Sunday, 28 March 2010

caffeinated rant about forgiveness and sanctions

i was thinking about this last night and got into a bit of a dark place(!) so i'm trying to write about it on a sunny morning in the hope this will bring out a more balanced result.

i was thinking about forgiveness, and how i don't understand it.

a wonderful witchy woman once told me that cancerians like me carry the stories, and with them the grudges, of the community, and never forgive. at the risk of losing any fragile credibility by confessing my weakness for astrology, this made a lot of sense to me, and i wonder if that's what i'm doing here, and in my work - carrying, trying to release and honour, remember and link together, the secret stories of my community. i don't feel that i choose not to forgive: i just don't understand the concept.

someone once asked me if this means i think people are as bad as their worst actions, and this threw me. i think i do think that, and i'm not sure why i think it, rather than that people are, for instance, as good as their best actions. really, am i just talking nonsense? am i just incredibly judgemental? i think i really need to explore what i think about forgiveness in order to get anywhere in terms of understanding what i think about sanctions, or 'punishment' against abusive behaviour. here goes.

if someone is mean to me or someone else, i try to put myself in their shoes and think about why they did that. and of course there are a million reasons why people are sometimes mean but not in a way where they are systematically putting their own interests first; they've been mean but they weren't trying to get ahead by trampling on others. in this case, to me there is nothing to forgive: they just made a mistake, did something mean, and hopefully understand why they should try not to do it again.

but then there are a lot of times when people are mean in ways that constitute systematically putting their own interests first, trying to get ahead by trampling on others. if someone screws someone else over in this way they are acting as if they believe, consciously or otherwise, that they are entitled to do so. therefore they believe on some level that the other person is less human. to me, this attitude is intolerable. just entirely unacceptable. again, there's nothing to forgive: either someone, when challenged, starts to do the hard work of uprooting their sense of entitlement (as Bancroft would say) and learning not to oppress others, or they don't - because they don't wish to give up the benefits of oppressing, including the comfort of that elevated position.

so i fervently believe that communities need to come up with sanctions that strongly persuade people to do that uprooting.

which reminds me of a quote i've been meaning to link to here for ages, from Mai'a, again, in this post about communities supporting abusers, at Flip Flopping Joy:
"society tells us that being called a rapist or an abuser is like one of the worst things to be called. that it is a stigma that would haunt a man for the rest of his life. but for the most part. it doesnt. men shrug off that label, like a silk scarf slipping off the shoulders."
and the same, so often, if someone is called out for trying to get ahead using racism, for example, in a community. the manipulator may feel uncomfortable for a while as they are challenged and shunned perhaps, but in time things get back to normal. water under the bridge. no one wants to carry on being hostile for too long. i mean, great, if someone has put the work into the uprooting and is no longer prepared to act that way. but if not: no. i have no compassion for someone who would continue, is continuing, to do that (though most likely in more subtle ways so as not to get called out again). and yes, weirdly, i feel some kind of personal responsibility for remembering, carrying that story. why would we forgive that? it makes no sense to me.

except it does. to me, it's forgiveness that keeps the entire kyriarchy turning. we get screwed over, and it's easier to believe that someone did not, or did not intend to, dehumanise us - too frightening and overwhelming to think that that person was systematically trying to get ahead and was prepared to trample us in doing so.

for example, very few fathers end up alone in old age, no matter what they have put the family through. do i want people who've been oppressive all their lives to end up abandoned at the end of their lives? not necessarily. but where is the sanction? how do we, as communities, condemn that behaviour and give abusers something to lose?

i am fully aware that carrying around resentment (meaning, literally, re-feeling) is not at all healthy. i'm glad that forgiveness can be such a powerful way for many survivors of abuse to find freedom. it's not up to me if individual abusers are forgiven by those they have abused, and it is so often a positive thing for the survivor. i mean that as communities, to forgive is to miss the point entirely, and to forget is to collude.

people who oppress operate on the understanding that, at the end of the day, the community will absorb it, work around it. artists and writers who are known to have been abusive in their personal lives are loved and celebrated. overlooking abuse is collusion. 'forgetting' is collusion. forgiveness is a complex distraction and, i believe, colludes. 

ah, got it. i feel much better for working that out!

