At the Poly Living con: Addressing abuse in the poly community
I'm home from Loving More's Poly Living conference in Philadelphia. Cons often develop an informal theme, not necessarily the one on the cover of the program. At Poly Living this year, the theme that emerged was abuse in poly relationships and how the community should respond.
"So there was a time, long ago, when I had this naive idea that polyamorous relationships were less likely to be abusive than monogamous relationships," Franklin said in his talk at the opening on Friday night. "Isolating a person is one of the hallmarks of abuse — so I thought, well, if you’ve got more people in a relationship, it’s harder to isolate people, right? You have more eyes on a potential problem, right?"
Against this happy effect, he said he's come to realize, there is a dark countereffect. Because abusers are often influential and charismatic, and because groupthink is one of the commonest bugs of human nature, an abuser can sway an entire group against a person he or she is mistreating, belittling, controlling, or gaslighting. (Gaslighting: Sabotaging a person's confidence in their own perceptions and memories.) This can make abuse in a poly situation much more encompassing and difficult to escape.
That was only part of Franklin's keynote; it was titled "Telling Our Stories, Changing the World." But the theme kept recurring. Since the mid-1990s, he said, "I've watched the poly community grow and change around me into this incredibly strong, vibrant thing it is now." But that strength and confidence ought to give us the courage to tackle dark sides of poly openly. For all our successes, he said, "what we have not done in our community is come to terms with the possibilities of abuse in our community. It is a mistake to think we are any more immune to abusive relationships than other relationship models." In fact, there is no research (yet) on this question at all.
The next morning, Eve and Franklin went into greater depth in their 90-minute workshop "Abuse in Poly Dynamics." It was packed. Here are Eve's 29 powerpoint slides, which are unfortunately brief (and slides 19–21 should be relabeled "Questionable Poly Advice" to match what she said about them). The discussion that followed was also productive, with many in the audience offering insights from personal experience, and psychology professionals in the audience filling in gaps.
Then on Sunday they presented "Putting the Ethics in Ethical Non-Monogamy" (a new updated version), broadening their earlier topics into wider, more general principles for defining and living the good poly life. And life in general. This too was crowded. Closing line: "Now that poly is surfacing in the world and taking off, we are at a point where we have to be clear about our ethics and values as a community, if the community is to survive and thrive."
Later they posted,
As part of our presentation on abuse in polyamorous relationships, we talked about ways communities can cultivate values that are resilient [against] beliefs that lead to abuse. One of these is to internalize and promote the Relationship Bill of Rights. We've finally made the Bill of Rights available in full on the More Than Two website: www.morethantwo.com/relationshipbillofrights.html.
Of course lots more went on at Poly Living all weekend. Four simultaneous tracks of classes/workshops ran all day, so you had to miss 3/4 of them — from coming out poly, to practicing vulnerability, to transitioning a relationship (when the black-and-white model of traditional breakups doesn't apply), jealousy management, a roundtable on poly activism, gender explorations, applying faith principles to decision-making, poly parenting, "Creating a 'New Culture' Based on Love and Freedom," and more. Total attendance was 209 people.
The evening after the conference, Loving More hosted an informal social gathering for Polyamory Leadership Network members, featuring get-to-know-each-other games. The PLN, by the way, defines poly "leaders" simply as "people who do cool things without waiting for permission." Is that you? You can read more and maybe send in an application.
Much of what Franklin and Eve discussed plays off Franklin's article a couple weeks ago on the MoreThanTwo site, Some thoughts on community and abuse. Excerpts (with my highlighting):
I realize [the topic] is a bit of a downer, and it’s not a lot of fun to talk about. Most of the poly community is awesome, and polyamory itself is wonderful and rewarding.
But I believe the community — by which I mean all the folks who are interested in polyamory and who get together to talk about this multiple relationship thing that we do — is at a crossroads. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am not impressed with the way the organized BDSM community walks the walk when it comes to abuse. It certainly talks the talk about consent, safety, and respect, but in more than sixty years I don’t think it’s managed to turn that talk into a meaningful culture of consent.
...Right now I think the poly community has come to a place where we can either content ourselves with talking about respect and consent the way the BDSM community has, or we can work to make it a cornerstone of the social groups we create. I look at the kink scene and the path it’s taken, and I’m afraid. I don’t want the poly scene to become like that.
...Dealing with people who abuse is hard. It’s hard to stand up and speak out when you see something happening in your community that’s not okay, but that doesn’t involve you directly. It’s hard to get involved. It’s hard to tell someone, “Look, you’re not welcome in this space because you did that thing you did.”
