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When abusers hijack the language of feminism

This text was submitted by Forth Wave: London Feminist Activists. Some of you may find it a little unusual for Freedom News. Some others may find it controversial. However, I think it is important to publish it.

In my 15+ years of activism I saw the behaviour described below countless times. The kind of abuse and exploitation of struggles of discriminated against groups described below is difficult to grasp: as activists, we tend to be very receptive to claims of discrimination: rightfully so. However, some among us use it to prey on people, give themselves extra “activist points”, excuse their abusive behaviour, manipulate, shut us up. Usually (but not always) the person subjected to it is a woman. Once, something disturbingly similar to what Forth Wave describes, happened to myself. (ZB)

CW: descriptions of abuse.

This is a call out post. This is a description of behaviours that two people were exposed to by an activist based in England. The two both dated this person about a year apart and were both left with anxiety, trust issues, problems getting close to people, work issues, and much more. The first is by the more recent survivor of the abuse, and the second part is by a previous survivor.

Survivor #2

A lot of women and non-men may have heard or experienced this kind of thing. They’re finally with a partner who is involved in politics, or knows a little about gender equality; at first it’s fantastic. Finally, someone who just gets it, right?

But then things started to feel a little all too familiar to me. Trust me, I have blamed myself plenty for getting in this deep when I should have noticed the warning signs – especially as a feminist and an activist. Also I will preface by saying that I am not usually public with my personal issues in such a way, but after they have made public claims about me, I felt the need to respond to protect myself and people around me. Overall, we dated for a few months (not a relationship) and after we broke up as I realised they were trying to control me, they didn’t handle it well. But when they used the language of consent, boundaries, and triggers to keep me in my place, they were weaponising the very language that had made me free. Nobody is actually immune to this insidious form of abuse.

I would be told I couldn’t talk to my friends about any disagreements as this makes them unsafe, I was asked to be their girlfriend after the first date, I was told they loved me after the second time meeting me, I would be told to leave my job as it goes against my class, I would be told to leave activism as my politics weren’t good enough, I was told I was a dickhead, a traitor, they called me a specific name childhood bullies used (which was sensitive information which I entrusted them with) when I was dissociated and said I needed space, I would be pushed down forcefully onto their bed without warning, pressured into not using condoms, touched sexually while half asleep. Any time I’d bring up any of these issues in order to discuss my boundaries, it’d be triggering for the other person – so that was their hard boundary. Any of their boundaries had to be discussed in-depth and over and over until I was exhausted. What kind of feminist was I if I didn’t respect that boundary and just shut up and ensure the other person was okay? They would ask for money from other activists, which good activists would give as they are vulnerable. They would block these activists when they asked when they would be able to get the money back. Putting their needs before my own was part and parcel of being a good activist who cared about people.

When they spent all their money before promising to see me after an invasive medical appointment, they told me over text that I shouldn’t use their bad memory against them as that’s abusive. They did manage to get the money to see me for which I was thankful to a fault, but by that point I was too upset to see them, and that was my fault too.

They would tell me they would push my triggers on purpose to make sure I would get better at them and in turn, I’d be better for them and I could have a relationship with them. But one day, I just became so heavily dissociated that I left.

They told me they didn’t “consent” to me leaving, therefore they were revoking consent from previous sexual encounters therefore I was a rapist and a manipulator. They told me the hundreds of pills they went through was my fault and that I had left them when they could be dead. If only I would talk to them, go on another date with them, a rape survivor, and just be a good feminist, and unrape them, I could make things better. This is coercion and plays on the passions and integrity of someone who tries so hard to be a good feminist and a good person in general.

