Feminists are Not Immune to Domestic Abuse

[TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains descriptions and discussions of domestic violence, including physical, emotional, and verbal abuse.]

Last week, as I was wading through my beloved Google Reader, I happened upon this post over at Feministe. With a title like “When Feminists Face Abuse,” I couldn’t put off reading it, despite the triggering feelings the very name conjured. The author tells a story of being in an abusive relationship with a man who doesn’t fit into any of our preconceived, meida-drivern notions of what an abuser looks like. It’s true that a good many abusers are in fact like those guys you see in Lifetime movies or read about in true crime books, the overtly controlling, domineering macho guy. But some are not. It’s the same problem that we have our soicetal notions of who rapes. Rather than the dark, shady dude in a ski mask we’re conditioned to think of, it’s usually someone you already know. And we do that with abusers. We think, like the author, that, “Hey, this guy’s a feminist! He’s cool! He’d never hurt me!” And it’s that type of thinking that lulls us into a sense of security, one that can prove to be very damaging.

That article struck a very large, very painful chord with me. Every single time I read something that addresses this, it’s like a sack of bricks landing directly onto my stomach. Waves of memories and guilt come flooding over me. I become sad and angry. I start to lose my breath and fear that this time I won’t be able to fight off the panic attacks that always seem to come for me. I was an abused feminist, and it isn’t something that I’ve been able to fully deal with. My abuser was also supposedly a feminist ally. I feel guilty although I know that I’m not any less of a feminist or a bad feminist for failinng to practice what I preach. I feel angry with myself for not stopping it sooner, even though I know how powerful defense mechanisms can be and how they’re masters of obfuscation.

Unlike the author of the other post, I was not physically abused. I suppose that’s where my mind had drawn the line, at the physical abuse. I knew that the day I got hit would be the day I left. What never registered with me was the other sort of abuse, the emotional/manipulative abuse that is so very insidious. I’m not sure that it failed to register, even; I knew, and I was in denial. I had been emotionally and verbally abused as a child, and in truth, I entered this relationship as a child. I was 16 when I began dating my former partner, and I was with him for five years before I told him that we were done, a process which took several weeks and nearly resulted in a phone call to the police. I think that because I was so young when we started out and still enduring emotional abuse at home, I glossed over my new abusive relationship with a protective coating of denial. I told myself it wasn’t the same thing. I told myself that it was my fault for being too selfish or too demanding. I told myself the controlling, jealous actions of my ex were just him watching out for me or being protective, all the while criticizing the hell out of Twilight for romanticizing creepy, controlling guys. I was disturbed by how he, at one point, ripped up my homecoming picture (several years after homecoming) because I had gone with another (gay!) guy he didn’t like me hanging out with, and again when he convinced me, usually after a huge fight, not to hang out with certain friends because he “didn’t know them well enough” and “didn’t trust them.

And again, I told myself that he was just being charmingly jealous when he told me how if I ever cheated on him, that he would kill the other person. If that person happened to be a woman, he would kill every lesbian or queer woman he could find. I heard that several times, especially over the course of our last year together, and each time it sickened me. I tried to push it out of my mind, and it usually worked, keeping me from facing what was going on. When that didn’t work, I denied that he really meant it. But when I did leave him for someone else, he made me truly terrified for that person’s life. He gaslighted me repeatedly, playing on my myriad existing mental illnesses to make me think I was delusional or irrational. What’s worse is that he thought it was all hilarious, because I apparently, “Look cute when I’m scared.” He blamed my feminism, which only grew stronger over the course of our dating, for our relationship problems. These are only a few of the things that happened, and only a few of the things that I’m comfortable talking about. I even fear I may have repressed some of what happened, and if I have, I don’t ever want to uncover it.

Staying with this person for five years was a mistake. But I am not less of a feminist for making it, and I refuse to let anyone tell me otherwise. My moment of realization came late in the game, after I finally saw for myself a way out. But the realization still came, and I am so glad it did. I often think that my feminist research, all that reading and writing and waxing philosophic, gave me the tools for my own denial. I knew so well the specifics of abuse and the language surrounding it that I was able to twist it so that I could cope with what was happening to me. In the most twisted example of confirmation bias I’ve experienced, I steered myself away from any information that might let in what I already knew, that I was in an abusive relationship. I instead sought out exceptions and specifics, and separated myself from the real definition of abuse with amazing mental gymnastics.

