Up Front by Emma Hart

23

Good Friends

Nobody wants to be an arsehole by accident. Arseholery should be deliberate: calculated, stylish, and above all deserved. The last thing you want to do, while trying to help, is say something crashingly stupid and hurt someone you care about. 

The higher the stakes, the more your friend needs support, the worse it is. What do you say? When it comes to grief, or the stress of dealing with serious illness, this post on Ring Theory is something I've found really helpful, as a way of codifying what's Wrong and why: 

When talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking, but if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort in, dump out. 

What I want to talk about here is how all of those things apply when you're dealing with a friend who's in an abusive relationship. After Mum died, we talked about this a lot, the things people had said and done. It's something I know I've fucked up in the past, and I regret that so much. I didn't know what to say, and what to do. Now I do, and I've learned it the way I've learned everything else: the hard way. I am living in a relationship which has been abusive. 

I'm not going to talk specifically about my own situation, partly because I am utterly sick of doing so. But let me offer my hard-won wisdom on how to not Fuck Up talking to someone in my position.

Please be aware that I'm speaking in general terms here, and not everything I'm talking about has actually happened to me. This is about what is typical, and some of my experience is not typical.

Let's say you've just found out a friend is in a relationship which is abusive. I'm going to assume you found out from your friend, but if you didn't, your first step should be to talk to them. Don't take anyone else's word, especially their abuser's. That's not to imply that the person who told you is lying, but you should show your friend that you value their perspective and their voice.

You're going to have a whole bunch of Feelings. Shock. Guilt that you didn't spot it sooner. Anger, at a whole bunch of stuff. Awkwardness. Fear and worry. You're allowed to feel all the feels. You're not allowed to feel them at your friend. They have enough to deal with. Dump out, but respect their privacy while you do it. 

The abuse is news to you. It's not new for your friend. You'll want something to be done right away. The abuse has most likely been going on for the entirety of the relationship. Let that sink in. It'll make your friend's current attitude much more understandable. For them, nothing has changed. 

Believe. And take them seriously. Don't think, "Well that doesn't sound abusive, really." Most abuse does not leave bruises. Have a look at Women's Refuge's relationship quiz. Note how many questions are about physical violence: one. Also, note how many are gender-specific: none. I want to highlight these three: we'll come back to them. 

When it comes to my partner, I feel like I can’t do anything right. 

My partner tells me that I couldn’t do any better because I’m too ugly/fat/stupid/lazy. 

I feel like my partner would be much happier if it was just the two of us all the time. 

On average, it takes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Don't think this is going to be a week where you help them leave, and then everything will be happily ever after. This is going to be a long process. It's going to be hard. At any point, it's allowed to be Too Hard. You're under no obligation to destroy yourself trying to be supportive. 

Here's the most important thing I need you to understand: advice is not support. That's a tough one. I love giving advice. Look at me doing it right now. But advice is not support. Your friend knows their situation better than you do. Yes, whatever it is, they've thought about it. They actually do know what's at stake, thanks. There are organisations with enormous experience in this area, which offer counselling and advice. They don't offer friendship, because that's not their job. It's yours. 

Never, ever say, "You should just leave." Look at those three statements from the quiz up there. Abuse is about control. Part of that involves undermining the victim's confidence. Their abuser makes them feel stupid, scared of doing or saying the wrong thing. They may practice gaslighting: telling someone their perceptions of events are wrong, or that abusive incidents simply didn't happen. An abuse victim may find themselves completely unable to make the smallest decision, lost to themselves as a person. 

When I talked to a woman from Refuge, she asked me questions, listened to me intelligently, and then said, "Keep on doing what you're doing." She made me feel stronger, like I was a capable adult whose decisions should be respected, including my decision to stay. How do you think, "You should just leave," makes me feel? 

(Actually, I can tell you. It feels like when someone tells a depressed person to "cheer up", or when a man lectures women on "common sense" precautions to avoid being raped. Like that.) 

Offer help in concrete ways. Don't say, "Whatever I can do to help," unless you actually mean it. (I, personally, like to call those bluffs, just to see the obvious blind panic.) Say things like, "If you need to leave in a hurry, phone me and I'll come and pick you up." Or, "We have a spare bed if you need a break." Or, "Can I take the kids out for the afternoon?" If you don't know what they want, ask them. Put your friend in control. 

