The first step in helping someone out of an abusive situation, even if that someone is yourself, is recognizing the possibility that it may be abusive in the first place. This guide may serve as a starting point.
I’m making this guide because I’ve gotten frustrated with how many times I’ve seen authority-touting aces overlook, mishandle, or fail to consider the signs that someone in the situation they were presented with might be abusive. The best I can think to do, in response, is to draw attention to the subject. I’ve already written a list of emotional abuse tactics and an explanation of a stock example of abusive twisting, and this guide can be considered an extension of the same discussion. My hope is that these posts could educate the ace community (or some part of it) to better identify abuse.
I’m also making this guide because, while there are many resources out there on identifying abuse, many of them focus on domestic violence, child abuse, and abusive romantic partners, usually geared toward heterosexuals and man/woman pairs — which may still be useful, but also don’t touch on any of the problems specific to aces.
In other words, I’m making this guide to fill what I perceive to be an unmet need.
This guide is 1) geared toward aces, meaning anyone who identifies with the asexual umbrella, 2) in any kind of relationship (romantic, friendship, familial, collective and communal, etc.) and 3) focused on emotional/verbal/psychological abuse, specifically, because I believe that’s the key ingredient all forms of abuse. That said, there will be some discussion of physical (including sexual) abuse as well. So, consequently…
[ TW for all forms of abuse, including victim-blaming, manipulation, intimidation, and sexual assault. ]
Another important note: This guide is not exhaustive. This guide is not a checklist where you need to check off a certain number of times in order for the situation to count as abuse. This guide is intended to be a starting point to get you thinking.
The list of considerations below is taken from the book Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft (within the section “The Abusive Man in Relationships” under the heading “Question 9: Is the way he is treating me abuse?”) and adapted to be both broader (than man/woman romantic relationships) and more specific (in ways that pertain to anti-ace negativity) than what the author describes.
When is it abuse?
- They retaliate against you for complaining about their behavior.
This can mean, for example, when you ask them to stop doing X because it hurts you, they double down and start doing X even more often, just to punish you for speaking up. If you create secluded safe spaces or develop coping-mechanisms to comfort yourself or allow you to regain a feeling of autonomy, they will treat this as provocation, and may even accuse you of violating them, oppressing them, or mistreating them by not bending to their authority. If you’re an ace and say you’re tired of being mislabeled as straight, they may accuse you of “appropriating LGBT experiences.” If you try to report their behavior, whether in person or online, they may get more aggressive or even accuse you of abusing them. Depending on how long this has been going on, you may have even already learned to avoid voicing any kind of complaint to avoid dealing with the backlash.
- They give apologies that sound insincere or angry, and they act entitled to forgiveness.
Getting an apology doesn’t always mean the issue is over or the problem is resolved. They might give an apology which is clearly sarcastic. They might apologize, but then tell you that you need to apologize to them, too, in a way that undermines the point of the exchange (ex. they’ll apologize for telling you you’re not really asexual, but only if you apologize for “starting drama” or “being oversensitive”). Or they might follow up the apology with a complaint that you “expect too much of them” and try to make you feel like you’re high-strung and difficult to deal with. Or maybe everything goes smoothly at first, and they seem sincere, but if you show any sign of hesitation to accept the apology or say you need time to think, they’ll blow up at you for being “too hard on them.” All of these kinds of behavior are designed to teach you that your expectations for how you should be treated are wrong.
- They blame you for the impact of their behavior.
Chronic mistreatment has an effect on people. When you’ve learned, consciously or not, that you can’t trust someone, you may become more distant and stop sharing as much with them — and in response, they might turn around and accuse you of “shutting them out” or, in the case of asexuality, “refusing to educate them” (meaning, refusing to put up with their rude and invasive questions). Or they might even ridicule you for feeling hurt by them. They’ll attribute the consequences of their own actions to your supposed shortcomings, sometimes outright reversing cause and effect, such as claiming “oppression starts with the label” as a reason not to label yourself. Or if you show any anxiety about how they’re treating you, such as flinching at sudden movements or expressing a dire need for reassurance, an abusive partner or parent might throw it back in your face by saying, “You seem to think I don’t love you enough.”
- It’s never the right time, or the right way, to bring things up.
