Abuse. Although everyone knows “it” happens, the prevalent ideation in the lesbian community is that “we don’t do that.” Well, yes, we do, to the tune of 43.8%—or almost half—of lesbians, and 61.1% of bisexual women, having been the victims and/or survivors of rape, physical violence, abuse, or stalking by an intimate partner.
These numbers mean one thing very clearly: If it’s not you, it’s someone you know. In fact, abuse is one of our most serious health risks, affecting significant numbers within our communities.
“Abuse is not about violence; it’s about control,” said Beth Leventhal, executive director of The Network/La Red in Boston. “You can be just as controlling of someone if you are small as if you’re large. It’s about using violence or any other means of gaining and maintaining control.”
Myths about domestic violence, victims’ fear and shame, a silence that stems from a desire not to harm perceptions of the gay community—all these together contribute to making the problem invisible to others. Many people who are suffering either don’t realize that they’re in a terrible situation or don’t know where to go or who to tell. They wonder who will listen, who will believe them.
So what do you do? You have a friend, a sister, a neighbor (or maybe it’s you) who’s in a terrible situation—how does one help?
In addition to the rest of the myths surrounding domestic violence is this, the most dangerous one: the sufferer either a) likes it or b) has to somehow make it out on their own, and there’s nothing anyone can do to aid. Speaking as a survivor, I can tell you that this is one million percent untrue (and I use the word “survivor” here, because victims end up in body bags). So how do you help, really help, in a way that can lead to safety?
Begin with acknowledging, at least for yourself, that there’s something going on.
Recognition number one:
Your friend, your sister, whatever she is to you isn’t “allowed” to hang out with you. There are limits on when and if she can see you, speak with you, hurried “I’ve got to go now” hang-ups, or more subtly, “Well, So and So will be home soon, so I’ll talk with you later.”
Why is this a sign? It means the abuser is slowly and certainly working the isolation process—elimination of friends and family, to remove support.
Recognition number two:
This person you care about not only has to “work around” the significant other to speak with you in any way, but if and when you do spend time together they also work the timing out in such a way that it doesn’t “interfere” with the SO’s time demands (they may even ask you to “not tell” the other), the SO is in constant contact/requires constant updates via phone, text, or email, to verify location, timing, etc., the SO may even show up.
In some ways, this is a more obvious sign (especially the “showing up” part) and is a display of control. It could be an attempt on the SO’s part to even bully you a bit, hoping you’ll “see” the sort of pressure your friend is under/they’ll be punished/how unwelcome by the SO you are, thus making you uncomfortable—and making you go away.
The flip side of this is that the SO may actually try to groom you as their own friend and, in the process, drop in statements about the person that you’re concerned about that are derogatory in some form, things that may make them seem somehow less credible. “Oh, you know how she is—she’s flighty,” or “She’s so silly,” and even things that allude to their truthfulness and responsibility. The play here is that you’ll trust the SO’s words over your friend’s, because hey, the SO knows them best, right?
Recognition number three:
It’s your gut. You know it, somehow, you see it, you feel it, the missed days at work for a sudden illness that clears in a day or so (from being up all night fighting and/or being battered), the sudden flinch and the hunch of shoulders, the reluctance on your friend’s part to go home (but panicked to be on time, even if they clearly don’t want to go, and perhaps even for a moment share their dread), the “I’ve really got to go now” hang-up, the insistence—and maybe even the acted portrayal—that everything is fine, just fine.
But…you know. Somehow, you know it’s not. How do you handle this, and more importantly, how do you help? Become an advocate.
Step #1 (and this is also a rule goes for the rest of these statements moving forward):
Say nothing negative about the partner—absolutely nothing, even if it’s seemingly helpful and along the lines of “I don’t like the way he-she-it treats you.”
Why? Several reasons. The first is, you’ve now put your friend/sister/whatever into a defensive position. They will repeat to you the excuses they hear for that behavior in order to explain it. Second, you are attacking the person they love/are stuck with/are afraid of—and I can guarantee you, this person has already told them again and again how the world is against them—and now you’ve proven it. You may have heard your friend say how uncanny it is that their SO seems to know so much even though there was “no way” they could know—about your conversations, where they were, etc., etc.
