It Doesn’t Fit The Script: Assault and My Life

TRIGGER WARNING: Rape

I don’t talk about rape much. Or at least I don’t talk about rape and my own life much. I don’t think I have important stories to tell. I don’t want people to know about my sex life. Rape is very much a part of my life: most of my best friends have been raped, blamed for their rape, slut shamed…My most conservative friends become suddenly liberal when rape comes up because their friends and loved ones have been raped.

 

And I talk about rape culture, and I talk about how horrible these incidents are, and I tell people how upset I am. But I don’t talk about myself. I won’t ever label it rape, I don’t think. There was no penetration involved. He did stop, eventually. But I do have a story, and it’s not one that follows The Script. I think it’s time to tell that story because I am so sick of hearing what rape looks like or what assault looks like and never hearing my story.

 

I was assaulted slowly, wearing everything from underwear and a tshirt to sweatpants and a hoodie. It happened through words, with someone I loved, with someone I was dating, with someone I trusted. It was on a college campus, at all times of day and night, in public, in his room, in my room. It was in my home, in his home…it was without alcohol or drugs or violence. And it was still unacceptable, and it was still not my fault, and it was still without my consent. This is what happened.

 

When we first started going out I had an active sex drive. He was afraid of sex. I respected that, but encouraged him to stop thinking of sex as something scary, negative or wrong. I told him it was ok to want sex. Eventually he started to listen, and found that he enjoyed sex. However I have a bizarre sex drive: it comes and goes for months at a time at its own whim. And a few months into our relationship, it turned off. Completely. I understand that this is something that would bother a partner. I understand that it would be difficult to deal with, frustrating, disheartening. I did my best to explain how I was feeling, find ways to be intimate, express my love, and be there for him when I could. I tried to keep our relationship functional even when I found I couldn’t in good conscience consent to sexual activity.

 

Unfortunately, his response was to demand sex from me. My assault didn’t happen in a night. It didn’t happen in a week. It was a sustained campaign of emotional manipulation. Each night was a struggle: I would go to bed with pants and a shirt on and he would beg me to take them off, telling me he needed to feel close to me. Some nights he would succeed, others I would try to fall asleep as he lay petulantly beside me because I had chosen to keep my clothes on.

 

He would try to touch me and when I asked him to stop he would say I was making him feel unwanted. When I told him that I wasn’t interested in sex, he told me that I had led him on by telling him I wanted sex before. He would cuddle me and I would edge away. He would edge closer. He seemed to make it clear that my body should belong to him: that he could grab or kiss any part of it he chose whenever he chose. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he said he just wanted me to feel good. It made him cry when I said no. He told me that he couldn’t feel close to me any other way.

 

Sometimes I would listen to him. I would tell myself I owed it to him to do what he was asking because I loved him and he loved me, and I was making him feel unwanted and unloved, damaging his already low self-esteem. I worried I would make sex even worse for him if I didn’t give him what he wanted now. How could I be so cold and cruel? Why wasn’t I loving him? What was wrong with me that I could care about him so much and then withhold something that would make him happy?

 

Somtimes I would try to let him do what he wanted. I would try to kiss back. But I couldn’t fake the enthusiasm, and when I just lay there, letting him paw all over me, he became upset: “I want you to like it!” he would tell me, as if it were my fault that I weren’t enjoying his forcible fondling. He made it clear that he got off on my pleasure, and that I had to be enjoying whatever was happening. He would stop if I wasn’t enjoying myself, but not because I wasn’t consenting, because it wasn’t fun for him if I didn’t join in. I owed him not only my body, but my willing joy as well. When I did manage to fake some enthusiasm he ignored every possible sign that I didn’t want physical intimacy.

 

On top of the physicality, he emotionally made it clear that my body belonged to him. He became jealous and possessive. He told me that he didn’t like me wearing short shorts because “then other guys would objectify me”. He tried to forbid me from swing dancing because he thought it was too sexual and was on par with cheating. He kept asking where we could draw the line. What was so different about a hug, or a dance, or a cuddle than sex?

 

All of this was happening as he became more and more depressed. This was in the midst of my eating disorder and depression, and I could see him falling into patterns like my own. He would tell me that his parents thought it was my fault, that I had given him an eating disorder. I knew that was crazy, but I couldn’t help but think that his unhappiness was my fault, that I owed him some joy for all that I had taken from him. I could see him falling apart in front of me, and how could I not feel guilty for that?

