Abuse culture: when it’s all too much

“You’re calling people abusers, and that is not okay.” This is a response I saw in a discussion about spanking. In a community that considers itself largely feminist.

It is terrible, to call people abusers. It is terrible to talk about abuse in a way that makes other people realize how prevalent it is. It is terrible to define certain acts as abusive in and of themselves because then we will be calling all people who have done those things abusers.

It is far more terrible to call someone an abuser than to have been abused.

“Nobody parents their kids anymore, I’d give that kid a good smack” says the frustrated roommate.

I saw a post recently on tumblr about a teenage girl whose parents wanted her to get an abortion against her will, threatening to slip her abortifacients without her knowledge. “She’s a minor” came some responses. “Under her parents house, she should live by her parents rules.”

Some days it all gets too much. When I read about yet another sexual abuse cover-up coming to light, and wrote a post, “Okay, can we now talk about this as a systematic thing, feminists?” I got a response, “feminism doesn’t address every form of systematic oppression, why don’t you stop whining at the wrong group?”

Because when you want people to start caring about adults fucking children, it’s whining.

The first time I wrote a post on how feminism needs to start addressing sexual abuse as its own thing in feminism, I remember having a discussion about this on twitter, with Grace. I will never forget the woman who replied, “I tried to have a discussion about this before and was told, ‘feminism is about women, not children.’”

When feminists have no problem saying things about sexual abuse that they wouldn’t dream of saying about rape, when when you read kids’ books that describe a man hitting and screaming at his wife and it’s called “being mean” because god forbid we tell kids that being hit is abuse (they might end up applying it to themselves, huh?). When we couch our language of sexual abuse in terms like “inappropriate touching” and “molestation” so we can pretend that children are fucking raped. When we are more convinced that children are not to be trusted when they do speak, that because they do not have an adult vocabulary to describe what they’ve been through, they can be dismissed. When “how dare anyone tell me how to raise my kids” trumps all because children are a possession, are things we are all willing to let be abused for the sake of letting others raise their children “how they see fit.”

And it’s disheartening, and some days I don’t even know how to fight this all. When you watch your fellow survivor get hate because how dare he call himself a survivor, how can he be so cruel to his mother like that, why doesn’t he stop being so immature? When everyone accepts the premise that we’re all against child abuse, except except except that isn’t abuse, and that’s perfectly okay, and that’s just a parent thing, and how dare you imply that there are abusers and abusive acts.

And I think to some extent that the reason this frightens people is that the more we talk about abuse, the more we survivors name and label our experiences, the more we see how fucking common this is. We would rather decide that commonality implies rightness, rather than commonality revealing that an overwhelming number of us are abusers. Think about the men who grow angry when you say that any unwanted sexual contact is assault. Because in doing so, in making that the definition, all of a sudden men have to contend with the knowledge that a good number of them have committed sexual assault. And to do the same with abuse means that all of us adults, even us feminists, have to contend with the knowledge that a good many of us have committed abusive acts. Far easier to decide that you’re against abuse, but abuse only is a certain narrow definition. Abuse only is bruises – and even then maybe not. Abuse is wounds, abuse is near death, abuse is some other extreme that’s far, far away from any resemblance of our behavior.

But when I feel like this, when I am overwhelmed by all these harmful opinions, by all the hurt and abuse, and the condoning of it, then I think on this, and I make this vow:

I can’t tell you how to raise your kids, and I can’t stop you from doing what you want. But I can promise that I will be the person here, writing these words, naming these experiences as abuse. And the thing about children is they grow up. And when they do, I will one day be the teen librarian (I hope) handing them Living Dead Girl, Such a Pretty Girl, Scars, Mouthing the Words, A Series of Unfortunate Events. We survivors are forming our communities, we’re breaking the weight of silence, we’re inventing the words to name our experiences, and while you are teaching your children that you own the rights to their body, we will be here, undoing that damage. And one day you might wake up to a note on the television set like the one I left, with them being the ones saying, “this is abusive and wrong and I won’t put up with it anymore.” Your children maybe your children, but one day they will grow into their own adults. And they may be powerless at your hands when they are small, but imagine what a community of survivors – living, breathing, outspoken, burning-at-the-edges survivors, can do. Imagine yourself on the other side of the line of that. I vow to do whatever in my power to make that happen for myself and fellow survivors.