This brings us to third and—believe it or not—this is actually huge: There’s every good chance that the conversation you’re having is in some way being recorded. Seriously. I lived with tapped phones, bugs in my car, and turns out that most cell phones have “silent” apps that can be installed and monitored remotely—up to and including being “on” and transmitting a conversation, even when the person holding that phone thinks it’s off—turns out, that was on my phone, and this is very common.
This means your conversation has been heard, the abusive other has targeted you as a potential “enemy,” and guess what? Your friend will be isolated from you even more, if they’re lucky, if they’re not, you’ve just put them in danger of even more abuse. I can guarantee you, it’s not a maybe, it’s a definite.
Now that you have identified what is going on:
Step #2: Get them out of the home.
Get the phone not only off but also put away for a bit, and be more effective with statements like, “How do you feel about that?” and “I’m not sure that’s healthy,” and if the conversation—and the trust—have been built far enough (i.e. the person you want to help knows you won’t attack them, too), “Are you okay?”
Once again, do not ever focus the conversation on the abuser, because the abuser has already convinced this person one way or another, that you—that the entire world—is against them, and you, the friend, aren’t really a friend, just someone with an agenda to end the relationship.
If you really want to help, be the advocate. Help your friend to see that you’re not judging them, or their choices. Use “I” statements and yes, play therapist a bit—but carefully—and it’s helpful if you actually have one of your own, or get in touch with a resource, such as The Network/La Red. (They’re based in Boston but offer help and specialize in LGBT concerns across the country. Call the hot line: 617-742-4911 to help you if at all possible.)
If your friend doesn’t yet recognize the ugliness and/or the danger they’re in, help them get there; chances are strong that between the brainwashing/conditioning and the by-now completely internalized message that they’ve “brought this on themselves,” that they don’t know—they may know something is wrong, but they think it’s them. It’s not. Help them see that—and let them know you’re there.
If you’ve successfully navigated this—and it’s very possible to, even vital, to your friend’s survival, then you can assist—and be a true lifeline in every sense of the phrase. If your friend has gotten to the point where they know it’s a problem, but they don’t know what to do about it, start small. Develop a code word, number, signal, that can be shared between the two of you, one that might seem innocuous to the SO and can mean what you want it to, from call the cops to come help me. Mine was a text to a good friend who—very importantly—lived nearby, the number 3. If I texted that to her, it meant I was in grave danger, please come.
It may never be used, but it will help your friend to know that she has some small bit of control in what is otherwise an out-of-control (well, at least for her) situation.
Work on a plan: escape routes, safe place to meet, contingencies, especially if there are others involved (these others may be children, pets, or some other family member). In my first attempt, I slipped away during a food shopping trip, walked half a mile away to a Starbucks (populated, which means witnesses as well as some protection, because abusive SOs DO NOT want to be “found out”) and called someone who I knew would come for me. If you feel/think/see that it’s necessary, call law enforcement, other agency, even friends and family, to assist.
Bear this in mind: It can take numerous attempts for someone in this situation to truly, truly leave—and each one of these attempts is fraught with danger for them. It’s that sense of danger, as well as guilt, that plays part of these repeated tries. Do your best to not judge nor condemn. You do NOT know the threats your friend is under (and these threats may extend to you, her family, her pets, destruction of her livelihood, etc), and you may never be told about it, either, because it is an attempt to protect those so threatened.
It did in fact take me three; threats to my family and to my friends, threats I believed because of this persons access to certain things (and including their willingness to harm the defenseless), made a terrible situation even more horrific; I had to have certain safeties in place before I knew I could be free.
If your friend goes back, maintain the plan—especially the agreement to be a friend. Because your friendship, which includes your acknowledging, advocating, and assisting, will be the key—perhaps the only one—that sets your friend free, allowing her to go and grow from victim to survivor.