Coping with having been in an abusive relationship is a hard battle for anyone, but it feels so much harder when you carry the guilt of being an abused feminist. I feel that even by saying this here, where I feel safe, that I will lose credibility. I fear that by coming out about my experiences I will be seen as a phony, as someone who can judge not. We tell ourselves it will never happen to us. We tell ourselves that because we know, because we’re on the lookout, that we will never be taken advantage of. For many of us, that is true. But for some of us, it’s that kind of invincible thinking that helps the cycle move along. I vowed after that relationship to turn my analytical eye to all of my relationships, to not let it happen again. No matter how much it hurts to admit that you’re in a bad place, it hurts so much worse to stay there.

I’m happy to say that I was able to end that relationship. Throughout the three week course of the breakup, I endured verbal and emotional abuse that even now is triggering. I sat in a chair for two hours while my ex screamed and cried at me, calling me names all the while pleading with me to let him stay and threatening to kill himself or someone else if I didn’t. It was a painful breakup, but the next day all I felt was relief and freedom. Not sorrow, not regret. After two days, I did not feel guilty. I felt free. I entered a new relationship, and it is nothing short of wonderful, equal, and harmonious. I may have lost some of my feminist cred, at least in my mind, but I like to think I got some of it back. I’m working on that guilt now. Hell, I’m still working on learning to not apologize for every single thing I do in an effort of self-preservation. I would never think anybody else to be less of a feminist for doing exactly what I did, so why do I think it of myself? I know I’m hard on myself, but I also know I don’t deserve this. I’m in an honestly feminist, healthy relationship, and I love myself and what I am today.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship, I urge you to get help immediately. Talk to a friend, family member, or trusted party, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. You can also visit their website here. Please feel free to PM me if you want a friendly ear.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

17 replies on “Feminists are Not Immune to Domestic Abuse”

Thank you for sharing this. My experience with my ex follows almost the exact same trajectory. Perhaps fortunately, much of that relationship was long-distance, so the abuse was from afar. When I try to rationalize why I stayed so long, it’s usually because of that. Thankfully, I was able to extricate myself, also when I met someone new. He’s wonderful, and perhaps made me realize that I deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.

I’m glad you have found someone like that as well.

Overall, I try not to ever think about my ex. On the occasions when my current boyfriend asks me how I could have stayed with him so long, I just shake my head and change the subject. It hurts to much to think about. I’m comforted to know that I’m not the only feminist gal that struggles with this.

I’m really glad that you got out of that situation! It feels wonderful, doesn’t it?

I really don’t  think of mine anymore, unless he pops up to harass me. For a few months after we broke up, he’d text telling me what mental anguish I’d left him in and how much he still cared about me, I guess hoping that I’d pity him enough to take him back. After I finally told him that I did not care what happened to him at all (which I don’t!), his friend started texting me to tell me what a bitch I was, that I was crazy for thinking I’d been abused, and threatened to rape me. Of course, I called the police and filed a report against him. My ex then told me to leave him alone, and I hope that was the end of it, since my goal was to get him to stop harassing me. But even as early as a few weeks ago, he was texting me to tell me how he still cared about me and how much he missed me. If it happens again I’m blocking his number.

Oops, that was a bit of a tl;dr! Sorries!

I feel so sad that you ended up in that situation. This didn’t happen because you did something or did nothing. You didn’t cause this and you don’t have to wear the responsibility for it. Like the other comments said, it takes a strong person to free themself from this kind of situation. You have not lost any feminist cred at all. Your values haven’t changed–just your relationship status. Thanks for sharing your story. I think this is the kind of thing more women need to hear so they can recover from their own struggles.

