As an extension of the conversation that produced this list of bad advice from ace advice blogs, I’m making this post to provide some concrete tips (for mods of such blogs) on how to recognize and give advice about potentially abusive situations.
Firstly, it’s important to note the challenges inherent to the medium of an advice tumblr blog, especially where anonymous asks are concerned. Typically, there will be no opportunity to ask follow-up questions or discover any more details to the situation than what you’ve been initially given — which will always be very little, even if the asker sends their message in multiple parts. Due to extremely limited information about the situations and relationships in question, you will rarely (if ever) be able to reach 100% certainty about whether a relationship is abusive. The best you can do is identify the possibility that it may be abusive, if even that. You have to work with what you have, and the following tips will help you make the most of it.
1) Familiarize yourself with the subject of abuse and its mechanics, as well as related resources for abuse victims. Despite its limitations, I recommend Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling 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 bookmark some resources on safety planning. Queenie, the Queen of Linkspams, even has a linkspam on giving survivor-competent advice written just for advice bloggers, which also has lots of links to additional resources you can pass along to your anons, where appropriate.
Keep researching abuse dynamics until you understand why “Talk to them about it” isn’t a solution to every relationship problem.
Once you’re confident in your understanding of abuse and are looking at a message asking for relationship advice…
2) Separate the request for advice into parts and categorize them. You may find it easiest to copy & paste the message into a separate document and begin pulling it apart from there, rather than trying to do it all in your head. One staple of advice requests is background/biographical information (“Hi, I’m a 17 year old demisexual girl in a romantic relationship”) which is usually placed at the beginning. Set this aside from the rest. Another category you can look for is the specific problem that warrants advice. Sometimes, this might be presented explicitly as a question (“What should I tell her?” or “How can we find middle ground?”). Other times, you might have to make some guesses.
The purpose of analyzing the message this way is to stop yourself from operating off a gestalt impression and to force you to consider each detail. Most of the mistakes in the “bad relationship advice” section of my Bad Ace Advice post could have been avoided with better reading comprehension and attention to details.
3) Look for signs of incorrect beliefs, such as a the sex-love equivalency, the sex-as-worth principle, or the idea that sex is a need. In your answer, it will be your responsibility to correct these beliefs. You should be doing that anyway, but in potentially abusive situations this is crucial. Feelings of entitlement and the pervasiveness of paradigms like these are a key part of what enables abuse. If the asker cites wrong ideas as a justification for someone else’s hurtful behavior, you can gently inform them that what they’ve been told isn’t true and that they deserve better. If the asker cites wrong ideas as a justification for their own behavior, it’s time for you to put your foot down. Abusers don’t have a chance of changing unless they’re taught that their abusive behavior will not be tolerated.
4) Look for signs of guilt or shame. Whether the asker is being actively abused or not, they may be indicating negative self-image disproportionate to anything they may have done wrong or using maladaptive strategies (like lying about their boundaries) to limit their vulnerability to social cost. In this message, for example, anon says “I’m scared,” “I told her I might be ready someday so I didn’t seem like a burden,” and “I don’t want to tie [my girlfriend] down,” indicating a negative view of their own sexual boundaries and a lot of anxiety about how their girlfriend might react to the truth. These quotes alone may not be definitive proof of abuse, but they are the kind of problems that can be caused or exacerbated by abuse, so make note of these kinds of signs and consider them an impetus to handle the question as if abuse may be a factor.
While the exact advice to give will depend on the circumstances, an important way to help all abuse victims is through reassurance (example, example [tw: rape]). Tell them their feelings are valid. Their experiences are real. No one deserves to deal with what they’re going through.
If you’re inexperienced in how to respond to these situations, the RFAS tumblr is a good place to study.
5) Look for signs of twisting or exaggeration. Be mindful of the possibility that the asker themselves may be an abuser trying to get you on their side. I’ve posted a stock example of abusive twisting before, and here’s another:
Pat: She thinks money grows on trees.
Bancroft: Gwen said that money grows on trees?
Pat: Well, no, not just like that. But that’s how she acts.
Bancroft: Let’s try again. What was she saying in the argument?
[…] Pat: I already told you, she wants me to be a magician who can just make it appear.
Bancroft: But she must have been making points about it. What was she saying?
Pat: Oh, I don’t know… She says we should sell our car and get a shit box, which would just end up costing us more in the long run, plus I don’t want to deal with it.
Bancroft: What do you drive now?
Pat: A Saab.
Bancroft: Let me guess. She would like to trade the Saab in on a reliable car that has lower monthly payments, cheaper parts, and fewer repair bills.
Pat: Yeah, that’s what I said, a shit box.
-Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, pg. 81
You can’t always take askers at their word about a situation, especially if you don’t have the chance to ask follow-up questions. As this example shows, abusers will misrepresent and deride their victims in ways that don’t even make sense once you peel back the layers.
Where asexuality is concerned, you can find examples of this kind of language here, in an ask message from 2013, and here, in a comment on my post about ace/non-ace romantic relationships. Note the accusation “she seems to think that I don’t love her enough to suppress my sexual urges towards her” and the question “Are some asexuals just completely incapable of empathy?” If you were to take either of these people at their word, they would leave you convinced that the asexual woman in question is being callous and unfair. Look closer, and you’ll see that what they’re branding their partners callous and unfair for… is essentially just not consenting to sex.
Keep an eye out for these tactics and don’t fall for them by giving sympathy to an abuser. There’s not much you can do to change these kinds of people, but the least you can do is refuse to enable them.
Once you’ve applied tips #1 through #5, bear in mind that you’re still working with an incomplete picture of the situation as you compose your answer. As you’ll understand if you’ve done enough research already (or have direct experience of your own), not only are abusers good at concealing and misrepresenting their own abusive acts, but they also teach the people they control to minimize and avoid acknowledging the cruel things they do to them. Consequently, you may want to consider the possibility of abuse even when no signs are given and keep that angle in mind.
If you do think the asker may be in an abusive relationship, your research spree from #1 should have led you to some resources which you can then pass on to them — such as crisis hotlines, safety planning resources, self-care tips, and other forms of appropriate outside support beyond your blog. See Queenie’s tips below.
eta 7/28/17: Related Reading – red flags for identifying a “missing person” case that involves an intentional runaway