Showing posts with label sexual harm. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sexual harm. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Aziz Ansari and Sexual Harms Beyond Assault

Attention continues to rise for inappropriate sexual behavior by male celebrities. This weekend, an article highlighting a sexual encounter between Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman (Grace) has brought up discussion of consent, sexual pressure and coercion, and where his responsibilities lie within this brief relationship.

A major challenge of celebrity is the illusion of intimacy. Personally, I like Mr. Ansari. I greatly enjoyed "Master of None" and have found his work to be excellent over the years. But his work as an actor, producer, and writer tell me nothing about him personally. My connection to him is passive - I watch him in his shows and feel like I am getting to know him, know who he is, know how he thinks, but it is just one way. He has never met me, knows nothing about me - and the information I have on him is a created image. As with all created images, there is no doubt a certain mirror into his life, but it is necessarily going to be full of inaccuracies.

I believe this is one of the major reasons there seem to be a large amount of blame placed on this anonymous woman, and general backlash against the #metoo movement due to this woman's story. Aziz is a good guy or she should have done A, B, or C! She's treating him unfairly!

This is also a bit like a real life version of the "Cat Person" short story that was recently published in the New Yorker (and my fictionalized response in the man's perspective here). Was this really more about bad sex, a consensual tryst that Grace did not enjoy, that led to her complaining about her experience later?

These are important questions to ask, but maybe we are missing some bigger aspects of this situation. The Atlantic published an article considering some of the current challenges with sexual behavior in relationships, saying, "Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space."

In this article, I want to take some time to explore these sexual harms that often get lost in discussions - those that are not assault or violence, yet still cause pain and fear in others. 

What are we missing in our dialog with children and teens about sex? How are gender roles fitting into expectations about sex and relationships? A choice to hook-up and have casual sex is not inherently bad or wrong, even if many people (and USA culture) have moral beliefs against this behavior.What I encounter again and again in battering intervention groups is that in the sake of seeking consent, and in having sex as a part of courtship, development of intimacy beyond physical passion is lost.

Many abusers definitely gain consent before engaging in sex, although I question how explicit this consent is. One article defends Mr. Ansari by saying he shouldn't be a mind reader, yet men often accept implicit consent with few or any verbal consents to sex. They have definite understanding of nonverbal cues, but push against those in the knowledge that verbal rejection is hard to give after sex begins. Women feel pressured to consent, and may even fear saying no could lead to violence.

During group discussions, I will outline various kinds of intimacy and where they can fit into development of a relationship. Certainly, the first kind of intimacy guys in my groups go to is sexual. That physical passion I mentioned earlier. That is indeed a type of intimacy, and an important one for health in a relationship. Often what is missing from that analysis of passion, however, is a desire to be with that person, loving touch beyond sex, desire to pleasure your partner, and gaining knowledge of what the other person likes or does not like sexually or within physical touch overall.

Other categories are more difficult to discuss. What about emotional intimacy? The idea of closeness - a shared bond where you know someone's opinions, thoughts, and even their values or morals - can be equally intimate and critical to development of a healthy relationship. The equivalent to a random hook-up with a stranger might be going on a first date and telling that person your most intimate details, such as your worst fears, abuse you experienced in childhood, deeply held political or social beliefs that are controversial - and while some people do this during first meeting someone, the experience of someone dumping so much information at the beginning is often off-putting. Closeness takes time to develop, and takes time to foster in a healthy way.

Psychological intimacy can be considered along with commitment. An alignment of goals, values, and meaning in life. Again, it takes time to grow this aspect of intimacy, and a hook-up equivalent might be meeting someone and telling them that you should get married, pool your finances to buy a house you have chosen for the both of you, have children immediately, or any number of other intimate choices made when relationships become closer.

Emotional and psychological intimacy seem ludicrous to develop so quickly on a first date, yet for some reason we do not have deeper and more critical thinking about quick physical intimacy development. It is a risk - often a dangerous and hurtful risk. Certainly, if someone does not use safe sex, then there is risk of STD or STI or pregnancy. Along with that risk, however, is the truth that you might end up with someone you are not compatible with, or might make choices that coincide with pressuring or controlling someone into having sexual behavior they are not 100% comfortable with. The person you have random sex with might equate that with something much more emotionally or psychologically intimate - and if you are not on the same page your behavior can easily cause harm.

