Survivors Aren’t Censoring You. But You Might Be Censoring Them.

There is a sort of insidious sentiment that any woman who admits publicly to abuse does so for attention, or for sympathy, or to grab at power. Whether you call it “survivor privilege” or the “sacralization of victims,” the root of your discontent is the same: A woman is speaking, and somebody is listening to her.

Recently, I criticized Hemant Mehta’s latest book, God Is An Abusive Boyfriend (And You Should Break Up With Him). I explained that from my perspective as a survivor of abuse, the theme—intentionally or not–trivializes the subject. And let me note for the record that I am no stranger to religious abuse, either; I used to be a fundamentalist Christian. I can tell you just about anything you’d like to know about what happens when the subjugation of women, the marginalization of queer identities and other related prejudices are doctrine.

But my parents’ God isn’t necessarily your God.  Humans are vast and contain multitudes; we all contradict ourselves. So, by extension, are the belief systems we create. There’s no comparison, really, between abusive boyfriends and the idea of God or the broader phenomenon of religious belief.

These are obvious points. Yet after making them, I’ve been told (though not by Mehta, I’d like to point out) that my “personal experiences” are clouding my judgement, that I’m deliberately missing the point, and that I simply don’t understand why believing in God, whatever that means to a person, is exactly like refusing to leave an abusive partner. I’ve even been accused of promoting censorship.

Never mind that I didn’t call for Mehta to cancel the project (although he did, and I respect his willingness to listen to critique).

Never mind that I laid out a logical argument for my position.

Merely mentioning the fact that I have a personal connection to the topic of abuse put a target on my back.

And yet somehow I’m the censor.

This isn’t an isolated phenomenon and I’m hardly the first woman to write about the issue. The abuse I’ve received still isn’t comparable to the daily abuse hurled at women of color and queer and trans people when they publicly discuss their own experiences. For now, I simply want to join my voice with theirs and identify this phenomenon for what it really is.

And I’ll begin by saying this: People who accuse survivors of grabbing for power, you’re right. When we speak, it is indeed a play for power: Power over our own narrative, because that is the first casualty of abuse.

When you name your experience for what it is, whether it is racism or transphobia or domestic abuse, you definitively say to the world that no, this is not a misunderstanding, this is what it is like to lack certain privileges in our society. And that makes you a threat. This is, again, familiar ground for many. Womanists, for example, have been saying this for years about white supremacy and they haven’t received much but public ridicule for saying it.

Asking a person to acknowledge how pervasive an oppressive system is directly challenges their place within it, and that makes people uncomfortable. It makes people angry. And it’s easier to dismiss someone than admit you don’t have all the answers.

This is particularly true when the subject is male violence against women, whether that abuse is sexual, psychological, physical or some combination of all of the above.

In no other realm would anyone try to argue that a person’s experience with a subject actually disqualifies them from offering an opinion about it.

Imagine telling a veteran that they’re too emotionally connected to the subject of war to discuss it properly. Anyone making that argument in public would be dismissed as a crank—and they should be, because it’s an absurd argument. We otherwise readily acknowledge that a person’s direct experience with a subject makes them more qualified to discuss it. It doesn’t grant them infallibility, of course. Nobody can lay claim to that. We’re talking about some level of expertise that the average person doesn’t necessarily possess.

But we hold women to a different standard when the subject is abuse. And then we dismiss them as conspiracy theorists when they start to talk about the existence of a rape culture.

That, dear reader, is censorship.

If women can’t be experts about their own lives, how can they be experts about anything else? If you can’t trust a woman to analyze and report the consequences of an event that she lived through then you certainly can’t trust her opinion on politics, or religion, or…anything, really. And the same is true when applied to any other institutionalized prejudice. It serves no one but those already in power to deny the oppressed the ability to give that oppression a name.

I’d be lying if I insisted that acknowledging an abuse survivor’s perspective as valid won’t cost you very much. It will. It means you concede some of your power—yes, your privilege—and step back to allow someone else to step forward. And if that prospect upsets you, well, don’t look at the survivor. Look at yourself.


God Isn’t Abusive. People Are.

Hemant Mehta would like you to fund his new project. It’s a book, with pictures: God Is An Abusive Boyfriend (And You Should Break Up With Him).

I am going to tell you why this isn’t true. Allow me to present my credentials: I, unlike Hemant Mehta, had an abusive boyfriend.

That girl on the cover, with her eyes shifted, her body language stiff, is not an abstract concept to me. When I saw that image, I thought of myself. I thought of the night my alcoholic ex-boyfriend got trashed and embarked on a mostly incomprehensible rant about all the people he’d beat if they touched me. I sat next to him, very still, remembering the raccoon he’d let his dog rip to pieces in front of me.

He’d thrown ice and snow at it while it cowered and forced me to do the same. When it screamed, he laughed. When I begged him to pull the dog away, he refused.

And so I knew better than to try to run. All animals know when they’re trapped.

I defended him in public. I ignored my own screaming instincts. I didn’t even leave him when he assaulted me.

That’s what Mehta’s turned into pictures for his book. That’s what he’s comparing to religious belief.

This is, among many other things, quite an obvious logical fallacy. He’s asking us to compare apples and oranges.

As an atheist, I believe that God is an entirely fictional concept. Like any concept, it can be used to justify oppression. But because it’s merely a concept, and not a real entity, it can be interpreted any way a person likes. God, the idea, is not abusive, cannot possibly be abusive. God as Pat Robertson markets Him is another matter altogether, but even in this scenario it is Robertson, not God, that deserves the blame for inflicting trauma on his followers.

The concept of God isn’t a monolithic one; the concept my parents worship can’t reasonably be compared to the one my feminist Muslim friends worship, or the Light that dwells within my Quaker friend.

My abusive ex-boyfriend belongs to a separate category. He is real. He’s responsible for his own actions; no third party commits deeds on his behalf. There is nothing to be interpreted here.

Like all survivors of abuse I am familiar with blame, and how it is typically directed at survivors themselves and not the perpetrators of violence. I am familiar with all the usual questions.

Why didn’t you leave him? 

For a number of complicated reasons that include fear, blackmail, and an upbringing in a fundamentalist subculture that taught me to accept male dominance and female submission as norms.

Maybe you’re exaggerating.

If so I’ve wasted quite a bit of my life in therapy.

Why did you date him at all? 

Because he was very charming, and I wanted to believe he meant it when he said he’d be there for me.

Looking at my answers I can see there might some parallels between them and the answers I typically give when asked about my experiences with religion. But surviving an abusive romantic relationship and leaving organized religion are two fundamentally different processes, even if you’ve experienced religious trauma. The roots are different. The triggers are different. The recovery process is different. Things can overlap; that doesn’t mean they’re identical.

I am exceedingly weary of discussing my experiences with abuse. I have a BA in International Studies and an MA in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy. I have presented papers on human rights and revolutions at institutions like the London School of Economics. As a writer, I’ve covered everything from Tea Party rallies in coal country to Hobby Lobby v. Burwell and in 2014 alone, I’ve been profiled in the New York Times and published in the Guardian.

But here I am, talking about something that happened four years ago.

We are all more than the professional faces we present to the world. And as long as the imagery of domestic violence is used in such a simplistic manner, I will speak out against it. I want you, if you care at all, to think of my face when you look at that book cover. I want you to imagine how frightened I was when I defended my abuser the way the girl in Mehta’s picture book defends God, when I cowered at the end of a couch the way she cowers in a corner.

And I want you to think very carefully about whether or not this is how you want to promote your belief tradition to the world.

I don’t.

I am an atheist. And God did not abuse me. My real boyfriend did.