By Marjorie Ní Chobhthaigh
Defining & Recognizing Domestic Violence
- A Behavioral Definition of Domestic Violence
- Manifestations of Abusive Behavior
- Examples of Abusive Behavior Specific to Pagan, Polytheist, & Magic Practitioners
- Notes on Terminology
- Summary of Key Points
The goal is to share some basic, foundational information on the reality of domestic violence: what it is, the myriad ways it can manifest, what constitutes consent, why it’s considered a public health crisis, and what it takes for a person who causes harm to change their ways. There are many resources from secular domestic violence organizations that do this, and I encourage folks to explore them to get additional perspectives on a challenging and complex subject, but so far I haven’t found any that include a pagan/polytheistic perspective.
There are a lot of myths and stigmas surrounding domestic violence, and lots of emotions. If you’d like, you may follow up with me via email at email@example.com.
Please note that the nature of domestic violence means that no two cases are ever exactly the same. Domestic violence gets complicated quickly and there are almost never neatly organized categories or labels. That being said, I can’t talk about exceptions before I give you the basics. Assume that almost every generalization I make has exceptions and grey areas, and that doesn’t invalidate either the education itself or the validity of a person’s individual experience. Because this is a “101,” it also means that I’ve necessarily stripped things down to bare bones. The goal is to start with an informed, accurate framework that we can then fill in with more details over time.
A Behavioral Definition of Domestic Violence
Legally speaking, domestic violence (DV) can be defined in a lot of different ways depending on your region. In my professional work, I use a behavioral definition to make it easier to recognize abusive dynamics in behavior and practice, regardless of your region, personal background, or the unique characteristics which shape your relationships with other people. Depending on where you live, this may also include certain family members, not just sexual and/or romantic partners.
Domestic violence is
an escalating pattern of coercive behavior
in which one person gains and maintains
power and control over another person
in an intimate relationship.
Domestic violence is a type of abuse, but not all abuse would be categorized as domestic violence. That doesn’t make it less impactful, however! For the purpose of this article I tend to focus on intimate partnerships, but abusive dynamics can and do occur in any kind of relationship in which one person might find a way to control or intimidate another person, including friendships, coworkers, coven members, and fellow ritualists and spiritual community leaders.
Relationships rarely start out abusive. Regardless of whatever warning signs may or may not be visible, or whether or not someone has been taught to recognize that those warning signs actually are (and most of us aren’t), abusive relationships generally start out like every other relationship. A lot of the adjectives I hear from survivors are ones like “intense” and “whirlwind.” You might feel like you’re the center of someone’s world. This can feel amazing and it plays very well into common cultural ideas of what people consider ‘romantic’ and ‘real love.’
However, sometimes it feels like a cage you can’t escape without being called a ‘bitch’ or ‘cruel.’ How many people, especially women, have been told to ‘just give someone a chance,’ even if they don’t have any personal interest? How many men have been laughed at if he says that an attractive woman who’s interested in him makes him uncomfortable?
The relationship generally starts at the honeymoon stage when things are, for the most part, calm and happy…until boundaries start getting tested. It’s often little things that can be justified or explained away, like, “I’m so sorry I said that, I had a bad day at work and I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” Everything seems to calm down again…at least until the next time the atmosphere starts getting tense. The survivor might be starting to walk on eggshells, trying to figure out what’s wrong, and then there’s some kind of incident – an insult, a guilt-trip, a smack – that gets denied, minimized, or justified. The abusive partner might claim it’s because they had a rough day, or not enough sleep, or maybe they blame the other person for being ‘difficult.’ They might pretend the incident never happened at all. Eventually, things calm down again, until the next time tensions begin to rise.
In DV advocacy, we call this repeating cycle of calm, tension, incident, and return to calm the “cycle of violence.” While not all domestic violence relationships may follow this cycle perfectly every time, it does tend to be an extremely common and consistent template. Once the cycle starts, it’s statistically almost guaranteed to repeat itself and to continue escalating over time.
