(Adapted and excerpted from S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College)
Healthy, beneficial and consensual sex, and sexual, romantic or other interpersonal relationships are democratic: everyone involved always gets a vote, and everyone involved needs to seek and reach consensus. When either partner isn't given or allowed to have an equal voice, or when one voice or person is dismissed or silenced, we are usually looking at abuse. When one partner chooses not to treat another with respect and care for their physical, emotional and sexual health, well-being and safety, it is abuse. When a relationship is more about one person's control or power than it is about both people enhancing the whole of their lives by sharing a part of them, a relationship isn't healthy. We have the right to be and always should be physically and emotionally safe in our relationships and our world.
Abuse, reduced to its simplest explanation, is all about power and control: someone abusing someone else wants all the power and all the control – and not a shared partnership of equals - and through abuse, seeks to take both away from another person, to rob them of their security, safety, emotional equilibrium, joint control of their relationship and full ownership of their own hearts, minds, bodies and lives.
Sometimes abuses are taken seriously in our culture and our communities and recognized as abuse: believe it or not, much of that is pretty new, especially when abuse is recognized within romantic relationships (for a long time, men, particularly, in relationships were seen as entitled to do whatever they wanted to female partners). Other times, abuse may be denied, dismissed or shrugged off as unimportant, minor or “just the way things are.” All too often, the victim is made jointly responsible for abuse or even blamed for rape or abuse instead of the rapist or abuser. Many forms of abuse are based in socially accepted inequities between genders, ages, races or social strata. Some kinds of abuse, or warning signs of abusive behavior -- like irrational jealousy -- are even thought of as romantic! In a world in which abuse is so prevalent and common, it’s not surprising that while sometimes when a person is abused they have no doubt in their minds that is what has occurred, it’s often unclear and hard to identify.
To abuse means to harm or injure. From a broader viewpoint, what abuse is depends on what sort of abuse we’re talking about. The most common categories of abuse are:
Emotional and/or verbal abuse: Behaviors which are used to emotionally control, dominate, manipulate or intimidate a person. Emotional abuse is: threats, name-calling, belittling, criticizing, or using words or actions in an attempt to make another person feel stupid, small, crazy, ashamed or worthless. Other aspects of emotional abuse can include: isolating a person by keeping them from friends or family, dismissing limits and boundaries, intentionally withholding general approval or support, constantly laying false blame on a partner, attempting to control someone’s appearance or their physical freedom through threats or belittling, profound possessiveness or a pattern of harming someone then begging their forgiveness or shifting the blame for abuse onto them. Emotional abuse is often thought to be the most benign form of abuse, however, it has the capacity to harm just as deeply as any other type of abuse, and for many people who have suffered a range of different abuses, emotional abuse can carry the deepest scars, especially when it has occurred during childhood or adolescence. As well, emotional and verbal abuse often escalate to other forms of abuse over time.
Physical abuse: Physical abuse is intentional physical harm or injury. Hitting, slapping, punching, pushing, biting, kicking, choking or burning someone purposefully are all physical abuses. Throwing things at another person, threatening physical harm or physically restraining someone are also physical abuses. Not everyone who is physically abused will have obvious injuries or scars: you cannot always tell who is physically abused merely by looking, nor does a lack of scars, bruises or broken bones mean a person has not been physically abused.
Rape and sexual assault/abuse: Forcing -- physically, verbally or emotionally -- someone to engage in any given sexual activity they do not want to (or orgasm they do not want to have), have not consented to or have not been in a position to give full consent to -- usually manual sex, oral sex, vaginal or anal sex or fondling -- is rape and/or sexual assault. When a rapist is known to the person who has been raped, it is called acquaintance, partner/spouse or date rape. It is rape if a person consents to a sexual activity at one point then later, rescinds that consent -- changes their mind and says no -- and their partner continues with the sexual activity despite their protests. It is rape ANY time one partner does not want to be engaging in sex and the other engages in it to or on them anyway.
