Healing men

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working with a group to tackle gender-based violence from a different angle: focusing not only on healing womxn but on healing men.

I know that we cannot end sexual assault by teaching womxn how to avoid being assaulted. I know that we cannot end street harassment by teaching womxn how to respond to harassment. We need to continue to give womxn and LGBTQGNC people the space to share their stories and to learn to assertively demand respect, even just to learn that they deserve respect. We are most frequently the targets of violence, and as such, our stories and experiences need to be centered, so we can heal.

But, for me, healing is not something that I can do on my own.

you are stronger than you know

I know that my abuser is suffering, too, in ways that he may not recognize. Our culture of toxic masculinity hurts everyone. And while I’ve repeatedly chosen forgiveness as my path toward healing, I haven’t figured out how to forgive someone who’d hurt me again if given the chance.

I told myself that, through forgiveness, I’d find peace. I sat down with him, with the goal of learning to see him not as a monster but as human again. But I don’t know how to forgive in a way that doesn’t require those who have hurt me to change, or to want to change – to forgive in a way that doesn’t reinforce their power over me.

How can I sit with you knowing the ways that you’ve abused me, ready to forgive and move forward and heal, when you perceive my forgiveness as weakness and use it to hurt me again? How can I help you heal if you maintain that there’s nothing wrong?

And then I have to remember that this work is not about me. I’m working to bring about slow cultural change that may or may not ever reach the specific people who abused me, but will reach someone, someone just like them, who is ready to change.

I always think about the chart I made: a thermometer that gave him points for every day that he was sober. A point and a half if he was able to go out without me, to stay sober without my help. He had to accumulate points to get the things he wanted. I built in room for error, because I knew I couldn’t expect to cure his alcoholism this way.

the will to change.png

I’ve had to learn that I cannot force the will to change on anyone. But I can popularize healthy masculinity. I can work to provide men with the tools and the space to overcome the ways that they’ve been socialized to suppress emotion and enact masculinity through brute force. I can work to undo the associations of emotion with weakness and strength with violence. I can learn how to help men become whole.

And as the mother of a boy, this work is so essential.

silence & healing & mr. roboto

There’s something sort of silencing about being in the limelight. To be in the news every week, to have this incredible platform, to be heard – it makes you cautious about the things you say. Because your words have impact. Speaking out about one injustice might lead to some far worse consequence. Being open about feeling burnt out might bring down the energy that you need to keep up for people who are new to the movement and feel optimistic about change.

I always want to be on point. I always want to bring my best self. I always want to be enthusiastic and positive and chipper.

And I know that’s all impossible, but it feels so essential. We were in Upworthy this week and the Huffington Post last week. I’ll be on the radio this weekend and back on the Kojo Nnamdi Show next Wednesday. It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, and it’s meaningful. I feel free in a way that I couldn’t have been free when I had more traditional jobs. I was doubted so much that it made me doubt myself. I was silenced so often that I stopped speaking up. And now, I am free, and still finding myself sort of silenced in a way that I didn’t expect. Silent because I have to be responsible. And it’s hard, because I’m an open book. I believe so deeply in transparency. It’s a bad sign if organizers & organizations lack transparency, but we can’t pull down the veil on this broken system until we have a back-up plan, because having some support, however faulty, is better than having no support at all for those who are most vulnerable. I just want better for them, because I have been there, and in a way, making these systems right is healing for me.

It’s a challenge, too, to find the balance between being invested and disconnected in a way that maximizes my ability to be effective. I can’t let myself be overrun by emotion. I can’t put myself and my family at risk every time I want to help someone. I’ve been cautioned about it — about the importance of separating myself from the work, about self-care. But in many ways, it’s this level of investment that makes me effective. I am passionate because I know these problems are real because I have experienced many of them – homelessness, sexual assault, domestic violence, police violence, everyday racism, everyday sexism – and I understand how they’re all so very connected, and how the solutions must take all of these problems into account to be effective. And it’s my passion that gets people excited. And it’s my attitude of invincibility that makes people think that anything is possible. My mania is my greatest resource and my greatest weakness.

