Canaries in Coal Mines: Early Warning Signs of Abuse

Yes, I’m still alive and writing! I’ve spent the past few months enjoying life with medication for my sleep disorder and focusing on stuff like hiking, building friendships, baking bread, and learning how to ride a motorcycle. To that end, I’ve recently started a separate blog to document some of those adventures. But now I’m back with a Real Blog Post.

[Content note: sexual assault and abuse. Another note: This post discusses some dynamics common to many forms of violence and abuse, of which sexual assault is obviously a subset. This isn’t to conflate sexual assault with abusive relationships in general, but rather to acknowledge that they often go hand-in-hand and that most sexual violence involves someone the survivor knows.]

All too often a friend or client with a long history of abusive relationships or sexual violence asks me, “Why does this keep happening to me? How can I break out of this pattern?”

And most of the time, I’ve had nothing to say. The feminist perspective is that, because you are never to blame for violence or abuse, any “prevention” thereof has to focus on the perpetrator. Implying that there’s a way for you to keep yourself safe(r) by changing your own behavior is victim blaming.

As a response to our nauseating cultural tendency to interrogate survivors about their behavior and insist that they stay safe by dressing like nuns and locking themselves indoors (preferably with an armed guard), this makes sense.

But as I look at the scared but determined person sitting in front of me, asking me these questions, it seems incredibly unhelpful to say, “Well, it’s not your fault that this happens. The only person who can prevent abuse is the abuser. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Okay, now what? Are folks supposed to just sit around patiently waiting for us to replace rape culture with consent culture, teach everyone bystander intervention, establish real consequences for sexual assault, and ostracize all abusers from our communities?

Drawing the line between actual prevention advice and victim blaming is challenging, but it can be done. For starters, don’t give unsolicited advice, and especially don’t give unsolicited advice to someone who’s just disclosed to you that they’ve been the victim of someone else’s fuckery. That’s the sort of thing that makes you really come across like you’re blaming, whether you meant to or not.

Second, recognize that prevention strategies may not be accessible to everyone, every time. The leap from “this might help” to “you have an obligation to do this or else it’s your fault” is really more a hop than a leap in our culture. I think of it like this–many people learn defensive driving so they can try to avoid accidents caused by another driver. But just because you didn’t spot the warning signs of a collision this time doesn’t mean you’re now to blame for a crash caused by someone else. They’re still at fault. Their insurance still pays. The story is still “wow, some asshole totally ran a red right into my car” and not “I fucked up and failed to see that someone in my peripheral vision wasn’t actually decelerating as I drove legally through a green light at or slightly above the speed limit.”

And sometimes there are no warning signs.

Third, acknowledge that the vast, vast majority of advice intended to prevent sexual or emotional violence is bullshit. Most of it focuses on irrelevant factors that the advice-giver has a personal fixation on, such as what people wear or how nice they are to their abusers, and has nothing to do with reality. A lot of it demands that people drastically curtail their lives and freedom for what is, at best, a small increase in safety. For instance, if you stop going out and socializing, you’re probably less likely to encounter a would-be assailant or abuser because you’re not socializing, but at what cost?

Any prevention advice worth listening to has to begin from the premise that sexually and emotionally violent behavior is caused by the person who perpetrates it, and that if they’ve decided to behave that way, you can’t stop them by dressing some particular way or placating them somehow. What you can do is learn to recognize the red flags for such behavior and stay as far away as you can from people who display it.

Most resources about abuse focus on pointing out the signs that a relationship is abusive–for instance, they damage your property or pets, try to isolate you from friends or family, and so on. These signs are important and you should familiarize yourself with them, but the whole thing with abusive relationships is that they’re really hard to get out of. A lot of folks who have been in abusive relationships say that they were caught off guard–“When we first started dating, he was so sweet and loving. I never knew he had this side to him.” Abusers often wait quite a while before revealing their abusive traits and behaviors. By then, their partner is invested in the relationship and leaving would be difficult.

By in paying attention to how abusive people behave, I’ve noticed that they often start giving off red flags a lot earlier. Like, as soon as you meet them, in some cases. Most of us Just don’t see them as red flags. We may even see them as quirky, charming, or romantic.


