Monday, November 13, 2017
Some of the conference also involved experiential aspects and an opportunity for self-reflection and healing for those of us doing this work. These aspects are ones which are impossible to capture in a summary article, but I will make attempts to address some of the information involved during these sessions. For most of the conference, I posted links, observations, and brief summaries on my Twitter feed, and on the Domestic Violence Intervention and Education group on Facebook. I will link to these posts throughout this article.
To start the conference, Juan Carlos Arean opened up the framework for the conference and the discussion of trauma. In general, the history of work with men who choose battering behavior has not been one that has humanized men enough to address issues beyond their violence and abuse. While efforts have been made over time, in different ways by different models, in a large way trauma informed approaches are a major adaptation to this field. Arean brought forward techniques that have had great success in other human service fields: trust and support, use of peers, collaboration and mutuality, horizontality, empowerment by giving people a voice and increasing their agency, and overall humanization. One tool being used by some is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) which gathers information on how an adult may have traumatic experiences in their history. It helps to identify that issues are there, but the challenge is how to address them?
Arean suggested that it is similar to medical illness - if you are sick, and are given medical advice to follow but ignore that advice, you will continue to be sick. Battering Intervention has the opportunity to both give feedback and opportunity for change, where that health is not just about ending violence, but truly addressing long-term issues that provide justification and a foundation for abusive and violent behavior. Arean discussed work being done by Full Frame Initiative which works on 1) social connectedness, 2) stability, 3) safety, 4) mastery, 5) meaningful access to relevant resources. Balance of these factors is key, and there is relevance to both victims/survivors and perpetrators.
Restorative justice options have been a challenge in part due to the colonialist attitudes behind them - where indigenous tribes have been practicing community healing for centuries, but are told how they should follow "best practices." Arean pointed out the need to understand and address cultural issues by addressing individual cultures. People of color experience pain at being excluded and not being welcomed into the work they have been doing - so we need to think critically about whom we have been leaving out, and why. How do we give lip service to cultural work in general and specific places? Why is it that mostly white men lead the work in battering intervention, and how has work for community health, showing love and appreciation, and healing work within this field been excluded or looked down upon when practiced by people of color?
Jerry Tello followed by discussing methods of working beyond trauma work to healing centered work. He used personal stories to illustrate the process of change, and the struggles of being human - where those fit into stopping domestic violence. He talked about it being easy to see anger and frustration as negative, rather than recognizing that these can be a result of being invisible and ignored. Certain communities are in a perpetual state of facing traumatic situations - making people in these communities inherently trauma informed. The impetus of mainstream society is to break down and conquer people who do not fit into the so-called mainstream. This includes non-white people, poor people, LGBTQ+, those people who lack privilege and power in certain ways. We, as a society, label people to create fear and see frameworks of culture as a deficiency. We have rules for how people need to adopt certain ways of interacting within communities, furthering oppressive thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. If a society, like ours, is founded on the premise of conquering others then the focus is always on treatment and stopping behavior - NOT on healing. Even when we realize treating the violence is not enough.
Indigenous cultures tend to recognize the sacredness of relationships, yet manifestations of violence and disconnect reverberate out from a society that encourages and sometimes forces that disconnect. Individuals often question, "am I wanted?" and if someone does not feel a sense of importance, a sense of value from others early in life - they will search for it (or force it) throughout their lives. When you see someone as a relative to you, someone connected to you, you treat them differently. When someone is a number, or even a "client," you can easily see and treat them as less than you. Tello discussed how he treats participants in his program as his family. He said that when you categorize men as perpetrators and not recognize their wounds, how can you possibly support yet check their behavior at the same time?
Tello described how what happens to our ancestors and is never healed is passed on to us individually. Generational trauma is often missed in a society that wants to treat behavior because it only values what can be seen. How do you measure spirit in an individual? Healing of ourselves is critical in this work - Tello emphasized that the most humbling thing men can do is to heal themselves. He said, "we had incorporated colonialist ways into our lives. We needed to reclaim our sacredness to heal." Healing centered work focuses on us - how to live with our teachings, not just give them to others. He described taking a "do you see me" concept of work with men, that if you do not make a connection, you do not have a conduit to help, guide, or connect. Men in groups need to feel seen and heard, need a chance to attach to healing by understanding the most significant factor can often be how do you love yourself, and how do you show love despite someone else's woundedness. It becomes simple to "otherize" people who choose battering behavior, and disconnect from individuals as a result. Tello pointed out "WE ARE THEM." We need to move out of rhetoric of labels and boxes and bring back humanity. We can still be about accountability when we are healing generations of wounds.
Next we heard from Floyd Rowell, who told his personal stories of violence he experienced within his community. When he found a refuge to the violence, and was violated within that refuge, he said he shifted his thinking to a mentality of "before you get to me, I'm going to get to you." The limitation led to what he described as creating a shield that, "wrapped [his] horrors in barbed wire," and a philosophy of "before you get to my heart, you're going to go through some pain first." His experiences ultimately led him to prison, and experiences where he was seen as an offender and not as a human being were foundational in enforcing these beliefs.
Terri Strodoff, director of Alma Center (where Rowell learned how to change his life after prison), discussed how approaching men who use battering behavior with discussion of attitudes, behavior, socialization as men, the power and control wheel, or other cognitive behavioral approaches may not be considering how men like Rowell may not be able to relate to such information because we know nothing about their humanity, or how the context of their lives matters in discussing their hurtful behavior. She said that it is important to change the question from what is wrong with you to what happened to you. Such a shift changes how we show up for people, and it can be important to consider how we hold space for people to tell stories. Summarizing the importance of looking at trauma in men's lives, she explained, "any pain not transformed is transferred. The only way out of trauma is healing, and we need to ask how we support healing and change in men who batter." As a general philosophy, I tend to agree with her ideas, but I would have liked to hear more concrete information about their approaches in groups and why/how they think they work.
The rest of the first day involved honoring Barbara Hart for her work by awarding her the "Ed Gondolf Compass Award," and some experiential meetings. I attended a session facilitated by Alma Center staff that involved participants sharing their stories, talking about things in their lives. The personal stories varied and some shared deeper information while others kept to work related situations. The experience was personally interesting, but it seemed many participants were unclear of boundaries or unsure of how to participate. Since the information was merely shared and not discussed it also created an open, non-judgmental environment without processing or further discussion of topics that were sometimes rather profound. Another workshop I was unable to attend considered how to "Honor One's Sacred Circle," and was facilitated by Tello and Arean.
That first evening, we had an informal and unofficial meeting of AQUILA members, and the 15 or so who attended discussed methods of addressing sexual harms in BIP, which often seems to be a major gap in services where the reality of sexual harms in victims/survivors lives create major damages. As societal shifts appear to be occurring on this front, it behooves us to be more direct and authentic in our approaches here.
On the second day, Merkeb Yohannes of Michigan Coalition to End Domestic Violence took time to share her humanity by talking about all the components behind her victimization and survival as an undocumented immigrant. She started by discussing how people feeling sorry for her made it impossible to see her for anything beyond being a survivor, and while her stories made her vulnerable, they at the same time made others impressionable. Her identity as an immigrant and undocumented survivor flattened her experience, rather than considering that her stories are that which form her and her humanity. When she told her personal experiences, she discussed the dynamics of living in parallel worlds, the impact of changing her name to adapt to a new culture, and the ways her experiences of abuse twisted her vulnerabilities against her. While I am cautious about telling specific details in this space, she made the point that single stories create stereotypes that create an incomplete picture and can easily rob people of dignity. I believe reflecting on these truths can be critical to work with both victims/survivors and perpetrators.
Lisa Young Larance did an overview of research and practice in women's use of force, partially addressing the problems with the commonly used Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) which provides no context for behavior, misses sexual harms, misses discussion of an incident, and the impact on someone. While the CTS had a revision, the revised edition had initial validation, but the researchers changed questions and that initial validation was lost as a result. Yet, this scale is used in research and used by media to justify ideas that women are as violent as men and miss the context of victims/survivors reporting more responsibility for harms, and perpetrators reporting more victimization and little talk of their own hurtful behavior. [Note: I left this presentation early, but I heard from others there was backlash against Larance's presentation where some audience members derailed to discussions about men as victims. Since her focus was on looking at research and practice on women's violence and the contextual difference, such derailments are not productive as they shift focus to men, which is a different conversation that has importance, but it does not need to and should not override a discussion of women's hurtful behavior.]