But I also don’t want to focus too much on my own healing because I know that makes me less available to help others heal in a way. I want to relate and share, but I am afraid to dominate a space where others should feel comfortable sharing, and so I find myself closing off and keeping things to myself. I have so many stories of trauma, but I am afraid to be remembered for my struggles; I want to be perceived as strong and bright and bubbly and fierce. Strong mostly, I think. And while my survivorship makes me strong, I’m also afraid of the ways that it makes me weak. Weak defined as emotional, defined as someone who may love too deeply and behave irrationally because of it, defined as needing love. It’s scary to think of the qualities that I’ve been socialized to associate with “weakness.”

And when it comes to healing myself, I am still stuck on healing others. I don’t know how to forgive in a way that’s not dependent on changing something that I can’t control. I don’t know how to heal in a way that doesn’t change the systems that failed me before they fail someone else. I don’t know how to heal in a way that doesn’t require those who have hurt me to want to change, to want to be better, to apologize and mean it. I have chosen forgiveness a thousand times, and it hasn’t helped because the people I have sought to forgive aren’t seeking forgiveness or change, and that’s still what I want. I don’t want to demonize you, I don’t want to paint you as some monster who abused me; I want healing and harmony and rainbows. Fucking rainbows.

I keep reading about this kind of reconciliation, and I don’t know how to make it real.

I shared this story last week about my abusive relationship. And I shared the details because I thought, there are probably people at different points of their abusive relationships, and they might not know yet that some behavior constitutes abuse or that it might escalate, and so I wanted to share as much as I could in an effort to reach them wherever they were. But I re-read it, and I worry about the way that it paints my abuser. My abuser. Is it fair to call him that, when he was more than that to me? He was someone I lived with, someone I loved. Someone I saw recently in a completely different light. I was saw him, and my mind had already branded him a monster, and I couldn’t see him as human. And I look back, and I want to see him as human and I want to paint him in a more compassionate light. Because I know that hurt people hurt people.

I wanted to reach out and reform him. I wanted my mother to go to therapy, to seek help. I wanted my father to take anger management seriously, to go not just because it was mandated by the court but because he needed to learn how to better process his emotions and communicate with people. I want real change, and I have enough will to change for all of my abusers, and it pains me that that’s not enough to make them change.

I am here, waiting anxiously because I want so badly to forgive.

Healing is complicated. It’s not linear, and sometimes I feel more healed than other times. Sometimes I heal through listening, through helping others who have faced similar or the same challenges; but I am not objective. I advise them as though I am them and they are me. I am so invested that I don’t see us as separate, and it’s a problem because then I worry that maybe I’m not really seeing them, and if I’m not seeing them then I cannot be truly listening and truly helping. Healing them becomes about healing me.

It feels like I should end this post with something really revelational and wise. I’ve come to feel like I’m supposed to be some source of wisdom, and I fall short. I am still this twenty-six year old single mom figuring out my own life every day and mothering a toddler who keeps growing and changing and saying hilarious things and throwing tantrums and giving me eskimo kisses. There’s a lot on my plate, and sometimes I feel invincible but other times I’m so overwhelmed.

So I’ll leave you with this video of me and Max performing Mr. Roboto (feat. Lucy Raven), my poor sweet child and my poor sweet cat, how did they get stuck with me?

things i brushed off

i hate to go on and on about something that happened years ago, but you know, sometimes  it still hurts and i can’t help that.

when i watched beyonce’s visual album, i couldn’t help but be triggered. i couldn’t help but think about my experiences with infidelity, which were part of my experiences with domestic abuse.

and when i think about my experience with abuse, i can’t help but also think about my work, about street harassment and how it’s connected to other forms of gender-based violence, how people tell us to brush it off.