 

And finally, I broke. I had been fighting with myself for weeks trying to continue to say no, to watch him cry after I told him no, to remember my own boundaries and my certain knowledge that I shouldn’t consent just because he wanted me to. But finally he told me that I had ruined sex for him, and that if I didn’t have sex with him right that very night, he would never have sex again. He would turn off that part of himself completely. I shut down. Mutely, I nodded my assent to whatever he was doing, but I couldn’t make myself do anything but lay there. I started crying, despite trying not to. I turned away from him so he wouldn’t see. He was kissing me and touching me, and he would ask me if I was ok, and I would blurt out a choked “It’s fine” and he would keep going, until he finally saw me crying. He rolled off of me and walked away to sulk. I don’t remember the details. I don’t remember what all he did. I don’t call it rape because I don’t know what happened, I just know he touched me and I was crying and he knew I didn’t want it.

 

Of course some people will tell me this was my fault, that I should have seen the signs, that I should have just left. That’s easy enough to say when you aren’t the one in love, when you aren’t the one hanging onto your own emotional well being by a thread, when you don’t think that if you leave he might kill himself. Yes, I had choices in this situation that could have ended it, but I did not choose to manipulate and terrorize another human being until they thought they had no choice but to give me their body in order to keep me sane.

 

This same kind of incident has happened in three of my relationships. It is not uncommon. But this is not the narrative of rape. If I were to report this incident, I would be laughed out the door. I pretend it didn’t happen for the most part, except when asking my current partner to be particularly careful about boundaries. This is considered normal in relationships. The idea that I owed him sex is normal in relationships. But it hurt me. It made me feel guilty for the fact that I felt violated and hurt. We need to be honest about how common this is, how manipulative it is, and how it is, in fact, assault.

Consent is Not Just Sexy

One of the favorite slogans of the sex positive crowd is that consent is sexy. Now in certain contexts this absolutely can be true (imagine someone screaming in ecstasy “Yes!”), but in other contexts wherein consent is not particularly sexy at all it can be just as important. Generally we relegate the concept of consent to sexual situations. However there are all sorts of situations in which people need our consent to use, touch, or otherwise interact with our bodies. Our time, our energy, our thoughts, our bodies: these things are our own, regardless of the context in which someone is asking for them. It doesn’t matter whether the context is sexual or not, we need to respect people’s rights to say no when we ask them for the use of their bodies.

 

This morning I read an article about swing dancing and consent. This is one community where people are encouraged to say yes all the time no matter what their reservations might be. Because it is not considered sexualized, it’s rude or unfriendly to say no to something. Well that’s just downright silly to me. Each of us has the right to do what we choose with our bodies at any time. Sometimes this may mean bursting another person’s bubble, but we still do not owe that individual anything.

 

Another area that this has been explored before is in the relationships between gay men and straight women. Fairly often, gay men feel entitled to the bodies of straight women, and brush away complaints about groping or touching with “I’m not attracted to you, it didn’t mean anything”. Other people have explained better than I have what’s wrong with this attitude, but suffice it to say that someone still has a right to their own space and autonomy regardless of their relationship with the person who is touching them.

 

Beyond these two areas, many people today get the message that it’s inappropriate to say no. You owe your time and energy to someone else if they ask for it. You owe them a handshake or a hug or a kiss because it’s the socially appropriate thing to do. If your friend wants to go out you should. If your dad wants you to help him paint the house, you should. However in all arenas of life, our time, our bodies, and our autonomy are our own. You get to say no. It is allowed. You don’t necessarily need a really good reason that the other person can readily understand.

 

Now many people are worried about being polite or kind. It’s easy to interpret this kind of advice as telling people to be a complete jerk and blow everybody off all the time because you want to be lazy and never give back. That is not what this reminder is. This is a reminder that at no point in your life are you obligated to give yourself in any way to another person. You may still want to choose to give people your time, energy, hugs, dances, or sexytimes because you care about them, you’d enjoy it, you want to help them out, or they’ve helped you in the past. In addition, it’s not generally conducive to relationships to never give any piece of yourself. So if you’re motivated to be social in any way, you will likely give some. But you never have to, even with your friends, even when social rules dictate it.