Aldo Seoane talked about cultural healing and showed a recent documentary highlighting Wica Agli's program with men who have been abusive. He began by inviting an invocation of prayer into the room from an elder, and introduced the concept of container wrapping - creating a space of safety to hold the energy of processing. The need to confront colonialism within work on domestic violence issues (including patriarchy and how our systems invest in these kinds of power) involve the ability and willingness to reflect on how this fits within ourselves. We need to ask permission from others in guiding them toward reflection. He discussed how there is a need to start in a place of gratitude and understanding. The chevron symbols of Wica Agli begin with representation of a black chevron, indicating the first direction, but the other colors are out of order - reminding us that while we know what is right, we have lost our direction. We are tied to our history, and we can always reclaim it, or "dig it up" as a mentor of his will exclaim.
Seoane talked of his painful and traumatic experiences and how they informed him in his life and his culture, and how overall culture in the United States is one that houses systems that are about hate and fear - systems which are afraid of love and feeling. To decolonize and do antioppression work, we need to create safe spots in our spirit to grow love for others. He reflected on his advocacy during Standing Rock, and where men do not ask for consent when harming women, and corporations do not ask for consent when building infrastructure. This relates directly to transgenerational trauma - where we revictimize people all the time through our practices and through our silence. In many ways, the federal government can be the biggest batterer - use of intimidation and isolation, judging others for the sake of judgment. In addressing trauma, we need to have discernment and understand how can we show ourselves the same level of compassion we want to show others.
In describing his work in groups, Seoane talked about how we learn from each other, and how we can separate from our work at times to simply connect as human beings. He gave the example of occasionally asking "are you okay?" to class participants. He said their classes are three hours long, and involve storytelling - working to change the culture within the community to where it should be, and how we guide thoughts and minds to balance, health, and respect. In western society, we tend to work to compartmentalize everyone, and Seoane was clear that we can use our stories as a path to healing. In a smaller break out session, he spoke to using stories to ground discussions, to create space for healing. Exercises can be felt, and can be experienced without always needing to be cognitive, and he provided several examples of how that might work within group settings.
I joined Jeffrie Cape, Pam Wiseman, and Chris Huffine to present information from the "Truth Squad," a committee of people working to increase discussion and understanding of battering intervention as a part of AQUILA. Cape opened the presentation to talk briefly about AQUILA and its name and foundation. In my short presentation, I stressed the advantage of people using the new AQUILA discussion forum. Our work is improved by the ability to both have discussions over this philosophical material, but also by having ongoing and easily accessible information. The listserv has advantages of broadcasting to many people at once, but has a major disadvantage of making discussion difficult, unfocused, and challenging to find information at a later date. In short - if you are reading this, please join us on this forum.
Pam Wiseman discussed the political ramifications of PEW research, the Council of State Governments, and others working to privatize systems (like probation and jails) who are working to control battering intervention work (particularly with pushing the ACT-V model). Chris Huffine talked about the challenges of a system which glorifies the virtues of "evidence based programming" without fully understanding how they work, the research used to grant that status, or a base understanding of the systems they intend to replace. Often these groups talk poorly of the Duluth Model, and have no understanding of the difference between the "model" and the "curriculum" which are two entirely different things. The Duluth Curriculum is the use of the power and control wheels, control logs, and vignettes to do group sessions for men with battering behavior. If using the most recent 2011 update, you will be working to focus 75% of your time in classes on respectful and healthy behavior. Most places which claim use of the "Duluth Model" are actually only using the curriculum, and even then may not have read the first 100 pages of the manual which explicitly states the classes should never be a script, and instead a start of a conversation - and also mention the need to use the entire model, not just the curriculum. The Duluth MODEL is the community coordinated response involving very specific and direct work within community to change perspectives, attitudes, and practices on domestic violence on all agencies who have a role. This is often very challenging, requires extra funding for staff, and makes the BIP sessions a very small part of overall work to change the community. Unfortunately, research has rarely spoken to the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program (Duluth) directly, and often analyze community based programs who have very low fidelity to their model and program as a whole.
Huffine also emphasized that many of us in this work take direction from probation departments, which often have pressure to use evidence based practice and miss the importance of research based practice. The goal in our work should not be to replace programming, but to rather enhance and improve it. As a part of this improvement, we need to be aware of risk factors and do more to address risk issues. This becomes challenging as there is often greater emphasis on recidivism and not on risks of ongoing domestic violence (much of which may be non-arrestable).
The rest of the second day becomes more difficult to report on, due to some experiential sessions. I attended a workshop with Aldo Seoane, who followed up his conversation from before by adding some legendary stories and spoke to how such stories can be important to reflect on. Mary Case, from the Los Angeles LGBT Center, spoke to identifying primary aggressor in LGBT domestic violence cases. I am more used to language focused on predominant aggressor as opposed to primary aggressor, which initially I thought was not that significant a difference - then recognized that the reason for the shift in wording has a lot to do with how law enforcement sees domestic violence, and assaults in general. PRIMARY aggressor often indicates there is a secondary aggressor. This tends to eliminate an analysis of power and pattern of coercive control as a part of the determination. PREDOMINANT has more to do with an analysis of who controls or dominates the other person. This gave me more of a critical viewpoint to Case's presentation, particularly in the challenges that already come with law enforcement responses to LGBTQ+ domestic violence. That said, the LA LGBT Center does screening as a part of their couples counseling program to rule out domestic violence from that service, and when she discussed some differences between victims/survivors and perpetrators, she directly spoke to there being a significant difference in how perpetrators avoid identifying their own behavior and focus on how they perceive themselves to be victimized, whereas victims/survivors tend to be focused on their own behavior - similar to information discussed by Larance above.
That evening, I facilitated a simulation based on "Dog Eat Dog," a role playing game that explores the impact of colonialism on Pacific Island peoples. We began by discussing colonialism as a concept, and how it could fit into domestic violence systems. Three groups went through the experiences within the child protective services, probation, and mental health / substance abuse counseling systems. The simulation is set up to create rewards for following the rules of the system, and penalties in expressing individuality, which is also very common within DV systems as a whole. Anyone who would like to look more fully at the simulation to consider using it within their community can click here to learn more or click here for an in depth review. I will probably write more in depth on this topic in the future, and have already had articles that have explored this overlap before, so feel free to go through other articles if this interests you.
The final day involved a number of discussions from Family Peace Initiative, and some experiential drumming workshops run by Rahul Sharma and Dummunity. I only participated on the periphery of the drumming workshops, so do not have anything to include here outside of those links (which give a sample of the drumming involved).
Steve Halley and Dorothy Stuckey Halley started off the day by discussing "Cracking the Code: Understanding those who batter and the connection to risk and lethality," which began by reviewing work by Bandara in 1973 that summarized abuser's aggression is done in order to 1) appropriate resources, 2) win approval and status, 3) bolster self-esteem and manliness, 4) see the expression of suffering in others. Their claim was that these traits are important to consider in looking at battering behavior. They broke down categories of abusers to the following groups:
Entitlement based: this category is based in privilege, and a belief in personal righteousness to punish others. Steve and Dorothy described this group as calculated, not being "out of control," and in many cases use anger as a tool by faking it or investing in "righteous anger" to justify abusive behavior. They detailed a subcategory of materially motivated abusers who are primarily wanting money and resources. These abusers are exploitative, see women as interchangeable and disposable, do not have jealousy toward their victims, expect services without needing to reciprocate (such as with chores, sex, etc), have contempt for their victims, view women as restricting their liberty, lack empathy, and some are criminally minded (trafficking behavior, drug sales and use, rarely having police calls from their victims).