Friday, 26 March 2010

knowledge is power, etc

i'm completely in love with the lilith plan and Mai'a's amazing fact-finding missions. i am speechless with impressedness.

and also i had a good root around in Scarleteen recently, so good! it's aimed at teenagers but is full of sound info for anyone of any age, and i got a (turns out) well-needed update of the extremely patchy info i got from Just Seventeen magazine back in the day. they sure hadn't told me what i need to know now. it still almost makes me cry to see accessible sex ed for young people where queer is normal.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

...and on comfort

i've just read this heartbreakingly eloquent piece by melissa mcewan at Shakesville (via The Curvature). to disrupt and uproot this stuff - abuse, oppression - we have to confront the ways in which our comfort oppresses. what is it maintained at the expense of? (and, for me personally, to what extent to i allow people their comfort at the expense of my dignity?)
"I never know when I might next get knocked off-kilter with something that puts me in the position, once again, of choosing between my dignity and the serenity of our relationship.

Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?


This, then, is the terrible bargain we have regretfully struck: Men are allowed the easy comfort of their unexamined privilege, but my regard will always be shot through with a steely, anxious bolt of caution. 
A shitty bargain all around, really. But there it is.

There are men who will read this post and think, huffily, dismissively, that a person of color could write a post very much like this one about white people, about me. That's absolutely right. So could a lesbian, a gay man, a bisexual, an asexual. So could a trans or intersex person (which hardly makes a comprehensive list). I'm okay with that. I don't feel hated. I feel mistrusted—and I understand it; I respect it. It means, for me, I must be vigilant, must make myself trustworthy. Every day."


mmph. so. i need to debrief this for sure. this week was a really quiet week. i only had a handful of support sessions and phonecalls. it was also after a week's holiday, so i'm at my strongest, for now. but i spoke to someone who had had a hysterectomy that she didn't want or particularly need. in my opinion, the operation was coerced. absolutely not in a direct way, but that's what makes it worse! she was 'just' hassled about it for years by her husband, who then booked it for her. all the women i work with make/have made choices 'for a quiet life' that result in slipping further into abuse and control - because an abuser will always take as much control as they can.

before the operation she told me she definitely wouldn't have it done, although her husband had booked it, he could do what he liked, it was ridiculous, not going to happen. but now it's happened she's brushing over it, no big deal. and of course, you'd have to brush over it. how could i admit to myself that i'd had a major operation against my will, 'to keep him quiet'? i wouldn't unless i was ready to have some kind of breakdown. that would involve admitting to myself what a complex-ly fucked up situation i was in and require me to make changes that feel too hard. instead, i'd tell myself i was happy enough with it, look at the positives, and carry on. exactly what she's doing.

and meanwhile, she has this boiling rage just below the surface that seeps out at unpredictable times and that her husband uses to further pathologise her. this guy is well into PMT as the source of everything that's wrong with the relationship, rather than his abuse and control. the solution? cut out her womb! just like in the olden days.

this person is an example of someone who's been a 'client' for a couple of years and who fits a certain pattern that i'm finding it difficult to deal with at the moment. because of our ongoing discussions she is well aware of 'the theory' and can talk about how unreasonable her partner is. but she is not ready to make any change or take a break to get some mental space. and i can't figure out if i should be guiding her more to feel rather than think about his behaviour as abusive, i don't know if that's too intrusive - i mean it usually happens automatically - that people will relate on an emotional level to the work we do about identifying patterns of abuse - but where, occastionally, people block that, and only relate to it intellectually - i'm not sure how much to push it, how much it's in any way wise or acceptable to start digging around in their psyches!

i mean. it's fine. it's none of my business how, when and if women i work with choose to make change, 'move forward' and so on. if i was advising a less experienced supporter i'd just be saying 'you need to sort out your own expectations, it's not about what change your client makes, it's about giving them back as much control as possible, you are doing everything right' etc etc.

but it's just. i'm finding it unbearably sad and infuriating that she is spending years of her life drowning her rage and whatever dreams she may have for another kind of life, that she's had a major operation with all kinds of dodgy side-effects (80% chance of vaginal prolapse within 20 years anyone?), while her partner gets to just carry right on with whatever he wants to do, seldom challenged, seldom disrupted... such is the way of the world. comfort is possibly the most significant reward for abusive and oppressive behaviour, i think i should be blogging about that more. 