Coercion is also a form of sexual assault. For example, arguing for or initiating a sexual activity to the point that a person gives consent by being worn down. Sexual activity which is initiated under duress, or when someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol can also be rape and sexual assault. Sex which involves physical abuse, a person being forced to view pornography, to wear certain clothes or go without the clothes they wish to, to look at the genitals of someone else against their will or to watch certain sex acts (like masturbation) against their will, name-calling during or other forms of emotional, verbal or physical abuse during sexual activity can also be classed as sexual assault.
Child abuse: Physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse which occurs to a child. While teens and young adults are not children, not only may they be legally considered so in instances of abuse (if they are under the age of majority), many teens and young adults are survivors of child abuse. Those who were abused as children, or who witnessed family abuse as children, may be more likely to be abuse victims as adults, or to become abusers, especially if they are not aware that their abuse as children was not normal or acceptable: when we grow up without healthy boundaries and behavior, it is far harder to learn them – or even know what they are -- later in life.
Incest: A subset of child abuse and rape, incest is sexual abuse – rape and fondling, as well as voyeurism, sexual comments, forcing a child to masturbate and exploitation like child pornography or prostitution -- within the family, by parents or guardians, grandparents, uncles or aunts, siblings or extended family. Incest is considered to be one of the most damaging forms of abuse because it often begins when the victims are very young, and because it happens at the hands of those the victim often trusts the most, and who are the most responsible for his or her care.
Even if any of these conditions were present, and even if you didn't make the best choices, the fault still lies with the abuser, not you. Certainly, we all need to learn to protect ourselves and make choices which are in the best interest of keeping us safe. But even if we have not done so, or if we missed what in hindsight seem like obvious clues we were in danger, it’s not our fault. Ever. If someone is trying to tell you or someone you know who is being or has been abused that it is their fault, or if the little voices inside your head are telling you it’s your fault, understand that they are wrong. Just like the person who crashed their car into a tree is at fault, not the tree, the person at fault is the abuser, not the abused.
Sexual harassment: Sexual harassment can be sexual and emotional and/or verbal abuse. Sexual harassment is uninvited and/or unwanted sexual behavior, like being touched when you don’t want to be, sexual name-calling or jokes, or continued sexual propositions or sexual attention after you've already said no. Sexual harassment is currently epidemic in some schools, and sometimes even comes from teachers or other school staff, not just fellow students. “Gay-bashing” is also a form of sexual harassment as is harassing someone about their gender or gender identity.
Domestic, Intimate Partner or Dating Abuse: Emotional, verbal, physical and/or sexual abuse that occurs between sexual or romantic partners or spouses. The abuse may also include threats or injury to property, pets, children or other family members, not just the spouse or partner. Battering is another term sometimes used to describe domestic abuse. Most of this article addresses abuse from partners or people known to us because that is where most of these abuses are most likely to happen. It's wise to be alert and aware when it comes to stranger-danger, but when it all comes down to it, most of us are more likely to find abuse at or around our homes and/or coming from people we know or even know very well.
Hate crimes: Hate crimes are physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuses motivated by bias, bigotry, intolerance or hate towards people of a given group, such as a given sexual orientation, race, gender, nationality, religion, age or disability. Given how overwhelmingly it is women (or those simply not considered male or man-enough by culture or individuals) who are raped, many people also call rape a hate crime.
Gender Divides and Abuse in Same-Sex Relationships
While the majority of abusive people are male, that does not mean abusers are ONLY male. People of all genders can abuse other people, including women. Women are not magically incapable of abusing others. In instances of child emotional, physical and sexual abuse, some abusers are also female, and some male abusers were child abuse victims themselves. Domestic or partner abusers are also sometimes female.
Because of the common gender divides in abuses, it’s often assumed that GLBT abuse within relationships doesn’t exist. Statistically, rates of domestic abuse in queer partnerships are equal to those in heterosexual relationships. That invisibility can make finding support even more difficult for GLBT victims and survivors than for heterosexual victims and survivors. There are also challenges specific to GLBT people within abusive relationships which aren’t as prevalent for heterosexuals: social isolation may be even greater, the abuse may not be believed or it may be assumed it must be “mutual.” People who are not yet out per their gender or orientation may have to come out in the process of reporting abuse and getting help. Because GLBT communities are often very small, reporting abuse usually means everyone in the community will know about the abuse and “take sides.” For lesbians, reporting abuse can be difficult because some women’s organizations are reluctant to support the fact that women can also be abusive. GLBT people will have to often face homophobia in the process of reporting and seeking help with abuse, but lesbians may also have to face sexism, and for lesbians of color, racism as well. Trans gender people may have to deal with transphobia throughout.