Survival based: these abusers must have their partner to survive, and to keep their image of themselves intact. Their reaction to potential loss of a relationship is not fear, but terror. Their response to a sense of betrayal is not anger, but rage. These individuals have a strong cycle of abuse, have an abusive personality structure, and inhibit total desperation behind their motives. These abuser have borderline traits, even if they do not have borderline personality disorder. They have rage at imperfection, are aloof and narcissistic, and terrified of both separation and closeness. They often create self fulfilling prophecies, and have great perceptions of scarcity. They have an attitude of not ever going back to nothing, no matter what they have to do. During the presentation, Mel Gibson was used to illustrate this point by listening to a violent rant against his ex-partner. Protective orders may heighten danger in some cases, and as a general rule victims/survivors should be given the opportunity to get a protective order but never required to obtain one. When analyzing ACE results, the top three factors discovered with survival based abusers were experiences of emotional abuse, having a substance addicted caretaker, and having parental separation. The most dangerous types of survival based batterers were dependency types during separation, and antisocial types during relationships.
Sadistic based: These abusers derive pleasure by causing pain. They are very intelligent, and often have power within their career. Their abusive behavior often begins long after marriage, and they often hide abuse and think of it as a game. Victims are often noticed when they first enter into psychiatric units and are often seen as "compliant."
Personally, I am not big on categorization of types of abusers. I have experienced over time in my work that individuals follow unique patterns, and thinking about general categories can easily lead to dehumanizing or believing only certain approaches might work with an individual. That said, I am not entirely clear how Family Peace Initiative uses these categories in their work. If I am looking at overlapping patterns of behavior in men in my groups, I speak about certain categories from within those patterns as opposed to generalizing people into groups. For example, I have seen many men with abusive patterns of behavior who enter into relationships solely for sexual intercourse, but don't really want to develop an intimate relationship. These patterns can lead to unplanned pregnancy, unplanned (and undesired) marriage, a serial pattern of cheating - and these patterns can be discussed as a whole, and where those patterns might have impacts. I use those patterns to humanize the disrespectful and destructive choices and speak to methods of working toward respect and health that fit into individual cases. The milieu of presenting within a small time frame, and inability to discuss these methods also may contribute to my not understanding the context of FPI's categorizations.
Next, I went to both Steve and Dorothy's presentations on "The River of Cruelty" to see their differing perceptions and understanding of a core component of their curriculum. Overall, I appreciated their different takes, and Trish Taylor's presentation with Dorothy. Their way of explaining cruelty is in reflecting on behavior that intentionally causes pain and fear, or behavior that is willfully and blatantly neglectful of others. In these smaller workshops, participants had a chance to brainstorm examples in each of the categories. It was not directly stated, but I got the impression that FPI does the discussion similarly in their group sessions. Steve discussed how they encourage facilitators to lead by example and discuss their own patterns, which enters into a needed discussion about self-disclosure and its dynamics even if it was not the time for it during the presentation.
Cruelty: FPI provided a handout on the "River of Cruelty Map" to help discuss the ways cruelty impacts people's lives. It starts with discussions of cruelty children experience, and we as a group listed several examples - some personal, some just based in knowledge of the violence and abuse children face from parents and others. I think this discussion grounded the topic, and when participants asked challenging questions about how to respond to a BIP participant who either refused to participate, or participated inappropriately, FPI staff provided compassionate yet accountability minded responses. It was an ongoing point that understanding experiences of trauma does not excuse someone from their own violent and abusive choices, but it expands accountability to the need to work toward personal healing and self-care.
Adverse Feelings: I noticed during this part of the discussion that the initial discussion seems to be to brainstorm so-called negative emotions. I found it important to name other adverse feelings as a result of cruelty, such as happiness. Sometimes when people have experienced cruelty, if they believe they are responsible for that cruelty that was done to them, they may feel guilt associated with happiness, or may avoid feeling happy because they do not think they deserve it. Understanding some of these broader applications is important, in my assessment. However, this exercise gives a venue to discuss emotions and sensations without using them to justify.
Defense Systems: These examples can provide opportunity to reflect on abusive behavior as a defense, or even to discuss resistive violence. The category can also be used to look at responses people take based in gender role training that can easily become toxic.
Unintended Consequences: In one of my groups last night, I decided to have a conversation over the "River of Cruelty" and had some interesting participation from the men in the group. They, when talking about people inflicting cruelty, seemed to want to focus on a need for revenge, particularly against people who might hurt their children. This branched into a discussion of the unintentional consequences on self and others by making such a choice - by using such a defense system. Intended outcomes are often so much different than unintended consequences and this is a good thing to discuss and reflect on in BIP classes.
Beliefs-Attitudes: When facing unintended consequences, it is a natural response to develop beliefs or attitudes about the entire experience of cruelty, the results of trauma. Seeing how entitled and disconnected beliefs and attitudes become amplified after experiencing patterns of cruelty might be an excellent avenue to explore development of empathy and repairs.
Overall, the conference provided excellent dialog over complicated topics, allowed me to engage with peers and colleagues, share my experience with newcomers to the work, and increased my understanding that working with intentional connectedness to others, even those I don't agree with on 100% of our practices, is CRITICAL to learning and growing personally - and in working toward progress on building health and respect, as well as ending violence and abuse.
Sunday, November 12, 2017
In the groups I co-facilitate for men who have chosen battering behavior in their intimate partner relationships, occasionally I have an individual complete an "empathy letter" activity. It is made very clear that this letter is not designed to be given directly to that man's victim/partner, but rather is an exercise to work to increase ability to make repairs and amends in that relationship. I tend to choose that activity for men who are still in a relationship with the woman they hurt, who want to perhaps make things better and continue their relationship. It's not necessarily a great idea to force empathy building onto someone who is not interested in doing so, or for someone who is no longer in a relationship and doesn't care about repairing anything directly. It's also an important point to emphasize that empathy is a PROCESS, not a destination - that no one thing will instantly or completely heal damage that often is done as a pattern over a long period of time.
For the sake of explaining this activity, and in analyzing the places where CK's letter is a good start toward repairs and where it falls short, let's read through what he wrote and discuss the four aspects of empathy work we look at during battering intervention class sessions. The goal is always to look at what someone comes up with and add to it, nuance it, make it a living document where the individual might have conversations with his partner in one way when a topic comes up, and in another in a different circumstance. CK has given us all a place to analyze, and some have eaten it up and been happy to see him admitting his wrongs, while others have been disgusted and found his letter to be pure bullshit, disingenuous, and simply a cover-your-ass statement. For the sake of the analysis in this article, let's consider that both perspectives might have some weight (I will be quoting his letter out of order to emphasize these different sections).
The first section to discuss in an empathy letter is does it demonstrate responsibility? Since I believe words hold power, and understanding words helps with clarity, I think it is important to name responsibility as the act of admitting to behavior. Plenty of people avoid ownership of harms they have caused others, and I find that most men entering into battering intervention classes have a hard time doing so at the start. Some might admit to some things, but even in someone who is interested in making repairs it's impossible to admit to full responsibility - particularly in places where the individual is blind to the experience of others. Responsibility, like all the sections is a process, and when the activity is done in the class, I hear someone admit to things and when we offer feedback we ask for more specific detail, for larger patterns, for how things went downhill in a relationship and why. We look at things like poor self-care and how that can damage a relationship, or irritating and alienating behavior that often are dismissed as being too low a threshold to mention (yet can be a huge problem for victims/survivors who experience this irritating and alienating behavior as a foundation to so many other harms).
Louis CK says the following in his letter, which I have put together as a section where he attempts to work toward responsibility:
When considered separately from the rest of the letter, when thinking about ways CK could have taken more responsibility, there is a lot that could be added here. In a class session, some feedback and discussion here would be to have him specifically name how he was sexually inappropriate, to be more explicit in how he placed women in impossible predicaments, how he understands his power as a producer and history of that power, and even in naming women he has harassed beyond these five that are bringing the accusations against him currently, perhaps even discussing any sexual aspects that contributed to the end of his marriage years before. He could speak to how in his comedy routines he has made his thinly veiled sexually abusive behavior into a humorous tale. He has long incorporated masturbation gestures in his sets, has discussed sexual behavior very directly, has named the impact and ability of power in different ways. He has the ability to name his responsibilities more directly, and his letter gives him an opportunity to expand on what he has listed and continue a dialog about his behavior - or to leave it where it is at and hope public attention goes away. Responsibility is an ongoing process of reflection, insight, and removing of layers. If he is truly working toward repairs, he will need to consistently name these behavior, and do so without blaming or excusing things by focusing on others. Since he said "I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want," he needs to use that power to do so here and now. Several people have been angered by his letter, and he needs to validate their anger. Several have been willing to let him off the hook due to his letter, and he needs to admit that his initial letter was a start but is not going to be enough. Make this section an process, not an end point."I want to address the stories told to The New York Times by five women named Abby, Rebecca, Dana, Julia who felt able to name themselves and one who did not. These stories are true. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly. [I've] run from [my actions]. I also took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community. I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want."
