When Feminists Face Domestic Abuse
This is a guest post by Lila. Lila is a non-American feminist and an activist for equality and human rights.
Trigger warning for violence.
“I want to make you happy”. That’s what he used to tell me sometimes after another rage fit of his. And for almost two years I believed that. I believed that even after he slapped me for the first time, taking a swing at my upper arm. I stopped believing it after the second slap, the one that landed on my back (luckily, not with full force). The one which allowed to me finally break free from the hell he put me through and see him for what he really is. The one that finally gave me the strength to leave him, some 3 months later.
That first time leaves you numb. In denial. You stand there thinking “This did not just happen. Not to me. Not from him. This isn’t real”. You tell yourself you imagined the twist of his lips, the one that turned his handsome face into a grimace of hate for that spilt-second when the adrenalin made time stand still.
How did you come to this point? You, the self-proclaimed feminist? The one who always talks about independence, and red flags, and women’s rights? The one people turn to advice to? The one no one would ever believe this could happen to?
Because they don’t warn you about the “Feminist abuser”, that’s why. They tell you it would be the guy who cuts you off from your friends; they never tell you it can be the one who would actively ask to meet them. They tell you it would be a conservative who wants to chain the woman to the sink; they never tell you it can be the recycling, left-wing supporter of women’s rights. They tell you it would be the guy who tells you not to wear that certain type of clothes; they never tell you it can be the one who would help you make the sign for the SlutWalk.
I had a gut instinct about him from the very first week we got together. I felt that something about his temper isn’t right. That I tense up around him. That I’m not myself. But he was stunningly handsome, and smart, and agreed with all my political and religious views, so I told myself that he’s just going through a hard time (he actually did, but that’s no excuse). I know that I can be a handful, so I told myself that we just need to figure out how not to step on each other’s toes. It worked perhaps once or twice, but rage fits became a routine. I’m petite, 1.60m, little more than 52 kg. He was a 100 kg of strength and muscles, towering over me at 1.85m. It was the reason I felt like in the safest place on earth when he hugged me, and it was the reason I felt an instinct to protect my face every time he raised his booming voice at me. Walls and furniture were punched – to this day the sound of crashing objects startles me. “I hit walls so I don’t hit you” he told me at the very beginning. “I don’t want to hurt you”. And I was in love, so I talked myself into believing that his awareness made it all okay. That he has a temper, but he’s working on it, and he would never take it out on me. I just need to learn not piss him off and to keep the distance when he gets like that. And besides, how often could this happen?
All too often, it turned out. Nothing I did was ever good enough. If I was too late, if I forgot to do something, if I did the dishes the wrong way, if I didn’t hear something he said and did the opposite of what he wanted – outbursts inevitably followed.
But that was only the visible part. The culmination of it was what finally made me leave. But it was only in hindsight that I saw the quiet, insidious, emotional abuse in inflicted on me – one I am still healing from, and that hurt more that the couple of random slaps. That undermined my confidence and my sense of self more than any physical damage he could have done.
Throughout our entire relationship, he constantly showed support for my professional goals – at least on the surface. He encouraged me to apply for various projects, and then downplayed my success in them, disguising it as constructive criticism. He asked me for help with his work, telling me how much better I am at particular aspects than he is, and then lashed out at me when I missed the ones that are not a part of my training. He helped me fill out applications when I got stuck with bureaucracy, while telling me how stupid I am not being able to fill out a simple form. When I called him out on it, and said never to call me stupid again, he said it was a matter of free speech. That if I tell him which words he can or can’t use then I am de facto abusing him. It became his favorite word to use on me during arguments. Every time I was too tired to watch television shows related to my profession which he wanted to watch, he would say “You claim to be a —, how can you not be interested?”. He “wanted the best for me”. He wanted me to “keep improving myself”. After a while I was thoroughly convinced that I am just a notch above the IQ required to properly function in a society, and no good at the thing I’ve been doing for a living since age 18. After being told by everyone all my life how exceptionally smart and gifted I am, two years with this man were enough to convince me of the very opposite. I am still not sure if I’ll ever reverse that.
How could I, the self-proclaimed feminist, come to this point? Because I was constantly looking for any sign of the classical red flags for an abuser – and found none. I followed my guts into an indepth research on domestic violence, but he was the exact opposite of the men described in the endless writings on the subject. He was never jealous or possessive, not even for a second. He never said a bad word about my male friends. He loved my sense of fashion, and even had me help him pick out clothes. He went along with my BDSM inclinations, even though it was hard for him to cross that barrier, because he knew it was a part of sex I can’t live without (I was super gentle). He built up in me a confidence in my physical appearance I never had before I met him, and basically saved me from the edge of a full-fledged eating disorder. He was a supporter of the left-wing and green parties. He spoke about the importance of education for women in countries like Afghanistan. He took part in multi-cultural projects. He was nothing like the wife-beater you see endless movies and crime series about. He was nothing like the men the teach you to fear and avoid.
And he hit me.
How could a self-proclaimed feminist come to this point? This is what abused feminists hear every time they speak out, and this is what they learn to ask themselves. The same women who march at SlutWalks become dedicated victim-blamers. They learn not to talk about it, because admitting to it challenges their feminism.
I refuse to take part in that. I am not a perfect girlfriend, and I am not a perfect person, and I have my share of screw ups, but I did nothing to deserve that treatment.
Being abused does not make me less of a feminist. If anything, it makes me more of a one. Being a feminist helped me get out at warp speed after the abuse became physical. It helped me admit what’s happened. And it helped me talk about without fear (the only reason this is written anonymously is so as not to hurt my family). And it helped me write this text, for other women to know that there aren’t always red flags. Sometimes they’re green.