Your Friend Has Been Abused: What Do You Do?
When a friend discloses their experience of abuse, it is often extremely difficult to know what to do. Our society does not teach us how to usefully deal with interpersonal harm — in fact, it often does the opposite. It teaches us that we are all on our own, that we must somehow deserve the abuse we experience, and that all the help we need is best provided by people in positions of authority in our society, be they social services or the criminal justice system.
As a result, when we are approached by someone who has experienced abuse, we often respond in ways that are harmful to a survivor. Attempts to rationalize abuse can result in victim-blaming (i.e., “if you had not worn that outfit, you would not have been assaulted” or “maybe you shouldn’t drink with colleagues if you want to keep the relationship professional” or “ you shouldn’t have lent someone money if you weren’t in a position to make do without that money”).
Suggestions to fix the situation through police involvement ignore that there are a number of legitimate reasons that transgender persons, people of color, undocumented immigrants, etc., may not wish to interact with law enforcement. Even for individuals who do not otherwise have concerns about going to the police, reporting abuse can be humiliating, dehumanizing, and traumatizing. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with a large category of interpersonal harms. Even harms such as sexual assault that are part of the criminal code have woefully low rates of successful prosecution. A 2003 Ms. Foundation report concluded that mainstream interventions for domestic violence and child abuse — both criminal offenses — offer inaccessible, disempowering, and even harmful solutions to women and children seeking safety.
In addition, because the only model we are familiar with is a punitive one that results in the impediment or absolute denial of liberty to someone who harmed (through incarceration or house arrest), many people who hear about abuse adopt a similar position — that any accusation made is so serious for the accused that anyone willing to intervene must be convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that violence occurred and that this violence is sufficiently severe to merit intervention. This leaves a survivor of violence in the unenviable position of having to prove to everyone’s satisfaction that something happened before anyone is willing to even offer them support.
This is fundamentally broken. But this is not the only model. Creative Interventions, founded by the domestic violence victims advocate Mimi Kim, offers a framework for community violence intervention that has proved effective in many cases without involving mechanisms like the criminal justice system. Survivors are most likely to turn first to family and friends than they are to authority figures, so community interventions seek to empower these individuals rather than deemphasize their role in favor of social services and the criminal justice system.
Community interventions have three core areas:
- supporting the survivor (emotionally, physically, financially, etc.) and their dependents, partners, family, friends, etc.;
- naming the harm and making others aware of it in the hope that the person who harmed (and the community members who enabled the harm) will recognize the harm and take responsibility for their actions, whether or not the harms were intended; and
- working with the community as a whole to recognize and take responsibility for harmful attitudes and actions to decrease the likelihood that these harms will occur again.
To be clear, this model is not mediation. Mediation is a process by which two or more people or their representatives meet together with a mediator to resolve a conflict. For mediation to work, the parties must come to the table with equal power. As a general rule, mediation between a survivor and a person doing harm is not recommended, because abuse tends to occur between individuals with unequal power, and because abuse actively disempowers survivors.
Likewise, this model of community intervention does not necessarily require engagement with the person doing harm. In the ideal scenario, someone who harms can be led to participate in an open accountability process with the community to begin rehabilitation, and thus remain a part of the community. Because this model is transformative rather than punitive, it seeks not to ostracize or punish a person who has harmed, but to enable them to recognize their harmful behavior and work toward change that prevents violence from occurring again. However, there are a number of reasons that engagement with the person who has harmed may not be an option; engagement might be too risky for survivors or the community at large, or the person who harmed may be unwilling to acknowledge any wrongdoing. As a result of this, the Creative Interventions framework does not require engagement with the person who harmed to be successful or render value to the community.
Lastly, accountability does not require forgiveness. Forgiveness is personal. It is possible to address harm in a community and initiate the rehabilitation of someone who harmed without a survivor having to forgive that person. We must be mindful that the pressure to forgive and “get over it” can become another avenue of control and coercion. Forgiveness should not be a goal of community intervention.
