When Is Abuse Not Abuse?

One of the things that has struck me as I read and learn more about abuse is how so much of the literature on the subject seems to pathologize a lot that is either entirely normal, or which can easily be explained by other means, ranging from the organic to poor communications skills, to people reaching the end of their rope, and more, some of which cannot be changed, while some of it just requires some training.  Any list of characteristics and behaviors of abusers will always contain items of this type, that can be either truly abusive or not, depending upon the rest of the context and circumstances.

Forgetting is an example.

In her book “The Verbally Abusive Relationship – How to Recognise It and How to Respond”, Patricia Evans reportedly has this to say on the subject:

“Forgetting involves both denial and covert manipulation.

“The declaration by the abuser that what occurred didn’t occur is abusive. Everyone forgets what happened now and then. However, consistently forgetting interactions which have a great impact on another person is verbally abusive denial.

“Often, after the partner collects herself after being yelled at or put down, she may try to talk to her mate about it. He will have conveniently “forgotten” the incident, saying, for example, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not going to listen to this.”

“Some abusers seem to consistently forget the promises which are most important to their partners. Often the partner is truly counting on a very important agreement made by her mate.  He will have “forgotten” the agreement.”

Yes, this is unquestionably often a problem.

Some people just have terrible memories, too, often for clearly documentable organic reasons, such as learning disabilities, fibromyalgia or CFIDS, ADHD, or even dementia, and there are likely other possibilities.  Some just have never had good recall of anything.  Some people only forget an occasional thing, while other people have trouble remembering everything, or close to it.  We used to have a saying that “So-and-so would forget her head if it weren’t attached” for people who are particularly forgetful.

It is also not unusual for such people to even forget things that are important to their partners and other people, even when they are most highly motivated to remember them.

It’s hard for people with steel traps for memories to understand that this is just the way life is for a certain segment of the population, but it is.

Even with a variety of reminders and alarms set up to remind a person who is naturally forgetful, they may still forget.  It can be a real curse on a person’s life, and cause them no end of pain and difficulty.

But does that make the forgetter abusive?

Hell no.  It means they’ve got a bad memory, end of story.  This particular person.

Such people often suffer badly because of that poor memory.  It can cause them many problems in life, both personal and professional.  It hurts badly to see someone they care about hurting because the forgetful person didn’t remember something the partner may have been counting on.  To be accused of not caring about someone else’s feelings because of forgetfulness and a bad memory can be absolutely devastating – especially if the problem has already been explained multiple times, and affects other areas of that party’s life.

The distinction between abuse and not-abuse is actually often largely in the frequency of what is said or done – but also in the reactions when the problem is pointed out, and in the particulars of any given circumstance.

In the case of forgetfulness, does the person ‘fess up once they realize they’ve forgotten something?  Do they accept it at face value, or do they get belligerent and protest and deny it, even when you point the truth out?  Maybe they really don’t know what you’re talking about initially, and dismiss it as a result, but when reminded of it, and particularly if proof or documentation is shown, do they apologize?  Or do they still just blow you off as the example above describes, even when the evidence is incontrovertible?

On the other hand, when you know for a fact that someone has said or done something, and then denies it, even when confronted with evidence, and they still deny it and tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about or the like, as in Evans’s example, then that very much can be abusive.  Gaslighting.  Might be; isn’t necessarily in and of itself.  The continuing denial in the face of evidence and proof kind of locks it in, though.

When your head is screaming that you must be crazy because you know you heard (or saw, or didn’t hear or see) whatever it was, and they still deny it, then you should realize that it is most likely that other person who has the problem, and not you.

In an 80+ year old woman, especially one who is slowing down, this kind of forgetting and denial of what was/was not said or done are more or less to be expected – and excused, much of the time.  Memory loss of this and other sorts is often a part of even early dementia; in fact, this is often one of the first signs of it.

In a healthy 50-something (or younger) highly educated professional man, who prides himself on his good memory?  Especially one whose livelihood may depend upon it?

Not so much.

And if you’ve just told them something – like a new hard limit – and not two minutes later they have totally forgotten it, and start doing the exact thing you just told them was now verboten?  Or they claim that they “didn’t know that was what you meant” when you point out that they’ve just done the very same thing they were doing before, that you had just prohibited?

With this kind of person, you can be much more certain that something else is going on that has nothing to do with organic causes, and everything to do with either actual malice, not giving a shit about his partner, an utter inability to control himself, raging anger at women in general (or men, as the case may be), a deliberate bid to control his partner in a negative way or to make her think she’s crazy (gaslighting), to deflect attention from something else, or some other nefarious reason why he would claim he doesn’t remember something you expected he would – or forgets things you know he ought to have remembered well.

And that, my friends, is when it becomes abusive, particularly when it happens repeatedly, even if the details of the situations in question vary.  Which they will.

When someone who normally does have a reliably excellent memory for other things, for example, seems to go completely (and eventually totally predictably) stupid in some situations, like when he doesn’t get what he wants, there you have a real abusive element.