Next, we discuss how to admit to motives behind hurtful behavior. This section can get ugly, and it should. Abuse doesn't happen because someone feels positive things about the person they hurt, and they don't happen with consideration of other's rights and needs. This is a very difficult section to write, and it is very difficult for men who have been abusive to discuss. Louis CK is no exception here, as his description of his motives is minimal:
"At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. I didn’t think that I was [using other's admiration of me to silence others] because my position allowed me not to think about it."He has an opportunity here to say why he did not care about boundaries of professionalism, personal space, sexual limitations, power dynamics, or the humanity of those he violated. He did not. He vaguely discusses his power, but also justifies his actions by saying he asked if he could violate these women before doing so. This is probably the most difficult thing that he will need to do if he wants to make repairs, and much of the heavy criticism of his letter seems to be due to him not explaining motives. This makes any attempts at empathy disingenuous. In intimate partner relationships, think of someone working to make repairs. They admit to harms, seem to understand impacts, say what they need to do to change, but never really say WHY they chose to hurt, chose to cause pain, chose to cause fear. This leaves the person victimized to think in their own minds why this happened. It pushes that responsibility onto someone who will never be able to know the answer, because motive is internal to an abuser's own thoughts and self-talk. In classes, I will speak to the need to be vulnerable as a part of a healthy and respectful relationship. Abusers block off vulnerability, and it makes it impossible to connect with another person, and impossible for them to be able to call you on your faults as well as support you when you need it. In this case, admitting to motives creates vulnerability in others knowing what was going through thoughts and values that allowed a choice to abuse. Louie CK, you need to improve this section dramatically, talk to why you waited several years to finally admit to your abusive behavior, speak to why you abused your power when you are so aware of power dynamics as demonstrated by your work. Why you chose that specific violation, and why you thought you had the ability to get away with such behavior.
Detailing an understanding of impact on others is in many ways one of the most direct and "easiest" parts of an empathy letter. The challenge is in deepening understanding, looking beyond the obvious. In some ways it is not a surprise that the bulk of Louis CK's letter is focused on impact. It's what people often expect. Others LOOK for impact, but SENSE when there is a lack of details in motive. Let's look at what he detailed and consider ways he could improve on understanding impact:
But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. Now I’m aware of the extent of the impact of my actions. I learned yesterday the extent to which I left these women who admired me feeling badly about themselves and cautious around other men who would never have put them in that position. [Using other's admiration for me] disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it. [My needing to reconcile my abuse with who I am as a person] is nothing compared to the task I left them with. The hardest regret to live with is what you’ve done to hurt someone else. And I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them. I’d be remiss to exclude the hurt that I’ve brought on people who I work with and have worked with who’s professional and personal lives have been impacted by all of this, including projects currently in production: the cast and crew of Better Things, Baskets, The Cops, One Mississippi, and I Love You, Daddy. I deeply regret that this has brought negative attention to my manager Dave Becky who only tried to mediate a situation that I caused. I’ve brought anguish and hardship to the people at FX who have given me so much The Orchard who took a chance on my movie. and every other entity that has bet on me through the years. I’ve brought pain to my family, my friends, my children and their mother.I have seen criticisms of his letter which talk about CK trying to garner sympathy, sort of the "pity me" request behind his words. This is where that all comes out. Rather than just naming impacts, he laments that he just learned, is finally aware, that he can't wrap his head around the impacts. Think of how selfish such statements can be in identifying impact on others. If you use your understanding of impacts to validate, any statements that refocus on you and your process of how you understand take away from that validation. To say, "now I'm aware of the extent of the impact of my actions," takes it away from a process and makes it an end point. This is not helpful in any way, and cuts off communication. Empathy and repairs are about establishing and expanding open and transparent communication, not closing it off after an initial discussion. He fully spends half of his understanding impacts by focusing on people he has hurt professionally due to his sexually abusive behavior. This moves away from being able to talk about impacts on individuals into hurts on community. In some ways, this can be important, but if it is not combined with explicit and deep understanding of impacts on those directly violated it can remove the ability of empathy to repair. In fact, his focus on community over individuals almost seems to dismiss the impacts to them. He could speak to how his behavior might have changed their comfort around men in general, impacted their own relationships, caused potential trauma, reminded them of trauma they experienced in the past, made them question themselves, perhaps even blame themselves, how they may have been forced to continue working with him and pretend the abuse did not happen. There is a lot Louis CK needs to add here, and during group sessions, there is often a lot of discussion that broadens the ability to validate harms experienced.
Finally, the empathy letter focuses on accountability. I discuss how responsibility may be owning up and admitting to hurtful behavior, but accountability is about working toward changing it. It's about making goals, and about consistently reaching them. It's about considerations for measurable, realistic, specific, and wanted changes. It's about being vulnerable to others in a way that can allow them to hold you to account for those changes. Here is what Louis CK added in his letter on accountability:
I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. I wish I had reacted to their admiration of me by being a good example to them as a man and given them some guidance as a comedian, including because I admired their work. I will now step back and take a long time to listen. Thank you for reading.Saying you are remorseful is not enough. Why is what you did not okay? Why do you want to stop doing such abuses to others? Not how you are "trying" to learn, but how you plan on learning more and on an ongoing basis. Empathy has little to nothing to do with forgiveness, and more to do with active change. When adding detail about needing to reconcile, how does he plan on doing so? How, despite his destructive patterns, can he work to BE a good example for others, how can he provide guidance in making up for such atrocities? Stepping back and taking time to listen is perhaps helpful, but how? What is listening going to provide, actively, for his ongoing work on empathy and repair? There are many things he could add in here, and during groups, that is where the discussion goes. Accountability, like every section is a PROCESS not an end point.
Overall, I tend to think Louis CK's letter could potentially be a good starting point. His sincerity is in question, and the only thing that will answer that question is his sincerity to the process, and details of any ongoing work he is willing and able to do. His listening is directly in his letter - but can he listen to criticisms without becoming defensive. Can he listen to the pains caused in others without going into how hard it is for him? Can he be more explicit about his motives to reveal to himself and others how his abusive behavior built as a pattern over time? Can he add to his responsibility by naming more hurtful behavior beyond the things he is being accused of. Ultimately, I have hope, and maybe it is because this is the first time I remember an individual taking accusations of sexual assault and at least simply admitting it is true. Some have called it a low bar, but in some ways, I think it's good to start somewhere. Let's continue to pressure those who choose abusive behavior to raise the bar for themselves and others. Let's keep the dialog going on methods of repairs and work toward health, respect, and amends.
Thursday, August 31, 2017
I am presenting on the dynamics of LGBTQ+ perpetrators of domestic violence soon. While I am an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, I feel cautious in speaking about a community I am not a member of. I have to be aware of my privilege, and work to be clear with myself and my audience that while my knowledge might be built on years of working with individuals and groups within the community, I make no presumption about my ability to understand or appreciate the experience of those who have struggled their whole lives for acceptance, validation, and equality. This article is designed to create more dialog about sexuality in batterer intervention and domestic violence groups, but also can create greater dialog in general about the layers of sexuality.
One of the big barriers to society in accepting, validating, and creating equality for the LGBTQ+ community is a willful ignorance and not wanting to understand or care about people who do not fit into the status quo of heterosexuality, and a belief that this status quo is a model of how "things should be done." The problem is that sexuality is mostly seen in binary terms. You're either gay or straight. Bisexuality is not even a part of the equation. People who might identify as bisexual are dismissed or ridiculed, because after all if they are a man in a relationship with a man they must be gay, right? Or a woman who is married to a man but says she is bisexual can't be sexually interested in both men and women because she is obviously with a man.
