Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Perfect Victim

The latest news out of the NFL is that Ray Rice is appealing his suspension, the one that he got on the grounds that he publicly, egregiously abused his wife Janay Rice.  The news about this is news about him, not her; her part of the news cycle is over, and she is now stricken from the conversation, her name mentioned only as a detail in his story.  

I don't know her story, and won't presume to tell it, but I can say with confidence that she, like most victims of domestic abuse, like most of us, was not a perfect victim.

The perfect victim is a white, cisgender, straight woman.  She's smaller than her abuser, who is a man.  She never says anything cruel or unfair that might "provoke" him.  She's supportive and loving, meek and gentle.  Her abuser is violently physical, and she finally leaves when he hurts her so badly that it opens her eyes.  She has to protect her children.  Or maybe just herself; that might be okay.
She certainly never, ever hits back.

She is as rare as a unicorn, and the rest of us, we imperfect victims, are deemed unworthy of compassion and support by comparison.      
My brother and I saying goodbye before
freshman orientation at Hopkins.  I'm
on the right.

When I met my ex, I was a fat, shy, bisexual nineteen year old, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University.  Although I'd had a short, torrid fling with my roommate at boarding school, I hadn't dated a boy since the brief period when I was thirteen and the size of my newly formed breasts was enough to distract from the size of the rest of me.  I was many of the bad stereotypes about young girls of a certain size; lonely, desperate for affection, a bit boy crazy.  I smoked hand rolled cigarettes, wrote a lot of poetry, and had a long string of crushes, none of which I really expected to pan out.  Already, I wasn't a perfect victim.  

Max was a short, skinny guy who still wore clothing off the boy's rack.  He was maybe an inch taller than I was barefoot, and about a hundred pounds lighter.  He wasn't really my type, but he was fairly nice to me, and his friend Mic* was dating my friend Zoe*.  We hung out together constantly, and I was more than ready to fall in love.
(*names changed out of respect for privacy)
There were warning signs from the first.  He was willing to "mess around" with me, and we spent all our time together, but he wouldn't call it dating.  He slept with someone else when he went away for Christmas break (I rationalized that it was okay because we weren't "really" dating.)  When he came back, Zoe, Mic and I were moving into a new rental house.  He came in to help and got so mad at me for a joke I made about not wanting to move more stuff that he didn't speak to me for a week. Those should have been red flags, but I was horribly lonely, and the attention he paid me the rest of the time made it easy to dismiss those things as aberrations.

At one point, he went away for a week and I didn't call him once.  I hung out with my friend Samir*, who was actually nice to me.  I did other things.  I felt like myself, and like maybe I could be okay without him.  That's when he finally said he loved me.  At the time, I thought it was because he missed me; now I think he felt me slipping away.

I might very well have slipped away eventually, if my father hadn't died that spring.  It was sudden; a heart attack.  He was there one minute, gone the next.

To understand what that meant to me, you have to understand that my father was the parent I lived with.  While I loved my mother, I also fiercely resented her.  She was a strong, successful, capable woman, driven and focused, compulsively neat.  I was a disorganized, creative, fractured girl who had a great deal of trouble with focus and despised the tedious work involved in neatness.  I was loud and passionate, while she was reserved and found displays of emotion uncomfortable.  We got on like oil and water, so when I was fourteen I went to live with my dad, who despite his faults (many of which I share), was a very good parent for me.  Losing him was losing my home, my sense of place in the world, the only safe place I had to go back to.

When my father died, I was already struggling.  I was taking a mandatory semester off from school because I'd spent the semester before everywhere but in class.  I couldn't find a job, and felt that I was failing my friends.  Max, for all his issues, was the only bright spot in my life, and he was graduating. When I found out he was moving to Hawaii to work with his uncle (a pediatrician) and try to get into med school, I decided to go with him.  It was by far the worst mistake I've ever made.

What followed was a slow transition from behavior that was simply occasionally dismissive or erratic into outright abuse.  What had seemed like a fondness for binge drinking (a standard social activity in our crowd) became, when it was just the two of us, more and more obviously a drinking problem.  He was a mean drunk, and sometimes a violent one.  At first, he just threatened to hit, balling up a fist, even pulling back his arm, but not striking.  I told myself he wasn't actually violent.  I told myself that I was bigger than he was, so he couldn't actually hurt me anyway, so it wasn't abusive.  I wasn't a perfect victim.

Later, when we were living in New Jersey, Max did hit me, over and over again.  He bit me, leaving tooth shaped bruises on my breasts.  Those were the only marks he left on me; he was too weak to actually bruise me with his fists.  I told myself again, he can't hurt me, so its not abuse.  When he tried to rape me one night in the middle of a particularly bitter argument, I told myself it didn't matter because he didn't succeed.  Meanwhile, he was telling me I was worthless, that no one else would want me.  He was encouraging me to gain weight because he got off on the control, and on the idea that my size kept me with him.  He sabotaged my diets.  Much later, he threatened to leave me when I considered surgery.  

At one point I almost left him, but I had nowhere safe to go, not for more than a few days.  I went back.  My friends thought what he did was wrong, but also that I was "difficult", that I should be easier to live with.  I wasn't meek or submissive.  I argued with him.  I didn't let him win.  I wasn't a perfect victim.

We had a restaurant in New Jersey that we went to regularly.  We'd have a nice dinner, Max would get drunk on Guinness, and he'd drive home (I wasn't allowed to drive our only car).  On the way home, he often turned violent.  We'd argue, and he'd hit me.  He knew he could hit me in the car; when he hit me elsewhere, I could sometimes catch his arm and (as gently as possible) stop him.  In the car, if I caught his arm, he couldn't drive.  He had free reign, and he made use of it.  One night in particular, he was doing this after threatening to crash the car and end it all for both of us.  I was terrified and panicked and angry.  I was angry.  Perfect victims don't get angry.  I wasn't a perfect victim.  