the woman told the surgeon that she didn't really want the operation but her husband thought she should. the surgeon said 'well if you have x and y symptoms then i do recommend you have it done but make sure you're doing it for yourself'. nice one. shitness of medical professionals at dealing with abuse is too vast to go into here. such is the way of the world. nice comfortable surgeon.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Adoptees of Color statement on Haiti

This statement pressed so many buttons for me in terms of 'rescuing,' and ownership of, vulnerable people, ideas of good families and bad families, colonial abuse...
"We uphold that Haitian children have a right to a family and a history that is their own and that Haitians themselves have a right to determine what happens to their own children. We resist the racist, colonialist mentality that positions the Western nuclear family as superior to other conceptions of family, and we seek to challenge those who abuse the phrase “Every child deserves a family”  to rethink how this phrase is used to justify the removal of children from Haiti for the fulfillment of their own needs and desires. Western and Northern desire for ownership of Haitian children directly contributes to the destruction of existing family and community structures in Haiti. This individualistic desire is supported by the historical and global anti-African sentiment which negates the validity of black mothers and fathers and condones the separation of black children from their families, cultures, and countries of origin."
Read the whole thing at Adoptees of Color Roundtable. I found the statement through Truthandhealingproject.

Saturday, 20 March 2010


have just come across, and a post with the stunning title: We need to abolish, not "re-evaluate," domestic violence shelters. So good to read the kind of critique of DV organisations that i've been craving (though I have read a related piece, Disloyal to Feminism: Abuse of Survivors within the Domestic Violence Shelter System, by Koyama in the incredible Incite! anthology, Color of Violence which you totally need to read if you are interested in this stuff). In the linked blog post she says:
"There will always be a need for safe haven, but I don’t feel that our domestic violence shelters provides it. I think that we need to be deeply suspicious of the coupling of housing, supervision, and emotional support: while social services in general tend to be paternalistic, the concentration of various competing interests and roles into one entity (the agency) as we often see in domestic violence shelters breeds abuse."
It's kind of mindbending to me to see this stated in so many words, but i can't disagree. In the refuge part of the service i work for, the same workers are supposed to give emotional support as collect rent. When i arrived seven years ago they were called 'refuge workers' and their main role was advocacy - helping with forms and phonecalls, supporting women to deal with social services etc, plus emotional support. now they are called 'housing support workers' and 'property management' is part of their job description. they have to cap the gas and do maintenance checks and chase rent. there are a million more forms to fill in now so of course they don't have anything like the same amount of time for supporting women practically and emotionally. they have to spend a lot of time writing warning letters to residents who are in arrears, and the support and advocacy role just cannot work when the same person is the property manager. i wonder how many people reading this would be shocked by this change in roles. to us within the organisation it now seems normal.

i agree with Koyama that there was no golden age of refuge provision where they were accessible spaces. i am sure that those early, radically feminist refuges were insitutions that were massively inaccessible and unsafe for women of colour and disabled women, if they were admitted at all (hence groups like Imkaan* setting up refuges for women of colour). Koyama tells horror stories in Disloyal to Feminism about conditions and professional practice in the USA (i really want to talk more about that article in another post) and i hope i'm not being totally naive to say i think things are a bit better here. i know that 'Supporting People', while it is Wrong in so many ways, has dragged reluctant and sulking refuges towards implementing equal opportunities stuff and 'consulting service users' and so on. we have been dragged out of our white-feminist, ableist past however the process that has forced this change is government co-optation and the abandonment of activism or even much analysing/critiquing of policy. plus refuges are still often unsafe and inaccessible for LGBTQ women in the UK; Supporting People seems to have missed that one!