No matter how nice or polite or careful you are, they can always find a way to find fault with how you approach an issue, even (especially) applying double standards that are stricter for you than for them — if they don’t outright ignore you. Giving it time doesn’t help, either. Misunderstandings and the occasional conflict may be normal, but in the case of abuse, they’re not interested in hearing you out, mulling over your side of things, engaging in critical self-reflection, or coming to an arrangement that suits you both. They’re only interested in getting you and keeping you under their thumb.
As Elizabeth’s comment explains, abusers consistently take control of the way the conversation is framed, to your detriment.
You may want to consider the overlap between this and the idea of the Unassailable Asexual, tone-policing, and respectability politics.
- They undermine your progress in life.
This can mean anything from discouraging you from pursuing the kinds of relationships you want to sending you to therapy against your will. Cutting you off from your communities, belittling your accomplishments, and invading your safe spaces are as examples of this as well. These tactics can foster the sense that you’ll never be good enough or that you have no control over what happens to you, which can itself be traumatizing.
- They deny what they did.
Lying and deception for the purpose of causing harm is a classic abuse tactic, commonly known as gaslighting. This doesn’t just refer to differences of interpretation (ex. what one person may call “speaking loudly” another may call “yelling”). Many abusers outright deny concrete events and actions altogether. This can make you feel like you’re losing your grip on reality and can lead you to doubt your own perceptions. Consequently, this is one of the reasons why it’s so common for abuse victims to be filled with uncertainty about their own experiences.
- They justify their hurtful or frightening acts or say that you “made them do it.”
Abusers and abuse apologists will talk as if not abusing you would be unreasonable, outlandish, or too difficult. No matter what they do to you, they’ll try to convince you that you’re at fault for it. This may take the form of retorts like “Well what do you expect, when you act like that?” or “Maybe if you hadn’t been such a frigid b****, this wouldn’t have happened.” They might justify their abuse by framing their sexual desires as a “need,” for example, that they “can’t control” — or saying that, by not acting on those desires with you, they would be “destroying themselves.” They might even turn things around and cast themselves as the victims, whether for being “deprived” of sex, or because you acted in self-defense when they attacked you. They want you to believe you “brought this upon yourself.” They’ll try to present their behavior as rational, and in the case of asexuality, they may try to call on the authority of the medical establishment and flawed science (especially evolutionary psychology) to back up what they’re saying, claiming asexuality is impossible and unnatural. Religious excuses are not unheard of, either.
- They touch you or put you in fear in other ways.
The use of intimidation tactics and controlling behaviors covers a broad range, as with most of the items on this list. Grabbing or physically restraining you is an obvious one, but the defining factor here is intimidation and control, not physical force. Verbal death threats are just as applicable, no matter if those making them have no intent to carry them out. On the internet, “putting you in fear” may mean making afraid to check or even post in the relevant tag for one of your identities. Abusers teach you to shape and curb your own behavior out of fear of the potential consequences.
- They coerce you into having sex or put you in sexual situations against your will.
Coercion, here, doesn’t require physical force. It can mean making you feel guilty for not participating in sexual activities, making you believe your sexual boundaries are an unfair burden to others, or any other kind of psychological arm-twisting, such as accusing you of “forcing them to stay a virgin forever.” Interrogating you about (or implying) the possibility of sexual abuse in your past, especially as a response to a sexual boundary, is an abusive tactic unto itself, the point being to convince you that there’s something “wrong with you” (for not caving to their wishes) and that you need to work on “recovery” (which, to them, will mean caving to their wishes without complaint). Alternatively, they might characterize you as “repressed,” “prudish,” “Puritanical,” or “Victorian,” as part of an effort to erode your confidence, to create negative consequences to saying “no,” and to convince you that your boundaries, whatever they may be, are too “extreme.”
For more on asexuality and sexual violence, I recommend Resources For Ace Survivors.
- Their controlling, disrespectful, or degrading behavior is a pattern.
A pattern doesn’t have to be continuous to be a pattern. It might be interspersed with affirmation, support, surprising kindness, and good times, but the bad times always come back. There’s no particular key number or time requirement here. Allow yourself to trust your judgement in this.
- You show signs of being abused.
