Friday, 17 May 2013

Expanding Our Definition of 'Abuse'

We, as a society, need to change our definition of 'abuse' and widen our understanding of its scope, because operating from the narrow definition as most people understand it has profoundly negative outcomes for far too many women and their children. Many people (both men and women) understand the words 'abuse' and 'violence' to constitute the actual physical act of violence (striking, kicking, pushing, punching) with the result being physical harm. Often there are marks associated with this type of violence, and can serve as proof of a physically violent episode. However, studies have repeatedly found that while living with a physically abusive partner is terrifying, the long-term psychological effects of psychological or emotional abuse are significantly more pronounced. This type of abuse is much harder to bring up for many women, because they feel as though they aren't being hit, so there are no problems. In fact, many abusive men who push or slap their partners don't view themselves as abusive because they aren't punching or kicking them. It's interesting to see what constitutes abuse and violence for many. 

So, in order to clear things up, let's have a look at different types of abuse for which you must absolutely leave your partner (note that only two of them are physical). 

Research points to the fact that men who are abusive rarely change, because their abusive mentality is not a mental defect, but rather, it stems from his core values. Lundy Bancroft explains the mentality of abusive men beautifully in his seminal book Why Does He Do That. Ultimately, men who are abusive are: CONTROLLING (they will use myriad techniques to exert and maintain control, regardless of the effects on their partner or their family), entitled (his feelings and needs come before everyone else's all the time), self-centred, possessive, insecure, manipulative, he twists things around so that it's never his fault, disrespectful to his partner because he feels superior to her, he confuses love and abuse, he strives for a good public image, he feels justified in his actions, he minimizes his abuse.
Abusive partners come in many forms, so let's take a look at some other types of abuse. It is important that women operate with this expanded definition, because failing to do so means that (a) they are willing to stick things out and hope things improve, and (b) are less likely to report their abuse. (See The Underreporting of Sexual Assault)


  • Physical - when your partner uses any type of force to coerce you into doing something, or simply to show his dominance over you. This extends from punching, kicking, slapping to physical confinement in a room and to less obvious forms, such as even poking your partner (if the intent is to cause fear, and for the purpose of control, such as in the case of a veiled threat). Physical abuse tends to get worse over time. 
  • Sexual - any unwanted touch from your partner or a stranger is sexual abuse. Your partner may coerce you into unwanted sexual acts through downright abusive language, or may manipulate your thinking by calling you a "prude". Men are highly influenced by porn, and since violent porn courses through the internet, many abusive men make the assumption that the women who are in porn enjoy the things that they see, so their partner should equally enjoy doing these same things, regardless of whether they are degrading or humiliating. Additionally, many women in porn are submissive, and are reduced to a body and sex organs to the viewer, thereby heightening the abuser's mentality that his partner is his possession and is nothing more than an object. For abusive men, porn has shaped their sexuality and their views of what is acceptable since they were a young boy; when abusive men realize that their partner does not find a slap in the face arousing, he thinks that's evidence of something that is wrong with her sexuality, not him.(1) Some men simply nag and manipulate their partners into sex, even when she is in the middle of sleeping. Unacceptable. 
  • Economic - there are many types of abusers. Some men force their partner to cede control of pecuniary matters to him, and only give money to her when he feels that it is necessary. Many men have conned their partners out of money, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. This is another form of control. 
  • Verbal - the abusive man will often use verbal assaults, telling her that she is no good at anything, that people are uninterested in hearing her ideas and her stories, that she is naive, stupid, uneducated, a bad mother, uncultured, blowing things out of proportion, that things are her fault, that she is a failure, annoying, hysterical, overly emotional, irrational, bad with money, and many other terrible things in order to maintain his control over her, and to make her think that she is nothing without him. 
  • Psychological - constant criticism, put-downs, manipulation, twisting of words around, minimizing the emotional impact his actions/words have on his partner, mood swings, passive aggression, threats, hostility, intimidation - all of these things can make the woman feel like she's going crazy. The abusive man is somewhat of a chameleon, and he does what he can to project a positive public image, though he is sometimes awful to his partner only moments later. This two-faced demeanour makes it difficult for women to approach her friends or family for support, because she fears that no one would believe that her charming partner would be abusive towards her. This type of abuse can cause serious and long-lasting psychological problems for many women, including depression, anxiety, and many other serious psychological and emotional problems. This type of violence is also easiest to perpetrate, and abusers (and unfortunately lawyers, police and judges sometimes) will protect it as "free speech". It's not. 
I strongly encourage women to leave a partner who is controlling or abusive in any of the ways that have been outlined above (easier said than done. Bancroft's book has an entire chapter on this process. If you can't get a copy of the book, call a women's abuse hotline to ask for help. Here is a great list of resources for women in Toronto and its environs). The types of abuse and the examples I gave are only a very brief overview though, and I strongly encourage women to do extra research and more reading on the topic, even if you are not currently in a relationship. 

The first step in self-defense is always preventive - avoid these negative relationships to maintain a strong sense of self, and a healthy peace of mind. Look for red-flag behaviours that betray any of the values or mentalities of an abusive man, which I have listed above. 

You are your own advocate for safety, and knowledge is power. 
Make the decision to avoid these relationships, or leave one if you are in one. 

(1) Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. New York: Berkley Books, 2002, p. 185


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