This is gonna be a doosy of a post. Here are some trigger warnings for you: abuse, abuse behaviors, unsolicited dick pics, sexual harassment, victim blaming.
Psychology is based on this idea that there are universal truths about people and the way they engage each other. There’s a statistically significant “norm” but always outliers and exceptions to any of these rules. The idea of Universal Engagement (something I either picked up from somewhere or made up based on the idea, so this might be a theory of my own, bear with me) is that there is a tried and true way to handle specific situations and all people should engage in a similar fashion. For example: You’re sitting in a coffee shop with headphones and reading a book. Someone walks up and tries to talk to you. You hope ignoring it will make the person go away, but they’re insistent on getting your attention. Universal Engagement states that the best way to deal with this situation is to politely find out what the person wants and tell them you’re not interested. Even if 99% of the time this works and the person moves along, that 1% of the time can result in devastating results. And the truth of the matter is that if you’re a woman and the stranger is a male, there’s a higher risk of something bad happening by not “being nice.”
There are statistics everywhere with regard to people getting harassed, mostly women, but that doesn’t mean men aren’t the victims either.
The problem with Universal Engagement is the idea that if you do something exactly a certain way, you can avoid 99% of the problems, when that is simply not true. There are so many factors to consider that even attempting to list them all could take hours! Previous harassment, previous stalking, previous physical abuse, current harassment, current stalking, current physical abuse, previous or current mental abuse, mental disabilities, physical disabilities, invisible disabilities, you name it, it can probably go on this list.
Abuse Patterns of Behavior
Abusers are not always methodical psychopaths hell bent on ruining your life and taking all of your autonomy. Many abusers don’t even realize that the patterns of behavior they engage in are considered abusive. The lines for identifying abuse are so fine that without a large quantity of historical information, the untrained person won’t be able to distinguish the difference between “quirky weirdness” and “serious abuse”. Even professionals get it wrong because the greatest human feat is the fact that we are flawed.
So removing psychopaths and sociopaths, the patterns of abuse are cyclical and time consuming. The identifying of a victim isn’t a plot or a scheme like you see in Criminal Minds or some other show. It often stems from genuine fondness or liking of another person. “I fancy you and would like to get to know you better.” People like to be liked, it’s also part of the human condition. People want to feel wanted and cared for. And if someone comes along and likes you and gives you attention in just the right way it becomes intoxicating. It’s easy to miss the gradient flags of pink when there’s so subtle they almost look white. Red flags are the obvious problems, right? The glaring personality traits that make you go “Hmmm… I dunno about you…” but the gradients of pink are the ones where you’re like “You’re generally nice, but this might be an issue if it weren’t for how nice and charming you are.” Pink flags are easily dismissed. And the abuse patterns begin.
You dismiss one pink flag and you’ve now set the stage for dismissing other pink flags. The problem with pink flags is there’s no running tally. They don’t add up to a red flag of glaring obviousness. The pink flags just keep waving and in the different light of the interactions, you can’t quite tell if they’re red-ish or white. So you let it go. You ignore it. It’s not often behaviors that you even mention.
Abuse patterns show up in many different ways too. Talking bad about themselves so that you boost them up. Expressing how important you are to them while isolating you from other people. Everything is a secret. “Don’t tell people, I don’t want them to know.” They prey on your own insecurities to ensure that because you “Know how it feels” you won’t talk about it with others. Your friends are mean to them so can we just do stuff together, just us? Your friends said something terrible, so I’m going to make you fight with them in order to make you look nutty and ridiculous and your friends look nutty and ridiculous and suddenly you’re standing there wondering what went wrong.
The worst perpetrators are so sly and subtle in the ways in which they engage that you can look back and think “I never would have guessed” and it’s true, you never would have. You weren’t supposed to. The final cycle of abuse is the silence. Most of the behaviors leading up to this point have let you believe that you somehow did something wrong, so you don’t mention it. You don’t talk about it. You keep it to yourself because you don’t wanna be labeled a “drama queen” or “a shit starter” or “a bitch.” You keep that shit to yourself and you mull over it. You think on it. You question whether you did something to warrant or deserve it.
Universal Engagement and Abuse
Abusers need you to stay away from the strongest within your support system. The more you hear it the more you start to question and the grip they have on you weakens. Abusers are able to continue to abuse because the victims believe they somehow are deserving of it. That this is the best that they’re ever going to get. That this is their lot in life and they have to accept it. Abusers don’t want you to have the friend that tells you “Dude, you’re worth so much more than that.” Abusers need the people that say “If you need somewhere to stay, I’m here.” to not be available to offer this because if there’s a way out, then they have to start over again.
