Tuesday, 29 December 2009

On the metaphor of the closet

When I wrote a post which praised people for breaking silence around abuse, I expected some push back. The push-back was the reason I'd written the post - I knew it was coming and wanted to get some praise in first.

I haven't received much response to me personally.* The one negative response I did receive was critical that I 'outed' Ira Bailey. I can see that the point of my post, which wasn't to name him myself but celebrate those who did name him, was lost because the silence around abuse is so strong, that any break in that silence is shocking.

But I was taken by the word 'out' - by the metaphor of the closet for abusive men. I've seen it used before, when someone got angry at a survivor of abuse for 'outting' her abuser. To me it seems so horrificly inappropriate, that I can imagine where people who use it could possibly stand on issues of abuse. But then it occurred to me that it may be a word people use without thinking about it, and that unpacking the implications of this usage might be worth doing.

The closet is a powerful idea and the metaphor carries important ideas about people's sexuality, and society's attitudes towards your sexuality. In particular the idea that 'outing' someone's sexuality is wrong is based on an analysis of the way society treats people's sexuality.

The first aspect of this analysis is that society unjustly judges people's sexuality as shameful. People stay in the closet because they are ashamed of a part of themselves. Coming out of the closet is worth celebrating because its a rejection of society's shaming.

Abuse is not a part of a person, it is a way they have hurt other people. Any (very limited in this society) judgement and shame that abusers experience is a reaction to what people have done, not who they are.

The second aspect of this analysis is that the negative consequences of being open about your sexuality can be significant. People die, they lose their jobs, they get harrassed - all because of an aspect of who they are. The unjustified shame around some people's desires has serious consequences.

The negative consequences for being abusive are much less pervasive than the consequences for being open about your desires. While there are some notable exceptions (particularly violence against pedophiles), generally people's response to those they know are abusive will be muted. If people don't want to be around someone who has been abusive that is a boundary that they are perfectly entitled to draw, and it is the person who has been abusive who should face the consequences of that boundary.

The third aspect of the analysis Your sexuality is yours and yours only. Your desires are yours to keep secret or share, when and where you want to, or feel safe.

Abusive actions do not belong to the person who did them - they something that you do to someone else. No one is entitled to ownership of the way they have hurt other people.

These three aspects of the closet, shame, consequences, and ownership do all in our society apply to people who have been abused. But they do not apply to abusive men (or women).

I'm sorry if this post seems to basic and didatic, but it offends me so much when people misappropriate the language of the closet for abusers. The metaphor does not apply to them and they do not deserve it's protection. I imagine that some people who use this language are not thinking about what they are saying, and are making an honest mistake. But words do matter, so I've tried to articulate why this usage angers me so much.

* The push-back against the women who named Ira Bailey has been significant though. Climate Camp, and particular their safer spaces comittee, have a lot to be ashamed of.


Anonymous said...

So you would really say that society is more condemnatory towards homosexuals than abusers?

I find it ironic that somebody who spends so much time (rightly, IMO) telling us how vicious and unpleasant the prison system is seems to find the fact that the former can get one imprisoned while the latter can't of such minor importance when considering this.

verbis ardens said...

Anon, I don't understand your statement. You're claiming that the former (homosexuality) can get you imprisoned while the latter (abuse) can't? That would seem to support her stance that you're questioning...

Anonymous said...

Whoops, mixed up my former and latters. :-/

Julie said...

I think there's a real issue here about whose secret is being disclosed, which you identified in your post.

Is abuse the secret primarily of the abuser or the abused? Sexuality is clearly the secret only of the person concerned, in fact it's hard to see how it can really be relevant to anyone else at all, truly.

Another context in which the term "outted" is used is regarding those who blog pseudonymously. Some interesting culture has developed around that - some see it as their mission in life to out those on the other side of the fence, politically, but most seem to respect pseudonyms, in the NZ context at least.

Thinking about the secret thing again - I've nearly written several times a post about the secrets that we keep which protect abusers, rapists, and the like. By keeping such secrets we often allow abuse to continue, or happen again, yet to disclose the abuse of another is perhaps to further violate them by taking even that power from them.

I don't know.

sophie said...

yet to disclose the abuse of another is perhaps to further violate them by taking even that power from them.

I had that thought the other day when I was talking to someone, about my parents marriage, and I felt I didn't have the right to say what I knew about abuse within it.
Because that was my mother's secret, even had she chosen to tell most people, didn't feel it gave me the right to pass the information on to a stranger.

Anon, I would agree that society is mnore condemnatory towards homosexuals than abusers but I guess it depends which part of society you see.
Think about it. I was sent an e-mail the other day claiming that 1 in 3 girls will be sexually abused by the age of eighteen.
Who is doing all this abusing? How can something which society condemns be so common, so often unpunished?

I would guess that keeping the secrets is a symptom, not a cause.

Anonymous said...

Abuse is not a part of a person, it is a way they have hurt other people.

I wonder though if people who use the term "outing" don't actually see that distinction - it's like the constant refrain when a Pillar of the Community is accused of rape: "he's a good person, he wouldn't rape anyone".

If your worldview is fairly black-and-white and people *are* the things they do, then exposing a person's abusiveness doesn't just say "this person has done bad things" it's "this person is a bad person."

And of course when we already consider a person to be a Good Person then "outing" them as actually being A Bad Person somehow ends up making you the villain for forcing people to accept that good people can do bad things.

Maia said...

Thanks for all your comments. I think the issues of disclosure and secrets and abuse are really important and it's good to have a discussion around them.

To the first anonymous. Obviously I am aware that prison is occasionally a consequence for abuse, and it is no longer a consequence for homosexuality (in New Zealand). But I wasn't talking about all the consequences that come about as a result of being abusive - I was talking about the consequences of naming someone. Jail as a consequence of abuse is the end of a very long process - it is not the result of someone saying "Ira Bailey is abusive". The consequences for being gay, such as violence . I don't think the consequences just for naming someone as abusive are usually negligible (obviously there are exceptions, most obviously pedophilia).