Having outlined what an intervention is not, let’s circle back to what it is: a process that focuses on ensuring that a survivor is safe and on reducing the potential for further harm in the community. Though interventions are focused on harm-reduction, some may find it necessary to use a level or pressure or negative consequences initially in order to stop an individual from continuing to harm (for example, by making it known to the community that someone is a bad actor, as the survivors of Scott Lewis did when they published a post about his abuse. The usefulness of this action cannot be emphasized enough, as at least one other person was at the time of its posting considering lending him funds despite her own hardships).
Many of us are taught that interpersonal violence is a private matter, and that to discuss it is to engage in gossip. This mindset enables violence to go unchecked, further isolating survivors and denying the closeness and support they need to thrive and heal.
Interpersonal violence isn’t just a problem between or among individuals; it is a community problem. We usually think of the person doing harm as the one who needs to be held accountable for violence, but this is incomplete: sustained violence often means that the community has at times ignored, minimized, or enabled it, and communities must also work to become accountable for that and prevent recurrence.. It is on all of us to become more knowledgeable in recognizing the forms that interpersonal violence takes, and be more willing to both take action to intervene and to support social norms that prevent interpersonal violence from continuing to occur.
What does interpersonal violence look like?
Before discussing how to respond to a disclosure of interpersonal violence, we must familiarize ourselves with what this looks like. The term “interpersonal violence” is used here as an umbrella term to describe various forms of abuse. It is used instead of “abuse” to highlight that not all violence is physical, that it doesn’t only occur in romantic relationships or domestic situations, and to avoid gendered connotations. Put very simply, interpersonal violence is behavior that results in someone having power and control over another person.
Interpersonal violence often takes advantage of existing power imbalances, especially ones tacitly supported by the broader community. In sexual and domestic violence, for example, we commonly encounter men harming women and girls, adults harming youth and children, abled-bodied folks harming the disabled and the elderly, citizens harming immigrants, the wealthy harming the poor or those who depend on them for income, and so on. However, it is important to note that interpersonal violence can also occur among people who share similar power, as well as be perpetrated by people who are in a less powerful social position, and who use their feelings of powerlessness to justify the use of violence in their interpersonal relationships.
Interpersonal violence takes many forms. What they all have common is that the end goal is to keep someone else under one’s control.
Physical violence includes physical acts such as pushing, hitting, or strangling, as well as driving recklessly and sleep deprivation (for example, keeping someone up all night, especially when their commitments make it difficult or impossible for them to make up the resulting sleep deficit). It can also involve restraint, such as holding someone down, locking someone in a room, or leaving them somewhere with no means of getting home. It can also involve the threat of harm, from intimidating body language to brandishing a weapon.
Verbal and emotional violence includes yelling, putting someone down, calling them names, humiliating them privately and/or in front of others, speaking ill of them to others, giving someone the silent treatment, and constantly questioning their experience and perception to make them doubt their sanity (gaslighting). It can also involve emotional isolation, such as making someone doubt that their friends care about them; making it difficult for someone to make friends or continue friendships and controlling their access to them; making it difficult for someone to remain connected with their community and/or family and controlling their access to them; making it difficult to make phone calls, chat, text, or use social media; or making it difficult to go to work, to school or leave the house.
Sexual violence involves forcing someone to participate in sexual activities of any sort against their will, making someone view explicit content without their consent, making sexual remarks or gestures or otherwise communicating in a sexual manner in person or over media with someone who has given no indication of interest in doing so.
Economic abuse includes borrowing money with no intention of returning it, withholding financial information from an intimate partner, controlling access to finances, and giving a dependent too little money for survival. It can also include gambling and reckless use of credit cards or spending, as well as coming around to someone’s work on payday to collect that person’s money, or otherwise taking control of their money.
Abuse through personal property includes the destruction of someone else’s property, especially things that have emotional or some other value (such as a school paper or a work laptop). It can also involve taking control of someone’s documents and papers, such as passports or immigration documents, as well as keys to their car. In some cases, it may extend to threats to pets or actual harm to pets.
