Victim, Not Enabler: Debunking Myths About Survivors of Sexual Predators and Manipulators

Trigger warning: sexual abuse and assault – please don’t read this if you feel uncomfortable.

I wish we lived in a world where I didn’t have to write such grim posts about how messed-up our society is, but after some recent events, I can’t turn a blind eye and stay silent. My thoughts right now are jumbled, and I apologize in advance if this post isn’t as fluid as my usual writing. I am confused and angry. These feelings came from a particular situation, but they apply to the world in general, and the more I think about it, the more I need to write.

First of all, this post is not intended to minimize the horrors of sexual assault. Over the past few years, fighting sexual abuse has become a major focus for me thanks to the #MeToo movement and the brave young women from U.S. Gymnastics, and I stand with all survivors. But in this article, I am simply calling attention to a different kind of abuse that is rarely talked about.

It’s been less than three months since the John Coughlin situation arose. For those of you who don’t know, Coughlin was a former skater, coach, and commentator who was suspended by the US Figure Skating Association and SafeSport for unclear reasons. He took his own life, and the skating community responded in mourning before it was revealed that he had been suspended for multiple cases of sexual misconduct.

Twitter became a very dark place in those days that followed. I don’t want to discuss all the moral questions that rose from that situation. But the sentiment universally shared by all rational people was clear: Victim-blaming is never okay.

That’s why it was ironic when those same people reacted very differently to a situation of a similar nature a few weeks later.

For years, there has been a particular coach in figure skating who is known for dating his students, many of which are only in their late teens. He is a choreographic genius, but his reputation as a Don Juan is known throughout the entire skating community. He recently divorced his fourth wife (who he had married shortly after she turned 18) and started a relationship with another student, who is currently 27.

Some of the fandom has been reasonable, but others started blaming the woman. People who were hardcore fans turned away from her. “I have to unstan” said one. Their reasonings:

She is an adult.

She is a smart woman.

She shouldn’t have been working with a piece of trash like him in the first place.

When we think of predators, we think of masked psychopathic men who kidnap and rape little girls they’ve never even met. But there are many types of predators – some so covert that they can fool even the smartest people into trusting them.

Often, these kind of predators can be charming, generous people. They can spend their days volunteering at an animal shelter and spend their nights pursuing underage girls. Remember how Regina George from Mean Girls compliments a girl on her skirt, then says, “That is the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen” as soon as she walks away? People do that in real life, and about much bigger things.

This next concept is a big one, and I’m willing to take heat for it: To me, grooming and manipulating someone into a relationship is as cruel and criminal as raping them. There’s so much talk about how we should protect victims of sexual abuse, but there’s a quieter little sister to sexual abuse – manipulation – that goes unnoticed. Lying and manipulating someone to get sex is as bad as taking advantage of them while they’re drunk or otherwise incapacitated. It’s not the kind of trauma that comes from one horrific event; it’s a deep scar that runs through every day you were in that relationship. Both are terrible. But there are laws against rape. There aren’t laws against emotional manipulation, because it’s harder to pin down.

I’ve spoken to many brave young women who survived repeated sexual assault by people they know, in contrast to people who survived random street rapes. When you are attacked by a stranger, you process it more like a robbery – someone hurt you, and you want them to pay for it. But when you’re attacked by someone close to you, it takes on all kinds of twisted psychology. You feel guilty for not speaking up. You feel guilty for still caring about that person.

Emotional manipulation is a different level yet, because often you don’t even know it’s even happening. There is no physical pain from it. You are not physically trapped and forced to do things against your will. But you are still captive, and even if something feels off, you might not be able to tell what it is.

“I’m addicted to you, don’t you know that you’re toxic?” sings Britney Spears while rocking a sexy flight attendant costume. But these words perfectly sum up a manipulative relationship.

A predator often has a master plan of how to ensnare their victim. Think of the Ocean’s Eleven series, where George Clooney and his goons hatch an elaborate plot to steal millions of dollars from a Las Vegas casino. For a master predator, this isn’t their first rodeo. They study the potential victim for strengths and weaknesses, like a robber casing the joint.