If you’re a victim or survivor of abuse of a gender or in a relationship where the abuse is less likely to be recognized or acknowledged (and that goes for within your family as well), do NOT let that stop you from seeking help and/or reporting the abuse. While it can certainly be extra-challenging in these situations to do so, it’s always going to be better to deal with those challenges to get yourself safe and sound than it is to remain trapped in abuse. Check the resources section of the site for organizations which help male or same-sex partnered victims of abuse, as well as women abused by men.
Teens and young adults are often at a particular risk, because they don't have a lot of experience with intimate relationships, and rates of abuse in teen relationships have been on the rise for some time now. Statistically, around 1 out of every 3 high school and college students has experienced sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional violence in dating relationships, and forty percent of girls aged 14 to 17 say they know someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend. Women ages 16 to 24 experience the highest rates of intimate violence--nearly 20 per 1000 women, and 95% of all victims of domestic violence (partner abuse) are women. When it comes to sexual assaults, a survey of adolescent and college students revealed that date rape accounted for 67 percent of sexual assaults, 1/2 of all rape victims are raped between the ages of 14 and 17, and in one study, over 50% of high school boys and 42% of high school girls believed that there are times when it is "acceptable for a male to hold a female down and physically force her to engage in intercourse.
When intimate relationships or sexual activity are new to a person, it all can feel a bit risky, even if you're ready. Learning to talk about sex and work out interpersonal issues with a partner can be hard, and take a long time to master. So, it can be tricky sometimes to see the bad stuff coming, or even to see it clearly when it's already there. But some things can tip us off to potentially abusive patterns.
Are you in a relationship or partnership which you suspect may be emotionally unsafe or unhealthy for you or others?
Give yourself a checkup. Are you:
How about any of these issues or dynamics?
It’s absolutely true that someone who abuses is a troubled person. So, an abuse victim who knows and is involved with his or her abuser may feel that by remaining with or going back to an abuser, they’re helping that person or saving them from themselves by taking the abuse: they may feel if they just love them enough, or stick around long enough, their abuser will miraculously get better and stop the abuse. But that’s just not true. No abuser is helped by being enabled or allowed to continue abusing: sticking around for abuse only validates the abuser's idea that what they're doing is right. An abuser isn’t the victim (and if they have previously been a victim of abuse, they're still not the victim of the person they are abusing): the person being abused is, and that’s whose needs should always come first, because that is the person in the most acute danger and in the most need of help. It is NOT an abuse victim’s responsibility to get help for their abuser: it’s their responsibility to get help for themselves.
Thinking abusers are helped by staying with them is akin to saying that someone who has a drug problem is best served by living in a crack den, or that someone with an eating disorder will get better if you just let them starve themselves to death. Study after study has shown very clearly that until the cycle of abuse is broken -- almost always by either the abused person leaving, or by the abuser being incarcerated -- a person who abuses will continue to do so.
The cycle of abuse is a circular pattern most abusive relationships follow:
1) A honeymoon or seduction phase (some people call it the remorse stage), a state when both partners are happy to be in a relationship, and at a point where the relationship is enjoyable, romantic. This phase can feel like a time when there isn't any abuse, even though it's a key part of abuse, since without it, no one would wind up in an abusive relationship or stay in one: it's the "hook" an abusive person relies on to get their partner and keep their partner sticking around.
2) The tension phase, when the couple is getting into small arguments, and the abuser becomes frustrated with their partner. Even if an abused partner tries very hard not to do things they know will lead to attacks, an abuser will usually find, during this phase, things which will eventually result in the next phase.
3) The last stage is the abuse phase, or the explosion phase, where one specific incident leads to an explosion of anger, in the form of physical, sexual, verbal or other attacks.