When we got home, he hit me again and I lost control.  I hit him back, again and again.  I hit him hard against a banister.  I could have really hurt him.  While I hit him, I said over and over "You're never going to hit me again".

There are very few things I've done in my life that I'm more ashamed of than that.  What I'm more ashamed of yet, is that there is some part of me that's still there, still angry, still pounding at him, trying to get him to stop hurting me, and that part of me just wants to keep going until he can't hurt me ever again.  Violence is not a solution to violence.  I know that, but I didn't that night.  That night, the years of torment, of physical harm, and emotional abuse, pushed me to the breaking point, and I made a very, very bad choice.  

I'm not a perfect victim.        

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, I believed Max when he said no one else would ever want me. I believed that this was what love looked like.  After seven years of abuse, I still agreed to marry him. I didn't leave then, nor for another five years after.  When I did leave, it was because I realized I'd be happier without him, not because of some violent incident that finally let me see the light.  It took me several more years to come to terms with what he'd done to me, to admit and understand the full scope of the abuse, in part because I wasn't the perfect victim.

The perfect victim never hits back.  The perfect victim says "no" and struggles.  The perfect victim is flawless and blameless, and has never done anything that can be used against her in the court of public opinion.

I am not a perfect victim, but I am a victim.  The fact that I did something very wrong once in my relationship with Max does not negate the years of violence and abuse that occurred before and after that incident.  The fact that I was larger than him did not prevent him from hurting me, from hitting me, from threatening me with a knife, or using my body without my consent, or likening me to a barnyard animal.  The fact that I called him out on his behavior and demanded change did not justify the names he called me, the gaslighting, the insults to my intelligence, my integrity, by body, and my spirit.

There are women in prison because of this, because they weren't perfect victims, because they killed their abuser rather than let him kill them.  We don't have great statistics, but the numbers we do have, as referenced here by Victoria Law of BitchMedia are staggering; in CA, 93% of women in jail for killing their partner were abused by him first.  In NY, the number is 67%.  Of these women, most sought help in the system repeatedly before defending themselves when the law wouldn't.  I have to wonder how many of these women were arrested, tried, and convicted because they weren't perfect victims?

Requiring victims to be perfect is a way of assuring that we won't be believed, that our abusers won't be prosecuted, that we will be deemed unworthy of the law's protection and the empathy of those around us.  After all, how many of us truly fit the bill? It's easy to claim that we were combative, or that the abuse didn't leave enough marks, so it doesn't count; people can say that we hit back once so we're the same as our abuser, or that we're crazy so we obviously imagined the whole thing.  Discounting abuse is simple, as long as the victim needs to stay high up on a pedestal to be believed.

We are none of us perfect, victims included.  If we demand perfection of victims, what we're really doing is giving leave to abusers to abuse, and refusing care and protection to those who need it most.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Today I read an incredibly important post by Franklin Veaux of the blog More Than Two.  Veaux is a blogger in the poly community, and he was talking about the importance of ethics, and specifically of not allowing abusive behaviors to thrive in one's community.

I'm not going to repeat his arguments; they are brilliant and eloquent, and should be read in the original. However, I do have a few words to say in support of them.

There is no neutral ground when it comes to abuse.

Abuse doesn't keep happening because a few people over there in a dark alley are abusing their partner/friend/a complete stranger.

Abuse happens because of all the people who refuse to believe that *their* friend could have done such a thing.

Abuse happens because of all the people who silently look away.

Abuse happens because we don't WANT to see it.

Abuse happens because we ostracize the victims and anyone who says "Hey, he/she's an abuser", and let the abusers themselves remain.

I hate the man who abused me, and the one who assaulted me in my apartment hallway when I was walking home from work.  I hate what they've done to me.  But you know who I really hate?

I hate all the people who thought something might be wrong when Max was hitting me, threatening me, harming and terrorizing me, but did nothing because they were his friend too.

I hate the people who avoid us so that they don't have to hear our side, so that when they're questioned they can uncomfortably dismiss "the issue" with "I don't really know what happened".

I don't hate them every day, but I hate them every time I'm reminded that a victim's right to safety is considered less important than "setting a bad precedent".
How the hell, I ask you, is excluding a known predator a bad freaking precedent?

Listen up.

There is no neutral.

That's not just my opinion; abuse is traumatic, and trauma has specific properties.  Being near the person who abused you can be exceptionally traumatic.  

An abuse victim can't go to your party or game night or larp and feel safe if they know their abuser might be there. They can't speak openly to you about what they're going through if they think you might not believe them because you "refuse to take sides".  What kind of friend is it that you can't trust with your problems?  What kind of friend doesn't want to protect you from harm?

When someone says "he abused me" and his partner says "I didn't", there are only two possible truths: He abused her and is lying about abusing her (which he has every reason to do because it gets him off scot free) or he didn't, and she's lying about being abused (which she has little reason to do because it gets her a lot of pain and grief, and possibly ostricization).

Saying you're "neutral" means that you think the victim may be crazy, or lying, or worse, and think you can still be friends with her while thinking that. Would you want to be friends with someone who thought you were lying about something that important, especially if it meant that they were also still interacting with the person that hurt you? You either believe the victim or you don't.  If you don't, then get the hell out of the way, but don't pretend to be her friend.  If you do, stand up beside her.

If you claim not to know who's telling the truth, and so take the abuser's side by acting like nothing happened, you're going with the flow - that's what most people do, after all - but against the statistics; MRA bullshit aside, they tell us that most abuse reports are valid.

So, yes, you have to choose.
It sucks.
You know what else sucks?  Being abused.

For those of you out there who say that you are empathizing with the abuser because he has needs too, understand that you're not doing anything new or brave.
You're not brave for standing with someone who's hurt their partner for years. "Seeing his side" isn't an act of courage; it's the status quo.  It's 12,000 years of history.  It's women in Pakistan who still need 4 witnesses.  It's the Steubenville rapists "having their futures torn from them".
You know, because they didn't actually participate in the tearing by, say, raping someone.