But just being forgetful?  And denying it when it’s mentioned?  In and of itself, that is really not a problem.  Except when it gets to the point that it is, as discussed here.

Issues such as this are often just questions of degree.  And they almost always require looking at the big picture, and taking all of the elements into consideration.  And really looking to see what the truth actually may be or may not be.

The point, short story long, is that you cannot just accept all of these various lists entirely at face value, lest you start seeing abuse all over the place where it really may not exist – and that is a real danger.  You’ve got to dig beyond the surface of what is said, and get into the details of a particular situation, including context, before you can really know for sure, even if you’re the one living it, never mind if you’re just an onlooker.

It’s also necessary to take backstories into account.

If, for example, someone tells you that his partner was abusive – maybe screamed and yelled at him – did he also tell you that that only happened after he had ignored her safeword multiple times, did things to her that he knew were unsafe, didn’t know what he was doing despite claiming he did, and injured her in the process?  Perhaps multiple times?

Or after he violated hard limits, including those given just minutes before?  Repeatedly?

And then played dumb, saying he “…didn’t know that was what [she] meant by [X]…”?

Or maybe after he cheated on her and got caught, and tried to weasel out of it with some lame excuse, trying to somehow blame it on her and make her into the bad guy instead for calling him on it?

Or maybe he’d been repeatedly wanting to put problems on the back burner to discuss later when he wasn’t under so much stress, but “later” never came, because maybe his life was so full of stress that there wasn’t ever going to be a time when he wasn’t stressed, and she just finally wanted to deal with something now and quit putting things off?  Or so many things got taken off the table in this way that it simply became impossible to ever deal with them all, even if “later” ever did actually come?  And maybe squelched issues had just built up to a breaking point that she could simply no longer tolerate?

What Mira Kirshenbaum calls “off-the-table-itis“, in which various topics are literally taken “off the table” for discussion, for whatever reason, can easily be the death of a relationship, by itself – and can lead to unbearable frustration on the part of the partner who has her issues so removed, dismissed, and not dealt with or addressed.

Someone who screams gratutiously at her partner for trivial reasons like not taking out the trash or wearing a shirt she doesn’t like is quite a different thing from one who screams at him given these kind of legitimate provocations, among others.  It would be nice if we could live life without any kind of screaming at all, but there comes a time when it may be the only thing we have left, and people being people, sometimes we just eventually erupt.

“Eventually” being the key word here.  Not as an initial response.  Not in response to trivial matters.  Not as a steady diet or typical response or way of being in the world in general.  But eventually, at some point, given a lot of provocation, and following many, many attempts to resolve issues in other ways.

Sometimes screaming (or harsh words) may even be used strategically and deliberately on a given occasion, to try to get through to someone who hasn’t been reachable in any other way, by any form of reason and explanation.  Maybe it isn’t her norm, but only an attempt to try another tack when everything else she’s been able to think of and try over a considerable period of time has failed to reach him.

Sometimes a cigar is really just a cigar.

And sometimes it really ain’t.

Rape, Assault, Battery, and Police Reporting

I came across a fantastic post the other day by Saynine about the problem of rape within the BDSM context entitled “This Isn’t Play…BDSM and Rape“, following on the heels of reports by my friend, the outgoing International Ms Leather, Mollena Williams, of her rape by a prominent member of the Dublin kink community.    These are just the two latest posts I’ve encountered speaking out on this topic, and on the importance of reporting these rapes to the police, as well as publicizing them within the BDSM community.

Both posts and the ensuing comments discuss the potential implications of such reporting, both to the individual victims – and to the community as a whole.  The conclusions drawn pretty much without exception in these posts and many others I’m seeing, as well as the opinions of numerous other concerned individuals with whom I’ve been discussing the overall issues of abuse and consent for several years, the participants in San Francisco’s recent RACK panel, etc.,  is that reporting is essential – and that not only are the overall community’s needs secondary to supporting the victim and ensuring as best we can that others are not also harmed, but that doing so can only serve to help our image in the world, by conveying openly to everyone else in the most obvious way possible that we not only do not condone rape, assault, etc., and that that is not what WIITWD is about, but that we stand behind those words with actions that support them.

The question of rape and consent is important, but it’s also important to realize that rape as legally defined (basically, any kind of vaginal, anal, or oral penetration without consent) is only one part of the consent and abuse puzzle.

The other big issue that we face is the problem of either ongoing abuse of various sorts in BDSM relationships, and both in that context or in individual, one-off scenes, the issue of assault and battery if anything other than vaginal, anal, or oral penetration are involved – the questions of other types of play occurring without consent, limits being violated in the process, etc.

What happens when other limits are violated, such as beatings that go beyond the physical limits of what the bottom can take, too much force is used and the bottom is injured even in the course of something she did basically consent to but not to that level?  What about other situations such as if a knife is pulled nonconsensually, undesired cuttings, needles, or take your pick of various forms of humiliation play?  Or you tell your partner (who has been injuring you repeatedly with impact play and ignoring both feedback and ultimately safewords) that you now have a new hard limit, that he absolutely may not hit you with any kind of toy again until he gets some formal instruction and practice with it – and less than a minute later he starts right out doing it again, with a different implement than before, coming out with some lame excuse like, “I didn’t realize that was what you meant” when you protest and safeword yet again?  When even generally innocuous requests or demands happen to cause you intractable problems and yet he won’t relent and continues to demand that, throwing a fit when you object or try to stop it?  Or any number of other possibilities of hard or even soft limits being violated?

