Updated version of an article originally published on Medium.
When it comes to abuse, there’s much confusion surrounding what to do, who to blame, etc. In polyamory, this can be further complicated by the amount of people involved and how they are involved. But never fear; there are some things to keep in mind no matter what. While they may not prevent abuse, these tips can go a long way to ensuring the victim’s ongoing safety.
- On abusers and repentance: If you want to “help” someone who’s transgressed, you only need to offer it once. Then move on. They know where to find you if they need to. Like, the problem is their overabundance of options, not lack thereof. Where’s the support and restoration for the people who actually need it? That’s what matters. Be wary of a continued focus on the perpetrator to the victim’s detriment.
- And we do need to consider context for who to trust and inform and maintain ties with: those who don’t know what was done, those keeping an eye on perpetrators to actively keep them from doing harm, and those who just dgaf.
- Speaking of harm: I’m thinking of that scene from The Craft: I bind you. I bind you from doing harm against yourself and others. That is basically the goal and requirement for bystanders who need to become anti-abuse agents. The point is massive harm reduction, barring healing (which takes forever, and often never)
Ask Some Questions of Yourself and Others:
1. Is there a power imbalance?
The difference between hurting and abusing is always power (as opposed to responsibility and accountability).
That’s why it occurs nearly everywhere, even within “social justice” and “feminist” spaces. Colonization and evo psych have distorted our thinking to the point where people assume hierarchies, competition, and barbarism are natural, normal, and the default for humanity.
It is absolutely not! But that’s an exploration for another time.
The point is that concentrated power inevitably will draw abusers and will lead to abusive dynamics and systems. It doesn’t matter if you call it democracy or utiliatrianism or communism or socialism; if you are concentrating power, you are building a foundation for an abuse culture to arise.
I’ll discuss ways to avoid that elsewhere.
Abuse is power gained — nonconsensually — at the expense of another. It is not hurting someone’s feelings. It is not merely rudeness; some of the worst abuse is perpetrated via niceness. Abuse is inertia. A limit. A purposeful distortion and delusion imposed upon reality.
It is the opposite of emotional intelligence; it is making other people responsible for your feelings instead of dealing with your own shit. It is projecting your expectations onto human beings and demanding they comply. It is a harmful erasure of reality.
2. Has someone been hurt? If so, is that hurt harmful? Is it ongoing?
Tend to the hurt appropriately. Some hurt is inescapable, some is to be dealt with by the individual (ie, yte guilt, rejection, etc are personal issues and are not matters of abuse).
Harm, on the other hand, is where abuse begins. Harm is senseless, meaningless, petty, unnecessary, and the only goal is to gain the upper hand. That is the bedrock of abuse culture.
3. Can you tell the difference between a trauma response, mental illness (usually a trauma response of a specific kind), neurodivergence, assholery, and abuse?
4. Concentrate on the victim(s). What do they need to feel safe? What do they need to BE safe? (By safe I simply mean having the space to heal and/or recover organically)
If you’re not constantly and consistently keeping the most vulnerable safe (giving them room to exist), then there is no ethical or moral fiber to whatever it is you think you’re doing, whether you call it restorative justice or not.
5. Is the person, idea, or system more based on appearances (reputation or other surface concerns) rather than actual efficiency or effect?
Abusive dynamics are all about control: controlling the narrative, controlling reputations, controlling choices.
Control is not discipline. It is not responsibility. It is not accountability. Control is about power.
A loss of control experienced by someone with mental illness or disability is best dealt with by grounding that person or having them ground themselves. Illness is not abuse; abuse is a choice to take unearned and unagreed upon power by any means necessary (by force). Abuse is not self-defense or maintaining or reclaiming boundaries.
6. Is the focus on soothing hurt feelings or on solving the actual problem?
7. What are the actual consequences for being abusive? What is the ongoing cost to the victim(s)?
8. When considering letting people or systems who’ve been abusive remain or “come back” or whatever: does the power imbalance still exist? Have they been held accountable? Has the victim been compensated and/or restored (which may never happen fully, but should still be aimed for)?
9. Consider the wider context: Are you considering intersectionality and an integrated view of the situation?
Yes, the marginalized and oppressed and disabled, etc, can abuse. Some do. That doesn’t change the overall overarching systemic abuse in the form of oppression that happens. In general, and overall, it is far more likely that someone benefiting from the oppression (macro-level abuse) is abusive.
Yeah, that means cishet yte abled dudes are the most likely to be abusers. That information gained from the sources in power is not reliable. It is what it is.