You can be supportive just by sticking around. Abusers like to isolate their victims socially. Strong support networks make both staying and leaving so much easier. Offer to take your friend out. Make them laugh, if that's the role you play in the Friend Group. Stress relief is vital. Sometimes, not Talking About It is vital. Just be there. 

Eventually, your friend might leave, or they might not. There's nothing you can do about that. You can't make someone leave if they're not ready to. It's not your fault, because it's not about you. Just be there. Please.

29

The Missing Stair Part Two: The Creeper and the Excuser

Trigger Warning for Rape and Sexual Harassment

 

Let's talk some more about the Pervocracy's Missing Stair post: 

I gave almost no details about the guy except "he's a rapist," I immediately got several emails from other members of that community saying "oh, you must mean X."  Everyone knew who he was!  Tons of people, including several in the leadership, instantly knew who I meant.  The reaction wasn't "there's a rapist among us!?!" but "oh hey, I bet you're talking about our local rapist."  Several of them expressed regret that I hadn't been warned about him beforehand, because they tried to discreetly tell new people about this guy.  Others talked about how they tried to make sure there was someone keeping an eye on him at parties, because he was fine so long as someone remembered to assign him a Rape Babysitter. 

I think there were some people in the community who were intentionally protecting him, but there were more who were de facto protecting him by treating him like a missing stair.  Like something you're so used to working around, you never stop to ask "what if we actually fixed this?"  Eventually you take it for granted that working around this guy is just a fact of life, and if he hurts someone, that's the fault of whoever didn't apply the workarounds correctly.

 I know that's hard to get your head around. A rapist is completely different from Racist Christmas Uncle, right? If you were aware that somebody you knew had committed a rape, you'd deal with it, right? I read the above to a friend of mine, who was incredulous. "If everybody knows, why isn't he in prison?" I was speechless. Eventually I replied, "Because Everything about rape." 

What about somewhere short of that? What about the Creepers? The ones who have a habit of touching people who don't want to be touched? The hand on the leg, the accidental brushes, the sexual remarks that make people really uncomfortable? Would you do something about that? 

The thing is, all up and down that scale, these things go unreported, and so those people are still around. If our rapists, our sexual harassers, are people we know, they're people you know, too. 

If this seems unconvincing, if it seems like it must be really uncommon, this Captain Awkward post is a salutary lesson: 

I’ve talked to Creeper about this last incident and tried to explain that his behaviour is making every woman in our social group very uncomfortable; that approaching a woman in the dark, putting his hands on her without permission, and implying that because her boyfriend wasn’t there that she was up for grabs was Not Fucking Cool

 

I’ve stopped inviting friends to parties because I don’t want to subject them to Ben’s creepiness, and I spend most of my time trying to avoid him when he’s around. I don’t want to be one of those girls who tries to tell their boyfriend who he can and can’t hang out with, but I feel unsafe and afraid around Ben. I also feel completely betrayed that my boyfriend isn’t taking a strong stance against a guy who, let’s face it, tried to sexually assault me.

 It's long, but it's worth reading. And if this kind of thing still seems unusual, and unreal, try reading the comment thread. It was eventually closed after seven hundred comments, and the stories just kept on coming.

Or there's this. I was sexually assaulted when I was at high school. The Monday morning after that Friday night party, I walked into my English class and sat down at my desk, right in front of two of the five guys who'd done it. Nobody, including me, ever did anything about it.

Yes, there are women who are Creepers. But they're not socially sanctioned the way male Creepers are. Men get 'boys will be boys', women get slut-shaming. 

These guys, with their funny jokes about how we owe them sex, their comments about our tits and our clothes, who only see women as Potential Sex, they're part of our lives, something we live with. Something we're expected to work around. 

One of the reasons women tend not to talk about this stuff is the tendency for people to minimise it. It was a joke. You misread the situation. You're over-reacting. It is a Big Fucking Deal to actually say to someone, "Your creepy friend is a Creeper who creeped on me." If someone crosses that perilous bridge with you, for the love basic human decency, take them seriously. 

I've had someone look at me kind of blankly and say, "But you coped, right?" Yes. That's how I want to feel after a night out with my friends. I want to get back afterwards and think, "Well, I coped with that. Huzzah!" 

