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.
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.