This is Part II in a 5-part series on creating communities of resilience and care by examining abuse and accountability.
In Part I we explored the current discourse surrounding callout culture, exposing abuse and rape, the importance of building emotional resilience, and we began to touch on the crucial role that community plays in the upholding of rape and abuse culture.
I proposed to make a distinction between two types of callouts, using the word “exposing” to refer to the revealing of patterns of abuse and reserving the word “callout” for situations with less gravity than serial rape and abuse.
In this post we’re going to explore three common myths about exposing abuse.
Some of these myths you may have heard before. Maybe you’ve heard them implied, or maybe these are some fears and concerns you hold yourself. In any case, the myths presented below are ones that have been extremely destructive – contributing to a victim-blaming mentality, promoting the silencing of survivors, and preventing people from taking clear action to make their communities safer places. Confronting these myths head on is crucial if we want to tackle abuse in our communities from a grounded place.
Myth: Exposing abuse or sexual assault destroys communities
Fact: Abuse and sexual assault destroys communities.
Abuse and sexual assault wreak incredible havoc on the targets of said violence, affecting their psyche, safety, nervous system, and relationships. Many survivors are forced to choose among having to be further abused by their abuser, to speak up about the abuse, or to leave the community completely. None of these choices are easy, especially considering the ways that communities frequently uphold and protect abusers. Post traumatic stress can make being in the presence of an abuser a painful event that can cause days, weeks, months, even years of debilitating mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
When survivors choose to speak up about their abuse, the effect can certainly be devastating on a community. But it is not the exposing in itself that has this devastating effect: rape and abuse culture relies on the compliance of each individual’s participation to keep it intact. The unspoken agreement on the part of survivors to maintain the integrity of the system is their silence. Ideas regarding the privacy of what happens sexually between two people and privacy regarding relationship issues perpetuate the norm of isolation regarding ‘normal’ interpersonal behaviors.
When the silence is broken, however, this system collapses.
This process has often been explored in the context of abusive or dysfunctional family dynamics, in which each member of a family has a preordained role that they are supposed to perform. When the family member breaks from said role, that person is painted as an outcast and believed to be the source of all the family’s dysfunction.
In reality, it is the system itself that relies on control and abuse to keep people enacting their role. In functional family dynamics, there is flexibility to allow for freedom of choice and inevitable transformation that healthy individuals experience as they grow through life. The functional family can fluctuate and accommodate said change in roles.
The ‘destruction’ that people who believe in this myth are witnessing is the destabilizing effect of speaking truth in a dysfunctional system. Often, rather than having the capacity and flexibility to recognize that abuse happens, that sometimes we cannot tell when abuse is happening, or that in our ignorance of how abuse works, we miss important red flags, people shut down. Some people will believe and support the survivor; others will believe and support an abuser who maintains their innocence; others still will be overwhelmed and uncertain of how to proceed and become fence-walkers.
These are the fractures that can occur among communities who have not explored and developed a praxis around handling intra-community abuse, and indeed, they can destroy communities. But the fractures would not have happened if there had been no abuse in the first place. It’s like blaming the destruction of a fire on the match rather than the person who struck it.
Myth: People who come forward about abuse are usually angry, vindictive, power seeking, wanting to punish abusers, or are overreacting.
Fact: People who come forward about abuse usually do so out of concern for the safety of their community and concern for other possible victims.
Coming forward about abuse is not an easy decision. Victim blaming narratives and cultural lack of education about abuse make it so that a survivor coming forward risks being re-traumatized, forced to constantly retell and divulge details of their own abuse. They risk having their experience called into question. Myths that emotional, financial, or psychological abuse is not real or as serious influence even well-meaning people’s capacity to take survivors seriously. Misunderstandings about why victims stay with their abusers lead to victim-blaming mentalities. In addition, all of these realities are already embedded in the consciousness of the survivor who, in all likelihood, is already blaming themselves.
Not being believed, being re-traumatized, and risking losing friends and community are all very serious risks that survivors take for very little personal benefit. Exposing abuse doesn’t advance careers; there is no monetary gain, no increase of social status. In fact, in some situations, coming forward may put these things at risk.
But the benefits of exposing abuse on a larger scale are much greater for the community at large in the long term, including:
- Protecting potential future victims by warning them about the abusive individual’s behavior
- Encouraging an abusive individual to engage in efforts towards accountability
- Starting a community dialogue about abuse and constructing the ways in which the community deals with abusers in the future
- Strengthening ties between survivors and their allies
- Exposing those who choose to enable and refuse to make meaningful personal change to end rape and abuse culture
These outcomes can provide some level of healing to a survivor, but the fact is that this cannot take back the abuses they have suffered, or the impact on their lives and relationships. Survivors know this. They know the risks of coming forward are great. With some exceptions, most survivors choose to come forward because they are concerned with protecting others, breaking the silence around rape and abuse, and putting an end to rape and abuse culture.
Myth: Exposing abuse ruins the life of those named abusive and encourages disposability of people.
Fact: Healthy relationships rely on transparency, honesty, and consent to survive.
When abusive behavior is exposed, there are many people who may choose not to associate with that person anymore for any variety of reasons. Perhaps the behavior named is a personal trigger, or they are simply concerned for keeping themselves safe. Maybe they don’t have the energy necessary for accountability, which means having to straddle the line between supporting someone’s growth after they’ve committed abuse and enabling that abuse to continue. This requires us to be empathetic but with an equal or greater amount of counter-force to challenge the abusive attitudes and behaviors of the abuser. All of these are valid reasons to disengage in a relationship with an abuser.
Others still may decide that they DO have the capacity to remain in relationship with the abuser. Some may do so in denial, rejecting that there is truth to the revelations of abuse. Others may wish to engage in holding this person accountable, because they truly believe in this person’s ability to transform. Some may feel that the personal consequences of disengaging are too great. These choices have an impact on relationships including acquaintanceships, friendships, volunteer or professional connections, familial, romantic, etc.
There is no denying that exposing abusive behaviors can have a considerable impact on the life of the person in question.
There are some who may be in denial or oblivious to the fact that the behavior they have engaged in is abusive. It is important to remember that the work of ending rape and abuse is going to be messy. It is going to disrupt people’s lives, as it disrupts the status quo.
Because it’s messy and it’s going to affect people does not mean it’s not worth doing. The fact remains that abuse is a choice one makes regarding their patterns of behavior. If one chose to own their behaviors and work on them, then that transparency would give people the option upfront as to whether or not this is someone they want to be in relationship with.
Of course, the alternative is that survivors maintain their silence. In this option, abusers are never presented with the option to engage in accountability, free to abuse others at will. And survivors are the ones who are forced out of community and alienated. In this scenario, we are saying we value the participation of abusers more than we value the participation of those who have been victimized.
In breaking down these myths and facts, we are able to cut through the stereotypes and misconceptions keeping us from listening to the voices of survivors who come forward about the harm they have suffered, allowing us to come to a place of greater clarity regarding how to handle abuse in our communities.
Confronting these beliefs is not easy, but it is important. This is our road to a different world.
This is Part II in a 5-part series on creating communities of resilience and care by examining abuse and accountability. In Part III we’ll discuss restorative and transformative justice as models for handling abuse in our communities.
For folks in the Portland area: I’m teaching a class called Relationships that Nourish for survivors who are wanting to cultivate skills to find healthy relationships after abuse. This is an in-person 5-week course accompanied by an online private forum beginning April 8, 2018. Find out more on my website or on Facebook.