Then maybe we're told, "Well, just be clear with him. I don't know why women don't just say 'no', clearly and politely. That would fix everything." 

There are two problems with this. Three if you count, "You're being a dick: stop it." Firstly, we are conditioned to not make a fuss. This is where everything from the last column comes in. If we confront the Missing Stair, no matter how politely, we're seen as causing the problem. The social conditioning to put your head down and say, "No, it's okay," when it really fucking isn't is very strong. 

Secondly, there's all our collective experience of what sometimes happens when you say No clearly and politely. The times that's the point at which the "compliments" become abuse. Because Jesus, chill, and get a sense of humour, and you're probably a lezzer and you're too ugly to fuck anyway. The times that's the point at which the abuse becomes assault. 

These guys' biggest friend is the Rape Myth. You know the one. Of course you don't know any rapists. Rapists are slavering animals, completely disconnected from society, who wait in dark lonely places for women who are stupid enough to not Take Sensible Precautions. They don't have friends, or families, or work-mates. 

Saddest-Panda-type Creepers are (generally) not rapists, but that doesn't mean their behaviour is okay. If someone is making a bunch of your female friends deeply uncomfortable, that's already a problem. 

They might not tell you about him. They might just casually ask if he's going to be at an event before they decide if they're coming. If he sits next to them at a bar, they might get up and go to the loo, and come back and sit somewhere else. They might lie about having a ride home when he offers them a lift. They might stare bleakly at the opposite wall while he put his hand up their skirt. 

When I talk about Creepers with women, they tell me their Creeper stories. Most men tell me they don't know anyone like that. Several times through my life I've said, "I don't know, there's a guy in that group who makes me really uncomfortable," and another woman has said, "Is it X?" And yes. It always is. 

78

The Missing Stair and the Necessary Bastard

If you hang out on third-wave sex-pos feministy sexy blogs, you find that as well as all the sexy-times stuff, we talk about social interactions a lot. Basically, we start out just wishing it would be okay to show a bit more cleavage without people calling you a slag, and end up wanting to change the entirety of human socialisation. Because once you start to pick apart that toxic pile of unconscious assumptions about the Way Things Just Are, you start to realise how big, and how fucking horrible, it really is. 

Today I want to talk to you about Missing Stair Theory. Partly because it's really useful and interesting, and partly because I'm taking next month off to work on my novel, and I'll feel better about doing that if I can pretend I've done something visibly constructive first. 

The metaphor of the Missing Stair came from The Pervocracy. I'm not going to link to that piece yet, because it goes somewhere we're not yet going. I want to start with examples of Missing Stairs we're all familiar with. 

You know Racist Christmas Uncle? He's a Missing Stair. It's a person with whom you have to socialise who damages other people. They make racist/sexist/homophobic statements, or inappropriately sexual comments. They tell rape jokes. They talk about your weight, and whether you should really be eating that. A Missing Stair enjoys upsetting people to some degree, even if they're not deliberately baiting you. 

The Missing Stair is someone you can't just avoid. They're a relative, or a co-worker. They're the partner of a friend, or a friend of your partner. They belong to the Group that does your Thing: gaming, or wine club, or whatever else normal people do. They may be supported there by Geek Social Fallacy Number 1. 

This isn't just a person who's a bit socially awkward. You know you have a Missing Stair when the thought of going to a social event you know they're going to be at makes you feel sick. You really know you have a Missing Stair when you complain about their behaviour to a mutual friend and they say, "Oh come on, you know what he's like. Don't let him get to you." 

Because that's the thing about the Missing Stair: everyone knows what they're like. If you quietly say, "I don't know, one of the guys there, he kind of creeps me out," everyone knows who you mean. Everyone knows the stair is missing. Nobody fixes it. Everyone is expected to work around the Missing Stair. 

People will not handle you being rude to the Missing Stair. The Missing Stair has a free licence to be a jerk, that's just the way they are, but you are socially obliged to not make a scene. The Missing Stair can tell you you're raising your children wrong with no sanction at all. Yet if at any point you call them a fucking moron, somehow you're the one starting a fight. You can be told you must support the Missing Stair because they are family, or a friend - as if you somehow magically aren't. 