This is called inverting the abuse and blaming the survivor, and I only learned about it after I got in touch with the National Domestic Violence Helpline upon the advice of a Samaritans worker. It’s a form of gaslighting that makes everything grey and foggy, manipulation twists everything multiple times back on itself until you don’t know who actually said what. I was reading back texts over and over trying to dissect what happened and convincing myself that I was an abuser who needed putting away. When I tried to talk this out, it was triggering for them because it meant I was keeping logs and that was not the true work of a feminist or an activist. I’m glad I did keep those texts in the end, as it saved what was left of my faltering self-worth. I did end up showing the texts to my friends, who told me plain and clear: it was blackmail, it was cruel, and I needed to run.

Me running meant they fulfilled their blackmail promises and they started their smear campaign. They outed me as an abuser and a rapist. They sent multiple messages to my friends lying in detail about what I did to them. This all becomes exhausting for people around the perpetrator and the survivor, who are you meant to believe? This is why people just “stay out of domestics” after all, it’s hardly ever the case that there is a Good Person and a Bad Person. My advice is still to definitely believe the victims first and foremost. I don’t blame anyone for rallying around the other person. We both needed and still need support but I just wanted one thing that wasn’t in my control – to stop them from lying. But unfortunately, I’ve been told by professionals there is no use in engaging them or in trying to convince them of anything except what they believe. It was very easy for them to feel victimised by me leaving when they wouldn’t allow me to verbalise properly what I felt was going wrong. They made me feel as if I had callously abandoned them after I endured a few months of torment. Their constant weaponising of terms such as triggers, consent, and boundaries meant that their insular world which my input was barred from became their reality. Their effects on me weren’t relevant because all that mattered to them was crafting a situation whereby I was servile in order to pacify their triggers and bad feelings.

I’ve had to reframe my control. I found it in my own narrative and my own truth to tell. I found it in coming out as a survivor of abuse myself even after the puppet strings they put on me after their own admission made me feel stuck. I found it in reaching out to friends and professionals who I’ve handed over everything to and who have helped me understand reality again. I found it in completely blocking this person out of my life and surrounding myself in support. I found it in blocking people out who remain neutral in situations of injustice and abuse. I didn’t let them isolate me the way they wanted to, and I am so grateful that I got out as soon as I did.

Survivor #1

The most dangerous parallel between both of us is the fact that our abuser did not respect our boundaries. They would pretend that my boundaries were harmful to them and whenever I tried to set or enforce a boundary, that was harmful to them too.

The biggest boundary crossed was the pressure and coercion to have sex with me. They would tell me that “sex is how [they] show/express [their] affection”. The fact that I did not want to have sex with them (or show affection) meant that I was blamed for not allowing them to show their affection towards me. One of the bigger reasons why I did not want to touch them sexually or have sex is because they refused to get treatment for an ongoing STD. I would not shame them, but I was told that enforcing this boundary was harmful to them even though I was only protecting myself.

Everything I did was my fault, they used their bad memory as an excuse to attack me verbally and then tell me that they couldn’t remember. Every time I would bring it up, they would blame me for remembering things, and for using their bad memory against them. I was gaslighted into believing I was the bad person in the relationship and this wore me down emotionally until my strength had gone.

By the time I had I realised my emotional strength had gone and I reached out to people for help, this person had already sabotaged my friendships and so nobody believed me. I was isolated, left only with the advice that I was in a “bad relationship” that “didn’t work out”. I did not know who to turn to with these deep-seated feelings that I had been in an abusive and manipulative relationship.

The effects of this have lasted to this day. I was signed off of work for 6 months, I was vulnerable, I was unable to leave the house, I have extreme anxiety. The impact this experience has had on my personal relationships and my ability to be intimate has been profound.

I have come out in solidarity with Survivor #2 as I have only just come to terms with the effects this relationship has had with me. I have seen this abuser in action, and seeing this happen to someone else made me realise something has to be done to spread awareness about these types of behaviours that often get swept under the carpet and dismissed. As activists, we have a duty to not remain neutral but to instead spread awareness for the safety of our communities.

National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247 24

London LGBT+ Advice Line: 020 7704 2040

National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428

Samaritans: 116 123

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