Your Problematic Fave: Confronting friends about abuse (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid radical writing by women and gender minorities.

Anne Russell is a public health student with an ongoing interest in the politics of intimate relationships.

A welcome narrative has recently sprung up about how society needs to teach men (and others) not to rape or abuse people, rather than teaching women (and others) to avoid rape and abuse as though it’s an unchangeable fact of life. Many people are aware that this means men have to talk to other men about their abusive/predatory behaviours. However, they often baulk when it comes to actually doing this with their friends and peers, going into denial about their loved one’s behaviour and/or declaring the situation is too awkward or complicated. Dealing with cases of abuse is always a fraught and complicated process for everyone, including for those trying to be a middleman without veering into abuse apologia. The lack of coherent narratives around dealing with queer abuse or women’s abuse of men doesn’t help the overall situation. This is thus a brief, rough attempt at a guideline for how to start trying to hold one’s friends of all genders accountable for their abusive behaviour.

For the most part, abusive behaviour can only be revealed by someone talking about it, creating what many people refer to as a he-said-she-said situation. As such, many people refuse to believe those who talk about being abused, as they believe or want to believe that this information contradicts what they know of the accused person. He’s so kind to his mother, or she’s such a good feminist leader—how could they possibly have been abusive? The denial of this often extends to victim-blaming; surely the abuse must have been provoked by her short skirt or annoying behaviour. People will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid accepting the knowledge that someone they respect, care about or even love dearly has done something terrible, and needs to be told to stop doing it. In a culture that portrays Rapists and Abusers only as people who hide in bushes sporting I Hate Women T-shirts, it is hard to reach the more accurate standpoint of “people we love and admire can do really fucked up things”. Natalie Reed’s analysis of systemic misogyny makes this clearer:

There really isn’t any such thing as “sexists”, “transphobes”, “racists”, etc. There are only actions, statements and beliefs that are sexist, transphobic, racist, etc. And we’re all susceptible to them.

Likewise, sexism is not a social problem that can be located, isolated, quarantined and then eliminated. It is an emergent system of attitudes about sex and gender that derives its power from the bottom up, from all corners of our culture.

Given how common rape and domestic abuse are, the idea that only supervillains commit abuse is simply not true. But while the more accurate narrative of “people we love and admire can do really fucked up things” can be pretty depressing, it can also be a source of hope; intimately abusive people aren’t incurable psychopaths after all! The question does get more complex, though; in each case, you ask yourself, can I continue to love this person while still condemning these parts of their behaviour? What would that love look like? How do I balance it out with caring for the victims of their behaviour, and making sure those people’s needs are met?

Sometimes it’s too unsafe or emotionally hard to work on one’s abusive friends; when an acquaintance who had sexually assaulted my friend showed up at a protest I’d organised, all I could do was cry in a corner and tell a couple of other people about him. However, the Incurable-Psychopath narrative of abusive people would hold that cutting them off completely is the only ethical way to condemn their actions. If and when one is physically and emotionally safe to do so, attempting to hold abusive friends responsible is always, always a good idea. The accountability process will decide whether you want to cut them off anyway—if you want to stay friends with someone who can’t take criticism, who can’t accept responsibility, who lies to you, who promises to change and then doesn’t, and so forth. Some care may need to be taken if the person has been accused of violence or is generally prone to it—confronting them in a public place with support from other people can thus be a good safety measure.

Perhaps at this point it’d be good to list a few initial phrases you might use to confront someone about their abuse, since many people feel awkward or unsure about that step. It is important to note that every friendship is unique, and you may have varying approaches that work for different dynamics.This could include age gaps, power imbalances, cultural differences and closeness of friendships. These prompts are just to start you off, as it’s important to find your own way of communicating about abuse that will be effective within your particular friendships.

  • Hey, can we talk? I’ve been hearing some bad things about your behaviour [towards X] and I’m really not comfortable with it.
  • Hi, your creepy behaviour is making some people feel unsafe, and I think you should leave this event. It’d be good to talk more about this later; maybe we could meet up next week?
  • Hey, I’m pretty uncomfortable about you having a leadership position in this organisation; the way you’ve been treating and talking about women isn’t okay.
  • Mate, it’s really not cool for you to talk about trans women like that, knock it off
  • What is this, I thought I signed up for “lesbian coven”, not “lechbian coven”

At this point the person could apologise and agree to start changing their behaviour. However, they could also go into denial, or become defensive and angry. Either way, it is a very good idea to call in support from one’s friends. Doing this has at least three benefits: it shows a united front against the person’s abusive behaviour, it helps keep everyone’s emotional energy up, and it helps share details and tactics. When a friend of mine told me she hadn’t harassed her ex in a long time, other friends let me know she was lying, which made me better equipped to keep confronting her.

Prioritising the victims’ needs often determines the first step in adjusting to a new sort of relationship with the abusive/predatory person in question. If that person is still a risk to their surrounding population, and/or if their victims still feel unsafe around or triggered by them, keeping them away from group events is very important. It’s a step people are often unfortunately unwilling to take, as at best it’s an awkward process, and will often be met with a lot of resistance from the abusive person and their supporters. However, many people can maintain friendships through individual hangouts like meeting up for coffee or watching films together; if your friendship isn’t intimate enough for something like that, turning that person away from a party should hardly be a major issue. As for their presence in organisations, their value to any group is questionable if, for example, they continually prey on women.

With enough social pressure, an abusive person may feel motivated to apologise and start making amends. As a friend said, a good litmus test of whether a person’s remorse is genuine is whether or not they’ll let their behaviour be named to others; whether they accept that they’ve broken trust and need to repair it. Trust takes time and continuous work to rebuild; trust that the person is truly sorry for their actions, and that they are taking steps to make sure it won’t happen again. Even then, the abused party is under no obligation to forgive them or be around them; recovery also takes time, and victims need to be able to move at their own pace.

Since abuse is a practice, not a personal identity, anyone is capable of doing it. Seeing abuse for the terrifyingly routine event that it is may help demystify the issue, and thus make dealing with it a more routine practice. While doing this is difficult in isolation, it gets easier when there are support networks to maintain it. As a friend said, politics is what we do together; everything else is just survival strategies.

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