 

Consent is for all times. It’s not just sexy, it’s also respectful, it’s also necessary, it’s also affording each individual their rights to autonomy and choice in all walks of life. And consent is for anything that involves me changing around my body and life for you.

The Internet Is Not a Free Pass

Last week I posted a status on facebook bemoaning the fact that some people on the internet feel that they have a right to give other people random and unsolicited health advice. In response, I got a fair number of people saying “well it’s the internet, what did you expect”, or “you put your information out in public, that means you want people to comment and converse about it.” This was not exactly what I had been expecting.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to assume that because people often behave really badly (harassing, insulting, generally just being offensive and condescending douches) on the internet, that means that we shouldn’t care when people behave badly on the internet. They say that people are anonymous on the internet, so it’s bound to happen. They ask “are you surprised?” They act as if everyone has license to treat you however they choose online, because you have chosen to be in a public space. Oddly enough I’m not really convinced by all these arguments that I should just stop caring and let the assholes run wild.

So there appear to be a few reasons that people seem to think that the internet is and should continue to be a complete free for all in terms of civility and behavior. One is because the internet is impossible to regulate. “There’s just too many of them out there, we might as well give up!” Oddly enough I hear this argument pretty much nowhere in the real world. “There’s too many murders, we might as well give up!” Generally, when a bad behavior is prevalent we take that to mean that we should work harder to get rid of it, not throw our hands up in despair. Even if we can never solve the problem entirely, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to improve how people treat each other. Yes, it’s entirely true that we may never solve the problem of incivility on the internet, that we can’t regulate it in the most effective ways because of the medium, but we can still do our best.

Another is that the internet is the place of free speech! NO ONE CAN TOUCH THE HOLY SHRINE OF THE FREE SPEECH! So here’s the thing about free speech: you may have the right to say what you want in a public place, but you don’t have the right to say whatever you want in my space, you don’t have the right to say whatever you want without criticism, and you absolutely don’t have the right to be heard no matter what you say. I have the right to ban you, to delete your comment, to ignore you, to criticize you, or to tell you what’s wrong with what you just said. None of these things infringe on your free speech. In fact the benefit of free speech is that it allows these kinds of interactions to happen and we all grow from it. The beauty of free speech is that we can alert people to the fact that they might be saying something absolutely horrible and then argue for our point.

But perhaps the most pernicious myth about the internet is that that’s the way it is, so that’s the way it is. The internet is anonymous and so it will never be improved because anonymity will always lead to asshattery. We can’t do anything about it, and we shouldn’t, we should simply accept it as is. Here’s my problem with that: if we did it for any other problem, our world would become a stinking cesspit of hate and filth and cruelty. It is a huge logical fallacy to assume that because something is a certain way that’s how it should be.

When I mention something that I find inappropriate, I don’t do it just to complain. I do it to illustrate to people who do it that it’s not appropriate. I generally try to explain why I find it inappropriate, and what they could do differently. I expect more of my fellow human beings and I’m willing to tell them so. Even if it is harder to be kind and empathetic online, I believe that we can do it, or at least that we can do better than we’re doing now. There are ways that we can improve how people behave online and when they’re anonymous, and that’s by having consequences for bad behavior. In the offline world, there are absolutely consequences for being a jerk: people stop listening to you, stop hanging out with you, stop dating you or inviting you to parties, they call you out and make you feel ashamed of what you’re doing. We can do all these things on the internet. We can ban those who act inappropriately. We can call them out and tell them we don’t like it. We can tarnish their reputation with their own actions. We can make them unwelcome because they are treating us poorly. Yes, this may take some energy and some time, and there are still places that they can slink off to where we have no power. But we can keep our own spaces safe and kind and healthy. None of this is bullying or cruelty: it’s simple cause and effect. If you come onto my blog and insult me, I will make you feel unwelcome. That is my right.

Anywhere that’s not the internet, our public spaces have rules and expectations. We don’t condone someone running down the street screaming at people and insulting them. We understand that just because we’re in a public space that does not mean that we should accept being treated poorly, and in general we work together as communities to build certain expectations into our public spaces. The same goes for the internet. If we want to claim this new public space as somewhere that we can be safe and comfortable, then we have to be willing to police our own space, demand more from others, and create consequences for those who act inappropriately. For me, that’s calling people out and reminding them that just because you’re online that does not give you a free pass. It’s banning. It’s commenting on bad blog posts. It’s actively engaging where hate and cruelty are happening and saying “that’s bullshit”. We’re still all human beings, even when we’re on the internet, and I still expect all of us to act with the basics of human decency.