Koyama continues:
"In my opinion, the best solution to this problem is to decouple housing: employ housing first approach to help survivors find an apartment in the community first, with long-term rent assistance of course, and then deal with other issues. People might argue that some women desperately need support and supervision to be available 24/7, but anyone who have worked at our shelters know that such women are first to be evicted from shelters because of the difficulty of complying with all the rules and living in a crowded shared housing setting, because shelters are not designed to adequately support women with such needs. Perhaps we could adopt disability rights movement’s principle of independent living here: survivors should be assisted in the least restrictive environment each individual can handle, which to most survivors and their children would be their own apartment."
Well, in the UK there is a steady move towards survivors living in their own self-contained unit, the old hostel-style shared facilities are viewed as old-fashioned and unsuitable and are being phased out around the country. It doesn't seem to be too hard for orgs to get grants to make over the accommodation. And increasing numbers of refuges now have 24/7 staff support so e.g. you have a block of apartments with staff and security on site.

And 'Supporting People' has also massively raised standards around services being accessible for women 'with complex support needs' - what Koyama describes about these women being refused admission or evicted certainly was happening here five or more years back. back then i was a helpline worker and i'd hear outrageous responses from refuges when i called round trying to find 'bedspace': one that sticks in my mind is when somewhere wouldn't take a woman because she was on antidepressants. i think they thought that meant she was mad and thus a liability. anyhow, you don't hear that kind of thing anymore. if a bedspace is empty and a woman is not admitted, the reason for the decision must now be put in writing. Supporting People will audit it all and withhold funding if refuges are found to be discriminating. it is no longer very difficult to find bedspace for a woman/family who uses drugs/alcohol or who has mental health issues. racism and ableism will still exist, of course, within refuges, and organisations and their workers will find other less blatant ways of discriminating. but it is getting so much harder to get away with and residents have much more recourse to appeal and complain if they are oppressed by the organisation.

i completely agree though that survivors should be offered "the least restrictive environment they can handle", and that this will be different for every woman/family. but the much better provision for women 'with complex needs' has come hand in hand with much closer surveillance, e.g. taking the national insurance number of every resident (and moving towards taking such details of everyone who even calls asking for space). depends what we mean by 'restrictive' i suppose.

*tried to put a link here but their website has disappeared? does anyone know if something's happened to Imkaan?


someone in a group this week said to another member: "what would you say to your best friend? you've got to be a best friend to yourself." something i've heard several times and forgotten. i want to fix it in my head to make it a habit for myself, and to remind people around me. like i say, often anti-abuse work is not very complicated. we can all support each other in basic and fundamental ways. if your friend is struggling with their relationship, it could be that a good meal or a walk in the sunshine is as much of a support as anything else you can do. and simple reminders to them to look after themselves, that they are worth being nurtured and valued, are more precious than just about anything else. and while we're at it, as supporters we could start taking a bit of our own advice.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Curvature does it again

Just feel the need to say again that if you are interested in the kinds of stuff i blog about but want to read incredibly well-articulated and in-depth analysis you really should be reading The Curvature. I get this feeling of relief from reading Cara's bang-on myth-smashing every single time. This stuff is so misunderstood, so fogged in mainstream discourse, and she just cuts through the crap. Incredible. Recent posts include:

Critics Suggest Link Between Priest Celibacy and Sexual Abuse:
"Placing responsibility for rape on the celibacy rule by nature removes part of the responsibility from the perpetrator. It also buys into and perpetuates the age old myth that rape is about sex. That rapists rape because they’re just so damn horny. That they can’t help themselves, what with all of their sexual attraction to their victims. To say that rapist priests commit rape because they’ve gone so long without being able to engage in consensual sex is to say that sex is synonymously related to rape. It is to suggest that one is a replacement for the other. It is to suggest that rape makes a more sensible breakage of one’s vows that consensual activity. And it is to suggest that rapists are compelled by something other than their desire to inflict harm.

To claim as fact that such abuse is “homosexual” is to blatantly stigmatize BTLG people. The rape of a male person by another man is no more “gay” than a rape of a woman by a man is “straight.” Rape is violence, not sex. And violence doesn’t have a sexual orientation."
And In Earthquake's Aftermath, Haiti Experiences Rise in Sexual Violence, which includes the so-often obscured fact:
"In order to abuse people, rapists first abuse circumstance. This story is not about what Haitians do in a time of crisis. This story is about what rapists do in a time of crisis."

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

in/ter/dependence and safety

I don't really know how to write about these emerging thoughts. I'm questionning so much of what i've spent my entire young-adult life doing, the work that has driven me all this time. Writing here for six months has helped sift through a lot of old habits and beliefs and to note down the new ideas that are coming into my life. Things have been becoming gradually clearer.

