Note: If you are in or a survivor of an abusive relationship and need support you can call Alternative Horizons on their 24 hour hotline, 970-247-9619. If you are not local, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. This column may be triggering for some folks, please take care of yourself and skip it.The last four years for many Americans has been a nightmare. Womxn knowing that “grab ‘em by the pussy” would only encourage harassment and assault. Black and Brown people watching in real time the call to arms for white supremacists. Asian Americans being targeted and shunned for a virus that a xenophobic leader blamed on “them” as he lumped all people of Asian descent into one group. People with disabilities being mocked for laughs and entertainment on a national stage. LGBTQ, especially transgender, folks losing their rights and their lives.
The people who argue that there is a majority that didn’t suffer these last four years are tucked into their issue-based bubbles, supporters of white supremacy, or making a fuck ton more money than the average person. I’d push back against the first one and ask those issue-based folks, how are their morals feeling these days? To the MAGA crowd and the Q believers, have you realized it was all a con? That the cult leader made you feel heard but was never actually listening. As for the rich who just got richer, I’ll let the Bernie Bros take you on.
The bad boyNear the beginning of this shit show, we saw a personality that openly bragged about taking what they want from women. Men cheered and some women thought it was funny and sexy. I work hard not to knock people’s sexual desires but this is some antithetical bullshit.
I recently read this amazing break down of the abusive co-opting of BDSM for the sake of being able to beat womxn:
“When the patriarch admits, ‘I want to beat you during sex because you are not worthy of respect’ that is not power exchange, that is not BDSM. That is NOT an expression of trust or vulnerability. That is a replication of the hegemony that empowers them.” sung yim
There are millions of romance books (other fictional media, too) using this trope. We have to stop consuming this message for our sanity and our sexual health. Until that happens, until creators of romantic fiction throw this trope in the trash, abusive relationships will continue. Not because of the books or films that flirt with the topic and make it seem sexy but because the counter message isn’t loud enough, the sex education to empower healthy sexual people isn’t rampant enough, and the patriarchy finds cover in the messaging. The masses aren’t able to parse the fictional with reality and determine the difference between consensual sexual behaviors and abuse.
Let’s not forget the Men in this process. You can certainly embody the look of a “bad boy”—tattoos, piercings, moody gazes—but don’t actually think that dominating, hitting, or taking what you want is sexy. If you do any of these behaviors without explicit and enthusiastic consent, it is abuse. How do you know what explicit and enthusiastic consent is or how to openly communicate about your sexual desires—take a class or ten.
Next, unpack your privilege. Sit down and figure out how you cause harm with your everyday actions. Are you not held accountable for your behaviors? Do you make jokes at the expense of others? Are you making more money than your non-white/non-male coworkers and not saying anything about the disparity? Do you surround yourself with voices and faces that only look like you? If you are “woke” are you listening or talking?
Don’t stop after one class or one book. Men need to identify healthy values, connect with their emotions, and follow through with actions that do not harm others.
Emotional, verbal, psychological, and physical abuse
A toxic relationship isn’t limited to physical abuse or romantic relationships. We’ve all heard the phrase “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”—this is a crock of shit. A man-up type phrase that is meant to help kids deal with bullies that fails miserably. I’m sorry to say that bullies come in adult-form too and they can wreak a lot of havoc (case in point!). From a verbally abusive co-worker to a physically abusive friend or psychological manipulation from a cult leader.
Abuse thrives in unequal relationships and behaviors like lying, physical violence, blackmail, withholding sex, or taking sexual advantage—are meant to keep the relationship unequal. Gaslighting has become a popular term, although not a new behavior, to describe manipulation in a relationship. The purpose of gaslighting is to get the victim to question themselves and rely on the abuser to tell them what is “real” or “true”—the truth, of course, benefits the abuser and punishes the victim. Abusive relationships can absolutely be more than just one person engaging in abusive behaviors—lovers, friends, partners can certainly give and receive abuse equally. This type of collective abuse is less highlighted when we talk about domestic violence but no less harmful for everyone involved.
It can take time to come to terms with a toxic relationship. Being able to even say out loud that someone you care about, maybe even love, treats you like shit can be a seemingly insurmountable challenge. This is a gross understatement of how difficult it can be to recognize and then escape an abusive relationship. I cannot emphasize enough the cyclic nature of abuse and abusers. There are moments of reprieve or a change in tone that can make it seem like it will get better. It is always, always important to know that leaving is not as simple as walking out the door.
You are worth safe and caring relationships. There are people who can help.
AftermathIf you are able to leave behind an abusive relationship by yourself or with help, the aftermath can be a rollercoaster of emotions: anger, fear, resentment, confusion, frustration, sadness, self-doubt, low self-esteem, or depression. I strongly encourage you to find a support group or a therapist that can help you process, acknowledge, and overcome or accept them. You may find it hard to talk to other people about how you’re feeling, but it’s an important part of the healing process. It may take months or years before you feel safe again.
Abusive relationships will affect your future relationships. You may be hesitant to get involved with someone new. You may not share as much of yourself with other people. Your trust will be hard to earn. This is your brain’s way of protecting you. None of your new relationships can tell you how to recover or how you should move forward. This is your journey and it will be unique to you.
As you move through the healing process, be sure to put yourself first. Surround yourself with people who support, value, and motivate you. Do the activities and behaviors you want to do! Before you date anyone else, date yourself.
ForgivenessAs an atheist I do not have the religious guilt that oppressively weighs on the decision of forgiveness. I’m far more pragmatic about forgiveness so generally defer to wiser people on this topic:
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude. That which I was not but could have been. That which I would have done but did not do. Can I find the fortitude to remember in truth, to understand, to submit, to forgive and to be free to move on in time?” Martin Luther King Jr.
“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.” Margaret Atwood
“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.” Khaled Hosseini
“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim--letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.” C.R. Strahan
If we want to avoid another toxic relationship in the highest office of this country, it is important to call out where the power actually lies. President Biden and Democrats are not saviors. They are not white knights or heroes. They work in service of us, their constituents. It is our duty and responsibility to stand up, speak up, and hold them to account. As always, communication is key, and I encourage you to stay connected to your Representative and Senators to help steer the policy ship.
Erin Brandt (she/her/hers) has been a sexologist for 15 years. When she’s not spreading sexual knowledge, Erin can be found learning from her child, hiking with her partner, cuddling with her pitbull, knitting with her cat, dancing with friends, and searching for the nearest hammock and ocean breeze. Want more? Visit www.positivesexed.com