In addition to examining their behavior, examine the impact on yourself. In your interactions with them, are you regularly worried about proving that you’re good enough? Do you find yourself preoccupied with how to keep them happy? Do you feel like all of the recent conflicts (or how they ended) are your fault? Are you becoming more distant and withdrawn to avoid facing the risks otherwise? Do you feel like you need to defend your right to exist? Do you feel like you don’t have a right to be as upset as you are with what they’re doing to you?
If any of this sounds like it applies to the situation you’re dealing with, you may want to pursue further resources on abuse. Whether it’s for yourself or someone else, you can start by checking out some of the different sections of RFAS’s reading list.
As always, feedback is welcome.
November 16th, 2015 at 6:22 pm
[…] wrote “Is this abuse?”: A Guide for Aces, started a thread for brainstorming advice for therapists treating ace clients, and compiled a list […]
November 16th, 2015 at 6:50 pm
This is excellent, thank you for compiling it!
This sort of ties in with a couple other items already there, especially the one about it never being the right time/way to bring things up, but it’s a little different so I thought it would be worth adding as another potential sign:
They consistently take control of the way the conversation is framed
As in, when you try to bring up any concerns about sex and especially their behavior with regard to boundaries and ascertaining consent, they instead frame these concerns as something else. When you try to educate them about asexuality or explain your feelings towards sex, they may say things like “is this just rationalizing what happened?” or “I think you may just be experiencing post-relational emotional attachment.” They interrupt you when you try to have a discussion, they feign total ignorance about what you’re talking about (denying/minimizing) so that you have to go back to the beginning of ace 101 again instead of actually getting to talk about the thing you’re concerned about. They might frame things in a completely heteronormative way (or some other way) that is very much inapplicable to the situation, and criticize you for every attempt you make to disrupt that framing of it. This often leads to attempts to belittle the way you communicate and blame you for not educating them. They do their absolute best to disrupt and twist conversations instead of trying to understand you, and then tell you (or just imply) that it’s your fault they don’t understand, and if only you were better at communication, everything would be fine.
November 16th, 2015 at 8:03 pm
Thanks. ^^ I feel like I must’ve done something right if this post has Elizabeth’s stamp of approval.
Hmm… I think that one could overlap with a few of these, like blaming you for the impact of their behavior and their disrespect being a pattern, but that’s a good elaboration on them and those are some good examples, so I’m going to add a link to your comment to encourage people to read it too, in case some people don’t check the comments.
November 16th, 2015 at 9:53 pm
[…] Men by Lundy Bancroft (PDF here). If you don’t want to read a whole book, you can check out “Is this abuse?”: A Guide For Aces instead. For very serious situations, especially in the case of cohabitation, you might want to […]
November 16th, 2015 at 11:51 pm
It… kind of depresses me how much of these apply to just, people in my everyday life. Friends, family… everyone who’s not my partners (or who isn’t also ace) has been a source of these things. It’s really frustrating, and framing these behaviors as emotional abuse (which they are!) is a pretty powerful way of highlighting just how toxic culture can sometimes be.
November 17th, 2015 at 12:03 am
Absolutely. It’s incredibly commonplace. I think that’s part of what people mean by “abuse culture.”
November 20th, 2015 at 8:12 am
[…] wrote a guide to identifying abuse for aces and offered 5 tips for handling abuse as an ace advice blog […]
December 27th, 2015 at 2:25 pm
[…] you critiqued the specific manifestations of abuse within kink, like the specific manifestations of abuse against aces, and thought about the superficial differences between styles and modes and cultural locations of […]
January 14th, 2016 at 6:49 pm
[…] Understand that aces can be abused. Coercing someone into sex, for example, doesn’t become morally acceptable just because the relationship would be sexless otherwise. As a therapist, you should already be familiar with signs of abuse in general, but you can also educate yourself on abuse tactics that are commonly used on asexual-spectrum people in particular. […]
January 28th, 2018 at 5:34 pm
[…] seen as dysfunctional, as illegitimate, and as inappropriate — and these ideas have been used as justification for mistreatment in relationships. Exposure to these ideas in relationships embeds the ideas further in […]
September 30th, 2020 at 10:01 am
[…] another part of this, we should challenge the abuse and violence that emerges from anti-ace ideas, which casts us as challenges to be conquered, as […]