After a while, these kinds of behaviors become normalized as part of the relationship. The people involved, both survivor and abuser, get used to it, sometimes so much so that the survivor may not be able to recognize what’s happening at first. For example, if you have any young kids in your life that you see everyday, you probably don’t see how much they change and grow on a daily basis because the change is so gradual and you don’t notice your perception of that child also changing. If you were to go away for a while and come back, it’s like, “Damn, you’ve grown so much!” Someone on the outside of an abusive relationship might be able to look in and be like, “Dear gods, do you not see how horrible your partner is?” and the survivor, who’s become so used to it, might honestly have no idea what their friend is talking about.
If the DV goes on long enough and if it escalates enough, the periods of calm and apology may disappear entirely and it can become one long haze of tension and abuse that feels impossible to escape.
No one is perfect and relationships of all kinds take work to maintain. Disagreements and conflicts are normal and, with the right kinds of communication, can be very healthy. So instead of thinking that disagreement in and of itself is abusive or a red flag, we look at how disagreement is addressed within the relationship by asking the following kinds of questions:
- Is the conflict part of an ongoing pattern that doesn’t ever seem to get resolved, using the same scripts over and over?
- Is the same person always taking the blame, even for things that they aren’t actually responsible for or no matter what the subject of the argument is?
- When apologies are made, do they seem sincere? Does the person making those apologies do anything proactive to earn forgiveness, or do they just expect forgiveness over and over like they’re entitled to it?
- Does the person at fault do the kind of personal work that can help minimize or prevent the original cause of conflict, such as practicing techniques for more effective communication or attending therapy by their own will and effort?
- Has one person repeatedly promised to change, and maybe they got help for it for a while, but then the same unhealthy behaviors came back?
- Do conflicts often involve one person using guilt or ‘the silent treatment’ until the other person apologizes and takes responsibility for the original argument, even if it’s not their fault?
You can see from these questions that what we’re looking for is a pattern in which power dynamics are unequal.
People often think that domestic violence isn’t domestic violence unless someone is being physically or sexually abused. This is absolutely not true. DV can also be subtle and involve manipulation, “mind games,” threats of different kinds that may or may not be followed through with, and so on. We use the word “coercive” instead of “force” for two reasons:
- To move away from reinforcing the idea that a behavior has to be physical to be abusive;
- Because the common element underlying all these different forms of abuse, whether emotional or physical or otherwise, involve undermining the survivor’s ability to make choices of their own free will.
The survivor is made to feel too afraid of being hurt or punished or too afraid that their partner will react badly, and so they’re coerced into making a particular decision regardless of their own needs and desires.
This is a part that a lot of people struggle with. A quintessential element of domestic violence is the participation of a primary aggressor who’s the person causing the abusive behavior and who holds the majority of power and control in the relationship. Domestic violence is not mutual. If the people in the relationship are both engaging in abusive behavior and neither one is consistently in control, then the relationship is certainly unhealthy, but it’s not domestic violence. Over time, as abuse escalates and the power imbalance deepens, we often see the survivor’s world start orienting around their anxiety or fear of their partner: their world becomes focused on trying to keep the other person happy in order to minimize the likelihood or severity of abuse.
To reiterate: domestic violence is not mutual and one person holds the majority of power and control. One person feels entitled to having their needs met on their own terms, and the other person is living in anxiety or fear over what their partner will do.
But it can get complicated. I’ve heard plenty of stories from survivors who believe they are the abusive partner because they physically lashed out first, but when I ask questions about the circumstances of their lashing out, it almost always comes down to self-defense, gaslighting, or being blackmailed. The abusive person might block the door and verbally scream, harass, or threaten the survivor until the survivor physically fights back to escape the situation, for example. It’s not uncommon for abusers to provoke or threaten a partner into throwing the first punch so that they can either convince other people, like law enforcement, that the victim is really the abuser. This usually results in arrest and jail time and, if the survivor is a parent, they may lose their children either temporarily or permanently. Alternatively, it’s a way for an abuser to convince the survivor that the survivor is acting terribly and the abusive partner is the real victim in this relationship. Not only is it manipulating the survivor’s perception, but it exploits the ignorance of the people around them and the ways in which our legal system is designed to maintain hierarchies of social power.