And hard as that is, it’s only the start.
...The thing we don’t like to admit is that people who abuse are not necessarily evil. They’re not necessarily bad people. If you ask someone, “What makes a person abuse?” you will hear a lot of answers like “some people are just monsters.” That black-and-white, Marvel Comics caricature of what “an abuser” looks like helps nobody. Often, people who abuse are friends. Often, people who abuse are themselves hurting. Often, people who abuse genuinely do have good things about them. Often, they’re not committing physical violence, and the abuse is hard to spot.
See, here’s the thing. Abusers often sincerely believe themselves to be victims.
...Every person who commits abuse that I’ve ever met, without exception, is someone who is in a lot of pain. They feel that the abuse they do isn’t abuse — it’s a reasonable and natural response to the pain they’re in.
As people working in domestic violence prevention will tell you, abuse is about power and control. Lots and lots and lots of people, abusers and non-abusers alike, believe that if your partner does or says something and it makes you feel uncomfortable, threatened, jealous, or hurt, it’s okay for you to control them in order to deal with your feelings.
Look around. This idea has a lot of social currency.... The idea that if you feel something bad, it means someone else is doing something wrong and you should be able to make them stop doing it … well, that’s the root of all abuse.
[Not quite all. Franklin pointed out during the weekend that true predators do exist: psychopaths born without a conscience (often estimated at 1% to 4% of the population), who camouflage themselves in the larger mix.]
And people who abuse genuinely feel that if they tell a partner to do something and the partner doesn’t do it, they’re the ones being abused.
There’s an essay that sums this up brilliantly at The Community Response to Abuse:
“I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”
Because a person who abuses is in genuine pain, and genuinely feels victimized, and sincerely cannot distinguish between “victimized by someone else’s control” and “victimized because I can’t control someone else,” it’s really, really hard to show these folks why their actions are wrong.
...In order to crack the problem of abuse, you have to cut all the way down to why we think it’s okay to control other people, and that’s extremely difficult. Look at all the people who agree with this idea! Look at how many social messages say that if someone does something that makes us uncomfortable, the best way to handle it is to control that person! Every social message we’re confronted with reinforces this idea.
So people who abuse aren’t (necessarily) monsters. They’re just like us. They’re hurting. And that presents one hell of a problem — one that we need to be able to talk about, and get a handle on, if we are to make safe spaces for survivors of abuse.
Yes, we need to be willing to step up when we see abuse.... Our first priority needs to be to protect and make safe spaces for survivors, to believe survivors, and to support survivors.
But if that’s all we do, if we think it stops there, we can end up perpetuating the cycle....
That’s not good enough.
Survivors of abuse need support. Abusers also need support. They need a different kind of support, though. They need someone to hold them accountable. They need someone to challenge their feelings of entitlement to control. They need someone to call them on their bullshit. And even if, for whatever reason, we can’t get through to them, we still need to work to change the cultural idea that controlling others because you’re hurting is okay.
...It’s not enough to cast out the person who abuses. That often does need to happen, don’t get me wrong. But that’s the beginning of accountability, not the end.
I’m not sure what the rest of the path to accountability looks like. But I really, really want to learn. And I really hope that other people in the poly community want to learn, too. I’m asking for a lot. I get that. But we need to be able to do this.
The cycle has to stop.
Really, go read the whole article (Feb. 10, 2015). He asks ask for your thoughts and input there.
● Here is the article that he references midstream: The Community Response to Abuse, by Shea Emma Fett (Jan. 30, 2015). This too is well worth your time.
● That post was a followup to Fett's Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships, including six Poly Traps (Nov. 22, 2014).
● Here are Eve and Franklin's Resources on abuse in polyamorous relationships that grew out of the weekend. See the interesting comment there, by Liz, that women and men may abuse in similar numbers, but that this is not visible because men are more able to inflict obvious injury when aggressors, and are more ashamed to admit they are being abused when victims.
● Also helping to prompt this discussion was Cunning Minx's Polyamory Weekly podcast Episode 418, Emotional Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships (Jan. 23, 2015):
An incredibly difficult topic to deal with; this episode has been months in the making....
Shannon Perez-Darby, Youth Services Program Manager for The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse, shares her advice on how to recognize abuse of all kinds and how to respond when you or someone you love might be surviving emotional abuse.
● There's now a hashtag: #AbuseInPoly
● Added April 2015: Dawn Davidson's connection of links, with commentary: Abuse in (poly) relationships: A link roundup.