Some of the hangup I am seeing with people defending Mr. Ansari are that he did not sexually assault her, that his behavior was not sexual violence, that she gave consent for their sexual encounter therefore it shouldn't matter. This perspective denies the idea of sexual control, sexual alienation, and sexual irritation - ALL of which there is zero doubt that he is responsible for in his encounter with Grace.

Sexual control is making someone do something they do not want to do sexually, or keeping someone from certain intimacy they want to engage in. There are many forms of sexual control that involve coercion or pressure. Constant asking for sex, trying certain sexual behavior repeatedly and ignoring boundaries set by the other person, not listening to protests (verbal or nonverbal), and yes, not picking up on nonverbal cues, requests, or complaints.

Control is a human experience - we ALL do it, and sexual control can be a very destructive aspect of sexual behavior that we need to be addressing on a more active basis. We need to avoid lumping all sexual harms into violence - because in Mr. Ansari's case, he is being equated to other men who have engaged in sexual assault and violence. Without understanding the difference here, we risk his behavior and other's being dismissed because it clearly does not have the same impact or destruction therefore Grace gets blamed for daring to report this, rather than us realizing that regardless of the level of harm - it is still harm, and it is still destructive!

Sexual alienation and irritation are also very human things. It is where a person does something physically or sexually intimate that their partner becomes irritated by, or something which pushes that person away. One of the biggest alienating factors are not talking about sex, not talking about desire, not developing sexual knowledge of a partner over time. Other irritating/alienating sexual harms can involve things such as flirting that the other person does not like, use of pornography that is not okay with a partner, and blindness to or ignoring of another person's sexual boundaries. Again, some of these are clearly a big part of the incident with Mr. Ansari and Grace.

Defenders of Aziz Ansari lament that this could destroy his career. Attackers say sexual harm is sexual harm and he should be held accountable. When we make this into a binary argument, we miss the point that he needs to be held to account for his behavior that is problematic, and he needs to be aware of the level of power and influence his fame affords him and where that fits into his dating life. Grace describes the "hour or so" in his apartment involving him attempting different sexual behavior, her intermittently engaging and then disengaging and while her internal dialog was clearly confusion and anxiety over his behavior, his internal dialog could have been anything from entitlement of his celebrity status, confirmation bias on when she seemed willing to engage in sexual acts (while ignoring when she was not), and definitely overall entitlement to continue pursuing sex after she verbally and non-verbally expressed her discomfort.

Instead of lumping Mr. Ansari with violent, abusive, and sexually assaultive male celebrities, we should build awareness for the layers of sexual harm, and learn better ways to guide men toward responsibility, accountability, and health in relationships. Instead of being sad that his career is damaged and building anger toward Grace, we should be exploring where we focus on condemning celebrities yet ignore how common these patterns are for everyday men toward women. We need to be taking this opportunity to nuance the different kinds of sexual harm beyond rape and other forms of sexual assault, so we can adequately address their impact, and the intent men have behind them.


*For additional reading on this topic, I suggest reading Nehmat Kaur's "What Should We Expect from Liberal Feminist Men Like Aziz Ansari?" or Karishma Attari's "Aziz Ansari has a long way to go before mastering his own sense of entitlement." or Emma Gray's "On Aziz Ansari And Sex That Feels Violating Even When It's Not Criminal"

Monday, January 9, 2017

Stalking Behavior: Building Hurtful Patterns

January is National Stalking Awareness Month, and a time for highlighting a pattern of behavior that often gets portrayed in extremes with little detail on where it might originate, and how it builds over time. In general, when asking people to think about stalking, these extreme examples portrayed by entertainment media and focused on by news sources are the commonly discussed and explored aspects.