[More TW for discussion of abuse, depression, and suicide]

I think, as awful as they are, living through terrible things gives us a certain sort of empathy and understanding toward other people in those situations that we would never have otherwise. It is absolutely true that it fucking sucks that I grew up in a verbally and emotionally abusive household, and it sucks that I still struggle with the cyclical process of depression, and it sucks that while I was in that abusive environment it got to the point where I experienced suicidal ideation every day (not to mention the couple half-assed attempts). I would never wish that sort of thing on anyone.

The fact that I did go through all that, though, gives me an ability to help others. If I hadn’t experienced it all first-hand, it would probably be a lot harder for me to understand the similar suffering of other individuals.

I mention all of this because I don’t think going through all that makes you weaker. And it certainly doesn’t make you somehow “less” of a feminist. You fell into the dark. And then you fought your way out. That takes a hell of a lot of strength, and it gives you a deeper understanding of these feminist issues that might not only help you, but it might help you help more.

Thanks for the reassurance. I really hope I can turn my experience into something positive for others. I’ve been working on academic papers and program initiatives regarding consent to sexual activity that are largely the result of me turning other facets of the abusive situation I was in into something that can help others. For now I can only talk about that part of the relationship in an academic context apart from myself, but I hope to write about that here someday. I feel like getting this out in the open not only helps me, but helps others who might be reading know that they’re not alone.

I certainly don’t think you are any less of a feminist for the experience.  Abusive relationships can happen to anyone.  Most abusers are incredibly manipulative and it’s not necessarily physical fear that keeps someone in the relationship.  One of my good friends was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship and is very much a strong feminist.

Far to often we fall into the myth that victims are somehow not strong enough to get out or always had low self esteem or “that would never happen to me”.  While I understood this on an intellectual level, I’m not sure I really believed it until I saw an abusive relationship firsthand as an adult.

Oh, he was so manipulative. He prided himself on it too, and used to joke about he could get people to do whatever he wanted back in high school. I think he was abusive towards me because I refused to fawn over him and bow at his feet. What is really sad is that now (as far as I know) he has a new girlfriend who does just that, one of his former coworkers he used to viciously make fun of behind her back (I’m talking the most vile, misogynist language you don’t want to imagine). I feel so sad for her knowing that she’s in my old postion, but she’ll never know it because she worships him.

I probably did stay for so long because of a mixture of low self-esteem (since improved!) and comfort with what I’d know for so long.

Perhaps it is important to acknowledge that just because it takes strength to leave an abusive relationship, it does not follow that those who find themselves in abusive relationships are weak for not leaving them right away. Getting out is difficult, and often difficult things take time.

If anything this makes you more credible, not less. You have lived through this and you have a valuable perspective.

I absolutely agree with this. Especially since, one of the time-old tactics of the abuser is to blame the victim for what the abuser does. Sure, when it’s, say, a colleague you don’t like, it might be easier to rationalize why that’s not true. But when it’s someone you love and trust…that’s a hell of a lot harder. Some people never realize it. And others don’t see a way out.

Thanks to both of you. It is way harder to leave when you trust somebody. I think part of what contributed to my finally being able to leave was finding out that my ex was busy breaking my trust by taking all sorts of drugs (I don’t) and lying about it. That and he was a Grade A moocher. I had a real charmer, amirite?

I’m so glas I had a way out and loving, supportive friends and family. I wish others had those things too.

Feminism is not (always) a shield, it’s a character feat. And just like being brave, smart or funny, it can be sawed down until you’re nothing more than a shell of a person. Anyone can end up in an abusive relationship, sadly some character feats or states of mind won’t safe you for it. If people genuinely tell you that you are less of a feminist because of this, they are less of a feminist because of those words.

I don’t think you can be less of a feminist because someone hurt you. Its like victim-blaming yourself because it took you a while to realize that you needed to leave. This is the kind of situation where I have to think of what I would say to someone else, and then use those words to cut myself some slack.

I’m glad things are better. And I don’t think you have lost any credibility here. You are brave and strong and awesome.

Sometimes I think that feminists are more in danger of this kind of abuse – because we want to believe that we are strong enough to handle anything, and we want to believe that we are independent and wouldn’t be vulnerable to this.

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