 

P.S. I have no idea why I chose the image I did but it came up when I googled internet.

Orphan Black: Who Owns the Clones?

I have a new TV obsession and I’ve got it BAD. Orphan Black is a new show on BBC America that just finished up its first season, and I’m already ripping my hair out waiting for the next one (which doesn’t come out until next spring. Uncool BBC, uncool). If you aren’t watching it, then a.SPOILER ALERT and b.start watching it. Right now. Go to your TV/computer, find it and watch it. Back? Ok. Good.

 

The most fascinating things to me about Orphan Black are the themes of owning your body, identity, and patent law. Today I’d like to explore some of the themes about ownership of body, and how the show provides some extremely interesting and insightful commentary on women’s bodies and liberation. The whole premise of the show is that there are a handful (possibly more?) of women who find out that their bodies and their lives are not what they think: they are actually clones who are being monitored by a scientific project. All of these clones are female, and over the course of the first season they begin to come together and find ways to fight back against whatever forces are trying to influence their lives or take ownership over them. There are clearly parallels between this clearly sci fi world and some of the forces that women feel in their lives every day. I’d like to explore how women’s experiences of becoming self-aware of oppression and then fighting back against that oppression parallel the experiences of the clones.

 

1.Our lives are not our own: we’re viewed as property even when we don’t know it.

There is a parallel between the existence of the clones, and the everyday existence of women. We are viewed as property and treated as property even when we don’t know it. The clones are watched and used by scientists as test subjects, as objects to understand. Similarly, many women today are watched and used by men or corporations or other sexist and oppressive forces. They are the subject of the male gaze, which reduces them to a sexual object rather than a scientific one. However in both cases, our bodies are being used for something without our consent, and often without our knowledge.

 

2.We often don’t understand how we could be property, and try to act as if we are not.

Very often it seems like a foreign concept to us that someone could own us or have power over our bodies that we don’t. It seems unfathomable that we wouldn’t know everything about who owns our bodies. But we are rarely the ones who hold the power or the knowledge, and are often left trying to make the best decision possible in bad circumstances.

 

In the case of the clones, they had no idea that there could be a patent written into their genes: this seems impossible. And so they made their choices as if the option to walk away and ignore Leaky actually existed. When they finally discover that they don’t have the autonomy they thought they did, they have to try to come to grips with the limited choices they have, and they do their best to create new options that allow them more freedom.

 

In a similar way, I think that few women grow up fully aware of the sexist culture that we live in. Girls may grow up not knowing that their father thinks of them as a possession, or they may have a boyfriend and not realize that the boyfriend is possessive. Many times women and girls simply take it for granted that they’re expected to care for others without much in return. They don’t realize the danger we all live in of having our bodies violated, abused, or possessed in ways we don’t like.

 

When someone becomes aware of these dangers, of the way that women’s bodies are rarely their own, the way that they’re expected to be beautiful for public viewing, conform to certain stereotypes, be available for sex in the appropriate fashion, etc. it can be a jarring and painful experience. Sometimes it comes in the circumstance of rape or other violence. And when this becomes part of one’s awareness, you have to try to build new choices that create autonomy for you, just as the clones did. Discussing ownership of women’s bodies head on often gets dismissed as “overreacting” or the “feminazis”. It’s hard for many people to accept that we don’t have full ownership over our bodies. However Orphan Black takes a more subtle approach and decides to act out a kind of thought experiment on what it might literally be like to not own your body. Through this lens, it can explore the reactions and defense mechanisms of the women involved. Hopefully it will help some people take feelings of disenfranchisement more seriously.

 

3.This show illustrates clearly how a “feminine” impulse towards nurturing or family can be channeled into strength and identity, as well as how it can be used to try to subvert those forces that might push us into societally defined identities.

