What We Write About When We Write About Abuse

Content warning: Talk of various kinds of abuse.

I’ve noticed something in writing about abuse. There’s this terrible reluctance to mention the good parts. See? Even writing that feels foreign. How can there possibly be “good parts” to being abused? Abuse is horrible!

Well yes, abuse is horrible, but here’s the thing: neither abusers nor their victims are so flat-out stupid as to create or uncomplainingly stay in a relationship/circumstance that’s 100% Bad Things literally all the time. Think about  it: abusers want to have and maintain power over their victims, right? And that means they’d do well to have their victims loyalty. And what better way to build loyalty than by getting someone to trust and care for you? As for the victims, who on Earth (except maybe people with EXTREMELY damaged self-image, which is actually only a small portion of abuse victims) could justify, even in their own head, being hurt so constantly, seemingly with no motivation but pure hatred?

As someone who was abused, the portrayal of abuse as Pain and Pain Alone doesn’t just bother me for its inaccuracy– it’s dangerous. This is the kind of idea that leads for people, children especially, to have no idea they’re being abused unless by some miracle they get out. And even then, it takes a lot of horrified looks from friends when you tell a “funny” story about your childhood, a lot of therapists saying things like “you know, it’s okay to be angry, right?” a lot of panic attacks you don’t fully know the cause of until you realize that what was done to you was not okay.

I think that inaccurate/irresponsible portrayals of abuse tend to fall into one of two categories:

Category One: These are people who’ve never been abused themselves, but are extrapolating based on things they’ve read. This is REALLY common when writing about child abuse. Because everyone knows what child abuse is, right? It’s Harry in his cupboard with no meals, it’s Sara Crewe in the attic, it’s trans and gay kids whose parents try to force them into conversion therapy and call them “abominations”. These people I understand and have sympathy for: they’ve heard the very worst examples and are trying to spread the word. The only problem is, abuse victims themselves pick up on the idea that only the very worst cases even count. How could someone be abusing you if they’re also the person who read you bedtime stories and fixed you tea when you had a cold? They were just punishing you because you deserve it. They only called you a freak doomed for loneliness because you are. Because they love you.

But it’s not true. That’s abuse too. That’s WRONG. And while the people who write otherwise are incorrect, they generally are sympathetic and shift gears if gently called out.

But then there’s Category Two.

Category Two tends to show up more in criticism of institutions as abusive, particularly religion and bdsm. These peope love to make broad criticisms of their chosen institutions, saying ALL religion is damaging and hurtful, that EVERY aspect of kink is a form of abuse. And, unlike Category Ones, when someone (anyone!) tells them about a positive experience they had, thy shut them down, tell them they don’t care, whether that person is a survivor, a defender or both (because institutions are BIG– people raised in cults can still go to houses of worship, people abused by a kinky partner can find healthy love with a different one. And looking at it another way, does having been abused by a parent mean you’ll never want a family? Will you become celibate forever after an abusive relationship? Maybe, but maybe not.).

I have no sympathy for these people. They don’t care about helping anyone. You can explain to them that “When you say ‘all religion is always evil’ there are people who will think of their abusive church’s soup kitchen, and conclude that ALL your criticism is invalid. When you say ‘kink is always abuse’ there are people who will remember that trying bondage with a friend made them feel at home in their body for the first time, and conclude that you’re full of shit, and that having a safeword ignored is no big deal so long at it ends quickly. People who are truly on lockdown and fearing for their life almost certainly aren’t reading your blog– but other abuse victims might be. When you paint with such a broad brush, you discredit yourself to those who might really need to hear the warnings you have.” But they usually won’t listen, because they don’t really care about helping people. They just want to scream about something they don’t like, and they’ve found a way to get sj-points doing so. I believe that’s monstrous.

Just because something doesn’t kill you doesn’t mean it makes you stronger. And when you want to warn people or help them, you have to listen first.

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