If you ever do manage to get a Missing Stair out of your life – by moving city, for instance, or through a death – that's when you really start to realise just how much energy you were putting into constantly working around it. The relief is amazing. I have, a couple of times, been rude enough to deal to a Missing Stair, and having other people come up and thank you afterwards is little compensation for the stress and adrenalized sickness of the confrontation they totally failed to back you during. 

I have to admit I have also been the one bringing the Missing Stair into a social group. You guys were right. He was a total Darth Vader Boyfriend. My apologies are genuine, if twenty-two years too late. 

So, while you have to put up with them, how do you deal with Missing Stairs? Calling them out takes incredible nerve, and often leaves you in a worse situation. You think afterwards, "Man I wish I'd told my brother not to call my kids' friends 'coconuts'," but honestly you probably don't. In my mid-twenties I discovered I didn't have to have every fight with my brother, I could just let his shit go. I called that growing up. It might not have been. 

But, short of the thermo-nuclear conversation explosion, which I still firmly believe has its place, what to do? 

There's the Conversation Blocker. "Huh." It probably won't save you, but it gives them nothing to get their teeth into. 

"You shouldn't let him play with girls, you know, it'll make him soft." 

"Huh." 

There's polite honesty. This at least positions blame for the inevitable escalation firmly where it should be. 

"I mean, I'm not racist or anything, but it just stands to reason you want to keep a closer eye on Those People." 

"I don't agree, but I really don't want to have this conversation, okay? Can we talk about something else?" 

And then there's the Necessary Bastard. Necessary Bastard should probably come after a couple of attempts at nice defusing. One thing I've noticed is that people respond to conversational tone first, and content second. So: 

"*sexist joke*" 

*laugh* "I get it! It's funny because women are stupid!" 

Or, in your most genuinely polite voice: 

"I'm sorry, could you excuse me for a moment? I have to go and not be talking to you." 

I'm sure you all have tips and tricks and stories for dealing with this, the soft end of the Missing Stair spectrum. Next time, we'll get to the really scary stuff. 

One note, though. A few of you are probably now wondering if you are the Missing Stair. As a rough guideline, if you're capable of wondering that, you're not.

73

Everyone is Wrong. And Right. Whatever.

I have been known to advocate boycotts. I'm not opposed to boycotts. Consumer boycotts can be a great way of showing protest in an asymmetrical situation. A company is dependent on its customers. If I don't like the way it conducts its business – because its parent company whales, perhaps, or its head has made entertainingly robust statements about LGBT people – I have every right to withdraw my business. That, a strongly-worded letter and perhaps the ultimate weapon, an online petition, is often all I can do. 

Boycotts can be problematic, though. They can be invisible: their message is absence, silence. Is an athlete or tourist boycott of the Sochi Olympics the right thing to do, in light of Russia's utterly appalling anti-LGBT laws? 

Few remember today that there was an organized call to boycott the 1968 Games by African American athletes and their supporters. When the boycott fell apart, Lew Alcindor (Kareem!) boycotted the Games anyway. Tommie Smith and John Carlos took their protest to the medal stand. Whose political statement do we remember today? 

I called John Carlos to get his thoughts on the boycott vs. protest debate.

"The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you," he said.

Others argue that a boycott would hurt the athletes more than it would the Russian government. It seems unlikely that any boycott would be wide-spread enough to have dramatic impact, and the decision would indeed end up placed on individual athletes, some of whom face arrest if they compete. You know what? That shit is fucking complicated. 

Which is partly why I've waited until after Caitlin Moran's Twitter boycott was over to write about it. Because I think she's wrong. And a bunch of  those people who think she's wrong? I think they're wrong. 

Look. What happened to Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy was utterly unacceptable. Not exceptional or even that uncommon, but utterly unacceptable. Twitter's lack of action over the maelstrom of abuse was simply not good enough. And it's very sweet of tech guys to tell us that this shit just happens, and we should just block people, and if we really can't hack it we should lock down our accounts, because in no way have women ever heard that message before. 

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. 

Yes, it's good that Twitter are adding the "Report Tweet" button. No, it's not good enough. There is nothing in that piece which commits to changing their threshold for deciding a tweet is abusive. Making reporting inappropriate material easier is a good thing*, but not if that simply makes it easier to be ignored. Reporting racism or rape threats on Facebook is easy, but apparently nothing is too racist or rapey for those guys. 