So just to be clear, domestic violence is not mutual, and not all unhealthy relationships are domestic violence. If you’re ever in doubt whether or not a situation involves DV, I strongly recommend speaking to a trained DV advocate on a hotline or at a local nonprofit:
- Advocates may have legal privileges that other service providers and even lawyers do not, depending on your region, including confidentiality privilege against subpoenas and not being a mandated reporter – don’t hesitate to ask before disclosing anything!
- It’s an advocate’s job to know the local resources like housing and financial support programs, including how to access them
- Hotlines are anonymous and, to be honest, most of us couldn’t afford the time to bother tracking numbers the way that emergency services do
Therapists can be helpful too, but most therapists don’t have specialized training around domestic violence. (Note that couple’s counseling doesn’t work when DV is involved because of the nature of power imbalance in DV itself.)
If someone comes to you saying that they’re experiencing domestic violence, start by believing them. Don’t try to parse out the more complicated dynamics – assume good faith on their part unless and until you have a very good reason not to. Statistically speaking, false accusations of DV, while they do happen, are extremely rare, and the consequences of making the wrong call of who to believe can cause irreparable harm to a traumatized person. As an ally, you are also able to contact domestic violence hotlines and agencies to get support and information.
“Power and control”
Ultimately, domestic violence comes down to power and control. An abuser might try to deny, rationalize, justify, or blame their abusive behavior on something or someone else, like, “This is how someone of my gender is supposed to act,” or, “I can do what I want because we’re married and our religion says you’re my property.”
These are excuses, not facts. Culture, gender and sexual orientation, religion, and other sociopolitical identities can be used as tools of abuse if it allows an abuser to exploit a survivor’s vulnerabilities, and sometimes social and cultural norms can help facilitate this. All of us have vulnerabilities, of one kind of another, because it’s part of our experience of being self-aware, social animals, and being vulnerable is not synonymous with being weak, irrational, or unintelligent.
If one point of vulnerability doesn’t work, an abuser will keep trying other avenues until they find something that does allow them to start gaining control over another person. However, these identities are not the cause, which we’ll explore more in depth later.
The most obvious examples of intimate relationships involve people who are dating or are married. These are real examples, yes, but they’re not the only ones. Intimate relationships includes queer relationships, not just heteronormative ones, as well as sexual relationships that don’t have romance, romantic relationships that don’t involve sex, and queerplatonic relationships. It does not include roommates, coworkers, or other community members in which romance, sexuality, and/or coparenting were never involved. (Abuse can and does occur in those, as well: it just wouldn’t be categorized as domestic violence.)
With the sheer variety of romantic and sexual orientations that people have, you can imagine that there’s a lot of grey area here. For example, a situation with stalking that followed only a single date, regardless of the people’s genders and whether or not sex was involved, can be enough to move a situation from a civil or criminal issue into domestic violence one, even if there was only the one date. Sometimes it isn’t enough. Generally, unless local laws are specific, the difference lies in how the survivor personally relates to and understands the relationship. When in doubt, please consult a local lawyer or advocate.
Social services categorize long-term, emotionally vulnerable relationships differently than short-term or non-intimate relationships because the overall emotional dynamics and the common consequences of the abuse are different. This means that our responses as allies and service providers must be adapted to those differences in order to provide effective support to a unique, individual survivor.
Manifestations of Abusive Behavior
So what does domestic violence actually look like? A lot of folks have told me that they’re not being abused because their partner has never hit them or raped them. But physical and sexual violence, while common, are not at all the only ways in which DV manifests. Usually, if one form of abusive behavior is present, others are too.
This often gets broken down into categories that are sometimes simplistic but can be useful for general understanding. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and people who cause harm can get very creative in their methods, which can sound strange or make a survivor look paranoid to an outside observer.
Verbal abuse includes insults, snide or passive-aggressive comments, and yelling.
Emotional and mental abuse might look like guilt-tripping, the ‘silent treatment,’ and emotional manipulation (such as, “But I love you,” or, “I thought you loved me”). It also includes gaslighting, which means manipulating or subverting a person’s perception of reality, which includes what people often call “mind games.” It can make a survivor question their sense of who they are, what they’re capable of, their relationships with other people, their memory of what did or didn’t happen, and their perception of the world in general.