An interesting element of this show is that while it looks at how women’s bodies are used for purposes that aren’t their own, it seems to pinpoint reproductive freedom as the base of Sarah’s independence (and in some ways as Allison’s motivations for trying to get her life back). Kira is her rock, her reason for living, the thing that was all hers until she found out about the patent. In many ways this seems to be metaphorical for how women’s reproductive systems are co-opted for purposes they don’t want (e.g. lack of access to abortion/being forced to carry baby of rapist), when in reality it should be the thing that we are most in control over. However even while it mirrors that lack of power that women have, it also illustrates how the maternal impulse, and some of the “feminine” traits of the women portrayed can be the most powerful and give the most strength.

 

It shows that when women want to take control of their bodies, that often means taking control of their families as well, and that this means cutting themselves off from toxic people (Vic) and taking independent control of their lives. Interestingly, it also means deciding where they want to build their family: for Sarah this involves trusting Felix, and for Allison this involves trusting Donnie. When you take back some power over your body, you seem to gain the power to decide for yourself who you want in your life, where you want to be, and who you want to be around. You may still make mistakes in trusting the wrong people (like Allison), but at least you are consciously making decisions about what’s best for you. Allison took steps to protect herself and her family, and while they were wrong because more information had been kept from her, her children and her family were her motivation, and her self-awareness made her able to stand up.

 

This show illustrates the power of bringing together a variety of traits and reclaiming things that may traditionally have been “feminine” or weak to fight against things that are harming you, as well as how the bonds of a mother to a child can be powerful. I’m uncertain as to whether this enforces a kind of gender essentialism, but we’ll see how it plays out.

 

4.The best part of this show is how the women whose identities are not their own come together to understand their situation and to take steps to rectify it.

The clones rely on each other, the people who are in the same oppressive situation that they are to build clearer identities and to take control of their situation. The most strength that the clones have is when they come together. Each one has a variety of talents and insights, and they contribute to each other’s well being. Interesting, Helena is the most destructive force in the show yet, illustrating that a break in the solidarity can absolutely destroy a coalition. Because each of these women are going through similar experiences, by talking to each other they begin to understand who they are. They don’t get much help from those who aren’t clones, not even those who supposedly have the “answers”. Those people who have experienced either being clones or giving birth to clones seem to have the best understanding of who each clone is. In the real life of women, it’s often important to talk to someone else with similar experiences to your own. Men can obviously help form solidarity and help you understand your identity, but there is something about being around those coming from a similar place and experiencing the same things that can be extremely beneficial to understanding those experiences. People who are living oppressed lives, banding together that creates more strength than anything else I can imagine. This show in my mind embodies some of the ideal ways of fighting oppression.

 

5.Unfortunately at the end of the day, no matter what they do, the game is rigged.

The big reveal at the end of season 1 shows that their DNA is patented: everything they do, their offspring, all of it belongs to someone else. Metaphorically, this speaks strongly to the state of women today, particularly the idea that a woman’s children don’t belong to her and that her body does not belong to her. Our game is rigged. No matter how talented we are, how intelligent we are, how independent we are, in all likelihood we will have far more difficulties succeeding than men will, and someone will want to put us in our place. There is a high likelihood that we will face sexual assault. There is a high likelihood that our ability to have children will be held against us in the workplace, and that our choice to have a family may be held against us. Again, we may feel that we have choices, but our choices are constrained.

 

6.The surrogate mothers are an interesting element as well and one that I would like to see more of: their bodies were used to perpetrate a kind of violence on others (the lives of the clones and their status as property is a kind of violence in my mind), and their “children” were taken away from them without their consent. They didn’t have the choice to continue or end the pregnancy or of what to do with the children afterwards. In many ways, women in this world have no choice but to bring their children into a world of violence and oppression. Especially with baby girls, when the girl is born she begins to become public property. She doesn’t belong to the mother, or to herself. Society takes ownership of her body. The pain that Amelia felt, and her desperation to protect her children appear to be similar to what many women feel when they bring their children into a world where their bodies may be used or objectified.

 

If you’ve been watching Orphan Black what are your thoughts? How do you see the interplay of gender, identity, and ownership?

