on victim blaming

The victim blaming that a sixteen-year-old and her mother are experiencing in the backlash since last week’s speakout against street harassment has been hitting me hard.

I spent two years in a domestic violence situation and three years afterward with the words of my abuser repeating in my head: “If people knew what you were really like then they’d understand.” I’ve held onto this fear for years that people would find out something about me that would make them believe that I deserved to be spat on, told that I was worthless, hit, choked, and told to get on my knees and beg for forgiveness. This fear has paralyzed me. When my abuser walked up to me in a DC bar as recently as last April, he asked me: “Can we talk alone?” And I went with him, because I was so afraid that he would say something in front of my friends that would let them know what I am really like, that I am someone who deserves to be abused.

So here’s what I’m really like:

I have a history of sleeping around.
I have been in a mental institution.
I have exchanged my body for housing, food, and money.
I have attempted suicide.
I have hit people in situations when physical violence wasn’t necessary.
I have been unfaithful to partners.
I used to hide my abuser’s ID to keep him out of bars.
I once poured a beer over my abuser’s head while he was napping, and I yelled, “So you want to drink, huh? Have a drink then.”
I engaged in abusive behaviors while I was in my abusive relationship.
I’d been in abusive situations before; I saw myself as the only common denominator.

This fear kept me from leaving. This fear kept me from speaking up. This fear made me reassure my friends that everything was fine and that things were getting better when they were actually getting worse. And now I know that I am not a perfect victim, and neither is anyone else. I am someone who has been hurt and has hurt people. At the same time as we cannot perpetuate victim blaming, we cannot be afraid of allowing victims and survivors to take responsibility for the harm we have caused. We cannot create this false dichotomy that there is only abuser and victim, and the victim can do no wrong. It’s this dichotomy that makes it difficult for us to see abusers as humans, as real people we know who live in our communities, people who cause harm and experience harm. It’s what makes it hard for us to believe that it could ever happen to us and to hold people in our lives accountable for abusive behaviors. I caused harm while I was experiencing abuse – and it’s OK, necessary even, to take responsibility for that without minimizing the abuse.

I am a loving mom and a violence survivor and a slut and an activist and a person who has caused harm, and I am all of these things all at once. It doesn’t change the fact that I deserve to feel safe. There is nothing that I have done in my life, or could do, that would make me deserve violence. If anything, it is these factors — and the fact that my history made me less likely to be believed — that make me more likely to be targeted.

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It is especially difficult for us to acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm and violence we’ve caused because the only response we know is the criminal legal system — arrests, punishments, more violence except from the state. We have to be honest about the realities of the problem we’re trying to solve, and we need to find another way to heal, seek justice, and build safety.

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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.

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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?

recognizing the abuser

abusive partners won’t beat you up on the first date;
they’ll wait until you trust them,
wait until you think you know them,
so that when it happens, it’s hard to leave,
because you think it’s out of character.
you think it must be an isolated incident
because you know this person.
you’ve known this person to do so many wonderful things,
to support you, to love you, to be there for you,
to sometimes slip and say something mean,
but then to double down on the kindness that you know,
so it’s easy to let it go because the good times way outnumber the slip ups,
and the more slip ups you accept, the more severe it gets,
until slipping up is the norm and you’re grasping at straws to find the person you knew,
you’re in love with the memory of who they were when they listened to you,
when they listened and learned all of your doubts and fears;
they couldn’t possibly be the same person now using all of those doubts and fears against you.
you separate them in your head – dr. jekyll and mr. hyde;
you’re in love with one, but you’ve come to accept the other as well;
that’s what love is, isn’t it?
you don’t just walk away because someone has flaws,
you have flaws, too, and they’re accepting you;
your flaws seem like they must be hard to bear.
you’re making your partner so angry all the time,
and you know this person, you wonder what you must’ve done to them
to make them turn from the kind, loving, supportive person you once knew
into this monster.
it must be your fault, because you knew what they were like before,
before you came along.
still, despite the way you’ve ruined them, they accept you, they forgive you,
so you have to accept them, too, right?
and you don’t want to tell anyone what’s happening because,
well, it’s embarrassing – you should be embarrassed for the way you’ve behaved,
for the things that you’ve done that have made them so angry,
even though sometimes it seems like they started the fight,
or they did something to really hurt you that made you upset,
well, maybe you’re just remembering it wrong,
because that version doesn’t make sense,
it doesn’t make sense with what you know about them,
about how wonderful they are,
and it’s more likely that what they’re telling you is true:
that you started the fight, you were provoking them again,
why do you always do that? and they always forgive you.