Economic abuse refers to tactics of control over someone’s access to money and related resources. A survivor may be prevented from finding or maintaining a job, having access to their own money or property, being given an allowance, or having to ‘earn’ access to these things, often through sexual favors.
Technological abuse includes looking through a partner’s phone without permission, texting to a degree that it becomes oppressive, purposefully withholding communication to make the survivor anxious or even panicky, demanding passwords or access to digital records, limiting or controlling someone’s access to their devices or the Internet and controlling the ways in which they use those resources, forcing someone to download apps that allow the abuser to track their movements throughout the day, telling the survivor to text a picture that proves that the survivor is in the location they claim to be, blackmailing a survivor with explicit photos or videos, being present on social media in such a way that lets the survivor knows they’re being watched, etc.
Isolation is extremely common, and it can be physical, social, or both. It can start out looking totally innocent: “I’m glad you have so many friends, but I want to spend more time with you, just the two of us.” Something like this by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it could indicate that a partner is feeling neglected or taken for granted. What we’re looking for is a pattern in which one partner’s wishes more often, if not always, take priority over the wishes or consent of the other person.
Isolation tactics can also look like an abuser saying, “You shouldn’t spend time with those people anyway because they don’t care about you. I didn’t want to tell you this, but you should hear some of the things they say about you behind your back.” This division between community and survivor is especially common with minority identities, such as the queer community or in the pagan and polytheist communities, where the survivor may not have any community support elsewhere and they don’t want to lose what sense of community they do have.
I’ve repeatedly seen isolation tactics used against new mothers who are encouraged by their abusers to stay home with the new child, maybe leaving a job to do so, and then they’re never allowed to leave. Isolation limits how much time a survivor spends with friends or family, often to the point that they lose intimacy, trust, or contact with those other support people. This means that the primary influence and support in their life becomes the abusive partner.
Children and pets are very common tools of manipulation. This can be the abuser telling a survivor that they hurt the survivor so they don’t hurt the children or animals. An abuser might threaten the children or pets to make the survivor do what the abuser wants. Children can be used as messengers or spies, especially if the abuser convinces the children that their family troubles are the survivor’s fault. For example: “Your mother is taking you away from me because she doesn’t care about us being a family.” Victimized parents often try to shield their child from what’s happening, which unfortunately means that the only explanations that the child is hearing are coming from the abuser.
The use of privilege, which we’ll talk about a little further on.
Cultural and religious abuse means justifying abusive behavior through the lens of a culture or religion. Examples I’ve actually heard include, “You’re an Asian woman and so you’re naturally more submissive”; “No one will believe you because you speak English with an accent and the cops will just deport you anyway”; “If you prayed more then you wouldn’t be having these problems in your relationship”; “She was possessed by Aphrodite at the time, so why would I need to ask permission to touch her?”; “I’m devoted to a god of war so it’s natural for me to be an alpha male”; “I’m a man who worships a strong female goddess, which means I can’t be abusive to women”; “I’m devoted to a specific goddess and my partner is a medium, and so I’m allowed to have sex with their body while they’re possessed by my goddess and it hurts my religious practice if my partner tries to say no.”
Physical abuse includes any physical contact without consent: poking, pinching, grabbing, pushing, pushing someone out of a car (which seems to happen more often than you’d think, in my experience), pulling on limbs or hair, hitting, slapping, beating, whipping, being starved or force-fed, and so on.