4) The abuser then quickly defaults into the honeymoon or seduction phase to make up for their behavior. They will probably apologize at this time, may give gifts or be very romantic, and even though they may also still tell the abused person the explosion was that person's fault, not their own, they will generally try and be as nice as they can, and try and gain the sympathy of the person they are abusing.
To illustrate how that cycle can play out, M. and J. may seem to be doing just fine, even great sometimes: M. may be showered with gifts, taken out, have enjoyable sex, be told good things about themselves by J., feel cared for or loved. Then, over a period of time -- anywhere from years to months to weeks to even just days -- J. starts to get agitated, usually by very small things, such as M. dressing in a way they don't like, M. not calling them at specific times, M. spending time with friends and family instead of J., not wanting sex often enough or not seeming to enjoy it enough, not showing enough attention, or choosing to spend extra time with school or work instead of with J. Eventually, enough of those things happen that any one given thing sends J. over the edge, and J. might then verbally, physically or sexually attack M. Almost immediately afterwards, and for another period of time, J. will be highly apologetic, might send flowers or write a love letter, talk about what a bad person they are or how they just have such a hard time controlling themselves when M. makes them so mad, what have you. All of that can make M. feel like everything was their fault, like J. really is a good person who just gets irritated by them, and like things can get better again. But that "honeymoon" period will only go on until that tension-building phase starts again, with the two locked in an endless cycle, and the abuses that happen in the explosion phases will usually get more and more severe as time goes on, and the honeymoon and tension-building phases will often get shorter in duration.
So, “being really nice sometimes,” doesn’t mean abuse isn’t happening. When “being nice” is what happens before and after abuse, it’s just another part of abuse. If you hear yourself or a friend who is being abused talking about the fact that there are times when an abuser isn't abusive, but is so, so sweet, know that that's slippery. Again, those "sweet" times are part of the whole cycle of abuse.
If you're experiencing any of the items in those checklists, or that cycle seems like something which may be starting, find someone outside your partnership to talk to about the situation who you feel can be objective, maybe a friend, maybe your religious leader or a teacher, maybe a parent, aunt or uncle. Take some time alone, too, to really look at how you're feeling, and seek out trouble spots or conflicts: it can help to try and look at how you feel now and how you felt either before the relationship you're in, or how you feel with a close friend or a family member who loves you. If only one or two of these things are going on or just starting, and so long as it doesn't compromise your safety, you can talk to your partner as well if you want to try to continue the relationship. Making a reality check with someone else and yourself, then talking to your partner, is pretty vital and a good management tool, as is trusting your gut instincts. Even if it doesn't seem like you're in an abusive relationship yet, but something is telling you things don't feel right, trust yourself and just move away from the relationship: a lot of times, people who have gotten out of abusive situations or relationships will later say that in hindsight, they did have intuitive feelings that were telling them no right from the start.
(Overall, my personal perspective is that if these dynamics have even started to crop up, you're better off moving on before getting invested than you are trying to work them out and finding yourself feeling trapped in them later when it's tougher to leave. But I recognize that many people in relationships will often want to try to fix things first, so in that case, I'd just strongly encourage you to try and view things as clearly as possible, and always put your safety first.)
However, if many or all of these things are or have been going on -- or if in the list of abuses above, you have any or some of them happening in your relationship -- then we can safely say that the relationship you're in is unhealthy and abusive. Talking to your partner will not help, and might endanger you further. Trying to behave in the way your partner wants you to may extend the periods of time in which you are not abused, but it will not prevent abuses or attacks nor repair your relationship. What you are really going to need to do is to get out of the relationship for good. Not everyone can do that right away, and with an abusive partner, it's really important that you do what you can to gradually prepare yourself to leave and be protected right afterwards: a hard truth is that an abused partner who leaves is usually at the highest danger when he or she is leaving, since to an abuser, that is an act which threatens their control more than any other.