Stalking and surveillance includes showing up at someone’s home or workplace or other places where they may be without invitation. It also involves following them on social media, favoriting or liking posts, or otherwise letting someone know that they are being watched online. It can also include sending text messages, emails or calling a person repeatedly, demanding interaction. In extreme cases, it can involve hacking or social engineering to gain access to a person’s home, bank accounts, as well texts conversations, emails, and private messages on social media.
Weaponizing someone’s vulnerability against them includes threatening to out someone to their family, friends, or employer for something which they need to keep private, such as their sexual orientation, mental health status, immigration status, or previous employment (especially if it was in an “informal economy” such as sex work). The threat to publicize nude images of a person, or to do something which would cause their children to be taken away, falls into a similar category. (Please note that mental illness can also be linked to vulnerability. It is very common to malign people who harm as being mentally ill — this is ableist and harmful, as people with mental illness have a higher risk of victimization in our society, and as a consequence of stigma and the inconsistency caused by mental illness, have a much more difficult time seeking, accessing and finding support.)
People can also use their own vulnerability to manipulate or control others, or to “justify” their use of violence. By leveraging excuses like “I’m more oppressed than you,” or using their own experiences of childhood abuse, mental health issues, substance abuse, or similar situations, abusers can make their victims feel responsible for the abuser’s actions, or that they would be unjustly harming their abuser by attempting to stop them. It is important to note that experience of abuse can affect people, and while they are not excuses, such things are a good starting point for addressing harmful patterns. Likewise, mental health issues and substance abuse may exacerbate abuse, but they do not cause abuse and should not be accepted as justifications for it.
Threats of self-harm and self-harm itself (such as cutting or other kinds of self-injury, use or overdose on drugs, reckless driving, or any other dangerous action) can also be used as a form of coercion . Aggressive self-harm means doing, or threatening to do, one of these things as a way to manipulate or control others, such as to coerce someone to return to a relationship, maintain contact, or otherwise take actions that they would otherwise not want to take and that may hurt them. It may also be used to distract people from recognizing or acting to stop the abuse. (Please note that just because the primary motivation of self-harm may be coercive, this does not mean that it should not be taken seriously. Likewise, survivors can also feel a desire to harm themselves as a defensive measure or as a sign of hopelessness and despair. Please be very cautious when evaluating self-harm.)
Many believe that violence is about anger, passion, and loss of control, but this is misguided. Violence is primarily a way for one person to have power and control over another person. Interpersonal violence has an identifiable pattern: it tends to be one-sided, with one person being more afraid of the other, even if harm is committed on both sides; it is about one person getting their way and exerting control, even when violence fails to render these results; it takes advantage of structural inequality and even seeks out vulnerable populations because people in such groups do not have as much power or protection; it is never about a single incident, but a constellation of often subtle acts, which may have spaces of relative calm between them; it has a rhyme and reason, even when it looks out of control it seeks avenues of coercion that are not seen or difficult to see for others; it tends to escalate over time.
It’s not uncommon to encounter situations in which it feels difficult to tell who is committing the violence and who is a survivor. In long-term abusive situations, it’s very common to find victims who have adapted with defensive violence of their own, and this is not an indication that abuse is absent or that it’s a symmetrical problem.
Determining where violence originates is difficult, as it requires us to jump in much deeper than we’re used to into things we have been raised to consider to be private affairs. But we have to do it. Dismissing harm by saying that abuse is a “dynamic” is not useful, as it enables violence — both aggressive and defensive — to continue in a community.
With interpersonal violence, this deeper dive usually reveals that one person is systematically holding power and control over another. While no one outside a relationship (whether it’s a friendship, a work relationship, a romantic relationship, or something else) can know exactly what is going on inside the relationship, there are observations that friends, family, and community members can draw on to assess a situation. We’ll get to some useful questions to ask ourselves to begin unpacking what is going on in a situation of interpersonal violence. But first, you need to know how to respond when someone comes to you with a disclosure of abuse.
How do you respond to a disclosure of abuse?