Sexism is Not Exciting

Something that we’ve known for ages and ages and ages is that women in advertising are more often than not portrayed sexually and are portrayed as objects. Sex sells ya know? People have talked about how it contributes to rape culture and how sexist it is, they’ve attacked everything from Abercrombie and Fitch to American Apparel, and yet I’m still left with one gigantic question:

Why do advertisers keep doing the same thing over and over again, and then labeling it as edgy or raw or cutting edge? Some of the big goals of advertising are to be fresh, to do the unexpected, to stand out from the crowd. For some reason these rules get tossed out the window when it comes to sexism and the objectification of women. The same tactics of using women as objects or goals in order to sell products has been around for decades, and let’s be perfectly honest here: it’s getting boring. We’ve seen it before. We’ve seen it in every damn mask it could possibly take. We’ve seen it sideways and upside down. A fair number of consumers have made it clear that they think it’s bullshit. There is absolutely nothing raw or edgy about it, as it’s using the same tired stereotypes, images, and constructs that have been around since we’ve had the means to document them. I for one would be happy if I never saw a commercial with a woman trying to make sexy lips ever again.

It makes absolutely no sense in terms of traditional marketing knowledge to keep using this. I suppose you could take the approach that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and argue that it’s been an effective marketing strategy for years and years. It’s the best way to make people insecure and thus WANT more to bring them a better sense of security. It’s the best way to bring in men who are really the most important consumers after all. It seems to me that the continue reliance of the advertising industry on sad stereotypes is a sign of a really broken capitalistic system that will go to any lengths to make money and to keep those in power at the top. It’s stagnating, and if I have any hope for all the new forms of media it would be that they could break the stranglehold of these old, tired media on our lives.

What do you think? Why does marketing keep using the same images over and over?

Follow-Up: Further Thoughts on Self-Harm

Ok, this is not going to be a well thought out or organized post, but I’ve had a lot more thoughts since the previous post about self-harm and I’d like to just throw some of them out there:

Tim brought up the interesting point of stigma being there because self harm necessarily involves harm. I think this is potentially true, however I think there are two important things to consider about this:

1.What constitutes harm?

I posed this question on twitter: would you consider a cut to be harm? Many people answered not necessarily, and that it depended on how serious it was. Let’s take a couple of examples-

a.You’re walking in the woods and you accidentally run into a tree branch. It scratches you/cuts you and you bleed a little. You shrug it off and you continue walking through the woods. You get home and everyone probably ignores it. Few people would say that you had been harmed, unless they take a definition of harm that suggests ANY pain is harmful.

b.You intentionally cut yourself and you bleed a little. You shrug it off, and go downstairs. Everyone freaks out and asks you why you would harm yourself. Are we sure it’s more harmful in this case?

I would propose a definition of harm that generally includes keeping someone from doing what they want to do, or keeping someone from functioning in their life as they so choose. Some people might include subjecting someone to any amount of pain in this definition, but I’m not sure I would go that far.

2.There are other things that we do, which we believe are good, which necessarily involve harm. Most medical care falls under this heading. Therapy. If we include pain in the definition of harm then every time you work out you’re harming yourself (my new argument to be lazy!). So while there may be a distinction between say rock climbing and self harm (it perhaps wasn’t the best example, although I do think that rock climb automatically comes with some pain), there are other examples we could look at that are praised when we do a cost/benefit analysis and decide that the necessary pain is worth it.

Beccy mentioned that there is a good deal of bias against self-harm and so it could be harmful to cut simply because of the attitudes of other people and the crap you’d get from them. Also an important consideration, I think generally subsumed under the first point I made in my other post. I personally would tend to weigh this slightly lower because I don’t really care too much about the opinions of people who are biased against those with mental illness.

So what do you think? How is self harm similar to and different from other forms of harm? What about BDSM? What constitutes “harm”? Does a small cut really count as harming if it does nothing to impinge on someone’s life?

What’s the Harm in Self Harm?

MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING: self-harm and suicide

 

My dear friend Elly/Lux/awesomepants mcgee posted a really interesting question on Facebook earlier today, and I was of course compelled to answer and then blog about it. She asked “This might just be due to my fucked up brain, but am I the only one who doesn’t see non-suicidal self-harm as an entirely bad thing?”