And it's almost every case of domestic abuse, because he's always a "great guy" who "has a bit of a temper" or "drinks a bit too much".  No one wants to see anything else.

So, it's not courageous to protect the abuser, no matter how much positive reinforcement you get for it from people who want the "problem" to go away.
Courage isn't going along with everyone in ignoring the problem and then patting yourself on the back for how well and truly you've ignored it.

Try taking a stand against people - many people, not one person - who call you crazy for saying that their friends abused you or others you care about. Listen to people whom you once thought of as family call you illegal and immoral, call you a bitch and worse, act like you're crazy and unreliable, just for telling the truth? Who alternately cajole and threaten, anything in order to shut you up?

Try doing it alone, with little support outside of your immediate family.

Try watching your hope that these people you thought so much of would prove worthy of your respect and admiration die a prolonged and bitter death.

Try it when it's not just internet people in a little echo chamber.  People you know.  People you loved.  Loved.  Past tense.

And more than that, look at the courage of the thousands of women and men and trans folks and others who are out there every day facing abuse, from partners and strangers and stalkers and bigots.  The courage it takes them just to keep going is more, I guarantee, than most people ever have to muster.

I say try, and I do mean it.  You should try.  We all should.

Join us. Stand against that tide.  I'm not perfect, and I've done it.  I know others who've done it.  You can do it as well.
I wish to hell I never had to, that no one ever had to; standing up to this sucks too.  I won't lie, it is likely to lose you some friends, and that hurts like hell, but we need you here, on the front lines, every day.  If you don't stand up in your communities, in your families both natural and created, in your tribes and circles and groups, nothing will ever change.  It's not enough to say "abuse is bad".  We need to say "You are abusing your partner, and that is bad".  It needs to happen on the uncomfortable, messy microcosm.

This needs to end.  We need to look at abuse and call it by its name.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Yes, Virginia, Fat Shaming IS Prejudice: For Denis and Everyone Else

I was going to write a nice, measured, thoughtful post about weight, privilege and intersectionality today. To use the colloquial, this ain't it.  While there are fat men who deal with sizeism, fat women experience it intersectionally with gender discrimination, so It's getting posted here as well as at Weight We Carry, my other blog.

This one is not going to be nice. 
It's not going to be measured or polite. 
It's not going to cite studies and logically weigh the value of different points of view. 
You've been warned.

Today my brother-in-law posted an article.  He posted it with the comment "I know the F word is offensive and there may be better language to get her point across. I also know this is a painful subject. Most importantly I know I don't want to lose people I care about because I was too uncomfortable with the conversation." as his qualifier.  This is my response, not just to him, but to all the people out there who feel like they have a right to treat me as different or lesser because of how much I weigh.

I've read this article, and ones like it, a thousand fucking times.  I suspect my readers have too, although if you feel a need to read this one as well, here you go.  Trigger warnings: fat shaming, cherry-picked scientific studies, acclamation of thinness as morally valuable, patronizing health care industry crap, an ill-informed doctor with a heavy dose of confirmation bias.

Its thesis is "Fat people are weak willed creatures who would lose weight if they just ate less junk food, and who are morally inferior to thin people, who are that way because of willpower".  It was written by a doctor in the condescending fashion of someone who considers what they're saying to be simple, self-evident truth.  Her evidence was mostly anecdotal; as a doctor she'd seen lots of unhealthy fat people.  You know, because healthy fat people love going to see doctors, who will inevitably fat shame us and treat us like crap.  Where she quoted studies, she failed to mention the portions of them that directly disputed her conclusions.

She spends plenty of time letting us know what a saint she is for being involved with a bariatric clinic, all the while talking about how dirty, sweaty, weak-willed, and dishonest her fat patients are.  She then bemoans how terribly miserable all her fat patients are, obviously because they're fat.

Here's the thing: fat people aren't miserable because we're fat.  Being fat is inconvenient, uncomfortable, and sometimes awkward, but the size of my body is not the thing that contributes to my depression, that makes me want to kill myself some nights, that makes going out in public an exhausting, demoralizing experience.  It's not my body that makes making new friends hard.  It's not my body that makes potential employers turn me away.  It's not my body that makes people decide at a glance that I am worthless, useless, lazy, stupid, and ugly. 

It is not my body.

It is your prejudice.


Your prejudice and the prejudice of people like you.  People who think they're good people.  People who go to bed at night convinced that they make the world a better place.  People who are tolerant, giving and kind most of the time. 

Your prejudice.

Here's a quote from the article. 

Is homesexuality inherently wrong? Ask Aristotle, Susie Orbach, Naomi Wolf. Their answers are different, their 

arguments from different places. It is not an empirical question although it reads as one. Today when we look at 

those who are straight, part of what we see is a triumph of will over desire, so the beauty is a moral beauty

Oh, by the way, I did you the favor of replacing references to "fat" with references to "homosexuality".  Does it still ring true?  No?  That's hideously bigoted?  Gee, you know what, I think so too.

When you look at me and make assumptions about my intelligence, my competence, my kindness or my will based on the size of my waistline, you are being a bigot. 

Your prejudice, and that of others like you, is the worst thing I experience every day.  It makes my life hell.  It is a major factor in why I stayed in an abusive relationship for twelve years.  It does me material harm.

You say you are concerned about my health.  One of my most damaging health problems is major depression.  You know what's the single biggest factor in that?  Living in a world where every person I meet treats me like crap until I've proven to them that I'm a "good" fat person, one who is clean and smart and mostly smells okay, and whose fat "isn't really her fault".  Even then, they don't want to be too close to me or touch me; after all, it might be contagious. 

I have to deal with this any time I leave my home.  I see the prejudice in the faces of many of my friends, although they are mostly kind and brave enough to fight it.  I hear it in the voices of people I interact with casually, see it in the way people studiously don't look at me on the sidewalk, or the way they stare. When I apply for a job, my biggest concern isn't whether I'm qualified, or able; it's whether some bigoted asshole is going to reject me simply because of my waistline.  I don't wonder if I'm going to experience prejudice when I walk out my front door; my only question ishow much there will be, and whether it will be blatant enough that I can't ignore it.