When a survivor of interpersonal violence comes to you to share their experience of abuse, it is normal to feel nervous or even scared. Remember that disclosure is a great act of trust, and try to honor a survivor’s trust by being present. If you feel that your own feelings are making it difficult for you to do this, be honest about how hard it is for you to hear that they lived through this experience, but center and validate their feelings, rather than make the conversation about you and your feelings.
Listen to the survivor. Be mindful that asking too many questions can cause a survivor to retreat, especially questions that make it seem like you’re looking to rationalize the violence that happened to them, such as, “were you drinking together?” and “what were you wearing?” More useful questions are, “do you feel safe right now?” and “how might we ensure you not only are safe, but also feel safer?”
As you listen to a survivor, be mindful of the following reactions:
- Rationalizing harm by looking for how the survivor behaved (and therefore caused it)
- Denying that any harm has occurred or framing it as a misunderstanding
- Minimizing it by saying it isn’t serious or comparing it to something more serious
- Acting like or thinking that violence will just stop happening if left alone
Because gaslighting (making someone question their own judgment and experience of reality) is often such a big part of interpersonal violence, it is crucial to affirm a survivor above all else and work hard to avoid telling them that they may be imagining things, that the violence isn’t really happening, that it must be a misunderstanding, that the person harming them is a pillar of the community, etc. It is not only possible for a pillar of the community to cause harm — it is common. We are all capable of harm. All of us.
Validate their feelings by expressing dismay, such as “wow, that is not okay” and “I am sorry this happened,” but do not assume that they want you to be angry on their behalf. Some survivors of interpersonal violence have complex relationships with the people who harm them, such as parents and lovers, and may not be ready to simply cut these people off right away. Additionally, hearing expressions of anger and comments about taking retaliatory action from you may cause a survivor to pull away or regret coming to you. It is important to be mindful of this, as well as the fact that the complexity of the relationship in which interpersonal violence occurs may cause survivors to go back and forth on a plan of action. According to Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a woman will leave an abusive partner seven times before she leaves him for good. Be patient.
Do not impose your ideas of what’s right on a survivor, and do not threaten to throw on a cape and take a baseball bat to show the person who harmed what’s what so that a survivor ends up having to de-escalate a potential conflict. This can be triggering for someone who has been in a situation where they constantly had to intuit and manage an abuser’s moods to ensure their well-being. You’re not there to be a hero — you’re there to be supporter, so affirm that what the survivor has told you is not acceptable behavior, and give them room to be an agent in determining the direction of subsequent action.
Do not try to force a survivor to make a report to law enforcement, or engage with human resources (HR) department or a social service. You can offer to help them with this course of action if that is what they want, but be aware that all of these avenues can be traumatizing for a survivor and not necessarily helpful. (Survivors should note, however, that there are instances where people are legally obligated to inform HR, especially if the person a survivor discloses to has managerial or supervisory authority at the same company as the abuser.)
If a survivor starts to minimize what has happened to them, let them know that you believe them and that there is no need to minimize what happened to them. They may bring up the many ways they are privileged to dismiss their experience of abuse. Remind them that interpersonal abuse isn’t a way to balance out the other good things they have in life and that everyone has a right to healthy relationships.
If a survivor tries to minimize what happened by talking about how much good the person who harmed them has done for them, the industry, or the community, remind them that interpersonal violence doesn’t make someone a monster, that it is okay to care about a person who has harmed, and that there are ways to work together to try to rehabilitate someone with abusive behaviors so that they can have thriving relationships.
A survivor may feel guilty about the abuse they have experienced. They may feel that they did something to cause the abuse or that they may have avoided the abuse by behaving in a different way. This feels illogical, but very often, survivors of interpersonal violence are isolated from others or caused to doubt their relationships with others so that the only opinions they hear are those of the person abusing them, meaning that they may be coming out of a situation in which the only thing they heard was that the abuse they experienced was their fault. Be gentle but firm in telling them that nothing makes controlling behavior and other forms of abuse okay.