To identify and step away from abuse:
• Listen. It can be difficult to accept sometimes that a parent may be concerned not just because they’re overprotective or too rigid, or a friend because they’re jealous you have a boyfriend or girlfriend and they don’t. Often, when the people who care about us voice concerns, it’s for good reason. And if and when everyone around us is voicing the same or similar concerns, there’s an incredibly good chance they’re right. Listen to what the people you know care about you have to say. As always, trust your own instincts, and in cases of abuse, give your head more clout than your heart: because all abuse includes emotional factors, it’s typical for our emotions to be confused and convoluted when we’ve been or are being abused.
• Tell. Even if no one else notices what is going on, you can get help. Tell someone you can trust: friends or your friend’s parent, immediate or extended family, a teacher, coach or school counselor, a neighbor. You can also call a hotline or a community service for victims of abuse: your local phone book will have listings. There are Internet communities where you can post anonymously. You can also go directly to local community centers, shelters, police stations or social service agencies. Tell someone what's going on.
• Prepare and Leave. Once you get some trusted help, you can make a safe plan to take action soon and get out and away, and to do so without your partner knowing: in the interest of your safety, you do not want to grandstand about leaving. That plan should include making sure you have other people around to help keep you safe when you leave the relationship, getting yourself set up so that your ex can't contact you (getting a whole new phone number, for instance, rather than just changing your old one, getting a new place to live, enrolling in a new school, etc.) making places you can't avoid your partner, like your job, safe for you, filing charges against someone, and getting you the emotional support and extra protection you need, via friends and family, counseling or support groups. It's also vital that once you leave, you stay away: going back to a partner you left not only puts you back at ground zero, you're also wide open to being more deeply harmed since you defied them. When you leave an abusive person, you need to get as far from them as possible and make no more contact again. Again, while an abused person needs to leave to end the abuse, leaving also presents one last opportunity for the most severe abuses, so it's really important to protect yourself during leaving and to make it final.
You may have doubts throughout this process, miss your partner, or try and convince yourself that what happened wasn’t really abuse, or was punishment you asked for in some way. There’s often a lot of one step forward, two steps back stuff in dealing with abuse. You may have a very confusing range of emotions, from anger to apathy, sorrow to a feeling of incredible relief. Do your best to honor and explore all of those emotions. Ask friends, family or your counselor for the support you need. You may feel like since you got yourself into a situation of abuse or tolerated it that you’ve no right to ask them for help, but that isn’t so: people who care for you will want to be there for you during crisis, just like you’d likely be there for them. They may not always be as patient or available as you’d like them to be, so do seek out as many avenues of support as you can. Support groups specifically for abuse survivors can be especially helpful since the people in them know exactly what you’re going through. Healing from abuse is often a long process, and abuse leaves traces all over our psyche we have to learn to navigate our way through. The help and support of those who have been there is often priceless.
Some people are reluctant to seek out therapy, counseling or support groups for abuse or assault, because they aren’t ready to really face up to having been abused, don’t want to “talk to strangers,” share what seems very private to them with someone else, or because of the stigma still attached to therapy and counseling. You might also be concerned that a therapist or counselor is going to blame you for the abuse or tell you how to live your life, or even bash a partner who, while abusive, you may still feel loyalty to. Almost always, those are misplaced concerns: a good, qualified abuse counselor will not do those things. Most of what they do is listen and ask questions, and help you to make your own choices and do your own healing, rather than trying to do it for you. You also don’t have to work with just any counselor, support group or therapist: shop around and wait to start therapy until you find someone who feels best for you.
You might also be reluctant to enter therapy or counseling because that may feel like a statement that there’s something profoundly wrong with you. But therapy isn’t about “fixing” people or about being “crazy.” It’s about having someone who is objective and fully present who can listen to you, who has experience with all the things you may be dealing with and knows good tools for managing them. People who have been abused or assaulted often suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and/or panic attacks, self-injury, low-self esteem, substance abuse or a host of other disorders or issues which require real and consistent help and support. The point of therapy isn’t to fix you because you’re broken, but to help you deal so that you can cope, move forward and have a life of real quality.
Can’t Happen to You?
For abused people who do not have a low self-image, who firmly believe that abuse is not okay and know full well what it is, it may be incredibly difficult to accept that they’re being abused, that they have “allowed” themselves to be abused, and the shame of being abused or staying with an abuser runs very deep. It’s sometimes hard to really see the whole of abuse coming, so it’s not uncommon to truly just wake up one day and realize you are in the thick of an abusive relationship without really knowing how you wound up there.
