“At least you weren’t beaten up!”

Untold numbers of abuse survivors probably hear this sentence, and I have been told this multiple times myself by multiple people. For example, in the aftermath of an abusive relationship with someone who was emotionally and sexually abusive but never hit me (probably because he knew hitting me would make him look bad), I was told by multiple people that it wasn’t that bad and I needed to be grateful and think of the women who were being beaten up because they were the ones who actually had it bad. Being told those things cut me really, really deep and made me feel like I did not matter. Because I was not the victim of savage beatings, my pain was invisible to the people around me and not taken seriously; and actually made the pain more difficult to recover from. By its very nature, this sort of talk is deeply invalidating and undermines the person on the receiving end. The message behind it is: because you did not experience the only kind of abuse that many think counts as “real” abuse, your pain doesn’t matter.

This is in no way an attempt to belittle the experiences of people who were beaten by their abusers. What they went through is terrible, there’s no denying that, and it absolutely needs to be taken seriously. No one should have to be beaten and fear for their lives, and there are many people who live with PTSD as a result of physical abuse or have been killed as a result of it. Physical abuse needs to be stopped and the pain that these people have experienced should not be dismissed.

However, unfortunately, many people believe that physical pain is the only kind of pain that is “real” or that matters, and that the other forms of abuse “don’t count” because they don’t leave visible bruises or scars, or aren’t as violent. When people think of abuse, they think of beatings. Emotional and verbal abuse are probably the most misunderstood kinds out there. Even the phrase “emotional abuse” can sound rather ridiculous and like no big deal, and few people seem to understand the deep, long-lasting psychological scarring that emotional abuse can leave a person with even when it looks subtle to people outside of the situation (and indeed, it can be a contributing factor to depression and suicide). It is time to stop dismissing each other’s pain and calling it not real. Abuse is abuse.


On George Will’s column

Columnist George Will recently started a lot of controversy by posting a newspaper column about progressivism on college campuses, suggesting that “victimhood” in college, such as sexual assault, is “a coveted status that confers privileges.” An in-depth discussion of the offensive parts of the column, as well as a link to the original column, can be found on this Salon article. While I often try to ignore people who are attempting to stir up controversy, I couldn’t help but have a visceral reaction to this one.

As many of us are aware, the backlash has included a #SurvivorPrivilege hashtag, where a lot of survivors of sexual assault have shared their painful stories of not only being assaulted and raped, and of living with the resultant trauma, but also of invalidation and mistreatment by others in the aftermath of their abuse. Clearly, being sexually assaulted in college (or, well, at any other time or place) doesn’t exactly leave you “privileged.” In my own painful experiences several years back of being sexually assaulted while in college, some of the “privileges” of being in this situation included difficulty concentrating and the resultant embarrassment, burnout, failed classes, academic probation, invalidating comments from the people around me who didn’t get what I was going through, and the joys of undiagnosed, untreated post-traumatic stress.

George Will is still defending his column, and some are arguing that the media is taking certain comments within the column out of context. It’s possible that things are being taken out of context, of course; but I read the column, about as much as I could despite how it was making me upset and feeling like a slap to the face. And I still found several things in it offensive, such as the downplaying of many forms of assault. It makes me happy that a newspaper has dropped him because of the column and that many are speaking out about how this column was a slap in the face to many of us.

Psychopaths and love-bombing

So, I’m aware that I haven’t updated this blog in a long time. It was a bit difficult to come up with content for a while, and life also got in the way. Oh, well, better late than never. 

Today I stumbled upon a couple of websites via Facebook, to which I have been having quite the emotional reaction. It still blows me away that I’m still piecing together some of the things that happened to me, making sense of them, and discovering that the experiences have names. Being able to name something, and learning more and more that I’m not the only one, is a validating experience.

Several years ago, I met a man online. He was the first to make contact. Within weeks, we were flirting with each other, and we began talking on the phone. He professed his love for me not long after that and began a long-distance relationship. This man was incredibly sweet, funny, loving, charming, and kind. He told me he’d had his heart broken by cruel exes; and I couldn’t believe that anyone would be so horrid to such a beautiful, kind, sweet man. It was as if he worshiped me. He contacted me frequently and we began talking about marriage and children. He told me that we were perfectly matched; he’d been exactly what I was looking for and vice versa. I was told that wherever I moved, he would go with me, since I was his “princess.” The first time we met in person, he asked me to marry him, saying he wished he had an engagement ring on him right then and there, and overwhelmed me with physical affection. I’d never been hugged and touched so much in my life. He did rush me into sex but it was all happening so fast that it was making my head spin and with all of this love and hugging thrown at me it was hard to stop and think. I still remember the elation I felt, that I finally found my soulmate after I’d grown up lonely with low self-esteem and had begun fearing ending up alone. I was thrilled that the sweetest man in the world wanted me. We were madly in love, or so it seemed. He continued to frequently reassure me that I was his “fiancee” after our first visit. 