If the survivor is ready to cut off a person who has abused them, ask them if they have already done this. If they have not, think about how to ensure the survivor’s safety as they begin to make plans to do this. People who engage in interpersonal violence want control, and leaving them or cutting off contact can heighten danger for a survivor. It is very important to explore any possible threat model the survivor may face when they decide to cut off someone harming them, and to take as many measures as possible to prevent harm to them, their dependents, their pets, their livelihood, and their property.
The single most important thing you can do for a survivor who has come to you is ensure that they are safe. If the survivor is not ready to cut off the person who harmed them, this may mean creating a plan for them to do so when the time comes. You may also wish to document what the survivor has told you for use later, should they decide to access the criminal justice system.
Make sure you follow through on any promises you make a survivor — about checking in, about getting something for them, about anything, no matter how minor. Do not promise to be available if you are not sure that you can be. It is better to be up-front about spotty availability than to inadvertently reinforce the feeling of a survivor that they are alone and no one cares. Remember that survivors may be coming out of a dynamic in which they were repeatedly told by the person harming them that they are the only person who cares about the survivor. Following through on what you promise undermines that, and is extremely powerful.
A disclosure of interpersonal violence will put you in a difficult position if the person who harmed is someone you know. You will have to do some internal work on how you intend to engage with the person who harmed in a way that respects the desires of the survivor, keeps the survivor safe, and doesn’t enable the further abuse of the survivor or of others, until a community intervention occurs and more concrete roles and actions are developed.
It is possible to both support a person who has harmed and believe a survivor. Community intervention is not a sport where two teams need to form and then fight it out until someone gets expelled from the island. Expulsion from the community should be seen as an absolute last resort in the event that a person refuses to accept responsibility, but it should be understood that doing this frees an individual with a known pattern of harm to go off and continue harming somewhere else. Wherever possible, an attempt should be made to get that person to recognize harm and work to change their behavior.
In order to facilitate this, it is preferable that a person who harms have friends who are willing and able to help them with accountability, and with whom supporters of the survivor can touch base throughout the process. To this end, it is useful to create multiple “pods”: a group of people that is actively supporting and advocating for a survivor; a group of people that is supporting someone who harmed in recognizing their abuse and changing their behavior; and even a group of people that is willing to do emotional labor for those doing support for both parties.
A survivor’s pod provides immediate help to ensure a survivor’s safety and helps them meet immediate needs. It helps a survivor articulate their experience of abuse and outline the steps needed to begin healing (and even repair, should they wish to outline these for a person who harmed them). They also provide emotional labor such as affirmation and compassion, and are the ones who check in with the pod of the person who harmed to see the progress being made.
Please note that supporting someone who abused does not mean enabling harm — the pod for a person who harmed is responsible for being willing to call that person in when they attempt to control the narrative, blame a survivor, delay or control an accountability process, violate a survivor’s boundaries, or engage in other coercive behaviors.
For more information about running a community intervention and helping someone who harmed do accountability, please refer to Creative Intervention’s toolkit, A Practical Guide to Stop Interpersonal Violence. You may also consider reaching out to a transformative justice collective in your area, such as the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, or someone who specializes in accountability, such as Michon Neal.
What if you can’t tell who is the survivor?
Sometimes it’s not clear who the survivor is. Someone may be lying; the survivor may respond to violence with violence; and, in some cases, the harm may appear relatively equal on both sides. Because interpersonal harm often takes place behind closed doors, outsiders may not see what happens, and may feel like it’s one person’s word against another’s, which can be paralyzing.
The key is not to approach these situations like a prosecutor, looking for a “perfect” victim and a “perfect” villain, but to acknowledge that people are complicated and, in general, capable of everything between great good and gross harm. If people who harm actually were monsters, we would know them on sight, and they would not continue to move within our communities. But very few people are completely monstrous, so we must not rely on finding an obviousness that does not exist.
As mentioned previously, it can be helpful to examine the power that people involved in interpersonal violence have. However, privilege is not always an indicator of abuse, so we should exercise care not to consider this fact alone. Abuse tends to follow structural patterns of oppression, but not always, and privilege is an intersection of things, not any one single thing.