My body does not do this, any more than a rape victim's dress causes her rape, a gay child's sexuality causes his suicide, or a black teen's hoodie justifies his murder.  My body is not at fault.

Your prejudice is.   

Your prejudice makes my life hell and it is going to STOP.

I'm not asking nicely; I've done that.  I'm demanding it. 

You WILL stop treating me as if I am worthless, stupid, mean, smelly, lazy, ugly, disgusting, weak-willed and valueless. 

You WILL stop creating media that portrays me and all women like me this way. 

You WILL stop discriminating against me when I apply for a job or walk into a hospital. 

You WILL stop ignoring the fact that modern scientific data does not support your views. 

You WILL stop telling me that I can't be beautiful, special, sexy or wonderful. 

You will stop doing this because I and millions like me are done being "nice".  We are done being patient. We are done being quiet. We are done hating ourselves for your benefit.  We are done taking whatever scraps of acceptance you choose to throw our way and pretending they're as much as we need or want or deserve.

We are done.
I am done.

You can keep thinking what you think, behaving as you behave, but not if you want to be in my life.  If you want to be my friend, my family member, my acquaintance, you have to be better than that.  I don't tolerate bigots.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Ruination of Abusers

In the last couple months, I've been speaking out a lot about domestic abuse, both in general and in the cases specific to the Circle that I mentioned in my previous posts.  I'm going to take a moment, now, to address just a few of the arguments men I know (and it has been exclusively men who have said these things) have made against me doing so.

First and in particular, I want to address the claim that, in discussing publicly what they've done, I'm "ruining the abusers' lives".

When a man (or a woman, but men make up the majority of abusers) decides to hit his partner, he is making a choice.  He is choosing to do something that he knows is not only wrong but also illegal.  He's decided that the sense of control and empowerment that he gains from doing so is worth the risk, especially since women who come forward about abuse are often not believed.  Physical abuse, when it falls short of bruises and broken bones, is hard to prove.  Psychological, emotional and financial abuse are harder still.  So, an abuser does the mental math and understands that, as long as he is careful not to leave marks, he can probably get away with it.

Abusers also count on their ability to convince their victims that the abuse is their fault.  My ex hit me because I was "a worthless cunt", or because the house was too messy, or because I questioned whether he was sober when he was deeply intoxicated, or on one memorable occasion to prove to me that he'd hit me when he was sober and that it was therefore not about his drinking.  Whatever the "reason" it was always ultimately "my fault".  Even a smart person internalizes some of that.  It turns into a "he didn't have the right to do that but..." that plays to the fallacy of there being two legitimate sides to the "story" of abuse.  Your partner isn't really an abuser; he'd stop if you could just...  This allows the cycle of abuse to continue and discourages the victim from talking about it; after all, everyone will just think it's her fault.

On the rare occasion that a victim gets past all that and speaks out, she is then often berated (as I have been) for "ruining her abuser's life" with her accusations.  Talking about abuse that others have suffered as I do, even with their explicit and well informed consent, is condemned even more shrilly.  People foam at the mouth, tell me my experiences make me too close to the issue (more on that later), and claim that I just hate men (my fiance would disagree).  However, all their teeth gnashing and torch waving is missing one key point:

  I didn't ruin their lives; they did.

The abuser ruined his own life.  He did.  He ruined his life when he decided to hit his partner, or tell her that she's useless, or keep her from holding a job by showing up at her work repeatedly until she got fired.  He ruined his own life when he decided that she was his physical, mental, and emotional punching bag and that her well being didn't matter.  He made that choice.  If I could unmake those choices, I'd do it in a second on behalf of all battered partners, but those choices weren't mine to make in the first place.

Telling people about an abuser's behavior doesn't somehow make that behavior worse.  All it does is make sure that people know what happened so that he faces the legal and social consequences of his actions, for which he is rightly accountable.

If you don't believe me, lets compare this to a DUI.  A drunk guy hits a pedestrian with his car.  If she presses charges, is she ruining his life?  Of course not; he did that.  If the local paper reports on the accident are they ruining his life?  Of course not, he did that.  He was driving the car.  He committed the crime.
It's the same damn thing.

With that out of the way, on to point two.  I've had a few people tell me that I'm not qualified to talk about domestic abuse because I've been domestically abused and therefore am incapable of being rational about it.

I'll repeat.  They say I'm not qualified to talk about it or have opinions about it because it happened to me.

I'll just let that soak in for a minute.

Ok, at this point I'm hoping that sounds as ridiculous to you as it did to me.  If not, here's the long version of why it's crap.

First off, this is classic gaslighting.  When people don't like what a woman is saying, they call her hysterical or irrational.  It doesn't matter if she is (as I do) citing facts, studies and evidence and making a logical argument; the simple fact that she's a woman and emotionally involved with an issue means that anyone can discredit her stance.  Gaslighting is a derailing technique used to prevent unwanted speech.  It works really well because the idea that women can't be logical and emotional at the same time is pretty ingrained in our society.  It's also utter crap.  Unless your argument is actually better than mine factually, you're not going to have much luck using this tactic with me.  If your argument is better factually, I will probably eventually agree with you, but I'll note that opinions (even your strongly held ones) are not facts.

Secondly, this is logically speaking a stupid argument.  When you've gone through an experience, you  typically know more about it than people who haven't been through that experience (obviously psychologists and other professionals specializing in domestic violence are an exception in this case).  In the last year, two women have come to me for help leaving abusive situations.  In both cases, there were warning signs that I noticed and commented on beforehand.  This is because I have first hand experience with how abusers behave, and can recognize the small holes in their protective covering.  In one case, his unreasonable and unexplained rage over a game was a warning sign, as was her nervous silence and the fact that the couple only had one email address.  I recognized these things as possible problems because I've experienced some of them (the inexplicable, sudden, and unreasonable rages, the nervous silence when you're afraid how he might react), and because dealing with my own abuse and with my brother's struggles has made me highly aware of controlling, manipulative behavior in others.

