Labels, and How They’re Used to Justify Abuse

The first time someone called me a slut, I was 10 or 11 years old, and a virgin.  I had a school-girl crush on the boy who said it.  His friend, having noticed my affinity for Crush, was telling him that he should ask me to hang out, and I overheard the conversation.

“Nah,” said Crush. “She’s a slut.”

My face flushed hot with shame and disbelief.  What on earth would make him think I was a slut?  Crush destroyed!  After that, I went out of my way to avoid him.

That was just the beginning of a long string of misogynistic epithets and behavior that make my brain spin, which is why I related hard to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC’s) recent speech on the House Floor in response to Ted Yoho calling her “disgusting,” “out of [her] freaking mind,” and a “fucking bitch.”

For me, the most important part of the speech was when she “said it was important to point out that the issue wasn’t just about one lawmaker’s statements, but also a culture ‘of accepting violence and violent language against women.'” (Chris Walker in Truthout).

The culture of accepting violence and violent language against women is what I want to talk about today.

It bothers me that I feel I need to say this, but it’s probably important before I launch into  some of my own experiences with the type of everyday misogyny that AOC is talking about.  I’m an educated woman–a BA and two MAs.  I tend to be shy in company that I don’t know, I’m a complete failure at flirting, and I’m not a casual dater.  Personality-wise, I tend toward people pleasing, although I’m working on that, and I have depths of empathy and compassion that are yet untested.  I am not promiscuous, stupid, mean, or difficult in any way.

Here are some of the name-calling highlights that led me to the realization that women have not come as far as many people would like to think they have in gaining cultural equality:

  1. Calling women stupid.  Usually this happens when women fail to stroke a man’s ego, laugh at his horrible jokes, or agree with his questionable opinions.  Instead of asking the woman why she isn’t laughing, or requesting her opinion, he assumes that she just doesn’t understand.  A great example of this in my life was when I worked retail at Macy’s.  (FYI, people working retail take an insane amount of abuse.  Be kind to them).  I was minding my own business, ringing up an elderly man’s purchase, when he started telling me terrible, sexist jokes.  They were so insulting that I couldn’t even pretend to laugh at them, and did my best to just finish my task so he would go away.  When I failed to laugh at yet another horrible joke, he said to me, “You’re pretty dim, aren’t you?”  When I gasped, his wife stepped in to cover for him, “Oh, don’t take him seriously,” she said.  “That’s just how he is.”  I felt both sorry for her that she had to live with that man, and angry with her for minimizing his insulting, sexist behavior.
  2. Calling women sluts, whores and bitches.  It’s come to my attention that these insults about a woman’s sexuality have nothing to do with whether or not she’s sexual.  They’re more about cutting a woman down after she’s hurt a man’s ego in some way.  I’ve been called a bitch after telling a man I’m not interested in going out with him so many times that I’ve stopped saying no.  Usually I’ll just give him a wrong number and walk away.  Recently, I broke up with a man who thought that he could tell me what I could and couldn’t post on Facebook, and in response, he launched into a tirade of insults all variations on the theme of bitch.  Not a good look.
  3. Calling women Psycho or Crazy.  After I left an abusive ex-boyfriend who stalked me and broke into my apartment, I found out through the grapevine that he was calling me “Psycho-Bitch.”   I found this ironic given that he was the one who’d behaved like a maniac.

After being called a “psycho-bitch” by this stalker ex-boyfriend I had a revelation about labels, and it is this: Labeling a person is a way for the labeler to justify mistreating the one being labeled.

It’s true.  Stalking Jennifer, the person, and breaking into Jennifer’s house is so much more difficult to justify than stalking Psycho-Bitch.

It might be a “dick move” to ghost a woman after having sex with her, but if she’s a “slut” or a “whore,” well, then, it’s probably happened to her before.  She’ll get over it.

Slapping a woman might be unmanly.  However, slapping “That Bitch?”  Well, she deserved it, right?

As I became aware of this labeling phenomenon as a woman, I began to see all of the different ways that labels are used to dehumanize and enable barbaric behavior toward fellow humans.  Think about the labels that have been placed on people of different ethnicities.  Calling people of Native American descent savages has historically enabled brutalities like stealing Native children from their parents, cutting off their hair, sending them to boarding schools, and physically punishing them for speaking their native language, in order to “kill the Indian, but save the child.”

Think about the labels used against people from Mexico in order to justify stealing their children and putting them in cages, where they languish to this day.

Think about the labels used against Black people in order to justify killing Black teenagers for innocent things like walking down the street in a hoodie.

Bullies use labels like geek and nerd to enable them to feel Ok about their mistreatment of people that are kinder, smarter, or smaller.  I’ll never forget an incident on the school bus in middle school when a group of older boys cornered me, called me “school-girl” and pretended to spit on me.

In today’s news, I read an article about Federal troops occupying Portland and disappearing people from the streets in unmarked vans.  I was horrified that Americans could justify treating other Americans this way until I scanned down to the comments section (always a mistake) and saw what those troops must be thinking.  A man commented that the protesters were “animals” and “thugs” and that they deserved to be taken and detained indefinitely.  Animals.  Thugs.  By dehumanizing the protesters through these labels, the troops rid themselves of any guilt they might feel about what they are doing to the lives of the people that they are taking.  