1. Crossing boundaries. Abusers will often deliberately cross small boundaries to see how you respond. Many of us are vigilant about this when it comes to sex, but it happens in a lot of other contexts. Pushing you to talk about something you’re not ready to talk about, pressuring you to try activities that you’re scared of or uncomfortable with, calling you and apologizing when you said you needed space, showing up uninvited or as a “romantic” “surprise”–basically the plot of any romcom. Some of these things may be totally okay in a context where they’ve been mutually agreed-upon, but otherwise they indicate that your preferences aren’t that important to the other person.

A lot of people think that these small boundary crossings are no big deal even if they’re uncomfortable with them, but that’s because our culture often encourages us to ignore our own gut feelings about people. When people deliberately ignore your stated boundaries, that tells you a lot about who they are. Assume they’ll continue to ignore them, in ways big and small.

2. Making you uncomfortable as a “joke.” Some people seem to find it funny when others are scared or uncomfortable. I suggest staying far away from these people. There’s a huge difference between playing practical jokes on people in order to amuse everyone involved and actually relishing seeing them in discomfort, even if it’s momentary. Most people have a visceral negative reaction to seeing others in pain or distress. Those who have a positive reaction instead are likely to make you feel like crap in order to feel good themselves.

3. Blaming you for others’ choices. One way that red flags for abuse can show up very early on in a romantic relationship is when someone blames their partner for the fact that someone else flirted with that partner or asked them out. It’s a disturbingly common dynamic in monogamous relationships between men and women–the guy sees or hears about another guy asking his girlfriend out, and tries to deal with his jealousy by blaming her and accusing her of having somehow provoked it.

For many people, it’s normal to feel some type of way if someone else hits on their partner. But blaming their partner for a choice someone else made is controlling. And while this is already disturbing in and of itself, it also slides really easily into other, more overtly abusive dynamics. Abusers often blame their own behavior on their victims–“If you weren’t so ______, I wouldn’t have to yell at you.” Abusers often convince themselves that some people (i.e. them) can’t be expected to control their own behavior, and that others should be expected to control it for them.

4. Using double standards. Do they get irritated at you whenever you’re late, but expect you to tolerate their own tardiness? Do they suddenly become tired or busy whenever you want to vent about something, even though they vent to you all the time? Abusers have a way of making others feel like nothing they do is good enough. One of the ways they do this is through double standards.

Aside from blaming others for their own behavior, as I discussed above, abusers will often find all sorts of excuses for their lower standards for themselves. “My job is really stressful; you can’t expect me to listen to you complain when I get home from work.” “I can’t not yell when I’m angry; it’s one of my mental illness symptoms.” You, on the other hand, will not be forgiven for anything, even if you also have a stressful job and a mental illness.If you want your partner to be okay with your lack of punctuality or willingness to listen to them vent, it’s unfair to expect those things from them. They may obviously still choose to be punctual or listen to you, but that’s different. You can also agree as a couple about what exactly to expect from each other. Just because I need you to take care not to wake me up when you come home late doesn’t mean you necessarily care about getting woken up when I’m the one coming home late. But if someone expects from you by default things that they have no intention of expecting from themselves, that’s a red flag.

5. Expressing bigotry towards people like you. If you’re in a relationship with a bigoted person, they may say things like, “You’re not like other girls,” or “I don’t even really see you as black.” They may say hateful and demeaning things about marginalized people and follow that up with, “But you know I don’t mean you.”

But that’s not how bigotry works. They may really see you that way–for now–but the moment you step out of line, it’ll be, “I thought you were different” and “Come on, don’t be like that.” Given the way bigotry and stereotypes work, your partner will probably use them against you whenever you try to set boundaries or advocate for yourself.

When you’re involved with someone who hates, fears, or looks down on people like you, it becomes your never-ending job to prove them wrong–even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. I’ve known a lot of people who were shocked when, in the middle of a heated argument, their partner suddenly spat out words they’d never heard them use–“whore,” “f****t,” “n****r,” “cunt.” I clearly remember a few moments when I suddenly transformed from a girl, a woman, a partner, into a fucking bitch. I knew then that to them, I was always just a step, a word, from being “like other girls.” From being a “fucking bitch.”

That’s why bigotry towards people like you is a red flag, no matter how kind and respectful they’re being towards you right now. And bigotry towards one marginalized group is good evidence of bigotry towards others.