Legally, most if not all of these kinds of things are actually assault and/or, in the case that contact is actually made and not just threatened, battery. (Disclaimer – I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.)

Different states have different laws that define each of these things (and domestic violence) differently, and laws and policies regarding arrests and prosecution vary even by jurisdiction within a given state, so it’s not possible to say what will or will not happen in each of these kinds of situations.

Another area that also seems pretty grey (although I’m sure the lawyers and police must understand it) is where the line is between domestic violence and assault and battery – and which one would apply in situations of the sort we kinksters often find ourselves in.

One thing I find particularly disconcerting is that much of what I’ve read about assault and battery seems to require that some sort of obvious and grievous injury occur in order for the concepts to apply and arrests to happen.

But what about those whose injuries never become visible?  Does that mean that they will not receive the same protections as anyone else who is assaulted by a partner or stranger?  I’ve been injured on multiple occasions where nary a bruise or mark ever showed up – but when I’m still in pain weeks and months later, I sure as hell considered myself just as injured as if some bone had been fractured or I’d been cut with a knife.

Regardless of the legal terminology, when limits are violated in any way, it sure still feels like rape.   The feeling of violation is terrible, and the violation of trust is almost as bad and sometimes even worse than the actual event.

I’ve had things done to me that in and of themselves may not have actually been that big a deal, but when they were things that because of other issues in the relationship, or other personal or medical reasons, I had set as a limit, it is precisely that breach of trust of a partner going ahead and doing it anyways, despite agreement not to, and then his negative reactions to my protests, that has often been far and away the bigger problem.

I would add to what both Saynine, Mo, and many others are saying about the importance of reporting rape (as well as other types of violations of limits) is that you need to do it right when the assault or rape happens, or very shortly thereafter.  Otherwise, the police are really unlikely to take you as seriously if you do it later.  Even if you do wait too long and they tell you they will not investigate it as a result, still insist on filing a report, so that at least there is something on record about this person’s behavior to help establish the pattern in case someone else runs into trouble with them and seeks police assistence.  There is also something very personally empowering to just tell your story to the authorities, to name what has actually happened.

Threatening to Leave

The only time a threat to leave is valid, IMO, is when there is a serious problem that is or will become a deal-breaker if not dealt with.

There are threats, and then there are threats.

It’s one thing to just threaten to leave in order to fuck with someone’s head, or to threaten to leave over petty disagreements.

It’s a whole ‘nuther ball of wax when critical issues are at stake, to then tell someone specifically that if X doesn’t happen, or if Y happens again, then you will leave, that that would become a deal-breaker, and that you wouldn’t be able to stay in the relationship at that point. That’s a warning that something is seriously wrong that you haven’t been able to resolve, and an alert that if resolution is not found, you will not be able to stay.

That’s called setting boundaries – and healthy boundaries are essential things to have in life and in relationships.

It’s then just a statement of fact, of what is true for you.

It may mean you’ve got one foot already out the door, but it may also mean that you don’t really want to leave at all, but you’ll have to if whatever the problem is continues.  It’s a warning in that case, and a partner who values the relationship would do well to take it as a wake-up call that they are seriously fucking things up and attend to the issues in question if they want to keep their relationship.

Some things are just dealbreakers, and a threat to leave in the face of such is actually still offering the offender an opportunity to save things.

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Sadism For the Sake of Sadism – or What is Pure Sadism?

I consider a pure sadist, in the BDSM context, to be someone who gets off in some way from hurting others, regardless of whether or not that person likes it, and even prefers it when they don’t – or at least doesn’t let the bottom’s not liking it or not being able to take what gets dished out get in the sadist’s way of doing it anyways.

As long as the bottom agrees to those parameters, everything is copacetic.

There’s nothing wrong with consensual nonconsent – and many people definitely get off on it.  But it’s *got* to be agreed upon in advance.

That consent is also the only thing that separates BDSM-type sadism from the form described in the DSM that is considered pathological.

If there is no agreement that pushing those limits to the point that the bottom really cannot take it is OK, and especially if it’s stated in advance that it’s *not* (and is therefore a hard limit), then it becomes abuse instead – or even outright assault and battery.

It can certainly take some time to learn where those limits actually are, but once established, if not respected, then deliberately exceeding them (except by obvious accident) becomes pretty much a nonconsensual act, even if the overall play is consensual.

Obviously this can also take some real technical skill to avoid stepping over those boundaries in some cases – as well as a desire and intent to respect them.  It also takes open communications with one’s partner to determine when those limits may have also changed for some reason, especially things like the time in the menstrual cycle, any health issues, etc.

A pure sadist of the BDSM type may or may not also be a dominant as well, but often is not.