Words matter.  Words are power.  If you don’t believe me, think about how authoritarian regimes invariably conduct book-burnings.  They fear the spread of ideas that might threaten their power.  The words that we use shape the way that we view reality.  When we label other humans in ways that steal their humanity from them, we are shaping the way that society treats them.  We need to respect this fact, and respect it when people express a preference about the words that we use to describe them.

If someone is labeling you in any way, remember that they’re doing it as a way to justify treating you as a non-human, and act accordingly.

I am now advocating for using these words more often: Human.  Person.  Humankind.  People.

I’ll leave you with this.  When I was a little girl, I used to sit next to my father while he played his guitar.  Sometimes I would put my hand on the instrument in order to feel the vibration of the music.  I loved these times, and I think my father did too.  One of the songs that he used to sing while I sat with him was Puff the Magic Dragon.  As he sang it, I would imagine myself as Jackie Paper playing with Puff, and sailing the seas while Puff intimidated mighty pirates with his roar.

One day it hit me that Jackie was a boy, and that I was a girl.  I immediately felt left out of the song and the adventure.  When I said so, my dad started singing “little boys and girls” so that I would feel included.  I had never heard of non-inclusive language.  I was 7 years old, and didn’t know about feminism, but I already felt excluded because of the preference for male pronouns.  Words matter.  Words have power.

As don Miguel Ruiz would say in his book The Four Agreements, let us be impeccable with our word.  If the urge to dehumanize someone with a label hits, please pause and question the urge.  Let us choose words that embrace the humanity of all people.  I know that it will make the world a kinder and more compassionate place for all of us.

 

The Person I Truly Needed to Fall in Love With

I realize that I’m a few days late, but I have some Valentine’s Day thoughts to share. Valentine’s Day is always a difficult day for me, whether I’m coupled-up or not. This year I’m not in a relationship, so I had plenty of time to reflect on past romances. In the initial incarnation of my book, I’m Sick, Not Crazy, I weaved in a subplot of my relationships getting healthier as I did the things that made my body healthier. However, after some initial feedback, it looks like that plot may end up being my second book, but since this is my blog, and I can write whatever I want, I have a few things to say about love.

When I was 18 years old, I married my high school sweetheart. Even writing that line makes me feel painfully embarrassed, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We’d been dating the entire four years that I was in high school, and I was raised in a conservative Christian home, so marriage seemed like the obvious and right next step. I was excited to get down to the business of being a wife, but the very first week that we were married, I realized I’d made a grave error. My ex-husband was in the Marine Corps, which had been the source of small problems between us while dating, but after the wedding, he began treating me like a drill sergeant treats a recruit.

During that first week of our ill-fated marriage, he became angry with me because I forgot to do something that he asked me to do. It was a small something, and I offered to do it as soon as he brought it up. Instead of accepting my offer to complete the task, he backed me up against a wall and screamed in my face for what seemed like a half an hour. I held my breath and closed my eyes, bracing myself for the punch that I expected, but didn’t come, while tears streamed down my face. Not only did I never forgive him for that, but it happened again . . . and again. Over the six years that we were married, he humiliated me in public, spoke to me like I was an idiot, screamed at me, and generally abused me. I didn’t realize that it was abuse at the time. I believed what he told me; that it was my fault, and if I could just be better, he would treat me right, but no matter what I did, things failed to improve. Now that I’m a therapist, and have training in matters of power and abuse, I realize that he didn’t abuse me because of anything I had done. He abused me because of him; because of his own internal feelings, and there was nothing that I could have done to change them. When I was 24 years old, he left me for another woman that he’d gotten pregnant, and I was relieved.

After my ex-husband left me, I met a man at work that I’m going to call Justin. There was an instant and strong attraction between us, and after he put up some initial resistance, we started dating. One day I was putting on makeup in his bathroom before work, and the bottle of liquid foundation slipped out of my hand, flew through the air, and splattered everything around me, including the carpet. Frantically, I started trying to clean it up, hoping to have it done before Justin saw, but I heard Justin coming into the room, and my heart started to pound. My ex-husband would have lost his mind over something like that. In his mind, there were no accidents, no mistakes, and no forgetting. Instead, Justin laughed and started helping me clean up the mess. I fell in love with him, hard, in that very moment, and our relationship is one of the more positive experiences of romances I’ve ever had. Justin and I had beautiful long talks about everything, and I believe that he loved me just as strongly as I loved him.

Unfortunately, he kept finding ways to sabotage the relationship. He told me that he didn’t ever want to get married and have children again (he already had two daughters from a first marriage). At age 24, I definitely envisioned having children of my own, so I broke up with him. However, he kept changing his mind, and after breaking up and getting back together over and over again for the next 10 years, he finally proposed marriage. We started planning a wedding, and I thought that I was actually going to get the relationship that I had always wanted with a man that I thought I couldn’t live without. It wasn’t meant to be. A few months before the wedding was supposed to occur, Justin announced that he was going to move to Texas because his ex-wife was going to be retiring there after getting out of the Navy, and he needed to be near his daughters.