Here's the massive "however" you knew was coming. I can't help thinking that a whole bunch of women voluntarily going silent is an odd response to tactics which are clearly intended to silence women. I understand the protest was aimed at Twitter itself rather than the trolls. A side-effect, though, was that it gave Twitter to the trolls. The effect of the protest being as successful as possible would have been a day when nobody was saying, "Hey guys, that's Not Fucking On." 

That's not to say, though, that I think the people who did join in with #twittersilence shouldn't have. I'm just saying that for me, the act of shutting up in the face of being told to shut up was far too problematic as a form of protest. But I can be fundamentally Not On Board with something without being actually opposed to it. 

It's indicative of how conflicted I find all this that I find myself most solidly behind a comment Dan Savage made (I know), while talking about the Russian vodka boycott, which I don't support: 

If there isn't a boycott—if gay and pro-gay athletes compete at the Olympics in Sochi this winter—there must be a protest during the Sochi Olympics that is as powerful and indelible as Tommie Smith and John Carlos's protest during the Mexico City Olympics. 

If you don't stay home, state your message. If you're not giving silence, speak. This is me speaking. Twitter must not put 'keeping our users safe' in the Too Hard basket. I'm saying this as someone who knows how hard this is, drawing the line, and who understands the sheer scale of the problem. When they tell us we should deal with this stuff ourselves, they side with our abusers. 

I want to say this isn't good enough, and I want to articulate that as a complex and nuanced position. I don't shut up for anyone, and that includes Caitlin Moran.

 

 

*Sort of. If it's done properly. Any reporting system is open to abuse. This shit is complicated too.

24

Professional Counsel

by Kyle MacDonald

It works: End of story. 

I often think, it’s a strange job, being a therapist.  From a certain point of view all I do is have conversations with people.  I also often feel deeply privileged.  Just like the stories courageously told here, I get trusted with some of the most intimate details of people's lives in the hope that talking might help.  But it is a very particular type of conversation, which I and my colleagues trained many years to be able to have. 

And actually it’s no mystery.  

What is a mystery is how a Chief Medical Director at one of the nations largest insurance companies, Sovereign, can remove cover for counselling and therapy from their policies, on the basis their isn’t really any evidence it works.  This is a bold statement especially when they are happy to keep funding medication, which they claim does “work.”  

The American Psychological Association (APA) in the USA made one of its strongest statements to date last year, in a release titled “Research Shows Psychotherapy Is Effective But Underutilized. 

“While medication is appropriate in some instances, research shows that a combination of medication and psychotherapy is often most effective in treating depression and anxiety. It should also be noted that the effects produced by psychotherapy, including those for different age groups and across a spectrum of mental and physical health disorders, are often comparable to or better than the effects produced by drug treatments for the same disorders without the potential for harmful side effects that drugs often carry.”

Furthermore, the frontline medication treatment of SSRIs or “Selective Serotonin Inhibitors” are currently at best questionably effective for mild to moderate depression. 

This isn’t new information.  The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (the beautifully acronym-ed “NICE”) have said since 2005 that the frontline treatment for mild to moderate depression should be psychotherapy 

So let’s be clear; this isn’t an ideological or even a political argument.  Therapy and counselling are not some wacky alternative treatment that should be a luxury for those who can afford it, or “believe in it”.  Belief has very little to do with it. 

But money does.  Frontline generic SSRIs costs less than twenty cents a day.  Therapy comparably can cost between $80 to $150 per session. 

Doing nothing also costs nothing, but it would be hard for even Sovereign to argue that is a treatment option.  

But no surprise the National Government has. 

The review of the Family Court is poised to remove all funding for couples counselling, a service that anecdotally was highly effective (and empirically supported), however Judith Collins sees no evidence it works and WINZ are also reportedly tightening up the access of funding via disability top ups for counselling costs. 

So while it is now OK for us to talk about mental health and even for All Blacks to be depressed, as a nation we can no longer afford to help. 

That’s not depressing.  It’s heartless.

 

Kyle MacDonald is a psychotherapist and blogger at www.psychotherapy.org.nz.  He is a regular contributor to the Wallace Chapman Sunday morning show on Radio Live and Chair of Public Issues for the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists.