“While many women were taught that men are aggressive and unreliable, they were also exposed to the normal/danger dichotomy discourse, which told them that there are “good guys” and “bad guys,” and that one should not be confused with the other. As we saw in women’s recollections of their early educations, most girls were warned about the existence of dangerous men, but few were told that those men might include family members, lovers, teachers, or friends. Since they were encouraged to rely on “good guys” for protection, acknowledging a trusted man as a “bad guy” often evoked considerable dissonance. Rather than entertain such dissonance, some women found it preferable to leave their abusive experiences unnamed as such.

Diana’s experience provides a clear example of the potential costs of naming a “good guy” an abuser. After leaving home at fourteen, she moved in with her teacher and began having a physical relationship with him. Indebted to him for providing her shelter and support, she was unable or unwilling to consider her experience with him abuse.

I left home when I was fourteen. I stayed with my teacher, which was really great, but when I look back at it, it was a little weird. He was so cool, though. I mean he took me in and fed me and took care of me. I love him for what he did for me. I wasn’t in love with him. I was more just very grateful. We were like this funny couple, because he was about thirty-five and I was fourteen. He was really sensitive to the fact that I was so young. So we never, I mean, it wasn’t sexual. He was cool about that. I would just undress for him and he would masturbate, or I would jerk him off, or sometimes give him head. But he never laid a hand on me. He knew I was just young. We had to be really careful about going out and everything, because we couldn’t let anybody at school know. They would just think like it was abuse or something, and they would make me go back to my mom or to a shelter. They would have made it into something abusive or illegal. But it wasn’t, because he really protected me. If it wasn’t for him, I would have had it a lot worse. (Diana, 21, “bisexual,” “white”)

When I asked whether she ever thought her relationship with her teacher qualified as statutory rape or sexual abuse, Diana answered,

No. I wasn’t into the sexual part, and he knew that, which is why he never forced intercourse or anything. I think he respected that I was too young. I never really thought of myself as being coerced or anything, I just thought, “This is what I owe him. He takes care of me, and I should do this to make him happy.” If it wasn’t for him, I’d be on the street. Well, maybe that does make it a little coercive. I mean, it was sort of, do that or find somewhere else. It didn’t really occur to me that I had a lot of choice. But he was so good to me, I could never think about it as abuse.

For Diana, the fact of her teacher’s kindness erased other considerations: that he was thirty-five, that she was a minor, that he was in a position of authority over her at school, that she “wasn’t into the sexual part,” or that she had to “do that or find somewhere else” to live. Indeed, even though she undressed for him, masturbated him, and gave him oral sex, she maintained that “it wasn’t sexual” because “he never laid a hand on me.” Rather than seeing these acts as abusive or exploitive, she interpreted them as evidence of his sensitivity to her young age and lack of sexual feelings for him. While she was willing to entertain the possibility during her interview that her situation was “weird” or “a little coercive,” she was unable to reconcile his care with the notion that he abused or molested her. The costs of such a realization would not only have involved being out on the street as a teenager, but even now would induce profound disillusionment about the one person in her life who had taken her in at a difficult time. So Diana chose to understand her experience as a mutual relationship, a give-and-take arrangement between a compassionate adult and a needy adolescent, rather than two years of exploitation or statutory rape.

While women were often eager in their interviews to discuss their dissatisfaction with boyfriends and lovers, only Diana was willing to describe a personal relationship with an intimate as involving victimization.

I haven’t really had many bad experiences where they felt clear, where I felt like I could put my foot down and say, “This was abuse.” Only my relationship with Tony. It didn’t last very long, because I was like, “I’ve gotta get out of here.” But I was with him for a while before I felt like I could say, “Wait a minute, I’m the victim here. You are not the victim,” which is what he was trying to make me believe. But no, I realized it wasn’t normal for him to grab me and hit me and try to cause me pain. I’ve had relationships where pain was erotic, like s/m, but where it was consensual, a mutual type of thing. And I think that’s fine, you know? If both people are into it, that’s cool. But this guy, Tony, it wasn’t about that. It was more about just abuse. (Diana, 21, “bisexual,” “white”)

Women shared stories of forced or coerced sex, physical pain, and humiliation induced by their lovers, as well as outright violence. But because they often involved and/or depended on these men, they resisted naming their relationships abusive. For instance, although Evelyn described physical violence in her current relationship, she was careful to avoid labeling her boyfriend an “abuse.”

I always thought I would never stay with a man who hit me. I was brought up to respect myself and to expect much more. But when you’re in the situation, it just becomes different. I still think I would never be in a relationship where I was being really abused, but my boyfriend has slapped me and I’m still with him. He’s basically a good person, and we share a lot together. It’s just that he has a really bad temper, and when he gets upset, he sometimes hits me. God, that sounds so bad. But most times he’s really decent, so I don’t think of the times he hits me as so severe. I mean, it’s not like he hits me every night or something. It’s really very seldom, actually. Well, there  was this one time that he had me up against the wall and he was holding my hair and punching me in the stomach. But he really apologized after, and I don’t think that will ever happen again. I know this might sound like, whatever, but he really is a good person. He’s not an abuser. (Evelyn, 21, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian”)

Unhappy coupleIn light of her love and commitment towards this man, Evelyn was unwilling in her interview to call this violence “abuse.” Despite the fact that he had slapped and punched her, she was moved by his apologies and described him as a good person who just happened to take out his bad temper on her. Whereas Evelyn said her boyfriend hit her when he was angry, Sara acknowledged that her boyfriend used physical force during their sexual experiences.

The sex is lots of times pretty rough. Sometimes it just feels like I’m an object that he does things to, rather than somebody that he’s really with. He’s pretty aggressive sexually, and a lot of times it really hurts. It hurts me physically, because a lot of times I’m not ready and he just goes ahead anyway and he’s really rough. And it hurts me emotionally, too, like it kind of hurts my feelings. It’s kind of degrading to have someone you care about treat you like an object in bed. But when he’s all hot and horny, it’s like, he needs it, and I’m just sort of beside the point. (Sara, 20, “mostly heterosexual, with a healthy bisexual curiosity, but with no experience,” “white”)

When I asked if this felt like sexual abuse, Sara immediately defended her boyfriend by noting the love they shared.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love this guy and he loves me. It’s just that sex is one area of our lives that I don’t expect to get much pleasure from. If I could get aroused by his style of sex it would be much better. But he’s so harsh and, like, wham bam that I can’t really enjoy it with him. I’ve had good sexual relationships with other people, so I know what it can be like, but I think he’s just not a very considerate lover in bed. That’s just the way he is.

Sara could describe her sexual experiences with her boyfriend as painful, humiliating, degrading, and displeasurable, and she could describe him as harsh, aggressive, and inconsiderate. But when asked to consider the possibility that he was sexually abusive, she immediately pointed to their love for each other and explained, “that’s just the way he is.” Presumably, the fact that she loves this man and he loves her means that she is not sexually abused. It seems impossible that he might simultaneously be the man she loves and a man who victimizes her.”

Phillips, Lynn M. 2000. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination. New York: New York University Press. From the section “Intolerable Dissonance: He Was So Good to Me, I Could Never Call It Abuse“, pp. 167-171 in Chapter 6, “Controlling the Damage: Making Meaning When “Things Go Badly“. [Emphasisitalics, and pictures not in original.]

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