I’ve been posting here even less frequently than usual of late, as I’m in the process of co-authoring a book, but this topic has been floating around in my head and I needed to write about it. In light of #MeToo and cases like Kavanaugh’s, there’s an awful lot of talk lately about the importance of believing a woman’s testimony, of listening to victims of various forms of abuse and helping them pursue justice. This is a nice sentiment, but obviously fraught in a number of ways. For my part, I take a firm stance of agnosticism on any case involving people I don’t know and events I didn’t witness, because you never know which party is the abuser and which is the victim until evidence emerges to confirm one story or the other.
For what it’s worth, I know multiple men that the following has happened to:
Boy meets girl, and at first things are wonderful. They spend every day together, they meet the parents, they pick out an apartment. Time goes on, and the red flags start to emerge. It starts off like it always does, with emotional abuse, controlling and manipulative behaviours, verbal degradation. She slowly but surely isolates him from the other people in his life. Eventually things turn violent. He doesn’t know what to do, because he’s never heard of a husband beater. He knows no one will believe him, and if they do they’ll blame him. He covers his bruises because he doesn’t want to have to explain them away, and god forbid he has to defend himself from accusations. He’s scared to leave her because she threatens him, and he believes her threats.
The violence gets worse. He’s afraid of her. He’s afraid to defend himself because then he’ll look like the abuser, especially if she calls the police. And she’s threatened to.
She starts using weapons. The last straw is when she stabs him during an argument. She actually fucking stabs him. He supposes that whatever she’s threatening can’t possibly be worse than what he’s living through already, so after much deliberation, he summons the courage and self-respect to leave. He finds a cheap place, pays the security deposit, waits until she’s out of the house, and he moves out.
She’s furious. She has to punish him. She tells everyone in the community that he was the abuser. She says they broke up because he was violent toward her. She says he raped her.
Now he can’t leave his new apartment, the refuge he’s finally managed to find, without getting dirty looks from neighbours. Friends turn away from him without telling him why. He has to talk to a lot of people before he learns the story that’s been spread about him. They believe it wholeheartedly. “We know what you did.”
The lies continue. Soon, a well-meaning community turns dangerous, weaponized for the continued abuse of this single person, even after leaving the relationship. People start to jump him when he’s out and about. He’s got scars on his body from her violence, and yet after escaping he’s not much safer than he was when he was with her. He has to leave town for his own safety, and years later many of those community members still believe he was the abuser.
I’ll remind you: I know several men that this has happened to, step by step, with only small variances in the details. Several men with scars on their bodies from women with knives and a town they can’t go back to. And if you can’t understand why this is horrific, swap the genders and read it again.
In addition to those men, I also know a man who was battered by his girlfriend while he was driving, struck in the face and eye until he was bleeding and partially blind. When a cop saw the resultant swerving, he pulled them over and arrested the driver, covered in his own blood, on the word of the woman who’d injured him.
I know a man who was beaten in the street by a mob whose friend suggested he’d groped her on the dance floor. The club was dark, she hadn’t got a good look at the person, and they had the wrong guy. My friend limped home with blood oozing out of his nose and ears because vigilante justice doesn’t use due process.
I know someone who was a member of such a mob, violently attacking a man on the word of a friend. He had hunted down the rapist himself and beaten him bloody. Who doesn’t want to go after the monster who tortured someone you love? He could scarcely articulate his shame and guilt after she told him she’d made the whole thing up.
As for the many men I know who have been raped or sexually assaulted, some of them have had to face their communities or local court systems after they were falsely accused by their rapists. When you’re a female assailant, or your victim is male, you know you can cover your ass by accusing him before he can get around to seeking justice for himself, because who is going to be believed?
I want you to imagine what it must be like to be violently assaulted by another person, then be expected to defend yourself in front of your community or a jury of your peers against the accusation that YOU were the assailant. Imagine having to face your rapist as your accuser, to have your trauma turned around and used as another weapon against you. Imagine losing friends and facing violence in public spaces because others believe your accuser, your abuser, and not you. Then imagine years later, watching your social media feed flood with posts, made by people you love and trust, announcing to the world that people like you should be assumed guilty from the get-go, categorically and without question.
So when I say that buying wholeheartedly into #BelieveWomen is dangerous, what I mean is that identifying the abuser from the outside is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes even the abuser believes themself to be a victim, which is typical of the sort of dysfunction that leads to abuse. Talk to any abuser, and you’ll see that it’s common behaviour, regardless of gender, to turn others against their victim, for punishment or control or because they legitimately believe that they have been wronged, and many abusers are experts at this kind of manipulation. I’ve seen it first hand, listening to my own abuser talking on the phone with his mother, asking for advice as he cried that I’d mistreated him until it led to a physical fight. There’s a pathological disconnect between their actions and personal responsibility, an inability to accept blame or recognize abuse as abuse, and when they relay events from their own perspective, it looks to all the world as though they are indeed the victim in the story. There are a lot of ways to engage in this intentional or unintentional manipulation, but women in particular know that it’s easy to find sympathy for a woman who has been mistreated. The community will believe her, and vilify whoever she’s identified as the perpetrator of her mistreatment. This is wonderful when she’s a victim, but terrifying when she isn’t, and often you have no way of knowing the truth of the matter.
To preempt the argument for assuming as a rule that the male in a heterosexual conflict is the one doing the abusing, I want to remind you that even the CDC, which operates under the assumptions of the Duluth Model, reports similar rates of male and female domestic abuse victimization, at one in three women and one in four men. Other studies show straightforward gender parity in perpetration and abuse. Some studies even place women at 70% of unilateral abusers. And if you follow my writing, you already know that CDC data shows that men and women rape, and are victimized by rape, at comparable rates.
So of course there is too much abuse in the world, on both sides of the gender aisle, and reports should be investigated. By all means, listen to someone who is reporting abuse, regardless of their gender. Take them seriously. Show them love, compassion, advice, and assistance. Offer them a shoulder to cry on and somewhere safe to stay. Support them when they go to the police. But temper your compassion with caution: Do not punish someone else on their behalf, because you never know what you’re missing when you only hear half the story.
It’s not uncommon for police, hotline operators, social workers, and other service providers to treat the victim as the abuser, especially if the abuse is between members of the same sex or female-on-male. This happens for a number of reasons, mostly due to biases and misconceptions to which we are all susceptible. The spirit of due process needs to start with the community. We cannot play judge, jury, and executioner. Love your friends, care for them, and listen to them, but do not just Believe Women. Otherwise you may become an unwitting weapon of someone else’s abuse.