A Meditation on “Abusers” Vs “Abusive Behaviors”

This blog entry is offered as part of the International Festival of Consent, November 16 — 30th. Learn more about other related writings, workshops, and performances at IDoConsent.org or join us on Facebook.

I want to start this post off with a confession: I am not an expert on consent.

I mean, I’m considered, perhaps, a thought leader on consent culture, and entitlement culture, especially within the alternative lifestyle arena. I’ve been doing this work for most of my adult life in some variation or another. I teach workshops. I tour universities. I edited an anthology that sought to explore what consent culture means in every aspect of our lives. I get asked to weigh in on conflicts all the time.

But I wouldn’t call myself an “expert”. I don’t actually have all the answers. I don’t know that there is, really, An Answer like that. The more I delve into this work and our relationship to autonomy and power dynamics and consent, the more I realize I have to learn.

How exciting, right? And also, how terrifying, to realize that this is nuance all the way down. Consent work will humble you, over and over again. And that’s, perhaps, one of the things I value about it. It’s a living document, an active practice, and I am forever learning.

So, all that said, I wanted to share a little reflection I have been having about language, in particular “abuser” vs “abusive behaviors”. In many of the circles I run in, the two are used interchangeably, and I don’t believe they should be.

I can already hear Twitter raising a collective gasp — I know, this isn’t a popular opinion, and often is used alongside victim blaming arguments and other bullshit. I hear you and it’s a concern of mine too. I think I’ve addressed that part, but I’ll lay out my thoughts, and then I’d love to hear what you think in the comments! I’m always open to learn.

Let’s dive in.

The question of what language to use when talking about a person who has violated our boundaries came up for me recently during a split from someone I was close to. This person was engaging in several harmful behaviors — gaslighting, unpredictable aggression, refusing to stop when asked, minimizing things that I said were important to me, pushing my trauma buttons, allowing mutuals to spy on me, using others to justify behaviors (“everybody” thinks this, or “they all say” that). These behaviors are ones that I have learned to recognize as emotionally abusive after years of experience. Some of my friends cautioned me about staying in a situation where I was engaging with someone who felt these behaviors were acceptable or justified, and said, “this is abuse, they’re an abuser”.

Now, I have to acknowledge that I have been extremely slow in the past to do anything about abusive behaviors. I am often able to recognize them, but I tell myself that they didn’t mean it, or that I spurred them on in some way. Sometimes I countered with my own abusive behaviors. Sometimes, I started it. As I’ve gotten further into consent culture work, a large part of that process has involved me learning to trust my gut, while also acknowledging that I, too, am often tempted to “win” a fight at any cost. This means that I, too, have engaged in abusive behaviors, and the first step to doing any kind of consent culture work, in my opinion, is recognizing your own fuckups.

I say this because I want to recognize that there are people I have harmed in the past who may consider me their abuser. I don’t think they’re wrong to think that or to define me as such. I think it’s really important for people who have been harmed to do what they need to do in order to feel safe and heal. What follows, therefore, is something that I’ve been rolling around as a way to heal from my own experiences being on the receiving side of abusive behavior, and is not intended as a proclamation for what everyone else should do to be “evolved”. Like I said at the start, I, too, am a wounded animal stumbling through the brush!

In the past, when my close friends have said “this person is an abuser”, I accepted that as fact and it felt good, in a way. It felt like this person who hurt me was inherently Bad. It made it easier to push them out of my life, and push our interactions out of my thoughts. If they were an abuser, then I didn’t have to care about them anymore, and I could close myself off without any reflection or need for compassion. And I’m gonna be real — there was one or two exes that I would call abusers even now. But in general, I have begun to separate straight up abusers from good people who do shitty things, and for me, that has allowed me to have more belief in the potential for deep personal work, and growth, and evolution.

I don’t believe that under a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, 100% consent is ever truly possible. What we can then strive for is to harm as few as possible (including ourselves), and take ownership when we harm people anyway. Our culture is pretty abusive, from the prison industrial complex and our obsession with punishment to fast fashion and throwaway tech involving the abuse of the working class. Our consent is violated pretty often, and we are often taught (particularly in the workplace and in our romantic relationships) that a certain amount of boundary violation is not only inevitable, but desirable to achieve our goals.

I know that sounds really horrible and scary, and it was for a while, if I’m being honest. But there was also a sense of hope in that realization for me, that our society as built was inherently abusive, but recognizing that also meant choosing to strive for something that wasn’t. For me, this means accepting on a very gut level that I will fuck up, that people I love will fuck up, that my boundaries will be violated consciously and subconsciously and what I do with that information to help myself stay safe is a constantly evolving thing.

And it has evolved, quite a lot! There was a period of time where I avoided people as a way to keep myself safe from being harmed. During that, I did a lot of journaling and exploration into what were my hard boundaries, things that should not be crossed for me to feel safe, and what were soft boundaries, things that make me uncomfortable but that I would sit with. Now, I feel good about the conscious community I have around me, that I can speak freely about how I’m feeling even when it’s minor, and they trust me enough to do the same. I model the behavior I want to see, and I surround myself with folks who mirror that sense of compassion and caring.

So when I wrote about what I was experiencing in this situation, my community came together to say “this person is an abuser, you should distance yourself from them”. And it’s true, distance was the healthiest choice for me for the time being. But it wasn’t because this person was inherently Bad. It was because this person was choosing to continue abusive behaviors instead of choosing healthy communication. I felt really uncomfortable with the quickness to label them an abuser, especially when I had a sense that their behavior, while abusive, was coming from a self protective place of trauma. While yes, this person was saying and doing things to harm me, I was also very aware that this was a reflex, and while it wasn’t acceptable, it was understandable to me. I didn’t have to put up with it, or be around it, but I also didn’t and don’t believe that it was a core part of their being. I believe they can choose differently, and hope they do one day.

Cause here’s the thing. I think our society actively rewards us for engaging in abusive behaviors. It’s a way to survive an incredibly fucked up world. We don’t culturally value mental health, we value getting on with it and shutting off our pain, so yeah, that’s gonna bubble up sometimes in some awful ways. Sometimes it’s gonna harm us, sometimes, it’s gonna harm other people. I think when we label people who engage in abusive behaviors an abuser, it can distance ourselves from our own engagement in abusive behaviors — “that’s something an abuser does, I’m not an abuser, therefore I don’t do that”. It becomes a way for people to further shut down and shut out, instead of being a place to explore our intentions and our actions.

There’s also a problem in that the word “abuser” all too often gets used as a way to isolate marginalized people from their communities in a way I don’t think is altogether healthy. It can create a fear of taking accountability for abusive behaviors, because you may be similarly banished. Rather than being a healthy concern that helps you avoid crossing boundaries, it imparts an anxiety that being around people will mean crossing a boundary that unfortunately serves to cause us to silence each other instead of giving us a chance to recognize where we go wrong and do better.

I don’t know that the line between an abuser and a person with toxic responses to trauma or mental health issues is a distinct one. When writing this, it was something I struggled with — how does one differentiate? And I don’t know if there’s a one size fits all approach. For me, an abuser is someone who chooses the abusive behavior, who does not seek to evolve or grow, who recognizes that pattern and chooses the path of harm. An abuser, when confronted with accountability, refuses it and redirects it to their victim in a process known as DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender”. Abusers make the choice, over and over again, to be abusers instead of working on their shit. There are typically patterns there, often of them walking away from being accountable, blaming the other person or people for things going poorly. They are never at fault. They are doing the same thing they did a year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago. That consistency is what defines an abuser, to me.

If we call every person who engages in an abusive behavior an abuser, I genuinely believe we would need to call everyone an abuser. This is perhaps true, to an extent — I think entitlement and abusiveness is like the air we breathe, it’s not healthy but it’s all we have and we have to live with it to some extent. However, I think that also sounds somewhat hopeless, and doesn’t offer much guidance for how to move forward. Rather than being a way to avoid accountability, I feel like focusing on abusive behaviors insists on more accountability — you are not inherently an abuser, you are choosing to engage in these things, and you can choose not to.

Maybe I’m being overly idealistic, in believing that most people genuinely act in good faith, and the more we can encourage people to bear witness to their shadow sides and to heal them, the closer we can get to a consent culture, one based in autonomy and respect for each other, one of love instead of one based in fear and hurt. I worry that I’m being overly generous, sometimes. But I have to say, using this process helped me through my recent heartbreak, because I didn’t need to demonize them, I didn’t need to hate them. I just needed to recognize that where they were at right now wasn’t where I was at, and that what they were doing, while I understood where it came from, still just… wasn’t ok. It allowed me to still love this person while also loving myself enough to walk away, maybe forever, maybe just for now.

For me, changing the language I used helped me shift my understanding of the world. We have agency to choose better, and I believe in people’s ability to make a different choice, a healthier choice, a choice based in compassion and fierce self ownership. Accepting that we can all fuck up, and we can all grow from that, is a part of that process for me.

This may work for you, too, or it may come off as some hippie bullshit. That’s ok! Everyone should do what they need to do to take care of themselves. I’d love to hear your thoughts below. This work is, after all, collaborative, and I’m a student alongside you. ❤

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Building a consent culture, one brick at a time. Curated by Kitty Stryker, editor of “Ask: Building Consent Culture” from Thorntree Press, this publication seeks to pick up where the book left off. Critical thinking encouraged!

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Kitty Stryker

Kitty Stryker

Professional Bleeding Heart. Sick & Tired. Patronize me: http://t.co/RSd5cSVGE5 Image by @mayakern

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