Finally, the argument is particularly stupid  in my case.  I'm pretty smart to begin with and I did extensive research into domestic abuse to try to understand and cope with what I went through myself.  When I say "abusers typically do x" it's because I've made a point of learning about it in order to process my own trauma.  I'm not pulling it out of an orifice; it's part of the clinical information and I can point you at sources.

Moving on, lets tackle "how do you know she's telling the truth"?

Well, in one case she is me.  Obviously I believe me, but why should you?  Well, first off, I don't exactly have a reputation for lying (except among those who are claiming I'm lying about this, and that's pretty recent).  I can be awkward, stubborn, and blunt, but I'm honest.  In addition, for a lot of the incidents that happened to me, I was the only reliable witness.  My ex was an alcoholic who had a problem with blackouts.  So yeah, I think my memories are more reliable than his on pretty much any matter you care to mention.

What about the other cases, though?

Both of these women came to me with their stories.

The first woman who came to me (lets call her Joan) had been isolated with her partner for the better part of 18 years.  After moving back to our city, I never saw her go anywhere without him; not even down to the store to grab a soda. She was also incredibly quiet, and her quietness had a very nervous quality to it.  She emailed me shortly before a larp we were all planning to attend and told me what was going on: that he was abusive, that she needed help getting out.  She emailed me because she had no one else to turn to; everyone else she knew was either a mutual friend or a member of his family.  She felt comfortable talking to me because she knew I'd been through it myself.

Because she was afraid of what her partner might do if she confronted him, we snuck Jane out of her hotel room at the larp at 3am.  When we dropped her off, she asked us not to tell him where she was; she was afraid he'd come after her.  Now we call it the Weirdest Spy Movie Ever, but I don't know if I've ever seen anyone as frightened as she was that night.  I also don't know if I've ever admired anyone's courage so much.  Leaving is an incredible leap of faith, and she took it head on.  She's our roommate now, and has been for five months.

Joan's a smart, capable woman who's still struggling with the aftermath of years of abuse.  I recognize that struggle; I've been there.  It would be pretty much impossible to fake it on a twenty-four hour a day basis.  

Joan and I have also spent many, many hours talking about our respective experiences.  She has no reason to lie about them; we would have helped her whether she was being abused or not.  Everyone has the right to leave a relationship that they're unhappy in.

Joan's ex is a man known in the Circle for his temper.  I've personally seen him react multiple times with really irrational anger to in-game situations that most people don't find upsetting (not rape, incest, torture or any other major trigger).  He then claimed that he was just doing what his character would do, rather than explaining why he was so upset. When Joan left him, the very first thing he did upon realizing she was gone was to cancel her ATM card so that she would be unable to care for herself effectively on her own.  He later claimed that he did this because he was concerned for her safety, but given that sitting outside in an unfamiliar city at night is pretty unsafe, I find his argument unconvincing.  I've also seen him treat Joan dismissively, not in large ways, but enough so that it made me take notice.

Joan has no reason to lie about what her ex did.  She gains nothing from it; to the contrary people in the Circle would much prefer it if she (and I) pretended that it was just a bad breakup.  By contrast, her ex has his reputation to protect.  I think, given that, believing her is pretty damn rational.  

The second  woman (lets call her Kate) called me in the middle of the night in tears because her ex boyfriend had thrown a chair and a glass at her, taken her cell when she said she'd call the cops, and then locked her out of the apartment after she fled when he gave it back.  She was terrified and didn't know what to do.

Kate is intelligent, capable, and quiet.  She's an editor and works on a poetry journal in her spare time.  I have no reason whatsoever to think she'd make this up.

The man in question has hit two of his former partners, one of them many times.  I've seen him be domineering, controlling, and violent with his ex wife (the relationship was mutually abusive, but that doesn't excuse his behavior).

Kate had nothing to gain from saying he did this.  It's made her life harder and sadder.  She'll soon have to walk into court and face him, something she'd rather never do again.

The man in question is facing jail time if he can't convince people she's lying.  He has every reason to lie himself, and his history makes me think he's fully capable of doing what he's accused of.

Given their respective histories, and the obvious distress Kate was experiencing when I spoke to her, I see no reason not to believe her.  She has nothing to gain by lying, and he has everything to lose by telling the truth.  Again, I believe her because her story makes sense and the facts support it.

So, to reiterate: I believe them because they're generally honest people, their stories make sense, and both of their partners have a history of aggressive behavior.  That said, I also believe them because, popular opinion to the contrary, victims generally don't lie about this.  Given the amount of societal pressure to stay silent, most victims (male and female) don't talk about it at all.  These women only felt comfortable coming to me because I'd talked about my own experiences and so they knew I might believe them.  At very least, they knew I wouldn't dismiss their experiences offhand.  I didn't start talking about my own experiences for years because I thought people wouldn't believe me; it was only after I got some distance from the Circle that I felt safe enough to speak out.  Speaking out is hard.  I'm sure there is a tiny percentage of people who lie about this, but I have no reason to believe that either of these women are part of it.

Speaking out about domestic violence is important.  Silence provides safety for the abusers and harms the victims.  I speak out because I want to live in a culture where hitting your partner is considered worse than hitting a stranger on the street, not better.  I want to live in a culture where a person who's been abused can speak up, confident in the knowledge that she or he will be believed.  I most certainly want to live in a world where abusers are made to face the consequences of their actions.  That world doesn't exist yet, and it won't until people speak up and speak out.  This is me doing my small part.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I've gotten some private flack for yesterday's post, and I wanted to address one issue in particular.   A friend objected to my post on the grounds that it was "making people choose" between myself and my ex.  He claimed that because speaking out put my friends in an awkward position, I shouldn't do so.

