Read it and weep (but, literally)

In Books
November 5, 2009

Read the incredibly powerful Dragonslippers: This is What an Abusive Relationship Looks Like a couple of days ago. It’s a quick read but unputdownable (that over-used publishing ersatz adjective, but really true in this case). Started reading in bed at 1am thinking I’d look at a few pages and then go to sleep, finished at 2.15am, sat in the dark shivering till 3am.

It’s not the kind of book I’d usually read: I guess I feel like I’ve seen enough documentaries/episodes of ER and Eastenders to understand what domestic violence means and to go, in a fairly detached way, ‘oh yes it’s terrible, and so often these women stay with their abusers.’ But this is a totally different level of understanding: of the way that a relationship like this is essentially a kind of slow brainwashing, that it breaks down the will, that behaviour that, if it happened at the start, would have made the woman call the police can come to seem, drip, drip, drip, normal.

I was shocked that, at the start of her relationship with ‘Brian’, ‘Roz’ (all pseudonyms) was 35, a successful businesswoman, winner of the Woman of the Year award from her local chamber of commerce. I really had – it turns out – presumed that women who get into these relationships are badly-educated, poor, unable to find other economic options for themselves. (This despite the fact that I have a friend whose husband was also physically violent to her who is successful and brilliant.) Roz’s website contains a list of warning signs of an abusive relationship which I really think everyone in the world should read: both to spot it if it begins to happen to you, and to understand why some ‘romantic’ behaviours can actually appear very threatening and scary.

The book also made me think about the ways in which our social construction of relationships, and of women’s roles, facilitate abuse. Several times in the book, Roz – having been emotionally and physically abused – comes out with cliches about relationships. ‘Relationships are about forgiveness’, or ‘he must love me, otherwise why would he get so jealous?’ And Brian emphasises, and she agrees, that relationships mean ‘becoming one’, ‘being absorbed into each other’, ‘not trying to be so independent’.

It made me think that an abusive relationship is just a relationship that really follows some of these pieces of hideous folk ‘wisdom’ to their logical conclusions. If a relationship means ‘becoming one’, then surely it’s OK for your husband to ask you to give up friends he doesn’t like? You’re one now, so you shouldn’t be trying to pull away from him by having hobbies he doesn’t enjoy too. Or by going on vacation without him, or by taking a job when he’d really like you to be home.

The truth is that however close you are to someone else you will NEVER become ‘one’ with them, and a good thing too; we remain wonderful individual beings with our own hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes. But the rhetoric of relationships is that ‘becoming as one’ is somehow supposed to be a good thing.

And everyone knows that women are more ‘verbal’ than men. So, like those books say, you can’t always expect him to be able to tell you what he thinks in words. Sometimes he might have to storm off into his ‘cave’. Or shout. Or throw something. Or hit you.

The truth is that everyone, both men and women, sometimes need to be quiet and uncommunicative. If you are in a relationship, though, it is a good idea to be able to say this quite clearly. “I need to be quiet for a while. I need to be on my own for a bit.” [Of course if you believe that you have to ‘become one’, even voicing that idea can be difficult…]

Looking back through the book, it seemed clear that from the very first moment they met, Brian was breaking Roz’s boundaries. They met at a friends’ house at a pool party. He picked her up bodily and, even though she was saying ‘no, no!’ [but we all know what it means when a woman says ‘no’, but keeps smiling, don’t we?] he threw her into the pool and jumped in after her. Flirty behaviour? Or a total inability to respect her autonomy?

In the 1990s, Peggy Orenstein did some amazing research into how boys and girls are treated in the classroom. Essentially, it goes like this: a teacher asks a question and some kids put up their hands and others shout out. If a girl shouts out the answer, whether it’s correct or incorrect, the teacher says “don’t shout out, put your hand up”. If a boy shouts out the answer, the teacher responds saying either “yes that’s right”, or “no that’s wrong”. Boys are rewarded for being impetuous, breaking the rules, going aggressively for what they want. Girls are rewarded for obeying the rules, and being placid and accepting.

This goes on in all areas of society. Babcock and Laschever did some research in 2007 that investigated why women don’t push as hard for pay rises as men do (which is always what’s blamed for the pay gap: of course, it’s women’s fault). The researchers found that there’s a good reason for women not to ask for more money: they receive stiff social penalties when they do.

“women who do rebel against these standards by pushing more overtly on
their own behalf often risk being punished. Sometimes they’re called
“pushy” or “bitchy” or “difficult to work with.” Sometimes their skills
and contributions are undervalued and they’re passed over for
promotions they deserve. Other times, they’re left out of
information-sharing networks.”

Plus, women don’t even get very far when they try to negotiate, because employers simply don’t respond in the same way as they do to men.

“They make worse first offers to women, pressure women to concede more, and themselves concede much less.”

We live in a world that rewards men for aggressively pushing for what they want, and rewards women for accepting what’s given to them uncomplainingly. It’s a world that says that relationships involve self-sacrifice, and giving up autonomy. It’s a world that says that women’s autonomy is less important than men’s. It’s a world that tells men ‘if you don’t get her the first time, just keep on pushing’, and tells women ‘don’t make a fuss’. And although of course there are women who are violent and abusive to their male partners, it’s far more common the other way around and one can see why. It’s not because men are ‘just more agressive’ any more than women are ‘asking for it’. We live in a world that is set up for abusive relationships; that’s what I learned from Dragonslippers.

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