If we can't allow people to self-identify as being sexually interested in both men and women, how can we possibly move to understand other forms of sexuality? If sexuality is seen in binary terms, how can we have any discussions about sexual orientation without turning it into an "us vs. them" argument?
Binary understanding of sexuality is only a part of the confusion. There has been much public debate about transgender rights, and we've gotten confused about the difference between sexuality and gender identity. Someone who is transgender can be any sexual orientation. If you have a binary understanding, you get confused. If someone is M-F transgender, and is sexually attracted to men, I have certainly heard people wondering if that makes the person gay or straight. When people do not honor someone's identification, and stick to a "this or that" idea of sexuality, it becomes very difficult to properly gender an individual - not for the purposes of labeling, but rather the ability to properly respect their identification. If an individual is M-F transgender, they identify as FEMALE. If they are sexually interested in men, they are HETEROSEXUAL. Gender identity is separate from sexuality.
In this article, I am also not addressing Queer identity, as it goes along a few different categories - someone can be genderqueer, where they do not identify with any specific gender, or identify as both genders, or can also be associated with not identifying with a specific sexual orientation or interest. For such individuals, they can also be Questioning, and their not identifying might have more to do with an exploration of what identity they fit into as opposed to intentionally deciding and declaring a lack of association with an identity. Someone's choice to not identity should be honored as much as someone's choice not to disclose their identity, or someone's choice to be open about their identity.
To work against binary identification, consider that there are three layers of sexuality: Sexual Orientation, Sexual Frequency, and Romantic/Emotional Connection. The one we obsess over is sexual orientation, but understanding the other two layers creates a permutation of five sexual orientations, six sexual frequencies, and six romantic/emotional orientations leading to a total of 180 possible combinations of sexuality.
Layers of Sexual Orientation:
This layer is relatively static. Human beings start in life with a specific sexual interest, which develops in awareness and understanding as a child enters puberty, and it doesn't tend to change over the course of a lifetime. This is sometimes hard for people to accept, particularly because we talk about "coming out of the closet," or know someone who may have been married and has biological children but then "decided" they were gay. Someone could have been gay all their life, but never felt safe or comfortable telling others their sexual attraction. An individual could have attempted to squash that desire down and force themselves to be with someone not of their own gender. Some think of sexual orientation as a choice, but is it really a choice when our society has a number of consequences (both directly stated and implied) for telling others about a sexual orientation other than heterosexual? Who you are attracted to is not a choice, how you present that to the world is. Sexual behavior is not necessarily an accurate indicator of sexual orientation.
Heterosexuality is sexual attraction to someone of the "opposite sex". That term is problematic if you understand the idea of multiple genders (as well as genetic sexual traits) - however colloquially we get the idea, and accept it overall. The idea of multiple genders can make heterosexuality complicated, as when considering attraction and sexual interest, is it purely about someone's genitalia, or is there more to it than that? Homosexuality is sexual attraction to someone of the same sex.
The concept of "bi" in sexual orientation (and in layers of emotional/romantic attraction) refer to a person who is not limited to sexual attraction toward one sex. Bisexuality can be someone's identity even if he/she is in a relationship with one person of same or opposite sex. Someone can be attracted to one sex, but together with another - which is part of the confusion some experience when they label others or do not accept their stated identification.
The other two sexual orientations get even more confusing with a binary focus. Transamorous is a form of sexual orientation where someone is sexually attracted to a transgender person. It is important to distinguish the difference between transamorous and someone who has a sexual fetish, as a fetish to a specific body part would better fit as a paraphilia, below. One does not need to have surgery to be considered "transitioned." Many trans people never get bottom surgery, for a multitude of reasons, but when the individual says they have transitioned, then they have regardless of the current state of their genitalia. Someone who is transamorous has sexual desire specifically for someone who identifies as transgender, and there is often an element of queerromantic emotional attachment as a part of this orientation.
Paraphilias, of which there are several, are also relatively rare but help to explain some things we often as a society do not want to understand. Often associated and categorized as disorders, the label can be problematic - particularly with paraphilias that do not harm other people. Objectophilia has gotten some attention on television shows over the past few years. It is where a person is sexually attracted to an object. While one example might be the movie, "Lars and the Real Girl" that explores a man's relationship with a sex doll, there are also shows which highlight a man in a relationship (sexually and emotionally) with his car, a woman who has sexual desire and wants to marry an amusement park ride, etc. This is bizarre to most people, and difficult to comprehend on several levels. Just because you do not understand does not mean it fails to exist. The most commonly focused on paraphilia is pedophilia - the sexual attraction toward children. This can be very important to consider, as if you remember earlier in this article there being a comment about sexual orientation being STATIC. It tends not to change over the course of one's life. That means that there is no real "treatment" for making a pedophile stop wanting to have sex with children, as there is no treatment to stop someone from being gay. It is a sexual desire, and when I did work at a sex offender treatment program, therapists often discussed how with pedophiles the only thing to do is lifelong intensive monitoring, supervision, and treatment. There are other paraphilias, but for the sake of keeping this article manageable, consider these two as an example of this orientation.
When it comes to sexual frequency, many of these labels are thought to be sexual orientations, which like binary association of sexuality cause much confusion. Regardless of sexual interest (orientation), every person has a desired frequency of sexual activity. This can create any number of relationship issues, and domestic violence intervention programs hopefully spend time speaking directly to frequency issues in relationships as it can often contribute to an abuser's sense of entitlement and disconnect from a partner. Frequency, unlike orientation, is fluid over a lifespan. This means that as a human being gets older, sexual drive may change, and sometimes may stop for an individual due to medical, social, spiritual and other factors in that person's life. Being aware of sexual frequency can help to navigate several issues, and understand some contexts of sexual interactions that otherwise are confounding.
Allosexual is possibly the most common sexual frequency, yet most people have never heard of the term. It indicates sexual desire within "normal" boundaries. Research has spent time trying to figure out what the definition of normal is in terms of sexual frequency, and often studies look at the relationship status of the individual as a part of this analysis. The theory is that if someone is in a committed relationship (married being one such example), then the couple will most likely have sex more regularly. This is not necessarily the case, and with technology and "dating" apps on phones and computers, this research may not hold up under the current social environment of anonymous contacts and casual sex being both more socially acceptable, and easier (and safer by being more discreet) to engage in.
Hypersexual is normally understood by the name itself, even if someone has not thought of it as a label. This is someone who frequently desires sex, and may have sex multiple times daily if possible. Sometimes, this drive is associated with mental health issues (such as bipolar disorder) when someone is in a manic state. Since sexual frequency is a fluid and changeable form of sexuality, this makes sense that a person may go through stages of wanting sex at rates much higher than average.
Asexuality is an oft maligned form of sexual frequency, and I am thankful to the asexual community for discussing the multi-layered dynamic of sexuality for many years. Sometimes people dismiss asexuality like they dismiss bisexuality, thinking it is a choice and placing their own sense of the world, their own perceptions, onto someone with radically different life experiences, perceptions, and desired frequency. People can understand if someone has medical issues which prevent them from having sex, but sometimes even someone within this category still DESIRES sex even if they cannot have it. Asexuality is simply the lack of sexual desire, but someone may still have a specific sexual orientation even if they do not have desire. For someone who identifies as asexual, their orientation may not be very important to them because they lack that interest altogether, and so there is an illusion that asexuality is an orientation in itself. However, there are heterosexual asexuals, homosexual asexuals, bisexual asexuals, etc.
Greysexuality is infrequent sexual desire, and is very similar to asexuality - but a major difference is that the person who is greysexual will still occasionally want to have sex, but but not have sexual activity very often. People can be greysexual due to life experiences where they may have been hurt, have been sick, or experienced social, religious, or relationship issues that lead to a reduction in sexual desire they once had. There are several reasons someone might be greysexual, and in a relationship where one person is allosexual and another is greysexual - there could be several relationship issues that might develop from this mismatched frequency.