We are not a few straggling numbers. We are far more numerous, growing far more powerful, and learning how to speak for ourselves.

 “Clench clench these strong teeth in this strong mouth. My mouth. Of my body. In my house. My mouth? Chapped lips swollen and bloody? Dream dreaming wide and thunder? My mouth! My God! This is me speaking. Not mouthing. Not typing and twitching. Not writing a suicide note the length of a novel that will never be finished. I hear voices now but I know they are not the voices of fathers or lovers, or mothers or angels or demons, but the sounds of my own private wars echoing the battles of women before me and near me. No wonder I do not make people comfortable. I am a mirror. I have far too many things to say. (p. 237-238)”

-Camilla Gibb, Mouthing the Words

4 comments on “Abuse culture: when it’s all too much

  1. heatherjanes says:

    Have you read Judith Herman’s “Trauma and Recovery?” It is incredibly well written and helped put some of this stuff in context for me.

  2. teh_faust says:

    I love this. Thank you for writing it. Abuse is extremely common and your post was a nice antidote to the denials, trivializations, smokescreens and words of outright mockery that always sound like “here, have a free insult to go with your injury”. The family is the one institution that even progressives and not usually authoritarian people keep whitewashing and idealizing… it’s always seen as something different, something to be judged by another standard. I wonder why so many people just seem to overlook that.

  3. Ben says:

    I think here… you hit the nail on the head. Personally, I have not encountered feminists who react the way you describe to various forms of abuse. Then again, this may be a selection bias on my own part. I simply wont associate with anyone who does not take feminism to include any who are systematically oppressed. Feminism is about women, children, the LGBT, the poor, and the otherwise downtrodden; because to accept anything else–any more narrow a definition–is to accept a privileged status as being a good outcome.

    When it comes to children, parents do NOT own ‘their’ offspring (unfortunately, even the english language mandates that we use the genitive case that implies a relationship of ownership. Thank you Romance and Germanic language families and the cultural history surrounding their evolution). They hold the future of a child in trust, to facilitate and ensure the maturation of that child into a healthy and independent adult. Parents have no “rights” regarding children. They have obligation. They have certain privileges that a healthy society can and often should revoke. There are some things a child cannot do. A young child may not be able to understand medical risks for example. That does not mean that the parent should be able to deny life-saving care for the sake of their own beliefs. That option should be off the table. Once an adolescent is old enough to have sex (of their own volition!) and get pregnant, they are old enough to decide for themselves whether or not they want to keep the pregnancy. Afterall, if we accept the notion that they are not–and the parents mandate that they go to term–how can we accept the idea that said child is ready to be a parent themselves? We can’t.

    As to the more narrow issue of physical and sexual abuse… the child owns their own body. Full Stop. Any unwanted contact is wrong. In the best of cases, it is disempowering and teaches the child that they must submit to the will of adults, and this makes it easier for someone to groom them as an abuse victim. If said contact creates even transitory harm (like spanking) it is abuse. No one has a right to harm anyone else, save in cases of imminent self defense or defense of a third party. We might be able to make an exception in the case of a justly prosecuted war. But that is it.

    And I am rambling here, so I will shut up…

  4. A Fellow Survivor says:

    I have to comment here that I am with you 100%. I am gradually gaining the confidence to talk about my past with people I trust, and hope someday to use my creativity to speak out publicly about all the issues you wrote about so effectively in this piece. I plan to print this essay and keep it where I’ll remember to re-read it frequently, to remind me of my long-term goal to use my abilities to give help and hope and voice to anyone who needs it.

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