"Making people choose" at the end of a relationship is generally viewed as a terrible, petty thing to do, and often it is.  Lots of couples spend time scoring points off of each other and engaging in acts of malice.  They demand explicitly that their friends choose sides, and then punish anyone who doesn't take theirs.

This is wrong.  It is also not what I'm doing.

What I am doing is talking about what happened to me, what he did to me, in a public way.  There is overwhelming pressure on people who have been abused to not do this.  It makes those who want to ignore the abuse uncomfortable, and they believe that their comfort is more important than the voices of those who have been harmed.

I am not doing this to make my friends choose; I'm doing it to make them see.  I don't particularly care if they remain friends with my ex; I assume they will.  I care that they understand who I am, what I've lived through, what I'm struggling with now.  As far as I know, friends are supposed to care about that sort of thing.  Certainly, I care if my friends are hurting or struggling, even if those struggles are the result of a truth that is upsetting to learn.

I also am doing this to make the fact of abuse more public.  Most of the women I know and a good portion of the men have experienced abuse firsthand.  Some have been assaulted by a stranger, but most have been harmed by a loved one.  Most of them don't talk about it in public.  Most of their abusers are well regarded in their communities.  This makes abusers feel safe.  They trust that their victims won't talk about what they did.  They trust that if their victims speak out, the community they share will shame them for it.  That's an enormous problem, and the only way to address it is for those of us who have been through things to speak out, to make others acknowledge the fact of the abuse despite the shaming.  Yes, that makes people in the communities in question uncomfortable.  You know what's a lot more uncomfortable?  Being abused.

I've also been told that not attending events that he attends is "making people choose".

The last time I was in a room with my ex was at a friend's birthday.  Seeing him made me so uncomfortable that I had to leave early and had an anxiety attack that lasted for hours afterwards.  I don't avoid my ex to make people choose; I avoid him to make my life a better, happier, and safer place.  To accomplish that, I'm willing to skip any event that he's at.  It makes me sad that I don't see the people I would see at those events, but nothing is worth what it would cost me to attend.  I've never asked anyone to stop inviting my ex to functions, and I never will.  It doesn't bother me particularly that they do.  My choice isn't about their choice; it's my own.

If people are genuinely sad about not seeing me, I'm more than willing to arrange to hang out with them in a way that doesn't involve my ex.  I'm more than willing to meet people for lunch on a Saturday or play a board game or talk on the phone.  I hang out with friends from both within and without the circle in this manner rather regularly.  If they're willing to do without him for an afternoon, I'm almost always available.

What I'm not willing to do is keep pretending that I'm ok.  What I'm not willing to do is to sacrifice my voice to the god of other people's comfort.  This is my life.  I'm sharing it with you.  You're free to love me or hate me, but you're wrong if you think that your discomfort is a reason that I should be silent.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Costs of Friendship

I've been dealing with a lot of anger and depression lately.  It's been keeping me up nights; I spend the whole day struggling to stay busy, reading, playing games, trying to get a few useful things done, and I mostly am ok.  Then the night hits, and I turn off the lights, and close my eyes, and the anger takes hold.  Sometimes I'm so furious I want to scream, to throw things, to tear my hair out.  Sometimes I just hurt, and it's like a wound under my solar plexus that aches and bleeds and never heals.  Sometimes I think about hurting myself, although it's not something I'm likely to ever act on.  I've considered writing about it a number of times, usually at 5 am, around the time I realize I'm not sleeping at all that night.  However, I ultimately keep deciding not to.  I think that's been the wrong decision, so here goes.

One of the perennially screwed up dynamics in most geek social circles is the emphasis put on transitive, absolute, unconditional friendship.  These are widely known as geek social fallacies, and I have yet to interact with a geeky circle that doesn't embrace some or all of them.  The circle I spent the most time with for most of my adult life embraces a few fairly comprehensively; in that group, (which I will simply call "the circle") everyone is expected and required to pretend to like everyone else, whether or not they do.  There is a strong belief that members of the circle would do anything to help a friend (ie. other member of the circle) in the same way that most people would help a member of their own family.

All of these things seem positive on the surface.  After all, how could it be bad to be nice to each other?  What harm is there in making everyone feel included, whether you like them in and individual, personal sense or not?  Even if you dislike someone, how does it do any harm to pretend you don't in order to avoid rocking the boat?

Before I go any further, I want to make something clear: there are a number of people in the circle whom I love, and whose friendship I cherish.  They've stood by me through some very rough times, and I appreciate that.  There are also a large number of people in the circle whom I've never been close to, who've never done me any harm, and whom I think are perfectly nice.  This is in no way a condemnation of any of them, or really of anyone.  Even the people I'm currently angry at (and I am angry) generally haven't done me any intentional harm; it's the group dynamic more than the individual people that I think is problematic.

Everybody Loves You (Sometimes)

About a month and a half ago, I helped a friend get out of an abusive relationship.  The circle's reaction to her leaving, and to my helping her was both unreasonable and upsetting.  This group of people who always claim they'd do anything to help a friend faulted me for actually adhering to that principle.  They did this because the other person involved was also a member of the circle, and the breakup put them in the inconvenient position of having to consider whether one of their friends might have done something deeply wrong.  They clearly didn't want to face this possibility.  Instead, I was told that the way I helped wasn't fair to him, that he had the right to a final confrontation, that she was wrong to leave him without giving him a chance to respond, as though his right to yell at her one last time was more important than her right to not be abused.  It was implied that she needed proof of his bad behavior in order to be believed, despite his long standing reputation for a bad temper, and that only physical abuse really counted.

I've seen this reaction before.  When I left my husband, I didn't talk very much about his abuse, and it was largely to avoid rocking the boat.  God forbid my decade of misery make people uncomfortable at poker night.  I tried to remain friends with him, convinced that it was somehow the right thing to do, despite the many ways in which he'd harmed me.  I was encouraged in this; everyone told me how wonderfully I was behaving.  It didn't occur to them that it might be doing me serious harm.  When I finally did talk about it, finally stopped speaking to him, people found reasons to ignore it or dismiss what I had to say, as I was well aware they would.  They liked him, and therefore anything I said needed to be sublimated, reduced to "oh well, it was a bad relationship for them both".

