Friday, May 19, 2006

Rethinking Feminism Series: On Victims

So, I've been thinking a lot lately about how people who act the victim are quite often the abusive one.

For the past two years I taught a Gender and Identity course, wherein several students would intern at NOVIS (Non-Violent Intervention Services). NOVIS is a program aimed for helping perpetrators of intimate partner violence (batterers/emotional abusives) take responsibility for their actions, give them insight into why they try to control their partners, and how to stop the cycle of violence. NOVIS uses the Duluth Model. The students who work with NOVIS spend a great deal of time in classes with the batterers and what they universally report back about the abusers is that they see themselves as victims. These men (the program is aimed at men who make up the majority of abusers) simply take no responsibility for their actions. They consistently blame their girlfriends or wives for causing them to get angry because they suspect them having affairs, ignoring them, not spending enough time with the children, etc.

I used to be bewildered when I heard the students' presentations of these men. I had a hard time imaging these men (who were mere stereotypes in my mind) portraying themselves as victims. I pictured tall, burly, biker dudes who look like at any minute they will break a beer bottle and try to swipe you if you look at him crosswise. I was wrong. What is interesting about being wrong is how easy it is for many good natured people to feel sorry for the abuser in a relationship. The one who is always claiming that he or she has been mistreated, has been misunderstood, who believes his or her partner was uncaring, attracted to others. Many of us well-meaning types are likely to feel sorry for the "victim" at first. We believe their accounts of their partner or the others who are "hurting" them, and we try to leap in and protect them. This is usually their first move of manipulation. Abusers get others to do their bidding by presenting themselves as helpless and broken.

In thinking about the way "victims" behave, I am sort of struck by how many women I know who embody this role. While I don't know (at least that I am aware of) any women who are beating the crap out of their partners, I know plenty of women who manipulate their partners and others around them by playing the victim. I have often assumed that they play this role because they don't perceive they have any real power to ask for and work for what they want. For example, many of these women might have grown up in an era where no one gave a rats ass what a woman thought, never mind what their wives thought, and so they developed these passive aggressive strategies for manipulating people. Moreover, many "victims" have actually been victimized by a parent or some other adult who they trusted and then abused that trust. The problem is "victims" turn their victimization into abuse. They feel entitled to manipulate and undermine others because they were treated badly by life.

Victims think everyone is out to get them; they are "misunderstood." They convince themselves that they need to keep track of everything their partner does in order to protect themselves: they control the money, they control who is allowed to come over to the house and when, and they often stalk their partners, either by tracking their email, hiring spies to keep tabs on them, or even hiring detectives. "Victims" are often very controlling people, although they refuse to recognize it because after all they are the victims: they are the ones being mistreated, and because they are, they need to keep watch of their partner's or children's activities.

What is even more tricky about female "victims" is that they can manipulate the law and police to help them control their partner as well. With all of the important awareness of domestic violence, and the incorporation of these programs into law enforcement, a very cunning and manipulative female "victim" can accuse her partner of being the abuser and immediately get an order of protection. Playing the helpless, frightened, weak woman, she can call upon some strong men to protect her from her partner, who is in fact the real abused one in the relationship.

I know that I have been writing a lot on issues such as rape and abuse from what some might call the "non-feminist perspective." But, as I said to one reader in an email, I hope that feminism is mature enough now to admit that women can be abusive, hurtful, malicious, and manipulative. Moreover, women should have no less excuse for this behavior than the male abusers out there. The fact is that abusive people were often abused themselves. But adults have the capacity to do something about their behavior. Everytime I write about these issues I fear that I will soon be marginalized to the fringes of the feminist blogosphere. Yet, I cannot help pointing these things out.

If feminists don't step up and look carefully at how some of our important legislative and political gains have been used to harm some men, then we will have become exactly what the right wing accuses us of. We need to be able to admit that some of the systems out there set up to protect women against horrific and very real violence at the hands of their partners have worked also to empower abusive women to use the state to control their partners. This doesn't just happen in heterosexual relationships, but in lesbian relationships as well.

A former roomate of mine, who is a social worker, talked frequently about the problem her domestic violence shelter faced when it took in lesbians. Often both partners in the couple, the perpetrator of violence and the abused partner, would show up at the shelter claiming that she was abused. The therapist would have a difficult time sorting out the dynamics of the relationship and the story, since the paradigm they worked with was that women are victims at the hands of patriarchal violence.

I bring these topics up because I know that many others would like to write or speak about this, but fear the wrath they would get from feminists. But, if we don't pay attention to these realities, then we are making a mockery of the important and necessary movements to empower women and fight sexism. I know that many political battles rely upon simple narratives---men abuse women, so we need VAWA. But, when we reduce the complexity of abuse into these narratives, we are inevitably protecting some at the expense of others.