the first time my ex raised his voice to me, i brushed it off. i thought it wasn’t that serious. i thought we all get drunk and mad sometimes, and it wasn’t like he hit me.

my boundary was pushed further.

when he spat on me and told me i was worthless, i brushed it off. i thought it wasn’t that bad, and anyway he was drunk, and it never would have happened if he hadn’t been drunk. at least he didn’t hit me.

my boundary was pushed further.

when he hit me in the face, i brushed it off. i mean, he was really just trying to take my phone away, and his hand accidentally hit my face; it was an accident, and it never would have happened if he hadn’t been drunk. he didn’t hit me on purpose.

my boundary was pushed further.

when he choked me and threw me into a table, i brushed it off. i mean, i never should have laughed that way when i walked in on him masturbating. it wasn’t very nice of me, and so i sort of provoked him, and in a way it was my fault.

my boundary was pushed further.

a few weeks later, i walked away. i had to stop brushing things off. i had to ask myself: how much more can i tolerate before i firmly draw the line? how much further could i let him push me past my boundaries, and why couldn’t i say that even a little bit of aggression that makes me feel unsafe and uncomfortable is enough to make it wrong?

baby, you should love yourself.

Good tip, Beebz, but your song didn’t make it onto my playlist.

Happy Respect Week, friends! This Valentine’s Day, I am going to sleep late and sprawl out on my bed. I am going to turn off my phone and ignore my inbox. I am going to let the world handle its problems for a day without me, with the exception of a certain toddler whose problems are usually as solvable as explaining, “Well, Max, if you want the door open then you really shouldn’t keep closing it.”

I am planning a day of self-love.

Here’s my Valentine’s Day agenda:

  • self care daymake pancakes for breakfast
  • give myself a facial, complete with cucumber slices over my eyes
  • remove cucumbers
  • read a fiction novel
  • nap
  • eat a donut (chocolate, obviously)
  • play sudoku
  • write an i love you card to myself

and this is my self-love playlist:

There have been too many days over the past few weeks that I’ve scheduled meetings on my days off, that I haven’t respected my need for self-care. And ultimately, I think that’s okay sometimes – sometimes you just have to act, and you can’t predict when a men’s rights activist is going to rear his anti-woman, anti-gay head in your city.

JR and LT at SFSS 2

It’s important to prioritize others sometimes, to recognize that their needs may be greater than yours. But it’s just as important to know when to stop, to recognize that caffeine and concealer are not a substitute for sleep, and to remember that caring for yourself is one of the best ways to make you an effective and sustainable caretaker for your community.

f5beb62784b7f5cd3cf1b94200134a5a

 

Stop humanizing abusers; you are not them.

I have many man-identifying friends who see men who perpetrate violence against women, and they want to relate to them. They see men accused of sexual assault, accused of domestic violence, accused of harassment — and they see themselves, potentially misunderstood. You want to understand the men who abuse and assault and harass women. You want to put yourself in their shoes, and you want to make sense of their actions.

But their actions don’t make sense. And you are not them.

This is why we forgive abusers: We want so badly to believe that they are only human, that it was some kind of accident or mistake or miscommunication, that it could’ve been us. We want so badly to believe that they just couldn’t control themselves, that it was some substance or some emotion that made them behave the way that they did.

This is not the case.

Most men do not abuse and assault women. There’s a small percentage of men who do, and they are repeat offenders.

The first time my ex hit me, he said, “You know it was an accident, Jess.” And I wanted so badly to humanize him. I wanted so badly to believe him. I wanted so badly to understand what happened, and so I thought and I repeated, “It was an accident.” I said to the arresting officers, “It was an accident.” I said to my friends, “It was an accident.” Sure, he shouldn’t have been drunk, but he never would have hit me if he weren’t drunk. He wasn’t even trying to hit me, I said; he was just going for the phone, and somehow his hand hit my face. It was an accident.