Pansexuality and omnisexuality are two terms with an overlap within their definition - a person who has an interest in others beyond their gender identity, and whose sexual frequency desire is not inherently tied to their sexual orientation. While a person experiencing a hypersexual frequency will want increased sexual activity within their sexual orientation (ex. a heterosexual hypersexual who is male who wants to have a lot of sex with women), an omnisexual might have sex when the opportunity presents itself, no matter the other person's sex or gender. HOWEVER, just because someone wants to have sex with anyone does not inherently make them bisexual, or homosexual if they choose sex with someone of the same sex. This becomes very confusing in certain circumstances, such as with men who have sex at rest areas. Some of these men identify as straight, and take offense at direct or indirect accusations of being gay. For these men, sex is sex, and getting it whenever possible is the goal - not whether it is a man or a woman. For someone with a binary understanding of sexuality this makes zero sense, after all if a man is having sex with a man doesn't that mean he's gay? Or at the very least bisexual? No - because someone's sexual orientation does not always play out in how they act sexually. Pan/omnisexual is a start in explaining this.
Histories of orgies also explain some of this behavior, where group sex might just be about having sex with anyone in the context of a party as opposed to a context of sexual orientation. There is also discussion about pansexuality being its own orientation, where someone is attracted to others by their personality or "soul" as opposed to sex/gender. Pansexuals are willing to have sex with people regardless of their orientation or gender, but due to the construct of openness and definitional complications that exist within that, it is challenging to generalize features of pansexuals as a whole. However, in considering the layer of frequency as a part of sexuality, it opens up a greater understanding of how some people can be primarily sexually oriented in one way, but during certain events act sexually in another way.
Demisexuality and sapeosexuality has to do with desire that is mixed with emotional/mental ties. The next layer of sexuality (romantic/emotional connection) is specifically about that dynamic, and these categorize more as a frequency than an emotional tie. Demisexuality is desire for sex ONLY if there is an emotional connection, whereas a similar type, sapeosexuality is sexual desire only with an interest in someone's intellect. This may mean that someone will not engage in sexual behavior with another person unless they feel a certain emotional/mental bond. This can complicate intimate partner relationships if someone has a lowered sense of emotional connection, and therefore does not desire sex with their partner. While on some levels, this is a normal and reasonable impact of harm in a relationship, on other levels there can be little or no harm and still someone may have an increase or decrease in desire based on that connection. I have heard many participants in batterer intervention programs talk about their partners not wanting to have sex anymore, and this could be one of several reasons why this might be the case. People who are demi/sapeosexual may be less likely to cheat, or may only cheat in very specific circumstances (or develop emotional affairs). They may have a harder time developing a relationship, regardless of sexual orientation. Often someone within this category may seem allosexual, but circumstances and context help to guide understanding about where someone might fit here instead.
Everyone has different ways in which they emotionally bond with others. We often consider this as something separate from sexuality - but consider what it can mean if it is not so separate after all. To me, this category can help explain many relationship challenges, and motivations for abusive behavior in relationships. This layer of sexuality is tied specifically to whom someone is truly connected to, both inside and outside of an intimate partner relationship. This layer is also fluid and changes throughout someone's life due to circumstance, choice, and as new bonds form with others. Consider the following categories of this layer:
Heteroromantic is about how someone seeks out and fosters relationships mainly with people of the opposite sex. This layer has nothing to do with sexual desire, but rather emotional desire. Many of these categories harbor certain challenges. In this category, one can be a man who is only interested in developing friendships and close emotional ties with women. Consider the challenge of a man who is heterosexual, in a relationship with a woman, but his friends, mentors, and support network are overwhelmingly women. If his intimate partner does not understand these bonds as purely emotional, this might lead to various relationship challenges if she becomes jealous over the content and context of these connections. Sometimes, experiences in childhood (particularly trauma) can influence this emotional connection. For example, a boy who is bullied by other boys or who witnesses and experiences harm from a father or father figure may disassociate from boys and men, and find that they only create emotional connections with women. This could potentially lead an individual into having an emotional affair, where they share secrets and emotional connection with a person who is not their intimate partner.
Homoromantic can be more common due to gender role training. Early in childhood, boys and girls begin to notice differences in sex and begin to harbor stereotypes about the opposite sex, and while doing so, mostly create emotional bonds with and friendships to those who are the same sex. While children grow into dating ages and begin to develop sexual interests, emotional connections often change and the individual develops emotional connections to both sexes. For some, their connection emotionally to people of the same sex continues to be dominant, and people who are homoromantic might have a difficult time with connections in general with the opposite sex. I believe there are a significant number of male, heterosexual, domestic violence offenders who are homoromantic - and this explains much of their challenges in intimate partner relationships. They are only sexually interested in women, but all their emotional ties are to men. Their friends, their support, their sense of entertainment are all tied to other men. They can sometimes actively dislike women on emotional and mental levels (and be misogynistic as a part of this), and have a very difficult time creating any sort of bonds outside of sex. Some men will flit from sexual encounter to sexual encounter, have children with several women, but never have a relationship that lasts beyond a short time frame. Gender role training often greatly supports this kind of emotional connection, and homoromantic leanings can lead to fathers having a difficult time with daughters, and mothers having a difficult time with sons.
Biromantic seems like an emotional/romantic attachment that has the potential to be the healthiest, in that this person will form bonds with both men and women. They often are simply interested in connection with others who share values and meaning, who have similar interests, who they enjoy spending time with - and all of these not attached specifically to the person's sex.
Each of these three romantic/emotional connections discussed so far can feed into heterosexism, cissexism, and homophobia in different ways. For a heteroromantic, they may in their distaste for the same sex have great disdain for people who are gay, cannot imagine an emotional connection at all, and for someone who is gay, they may be oppressive toward other gay people due to this distaste and can create toxic relationships. Someone who is homoromantic may recognize (consciously or subconsciously) that they only are interested in friendships with the same sex, and may adamantly oppose the idea of homosexuality due to fears that their connection with the same sex might make people think they are gay. This distaste or hatred of people who are gay can be a combination of self-loathing, judgment of sexual behavior, or even a judgment of emotional attachment. Someone who is biromantic might enjoy connection with both men and women, but be judgmental of people who are transgender, or still make assumptions about how sexual behavior should happen despite that more balanced emotional connection.
Queerromantic is attachments mainly to people who are in the LGBTQ+ community. On occasion this emotional/romantic attraction is specific to one aspect of the community (such as romantic/emotional ties to transgender people), but due to the more validating nature of a community with common ties, this individual might have a difficult time forming connections with anyone outside of that community.
Aromantic is someone who does not like having emotional ties to anyone. They often are introverted, exclude themselves from social gatherings, and have few, if any friends or supports. With someone who is aromantic, they may keep distance between themselves and others (such as main sources of interaction being connected to online interactions), or cut ties with people who they once were associated with (such as distance from family). Someone who is aromantic, may still have layers of desired frequency and sexual orientation, but may fulfill these desires mainly via masturbation and/or sexually explicit media.
Greyromantic, like greysexual, is infrequent interest in connections with others. This may be much like aromantic, but this person will have a few close ties to others, or have occasional desire to have social interaction. It may ebb and flow, but this person is just as (or even more) content to be alone as having a specific intimate partner relationship.
In conclusion, understanding these layers of sexuality can be critical to respectful dialog, but also can be very useful in considering some specific circumstances of an abuser's pattern of relationship choices, history of emotional connections in general, and where discussion of a healthy support system may fit. I created a graphical representation of these 180 sexualities in the chart below:
|Permutations of Sexuality - may be used with credit attached
**This article would not have been possible without discussions and information I have gathered from the asexual online community. I have had direct chats with individuals who I do not have names for, and have been particularly inspired by work focused on romantic/emotional connections via this graphic (I am unclear on the identity of the original author).
***Thank you specifically to Darlene Pineda for specific wording and feedback regarding the section on transamory.
****An excellent additional resource to consider is Decolonizing Gender by malcolm & kheri
Monday, February 13, 2017
Leveraging Privilege: A Primer for Domestic Violence Intervention and Other Anti-Oppression Work by Oppressor Classes
Since his inauguration, there have been an unprecedented number of protests against US President Donald Trump. The rallies and marches have sought to put light on women's rights, and to a lesser extent, human rights as a whole which protestors believe are heavily threatened by President Trump and his policies. In a prior article, I discussed the nuances of how political leanings contribute to domestic violence responses - but politics impact much more than that.
