We tell a story about domestic violence in our culture. Each time we tell it, we give it more life, build with it a reality, until we cannot imagine a version of intimate partner violence outside of it.
The story goes like this: a heterosexual cisgender woman is in a committed, long-term monogamous vanilla live-in relationship and her male partner becomes physically violent toward her; she cannot leave because he threatens her and because is afraid.
This story is real. This story happens to people. But this is not the only story. Making this the only story relies on a narrow conception of sexuality and relationships that precludes the very existence of LGBTQ people, male survivors, non-monogamous relationships, emotional abuse, and kink.
The truth is abuse can happen in any romantic or sexual relationship, and the common, defining thread of abuse is not the context of the relationship, but power and control.
Because abuse is about power and control, we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that having power in the larger world neatly translates to being the abuser in the relationship, i.e. we assume that people of color, transwomen, and people with disabilities are always the survivors, never the perpetrators. But the truth is that power and control lives in our bodies and relationships in complicated ways that do not always neatly mirror larger systems of privilege and oppression. Someone with a disability might exploit it to keep their partner from leaving the house; a woman might use feminist discourse to shame and control her male partner.
As one survivor was quoted in FORGE’s Self-Help Guide to Healing and Understanding for Trans Survivors, “D[omestic] V[iolence] theories just don’t work to make sense of a lot of abusive relationships that seem to contradict social hierarchies, e.g. where the victim is a man or where the abuser is a person of colour. It’s so much harder when you feel you need to protect a whole community, or that people might not believe you.”
When we define relationship violence by stereotyped characteristics of the relationship and the people in it, the cost is high: those outside the bounds of the story, like LGBTQ people, cannot see themselves in it or name it, survivors are unable to look for red flags or recognize that they are being abused, and perpetrators cannot be held accountable.
Another survivor said, “the abusiveness of my relationship was ‘masked’ both to others and myself by the fact that it was a same-sex relationship and a BDSM relationship. My partner took advantage of the fact that it was my first experience of the latter. I believed that I had to consent to anything or could not withhold consent, and the abuse was couched as ‘play.’” (In reality, BDSM—like all sexual activities—requires consent.
We must expand the story that we tell each other and ourselves so that we can better understand our lives, forgive ourselves, and heal.