Sadly, such a focus leaves little room or opportunity for intervention - it leaves us picking up the pieces and wondering what went wrong rather than actively seeking methods of noticing and stopping patterns of behavior as they build and develop. In this article, I'm going to be breaking down some different categories of hurtful behavior and addressing ways irritating and alienating behavior in relationships might build to stalking behavior. So I hope you take some time this month to use this to reflect on opportunities for intervention, both to honor the purpose of the awareness month, but also for your own ability to adequately and appropriately respond to danger signs.

Emotional Harms:
Broadly defined, emotional harms entail patterns of behavior which create distress in others. This is a huge category of ways abusers might commit acts we commonly define as domestic violence, and as such, it is useful to be as specific as possible when considering emotional harms. I find in my BIP/DVIP groups, a part of the classes involve creating clarity for terms and concepts that are often poorly understood or identified. Emotions are some of the most common terms and concepts that people may feel instinctively, but can be unable to adequately express or discuss due to lack of concrete definitions.

A big part of this confusion is due to the fact that as children, some of the first words we learn are emotions. Parents identify behavior patterns and name them as emotions, such as "Johnny, you're angry right now" or "aren't you happy your friend is visiting?" So we associate those sensations with words, rather than being able to break down why we feel them, or what to do about them.

Stalking is a heavily emotional-based pattern of behavior. Abusers stalk their victims/partners/survivors due to justifications of jealousy, anger, desire for revenge, suspicion, or even projecting their own lack of fidelity onto others.

I enjoy doing an exercise of attempting to define emotions using two criteria - do not use another emotional word within the definition, and do not use an example of the emotion itself. When people go to define emotions, that is the default method of describing what something feels like rather than identifying what it actually is.

An example of this in action is considering the emotion of jealousy. When I define it, I talk about jealousy being an emotion that gives you signals that someone is doing something you would like to be a part of, and gives you energy to do something about it. When defined like this, it is simple to understand that jealousy is not a "negative" emotion, but the actions that come out of it might be.

Abusers who choose to stalk their partners find various things they want to know about or be involved with in that person's life. Over time, this desire grows and an abuser may want to know all details and be present at all times. Emotionally, abusers can create distress in their partners/victims by increasingly pushing boundaries and denying personal space. It starts small, however, and often for many it can seem endearing.

After all, "he wants to spend all his time with her! Isn't that sweet? I wish MY partner wanted to spend more time with me! Honey, you should just appreciate him for the attention he gives to you because it won't last forever!" This is an example of how we readily place our sense of safety onto someone who may not have safety in their life or relationship. It is also an example of how common these warning signs present themselves to family, friends, coworkers, and others - and how often they are ignored or pushed away because considering the danger, or the unhealthy display of control is frightening to others who want to believe the patterns fit into healthy pro-social patterns.

While it is not practical to associate all desires to be together in a relationship as a warning sign for stalking, considering an overall pattern, and listening/noticing discomfort or distress in the person who is the object of these "affections" is critical to prevention and providing support and opportunities for reflection - both for victims/survivors, but also for perpetrators who may be clueless for how their patterns violate boundaries and are problematic due to their justifications and thinking they are just attempting to be loving.

Spiritual Harms:
It behooves BIP/DVIP to discuss spirituality and culture directly during groups. That is, what provides value and meaning to each participant's life, how do they understand their cultural background and conflicts in culture between them and their partners, and how any religious beliefs fit into both areas in their relationship with themselves and others.

Stalking behavior is in part based in a foundation where the stalker values a sense of omnipresence and omnipotence - seeing/hearing all, and knowing all. This can overlap in values and beliefs on several levels. Men who believe in patriarchy and control of women by men can easily have a value in questioning and finding information and desperately seeking discrepancies to justify those behavior. And part of the charm behind initial buildup of stalking is that victims/survivors often feel a sense of protection and care by the behavior (abusers may think they do it in their partner's "best interests"). The abuser might try to limit contact with friends and family, but says the only reason given is due to the expense of the visits, or that they should spend more time together, or that certain family are mean or abusive or have bad history. All of these justifications sound, on surface level, like caring gestures - but under that surface is the potential to build patterns of isolation, monitoring, and stalking.

