The Relationship Abuse We're Not Discussing Enough
I was 12 years old the first time I was inappropriately groped by a man. I say inappropriately now, but I didn’t know it then. I was excited to be noticed by someone, anyone really, even though I was only a kid.
Up until that point, what I had known about the opposite sex had come from headlines I’d skim in the checkout line at grocery stores with my mom. They were always some variation of, “Flirting Moves No Guy Can Resist,” or “Sly Ways to Make Him Fall in Love with You.” So when I was flagged down by a relatively good-looking guy that seemed to be in his late twenties, I was flattered. When he asked my age, I immediately lied and said sixteen. When he asked if I was a virgin, my mind went back to the pages of those magazines. “Do I play coy? Am I bold?” I wasn’t sure, so I smiled.
I became nervous when he came closer. Then he began to fondle my chest. I desperately wanted his approval, but I also desperately wanted him to stop touching me. I didn’t give him permission. I had no idea my curiosity was an open invitation to my body. I didn’t have the words then to voice what I was feeling, and I had no idea then that this feeling of bewilderment and uneasiness would characterize many of the relationships, romantic and otherwise, throughout my life.
In closed circles, and among ourselves, women like me have been saying #MeToo for years. Never has it made such a splash on the public scene than more recently when Hollywood women banded together in the wake of Weinstein. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier. With its celebrity backing and overwhelming support on social media, #TimesUp has the potential to fundamentally shift how we handle harassment and abuse of all kinds. But as all social media activists know, every movement has its moment. And with each passing day #TimesUp risks becoming a passing thought in the wake of a new crisis. Part of me fears that day will come sooner than we think, and the hype will fade before we’re ever able to get to the root cause of the issue, because harassment does not always come in the form of a large A-list proclamation. Sometimes it’s smaller, and sometimes it’s in daily life.
I now work for One Love, an organization working to end relationship abuse by teaching people the nuances of toxic relationships, and we are at the forefront of both the anti-harassment and anti-abuse movements. We speak to everyone regardless of gender orientation, race, or class because this is an issue that affects everyone, everyday. Having helped millions of people, what we’ve found is a definitive link between intimate partner violence and other forms of harassment. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be affected by sexual violence—that includes rape and other forms of sexual coercion. And 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will be in an abusive relationship. It should not be that surprising to hear, then, that “lesser” forms of daily harassment can lead to physical abuse. People who are dominating and controlling at work or on the street will likely act out in other ways. And we can’t ignore it anymore.
#TimesUp and #MeToo have empowered thousands of people to find their voice on an issue that has been in the dark for far too long; they have given solidarity to survivors. But these movements must also expand to highlight emotional abuse, what it is, and why someone would use that technique to sexually take advantage of someone. I know this is a huge problem because I’ve heard firsthand how abusers can even implement professional sabotage, intentionally hindering success in the workplace with the aim to further isolate. Emotional abuse tactics aren’t getting the same attention as assault and harassment because people still see abuse as a personal issue, as opposed understanding that it is part of a larger issue in our society: the way people treat one another.
#TimesUp has done an amazing job at calling out the monsters in big industries, but I want to see a future where these movements don’t fizzle out, where they grow to include the more nuanced signs of abuse that are more subjective. People who are experiencing insidious forms of abuse aren’t talking about it because many of them aren’t even aware that these “tiny” behaviors—a partner that’s irrationally jealous, or a manager that’s too touchy—are wrong. And we ignore the glaring connection between sexual misconduct and other forms of emotional abuse when we don’t talk about that link. Much like I experienced when I was a child, we haven’t heard it articulated enough to know that it’s wrong. Many times there is a pattern with abuse that extends beyond sexual abuse because people that are emotionally or sexually abusive lack a fundamental understanding of how to treat another person. That’s where One Love comes in: we get to the root cause of the issue by teaching people how to treat one another in healthier ways.
I cringe every time I hear that intimate partner abuse is a personal issue. It shows me both how far we have come, and how far we must go to educate people about these issues. Still, when people get it right and understand that there’s a connection between abuse and other forms of harassment, it opens the doors for more understanding to follow.
It’s time for the mighty voices of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements to speak up in support and acknowledgement of “smaller” verbal and emotional abuse tactics that often go hand in hand with sexual harassment. These are sister issues, two sides of the same coin, not competing agendas.
One Love believes the first step toward change is to consider the unhealthy behaviors in our own relationships. Does your partner say things to you that make you cringe? Is your boss’s teasing mean-spirited instead of funny? Are you often afraid to speak up for fear of setting someone off? Changing the world starts with us as individuals. And if we can improve our own relationships, we can make our communities healthier and ultimately build a world where no one, not a 12-year-old girl or a working professional, has to say #MeToo or #TimesUp ever again.
To learn more about the subtle signs of abuse, please visit joinonelove.org.