Sexual abuse involves any sexual contact or communication without full and informed consent. Sexual harassment can happen within a relationship, too, not just between strangers or coworkers. This definitely includes being physically forced into sexual activity, yes, but it also includes the kind of coercion in which a ‘no’ results in the other person whining, crying, begging, guilt-tripping, or going silent or cold until it becomes simpler for the survivor to simply give in and say ‘yes.’ “But I love you,” the abusive partner might say. “But I just find you really attractive and I can’t help it. Please? Please?” It might sound a bit silly or cliché when I just describe it, but I can speak to this one from personal experience on how insidious and manipulative this is in reality and how over time it can cause the survivor to lose their sense of control or consent over their own body. A ‘yes’ that’s given after being pressured is not consent, and whining and guilt-tripping are examples of emotionally coercive behavior which undermines a person’s ability to freely say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
In domestic violence advocacy, we often use two fundamental tools for understanding: the “Power and Control Wheel” and the “Cycle of Violence.” The Power and Control Wheel is a diagram on the different dynamics used by an abusive person to gain control over an intimate partner or relative. It looks like a circle divided into 8 pieces like a pizza, and each piece describes a different dynamic that underlies the examples of specific behaviors that I just described.
Using intimidation. This can be certain kinds of emotional manipulation, leaving weapons lying around in the open, and the Look™. The “look” is the silent communication in which the promise of punishment is made known by the abusive person to the survivor and is often used in public, where more overt forms of intimidation would be noticed by the people around them.
Using emotional abuse. Gaslighting, or making people question their perception of reality or their own sense of self and capability, is an extremely common form of emotional abuse. This includes comments like, “I’m the best you’re ever going to find,” “You’re just lucky to have someone willing to put up with your bullshit,” and so on. Undermining a person’s confidence and self-worth makes the survivor feel more dependent on the abusive partner.
Using isolation. This creates dependence, whether emotional or physical, on the abusive partner.
Minimizing, denying, and blaming. Downplaying the abusive behavior can look like comments such as, “You’re too sensitive,” “It’s just a joke, get over it,” “No, that never happened, you’re making it up,” or, “I wouldn’t act this way if you weren’t so fucking difficult.”
Using children. Threatening the wellbeing of a child or the survivor’s access to the child are very effective tools of abuse.
Using privilege. This is when the abusive partner uses their sociopolitical privilege to control the other person, which includes threats of calling immigration enforcement if the survivor tries to leave, defining and enforcing gender roles, the threat of outing someone’s gender or sexual identity, or telling a survivor that no one will believe them because they’re not smart enough, wealthy enough, white enough, straight enough, or in some way ‘not good enough’ to deserve help. The abusive person exploits the sociopolitical oppression experienced by the other person to limit their access – or the person’s belief that they could have access – to other sources of support.
Even an abuser who themselves is part of a minority group, including someone who is trans, a person of color, an immigrant, etc, can still leverage these threats against a vulnerable partner. Sometimes it can be gatekeeping, like, “If you were actually nonbinary, you wouldn’t dress this way,” or, “If you tell anyone that I’m abusing you, you’re being racist.” Although DV is more commonly done by people who have a higher level of privileges overall – it has to do with the nature of power dynamics and the interaction of community norms with individual beliefs and choices – being someone who experiences any degree of sociopolitical oppression does not, in any way, mean that they can’t be abusive to a loved one.
Using economic abuse. Controlling or limiting someone’s access to resources – whether that’s paychecks, employment, housing, healthcare, or food – is a surefire way of trapping someone, especially if children are involved. In my own experience, lack of resources is probably the number one reason that survivors, particularly ones with young children, will stay in an abusive relationship, because they’d rather face the ‘devil they know’ than worry about being raped or murdered while sleeping on the streets or exposing their children to the unknown chaos of shelters.
Using coercion and threats. These are what most people would understand as domestic violence: the physical threats, the ultimatums of “do this or else.”
Examples of Abusive Behavior Specific to Pagan, Polytheist, & Magic Practitioners
Many of the abusive behaviors and dynamics I’ve described so far are part of every DV relationship to one degree or another, whether subtle or overt, but there are ways in which an abusive partner might explicitly use a pagan, polytheist, or magical practice as a tool of control. Here are some common examples, but again, this is not an exhaustive list.
Using community norms and beliefs against a survivor.
I’m going to be blunt: most communities are terrible when it comes to sexual consent, but many pagan communities have a particular way of enabling sexual misconduct by dressing it up as “sexual liberation” or “celebrating the gifts of the gods or Goddess.” It’s common for people who try to enforce boundaries around physical and sexual conduct to be accused of prudishness and especially of ‘internalized Christian morality.’