Most recently, as i'm reading/hearing/realising/admitting so much about the culture in which i live and how what i know about abuse and violence translates from personal relationships to a political scale, i'm acutely aware of the work i do that encourages ('empowers') women to emerge from the isolation of an abusive relationship into the 'freedom of wider society'. Freedom and independence in the wider society.

Basically, my work-role 'expects' women to leave a situation that may be secure, albeit very controlled. This could be co-dependence, but that is at least more secure than independence, no? Yet i'm 'expecting', and encouraging, her to give all that up to move into a society where it is very hard to be independent and be secure, even more so as a woman. Any 'independence' is at best temporary, right? As we will all need help from other people as we get older. And can you achieve independence in a way that doesn't oppress others? The more i think about independence the more false and illusory it seems, and the more i begin to understand why the women i work with find it terrifying.

I'm almost always not supporting women into a place of interdependence. I can only think of a handful of examples over the years of women i've worked with who moved into a community on escaping the abuse: all South Asian women who had families who supported and nurtured them and took them in on leaving the relationship.

I don't want to be independent, thanks all the same: that sounds near-impossible, precarious and lonely. I want to live in a community, a network, giving and taking care and work and nurture and sustenance. When i'm supporting women to leave abusive situations i want to be able to offer them more than this dream that i don't even believe in, of this 'independent, successful woman who doesn't need anyone'. Narratives of Independent Women involve finding a marker of success or ambition to work towards. Ok so i would always discuss this with women i work with in terms of 'finding success on your own terms', but how hard is it for all of us to escape mainstream, capitalist, definitions of success? Success as an Independent Woman involves 'not needing anyone'. How can we not need anyone? If we manage it then how long will it last? And what then?

This post at Enough had a big effect on me when i read it some months ago. It resonated enormously with how my class background has led me to understand Safety, described some of the pain, contradictions and compromise within my family  and was one of the first places i'd encountered the idea of interdependence. I want to quote it here now to link it to these ideas of safety and in/ter/dependence of women leaving abuse:
"Safety is something we are told we can achieve by isolating ourselves and hoarding lots of resources. POOR calls this the cult of independence, and more than anything it is what comes to mind when I try to describe how I think capitalism hurts all of us, even if we’re profiting from it. [...]

I think about a friend, raised professional middle class with the solid safety net of well-off parents, and about the fear that creeps into her voice when she talks about saving for retirement – the unwillingness to consider that anyone will help her, the certainty that she is a failure if anyone does, the feeling that no matter how much money she saves from her large professional salary, it can never be enough. [...]

I think about this book I read called Invisible Privilege, by Paula Rothenberg. It’s a memoir about growing up wealthy [...] Rothenberg describes her aging father, no longer able to care for himself, isolated from community but able to afford constant professional care, watched over at the end of his life by a rotating crew of nurses rather than by people who love him.

I think about my own dad, an introvert like me, living alone in a fancy condo with all his physical needs met, needing nothing from anyone, taking care of himself, for now – and I think of my grandmother, who now lives in an assisted-living facility hundreds of miles from her home. When she moved there, away from the house she loved [...] I wanted to organize my aunts and uncles and cousins, all her children and grandchildren, to go there to help them move and offer love and support – but it came too close to touching my grandmother’s worst fear, which is to feel that she is a burden.

We’ve learned the lessons of capitalism, and on some level we believe them: if you can’t take care of yourself, if you’re poor or disabled or targeted by the state, it’s because you’re weak, because you somehow failed. If you can’t take care of yourself you will be let go, you will be alone, you are no longer valuable, you no longer exist [...] 

What does it look like to make that leap, if it is a leap, to defining security as interdependence, and to put our resources into creating that rather than into a retirement fund?"
What does it look like to make the leap from defining safety as a woman living alone, working productively, bringing up her children, with panic buttons installed by the police, to finding ways to provide safety in community for someone who is coming out of abuse and isolation?