6. Gaslighting. So much has already been written about gaslighting that I won’t give it much space here, but in a nutshell: gaslighting is denying and invalidating your feelings and experiences, making you feel like you could be wrong about your own perceptions. Gaslighting isn’t the same thing as disagreeing with you about your interpretation of something (“Are you sure this means she hates you? It sounds to me like she’s upset at you for what you said”); it’s disagreeing with you about something that you have knowledge of and the other person doesn’t (“I’m sure he didn’t really do that; he’s a nice guy”; “Come on, there’s nothing to be so upset about”). Gaslighting is usually pervasive in abusive relationships and it’s one of the main ways they function–by making the person being abused distrust or ignore their own perception of reality in favor of the abuser’s.

But gaslighting can also come up in subtle ways when you’re first getting to know someone, before they have enough influence over you to gaslight you “successfully.” Like I discussed above with boundary crossings, we often ignore these apparently-harmless interactions. For some people, especially men, gaslighting is practically a style of social interaction (especially when they’re interacting with women). While it may never escalate into something that would actually harm you, it’s at the very least annoying and at worst, potentially a very red flag.

A great way to test this when you’re first meeting someone is to tell them a story about a time you were hurt by someone, and how you felt. For maximum effectiveness, choose a story that involves someone that that person might identify with. If you’re on a first date with a white cis guy, tell him a story about a white cis guy. Watch him get really uncomfortable and start pulling out rhetorical moves such as, “Aren’t you overreacting a little?” and “It can’t have been that bad.” Then tell him it’s not going to work out and sashay away.

7. Saying one thing and doing another. 

One of the most destabilizing traits of many abusive or otherwise unsafe people is that they will repeatedly tell you what they intend to do and then do the opposite. It’s sort of a gaslighting-adjacent behavior in that it leaves you really confused and uncertain of whether or not they really did agree to whatever it is they said they’d do.

As an extreme example, I’ve known people who would ask their partner to put on a condom, and the partner would reply “Oh of course” and then literally proceed to have sex without the condom. But it also happens in non-sexual situations and with other types of boundaries, and although the person will often try to chalk it up to a bad memory or their own confusion, that’s rarely it. I once asked a partner to stop doing certain things that I found patronizing and described exactly which behaviors I took issue with, and that partner would agree to stop doing those things, but by next week would be doing them again.

I mean, could it be a memory issue? I suppose so. But if you can’t trust someone to remember your clearly stated boundaries, that’s a problem.


All of these behaviors could be (and frequently are) explained away as some combination of good intentions, mental illness symptoms, genuine miscommunication, garden variety human hypocrisy, and more. Doing a few of these things doesn’t automatically make someone an abuser.

But I encourage folks to move away from questions like “Did the person mean to be hurtful/controlling/etc” and instead ask questions like, “Does this work for me? Can I be in a healthy relationship with someone who acts like this?”

Assume, too, that these behaviors will escalate. Small boundary crossings will probably turn into bigger ones. “Oh, come on, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” turns into “How dare you accuse me of this horrible thing I never did.” “When I saw you sitting all alone and looking so beautiful, I couldn’t help but to come and talk to you” turns into “You can’t expect me to control myself when I’m turned on.”

Setting firm boundaries right away rather than waiting till later can help truly well-intentioned people improve their behavior, and convince the ill-intentioned ones that you’re onto them. “I don’t appreciate pranks like that.” “Stop asking me to try this [food/activity/drug/sexist TV show/etc]. I said no.” “Actually, you weren’t there; I was. I know what I experienced.” “Whoa, that’s pretty fucking racist and I don’t care if you think I’m an exception to that. I’m leaving.”

Feeling uncomfortable setting boundaries is normal and okay; it takes practice. But if you feel unsafe setting boundaries–if you’re actively worried that the person will yell at you, become physically violent, gaslight or guilt-trip you, or so on–that’s a red flag in and of itself. We will all need to set boundaries at some point in every close relationship, and in many casual or professional ones, too. If you have the option to avoid someone that you feel unsafe setting boundaries with, I suggest taking that option.

But we can’t avoid all abusive people forever; unfortunately, many of us will experience abusive family members, friends, partners, bosses, or others. Blaming people for “letting” abuse happen is one way that many people try to cope with that reality, but it doesn’t work and it’s unjust.

Sometimes, though, gut feelings and a good knowledge of how abuse works can help us NOPE out of potentially shitty situations before they develop. Hopefully this helps someone.


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Canaries in Coal Mines: Early Warning Signs of Abuse
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The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual violence]

In discussions about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a Christmas song in which a man persistently pressures a woman to stay at his house instead of going home to her family for the night, many consent-aware people point out that given the time period in which the song was written, it should be interpreted as playful, fully-consensual banter.

Even the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” is meant as a jokey reference to how strong the alcohol is rather than the way we read it today–an implication that date rape drugs are involved. Viewed in its proper context, the song is actually a celebration of female sexual agency–something that wasn’t exactly condoned at the time–because the woman in the song is clearly looking for excuses to stay with the guy she likes.

Given my own cultural background, I have a lot of sympathy for this interpretation because it’s exactly how I was brought up to expect these things to go. I’ve had consensual, fun interactions of this sort with partners. It was how I always interpreted the song growing up.

But as others have pointed out, even this interpretation means that women cannot say “yes” to sex directly and that’s nothing to be celebrated. That’s part of the problem. If men cannot expect women to say “yes” directly–if they’re taught that sometimes, “no” actually means “yes”–that creates way too much room for misinterpretation and sexual violence.

I’ve written about Guess Culture here a lot. The type of interaction presented in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a great example of Guess Culture. The man in the song never comes out and says that he wants to have sex. In fact, he never even directly asks the woman to stay the night. Instead, he encourages her to stay later than she meant, have another drink, it’s so cold outside, you wouldn’t want to go outside in that, imagine how bad I’d feel if anything happened to you…

Likewise, the woman neither says, “I really want to stay over but I can’t this time,” nor “I’m not interested in you that way, I’m leaving.” Instead, she’s supposed to understand that the man is implying that he wants to have sex, and he’s supposed to understand that…this is where things get a little hazy. Critics of the song say that he’s supposed to understand that she’s actually not interested but won’t say so directly because she’s been socialized not to and doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. People who think the song is fine say that he’s supposed to understand that she really wants to stay, perhaps even intends to, but feels obligated to first present this list of “excuses” to show that she’s a “good girl” who won’t just jump right into bed with someone.

And like I said, it could totally happen that way. I’ve had it happen that way. Maybe the specific people in this song are an established couple for whom this is an established consensual pattern. (But just because they’re an established couple for whom this is an established pattern does not necessarily make it consensual.)

The problem is that:

There is no way for the man to know if she’s saying yes or no.

And when your “yes” looks and sounds exactly the same as your “no,” you’re not communicating effectively. When your “hey, I’m really worried about you going out in this weather, please crash here for the night” sounds exactly the same as your “I’m having sex with you tonight whether you like it or not,” you’re not communicating effectively. But if you would like to violate people’s boundaries, having the latter sound exactly like the former is very clever.

That’s who this communication style is primarily serving.

When people say that we live in a rape culture, we don’t mean that all rape is considered permissible in all circumstances, or that all sex is rape, or even that all sex without clear and explicit consent is rape. What we do mean is that our culture normalizes sexual practices and ways of interacting that sharply increase the likelihood that people will have sex with someone without their consent–that they will commit sexual violence.

One of the ways this works is plausible deniability. In our culture, someone can say something like, “But I totally thought they were into it! I thought they’d say no if they actually wanted me to stop!” and people treat this as evidence against sexual assault. Someone can intentionally violate someone’s boundaries and say the exact same thing and get away with it.

That’s why “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is kind of terrifying regardless of the context it was originally written in, or the feelings of the hypothetical people in the song. In real life, a woman in that situation might feel wanted, cared about, and flirted with. Or she might feel pressured, coerced, and trapped. As the other person in that interaction, how are you supposed to know? You can’t.

I get that many people find these interactions fun and exciting. I get that it’s how many of us were raised. I get that even I might momentarily feel kind of unwanted if I playfully say, “Oh, I don’t think so, I really have to go…” and a partner immediately says, “Oh ok I’ll take you home right now then!” I get that for many of us, women and folks socialized as women especially, it can be hard to believe that someone really wants us if they don’t seem to “fight” for it.

But mind-reading is a hell of a flimsy hook to hang your bodily autonomy on.


