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.