The stories we tell ourselves matter. So often I hear people say “It’s just fiction!” Conveniently forgetting that we use stories as teaching tools in school because they work. But I’m not going to beat that horse today. Instead, I want to talk about one specific story. The story of the abuser.
The abuser is a mean, selfish, angry man. He is a control freak who uses manipulation, coercion, and threats of (or actual) violence to keep the people he claims to love under his thumb. He is a horrible, evil person who may also be insane, but also may be redeemed by the power of love.
This is the story our culture tells about abusers. We have been seen it in movies, read it in books, talked over, around and under it, but we almost never look at it straight in the face and talk about it. It is this story which underlies all out discussions about abuse, our attempts to address abuse in the scene, and our ideas about what an abuser looks like.
This story is a lie. Abusers are rarely any of these things. Many abusers are like this young man, thinking they are helping the person they abuse. Some don’t know how to have a healthy relationship and believe thanks to many romcoms, romance books and porn, that they way they are behaving is healthy. Others may know that their behavior is wrong, but not know what is right or where to go to get help. Some may be dealing with mental or physical illness, lashing out from pain or inability to do anything else. And some are, in fact, the angry selfish prick of our popular narrative. Perhaps the most dangerous lie is that all abusers are men.
If we are ever going to deal with abuse in the scene, we need to change how we think about abusers. We need to stop thinking of monsters, and start thinking of people. We must be willing to look past a charismatic personality, to not dismiss the possibility that someone we like might be an abuser. And most importantly we need to be willing to look at ourselves.
The scene generally promotes an awareness of our behavior and its consequences in the dungeon. We encourage each other to know the risks of our chosen activities, to keep communication going within a scene in case problems develop, to honestly assess our mental state and ability to play safely, and to regularly check ourselves for the possibility that we may make a mistake. We need to start taking that same self-awareness to other parts of our interactions and relationships. To build healthy communication outside of scenes so we can recognize and deal with problems as they develop. To actively seek out and learn healthy relationship techniques, the way we learn new bondage techniques. To stop and assess our words, actions, and ask ourselves “Is this the way to build a healthy relationship?”
We need to understand that each of us can be an abuser, because only then will it be possible for the people who abusers to say, “I’m fucking up, I’m hurting people, I love, and I need help learning to stop.” For as long as saying, “I am an abuser,” is the same as saying, “I am a monster,” we will never be able to build the structures to effectively address abuse within the scene. (And for the rare abuser who is the selfish, angry, control freak of popular culture? We can’t help them, we can’t change them, we can only remove them to protect ourselves and others.)
Before I wrap up, I want to make one important distinction. Abusers are not rapists. Studies have shown that contrary to our popular view of the drunk college boy who got carried away, the majority of rapes are committed by serial rapists who deliberately plan out their attacks–yes, that includes so-called “date rape.” Rape and abuse may overlap, but they are not two sides of the same coin.