- Text by Kat George
2017 can be characterised as a year of backlash. While ‘Backlash’ as a collective action isn’t always viewed favourably, it can be useful – the best recent example being the viral #MeToo campaign, which raised women’s voices against sexual abuse, coalescing in a ferocious global community. But the movement wasn’t without flaws, and as a survivor of emotional abuse, I’ve questioned where it leaves women who don’t have the tools or ability to verbalise their experience.
Sexual abuse, in so far as we’ve understood with the #MeToo campaign, is quantifiable. It’s a gross physical action that can be easily seen – whether its forced exposure or masturbation, unwanted touching and other coercive sexual acts. It’s not easy to talk about.
However, it’s important that — without diminishing those stories — we are also able to recognise that those stories have clear narratives. There are names for the things that are done. Harassment. Assault. Rape. But there are countless other abuses for which such words do not exist, and which are not as easily identifiable to others when they’re spoken about. So how do we start talking about the abuses that we can’t name? How does the trajectory of #MeToo serve the millions of women who live with less visible abuse on a daily basis?
I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for nearly three years. The start of it slipped by me, unannounced. After the first six months of dating, I told him a story about a particularly troubling time in my life, and by the time I’d finished speaking – tearful, in need of support – I was glibly asked “why the fuck are you telling me that? Why would I care?” In that vulnerable moment, I wasn’t able to bite back. Instead, I wondered, “why would he, or anyone, care about that?”
It was small things first: you’re too loud. You have too many opinions. You’re not going to wear that, are you?
He got bolder in increments. He would tell me my pubic hair was disgusting, a turn-off. That my cooking wasn’t good enough for him. Somewhere inside me, I knew I should tell him, “These are my pubes and they’re lovely, and if you hate my cooking so much make your own fucking dinner.” But I didn’t. Instead, I paid the $70 to have all my pubic hair ripped out by a stranger until there was a bald alien egg between my legs, which I hated. I started making rich, fatty meals that I didn’t want to eat, but which he gobbled down like a greedy troll.
It was as though my acquiescence gave him license to continue. One night, after he’d done something to upset me and I’d addressed it with him, the disagreement devolved into him screaming in my face, “You are a cunt. You are an unloveable cunt,” while I lay on the bed, crying quietly. His warm, whiskey spit splattered across my face.
I began to have severe anxiety and panic attacks. He told me that I wasn’t normal. That he didn’t know who I was when I was in the grip of mortifying anxiety. He would say I was pathetic.
Most of the time, I sat and held my knees and cried while he yelled at me. Sometimes, rarely, I’d scream back and slam doors. I’d tell him to leave, or that I would leave. Several times I packed a bag.
But in the mornings, he’d cry and hold me and beg me not to go. He’d say he’d do better, that I didn’t deserve his hatred. That I was good and he was bad. I convinced myself I needed to be stronger so I could endure his moods and protect this helpless man from himself. It never occurred to me – not once – that I was the one that needed protecting.
That’s the toll of emotional abuse: it strips you of your smarts, and leaves you in a state of constant, wheezing self-doubt.
To the outside world, I was very careful to maintain the glossy veneer. My social media feed was curated to show a happy couple in love. I never told my friends about the fights because I knew what they would say. They’d say the exact same thing I’d say to them if they came to me and told me a man had screamed “Asshole” in their face until he was hoarse from it, his eyes transformed to two large, popping veins.
In that situation, a hashtag couldn’t have saved me. A hashtag might have led to a confrontation, in which he would remind me, at great length, of how lucky I was to have him, and how no one else could possibly ever love me. Or maybe he wouldn’t have noticed at all. Maybe I would have Tweeted #MeToo into the ether and it would have evaporated into Internet air, and yet again, I would be reminded that I was nothing more than an unworthy inconvenience. I would have watched on silently from behind a screen as women liberated themselves, unifying against their aggressors, while mine breathed heavily in the next room.
I used to lay in bed in the mornings, him snoring next to me, and scan the room, taking a mental inventory of my things, wondering if I could throw a few of my most important belongings in a suitcase, would I be able to disappear before he got home from work. In the end, I faced him, and as I’d preempted, I only escaped that relationship by completely abandoning a life I’d spent years building — friends, work, an apartment filled with everything I owned — in an impulsive and abrupt decision. It was the best decision I ever made.
Cameka Crawford, a spokeswoman for the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the United States, has called emotional abuse “an epidemic”. Refuge, a women and children’s domestic violence helpline in the U.K., reminds us that “non-physical forms of abuse can be as destructive and as undermining as physical violence.”
The realities of gender-based emotional abuse, of course, are far more complex. Every woman’s experience is different. Many women are often unaware that what they’re experiencing is abuse, gas-lit into believing their situation is “normal” or that they’re the problem. Ongoing emotional manipulation often leads women to blame themselves. And for vast swaths of women, the entirety of their existence – family, friends and finances – is built around their abuser. Restitution is not as simple as a hashtag.
#MeToo has been a revelation, a roaring success in a year when a win for women was sorely needed. Now the question is, how do we transform this movement into one that not only seeks retribution for those who have the power to speak, but one that gives every woman a voice? How do we use our words, and the power of our collective concern, to hear women for whom there is no single definition for what they endure? Ultimately, to maintain success, the #MeToo movement needs to make room for victims of emotional abuse, and extend the reach of this shared voice to include victims of all gender-based violence.
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