 

And oh my do I have Thoughts about this one.  Most people shudder and get extremely freaked out by the thought of self-harm. That’s completely understandable, as it goes against our most basic instincts: stay alive as long as possible and avoid pain. It’s confusing and sick to many people why someone would want to hurt themselves. However there are some good reasons why some people self-harm. Self-harm is a coping device. It can help you to feel in control again when the world feels out of control, it can numb pain or provide the only sensations when you are feeling numb, it can be a form of self-punishment when you’re feeling guilty and assuages those feelings, it can be a release when you’re feeling too much to handle, it can help you feel more clarity, it can relax you and relieve anxiety…there are all sorts of reasons why someone might want to hurt themselves, and the end goal of pain and injury is rarely the root cause.

 

So self-harm serves a purpose. It can be very helpful for people who are struggling. It can be what gets them through the day. If the injury that they cause to themselves isn’t serious, what’s the problem? We wouldn’t be getting this upset if they tripped and scraped themselves up. The person isn’t in danger, they aren’t damaging themselves, most of the time the cuts won’t result in any sort of health risk, they aren’t impacting their own quality of life (in fact they’re likely trying to improve their quality of life), so what’s the downside?

 

Well there are a few things to consider as the downsides of self-harm, and that would impact your health and quality of life.

 

1. It makes relationships hard. People who care about you don’t want to see you hurting. Generally if you’re using cutting or self-harm as a coping strategy, it means there’s something that needs to be coped with, and so the people around you become worried and anxious about how you’re doing. They want to help and solve the problem, but they’re also hurt by the fact that you’re hurting. This generally means that you get secretive about it. It can lead to lying or hiding, and you also tend to isolate when you self-harm because you think you have your problem under control and don’t want anyone to take away your coping mechanism. People can become very defensive when they think someone might take away their ability to self-harm, and they also feel judged. Overall this leads to a loss of communication, a loss of openness, and a loss of relationships.

2. There is ALWAYS the potential to do more damage than you intend. No matter how careful you are, no matter where you cut, there is always the potential that your hand slips or something happens and you land yourself in the hospital. When you self-harm, you are always putting yourself at risk in an extremely direct way. You are literally trying to get as close as possible to serious injury or death without quite moving past the line. Now many things in life involve risk, but generally we see things in a cost/benefit analysis way and weigh the risks with the benefits. It’s very possible that there are less risky ways to get the same benefits.

3. It rarely deals with the root of whatever you’re trying to cope with. It’s more of a band-aid than a fix, because it doesn’t teach you the skills to solve your problems. Whatever situation is making you feel like you need to hurt yourself will not go away because you hurt yourself. In many ways, it might exacerbate the problem because it allows you to tolerate for a longer period of time instead of changing the bad situation that you’re in. It’s a strategy that allows you to handle whatever is going on without working on whatever is going on. If you need a fix to get you through something you can’t change, then it might be very effective, but in the long run it’s not.

4. It usually escalates. Like anything else that gives you a kind of a high, you begin to get numb to it. Whatever adrenaline you might have gotten from a few scratches before dulls as your body gets used to it, and now you need to cut more or deeper in order to get the same relief. And the more you escalate, the higher your risk of serious injury or suicide is. Just like drugs or alcohol or whatever, you go further and further, and I think that for many people it does become addictive or obsessive. I know some people who can’t fathom going a day without cutting. When you can’t live without your coping mechanism, it probably is not actually helping you cope anymore. When it has lost its function, it’s simply unnecessary risk.

 

So there are clear benefits to self-harm. You get calm or relief from it, it helps manage emotions, and it can be a way to get through a difficult situation without breaking down. However there are also a lot of risks and downsides to it, like potential serious injury and lack of long-term effectiveness. Given these pros and cons, I think that each individual should be left to their own devices to decide if the pros outweigh the cons for them (up until the point it becomes seriously dangerous). What doesn’t make entire sense to me is the out of proportion reaction that many people have to self-harm. There are all sorts of hobbies that are risky and dangerous. Take rock climbing for example, which is also something I do and love. It’s probably at least as dangerous as self-harm, and doesn’t directly provide benefits in the same way that self-harm does (I mean it is good exercise and good stress relief, but it’s not nearly as effective as self-harm). There is no logical reason why people should see self-harm as inherently worse than other potentially dangerous hobbies and practices, but there is a huge stigma against it. Despite the fact that there are downsides to self-harm, they don’t warrant the panic that seems to appear at the mere mention of self-harm. It’s not inherently worse than any other injury or risk simply because it’s self-inflicted.