We want so badly to believe that these are mistakes that can happen to anyone, but they can’t. Abusers know what they’re doing; they know that it’s wrong, and they do it anyway. They know when a woman is incapacitated and unable to consent to sex. They know that when a woman says, “No,” they’re supposed to stop, but they choose to do what they want. To all of you who want to commiserate with men who you fear may be wrongfully accused of abuse or assault, I want to remind you: You are not them. Until you abuse or assault someone, you are not them.

Your feminism must include women & girls who are homeless.

I debated over sharing this story.

It’s a story I don’t share often, a story that I have at some points been ashamed to share, ashamed because it’s taken me years to fully understand and therefore explain the choices I made, afraid because it’s not something that I hear talked about in feminist circles as much as I need it to be and I worry that my experiences aren’t shared among people who are passionate about ending sexual violence. But now, as Interim Executive Director of a small nonprofit that’s working to shift its focus toward the most vulnerable communities, I feel more empowered to start this conversation, and because I don’t think enough people with my shared experiences are in positions where their voices may be heard, I feel like it’s important for me to speak up about sexual violence against people who are homeless. So here I go, baring my soul to you.

I was homeless for about two years – from the time I was 15 until I was 17. I didn’t sleep on the street or on public transit every night; sometimes a friend could take me in – for a night, for a weekend, for a week, for a month. When I did sleep on a park bench or on a subway train, or when I sought refuge from the rain or snow in a Chinese food restaurant that was open late, sometimes someone would approach me with the offer of a warm place to sleep. And sometimes I would accept.

On the nights that I was approached, I had a choice to make: Do I want to be cold and at risk of sexual assault, or do I want to be warm and at risk of sexual assault? I had to ask myself: Do I want to trust that this person wants to help me, or do I want to trust that there’s no one out here who wants to harm me? I had to assess the risks: If he wants to help me, and he takes me home with him right now, I’ll be safe, warm, possibly even fed. If he wants to harm me, and he takes me home with him right now, he will be in complete control of what happens next. If he assaults me, I have options: I can leave and sleep out in the cold where I am still at risk of physical and sexual violence, where I’m likely to be robbed of the little I have; or I can sleep next to my attacker and I can stay quiet when he says he’s sorry if that wasn’t what I wanted, and I can just say thank you when he gives me some money in the morning to buy food.

In my experience, if you are homeless and you are sexually assaulted, your attacker knows that there will be no consequences. You won’t report it, and if you did, no one will listen and no one will care; you have already been discarded. If you speak up, you may be accused of doing it for the money; you know this because it’s happened to you before. You will not be protected. You will know the risk going into the situation, and you may take it anyway because you know for certain that you’re not safe in public spaces and so you can afford to gamble with the chance of being safer, or less safe, in the home of a stranger. This is your thought process.

I didn’t turn to service providers for counseling to deal with the trauma of sexual assault; I didn’t even think of it. I didn’t see rape as the problem; I saw lack of housing as the problem, and rape was packaged with the solution. I wasn’t sure if I should feel grateful or violated. And now that I’m an adult and an advocate against sexual violence, I struggle to reconcile these identities as someone who works to end rape culture and someone who may have died on the street without it.

When you don’t have housing, you don’t have time to cope with the emotional trauma of sexual assault. When you don’t have housing, coping with emotional trauma seems like a privilege. When you don’t have housing, you need to focus on getting your basic needs met so that you can prevent yourself from being re-victimized, again and again and again. When you don’t have housing, you’re constantly exposed to physical and sexual violence – so much so that it becomes a fact of your life. When you don’t have housing or you’re on the verge of homelessness, sometimes sexual violence is packaged with the solution – whether it’s a place to stay for a night or long overdue repairs to your public housing unit.

Here are some numbers to think about:

Your feminism must include these women. Your feminism must work to create safe public spaces for them. Your feminism must work to make them safe from sexual violence. Your feminism cannot claim to be intersectional and inclusive if your feminism does not include all women – young and old, cis and trans, black and brown, housed and unhoused.

vigil for people who died while homeless in dc