This pattern may build up through the use of technology and social media, scouring of mail and records, seemingly innocent questions to friends and family. Asking a partner to use Foursquare/Swarm/Facebook to check-in wherever they go might be a simple way of playing a game together, or might be a way of knowing where a partner is, and questioning when a check-in does not occur. Going through mail and internally keeping track of various correspondence until there is an inconsistency or material that is not mentioned might be an organizational method, or might be a way of pressuring someone to divulge random information that appears unimportant. Inquiring about a partner's childhood or prior relationships with friends and family could be small talk, or could be information to use later.

Some of these examples appear on surface level to be a more "simple" form of control, and not stalking, but that is in part what makes these methods so effective. Stalking is often not obvious at its start, or as it builds, but only makes sense in hindsight. This is a major challenge of intervention, is being open to the idea that side comments and random patterns might be a small piece of a bigger, dangerous attack against a partner's agency. The goal of stalking in these cases is more about creating dependence and removing a partner's ability to think or make decisions. These values and meaning behind the control suffuse a person's life until their values become their abuser's values. Their beliefs mirror their stalker's beliefs because disagreeing is not allowed.

This form of stalking is often not addressed, or is addressed in indirect ways because it can be so hard to put a finger on. As mentioned at the start of this section, including extensive reflection on culture, beliefs, values, and meaning in life can help ferret out patterns and discover patterns that are otherwise easily obscured.

Sexual harms:
BIP/DVIP can easily skirt around discussions of sex outside of rape or other forms of assault. Talking about sexual health and respect can be awkward for facilitators and participants if they are uncomfortable with the topic, or do not fully understand how pervasive human sexuality is as a part of relationships.

The layers of harm in sexual behavior are also often missed. How frequently have BIP/DVIP groups discussed "selfish sex," non-sexual flirting with others, how they talk about their sexual desires or dislikes in their relationships, or discontent with frequency and how to communicate this?

Stalking behavior pushes boundaries. Stalking behavior seeks domination, omnipotence, and omnipresence - and sexual behavior can provide illusions or reality for those things. Extreme behavior that is often mentioned with stalking involve things such as the stalker smelling/investigating a partner's panties or genitals as a method of determining sexual behavior outside of the relationship. This is, of course, a humiliating and horrible experience for victims/survivors, but that extreme does not start at that level.

A stalker who suspects a partner of cheating may do these investigations without that partner knowing. That stalker may ask probing questions about contact with friends, or even discuss his/her own sexual past in attempts to gain info from their partner. If the information does not come up during that discussion - that is fodder for tactical attacks about personal vulnerability and the partner not reciprocating. If the information does come up from the stalker's partner, that sexual past can be used to compare, judge, and save for later control.

Even if a victim/survivor is cheating, how does the abuser/stalker handle this information? Some stalkers are actually seemingly happier with this information, because it is an instant trump card to be used during arguments, and justify any controlling behavior from that point forward. When abusers discuss their partner cheating on them, and their desire to continue their relationship despite this, interventionists need to ask probing questions about reasons for this decision as well as gain more details about their relationship's sexual history.

Sadly, with the proliferation of men's rights groups and their large overlap with the "art of seduction" hawkers, there are several techniques taught in these groups to have sex with women. Often these lend themselves to stalking behavior. The concept of "negging" is one which undermines someone's confidence in theory that they will be easier to seduce. Talking to / flirting with another woman who is friends with the "target" in attempts to create interest. That level of manipulation sounds a lot like the interviewing friends and family technique above, doesn't it? Consider how these tactics fit into an overall strategy to remove agency and create dependence.

Manipulative Use of Children:
Children can be excellent tools for parents to use against each other. Even in the healthiest of relationships, there are going to be arguments about parental decisions and care, but in relationships that are respectful, there will be negotiations, compromises, listening and caring during discussions, and consideration of personal desire vs. what the needs/wants are of the children will all be a part of managing parenting styles and decisions.

