What Do We Expect Abusers To Do?

A woman (it’s almost always a woman) comes forward stating that she’s been abused by her partner (almost always a man). How she does this isn’t important. Although- if she doesn’t press charges she’s assumed to be lying and simultaneously blamed for letting her abuser go free. If she does go to the police, she’s assumed to be overreacting and blamed for destroying a good man’s life over one little mistake. She can’t win.

The next thing that happens? People go to the partner. They ask him for his side of the story. Invariably- yes, invariably- he either denies everything or downplays what happened. Maybe she’s making it up. Maybe she really wanted it at the time. Maybe she provoked him and her provocation was just as bad, wasn’t it?

So he says that he didn’t do it, or that it isn’t something we should bother worrying about.

Why does this surprise us? Why does it make us less likely to believe her? What do we expect him to do? Do we think that someone would abuse their partner but feel that lying about it is crossing a line? Do we expect them to put their hands up, saying “damn, you got me!” and offer to be led away? Maybe break down in tears ashamed of what they’ve done, giving the rest of us a hefty dollop of superiority and the feeling of justice being done? Is that realistic? Really?

What do we expect abusers to do?

Yes, I’m talking about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. This week. If you’re reading this in six months or five years, swap those names for whoever the most recent accuser and accused are. While I don’t want to dismiss any particular case, this isn’t really about the specifics of one couple. It’s about a pattern: here is what happens when a woman accuses a man of domestic violence, relationship abuse, or rape. I specify ‘woman’ and ‘man’ deliberately. Gender dynamics always play into our closest relationships, as well as affecting how others see them.

Abusers aren’t monsters. They’re (almost) the same as the rest of us.

Are abusers monsters, or are they ordinary people?

If an abuser is a monster, what would a monster do when they’re caught? Would they put their hands up and say “yeah, it was me”, or would they scheme to get out of it any way they could? What is a monster, anyway? Is it someone who is somehow inhuman? Someone who doesn’t bother following the same social contract that binds the rest of us to act relatively decently towards each other? If abusers are monsters, then why would we take their word for it? Wouldn’t we expect them to deny their monstrosity?

What if an abuser isn’t a monster? Abuse is common. If 1/5 of women have experienced some kind of domestic violence, we have to face up to one of two possibilities. Either monsters are everywhere, or abusers are human and closer to the rest of us than we want to admit. What if someone who abuses is an ordinary person who can’t handle not getting what they want? Or who takes out their feelings on others? If abusers are ordinary people, shouldn’t we expect them to try to get out of trouble?

Abusers are people. You and me, almost everyone has the potential to do abusive things. The difference is that some do and others don’t. If you don’t think that you could? I don’t believe you. I’d believe you, maybe, if you say that you never would. Most of us know how to handle our darker impulses. But don’t even try to tell me that you’ve never daydreamed about destroying or hurting someone who screwed you over- not even for a second. Yeah, for most of us it stays there: a harmless moment where we indulge in the fantasy of punching that asshole’s lights out or keying their precious car. So let’s acknowledge the dark, scary thing that most of us don’t want to: the difference between you, me, and abusers is whether you’ve done the things that most of us have daydreamed about. That’s not a thin line, by the way, and nor is it a small difference. There’s a chasm the size of the Great Rift Valley between doing and not-doing.  

When we talk about abusers, let’s remember this: what they do is the same stuff the rest of us daydream about. That’s why it’s so easy for us to justify their actions. We know what it feels like to be so angry that we feel a hairs-breadth from losing control. So hurt that we have no idea how we managed to stop ourselves. We’ve all snapped and said something we regret. Most of us, though, have stuck to our side of that line. That Rift Valley that feels like a hairsbreadth from the inside.

We could talk for hours about what causes someone to cross the line. Maybe someone was raised a victim of violence and abuse and never learned a healthier way to relate. They could live with so much privilege that they’ve forgotten how to cope with not getting their way. They could be worn down from so many hurts that they don’t care anymore. Addiction (be it to drugs, power or something else entirely) could destroy someones sense of perspective. Or maybe they’re just a manipulative ass and always have been.

The details aren’t important. What matters is this: people have destructive impulses. We have reasons for those impulses. When we want to harm someone, you’d better believe we feel that person deserves it.

It doesn’t matter if they really do or not (but spoilers: they don’t). What’s important here? We all justify our most destructive acts. Why would we expect abusers to behave differently? What do we expect abusers to do?

Everyone justifies themselves

How does it feel to be wrong? Not to discover that you’re wrong, or to know that you are. Simply to be wrong. How does that feel?

I think it feels exactly the same as being right. Isn’t that why it’s so difficult to admit that you were wrong all along? It’s why we need to take some time to calm down after a big argument before we can look at what happened rationally. Even if we’re wrong, it’s tough to admit it. It’s tougher to realise it. Until the second you realise that you were wrong, being wrong feels like being in the right. It feels justified.

Take an everyday example. Let’s say I bump into you on the street. I’ve been having a shitty day, I’m late for where I’m going and you didn’t get out of my way when I said “excuse me” so yeah, I push past you. According to me, you’re the asshole who wasn’t listening and took up half the street on a busy afternoon. You’re the asshole. According to me, I didn’t shove you- I barely touched you. And besides, you were standing in the middle of the street. According to you? You’ve been having a shitty day and you’re in your own world trying to work out what to do about all the things that happened to you, and then some asshole shoves past you without so much as an “excuse me”. And besides, there’s plenty more room on the street. I’m the asshole. Both of us think that we’re justified and the other person is the asshole. We’re both halfway right- we were both inconsiderate and should have paid attention to the people around us.

Imagine someone tries to point that out to either of us. How likely are we to listen in the moment? Pretty unlikely. In our own minds, our actions are justified. We know what led up to us being where we were at that moment. We know how we felt.

Of course, in an incident as trivial as that I’m sure either of us would apologise to the other the next day. It wasn’t a big deal, right? We both know that people overreact when they’re stressed. Admitting our bad behaviour doesn’t say anything about who we are as a person. We don’t risk being labeled shovers or street hoggers for the rest of our lives.

Let’s go back to Depp. Far as I can see? If he did abuse her, you bet he felt justified. His mum had just died. Don’t know if you’ve ever been through grief but let me tell you, there is a time after a major loss when nobody can do anything right. Your reactions to everything are completely out of whack and yeah, you can definitely internally justify doing things you shouldn’t. I’ve been hearing elsewhere that he was jealous over Heard having close lesbian friends. If that ain’t a cliché- straight guy can’t handle bi partner’s queer friends/exes/self- I don’t know what is. And let’s not even get started on the guy’s acknowledged history of drug and alcohol abuse. I’m not saying he definitely did it. I will say this: domestic abuse is common. Rich, powerful white men get away with abusing others all the time. Women who report abuse are almost never believed. If you start by believing women when they report abuse, you’ll be right most of the time. Speaking for myself? I believe Amber.

What do we expect abusers to do?

It’s true that we don’t know anything for certain. But if he did abuse her, what would we expect him to do? If he’s a monster, would a monster really admit to their monstrousness if they thought there was a way out? And if he’s an ordinary person who did an inexcusable thing, do you really think he isn’t excusing and minimising it to himself right this moment? And do you really think that in a world where ordinary people get away with abuse every day, one of the highest paid actors in the world isn’t capable of either lying, or convincing even himself?

That’s what we need to ask ourselves. In a world where we expect criminals to deny their actions, why do we take an abuser’s word when they say they didn’t do it? What else would we expect them to do?

Photo by televisione


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What Do We Expect Abusers To Do?
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9 thoughts on “What Do We Expect Abusers To Do?

  1. 1

    I wonder if a lot of people can empathize with the feeling that they are being accused of being something 1)awful that 2) they do not identify as and project that experience on to stories.
    From that perspective I think the statistics around the amount of abuse and how infrequently abuse is reported, etc. would, unless that person has direct experience, seem to contradict what they see around them and simply reinforce the idea that not everyone would agree on the definition of abuse being used to produce those statistics.
    I say this because in various conversations about abuse I have heard, for instance, from black men who feel like they have been targeted as dangerous by white women simply for being black and when they see stories or statistics interpret them through that lens. Or people who have gone through a messy divorce and similarly interpret this through the lens of their own experience.
    In both cases they weren’t actually, formally accused of abuse or even (from what I could tell) been described as abusive, but they felt under attack and labeled and bring that along with them.