Similarly, examining any single incident and badgering a survivor for all the facts and proof is not going to be enough. What we are looking for when assessing abuse is a pattern of power and control.
Occasionally, simply talking with someone who harms will raise clear red flags, even if the person does not explicitly acknowledge that they have engaged in abuse. For example, a person may disclose engaging in or planning extreme retaliatory behavior against another person for a minor infraction, such as not doing what they wanted or not doing it quickly enough, or causing them to feel a certain way. (In the case of Scott Lewis, for example, he disclosed to several persons that he was planning to destroy the career of a woman for her failure to promptly write copy that he deemed acceptable for a project on which they were collaborating.)
A person who harms may also convey entitlement to a person, their time, their body, or something else. For more on understanding the mentality of abuse, see Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? (Though the book assumes that men are overwhelmingly responsible for abuse and focuses almost exclusively on heterosexual partnerships, it is nevertheless helpful in understanding the thinking that leads to abusive behavior).
To begin exploring who is primarily engaging in harm, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
- Who is more afraid?
- Who starts the violence?
- Who ends up getting harmed?
- Who is changing and adapting to meet another’s needs or moods?
- Who is more vulnerable?
- Who is using violence for power and control (abusive violence)?
- Who is using violence to try to maintain safety or integrity in an already violent situation (self-defense)?
- Who always has to win?
For survivors, violence can cause:
- Physical injury, including death
- Disease, unwanted pregnancy, chronic conditions due to prolonged injury, emotional stress
- Emotional damage, fear, self-doubt, distrust, PTSD
- Loss of self-respect, self-esteem, belief in oneself, sense of identity and meaning
- Feelings of shame and guilt, hopelessness and despair
- Inability to trust
- Guilty feelings that they are disappointing family, friends, community and others
- Fear that they may bring danger to others (children, other family members, coworkers, etc.)
- Loss of professional opportunity, income, home, and financial security
- Loss of one’s ability and energy to determine one’s own life; take care of others; do effective work, etc.
- Inability to think clearly, plan for the future, protect the safety of oneself, one’s children and/or other loved ones
- Loss of love or good feelings for the person who is harming them
What if you don’t like the survivor?
There may be situations in which we do not personally like the survivor of violence and feel more sympathy towards the person doing harm. This is actually common. For one thing, it is easier for those in power or who provide important benefits to their community to escape accountability and be able to continue abuse; people don’t give worthless jerks second (and third, and fourth) chances.
Sometimes we are more sympathetic toward someone who harms because they’re better friends or because they’re family members. Sometimes they provide us access to community resources and opportunities that we value and don’t want to lose. Other times, the violence experienced by a survivor has so isolated them, or caused them to be so negatively viewed by the community, that it’s impossible for them to appear sympathetic no matter what they do.
Survivors are not perfect people. Like us, they are imperfect. It is unreasonable to expect them to be the “perfect” victim — beyond guilt, always following through with what they say they’re going to do, always being very grateful to anyone who helps or wishes to help. We may get angry because they have mixed feelings for the person doing harm and may seem to go back and forth between fearing them and defending them, making it difficult for supporters to know what to do. We must be patient and strive to support survivors where they’re at.
Survivors often feel doubt about decisions to leave someone who is harming them or to otherwise change their situation. Fear, guilt, self-doubt, love, and pressures from other people can easily cause survivors to change their minds about how they feel about the abuse they have experienced, how they view the person doing harm, or what they want to do about it — sometimes frequently. While this inconsistency is a completely normal response to violence and to a fear of change, it tends to make people doubt survivors. It is important to remember that this kind of oscillation is an expected part of the process and does not indicate falsehood.
Additionally, survivors may behave in ways that appear negative or unpleasant to others as a direct result of being worn down by the pattern of abuse. They may appear exhausted to the point of not functioning, depressed, hopeless, nervous, anxious, jumpy, resentful, short-tempered, or vindictive. These characteristics are often viewed negatively by society, and may lead us to blame survivors for the violence they experience. We must make room for feelings and dispositions that feel negative, and affirm survivors that this is normal.
We may also feel uncomfortable about confrontation and conflict, and find a survivor unsympathetic because they represent the possibility of real community conflict. Our discomfort with conflict can make us feel more empathy for the person doing harm than the survivor of the harm, because we want the situation to go away. We may even begin to feel bad for the person doing harm as they are being called out for their violence, rather than feeling this way about the survivor’s experience of abuse. We must be vigilant about our feelings, and self-examine throughout the process.
It is crucial for all of us to engage in self-reflection to understand why we may see a survivor as unsympathetic so that we can ensure our communities do not enable violence. Some useful questions to consider while doing this are:
- Do I find one individual more appealing as a person?
- Is one person a member of my group of friends, family, neighborhood, group, organization, industry, or community, while another person is not?
- Do I relate to one person because of our similarities or something that I admire about them?
- Do I find that one person has certain qualities that make them more or less sympathetic than the other?
- Do I depend on, or get benefits from, one person more than the other? Does that make me fear that taking action will work against me? Do I fear that I have something to lose?
- Do I have biases, big or small, obvious or subtle, against or for anyone because of gender identity or presentation, sexuality, race, class or income level, level of education, immigration status, age, physical or mental ability, physical appearance or attractiveness, place of origin, religion, political affiliation, dependence on others for survival, etc.?
- Is the survivor acting with anger, meekness, manipulation or some other behavior because of repeated exposure to violence in a way that I don’t like?
- Have I been hearing biased stories about the survivor? (Be aware that this can be part of the pattern of violence)
- Do I think that the survivor is so unappealing that I would also want to be violent toward them or understand why someone else would?
- Does the survivor remind me of someone in my past, so that I feel that they deserve some sort of violence?
- Does the person doing harm remind me of someone I like, so that I want to believe that they must not have committed the violence or that they had a good reason?
- Has the person doing harm been able to use some abilities to charm and influence people to excuse or cover up their violence?
- Does the person doing harm have a story of their own victimization that makes them sympathetic?
- Have I been hearing more, or biased, stories about the person doing harm such that I feel closer or more sympathetic to them?
- Does the person doing harm appear in public more positively, or completely differently, than the way they are in private?
- Is the person doing harm so appealing to me that I want to dismiss their violence or any other bad behavior?
- Do I depend on the person doing harm in some way? Could I be harmed or compromised if I do not take their side?
Violence and the harm resulting from it is wrong, regardless of who we personally do or do not like. Doing what is right to address, reduce, and prevent violence does not necessarily mean that we like a survivor and hate the person doing harm. Ending violence, even if it means stopping and confronting a person we care about, can be the best way to show that we care, and that we are on their side.
For those of us who care about a person who harms, it is vital to remember that it is difficult for this person to have good relationships as long as they continue their pattern of harm. Caring about them means being willing to call them in on their behavior so that they can begin to change.
Violence interventions are not all alike. Most commonly, a survivor or group of survivors comes forward to begin the intervention. Other times, people will learn about violence and try to start an intervention in order to protect the survivor without necessarily requiring the survivor to be the one to start or be primarily involved in the intervention.
The most important part of an intervention is to ensure that the survivor is safe and has support — even if they do not wish to participate or have anything to do with an intervention. It is possible for an intervention to become so focused on getting the person who harmed to recognize their abuse and begin steps to rehabilitate that survivors are left aside. For this reason, it is important to be systematic in assigning roles when moving forward so that the survivor always has support that is primarily focused on their well-being and care.
It is imperative to center the survivor, even in processes in which a survivor is not a participant, so that a community intervention does not compound their sense of isolation. Even if the survivor decides not to be actively involved in an intervention, try to figure out ways that feel okay for them to stay in the loop of efforts. Make sure that survivors are connected to friends, family or community, and not just to therapists or mental health professionals. Communities are important.
A survivor’s support pod should advocate for inclusion, and be in charge of helping other members of the community work out their feelings around the intervention so that the survivor isn’t tasked with this emotional labor. Contact with supporters, friends and other members of the community is healing — it tells a survivor that people are behind them and combats feelings of isolation, shame, doubt, and guilt. It cannot be emphasized enough how important this is.
However possible, try to anticipate what a survivor needs. When people are in crisis or going through something as difficult as coming forward about their experience of abuse, it is often very difficult for them to think of their immediate needs. Rather than telling someone, “I’m here if you need anything,” offer concrete things for them to accept or deny, such as “I would like to come over to help you clean and am available on the following days” or “I want to bring you something to eat tomorrow,” or even “Christmas is coming, let me take you shopping this weekend for presents for the kids.” You can read about how we developed the role of Survivor Liaison to help survivors of Scott Lewis, as another example.
Survivors often already feel burdened by their experience of violence and can feel ashamed to ask for more help or support than what has already been given. Make it as easy as possible. Pick out an emoji that represents “I need you” or even “I’m low on funds.” Pick one that means “I don’t want to talk about what we’re talking about anymore, no hard feelings. Send me baby bat videos.” Anything you can do to make it easier for a survivor to not have to ask is immensely helpful. Make offers for concrete help and keep those offers coming.
It’s also possible that a survivor may not want to relive the trauma of their experience every time they tell a new person about what happened to them, so consider offering to tell others and be a contact person for questions that community members have about the situation. Sometimes the biggest hurdle to getting more support for a survivor is having to tell people what happened over and over and take care of every person’s feelings each time. If a survivor is open to this, it could be an immense help, because then you can others involved to share responsibilities around care-taking, which is paramount to healing.
While accountability is ongoing for a person who harmed (and even before it gets underway), it is important to understand that any event that prioritizes the attendance of a person who harmed is, in effect, an event that is being denied to the survivor. Violence is a community problem, so organizers must reflect on what it says about their commitment to safe communities to ignore interpersonal violence in their midst. Denying a person who harmed entry to an event by organizers until that person engages in an accountability process can be a useful way to begin that person’s rehabilitation and show commitment to creating a community that is free of harm. (But please don’t simply put a timeframe on this without outlining an accountability process with concrete goals.)
Things you should be aware of:
Because interpersonal violence is often about power and control, danger can increase when someone is about to seek or get help. The person doing harm may become even more violent when they feel like they might lose power and control. This can happen at a number of junctions: when the survivor begins to seek help, when an intervention gets underway, or when a survivor tries to free themselves from the violent situation. People who have only used threats or mild forms of violence can increase their threats and potential for violence throughout various stages of an intervention as well. Sometimes community members participating in an intervention may become targets of this violence.
For this reason, the most important thing to do when a survivor approaches you is to ensure that they are safe, and to take some time to discuss means of contact for the survivor that are safe. Depending on the situation, it may not be safe for you to text, email or use other regular methods of communication with them. Tech-facilitated surveillance could be a problem in some cases, so look for ways that you may connect with a survivor within their regular routine, or some other option based on their particular threat model. (Here is a list of resources about online and tech safety.)
Also take steps to ensure your own safety during the process of support. Let people who care about you know what you are doing, and explore avenues of harm that may be used against you and other community members who are participating in the process. While it can be scary to consider the possibility of retaliation, do not accept this as a reason to step back or do nothing. The possibility of retaliation calls for preparation and coordinated action, not retreat. But don’t just hope for the best: plan for the extreme, even unimaginable, and then hope for the best.
Most importantly, get yourself some supporters as well. This is not easy work, and you are going to need all the backup that you can get.
Information for this post was compiled and written by A.V. Flox, the Survivor Liaison. Everything here is based on The Creative Interventions’ toolkit, which describes community intervention and accountability processes. The definitions and categories of interpersonal guidance outlined here were slightly modified from the adaptation by Creative Interventions of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence’s work in Gender Oppression, Abuse, Violence: Community Accountability in the People of Color Progressive Movement.