Protesting Trump and his policies is one potential tactic of resistance, but there need to be mindful reflections on how to leverage privilege and be aware of the impact of personal power and what it means to be an oppressor class who is working to stand against oppression. This article is designed to challenge readers to question places in their lives where they are blind to the struggles of those with relatively less power. As such, this article will most likely make many people uncomfortable, perhaps even angry - and that is a feature, not a fault of this article. We don't move forward and improve by being comfortable, and if you have not felt discomfort in working to end domestic violence (or in any other anti-oppression or human rights work) - you might need to reconsider your strategies and self-reflection.
1) What is Oppression Theory?
Before discussing leveraging, we need to talk about and identify oppression as a concept. While we may talk about it in different ways, unless the concept is clear and workable, it is not going to be possible to make efforts to end it. There are several methods of understanding oppression theory (some examples include Iris Young or Paulo Freire), each offering complementary insight into the phenomenon of oppression. My initial exposure to Oppression Theory came from attending a domestic violence conference early in the start of my career thanks to a presentation by the Midvalley Women's Crisis Center (now Center for Hope and Safety).
The presenters discussed Oppression as built by three components: Power, Privilege, and Prejudice. All three had to exist in order for oppression to manifest. Power is defined as the ability to change yourself and others. Privilege is the history of that power and where it comes from. Prejudice is attitudes, behavior, and thoughts about someone not based on who they are as an individual, but based on characteristics of a group that person represents.
The presenters immediately explained why concepts such as "reverse-oppression" do not exist. For instance, with racism as a form of oppression, someone who is non-white may have prejudice against someone who is white... But without power within society, and without that privileged history of having power that prejudiced, non-white individual does not have the societal precedent and acceptance of that prejudice necessary to reach the level of oppression. Prejudice is problematic, sure, but separating prejudice as a concept separate from (but a part of) oppression helps to create clarity for ending racism (in this example) or other forms of oppression.
This discussion led to a woman in the audience (I was the only man present, in a room of approximately 30 women) claiming that this was ridiculous as a concept because an example about women not feeling safe alone at night walking down a street was not true for her. She felt perfectly comfortable in her neighborhood, therefore women who feel fear about potentially being harmed by men were just being overly sensitive. The presenters (two women) responded by saying that this woman, in making that statement, was diminishing and eliminating the experience of any woman who had been sexually or physically assaulted by a man, or had experienced fear due to the threat. While her individual experience may have been to not have fear, it is important when considering oppression, for each individual to resist putting their sense of safety onto someone who may not feel that same level of safety.
Then the presenters turned to me, which in the moment shocked me. They said, "and you, as a man, not taking a moment to speak out against her claim that women were overly sensitive if they felt afraid - your silence supported that statement. Having the power and privilege you inherit by being a man means your silence supports your own power and privilege." This was how I began to understand what it means to leverage privilege. To start, it means not being silent when witnessing oppressive statements or behavior that support your personal power and privilege, and at the same time knowing that in places where I have power, I have a layer of impunity to harms that oppressed groups feel regularly.
2) What is Intersectionality?
Oppression Theory is the concept of the interaction between Power, Privilege, and Prejudice - and it leads into an opportunity to understand Intersectionality. While the idea of interactions of varying kinds of oppression is not new - Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989 when working to communicate the difference between white and non-white women responding to sexism.
Crenshaw outlined the experience of Black women as being often excluded from feminist theory and anti-racist politics. A big part of her analysis focused on the idea of a "single axis framework" that was used to view feminism and racism. Over time, feminism has often focused on white women's experiences. Racism has often focused on men of color. The feminist concerns of Black women were often assumed to be addressed by the feminist concerns of "all women" - the difference and nuance of their experiences, as Black women, was excluded. Black women's experience of racism, similarly, were often assumed to be included in the "racism" framework, and their experience as women was excluded. Crenshaw argued that for Black women, there is a multi-layered experience of oppression that needs to be considered beyond a singular axis of understanding.
When I attended the Women of Color Network conference in 2010, the focus was on looking at where experiences of victims and survivors of domestic violence fit in the realm of intersectionality. The conference attendees were divided into three groups - women of color, white women, and men (of the 500ish attendees, only 50 or so were men, leading to a smaller combined group). Throughout the conference, I heard white women complaining about being divided from women of color. Many were hurt by this division, and there was arguing and conflict throughout the conference driven by these same white women. This "white feminism" seeks to make experiences of sexism "single axis" - making the experiences of all women the same when considering men's oppressive behavior toward women, but the reality is that women of color experience different layers within that oppression.
In work to end domestic violence, and when intervening with domestic violence offenders, understanding intersectionality can prevent BIP/DVIP classes from narrowly considering abusive, violent, and controlling behavior as being a product solely of sexism (male privilege). Abusers have many levels where they believe in their superiority over their partners/victims/children, believe others are less than they are, and believe in being personally deserving of special consideration and care from those they harm. In work to empower victims/survivors of domestic violence, intersectionality offers opportunities to analyze environments of shelters, accommodations that are culturally sensitive, and an ongoing reflection on the significant variance in experiences of those harmed by domestic violence.
While sexism is, certainly, often a predominant factor in men's abuse of women, many male abusers can also be controlling and abusive due to class (more financial resources or control, more educational experience or value), race, ability (whether their partner/victim is disabled mentally or physically), faith/religion, or any other oppressive advantage they might hold over their partner. Viewing these intersections of oppressive behavior can provide insight into understanding an abuser's patterns of harm, but can also offer avenues to insight and empathy for oppression the abuser has personally experienced (this may involve trauma-informed responses to domestic violence offenders).
3) What does it mean to "leverage" privilege?
Privilege is the history of power in different categories. To begin the process of leveraging, first it is critical to understand where you individually have power in your life. To use myself as an example, I have many layers of power that I hold due to history and groups which have had patterns of controlling others with less power. To describe what it means to leverage privilege, I will use these examples to highlight some of the many places privilege brings invisibility to people who are oppressed.
I am white, and as a white person, I need to understand the history of colonialism that is behind this racial designation and identity, as well as the illusion being white holds. If I am doing work to end racism, I need to listen to those who have been the victims of racism and colonialism - and I need to be able to understand how white people are blind to the experience of non-whites, and often fail to listen or care about perspectives of non-whites who describe experiences of harm. To leverage my privilege in this category of being white, I need to speak to others who are white, work to communicate these experiences and work to shed light on experiences that are often made invisible. I need to pay careful attention to my silence when racism and colonialism are topics discussed around me, and work to stand against racism and not dismiss when non-white people shed light on their experiences.
I am heterosexual, cisgender, and I need to understand how homophobia and heterosexism fit as a weapon of sexism. I need to be able to notice and see how transgender people are discriminated against and harmed by misgendering, direct and indirect violence, and their experiences ignored even within LGBTQ+ movements. A part of listening to those with less power, and leveraging privilege, involves an ongoing dedication to learning about threats to communities and gaining cultural learning in cultures which I am not a part of. Heterosexual people simply "supporting" the LGBTQ+ community are not leveraging privilege, and in fact can often be practicing silence and maintaining blindness to those they have power over. This is a main reason the concept of being an "ally" can be problematic, and there has been a shift within some communities to work on utilizing the concept of being an "accomplice" in working alongside oppressed groups toward gaining footing and influence (if you struggle with thinking the term "accomplice" seems criminal, it might be important to click on the link).
There are several articles naming and describing male privilege, and it has its own wedge dedicated on the Duluth Model's Power and Control Wheel. Like much that fits into being an oppressor class, being male does not automatically mean harm and disrespect toward women and girls. Part of the challenge in leveraging privilege is understanding that power is often not a chosen thing and can be neutral, destructive and disrespectful, or constructive and healthy (or anywhere in-between). As a man, I have more ability to speak to men and hold them accountable than women might be able - because like other oppressor classes, men can easily make women's experiences or feedback invisible. I can leverage that privilege by working as an accomplice to my female co-facilitator in BIP/DVIP groups, listening to her experiences and amplifying her voice to men who have been abusive and may not hear her words or examples. I can be mindful of my behavior and attitude and where my privilege as a man might make it easy to dismiss her as a cofacilitator, and as a partner in the groups.
