Update: If you are looking for help with an abusive situation, please see this list of resources.
Eve and I have been writing quite a lot about abuse in polyamorous relationships here lately. We’re even doing a workshop on it at Poly Living in Philadelphia next weekend. I realize it’s a bit of a downer, and it’s not a lot of fun to talk about. Most of the poly community is awesome, and polyamory itself is wonderful and rewarding.
But I believe the community—by which I mean all the folks who are interested in polyamory and who get together to talk about this multiple relationship thing that we do—is at a crossroads. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am not impressed with the way the organized BDSM community walks the walk when it comes to abuse. It certainly talks the talk about consent, safety, and respect, but in more than sixty years I don’t think it’s managed to turn that talk into a meaningful culture of consent. I know a lot of people are working hard to change that. Some of those people are friends of mine. That’s awesome.
Right now I think the poly community has come to a place where we can either content ourselves with talking about respect and consent the way the BDSM community has, or we can work to make it a cornerstone of the social groups we create. I look at the kink scene and the path it’s taken, and I’m afraid. I don’t want the poly scene to become like that.
But the problem is, I don’t have all the answers about how to make it a place that genuinely enshrines consent. Dealing with people who abuse is hard. It’s hard to stand up and speak out when you see something happening in your community that’s not okay, but that doesn’t involve you directly. It’s hard to get involved. It’s hard to tell someone, “Look, you’re not welcome in this space because you did that thing you did.”
And hard as that is, it’s only the start.
This is something that hits home to me. I’ve seen abuse happen in my polycule. It’s incredibly disempowering to see someone you love being abused by, for example, your metamour—especially when your metamour is also your friend. Folks who have never experienced it cannot easily understand how disempowering it feels to see someone doing things that are harmful and destructive to someone you love, and to know you can’t make them stop, or make your partner leave.
The thing we don’t like to admit is that people who abuse are not necessarily evil. They’re not necessarily bad people. If you ask someone, “What makes a person abuse?” you will hear a lot of answers like “some people are just monsters.” That black-and-white, Marvel Comics caricature of what “an abuser” looks like helps nobody. Often, people who abuse are friends. Often, people who abuse are hurting themselves. Often, people who abuse genuinely do have good things about them. Often, they’re not committing physical violence, and the abuse is hard to spot.
See, here’s the thing. Abusers often sincerely believe themselves to be victims. That was, and is, the case with the person in my polycule.
People don’t wake up one morning and go “You know what? I think I’m going to become an abuser today! Boy, doesn’t that sound like fun? I’ll undermine and mistreat the people close to me!” Every person who commits abuse that I’ve ever met, without exception, is someone who is in a lot of pain. They feel that the abuse they do isn’t abuse—it’s a reasonable and natural response to the pain they’re in.
As people working in domestic violence prevention will tell you, abuse is about power and control. Lots and lots and lots of people, abusers and non-abusers alike, believe that if your partner does or says something and it makes you feel uncomfortable, threatened, jealous, or hurt, it’s okay for you to control them in order to deal with your feelings.
Look around. This idea has a lot of social currency. Among monogamous folks, you’ll find tons of people who say things like “if your girlfriend talks to other guys and that upsets you, don’t let her! Make her stop!” “If your boyfriend is still friends with an ex, tell him he can never speak to her again!” “If your girlfriend likes some other guy’s Facebook posts, tell her she has to stop doing that!” In the poly community we don’t do that, but we still cling to the idea that if something your partner does makes you uncomfortable, it’s reasonable and appropriate to try to get them to stop.
Is everyone who believes this an abusive person? Of course not. But the idea that if you feel something bad, it means someone else is doing something wrong and you should be able to make them stop doing it…well, that’s the root of all abuse.
And people who abuse genuinely feel that if they tell a partner to do something and the partner doesn’t do it, they’re the ones being abused. I’ve talked to so many people who complain, “My partner isn’t doing what I tell them to!” It hurts me when my partner doesn’t let me control them! That’s abuse! My partner is abusing me by not obeying me!
There’s an essay that sums this up brilliantly at The Community Response to Abuse:
“I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”
Because a person who abuses is in genuine pain, and genuinely feels victimized, and sincerely can not distinguish between “victimized by someone else’s control” and “victimized because I can’t control someone else,” it’s really, really hard to show these folks why their actions are wrong. They believe that if someone else sets a boundary, that boundary is an abuse of them.
In order to crack the problem of abuse, you have to cut all the way down to why we think it’s okay to control other people, and that’s extremely difficult. Look at all the people who agree with this idea! Look at how many social messages say that if someone does something that makes us uncomfortable, the best way to handle it is to control that person! Everything social message we’re confronted with reinforces this idea.
So people who abuse aren’t (necessarily) monsters. They’re just like us. They’re hurting. And that presents one hell of a problem—one that we need to be able to talk about, and get a handle on, if we are to make safe spaces for survivors of abuse.
Yes, we need to be willing to step up when we see abuse. Yes, we need to be willing to confront those who abuse, and to be willing to exclude them from the spaces we make.
But that isn’t enough.
We also need to recognize the essential humanity of people who commit abuse. Our first priority needs to be to protect and make safe spaces for survivors, to believe survivors, and to support survivors.
But if that’s all we do, if we think it stops there, we can end up perpetuating the cycle.
Anti-rape activists say, rightly, that if you tell women things like “Don’t drink alcohol” or “Don’t go down that alley,” what you’re actually saying is “Let the rapist rape someone else.”
But when we kick a person out of a poly group for abusing someone and then pat ourselves on the back for this amazing thing we’ve just done, we do the same thing. In refusing to engage with people who abuse, we say, “Let him abuse someone else. Let him abuse in some other community. Let him abuse out of our sight.” And we leave the abuser in an echo chamber.
That’s not good enough.
Survivors of abuse need support. Abusers also need support. They need a different kind of support, though. They need someone to hold them accountable. They need someone to challenge their feelings of entitlement to control. They need someone to call them on their bullshit.1 And even if, for whatever reason, we can’t get through to them, we still need to work to change the cultural idea that controlling others because you’re hurting is okay. As Eve says, “Rape culture is founded on the idea that women’s bodies are presumed available; abuse culture is founded on the idea that it’s okay to control our partners.”
When abuse happened in my polycule, I was not able to do that. Two people I love were hurt by the same guy. He’s not a bad guy. He’s not an evil guy. He’s an insecure guy who is carrying a tremendous pile of sexual insecurity around with him. He believes—really, sincerely believes—that it is okay to control his lovers when he feels insecure, and he really, sincerely believes that if someone resists his control, they are doing something wrong to him.
He’s not a monster.
But I am not able to engage with him. I just can’t do it. He hurt people I love, and I can’t separate myself from that enough to be able to talk to him again, to say, “Dude, what the fuck? It’s not cool to try to tell someone else what to do because you feel insecure. Someone isn’t abusing you by refusing to surrender her bodily autonomy to you.”
But someone needs to do that. I can’t do that in this particular case because I am too close to this particular situation. But I can do it in other situations. And someone needs to be able to do it.
It’s not enough to cast out the person who abuses. That often does need to happen, don’t get me wrong. But that’s the beginning of accountability, not the end.
I’m not sure what the rest of the path to accountability looks like. But I really, really want to learn. And I really hope that other people in the poly community want to learn, too. I’m asking for a lot. I get that. But we need to be able to do this.
The cycle has to stop.
1 There’s a really, really good episode of the Polyamory Weekly podcast that talks about this. I recommend you listen to it.