But the engagement ring never happened, and he started to pull away and grow moody, the first warning signs that the elation was short-lived and would soon be replaced by my living in anxiety and fear. What I did not know is that this man was a psychopath. He was incapable of feeling love, just really good at faking it. Soon, this whirlwind honeymoon stage would end and one of the most painful, confusing, soul-crushing experiences of my life would begin. 

Ten years later, even after much journaling, reaching out, making sense of the experience and learning to name various aspects of it, and getting therapy and self-help, some of that pain and anger is still with me. It may stick with me for the rest of my life. One of the things that hurt the most and left me feeling the most confused and betrayed is the bait-and-switch of that incredible, elating honeymoon stage that turned out to be all lies. Just today, I learned that there is a name for it, and it is a common technique that psychopaths use to get their target tightly hooked into a relationship so the manipulation and abuse can begin. “Love-bombing.” It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of being smothered in love-bombing, over-the-top romantic gestures, and things moving so fast that I didn’t see it for the red flag it was. I wished I had been warned about love-bombing before that relationship, but at the same time, he was just SO charming. 

Here are some of the links I found, describing love-bombing, its purpose, and what it leads to:

Psychopaths and Love: Covert Emotional Manipulation Tactics

Psychopaths and Love: Red Flags of a Psychopath

The Psychopath’s Hook: Love Bombing, Sex and Flattery

Secondary wounding

I didn’t know there was a name for secondary wounding until I joined an internet forum not too long ago and saw it mentioned. It’s really nice that I’m finally able to put a name to it.

What is secondary wounding in a nutshell? The cruel, ignorant, or insensitive things people say when they find out you were abused. For example: you tell your friend or family member what happened, and they tell you they don’t believe you, they think you’re too sensitive or an attention whore, they say that the sexual assault you suffered was your fault for wearing revealing clothes or getting drunk, or they tell you it wasn’t that bad and you need to just get over it. It’s very common for children to get called liars when they disclose that they are being molested–I cannot imagine the pain that leads to. And people also don’t understand why those in abusive relationships don’t just up and leave their partner right away, not understanding how they trap you financially and mentally wear you down so it’s very hard to leave. Well-meaning people often make minimizing statements out of their sheer ignorance of trauma, because it can be hard for them to grasp that it’s not something you can snap your fingers and “get over” in an instant. Believe me, if we could easily get over it we would! I have even found that some people with a trauma history of their own exhibit a poor understanding of how trauma affects other people and show little empathy. And of course, some people will minimize abuse deliberately. In some cases, this is how they avoid taking responsibility for their part in it.

As I’m doing more research on secondary wounding, most of what I’m finding applies to rape/sexual abuse survivors. But I think it can happen to people who’ve been through all of the other kinds of abuse, too: emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological, and bullying. And I believe those who’ve been through emotional abuse are especially at risk, because so many people think emotional abuse is normal and nothing to get upset about, and that it was only abuse if you were beaten up with closed fists.

Secondary wounding by various well-meaning people has really hindered my progress in healing, created a lot of anger, and made me feel like less of a person. I have been told that I should be grateful that at least my rapist wasn’t beating me up, that I shouldn’t have “let” him sexually assault me, and also that the verbal abuse wouldn’t have happened if only I was more confident and had stood up for myself. In my experience, trying to stand up for myself only made verbally abusive types angrier and more determined to win the fight. While I was being bullied as a child and adolescent, I got told that this was happening to me as a consequence for not being “positive” enough and frowning too much, even though I don’t think any forced facial expression would have made a difference in how much I was tormented. I have also gotten minimizing statements implying that I’m deliberately “hanging on” to my pain from the past and because it was years ago, I need to not discuss that sad old stuff from long ago. My partner, who was sexually abused as a child and could not tell anyone until adulthood because he knew that as a child he would’ve been accused of lying, has also suffered terrible secondary wounding. For instance, a person in his family told him stories about little girls making false sexual abuse allegations (hinting that he was making it up), and then accused him of being attracted to his abuser for money. I think we both harbor about as much anger over the various instances of secondary wounding as we do over the primary abuse.

More information about secondary wounding in the context of sexual abuse can be found on Aphrodite Wounded and Pandora’s Project for those who are interested.