Many pagans – and people in general, honestly – tend to confuse sex positivity with sexual desire, but the two are completely separate matters. Sex positivity aims to eliminate shame around healthy, consensual sexual attraction and expression, which includes being able to refuse consent. Without the capacity for refusal, sex positivity is simply rape culture wearing the mask of social justice, and that is a gross violation of both an individual’s right to bodily autonomy and the wellbeing of the pagan community.
At a large pagan conference a few years ago, I walked into a workshop that claimed to be about sexual consent. I lasted about five minutes into the introductory speech that opened with, “Our whole world runs on sex. Sex is what drives everything and everyone,” before I had to walk out because I was so angry and disgusted not at the idea that sexuality is natural, which it is, but at the speech that went on to describe how not engaging in sexual behavior is unnatural.
Unfortunately, as a response to more constrictive social norms on sexuality in Western culture, particularly in Britain and America, and especially with the influence of the ‘free love’ current in the 60s and 70s, pagan community norms have historically over-corrected: instead of true freedom of choice from sexual repression, the new expectation is that a lack of constant sexual expression and openness is inherently unnatural. This has made it extremely easy for more experienced pagans to prey on newer pagans, especially those who are younger and feminine, and justify it as, “To be pagan is to be sexually liberated, which means if you tell me ‘no’ then you’re obviously repressed, full of shame, and closing yourself off to a sacred divine gift.”
Using this idea to facilitate a sexual encounter, regardless of the genders and sexualities of the people involved, is both exploitative and assault, full stop.
Using magic on a partner without their consent.
Sex magic, curses, and binding are common magical tools of abuse. Examples include spells designed to:
- Punish a partner for disagreeing, talking to someone that the abusive partner doesn’t approve of, trying to leave the relationship, or otherwise not complying with the abusive partner’s wishes
- Induce lust, increased or decreased sex drive, love, or obsession
- Limit a partner’s own magical or spiritual power
There are many systems of magic with their own cultural, historical, and metaphysical contexts that help inform whatever internal ethics those systems may contain, so when I’m speaking in generalities like this, I’m referring specifically to the lack of consent from the practitioner’s intimate partner and the abusive partner’s self-oriented interests.
Coercing a partner into a religious, spiritual, or magical act.
This is guilting, manipulating, tricking, or otherwise coercing a partner to participate in a ritual, spell, or divination session; or pressuring them into mediumship, spiritwork, or other form of spiritual service.
Taking advantage of a partner’s lack of spiritual or magical experience.
The abusive partner might withhold key information that interferes with the survivor’s learning process, knowingly tell the survivor incorrect information to sabotage them, give them false or skewed information about their surrounding community to increase the survivor’s isolation or dependency, take advantage of a teacher/student relationship, spring a “surprise initiation” on the survivor with no prior discussion and orientation, or claim that sexual acts are essential to the survivor’s growth as a practitioner and saying ‘no’ would interfere with their spiritual development or relationship with their gods.
Manipulating or gaslighting a partner’s perception of the partner’s own gods, spirits, and/or spiritual or magical capabilities.
The abusive partner might claim to have better, truer, or more detailed information from the survivor’s own gods or spirits in order to maintain control over the survivor’s beliefs and behavior; undermine the survivor’s confidence in their own magical or spiritual abilities; coerce the survivor to practice their religion or spirituality in a way decided by the abusive partner; insult, put down, or otherwise oppress the survivor’s own faith, especially by calling them “crazy” or “stupid” for holding those beliefs; controlling if, when, and how the survivor’s children have access to their parent’s religion, e.g. “I don’t care what you do on your own time but I’m not letting you expose our children to your bullshit.”