We all know the myth about how promiscuous bombshell women are targeted more frequently. And it’s true that men are more likely to whistle at the leggy blonde babe walking by than the old grandma. But sexual assault is not about attraction, it’s about aggression. Often, men harass women in the workplace because they are afraid. They are threatened by a beautiful and smart woman, so they try to turn her beauty into a weakness by objectifying her. While they may also be attracted to the woman, their main goal is to keep her from reaching her full potential. Some straight men assault males not because they want to sleep with them, but because they want to humiliate and bully the other man. And of course, women can commit rape too, against either men or women. (This article mainly describes a situation where the man is the perpetrator and the woman is the victim because this is the situation that inspired me to write this, but this is not the only way it happens). Nine times out of ten, rape is merely a weapon to steal the victim’s dignity, and has nothing to do with attraction.

I’m a firm believer in therapy – my mom was a psychology major, and I am currently in treatment for anxiety. But some therapists like to link every issue to a previous trauma, and this leads to victim-blaming. If a woman finds herself in an abusive relationship, they will say “You must’ve been abused as a child by your father, and you have internalized this as an example of what you should search for in a man.” This does happen sometimes, but to slap this explanation on every case is not giving the woman enough credit or acknowledging that abusers don’t present themselves as bad guys.

I didn’t have the best father, but I don’t consciously look for people who are like him. I’ve even been told that I must be bisexual because I’m afraid of having a relationship with a man like my father! The truth? I just think girls are pretty, and I’m not apologizing for it! I know bisexuals and lesbians who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, and they’ve told me they liked girls before they were abused. But that belongs in a different post.

Women deal with enough personal guilt over it – sometimes for years. The last thing they need are people telling them that they should feel this way.

These people don’t always present themselves as critics. Some people say, “of course I feel bad for her, but unless she opens up about how he used her, I can’t support her.” It’s hard enough for women to talk about sexual assault. Imagine trying to explain how you were tricked into giving away your body and your heart, without feeling like an idiot?

It’s obviously horrifying to be a young innocent girl drawn into a relationship with a predator. But it’s a different kind of trauma for older women. For children, it’s easy to say “They were young and helpless.” But when you are a smart, self-sufficient adult, you feel even more like a fool when you realize you’ve been duped.

For years, women who are physically abused by their husbands or boyfriends have tried to cover up their injuries because not only do they fear further punishment, they have a sense of guilt. “If I was stronger, he couldn’t hurt me. If I was smarter, I wouldn’t have married him.” So the woman might stay in the relationship for years, and when she finally manages to break free, the first question people ask is, “Why didn’t you leave him sooner?” which is often interpreted as “Why were you weak and dumb enough to stay with a guy who treated you like trash?”

Moral of the story: If you know someone who is in a toxic relationship, have patience. They may push you away and say “you don’t know him like I do.” And they’re right. You don’t see that charming side they use to seduce their victim. Sometimes you can’t do anything to help, and it’s excruciating to stand there and watch that person stumbling in the dark. It’s easier to harden your heart, turn your back, and stop giving a damn about them. But hold on. If you pull away, that will only make the victim feel more dependent on the abuser.

Remember in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Viktor Krum is under the Imperious Curse and attacks Cedric Diggory? That’s what a predator can do to a victim’s mind. They are no longer in control of their common sense.

So I still stand with the woman who is currently dating this problematic man. Supporting the victim does not mean you support the perpetrator – the same way that feeling sorry for a man who was murdered does not mean you feel sorry for the murderer.

On the other hand, there are some adult women who date pedophiles and sex offenders and know exactly what they’re dealing with. Some of them even cover for the man while he gropes and assaults other people, including their own children. I consider these kind of deranged people as guilty as the abuser. But nine times out of ten, this is not the case.

There are also ladies who just want a good time, no strings attached, and don’t mind being just another notch in a belt. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that. But to promise someone a future, then leave them in the dirt? That just ain’t right.

I didn’t mean to write such a long, dark post, but this issue has been bothering me for weeks, and this hypocrisy was the last straw. If you are or were in a toxic relationship, I’m with you. I see you. I’m praying for you. This is not your fault. You are not stupid. You are not an enabler. It’s okay to feel however you naturally feel. Take time to process it. Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself, and when you do get out, I won’t judge you.

Love,

Isabel

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