Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Abuse is abuse, no matter where it comes from
Hat-tip to Snoopy for alerting me to this story this morning.
The more I learn about abuse and abusers, the more I see similarities across a broad spectrum of stories. This is valuable to me because, as someone who cares about ending sexual violence and abuse, the more I’m able to recognize the signs of abusive relationships, the more I’ll be able to push back against them.
In the annals of stories that definitely have not made me feel positive about the world is this report from Dateline about a young man named Jaime Ramos. The story is really long, but the basic scenario is Mr. Ramos, an abused, neglected 21-year old, was left with no parents and an uncle who sexually tormented him for 10 years. Ramos was involved in a sexual relationship with one of his teachers as a young man, got obsessed, and when she broke it off, he exhibited some stalking behavior and got arrested. After getting into a work-release program, Ramos was seduced and manipulated by his program counselor Patty Presba. Patty was 47 and a mother of four. Their relationship had every component of abuse that violence prevention experts know to look for. Eventually, Patty convinced Jaime to kill her husband. If you have the time, the dateline report is thorough, if depressing.
Ramos was an incest survivor and the victim of ridiculous levels of trauma. He was needy and vulnerable, and now it seems likely that he is a murderer as well. His story is not particularly different than the vast majority of victims of domestic violence except for his gender. We as a culture don’t expect women to ever be perpetrators of abuse, and when it happens, we sort of don’t know what to do with it, even when it looks pretty much the same as male abuse. Dr. Evan Stark, author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life wrote at length about all of the strategies abusers use to manipulate and control their victims, and violence is only one of those aspects. Isolation, emotional control, and taking over aspects of the victim’s day-to-day reality are tactics used for power and dominance. While Dr. Stark’s book primarily looks at male abusers and the strategies they use to gain power over their mostly female victims, what struck me about the Ramos case was how similar it felt and sounded to many of the male-perpetrated situations I’ve studied (with violence being the one stark difference).
One of the major personal reasons I got involved with BARCC was to prove to myself and to others that not all men are rapists. Not all of us are abusers; power and domination and pain and hurt are not endemic to being a man. While I still mostly believe that (I have some more longer, less well-articulated thoughts about the way men are socialized and how that socialization fosters violence), one of the huge eye-opening aspects of working at BARCC is learning that dominance, manipulation, and control are not a male-only realm, even if the majority of perpetrators are male. The cultural narrative about who could be a victim and who couldn’t had seeped into my brain. Myriam Denov, a researcher at the University of Ottawa, wrote a journal article in 2003 titled “The myth of innocence: Sexual scripts and the recognition of child sexual abuse by female perpetrators” (the link is unfortunately only to an abstract). In the abstract, Denov wrote:
Moreover, it highlights the role of traditional sexual scripts in impeding the official recognition of the problem. Traditional sexual scripts, particularly the perception of females as sexually passive, harmless, and innocent, appear not only to have influenced broader societal views concerning sexuality and sexual abuse but also to have permeated the criminal law, victim reporting practices, and professional responses to female sex offending. The implicit denial of women’s potential for sexual aggression within these three domains may ultimately contribute to the underrecognition of the problem in official sources.
We have discussed before the hurdles that survivors of rape and sexual assault have to jump over if they want to report their assaults, and that’s if they already conform to the social standards of who can be a survivor in the first place. One of my goals for myself is to start trying to see, and prevent (in whatever way I can, anyway), abusive behavior, and not just abusers. When I look for the latter, what I will see is men, and only men. I will see them because men do make up the majority of perpetrators of sexual and partner violence, but I will also see men because I’ve been trained to understand that abuse is something that men do. That training leaves me poorly placed to support men who are survivors of abuse, or genderqueer folks, or women who are abused by other women.
I’ll need help, though. I’ll need a media that treats abuse as abuse, no matter who perpetrates it or survives it. I’ll need other bystanders, especially other male-identified ones, to help me remember that abuse can come from anyone regardless of gender presentation.
And I’ll need hot music videos to help me keep my sanity when I read about sexually abused and neglected 21 year old kids getting manipulated into killing people. Here’s a start for that: Mint Royale’s remix of Singing in the Rain, because breakdancing piles of trash in a subway can make a lot of things better.