Misusing possessory mediumship.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Coercing a partner into possessory mediumship for any reason, including (but not limited to) mediumship so that the abusive partner can engage with the possessing entity sexually
- Ignoring a medium’s physical and sexual boundaries with the excuse that the body currently belongs to the possessing entity anyway
- The abusive partner pretending to be possessed so that they can choose to behave in whatever way they choose without facing the consequences
- The abusive partner pretending to be possessed so that they can say whatever they want and have it appear to come from a god or spirit with more authority or power over the survivor
- Making agreements with entities capable of possession that circumvent the survivor’s spiritual protections and consent, allowing the survivor to be possessed, initiated, oathed, or otherwise used against their will
Different traditions, religions, and lineages have their own specific ways of structuring possessory mediumship, so what’s acceptable to one tradition may be considered unethical in another. Again, setting aside those differences as much as possible and also focusing on intimate partnerships in which one or more of the parties practices possessory mediumship, we’re looking for dynamics of power inequality. One person’s consent is being ignored, violated, or undermined by the abusive partner, who shows a pattern of prioritizing their own needs and desires over those of the other person and at the cost of their emotional or physical well-being. This is unacceptable even when the survivor is serving as a medium and, in the context of an intimate relationship, it still constitutes domestic violence. Religion and spirituality do not exempt or justify coercive control.
Sexual abuse leads us into consent and what actually constitutes real consent. Consent has to meet several criteria to be true:
- It must be a choice. A ‘no’ must not only be possible but mutually understood that it will be respected without guilt, force, the silent treatment, or other forms of punishment.
- It must be active. We should want enthusiasm! The lack of a ‘no’ does not equal ‘yes,’ and sometimes a verbal ‘yes’ is only said because saying otherwise would bring worse consequences than just going along with it. That idea of ‘just say no’ can be misleading and even dangerous, and if you want concrete examples on why, you can Google for news articles on women of all different ages and racial identities who have been flat-out murdered for rejecting someone’s advances, even for things like ignoring a catcaller or turning down an invitation to high school prom.
- It must be ongoing. Consent can be withdrawn at any point, for any reason, including the reason, “I just don’t want to.” It doesn’t matter if someone chooses not to share those reasons, and it doesn’t matter if the person saying ‘no’ can’t explain to themselves why they don’t want to do the thing. “No” is a complete sentence. You do not need a reason to withdraw consent. Period.
- It must be specific. Consent to sex in a particular situation, with a particular sexual act, and with a particular person or people is not blanket permission for sex in other situations, other sexual acts, or other partners.
- It must be informed. True consent cannot be given if a partner knowingly lies, either directly or by omission, about their identity, state of health, or other characteristic that would impact another person’s decision to consent. This includes hiding family relationship or withholding health-impacting information, such as an STD or other infectious condition. While there is a lot of unjust stigma around STDs, HIV and AIDS, HPV, and other health conditions and they’re all worth addressing, it doesn’t negate a person’s right to know the risks they may be facing sexually.
- It must involve people of equal power. The people involved must be on equal ground in terms of making choices in and about the relationship. One person shouldn’t have enough power over the other person’s wellbeing that they can make or break the ability to live their life as they want to. For example, an employer who has control over whether or not an employee is able to keep their job or receive a raise or promotion is not on equal ground with that employee. What if they get intimately involved and then the employee does something at home or in their shared bed that the employer doesn’t like? This is also true for teachers and students, caretakers or mental health professionals and patients, social workers and clients, and people with an age gap situated in such a way that there’s a marked difference in maturity and life experience. Age is not just a number, and not just because some of those numbers cannot consent legally, either.
Also, consent is essential for every person regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, family and relationship models, age, profession, income level, formal education level, mental state, physical ability, body type, and every other possible identifier you can imagine. It doesn’t matter if they’re a dedicant to Aphrodite or Lilith or the Whore of Babylon. It doesn’t matter if they’re a sex worker, and it doesn’t matter what kind of sex worker. Consent is essential for every entity, including any and every living human.
I think it’s worth mentioning here how physical abuse, sexual abuse, and consent can get confused when people are bringing in BDSM and other forms of kink. For those who might be unfamiliar with it, “kink” in this context generally refers to situations in which dynamics of dominance and submissiveness are being played with, often although not always in a sexual manner. It’s a spectrum in regards to how intense the play might be and what it involves, and it’s not uncommon to see restraints, gags, blindfolds, paddles, whips, and other toys and tools being used.