Common misconceptions about rape

Even with all the progress in spreading awareness, our culture is still brimming with misconceptions about rape. These myths tend to involve heavy victim-blaming and are insulting to all genders. The misconceptions lead to secondary wounding and the survivors of rape/sexual assault not being taken seriously.

I was surprised by just how many myths and misconceptions I can think of off the top of my head. Here is a list (may trigger for victim-blaming attitudes):

  • It isn’t rape if the victim didn’t physically put up a fight. By not struggling and hitting, the person consented. (Fact: submission does not equal consent–under situations of coercion, manipulation, intimidation, or duress, people will often be too afraid to fight.)
  • Men are entitled to sex from their wives and girlfriends on demand, regardless of whether they say yes or are in the mood. Once a woman has already had sex with a man, he’s free to have sex with her whenever he wants.
  • A married man can’t rape his wife. By agreeing to marry him, the wife gives up her right to say no.
  • Most rapes are committed by freaky strangers jumping out of the bushes in the middle of the night, and there is little risk of it happening at the hands of family, friends, dates, and acquaintances. (The opposite is actually true! Stranger rape definitely does happen, but about two-thirds of rapists already know their victims: source.)
  • All rapists are obviously mentally ill. You can pick out a rapist by their appearance and behavior.
  • Prostitutes can’t be raped and cannot say no. If you’ve paid a prostitute for sex, that gives you free license to do whatever you want.
  • Men cannot be expected to control their sexual urges, especially around attractive, seductive, or scantily clad women. It’s only natural that a guy in that situation would do whatever it takes to get laid.
  • If a woman leads a man on and gets him turned on, then she has withdrawn her right to change her mind and say no. So if he rapes her, she was asking for it by initially showing interest.
  • Some types of rape are really pretty mild and not that bad, and people just need to get over them.
  • Men cannot be raped; it is something that only happens to women, and men are the only attackers. A woman can’t rape a man. (Oh, yes, men can be raped by other women and men. And rapes happen outside of the conventional gender binary, too. Really, anybody could sexually assault anybody.)
  • Men who are in prison deserve to be raped by inmates as part of the punishment for their crime.
  • If a person gets raped while wearing a sexy outfit, out alone at night, alone with their date, drunk, or on drugs, then they should’ve expected it and should take responsibility. Rape is a natural consequence of putting yourself in a vulnerable position, and it’s your fault if you let it happen.
  • “Good girls” with good reputations don’t get raped.
  • Only physically attractive girls and women are at risk of being raped.
  • One that’s been popular with politicians lately: women rarely get pregnant from rape. Their bodies sense when a rape is happening and their reproductive systems shut down.
  • Many rape accusations are false. Vengeful women love to accuse men of rape to ruin their reputations. (False accusations happen, but it’s much rarer than people think.)
  • Women just love to give mixed signals. When they say no, they really mean yes.
  • Nearly all rapes get reported, and rapists will be sent to prison. (According to the RAINN statistics, over half of sexual assaults don’t get reported, and very few rapists end up behind bars.)
  • It’s only rape if a penis is forcibly put in a vagina. (Oral, anal, and digital rape are some of the other forms of rape possible.)

If anyone can think of other misconceptions (and I’m sure they are endless), feel free to comment!

What do people owe their childhood abusers?

I thought I’d share this interesting article about adults with abusive parents or childhood caregivers. Slate magazine: The Debt.

The article addresses the issue of deciding whether to forgive, not forgive, keep around, or cut off toxic abusers who don’t apologize or change, or who cause post-traumatic stress symptoms with their presence. Cutting off parents can be hard, because deep down we still want their approval, and it is common to grow emotionally enmeshed with abusive parents. People who do make the decision to cut off family members often face a lot of pressure from the people around them to let the person back into their life and try to make up, particularly laying on guilt trips if the abuser is ailing or near death.

The pressure is especially hard when the person’s mother is the one who gets cut off. People often seem to have the idea stuck in their head that mothers are always kind, innocent, and blameless, and that being somebody’s mother means you cannot abuse or do anything wrong–overlooking the fact that psychopaths, narcissists, and other women with abusive temperaments can get pregnant too. My partner, who made the decision to cut off his physically and psychologically abusive mother after realizing how little she’d changed, has been dealing with the “But she’s your mom!” pressure and guilt trips for years. And it is frustrating.

The decision to cut off family is not an easy one to make. What a person in this situation feels is right for them, whether it be cutting contact or continuing a relationship on their terms, is their own business. However, if someone has mistreated you and won’t genuinely apologize and change their hurtful behavior, I think that this person has not earned your respect and you don’t owe them anything–and that associating with them again may cause more pain especially if the abuse continues. Respect must be earned, even if you are somebody’s mother, even if you are sick in the hospital.