The one time I tried to leave my husband, I went to stay with friends in this circle.  When I told them he hit me, they said they'd "talk to him".  When they did, they told him they "knew I was hard to live with", but that hitting me was wrong.   Let me be clear here: my ex husband didn't just hit me.  He was verbally, emotionally, and sexually abusive as well.  He did me significant harm.  However, apparently the fact that I'm a slob and wanted him to maybe not drink a bottle of gin every night justified all but the worst of his behavior to them.  In fairness, they didn't know about all of it; I was ashamed to say how often he'd hit me, afraid that they wouldn't believe me because I'm larger than he is.  I didn't even understand some of the sexual abuse as abuse; when I told him I wasn't interested and he did what he wanted to anyway, I thought that was part of being in a relationship, felt like I didn't have the right to say no.  It was only the one time that he was drunk and violent about it and I had the courage to actually refuse that I understood it as attempted rape, and not just more bad sex.

Even writing this now is hard.  I know people will be angry at me for talking about it, for the harm it might do to him (although I haven't named him here), and that some will choose not to believe me, because it's easier than seeing the truth.  I can't stop them from doing that, but I can say that it sucks.  I can say that a circle where everyone is your friend unless you really need help, a circle where you have to hide the horrible things that are happening to you because no one will believe you, is ultimately a circle where you have very few friends indeed.

Sometimes a Friend Isn't A Friend

Another serious problem comes from the belief that everyone in the circle has to be friends with everyone else, whether they actually like them or not.  The spectrum of socially acknowledged responses to other members of the circle is constricted to a ridiculous point, until it only includes like, love and (ironically) hate.  It's not simply that you're not supposed to mildly dislike other members of the circle; it's that the possibility that you might is not acknowledged.  Should you express such a mild dislike, it's considered worse than actual, virulent hatred.        

For example, there is a couple in the circle whom I've never really gotten along with.  I don't hate them; I simply don't like them either, and would rather avoid spending time with them.  I don't dislike them because they're bad people; they don't regularly drown kittens or feed orphans gruel.  In fact, I think they're fairly good people, overall.  I merely avoid them because they rub me the wrong way and make me slightly uncomfortable; it's a personality thing.  Outside of the circle, that's perfectly acceptable; people have a right to choose their friends.  Inside the circle, it's considered petty and judgmental.  Who am I to decide that I like one person and not another?

Now, obviously this is frustrating for the person who has committed the great sin of unliking, but as someone who's been on both sides of it, I can say with certainty that it's also unpleasant and confusing for the person who is mildly disliked.  The best case scenario is one where the dislike is mutual, as I believe it was between myself and the couple I mentioned.  Everyone involved feels somewhat uncomfortable, but no one gets hurt.  The real problem comes when the dislike is not mutual.  Outside the circle if you don't like someone there are straightforward cues you can give them that let them know you don't want to engage with them.  There are kinder and meaner ways of doing it, but in general it's fairly easy to be clear about your disinterest.

In the circle (which is composed of geeks, many of whom aren't great at signals in any case), those cues are muffled by the pressure to be friends with everyone.  This leads to a shallow kind of group "friendship" where everyone is nice to everyone else, like them or loathe them.  Because of this, it's easy to end up in the awkward position of trying to more particularly befriend someone who doesn't particularly like you but isn't allowed to say so or indicate it in any obvious way.  Until you figure out what's going on, the experience is frustrating, and once you have done so it is embarrassing.  After all, no one wants their friendship to be an imposition.  Being a mildly awkward geek girl, I've been in that situation a number of times, and have generally been mortified to realize that my offer of friendship was so completely unwelcome.

Nice is Not Kind

Geeks in general and the circle in particular have a tendency to conflate the idea of being nice with that of being kind.  What I mean by kindness is treating others with respect and consideration, whether they're particularly your friends or not.  What I mean by niceness is putting a pleasant face on things, whether they're pleasant or not.   Kindness is being gentle when you let someone know you don't want to hang out with them.  Niceness is pretending you like someone even though you don't because you don't want to seem mean.  We're all guilty of being merely nice instead of kind sometimes.  We're taught it from a young age: it's nice to invite all of the children to your birthday party, even if you don't want some of them to come.  It's not nice to bring a treat unless you can share it with everyone.

Most people eventually come to understand that niceness is a way of emulating or teaching kindness, not an end in itself.  However, the circle and many other social groups like it have made it into an ultimate value.  Niceness becomes toxic when being nice becomes more important than kindness.  It isn't nice to choose between your friends, so many members of the circle bend over backwards to believe that all bad relationships are cases of mutual fault rather than acknowledging that one partner might actually have done something wrong.  It becomes a problem when everyone's determination to be nice harms a person who's actually been abused or leaves people who don't fit the group well wondering why they have so many acquaintances and so few real friends.

I don't fit the circle very well, or rather it doesn't really fit me.  I have some very good friends there whom I love as individuals, but the group as a whole feels weird and constraining to me.  I feel a bit like an octagonal peg in a round hole; I fit in the slot, but it never quite works.  That's not anyone's fault; I'm a loud, individualistic, opinionated person who is not willing to change who I am to fit the group dynamic.  That makes me a hard fit in any group.  However, the reason that it took me so long to realize it was the overwhelming niceness of the group.  Because everyone always seemed to like me (and everyone else), it was hard for me to understand how few of them actually cared for me.  That discovery has been a slow and painful process.  I don't fault any individual for this; again, it's the group dynamic.  That said, I do think that if the circle and groups like it devoted less energy to being nice and more energy to being kind, everyone would benefit.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Problem with Hotscaping

There's a picture going around the internet comparing the way Harriet Tubman looks in the existing photographs that were taken of her to the image of her presented in Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Here are the pictures, side by side, of Tubman and the actress who was chosen to play her.