When we put the onus of protection on the victims through universal engagement, we are essentially telling the victims that they somehow deserved it by not reacting or responding in a specific way that would have avoided being the victim in the first place. We are telling victims that “If you had only done THIS then THAT wouldn’t have happened”. Stop for a second and think about that. “If you didn’t leave your house, you wouldn’t have gotten sick.” “If you didn’t go to that party, you wouldn’t have had fun.” “If you didn’t go to work, you wouldn’t be able to buy food.” The ridiculousness of the latter statements is only to point out that universal engagement is not the be-all end-all way to handle situations.
Stop Abusers. Stop Victim Blaming.
When we stop to think about all of the ways that getting unsolicited dick pics (think about this one for a second, how do you STOP someone from sending you dick pics YOU DIDN’T EVEN WANT??) by saying “Just say no”, “just refuse”, “just tell them to leave you alone” we continue this cycle of belief that somehow the victims have “asked for it” by not engaging in the most appropriate way.
The truth is we need to teach people what abuse looks like, the subtle and the overt. We need to stop being silent. We need to start talking to each other. We need to learn to feel comfortable with expressing the way we feel and not feeling as though we’re going to be judged.
We need to learn to live empathetically. It’s more than just imagining what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. We need to stop quantifying ailments and illnesses and situations as “worse” or “better” than others. We need to stop deciding for other people how they should feel and think and behave. We need to accept that for This Person Today, This Thing Is Super Important. Even if it seems stupid and trivial to you.
Stop providing the platform with which abusers are able to perpetuate abuse by blaming victims.
Content warning: If you think this post was written about you, please kindly check yourself. You are not the only person to ever call me a unicorn and you are likely not the last. *sings* Your so vain, you probably think this post is about you, don’t you, don’t yoooouuu. Staph it.
It’s supposed to be a compliment, you know, to be called a “unicorn”. It’s supposed to make a person feel like they’re so special and so different that no one has compared to their special-ness or difference before. It’s intended to make a person feel as though they are unique.
I think it needs to be said and pointed out again why this is actually rather problematic as opposed to complimentary. All people (and by literally everyone) have flaws. All people have difficulties, bad days, rough moments in time, say terrible things unintentionally, hurt people, are hurt, get frustrated, lash out, and are not, well, mythical creatures.
No human is so unique that they are exempt from the very things that make humans human. This sort of goes along with the “don’t be a dick” post, but really, people who use this “compliment” don’t even probably realize that it’s not nearly as fun to receive as it might be intended.
I am not always the nicest or easiest person to get along with. I’m bull-headed and strong-willed. I stand my ground on things that matter to me and I am steadfast in trying to make the world a better place in small but meaningful ways. This often comes across as me being “bitchy” or “harsh” or acting like a “feminazi”, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t always just look out for myself. I consider the ways in which my actions affect other people. While I care about how my words might be understood and I not exempt from making mistakes now and again.
Yeah. It probably comes as no surprise to many people, you know, who get that people, all people, make mistakes. Sometimes really big ones. Sometimes small ones. I also understand that all of our lives are stories that the rest of us don’t get to be privvy to. I’m not entitled to know the inner workings of a person’s life unless they invite me to know these things. Am I curious? Oh you bet your sweet ass I am! But because everyone has their own story to tell and their own story to lead, I need people to not try to write mine for me.
Which means I need people to stop trying to turn me into a mythical creature that doesn’t actually exist.
When someone calls me a unicorn I feel as though I don’t actually exist with everyone else. It makes me feel like I have this impossible standard to live up to that no one will ever be able to meet. I feel like I don’t have the opportunity to stay “I’m not a unicorn, please don’t call me that” because then I’m just being “overly sensitive” or a bitch. (Yup, been there, done that).
It is human nature to defend ourselves when we feel as though our best intentions aren’t being understood the way we intended. Except, it’s not really the responsibility of the other person to know this, it’s up to the Teller of Words to be mindful of how those words might be interpreted and to share them in a way that is meaningful for both parties.
The thing is, communication is a two (or more) way street. It’s not just “I say this thing” and the other person immediately understands it the way I meant it. There are rules to the way we communicate with each other. As friendships and relationships (I don’t necessarily mean romantic, all interactions in my book are relationships) grow, people establish rules of communication. The closer I get to someone, the more comfortable I am with the way I talk to them. I also adjust accordingly. If something I say is offensive to someone, it’s probably offensive to others and I work on trying to curb the use of whatever word/phrase in order to be more accomodating. When I first meet someone, I don’t come out and say “I love you” even in a friendship way, because those rules of okay-ness have not yet been established.
Annecdotal story time: When I was actively trying to date on OKC (which is a retched site, btw) I had a guy that I got along with pretty well. Took the chance and after only a couple of days of messages decided to go on a date with him. While there were a handful of problems, the one thing that made it impossible for me to ever want to go futher than a single date was the fact that he called me a unicorn. It was a done deal at that point.
So PSA? Just don’t say it. Keep those kinds of thoughts to yourself. While not everyone will take it the way I’ve described here, some will, and it just might be the dealbreaker.
This post is part of the #Blaugust series.