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The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

Abusers Don’t Abuse Everyone

[Content note: sexual harassment, assault, and abuse]

If you’ve hung around in poly communities* for a while, you’ve probably seen this dynamic:

A man (or, very occasionally, someone of another gender) gets accused of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse. Along with all the usual disparagement and skepticism towards the accuser, this man’s other partners come out of the woodwork to defend him, describing (sometimes in great detail) their relationship or sex life to “prove” that he’s a consent-aware and safe person. The fact that he did not harass/assault/abuse these individuals is used as evidence that he did not harass/assault/abuse anyone else, either.

To start with the obvious, even the most heinous, ill-intentioned person rarely manages to harm every single person they interact with. While the fact that someone has harassed, assaulted, or abused someone is strong evidence that they will do it again–most sexual predators are repeat offenders–the opposite is not necessarily true.

The idea that a “real” sexual predator will inevitably prey on every single person they are involved with comes from the idea that people who harass, assault, and abuse are unable to control themselves, that they are rapid beasts who lunge at every available target. As knowledgeable folks have already pointed out many, many, many times, that’s not how the overwhelming majority of sexual violence works. At all.

I’m not inside any sexual predator’s mind, so I can’t tell you how any particular individual decides who to try to harass, assault, or abuse and who to pretend to be a good person to. But I’ve watched quite a few of these situations unfold and what they all had in common was that the accuser was young, relatively unknown in the community, queer, non-white, and/or marginalized in other ways, whereas the current and former partners stepping up to defend the accused were well-known, well-respected, often older members of the community it happened in.

What’s going on with that?

What’s going on is that people who want to hurt people pick people that they doubt will feel empowered to speak up, and who will be much less likely to be believed if they do.

I have watched several men that I’ve been involved with or otherwise close with get accused of sexual violence towards others. Aside from that split-second of shock I inevitably experienced when I first heard the accusation, I had no trouble at all believing it–not because of who they are (in front of me, that is), but because of who I am. In the circles these men and I both run in, I doubt anyone would feel empowered to abuse me. I have a widely-read blog and am very highly respected, especially as a voice about these issues. Also, I’m cis, white, and socioeconomically doing okay. The two times I’ve been harassed by members of my community, I spoke up and was immediately believed and supported, and those men lost many of their connections within the community as a result. If someone assaulted or otherwise violated me and I blogged about it, it would probably be disastrous for them.

Of course, that’s not to say that privileged and respected people are never impacted by sexual violence, that they’re always believed and supported, or that they always find justice. Thanks to rape culture, nobody is guaranteed support if they experience sexual violence, and there’s nothing anyone can do (or should have to do) to prevent it. But privilege certainly helps, and so do all the visibly-awesome friends I have. Predators target vulnerable people, and that vulnerability is never their fault.

So it doesn’t surprise me that I–the well-known blogger who writes constantly about boundaries and sets them loudly and publicly all the time–would not be anyone’s first choice as a target for abuse. If I refused to believe that someone who had treated me respectfully and consensually had done the exact opposite with someone else, I’d be ignoring everything I know about how sexual predators work.

Just like abusers aren’t uniformly awful to the people they’re abusing–if they were, it’d be much easier to leave–they aren’t uniformly awful to everyone else. They’re often charming, beloved by their friends, and professionally successful. And yes, in a polyamorous context, that can even include other partners.

I get that it’s really painful to watch someone you love, someone you’re intimate with, be accused of horrible things by others. People will refer to that person as “a rapist” or “an abuser” and those labels don’t feel true to you because it wasn’t your experience. But look–anyone who rapes is a rapist. Anyone who abuses is an abuser. They don’t have to do it to every single person they’re involved with for that to be true. In fact, they only have to do it once.

This is the juncture at which many progressive, feminist Always-Believe-The-Survivor types really stumble. I get that it feels like you have counter-evidence. I get that it feels that if everyone only knew how sweet and loving and totally consensual he is with you, it’d be obvious that the accusation is false. But it only feels that way because believing that someone you love did something terrible is painful, and your brain’s trying to find ways to keep you from having to believe it.

Believe The Survivor isn’t just for when the survivor is someone you like and the accused is someone you don’t, or someone you don’t know. It’s for every time someone accuses someone of sexual violence and there’s no actual evidence that they’re lying, because most accusations of sexual violence are true and because acting otherwise without reason is dangerous.

