What happens when your abuser has more social capital than you do?
Something that I see often is consent-driven communities that have an abuser problem. Why does this happen? Because the community is hierarchy based (as all communities are), and doesn’t have a way to address, let alone remove, abusers with high social capital.
Let’s break this down.
Most communities are hierarchy based. Not officially, of course, but there are always the people that organize the social events, the ones that bring the most food or money or resources in, the ones that can always be counted on for a ride or help moving. There are formal community leaders, like mods in an online group or program organizers in a community center. There are the ones that speak the loudest or the most passionately. If you think of a social group, religious community, online forum, etc, you can probably think to yourself, “oh yes, these are the people who know what’s going on.”
Communities also have quieter members. The ones that keep an eye on events, show up when they feel moved, have some friends, but aren’t organizers. They are the ones in a religious community who come to services and the occasional potluck. They’re the ones in an online group who read the conversations and “like” occasional comments, but aren’t loud during the conversations. They come to parties when invited, but don’t usually throw them.
If you take a moment to think about your social groups, you can likely think of both kinds of people, and those that fall somewhere in the middle. This isn’t a flaw in a community – this is a natural breakdown. Not everyone wants to be heavily involved, and not everyone has the resources to be heavily involved. If you don’t have a lot of free time, money, or emotional energy, it’s tough to become a community leader, or an outspoken member. It takes energy to be known, energy not everyone has. And some people do feel comfortable just as fringe members, or less heavily involved members.
Now, what kinds of abuse dynamics can we see within these communities? To be clear, I’m mostly taking about partner abuse or sexual assault – the kinds that occur between two adults who interact with each other. So. Abuse dynamics:
If someone with less social capital hurts or abuses or assaults someone who has more social capital, there’s usually decicive action. “This happened to me!” the person feels comfortable saying, held by the large and safe community who have always had their back. Their abuser is usually swiftly booted from that community, and the community feels safe and proud of their responses to reports of abuse. Even within our own community, we fight against abuse!
This usually only happens when the abuser is new to a community. Abusers are smart. They generally won’t pick on someone who has more power than they do, because the possible consequences are too high. Now, abusive relationships can look a huge number of different ways, so this isn’t always true. Abusers gaslight and lie to their partners, and make it look like they’re not a bad person. So it’s possible that the abuser being new to community isn’t the case, but it’s a pretty common pattern.
If someone is abused or assaulted by someone with a similar level of social capital, it’s tough on the community. People pick sides, and there are long, drawn-out arguments about what each of them did and said, and who’s at fault. These are the nastiest fights, and they often break up communities. Careful communities with diliberate, intentional processes designed to support victims are the ones that will succeed at kicking out an abuser, and showing themselves to be a safe space*. Some people will still feel upset that a person that they loved were booted out of their social group – there will be conflict. But it can carefully be handled while still supporting justice.
But what happens when an abuser has more social capital than their victim? I’m not just talking about community leaders. What happens when the guy who always brings the nice whiskey to the party turns out to have raped his girlfriend, who is really new to that social scene? What happens when the woman who organizes the queer brunch harrasses the volunteers? How about if the guy who always volunteers to DJ the church parties abuses his partner? What happens? What does the social group do?
Nothing. Because it’s not reported.
Because every person has seen what happens when a new person tries to speak out against an established member of a social group. And it does not go well.
So what happens when your abuser has more social capital than you do? You disappear. You stop coming to parties, because you’ll see your abuser there. You stop attending services, or dance lessons, or happy hours. You leave the facebook groups. You skip the beach days with friends, you don’t go hiking. You pick a different synagogue. You try to see your mutual friends one-on-one, but it honestly stops working after a while, because it’s awkward and uncomfortable.**
Because if you say something, you lose everything. People won’t believe you. If your abuser is part of a community that values consent culture, your abuser will look at the community with wide, hurt eyes and claim that there was a misunderstanding, a miscommunication, that they’re shocked and miserable to imagine that they could have ever hurt someone. They are so sorry. They are shameful. And everyone will celebrate their honesty and maturity, and tell you that everything is fixed, right? RIGHT? And then you still have to face your abuser every time you go to a party, but now there are painful social dynamics where everyone’s watching you, and no one’s watching your abuser.
So instead you just disappear. And the community keeps feeling proud that they effectively deal with all abusers, and your abuser finds another partner.
And that sucks.
* these careful, deliberate communities often DO have policies in place, in case someone in a position of power (like someone on the consent team, or a community mod) is accused of abuse. Those communities can sometimes handle accusations, but it causes a terrible rift, and I’ve only seen someone in a position of power removed because of abuse….twice? Ever?
** every one of these has occurred to someone I know.