Thursday, April 11, 2013

I'll Fix Your Damage And You'll Love Me- Right?

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month.

Due to this, Jenny Payne has written an article in The Columbia Spectator called 'Time To Talk.' In her article, she details the emotional coercion and abuse that she suffered at the hands of her depressed, obsessive and threatening boyfriend.

Her boyfriend would hold a knife up to his face and threaten to kill himself if she did not do certain things in order to 'save' him.

Or in her words:
    I didn't know how to respond when he said he would kill himself if I didn't do what he wanted, when I would Skype with him and he would hold a knife to his throat. 
     On Halloween night of my senior year of high school, he told me about his plan to run away from home. He wouldn't listen to me when I asked him not to, and I became scared when I read his increasingly violent texts.
     He only stopped his threats when I agreed to have sex with him. I didn't have any other choice unless I wanted to feel responsible for both his escape and planned suicide. 
     That was the first time I had sex.
The question that I think we need to ask ourselves upon reading this article is: what made this possible?

And I think the answer is that the media, pop culture, fairy tales and books that we raise our children on all give over this message. It comes in two forms. The first message, for girls, is the famous 'Beauty and the Beast' story. Only 'Beauty' can take an angry Beast who cannot control his temper, tame him, nurture him, heal him, fix his damage, and save him from himself. He is transformed through her. This is also the plot of every single Harlequin or Regency romance. It is also, more disturbingly, the plot of most contemporary teen fiction.

For men, the message appears in the 'Damsel in Distress' form. Men are consistently taught that they exist to rescue the 'Damsel in Distress,' whether it's the fact that they need to wake Sleeping Beauty, kiss Snow White awake or protect a girl who otherwise makes poor decisions. Contemporary books change the formula so that the boy is a rock who protects the girl from her otherwise maladaptive choices and/or her suicidal self.

The problem with these messages is that they resonate around the following scenario:

1. I fix your damage, in a completely selfless way that allows you to threaten me, yell at me, deride me, push me away, because I know that deep down you're just scared and you don't really mean it.

2. I officially expect nothing in return, but deep down I want you to be grateful to me for fixing your damage, and due to your gratitude to love me.

3. Usually, the reason I need you to love me out of gratitude is because I feel insecure/ not confident about myself, and don't think that you could or would love me for myself. You can only love me for what I do for you (mentally/ emotionally/ physically).

Thus, impressionable children and teens develop the notion that love exists when someone is 'saved' or 'rescued' by someone who comes along and selflessly 'fixes their damage,' asking nothing in return. Not only is this the model of love that the majority of our children see, but it is in fact the love, the great, the stormy, the deepest and most passionate love.

And while sometimes, in its most extreme form (like when it takes the form of domestic violence), we as a society discuss why this is problematic, much more often we not only respect this love but allow it to be the dominant love seen in our culture. It's this love that is portrayed in so many films, especially teen-focused films. It's this love that we uphold all the time. It's this love that wins the Oscar in Silver Linings Playbook, is the core idea of The Mortal Instruments, this love that's a drug described in the horrifically abusive relationship idolized by so many girls that manifests as the Edward Cullen-Bella Swann relationship. It's also this love that appears in the incredibly successful 50 Shades of Grey.

What all this means is that if you ask your average teen what the word 'love' means, they not only have no idea, but they usually have an unhealthy idea. Many believe love is something you fall into, it is completely uncontrolled (you cannot choose who you love, or how strongly you feel about that person), that it involves saving the other person, and it involves disturbing amounts of selflessness/ self-sacrifice. Alternatively, love is not distinguishable from lust, and is mainly a status issue (whose girlfriend/ boyfriend is hotter/ more attractive). The whole idea of love as two people walking together, growing together, trying to help each other to develop socially, mentally, emotionally and otherwise is not present. The whole idea of a loving relationship as not involving extremes, but rather involving measured thoughts, discussions, debates and even disagreement doesn't exist. Loving, as teens see it, is an all-or-nothing enterprise. And the idea of a relationship where one chooses to stay with one's partner, not because of an uncontrollable pull towards them, but because one respects their values, beliefs and character traits, is totally out of the question. That is seen as 'not romantic.' Because our idea of romantic has become skewed. We do not see passion unless a feeling is uncontrolled, we do not see love unless it is all-or-nothing love, and we do not like the characters in the loving relationships unless they are willing to sacrifice anything for the one they love, asking nothing or little in return.

What this means, in short, is that we need to teach the concept of love, and also of healthy relationships, because our society does not.

Although I do not know Jenny, I know myself. And thus I think it is likely that Jenny had a deep, intense, terrifying but at times possibly exhilarating relationship with her boyfriend. She felt needed by him. She knew that nobody else could help him except her, which made her feel special. At the same time, she was worried that she was not enough or could not do enough for him. And since her whole self-esteem and value had been reduced to: Can I or can I not fulfill my mission, can I or can I not save him- failure was not an option. She had to save him, to do whatever it took, in order to prove that she was that magical, important person that she secretly wanted to be but worried she wasn't.

In this article, Jenny has not yet addressed why this happened to her. She apportioned blame to the boyfriend- and rightly so. But she calls what happened to her rape, when in fact, at the time, it was consensual. It is almost as though she does not want to see her part in this at all, possibly because of the deep shame she feels in being complicit. She sees herself as the victim of intimate partner violence- when she was both a victim and simultaneously complicit in it- at the time. She talks about how she landed herself in the psych ward by "trying too hard to save another's life." She says that "nobody ever asks to be the victim of sexual violence." And all of this is true. But it's simultaneously not completely true. Because Jenny stayed in that relationship when other women would have left. And the question that I would argue she needs to explore is why. 

Not because I'm trying to say Jenny should be blamed. She should not be blamed. Nor should battered women who stay in abusive relationships be blamed. There are many factors for why a battered woman, or a partner in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, stay in the relationship. But it's too easy to put it all on the partner and make him into a monster. The partner was manipulative, coercive, and obviously sick. But what was it in Jenny that made her stay? What needs did she have that were being met, in some twisted form, by this relationship? And once she identifies those, how can they be met in a healthy way?

Our society does not yet have the compassion to see that it should not be viewed as shameful when people are party to their own abuse. Our society likes a lily-white heroine, a story where Jenny was a sweet girl who  was a victim and her boyfriend was sick and manipulative. But what if that's not the true story? What if Jenny, too, had something in her that made her stay, whether that was low self-esteem or other insecurities that could only be assuaged if someone made her the center of his life, even in a negative way? Can it not be that she too has what to work on?

I've written before about the fact that I am not naturally attracted to men who are good for me. I had to work long and hard on understanding healthy relationships and unhealthy relationships, figure out what needs my unhealthy relationships were meeting, and how to refocus these needs or reframe them towards the goal of being a partner in a healthy relationship. But one of the first things I had to do- and obviously I am not Jenny- is admit, despite shame, that I had been a party to certain hurtful things that had been done to me. Which is not to say that I am deserving of blame. But it does say that the story is not so simple- that one person is the monster and the other is the angel. Usually, there's something there for both people to work on.


Ezzie Goldish said...


Sophie German said...

Very well written post. I have two boys, my oldest is at the edge of puberty. You have provided me with so much food for deep thought.