Victim blaming is dangerous not just because it harms survivors and keeps them from speaking out, but because it sends a powerful message to sexual predators that they can do what they do with impunity. Think, then, about what it says when someone gets accused of sexual violence and a chorus of their other partners shows up to claim that the accusations must be false because “Well I’ve been with him for years and he has never been anything other than respectful of my body and boundaries, and based on everything I know I just can’t see him doing something like this.” Think about what it says when we treat these arguments as in any way valid.

What it says is that if you want to commit sexual violence and never be held accountable, all you have to do is make sure that you’ve got a partner or two that you behave consensually with. That way if you ever get accused of anything, your other partners will be available to express their genuine shock and use your good behavior to shield you from your bad behavior. You won’t even have to defend yourself.

We can short-circuit these tactics by treating any accusation of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse as valid regardless of the accused person’s previous behavior towards other people–or, in fact, towards the accuser. As I mentioned, being inconsistent and alternating between abusive behavior and “normal,” “loving” behavior is one way abusers trap people into relationships with them.

It’s time to start treating patterns like these as the norm rather than the exception. That’s why I’m actually the opposite of surprised when someone who’s accused of sexual violence turns out to have one or more partners who defend them with “But he didn’t abuse me.” He probably didn’t because he didn’t think he could get away with it with you, or because he wanted someone to be able to shield him the consequences of his violent behavior towards others.


*To state the obvious, the issues I’ve discussed here aren’t limited to poly communities and many people have difficulty believing that someone who treated them well abused someone else. But I’m writing about this in the context of polyamory because that’s the context I’ve been observing it in, and because poly people (obviously) tend to have multiple partners at the same time. That means that if someone abuses some but not all of their partners, those other partners are able to openly be like, “But hey, I’m dating/fucking this person and I haven’t had anything like that happen!” In monogamous contexts, that wouldn’t really work unless someone’s exes came forward, but that seems…unlikely. In this way, polyamorous communities are unfortunately able to perpetuate rape culture in an additional way: “Well, she’s the only one who’s had any problems with him. Maybe it’s something to do with her.” Never mind that the accuser is almost never actually the only one. They’re just the only one who happened to come forward.


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Abusers Don’t Abuse Everyone

They Have To See It With Their Own Eyes: Men and Violence Against Women

[Content note: gendered violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment]

It’s been about a week and a half since Elliot Rodger shot six people and himself in Isla Vista, and the discussions are starting to die down. As they always do, as I knew they would. Plenty of men have authoritatively told me that misogyny is not the best explanation for this act of violence, that not all men are violent, that we need to reform the mental healthcare system, that autism makes people dangerous, that I have no reason to fear that something like this will happen to me, that I have no reason to fear men at all.

As I knew they would.

Then I read this piece on Jezebel by Madeleine Davies, and something clicked:

They don’t believe us. Hundreds of thousands of women from around the world can weigh in and tell their first hand experiences and there are men out there — seemingly reasonable and intelligent men — who still refuse to admit that maybe, just maybe, we have good reasons to be afraid. A 22-year-old kid spouts the same misogynist rhetoric that my coworkers and I receive in our inboxes on a daily basis and goes on a shooting rampage with the expressed purpose of punishing women for not giving him the sexual attention he felt entitled to and we’re still told that we have no right to be scared because #NotAllMen are like that.

Davies goes on to tell a story about her male college roommate and his persistent inability (or refusal) to internalize what Davies told him about women’s fear of and susceptibility to male violence:

In college, I had a male roommate who badgered me endlessly about my frequent choice to take a cab home from my restaurant job where I would — more often than not — clock out well after midnight. The walk from work to our house wasn’t long (maybe 20 minutes), but it was poorly lit and remote, taking you over railroad tracks and past warehouses. Honestly, it shouldn’t have mattered if the walk was 5 minutes and through the busiest part of town — I was paying for the taxi with my own money and it was my own business, but for some reason, it drove my otherwise decent roommate mad. He would call me lazy. He would imply that I was cowardly and weak. On multiple occasions, we got into shouting matches about it that left me feeling stupid, small and crazy.

While we were living together, a girl at our university was murdered by a stranger who broke into her on-campus apartment. They never caught the man who did it and still, my roommate couldn’t see why I would get mad when I came home to find our house unlocked and empty or why I’d be mildly nervous about being alone and vulnerable.

That was years ago, but recently, we met up for dinner.

“I’ve gotta apologize about something, Mads,” he said, pouring a glass of wine. “I know I used to give you a hard time about not wanting to walk alone at night, but a couple weeks ago around bar time, I saw a girl get attacked. It was crazy.”

To my friend’s credit, he didn’t stand by and simply watch the attack happen. He tried his best to help, but I still left the conversation with a sour taste in my mouth. I tried so many times to tell him about the scary realities of existing while female and he, like all of those dudes on Twitter, refused to believe me. He had to see someone undergo traumatic assault with his own eyes before he would recognize what we women know inherently.

And I remembered something else that I’ve observed and written about myself:

I’m tired of men getting attention for saying things that women have been saying for ages. I’m tired of the fact that men don’t believe women’s experiences unless they find a way to have those same experiences for themselves. I’m tired of the fact that women’s experiences are constantly being dismissed as overreactions or distortions or outright lies–until a man comes along to validate them. I’m tired of the fact that these men can then delete their online dating accounts or take the women’s outfit off, but I can’t stop moving through the world as a woman.

Probably any woman who has discussed sexism publicly has experienced a man showing up and demanding citations to “prove” that her individual experiences really happened. But even when the proof is there–Davies’ college roommate presumably knew about the girl at their university who was murdered, as that tends to make front-page news, and most men realize on some level that women get lots of sexual harassment both offline and on dating websites (or other websites)–these men are unable to convert that knowledge into an understanding of phenomena such as women being afraid to walk alone at night, demanding that the door to the apartment remain locked at all times, or quitting dating sites in frustration at the disgusting messages they receive. They still see these things happening and read them as “women are so irrational and overemotional B” as opposed to, “Wow, this is a sad but totally rational response to the unacceptable reality that these women face.”

That it was not enough for Davies’ college roommate to know that their classmate had been murdered by an intruder to understand Davies’ fears honestly terrifies me. That a woman had to get attacked right in front of him in order for that to sink in is horrifying. And as Davies points out, he was not some anomaly. This is common.

I’m going to go out on a limb a little here and then solidify that limb as much as possible. Men who refuse to take violence against women seriously until it happens right the fuck in front of their faces are as complicit in this injustice as men who commit violence against women. This is not to say that they are as individuals just as bad or just as sexist or whatever. It just means that, without their silence, their ignorance, their shrugging shoulders, this situation could not continue as it is. It cannot continue without the participation of men who commit violence, and it cannot continue without the participation of men who shrug it off or blame the victims or accuse them of “overreacting.” Both of these are gears have to turn in order for it to continue.

If you have to watch a woman be harassed or beaten or raped or almost raped in order to care, that means that even more women must be harassed or beaten or raped or almost raped in order for you to join in the fight against violence against women. If you have to watch a woman be harassed or beaten or raped or almost raped in order to care, that means that women’s personal accounts of violence–which they have little reason to lie about but many reasons to keep silent about–aren’t enough for you. If you have to watch a woman be harassed or beaten or raped or almost raped in order to care, that means that on some level–even if you won’t admit it–you think that there’s some level of “bad enough” that this shit needs to get before you’ll even acknowledge it as a problem, let alone actually do something about it.

Keep in mind, Davies hasn’t indicated that her former roommate has become some sort of anti-sexist crusader as a result of what he saw. He apologized to her, which is nice. He tried to help the woman who was being attacked, which is a good thing to do (although I hesitate to demand that men do it, because for all sorts of intersectional reasons, that may not be safe or possible for them).

But what’s it going to take for more men to actively, assertively challenge male violence against women? To shut down other men who excuse it or attempt to exonerate themselves by chanting “Not all men!” as though it were a magic spell? To refuse to support a type of masculinity that glorifies dominance and violence?

If what it takes is personally watching women being victimized by that type of masculinity, we’ve got a huge problem.

~~~

Moderation note: No, I did not discuss violence against men in this blog post. That was a deliberate choice. It is not the subject of this blog post. Do not turn the conversation in the comments section into a conversation about violence against men. Do not insist on reminding me that men can also be the victims of violence.

You are, however, welcome (as always) to draw analogies to other axes of oppression, because these dynamics play out in all of them.

They Have To See It With Their Own Eyes: Men and Violence Against Women