  2. 2

    And then there’s the usually male friends of the abuser telling the world what a great guy he is and that he would never do anything like that.
    You know, the same words that have been said about a thousand child raping priests.

    1. 2.1

      I think this is related to the “monster” idea. If abusers are all monsters and you know that Billy is a nice guy, then obviously he can’t be an abuser.

      The point that abusers are just people is very important. People have different sides to them and the same guy who’s helpful and kind in one situation, with one group of people, can be a complete shit in another situation, to other people.

  3. 3

    You make some good points – I particularly liked the discussion about “everybody justifies themselves”: it might help a great deal if we were all to cultivate the ability to step back a bit, and ask ourselves whether we were in the wrong, whether our interlocutors might have a point or two.

    However, I think you’re probably much too quick to discount the possibilities, in general, of false accusations, though I doubt that’s true in the case under discussion, as in the recent revelations over the UVA-“Jackie” “rape” accusation (1). But I will agree that it there’s a relatively high probability that Depp did in fact hit Heard, although I think the crux of the matter is whether there was any justification for that, whether she, for example, went ballistic on him to begin with.

    I expect most times there isn’t – if it’s all that prevalent then maybe it’s time put the quietus to the relationship – but I also expect that sometimes there might well be. As in this YouTube video case (2) – just because you’re a woman doesn’t give you carte blanche to be an asshole or a thug. In any case, y’all might take a gander at this view on the issue from “Judgy Bitch” (3); while I think she might be going overboard a bit, I also think she might have a point or two:

    One of the things I find most annoying whenever the topic of domestic violence comes up is the idea that men should never, ever hit women; that masculinity itself depends on never smacking a chick no matter how badly she asks for it. It’s just so damn patronizing. The idea that women should never, ever be hit is infantilizing. We’re not children, and we are perfectly capable of provoking and deserving a slap across the head, just as men are.

    1) “_http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/lawyers-for-jackie-tacitly-admit-she-invented-her-pretend-rapist/article/2592725”;
    2) “_https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYwuqYDW-h4”;
    3) “_http://judgybitch.com/2016/05/31/i-kind-of-hope-johnny-depp-did-punch-amber-heard-im-guessing-she-begged-for-it/”;

    1. 3.1

      You think the crux of the matter is whether there was justification for him hitting her.

      Whether she was asking for it.

      Whether she deserved to be assaulted.

      Spoilers: no. No, there wasn’t. And no, that’s not because of their genders. It’s because it’s assault. Someone saying mean things to me (if, in fact, that happened) is not an excuse for me to assault them. It’s not that masculinity demands never hitting a chick. It’s that nobody gets to hit someone else without their consent AT ALL.

      Consider this a warning: I’m not going to publish more excusing of assault.

      1. Maybe I wasn’t explicit enough, although the YouTube video certainly seemed sufficiently so, but my point was that if she assaulted him first – “going ballistic”, ” to become enraged or frenziedly violent” – then he might well have had some justification for responding in kind.

        Or maybe you think that he, as a guy, wasn’t entitled to defend himself? You problably should take a real close look at that YouTube video before responding.

        But it kind of looks like y’all are “pre-judging” the case – i.e., exhibiting some prejudice (“believe the victim”) – without considering any possible extenuating evidence. Like the potentially analogous case at UVA.

    2. 3.2

      i-kind-of-hope-johnny-depp-did-punch-amber-heard-im-guessing-she-begged-for-it

      Just quoting that to highlight it.
      Yeah, that’s totally not justifying violence against women.

      but my point was that if she assaulted him first – “going ballistic”, ” to become enraged or frenziedly violent” – then he might well have had some justification for responding in kind.

      And if a spherical cow had been the one who hit him and he mistakenly thought it was her? What then?
      Bringing up a scenario for which there’s no evidence as an alternative for the scenario for which there is evidence only serves one goal and that is to distract from the truth.

      Or maybe you think that he, as a guy, wasn’t entitled to defend himself?

      Easy one: People who are physically stronger are entitled to use the force necessary to prevent further harm to themselves. They are not entitled to retaliate.

      Also, Andrea Hardie’s misogyny is well known and demonstrated. Forgive me if I don’t listen to somebody who thinks women shouldn’t be allowed to vote. I’m just going to follow her own advice…

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