This is a post with frank discussions of abuse, about personal experience as much as abstract theory.
I figure if you were to try saying, “There are different styles of abusers, and not all abuse looks the same,” most people would shrug and nod. But that doesn’t really give anyone a picture of what that means.
I’ve been thinking about this since two different women commented on this post telling me that they’ve been in abusive relationships before and that they know their current relationships aren’t abusive because of that past experience. I’m not interested in questioning their assessment of those individual relationships, but it did get me thinking about that train of logic. As if abuse is identifiable by holding it up against other abuse and seeing if it shares the same silhouette.
Now consider this:
The way I was treated by the boy who cornered me in his backyard when I was a kid and beat me up until I cried and acted so confused about it that I apologized to him is completely different from the way I was treated by the college friend who emotionally manipulated me until I broke down crying and wishing I wasn’t so stupid and broken is completely different from the way I was treated by the assorted students in my high school art class who scrutinized me for vulnerabilities and put me so on edge that on more than one occasion I reacted to being startled by screaming is completely different from the way I was treated by my middle school classmate who gaslighted me about the promise she made and fought to convince me that I hadn’t been deliberately excluded from a project is completely different from the way I was treated by my “friend” at camp who intimidated me and wouldn’t stop pinching and demeaning me is completely different from the way I was treated by a tall friend-of-a-friend who stood in front of me with an expectant expression after she said “I know I pissed you off” and then waited, as if cuing me to say “it’s okay” about the fact that she had verbally sexually assaulted me for expressing a social boundary.
Is only one of those “real abuse”? Does it matter?
Here is something I would want all aces to know: finding safety is not as simple as identifying difference.
Here is something else I would want all aces to know: abusers benefit from being different from each other.
The easiest way I know to explain this is by talking about the Ex-Friend again.
When I started becoming friends with him, I had already been identifying as ace for a while. I knew what most common reactions to asexuality looked like. I was anxious about coming out to him when it came up, but he acted completely cool with it. Asked a few clarifying questions, and that was it. Was tactful and respectful about it.
When I acted annoyed about him tapping his hand on top of my head, I knew I was being weird. I’d been primed all my life with being told that only certain kinds of physical boundaries are reasonable, even if I had figured out by then that that wasn’t true. So I was pleasantly surprised when he apologized for it and even brought up the term “consent” by himself, even despite the nonsexual context.
When I told him all sorts of socially unacceptable things, from rooting for one of his book characters to be nonbinary to telling him that I’m afraid all the time, I knew good and well that the standard response to those things was to discount them as ridiculous and extreme and possibly even a pretense. And he took it all in stride.
When something ghastly embarrassing happened, I expected him to be at least a little annoyed about it, or a little weirded out, at least. I’d created a significant inconvenience and an awkward situation, one even I would be put off by. Despite having fair reason not to, he told me it was all fine and expressed concern only for me, not for himself. I tried to play it off like I wasn’t mortified. The pleasant casual way he was acting about it helped a lot.
He was so nice.
He kept surpassing my expectations in every way.
And he seemed so different from what I was scared of.
And I thought I was safe.
And within a few months he would have me twisted into pretzels and hating myself.
Sure, he surpassed the baseline of what I’d learned to anticipate from other people. That’s because other people are terrible to begin with. Just because he didn’t mimic them completely didn’t mean he wasn’t terrible for me too.
This is what I want everyone to know:
Expectations aren’t the same thing as standards, but the trouble is, it’s hard to stop one from affecting the other.
This is also what I want everyone to know:
People can’t be proved trustworthy by demonstrating mere difference from other abusers.
That’s how one got my trust and exploited it.
That’s how abusers benefit from being different from each other.
I’m reminded of this part of Bancroft’s book again:
[An abusive man] tends to express disapproval of other clients whose abuse is different from his — because he considers anything he wouldn’t do to be “real” abuse — and while tending to express sympathy for and support of any fellow abuser who employs the same tactics or justifications that he does, turns to me to say: “But what do you expect the poor man to do given his circumstances?”
Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?, p.137
And in combination with the abusers decrying abusers effect [tw: sexual assault], well…
It’s tricky. Because every outward criteria is fallible, and because gaining trust doesn’t mean that trust isn’t misplaced. That’s what’s so insidious about it all.
This is also why I think general hostility makes people under the asexual umbrella susceptible to individual abuse.
I think aces in general have a lot of baggage. Our existence is degraded as selfish, fake, and wrong, and then people turn around and gaslight us about whether we have anything to complain about. And we’re so used to bracing ourselves for the worst, the second-worst can seem like a blessing.
And there are manipulators who will trade on that to elevate themselves, to paint themselves a new silhouette so different from the ones you’ve known before.
Here is what I want everyone to know:
It’s not a matching game.