There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with any of this, and a kink relationship can be a healthy one full of trust and care for everyone involved. However, because power dynamics and social expectations are active and overt components of kink, it can make it easy for an abuser to disguise the abuse as kink, especially with someone who may not have as much experience. Fifty Shades of Grey is a perfect example of this. I’m sorry for any fans of that series, but the relationship between the characters is not healthy kink at all: it’s domestic violence and sexual assault misusing the language and framing of kink. And the abuser isn’t always the dom, either! Doms as well as subs and other kink roles can be the one experiencing abuse.
If you’re curious to know more about healthy kink and BDSM, visit this Massachusetts-based organization, The Network/La Red, which is a domestic violence organization specializing in queer, poly, and kink relationships.
Notes on Terminology
Thus far, you might have noticed that I tend to default to using the word ‘survivor.’ Some folks use ‘victim’ to refer to someone who is still in an actively abusive relationship and ‘survivor’ for someone who has been able to leave the relationship and is working on their healing process. Some survivors self-label as ‘victim’ because it reinforces the fact that the domestic violence isn’t their fault while other survivors reject that term because it makes them feel like they’re still trapped in their powerlessness. When I’m speaking with someone, I try to take cues from them on what language to use, or I’ll simply just ask. In social services, it’s considered best practice to default to “survivor.”
I also tend to use ‘abuser.’ I find it straightforward, simple, and calling something for what it is, and also just fast and easy to say. ‘Batterer’ is another common word and was the standard in the domestic violence advocacy field up through the 1990s, but I believe that this reinforces the myth that domestic violence has to be physical to count as abusive. ‘Person who causes harm’ is another term, and it’s the one considered best practice: by placing personhood first, it acknowledges that abusive people can learn to change but that the violence is an active choice they’re currently making. I might use it with someone who recognizes that their relationship is abusive but isn’t ready to label their partner as an abuser.
If you do deeper research into DV you might encounter terms like ‘petitioner’ and ‘respondent,’ but these are almost always used in a legal context to refer to someone who petitioning the court for something, such as a domestic violence restraining order. I won’t go into any legalities because it’s so specific to a person’s location, not just in terms of their country but also their state and county and sometimes to the individual judge sitting on the bench.
So for our purposes and in spaces hosted by Macha’s Justice, we define domestic violence as “an escalating pattern of coercive behavior in which one person gains and maintains power and control over another person in an intimate relationship.”
Summary of Key Points
1. Our behavioral definition of domestic violence is “an escalating pattern of coercive behavior in which one person gains and maintains control over another person in an intimate relationship.”
2. The root of domestic violence is in power and control. It is both experienced and perpetrated by people from every kind of background, demographic, and identity, and is not limited to heterosexual relationships with abusive men and abused women.
3. All domestic violence is unhealthy, but not all unhealthy relationships are considered domestic violence or even necessarily abusive. It’s a spectrum and rarely clearly categorized.
4. Domestic violence is not “mutually abusive” but is characterized by a primary aggressor. This is the partner who holds most, if not all, of the power in the relationship, but it may not always be obvious who that is to an outside observer.
5. Abuse does not have to be physical or sexual to be considered domestic violence. It can be emotional, psychological, economic, based in privilege, involve children or pets, or consist of any behavior that undermines a person’s ability to live their life as they freely choose to do and without fear of punishment.
6. The cycle of violence is a repeating cycle of calm, tension, abuse, and rationalization back to calm. Because of these periods of peace and the rationalizations used to justify the abusive behavior, survivors may find it difficult to recognize the abuse or feel justified in ending the relationship.
7. While there are abusive tactics unique to pagan, polytheist, and magical practitioners, the dynamics of abuse – that is, the imbalance of power and control – remain the same at their core and just as unacceptable.
8. True consent must be freely given, active, ongoing, informed, specific, and involve people with equal power to direct the relationship (however casual it may be).
9. Statistically speaking, it is most logical and evidence-based to start by believing someone’s story of DV, even if the person causing harm is a well-known and well-respected person within your community.
10. Current best-practice terminology is to use “survivor” instead of “victim,” but if you’re supporting a survivor, you should take your cue on what language to use from them directly.
Part II: Victims, Abusers, & Survivors