For others, accepting that their partner is anything other than a wonderful person who loves them is very hard. Some abused people feel that if they acknowledge or address abuse, they’ll only be hurt even more, or worry that their partner will be harmed. Plenty are convinced that miraculously, their abusive partner will get better, possibly though their love. Too, it’s sadly not uncommon for other people in our lives to defend abusers or certain types of abuse, especially if they are survivors of abuse or abusers themselves, and perceive abuse to be normal or acceptable. Denial of abuse is profoundly common, from many different perspectives.
One of the biggest blind spots a lot of people have when it comes to assault and abuse is understanding that no one is automatically immune or protected. With most kinds of abuse, there are not groups or kinds of people where abuse isn't possible or somehow just can't happen. So, if you hear yourself or others referring to abuse victims as "those people," like it's about someone you or they couldn't possibly ever be, check in and reconsider.
Same goes for any ideas you might have about who could not possibly abuse or assault someone else. Rapists and other abusers are often people you know, people others respect, people of privilege, people who others find attractive, people who have friends, family, who hold good jobs, who live in good neighborhoods, people who are educated, people who may abuse a partner or someone else, but who treat other people or groups well. The only thing that makes it unlikely a person you know will not abuse someone else is if that person is deeply aware and committed to never abusing anyone.
The biggest single thing that perpetuates all types of abuse is silence.
All too often, not only does abuse go unreported, it goes unacknowledged or denied altogether. Most people neither want to be victims nor to be treated like victims, and let's face it: way too many people just don't want to have to see or acknowledge victims, either. A lot of why we've seen advances over the last few decades in abuse awareness as well as in supports and protections for victims and survivors is because people finally started speaking out and standing up: they refused to be silent any more. They refused to be victims, refused to go unheard and worked to be strong, vocal survivors.
Don’t be a victim. Be a survivor. Surviving, healing and thriving takes long, hard work, strength and bravery. It means standing up for yourself and telling someone when you’ve been or are being abused or assaulted. It means -- even when it's hard and it hurts -- getting away from and refusing to be with people who are dangerous or abusive. It may mean calling your abuser or attacker on what they did through reporting and the legal system. It may mean working through abuse which happened some time ago, and which you’d rather not revisit. To heal, we’ve got to do the hard work, even though we didn't ask to be in this situation in the first place. We have to look at all our feelings, even the ugly or scary ones, and let ourselves have them, we have to put the blame where it belongs, and we have to learn ways to cope with the effects of abuse, long and short term.
At the most basic level, surviving is refusing to allow an abuser or a culture which enables abuse to have continued power or control over you: to resist and reclaim your absolute and inarguable rights to physical and emotional safety, autonomy and power within yourself. A survivor just won’t be silenced or shamed: they’ll be strong and give themselves credit, care and love -- and require others do same -- for all they are and all they’ve done to survive and thrive. An abuser or attacker is a terrorist: a survivor of abuse or assault is a warrior.
Don't forget: just like any of us could be in danger of being abused or assaulted, some of us may also be at risk for abusing or may already be abusive. It may seem like some things which are abusive feel normal, especially if those behaviors were part of how you grew up, or are behaviors you may see or hear are accepted or excused. Becoming abusive isn't inevitable for anyone: it's a choice, and it's something anyone can avoid, especially if you know what to be on the lookout for and address.
If any of that looks familiar to you, you may already be abusive yourself or be on the road to becoming abusive.
If you’re concerned about being abusive now or in the future, seek out counseling and support now. Learning different patterns of behavior isn’t usually easy, but it is doable. You can ask your family doctor or a school guidance counselor to point you towards help and resources. Even if you’ve never exhibited abusive behaviors but are just concerned you might, perhaps because you grew up around them yourself, you can ask for help and seek out support. There’s absolutely no reason to feel ashamed about those concerns: if everyone was that concerned and aware, far fewer people would wind up abused.
These are some of my favorite online resources on abuse and assault awareness, protection and support for young people: