, or those who tell them. You can never explain that to anybody without being called oversensitive (miss, your hysteria is showing). You can never again think to yourself, “He wouldn’t,” because you don’t know that anymore. You can never again enter consensually into sex without knowing that it may turn into rape if at any point you say no. And you can never again look for help from your friends and family who think that you could have worked harder to be less abused.

7 Responses
  1. May 4, 2009

    I wish it wasn’t all so true…

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  2. August 5, 2009

    Great post! I worked as a domestic violence counselor for almost 8 years, in addition to almost 4 years before that answering a crisis line. Hands down, the question I was asked REPEATEDLY AT LEAST A THOUSAND TIMES

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  3. August 5, 2009

    eek, sorry, I hit “enter” too soon! Anyway, I was asked “Why do they stay” too many times to count. And my response was always “Why do abusers abuse? People aren’t breaking the law by staying in an abusive relationship, but people ARE breaking the law by assaulting/battering another person.”

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  4. Laura permalink
    September 10, 2009

    “Sometimes it’s easier to believe it’s something you did than face the crushing weight of your utter vulnerability”
    That really stood out at me

    You write excellently. Thanks for doing so on a blog I can read! I haven’t been abused but, of course, I know people who have and it makes me so angry because I don’t know what to do about it. It doesn’t make sense to me why society doesn’t put the onus on the abuser or rapist. Maybe if we did some of my friends could feel a little less daunted by the prospect of putting the paedophiles who abused them into gaol. Don’t we want that?

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  5. karak permalink
    January 9, 2010

    There’s a psychological phenomenon called “learned helplessness”. There have been several experiments conducted about it (usually with dogs, for some reason).

    Anyway, researchers found that if you shocked a dog every hour on the hour, eventually the dog would get used to it. The dog would look for a way out. The dog would try to escape, or appease, or simply go about doggy life not caring too much.

    However, if you shocked a dog erratically, on no discernible schedule, the dog would have various reactions: appeasement, violence, fear. Then, it would stop. The dog would stop looking for escape. It would stop learning. It would no longer respond to pain or reward. The dog eventually stopped caring about life or whatever was done to it, because nothing the dog could change the fact there was an electric shock coming, so why bother?

    I feel many victims are like the second dog: nothing they do will change the fact that random and horrible things are going to happen to them. So why bother?

    (Sorry to comment on such an old post, I got linked to your blog through… someone, and I’ve been reading through your archive.)

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