Hurt people don’t hurt people. That is emotionally unintelligent bullshit. Taking power is always a choice. Feelings are not actions, nor are they reasons to make certain decisions. To be abusive is to decide your comfort/desire/delusion is more important than the other party’s right to informed choice.
Such myths leave the most vulnerable fending for themselves. And what the fuck is the point of talking about justice or human rights or a better world if you blame the victim or kill the messenger?
10. Are you conflating ability to abuse with personality?
It’s not about likeability. It’s not about who the people involved are on an individual level. It is about the tether between them, and whether it lends itself to unfairness, inequality, and harm. The only way to end it is to place and enforce rational boundaries — even up to the point of banishment in egregious circumstances — until the abuse stops!
That means the abuser has to actually stop abusing, folks, before they can be considered nonabusive. Ignoring it just ensures it will continue.
Possible Things To Do:
- Speak up. You don’t have to be a jerk but niceness is not required. Don’t accuse; just state what is.
- Remember that abuse doesn’t go away on its own. Something has to change; usually this means giving the victim space to recover. Yeah, that means the abuser may have to go away for a bit, or a while, or forever. So what?
- The victim owes nothing. They determine the terms because they know what they need. Give space for their agency in the matter because your opinion is not relevant, especially if you haven’t actually survived shit.
- The survivor is the expert so defer to their judgment. They were actually on the front lines.
- Be vigilant. Work on your own emotional intelligence. Dismantling and stopping abuse is a never-ending active process, not just something that’s done once.
- Provide space — if necessary and feasible — for the abuser to reflect and be accountable, but fucking do it AWAY from the victim(s)! Don’t fucking put them in therapy or some other shit together if it’s serial abuse!
- If the abuse is just one singular instance, that’s a sign that the person in general is not an abuser but was just abusive. That means they’re more likely to be successfully rehabilitated.
- For serial abuse, that person tends to be an actual abuser, and rehabilitation is counterindicated. Rather, harm reduction measures are required. That simply, practically, means limiting their access to those they tend to victimize. Like, don’t fucking put them in charge of the vulnerable populations they abused. Don’t put them in positions of power period.
Abusers (as opposed to people who’ve been abusive) are opportunists. Recall the above: it’s about power. They will absolutely exploit it.
- If you haven’t experienced it, it doesn’t matter how much you study; you don’t know shit. As a bystander, you are a support and your job is to help create, place, and maintain boundaries between the victim and the abuser. Not protecting, but taking direction from.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a mean or nice person.
It doesn’t matter if you’re oppressed.
It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your intention.
It doesn’t matter what they did to you.
It doesn’t matter if they don’t realize it was abuse until it was too late.
It doesn’t matter if you dress it up as romance or social justice or parenting.
You cannot force anyone to do anything!
No one is entitled to anything. No one is owed anything. No one “deserves” anything.
Agency is what we have to nurture and focus on within any context. Situations and practices that remove or inhibit agency (ie, these are all examples of abuse). This list is nonexhaustive:
- rape by deception (like that recent shit about amabs pretending to wear condoms)
- gaslighting (more likely within polyamory due to societal factors, though not inherent to it)
- control of finances/resources
- delays and interference not contingent upon survival (ie. consistently making someone late for work, blocking access to family, friends, or other support sources, etc)
- spying and other invasions of privacy
- racism (any ism, really, but the current incarnation of abuse culture houses everythin under racism, anyway)
- nonconsensual spanking (or hitting, biting, etc)
- ongoing negligence
- artificial selection (not just genetically — yes, I mean the holocausts, eugenics, and breeding — but also actively seeking to limit someone’s choices to things that impact their ability to care for themselves and live)
- imposing religious or personal ideas
- constantly interrupting or speaking over
- facilitating abuse or abuse by proxy (ie. selling your kid to an abuser)
- avoiding informed consent
- unjust and/or discriminatory laws/policies
- medical abuse/experimentation
- cruel and unusual punishments
- declaring anyone “illegal” or treating them as such
- false reporting
- tone policing
- evasive projecting
- silencing a victim or marginalized perspective
- demanding unpaid emotional/intellectual labor
- anything else that interferes with agency and power in a nonrational, unnecessary, controlling manner
Note that self-defense, mental illness, neurodivergence, and/or ongoing stress is often mistaken for abuse. I can’t get into it in more detail here, but there are ways to tell and different processes for dealing with it. Nevertheless, having a disability or mental illness is NEVER sufficient to excuse abuse. Disabled or neurodivergent people can and do abuse, as stated above, but the issue is still the abuse itself and not their disability or neurodivergence.