one of the reasons it’s so hard to walk away from abusive relationships is because sometimes your abuser is so good at convincing you that you’re the abuser and that you’re the one that’s being forgiven every time, so it makes you think that leaving won’t make a difference since you’re the one starting the fights, and if only you could stop starting the fights then the abuse will stop, and everything will be fine, but you’re the one who has to stop it because you can’t escape yourself.

what saved me was his admission that it had happened with his previous girlfriends. then suddenly it wasn’t my fault anymore, and i could leave.

I think it’s when I start to feel vulnerable, when I start to feel something for someone, that my head goes to these dark places about how terrible a relationship can be. I have experienced the worst kind of relationship, and when I was hopeful after Max was born, I almost ended up in another abusive relationship, and now it’s so hard to see myself in a relationship that can make me happy.

in the jail cell next to you

I told a man the story about the night we got arrested. It helps to talk about it. I never get to talk about it. I didn’t get to talk about it then; you told me I should be embarrassed. I was.

I heard that you were arrested again, this time in Vegas. I heard you got off with a fine and community service. I heard you had to go to impulse control counseling that won’t make you better at controlling your impulses; it will only make you better at knowing what others expect from you, so you can push the boundaries of those expectations and manipulate others into believing that you’re doing your best.

I still keep tabs on you; I can’t help it, the way I know that you can’t help it, the way I know that you’re reading this now.

We don’t love each other, but we’re curious. Curious because it’s the only time our tricks didn’t work. Curious because we never loved each other; we only ever fought for control.

There were times that we even stopped and asked ourselves, Why are we together? We had nothing in common except the fact that we had both always relied so heavily on the love of others to survive.

Every now and then, I choose a single moment from that relationship to focus on. To over-analyze. To try to understand. The only things I’ve come to understand are patriarchy and racism, power and control.

I should have never been arrested for trying to scare you off. I was trying to protect myself. You were not afraid of me. You grabbed the knife out of my hand, cutting your palm, and you ran outside to tell the police that I cut you. I didn’t even know you had cut yourself; you didn’t react. I wonder if you felt it at all, or if you were too angry to feel a thing. You seemed so strong, so powerful.

And when you blamed me, I felt so responsible. And when I heard you snoring from the jail cell next to mine, I was so upset. And when you asked me if I was okay in the van that transferred us from one jail to another, I was so confused. I said yes. I had made a friend by then; she was in for drunk driving. She thought you were cute, and I said, “He’s all yours.”

It took years before I shared that story publicly. It took until last night for me to share it with someone I’m dating. There’s still this part of me that wonders, what will he think of me?

He listened. He didn’t make me feel strange for going on about this thing that happened four years ago that still traumatizes me. He didn’t make me feel like a burden. It felt good to get it off my chest, and then he said, “I have so much respect for you.” It was the last thing I expected him to say. I expected him to question me. I expected him to blame me. There’s still a part of me that blames myself, and maybe I need to talk about it with people who will support me, because maybe I need those reminders that it wasn’t me. I need those reminders regularly, because sometimes when I make a mistake like I did with Griffin, I think back to that night and to other nights, and I think maybe it was me. Maybe I’m the abusive one. What if I was the abusive one all along?

I still have those fears. That’s why I wanted to apologize, because I thought, I’m so manipulative, why am I so awful? And I wanted to apologize for everything I’d ever done that may have been manipulative, because I so desperately did not want to be the person that I sometimes fear I am.

Anyway, I know that I should forget, but I can’t.

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.