Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Scared, Not Stupid

I was reading this post at Feministing when I came across a comment that upset me. The article is about women being coerced into sex by their partners and having their reproductive choices denied to them, and in wades a commenter to tell us that this is off-topic but Very Important. What is it? Why, that women who allow themselves to become financially dependent on a man are "100% stupid/dumb". Then they complain when they get abused, silly women! Now, I have no idea whether this commenter is male or female, but why is everything in a relationship assumed to be a woman's fault or responsibility? To an article about the frighteningly high figures of rape and abuse in relationships, this person feels the need to add that these women are stupid? Oh, thanks.

I'm nervous about adding my own voice to this story, because my ex knows about this blog. But since he dismissed it as unimportant when we were together, I should be alright. So here goes: why on earth do these people assume that women walk into abusive or controlling relationships knowing exactly what they're getting into? Why do they assume there was a point when the woman willingly handed over all control of her finances to a man she knew was going to abuse her? Why is the default assumption not that this man is horrible, but that she's dumb? Why have we created a culture in which not only will a woman not be believed if she reports physical violence or rape committed against her by her husband, but emotional abuse is believed not to exist? Why have we decided that emotional abuse does not constitute an abusive relationship? Why does the phrase "I wish he would hit me, so I could leave" resonate with so many women?

I'll talk from the perspective of a woman who has left an abusive relationship. I had to stop myself qualifying that sentence with "emotionally abusive" just in case anyone mixed it up with "real" abuse, because that's what we're taught to believe. Everyone yells. If it scares you, that's your problem, not his. Everyone says things in the heat of the moment, you should learn to brush it off. Everyone gets road rage, and it's not like he's ever hit you, is it? Did he apologise? Well, that's alright, then. And then we get the guilt trip: how dare you call yourself abused? Think of those poor women who are getting beaten senseless by their husbands every night. How can you diminish their suffering by calling yourself abused? After all, it's only a bit of yelling, or a bit of jealousy, or one slap in the face. That's not abuse. Who do you think you are?

We don't quantify anything else this way. We don't tell people they weren't robbed because the burglars didn't smash anything, or because Mrs Johnson up the road had more stuff taken. We don't say the Iraq war isn't a war because World War II was bigger. By calling emotional abuse for what it is, we don't diminish or cheapen women who experience domestic violence. We aren't claiming to have it worse than them. We are simply admitting our own experiences of abuse, and using the awareness of what we went through to help us pick ourselves up and move on.

Women do not walk into abusive relationships knowing that the partner is an abuser. We walk into abusive relationships seeing a charming, sweet guy who adores us. We fall in love, as people do, and we continue to see a charming, sweet guy who adores us. Instead of seeing his jealousy as a form of control, we see it for what he tells us it is - a sign that he loves us, can't live without us, can't bear the thought of losing us. So we cut down on the going out, pull back from the friends who inspire these feelings, because we don't want to hurt him. We applaud him for being so willing to open up to us, for being so unafraid to be vulnerable. We don't see this as control. After all, it's not like he asked us not to see these friends. We did it willingly, because we saw it was hurting him. We chose this.

Women do not walk into abusive relationships intending to relinquish control of their finances because we are dumb and can't be bothered. Maybe it starts with something tiny. He's an old-fashioned gent, he likes to pay on dates. He wants to look after us, to provide for us. Perhaps he begins to tell us not to take money out with us. We don't need it, he pays, we know that. Perhaps we get sick, or lose our jobs. Perhaps he looks after us during that time, pays for us, supports us. We feel grateful for all he's done for us, and he says, no, not at all. I enjoy looking after you. Perhaps when we're ready to go back to work he says, no, stay. I like having you at home. Perhaps we say we want to go back to work and he says why? Don't you trust me to provide for you? Am I not enough for you? Perhaps by this point, we're already a little bit scared of him. Perhaps we've seen him as an aggressive drunk. Perhaps we've seen him scream at someone who didn't deserve it, or hit someone in a bar fight. Perhaps he's never done anything to us, and we think we're safe, but we know he has that unpredictable, violent edge to him. We know that, maybe, it's not so safe to disagree with him. He won't hurt us, but he might hurt someone else, or he might start punching the walls when we fight, the table during breakfast, the pillows when we're in bed. Does it make us "100% stupid/dumb" to just give up? Or does it make us shit-scared? Perhaps you don't think it's wrong to call frightened women "dumb". Perhaps you think we can "just leave". Perhaps you, from your lofty position on the hill, think we should have seen it coming, should have got out earlier or never got in, and because we didn't, it's just our too bad. We got ourselves into this, and we can get ourselves out. Perhaps you see no need for compassion here.

For a long time, I knew that if I got in the car with my ex, I was bound to hear an aggressive round-up of all my character flaws. If he took a wrong turn, it was my fault. If he was in the wrong lane, it was my fault. If I dared to start crying, he would scream. The first time this happened, I was shocked. I jumped out of the car at traffic lights and ran home. He left me message after message, crying and apologising and telling me he loved me. And I forgave him. After all, it was only once, and everyone has their off-days, right? This is why it's so hard to find the red line that says "GET OUT" - we can all forgive someone for fucking up once. When he did it for the second time, it was a year later. That, too, could be written off as an isolated incident. Once it happens for a third, fourth, fifth time and you're sure that this is a pattern and not just a couple of isolated incidents, the impact has gone. You're no longer outraged that he would treat you this way. You've got used to it. Not only that, but you're frightened. This stuff is scary. Being attacked, verbally or physically or emotionally, by someone you love is frightening. Being attacked by someone you know to be violent is frightening. You're confused. You thought you were safe, and he only acted that way to other people. You didn't have a plan for what you'd do if he attacked you. You don't trust him not to follow you if you leave. Your self-esteem is shot. You don't trust yourself. If someone you love can say such horrible things to you, he must mean them. You must really be that bad. He's a saint for putting up with you, really. None of this makes you "dumb". It makes you ABUSED. You don't believe you're abused, of course. You believe him when he says he's just being honest, or he's trying to help, or that he just gets this way sometimes and you just have to ignore him. If you do talk to someone else about it, they tell you you're overreacting. You lose all trust in your own judgement, and begin to rely on his. He's lovely to you in public, then screams at you behind closed doors. He tells you he only has the courage to be honest when he's mad. You trust that. You trust everything he's telling you, because he wouldn't make that up, would he?

We are not "dumb". We are not "stupid". We did not choose this. We did not ask for this. We do not want this. We may be stuck, we may be scared, we may have given up, but we are not stupid. We know that people won't believe us, or will blame us. We will be hysterical women, overreacting to a stupid fight, or we will deserve everything we get. I am proud of myself for getting out. I am proud that I am not that woman anymore. I am not stupid, and it was horribly upsetting and jarring to come across that sort of victim-blaming. So many women have not done what I did. So many women are scared, and stuck. So many women have given up. I pray that one day they will be able to get out. What they do not need is to have sanctimonious tossers calling them "dumb". If you must throw blame around, there is one very logical place to throw it, and that place is the abuser, NOT the abused.

EDIT: The original commenter has informed us that we are far too sensitive and should get some professional counselling if we cannot deal with "opinions" such as "abused women are dumb". This post is not for that commenter. This post is for those who want to understand.

1 comment:

Sian said...

Jen, I had no idea. I'm so sorry that he put you through all of that, and I'm very proud of you for leaving. You are the opposite of dumb.