For an abuser who is out of the familial home, it can be a simple thing to drop by uninvited to "check on the kids," or to drop off things for them. When doing so, adding in comments about new purchases, suspicions of guests the abuser does not approve of, asking probing questions to the children to monitor behavior, or outright sabotaging the household to try and force a situation where the family needs to be reunited (such as leaving water running or turning up heat to make a higher utility bill, refusing to contribute to finances if not living at home, questioning any contributions and where the money is going when they are made).

In BIP/DVIP, these behavior are often separated out from stalking behavior and labeled as "using children" - however, as a pattern these sorts of manipulations feed into methods of gaining that sense of omnipotence and omnipresence. It is no small thing that abusers often fight for full custody during a separation or divorce - having the children is a huge source of control that can be exploited in many ways. It also makes sense why victims/survivors often make clauses in protective orders that allow for visits with children. There is a lot of guilt put forward both by abusers, and by society, for blocking contact with a parent.

Even if an abuser is required to stay away from his/her partner, if there is a clause allowing contact/visitations with children, there are ways to casually ask questions to children to gain information that can make it seem like a stalker is using technological tracking devices. "Does mommy/daddy have any new friends?" "What do you do after school?" "Is there anything new going on around the house?" "Where do you go grocery shopping now?" In these examples, an abuser might learn potential new dating partners, patterns of activity and places a victim/survivor might go after picking up the children from school, different activities that may lead to more intimate knowledge of changes in routine, and even specific locations the children and the other parent go to.

Child visitation centers have workers who are trained to notice these and other questions asked by a visiting parent mainly due to these manipulations. These traps are smooth and work well because they sound so casual, like small talk, and make it seem caring and interested. And since children can often feel saddened by parental separation, they may choose the abusive parent and want to divulge information that they believe will bring their parents back together.

Financial Harms:
Money and finances are an ongoing stressor for most relationships. Negotiation regarding budgeting, individual spending vs. family/couple spending, ideas about "needed" purchases, and financial mistakes are all contributors to this stress. Finances can also be a concrete and "safer" method of stalking a partner/victim.

If a couple shares finances, there are several methods people use to pay bills and separate out responsibilities. Some relationships create a shared pool and pay everything from that pool. Some create a pool based on the percentage earning of each individual, and have independent spending money separate from the pool. Some relationships have one person who pays bills and monitors budgeting. The most focused on economic strategy used by stalkers is the final example, however all the others also can be places where a stalker can build a pattern of monitoring and domination.

Stalking is separate from economic equality. A couple can seem economically partnered and seem independent while behind the scenes, an abuser can make sidelong comments about spending to make a victim/partner question themselves. A stalker can make a majority of the money and assure a partner that he/she doesn't need to worry about finances and then create various checks and balances on that partner's spending. Someone who chooses to be abusive can even buy gifts that seem nice, but have controls connected to them (of course that might include technology with installed tracking and spyware, but it could even be expensive gifts that once accepted are a leveraging point from then on).

Marriage proposals and pregnancy/reproductive coercion can also fit into economic controls. Does the person being abusive choose to make these proposals of having children or entering into marriage when things seem to be falling apart? Does the partner/victim have the option to decline or to wait when considering the request? Is there pressure to make decisions quickly in other aspects of their relationship?

Stalkers commonly press for immediate answers, and hesitation is grounds for suspicion and justifies patterns of monitoring, following, and tracking. Another pattern that is subtle and potentially non-abusive is long term planning for a relationship. The hidden factor may be if the individual's partner has been informed of this plan, had input into this plan, and has had concerns addressed/incorporated into this plan.

There is a fantasy and comfort for stalkers in a world completely planned out, and with technology granting illusions of divinity (virtual omipotence and omipresence) it is a simple thing for any abuser to develop these methods of dominating their partner. The challenge for interventionists is to find the profound in the subtle, the danger in the seemingly innocent, and the intentional in behavior that seems coincidental. It's not just about finding inconsistencies, however, it has a lot to do about caring enough to get to know each abuser as an individual, complicated human being and in doing so begin to put the pieces together of the puzzle of their pattern of hurtful, controlling, abusive, and violent behavior.