If they had been little girls, I would have completely understood, but they were aged 16 and 18, and I was in the middle of establishing my career as a therapist. Plus, I was never going to be in a relationship again where my needs were not considered. Justin telling me that he was going to move to Texas, and that I could choose to either come with him or not, triggered my abuse trauma. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but I felt it in the deepest part of my being that I couldn’t form a life with a man who didn’t talk to me before making a decision about where we would live as a couple. I gave the engagement ring back.

Justin contacts me here and there, but we’ll never get back together. Not because of his moving to Texas just before we were supposed to get married, but because of what happened afterward. After Justin left, I felt bereft and didn’t know what to do with myself. I needed something to put my energy into, and I found it in the local San Diego swing dancing community. The love I’d felt for Justin easily transferred to dancing, and I was dancing 4 to 5 nights per week, until one night a man I was dancing with dipped me so roughly that I sustained a serious whiplash injury. Within a week of the injury I was so sick that I couldn’t keep any food down, my vision doubled, and my cognition was so wonky that I couldn’t even make basic decisions, like whether to turn right or left. This went on for over a year, and at the worst of it, I was certain that I was going to die, whether of starvation, or by my own hand, I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to say goodbye to Justin before it happened. I called him and told him that I was sick. His response was to tell me that he couldn’t keep doing this. I didn’t expect him to do anything except say goodbye back, but instead he made even my illness about himself. That was the moment that I knew it was really over between us.

After a year and a half of an illness that nearly killed me, I was walking down the street toward Mission Beach and I met a man we’ll call Andrew. He was beautiful. Probably the most attractive man that I’ve ever dated. We had a lot of fun together, and traveled all over the world: Australia, England, France, Thailand, and more. Andrew and I moved in together after 3 years of dating, and lived together for two years before I moved out. Living with him was impossible for me. He spent all of his time in front of the television, completely numbed out. The TV noise was overwhelming to my sensitive nature, and living with someone so absent made me feel more lonely than being alone.

After moving out, I decided that I must be doing this dating thing completely wrong. I’d missed the training that most people get in early dating by being with my ex-husband so young, and for so long, so I did what I always do when I need to learn something new–I took a class. Dating coaching was extremely helpful and motivating, and I spent most of my time outside of work on dating apps and going on dates. After an exhausting few months of fruitless dates, I met a man I’ll call Steven, and fell crazy in love with him. Steven was almost divorced when I met him. If he’d told me on the first date that he was in the middle of a divorce, I wouldn’t have gone out with him again. Unfortunately, he waited until a few dates in to tell me, and I was already hooked. I’ll never know if Steven felt the same way about me that I did about him. I believed that he did for the 10 months that we dated, and he was the one that initiated each next big relationship step. He suggested that we go on a trip to Kauai together. He suggested that I go with him to Connecticut to meet his family. He suggested that we move in together.

That last suggestion ended up being the death knell for our relationship. Steven lived about a 40 minute drive away from me with no traffic. With traffic, it would have taken me about an hour to get to work from his place. He worked about a 10 minute drive closer to where I lived, so it seemed logical to me that we could move somewhere in between where I lived and where he lived and we would both be happy with our commutes. However, Steven’s comment about where we should live was, “I’ve decided that I’ll watch the condos across the street and we’ll move in there when one opens.” You’ve decided? Flashbacks to Justin deciding to move to Texas, and my ex-husband backing me against the wall to scream in my face whenever I did something he didn’t like engulfed me. After giving it a day or two to think, I approached Steven and told him that his location posed difficulties for me, and that we should talk about where we would live together and make the decision as a couple.

This proposition seemed completely reasonable to me, but in my heart I had already decided that if he insisted that we live in his area, I would drive the hour to work each day because I loved him so much. All that I wanted was for him to be willing to talk to me about it.

He wasn’t.

Instead of talking to me about the issue and coming to a resolution, he told me that he “didn’t have it for me,” and that he really wanted to re-engage in fighting with his ex-wife. I was beyond shocked . . . and heartbroken . . . and broken.

It’s been over a year since then, and I’ve been engaged in the deepest and most intense self-healing work I’ve ever done, and that’s coming from a licensed psychotherapist. What I’ve discovered about myself is that I’ve been relying on others for my sense of value. This strategy was the one that I was taught by movies, and songs, but it’s unsafe because I can’t control the behavior of these other people. When they leave me, I lose my foundation, and I’m left shaking and alone. Unfortunately, I’d been abandoning myself for these others all of my adult life, when what I really needed to do was stay with myself and love myself first. Loving myself first sets the model for the love that I receive from others. When they see how I love myself, they know that they have to love me with that same intensity and kindness, and nothing less will do. Most importantly, if they leave me in the end, I still have myself to love, and my foundation is still strong.

I don’t know what your history is with romance, but no matter what is going on with you, I invite you to also love yourself first, and to cultivate your relationship with yourself. The more you’re good to you, the more that you will inspire others to be good to you. Best of all, if you are your own best partner, you won’t be hungry for love, and you will only accept the very best.