Men often want to be given recognition for their "good behavior," and invest in anti-sexism causes on occasion to gain congratulations and thanks for work that women have been struggling over forever. Women feel compelled to reward men for doing anti-sexism work, joining at rallies or marches, or giving support. Leveraging, in part, means being able to do work without asking for recognition or reward, and being able to directly speak to your motives for doing that work. If the answer in part has to do with "feeling good" it may be playing to that power, not helping to address it.
I have an advanced college degree, a master's of social work, and I am of middle socioeconomic class. Some layers of privilege do not shift, or only shift when changing location. Monetary resources can fluctuate over a lifetime, as educational access can shift when someone is able to learn more through a trade or school. I had to work to gain my MSW, but I also had to have financial ability to go back to gain this education. I have been impoverished and experienced financial devastation in my past, but I also grew up surrounded by family who assisted me a number of times to keep me from being completely destitute. People of middle or upper socioeconomic classes can easily develop power and privilege and be blind to the reality of skill sets (and social rules) being different by class. As my class position has shifted over the years, to leverage my privilege when I am in more advantageous places of power, I need to remember my experiences and my sense of safety without imposing my experience on others.
An ongoing challenge in anti-oppression work overall is when people in positions of power (oppressor classes) take their knowledge and experiences in life and believe others should have or do have the same sense of comfort and safety as they have. As I mentioned, I have experienced financial devastation in my life - but I had family to help at the worst times. If I took that sense of having a safety net and projected that experience onto someone without family supports, it would be oppressive of me (as I would be speaking from my power and privilege, and would be prejudging someone and expecting them to have the same resources I had when I was in financial hardship).
Power is about ability to change self or others, and gaining recognition for standing against oppression may change how you feel about yourself, and change how others feel about you. This is not to say that feeling satisfaction is wrong or bad, but speaks to motivation and begs the question: If you do not get recognized or rewarded, will you feel resentful toward an event or toward a group due to that lack of kudos? As a man, if a woman feels slighted for you getting recognition over her, is that man able to listen to anger without being upset or becoming oppressive as a response?
A huge challenge for leveraging privilege - if you are in a privileged class, the freedom, agency, health, safety, and well-being of other groups are not tied to you. As a man, I can always step away from the struggle to end violence against women and girls and it would not impact my privilege as a man. As a white person, I can do nothing to try and end racism and my life is not in any way changed if non-white people continue to be oppressed, subjugated, murdered, and scapegoated. I have to take my privilege personally, and I have to choose to leverage it outside of personal benefit because often the personal benefit is not there. If I make getting praised my benefit, then I struggle for my own desires, not for freedom, respect, and agency for others.
4) What are some ways to leverage privilege?
I hear the question "what actions can I take?" and that question can sometimes be a genuine request to become more involved in addressing oppression, and is sometimes a defeatist question where the person believes they cannot do anything that will make any difference. Both reasons for asking that question can have the same results, and the same sorts of answers. It's not enough to do independent action, and often it's hard to measure impacts by doing so. The best starting point, as mentioned above, is to actively educate and reflect on a personal level.
For most anti-oppression work, and for most efforts at leveraging privilege, there are many groups that work to end oppression - and a big part is simply joining groups and becoming willing to listen to their experience and wisdom. Go to an LGBTQ+ training. Attend an anti-racism event and ask about being more involved. Volunteer at a domestic violence program. Any of these actions is contributing to efforts. The key component, for those who represent an oppressor class the group is resisting, is humility
An oft used tool in leveraging the privilege and power of middle and upper socioeconomic class involves donating money to charity. The challenge in this leveraging is that many donations are given with little thought to where funding might be more effective. Donating $200 to a large nonprofit might not do much in their overall efforts, but that same amount given to a local agency that struggles to maintain services might be significantly more useful. Researching the needs in your local area and finding ways to give with impact, or to volunteer time or efforts to support the work can make a big difference, and while all the challenges and warnings above still apply (particularly the "savior complex" of wanting recognition and reward), it is a simple and direct way to leverage.
If you are white, then understand why an anti-racist group might be suspicious of a white person asking to join or assist. If you are heterosexual, it is possible that you might experience distance from the LGBTQ+ community when starting to join in efforts. It is possible that fears of being seen as a racist, or as a homophobe (or fears of others thinking you are not straight), lead to discomfort. Be okay with that discomfort, and notice where that is a process of leveraging privilege. Because leveraging privilege means resisting the power you have, and being okay with doing that at the same time you use it in respectful and healthy ways (being an accomplice).
Speaking up to those who are in the same group as you are is an important part of leveraging privilege. Calling out attitudes, statements, or beliefs which are oppressive is often difficult but ultimately critical to making the invisible, visible. If you are not effective in calling out your peers, or if you receive anger from groups you are trying to help - don't focus on others as the problem, rather think about how you can be more effective in listening or intervening.
When encountering resistance - it is not about others, it is about YOU. Think again about oppression theory and intersectionality. When people are oppressed, they resist. If you are being resisted, it might be due to a layer of oppression you might be relying on to try and get your points across. In doing so, you are likely enhancing the layer of oppression you represent, and making the oppression you are trying to work against worse.
To make a direct comparison to BIP/DVIP work - when doing intervention with domestic violence offenders, facilitators of groups have direct power of their class (their position as facilitator, power over participants regarding potential termination and/or reporting to referral source, often educational or monetary advantages over participants, and race or ability may play a factor as well). Participants sometimes resist material in the classes, and if that comes up, facilitators need to reflect and consider ways the material presented may not have worked to intervene.
Sometimes resistance comes from an oppressor being angry at getting called out for abusive, disrespectful, and hurtful behavior. Sometimes resistance comes from a participant feeling oppressed by the facilitators or the system. Sometimes it might be that the material is not effective because of how the facilitators present it. There are many factors that may be involved, but ultimately, it is up to the facilitators to consider their own complex interplay of privilege, position, and intersectionality as a part of the class and where that interplay fits.
To summarize these leveraging tactics:
- Work to understand the history behind your privilege, and the impact of the power behind that privilege.
- Work to practice cultural humility and learning; expand your experiences in understanding groups who are oppressed.
- Work to notice how oppressed people's voices are ignored or silenced by people with power and privilege (including ways you might personally ignore or silence others).
- Work to understand suspicion or wariness oppressed groups or individuals might be toward places of your personal privilege and power, and learn to both be okay with that suspicion and not be defensive as a response to it.
- Know your motives behind doing anti-oppression work and question yourself - are you motivated primarily (or in a large part) to receive recognition or congratulations for your efforts?
- Engage in community trainings, volunteer with groups, donate effectively, and research current services in your community before starting your own work.
- Know who is in your own groups of power and privilege and use those connections to educate, intervene, and discuss with people who might ignore those who are oppressed.
- Work to understand resistance both in terms of feedback about your efforts, and as a way to understand more how others experience you.
- Make commitments to be active in ending oppression, and to constantly seek education and learning formally and informally.
Leveraging privilege is a process, and is constantly evolving if you are open to personal growth and the struggle with others to seek respect, health, equality, and justice for all. To conclude, here are some examples of people leveraging their privilege:
- Timothy Dempsey, a high school history teacher who has co-facilitated BIP/DVIP groups in addition to teaching history, he writes about how teachers can leverage their privilege and power within their classrooms.
- Sandra Kim and B. Cole discuss leveraging privilege from an organizational standpoint, and the need for personal reflection as a part of leveraging.
- Cynthia Silva Parker analyzes her layers of privilege and her responsibilities in leveraging the privileges she has in her life.
- Anthony J. Williams talks about looking at his privileges by stating "although my Blackness and my queerness affect my treatment in a structurally racist, classist, heterosexist, and ableist society, I’m still a man in a patriarchal society" - and then considers how he needs to use that privilege to work for rights of people who are transgender.
- Kevin Powell works to use his personal reflections, and leverage his platform and voice as a public speaker and educator to both do anti-oppression work and lead discussions on respect and health.
- Food Not Bombs is an organization that I have seen consistently work on several levels of intersectionality as they fight for food as a right, and leverage their privilege as they do so - if nothing else in here moves you to action, consider volunteering and learning more from them.