For those of you who slept through high school History, Harriet Tubman was a slave in the mid 1800's who, after escaping to Philadelphia, returned to the south many times to free others, becoming the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad.  When it became illegal for northern states to shelter former slaves, she helped shepherd former slaves to Canada, where slavery was prohibited.  During the Civil War, she was a union spy and a scout, and led an armed expedition that freed 70 slaves deep in Confederate territory.  After the war, she was an active proponent of women's suffrage.

Harriet Tubman was also a dark skinned black woman whose face and form does not jibe with our current standards of beauty.  That didn't make a bit of difference to her ability to save hundreds of people from slavery, to spy for her country, or to become renowned for her courage and selflessness.  It also didn't prevent her from marrying twice.  However, Hollywood has made it clear that those qualities, admirable as they are by anyone's standards, are not enough.  In order to be portrayed in a Hollywood movie - one not specifically about serious issues of race - she also has to be hot.

The photographs we have of Tubman are of a short, very dark skinned, plain-faced woman sporting the serious mien typical of mid-nineteenth century portraits.  Instead of honoring that fact by casting a woman who resembled her, the creators of Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made her into a tall, slender, relatively light skinned woman who meets or exceeds all of our culture's normative standards for beauty.  Let me be clear in saying that this is also an issue of racism, and a serious one.  However, I've seen several good articles on the subject, including this one at Your Black World, and so I'm addressing myself to the ways in which it's more generally misogynistic, and part of a cultural trend towards Hotscaping.

This is where people tell me I'm taking things too seriously.  After all,  Abe Lincoln wasn't really fighting vampires during the Civil War (at least as far as we know).  The underground railroad wasn't as fast as an actual train, and any number of other things portrayed in the movie simply didn't happen.

To me, that argument misses the point.  Of course a serious movie would pay more attention to getting the details right.  However, they notably didn't make Abe Lincoln look like a cross between Brad Pitt and a sparkly vampire.  Instead, they focused on making him look like Abe Lincoln.  That's because the point of Abe Lincoln - even an Abe Lincoln being played in a silly movie about vampires - isn't that he's attractive.  It's that he was a great man who accomplished amazing things.

The same is true of Tubman, so why change her appearance?  Why make her look like some male fantasy version of the History Channel?  Why not offer the part to a dark skinned, middle aged character actress instead of a light skinned ingenue?  The answer to that question is also the problem: almost every portrayal of women in media is fundamentally linked to sex.

No matter how strong, smart, or brave a woman in a story is, no matter how irrelevant beauty is to her story, Hollywood will always do its best to make her hot.  Even those few women who are portrayed as unattractive are being defined in terms of their beauty or lack thereof.  When was the last time a woman who isn't "Hollywood Beautiful" played a role without her lack of that beauty being an important factor in the story?  The point to having a less than perfectly attractive woman in a movie is typically either to denigrate her (because she's fat, because she's attached to a man who's not interested, etc.) or to show how she struggled and prospered despite her lack of beauty.

Hollywood isn't the only place where this is happening.  Portrayal of women as one-dimensional sex objects has always been something of a problem in comics and video games.  In many cases, that's slowly (think ice ages slow) improving.  Women in comics, video games, and geek media are usually still attractive to the point of absurdity, but at least now we sometimes get to - say - wear non-revealing clothing, shoot to kill, or fly the spaceship.  That doesn't negate the fact that women in geek media are expected to always be beautiful, that they are defined by their beauty, but baby steps.  

However, DC's recent reboot sexualized almost all of its female characters to a greater or lesser degree.  Notably, it took Amanda Waller, a tough, heavyset black woman, and made her slender and conventionally beautiful.  Grace at Gracetopia discussed this in depth when the reboot was first released, and her article is well worth a read.  They also took those characters who were already attractive and made them sexually promiscuous.  Starfire is the obvious example, and while they did explain her behavior eventually in story terms, they also chose to write that particular story.  "Generally free wheeling but ethical woman becomes sexually indiscriminate" is a very specific kind of story choice.  It allows the writers and artists to do a lot of scenes involving Starfire and sex, scenes which are more about titillation than character development.  The same could be said of the portrayal of the female characters in Arkham City.   

Obviously, this is happening in the broader sphere as well.  A young girl just used a petition to push Seventeen magazine into ending their practice of airbrushing the teenagers on their covers and in their pages to make them thinner and "prettier".  Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts were sized down without her knowledge in a promotion for "The Client List".  Everywhere, women are being reshaped into what the media thinks we should look like.

This is a problem, and a big one.  It is a problem because it sends the message that beauty is not only the most important characteristic a woman can have (or lack), but the only important one.  Men can be admired because they're brave or brilliant, generous or successful, but a woman can only be admired for her beauty or derided for her lack of it.  All her other characteristics are secondary to whether or not she's "hot".  Both men and women are hearing this message loud and clear.

You can tell men are hearing it because of the forum threads on whether or not they'd sleep with this or that female game developer or journalist or actress.  You can tell because one of the principal ways in which men respond to discussions of misogyny is by calling the women having the discussion fat, slutty, or ugly.  You can tell because many men believe that the unwanted sexualization of real women who are not just characters in stories is "just a joke" or "not a big deal" or even "normal", and are willing to flame, harass, and threaten anyone who says otherwise.

And you can tell women are hearing it.  You can tell when Emily Yoffe of "Dear Prudence" tells a woman whose doctor says she's healthy that she should lose weight because her husband is finding her unattractive after childbirth.  You can tell because every diet fad gets grasped at, every possible beauty product tried to achieve or maintain the unreasonable standards our society has taught men to expect of us and us to expect of ourselves.  You can tell because of the tragic number of women killing themselves to be thin, or staying in abusive relationships because they believe that they don't deserve any better.

In short, Hotscaping is a part of the greater problem of misogyny, and it needs to end.