Abusers convince these women that they’re the problem or that they deserve the treatment they dish out, and they gaslight them and convince them not to trust their own experiences.
Charlie Rose. Roy Moore. Al Franken. Every day, there’s a new name to add to the list of men who have sexually harassed and assaulted women. And every day, there’s someone ready to ask “Why did she wait so long to come forward?”
I’ve never understood that question. A better question would be “Why does anyone ever come forward?” There’s no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. There’s nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by speaking the truth about powerful men. And let’s face it, all men are powerful to some degree.
I’ve been sexually harassed, assaulted and even raped. My first abuser was my biological father, and the abuse began before I could walk. I’ve never known a world without abuse, so perhaps that’s why it’s so easy for me to understand why victims stay silent. None of the men who have abused me sexually or otherwise have been prosecuted. None of them have even suffered from social consequences or stigma. In each case, speaking out about my abuse earned me nothing but doubt and attacks; in each case, the men who abused me emerged unscathed.
Yesterday, I tweeted a simple phrase: “Believe women.” Within minutes, someone replied that I’ve lost all credibility. The idea that women should be believed is still, even after so many men have fallen from grace, disturbing to some people — many people. The idea that male power can be lost by male misbehavior is dawning, and that fear is present in every comment and tweet and post about the “risk” to men of all of these accusers.
The latest round of allegations has cut deep for some women, as they’ve watched their favorites fall from grace. I’ve watched my friends express shock and horror as their idols are revealed to be abusers. I’ve even seen some liberal women question victims because they refuse to believe these men, the “good” men, are abusers too. But I’m never surprised when men abuse women.
Sure, most men don’t assault or rape women. But is that really something to be proud of? Is that how low we’ve set the bar for men? I expect more from men than that, and when they laugh at sexist jokes, turn away when men harass or abuse women, and fail to speak out or take real action to prevent their abuse, they’ve failed to meet my bar. They may not be abusers themselves but they allow themselves to be accomplices to abuse because it’s easier than taking a stand.
When men enable this type of abuse, it sends a message to women. It tells us that what we’re experiencing isn’t truly abuse. It’s not that big of a deal. And if we think it is, and if we’re upset, maybe that’s our fault. Maybe we’re the problem. It’s a great way to silence women and to perpetuate abuse against us.
Even after all of the things I’ve experienced in my life, if you’d asked me last month or last year if my ex-husband was abusive, I would’ve said no. I would’ve said that he’s an alcoholic or that he cheated on me, but I would’ve hesitated to label his treatment of me as abuse. But a few weeks ago, he sent me a few angry, unsolicited emails calling me a “dumb cranky bitch,” a “whore” and a “douche bag.” For the first time, I allowed myself to consider that his treatment of me was abuse.
To hear some people tell it, women are desperate to find abuse in every ill-considered joke or awkward interaction. But that’s not my experience. It took me almost a decade after my divorce to consider that my ex-husband’s treatment of me was abusive, and it took me until my 30s to allow myself to face the idea that my mother was emotionally abusive. If anything, it took me too long to face the truth not the opposite.
And I’m not the only one. I belong to groups for women who were abused by parents and spouses, and almost every case follows a similar pattern. Abusers convince these women that they’re the problem or that they deserve the treatment they dish out, and they gaslight them and convince them not to trust their own experiences. They imbue them with so much self-doubt that they’re afraid to tell anyone about what happened to them.
If we’re still looking for proof that men are rewarded for the abuse they inflict on women, it isn’t hard to find. We elected Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed abuser, and Gaslighter in Chief, to the White House. Roy Moore is still an active candidate.
The problem is not that women wait too long to come forward about abuse. The problem is that it’s taken this long for women to know someone might believe them if they do.