Thursday, 4 March 2010

"don't waste the pretty"

i decided to read He's Just Not That Into You. oh my, it's terrible, for the most part. i guess you could've just told me that, i really didn't need to go find out for myself. i'm not going to waste time here describing its hideously normal, fashionable, for-the-modern-woman sexism and so on. but i do want to say what i like about it! bear with me...

i saw it in a charity shop and was suddenly intrigued - because, most importantly, my work is talking about relationships. and control and manipulation in relationships is so normal, outside of those that will ever be defined as abusive. so i wanted to look at how 'normal' relationships are talked about in the mainstream, shiny-happy self-help world, and if books like this have anything to say about control and manipulation.

well, this one does. and it's by far the best part of the book. at the start of the chapter entitled "He's just not that into you if he's a selfish jerk, a bully..." (unfortunately the end of that sentence is "or a really big freak" but let's overlook that(?!) for now) it says:
" 'He's got so much good in him. He really does. I just wish he wouldn't tell me to shut up all the time.' Yeah, that's a problem. Try not to ignore it."
i'm impressed by this book's inclusion of abuse-awareness by stealth. i mean, if someone has read this far through the book (it's the last chapter) in quest of relationship advice then they must be pretty vulnerable really - if they've taken seriously the ten preceding chapters of the male lead-author's icky joshing-bossy tone then i would say that they might well be at risk of being dominated in a relationship! however the tone actually gets a bit less icky and much more compassionate in this final chapter.

the writer uses three examples of abuse but doesn't name them as such at first. First there's a boyfriend who is cold and neglectful and 'trying to change,': "You've got to be kidding me... He may think he loves you, and maybe he does. But he's really bad at it..." Then it gets more impressive with the advice to a woman whose partner yells at her and then apologises:
"There is no reason to yell at anyone ever, unless you are screaming 'LOOK OUT FOR THAT BUS!'... And it's not temporary. People who yell are people who think they are entitled to yell... Don't wait for Mr Hyde to turn back into Dr. Jekyll." 
I'm sorry, but shoehorning entitlement-to-abuse issues into a 'trashy' self-help book that's supposed to be anti-feminist?! Plus, 'like Jekyll & Hyde' is a phrase i hear many times a week by women accessing support for the first time (along with 'walking on eggshells') so i even wonder if that is inserted deliberately to give readers a chance to recognise their situation as abuse. i have to say i'm impressed.

Then there's an example of a boyfriend who is 'perfect' in private but makes fun of her a little in front of her friends: "He sounds perfect, if you like bad people... Which Ivy League school has a program in public belittlement? Because that's what this guy majored in if he thinks that insulting you in front of your friends is going to make him seem anything other than an idiot." And finally, one who is 'supportive' in her weightloss by telling her what she can and can't eat:
"This guy doesn't sound like your personal trainer, he sounds like your personal bully... He knows that you feel bad about yourself and leaps to take advantage of that... It's time to use your quads and hamstrings - to run away from him and never come back." 
Erm, acknowledgement that men take advantage of, i.e. benefit from abuse - a fact that is overlooked in almost all anti-domestic violence work and books that i've found...?! I no longer care about the preceding ten anti-feminist chapters. this is cool. then he gets to the point:
"There's lots of behaviour that can be considered abusive that doesn't include being beaten about the head and neck. That includes getting yelled at, being publicly humiliated, or being made to feel fat and unattractive. It's hard to feel worthy of love when someone is going out of their way to make you feel worthless. Being told to get out of these relationships may not work for you. Knowing that you're better than these relationships is the place to start. You are better than these relationships."
Anti-abuse work doesn't have to be more complicated than this. there certainly are a lot of dodgy things about this book, but it seems to me infinitely less harmful than almost all the self-help books that are actually about domestic violence - there are so many horrific ones out there that pathologise and disempower the women readers they are aimed at while diverting responsibility from the perpetrators. HJNTIY on the other hand has straightforward messages for women who are questionning whether to stay with someone who treats them badly:
"You want to believe that you are better than all the crap you've been taking from all these men all these years. Well you are. You are an excellent, foxy human being worthy of love, and the only way you can pursue that idea is by honoring yourself. At the very least that means ridding your world of dudes who are not worthy and setting a standard of excellence in your daily life. Let's start with this statistic: You are delicious."
Maybe i'm a fool, but reading that almost made me teary, thinking of how much women i work with just need to hear something that directly compassionate and them-centred. i think it's cool.