With an abuser recently elected to become one of the most powerful people in the world, I felt it was high time to adress a problem that is perhaps tangential to abuse, but still important. And that is how to support the victims.
Any number of things could have inspired me to write this post – the sad fact is that bullies, abusers and harassers are everywhere, and I see people talking about them every day. Unfortunately, this means I also see a whole lot of unhelpful responses. Since I hope it’s usually done out of misguided kindness, I decided to write this list of what not to do when you want to support a friend who has been subjected to some sort of harassment, abuse, or threats.
Caveat: Most harassment I witness or hear about is done by men. Therefore examples in this text contain gendered pronouns, and certain points are really only relevant if the harasser is male.
1. Do Not Diagnose the Harasser With Mental Health Issues
A common response to tales of harassment is to put forth an armchair diagnosis as a sort of accusation, talking about how someone is “mentally ill”, “a psychopath”, etc.
It’s really offensive to people with mental health issues when “mentally ill” is used as a derogatory term. Being sick is not a personal flaw, it’s a medical issue. This really should be a no-brainer but apparently it’s not.
It may of course be entirely true that a person who stalks, harasses, abuses and threatens people is neurodivergent or mentally ill. Maybe even most people who act like that should have some form of diagnosis and get treated. But no matter how much you may know about certain issues, you have no business speculating.
2. No Not Imply That Poor Mental Health Is an Excuse
Sometimes when the harasser is familiar to people, known or presumed diagnoses are mentioned as an explanation, bordering on excuse: “He’s lashing out because he’s really depressed. He needs help.”
Being mentally ill is not an excuse to act like a shithead. The vast majority of people suffering from mental illness do not harass people. The vast majority of us manage to control our own actions most of the time. The vast majority of us don’t fail completely at basic human decency. And when sometimes we do (because of a manic episode, for instance), we repent as soon as it passes.
Using mental illness as an excuse to feel sorry for and go easy on a harasser is basically removing agency from a group of people who desperately need it. It says we’re not in control of our actions, that we can’t help it if we fail at managing our illness, and we might as well give up. So please, stop. Just stop it.
Another version of this point is mentioning that the harasser is having a rough time. Maybe you know the harasser or maybe you’re just a nice person and prefer to try to think the best of people. Maybe they were dumped by their partner, maybe their hamster died. It doesn’t really matter. However shitty their life is, it’s no excuse to start harassing other people. And talking about someone else’s shitty life is not a good way to support a friend in need.
3. Do Not Pronounce the Harasser a Hopeless Dork
An incredibly common way to react to male abusers especially is to say something on the lines of, “He probably lives in his mother’s basement and spends all his time playing World of Warcraft.”
I’m sorry, what? Hello, I’m Alex, and I’m a dork. I used to spend all my time playing World of Warcraft and I visit my parents every week. Can we please stop using my very valid lifestyle choice as an insult? Especially when the worst bullies in meatspace tend to be the “cool kids”. It’s true that the internet provides a bit of an opportunity for us dorks to lash out, get revenge – but I’d wager that most of us never do.
Besides, just like poor mental health does not excuse you from exercising common human decency, being a hopeless dork is … well, barely even an explanation.
(On a related note, this is sometimes used to excuse harassers, by claiming they are simply “socially awkward”. Heina Dadabhoy explains why this is a dangerous fallacy in this excellent post.)
4. Do Not Insult the Harasser’s Masculinity
The previous point is very often followed by some speculation about the harasser’s sexual prowess. Usually it is posited that the harasser has never had a girlfriend/never gotten laid.
Because, as we all know, the moment a man gets laid he immediately gains respect for women and is then at peace with himself and the world. No man who has actually slept with a woman could possibly harass them.
I’m sorry if I’m being aggressively facetious. But there are so many things wrong with this, I would need an entire post to outline why you shouldn’t do it, and still, even in the most progressive circles, I see it all the time. This attitude is probably part of what creates harassers, abusers and sexual predators in the first place. Equating men’s worth with their sexual prowess, assuming all men want to have sex with women, assuming all men want to have sex at all … can we just, like, not? Not do that?
5. Do Not Dismiss the Harasser as Harmless
The previous two points both contribute to a dismissal of the problem, but this can also be done explicitly. This is often done when the harasser is threatening his victim, and commonly in conjunction with previous points. The victim is told that the harasser is a dork who lacks the balls to carry through with his threats. “He’s all talk, he’d never leave his mother’s basement. There’s no need to worry.”
As a victim of bullying, this happened to me when I told people around me how a boy had threatened to beat me up (along with his posse). It was met by snorts of derision. “He’d never do such a thing,” they said. I know they meant to be reassuring, but all I heard was that my upset feelings weren’t legitimate.
Telling victims of threats – which is a form of psychological abuse – that the threats don’t mean anything if there’s no intention or capability of carrying them through is the opposite of helpful. It’s dismissive and silencing. A threat is a threat, no matter if it’s impled or explicit, and no matter what happens afterwards. It is completely reasonable to find threats worrying, no matter how inane you believe them to be.
6. Do Not Talk About Violent Punishment
If your immediate response is imagining how you would want to punish the harasser – be it by means of physical violence or hacking their computer to expose all their embarrassing secrets – chances are it’s best to keep it to yourself. Reacting with anger when someone you care about has been abused is natural and understandable, but lashing out is often just another face of toxic masculinity. (Yes, women sometimes do respond this way as well, but it is more common by far with men.)
Another reason not to do this is that it may make the victim nervous that you are about to do something rash. In all likelihood, they are reaching out to get some support in a difficult time, and to warn others of the harasser’s behaviour. Punishing the harasser on their behalf is likely to end up hurting the victim even more, so even if you never intended to go through with it, just mentioning it can make your friend feel even more unsafe.
- Don’t diagnose the harasser with mental health issues as if being mentally ill is a personality flaw. It’s insulting to people who are mentally ill.
- Don’t diagnose the harasser, implying this explains and excuses their behaviour. Poor mental health or having a shitty life is no excuse to harass people.
- Don’t talk about what a loser the harasser is, referring to presumed lifestyle. It’s insulting to people who also live that way, and anyway it’s no excuse.
- Don’t insult the harassers masculinity by presuming he has no sex life. This kind of behaviour is part of the problem.
- Don’t dismiss the harasser as harmless, especially not if he is making threats. This invalidates the victim’s feelings.
- Don’t talk about how you want to punish the harasser. It may make the victim nervous that you are about to take action.
What to Do Instead
First of all, believe the victim. If you doubt some component of their story, keep that to yourself. If you are truly wanting to support your friend, you have to show them that you believe them.
Offer a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. Express outrage if it seems appropriate, but remember some victims will feel obliged to tone down the abuse they suffered, and even start defending the abuser if you get too antagonistic.
You can also offer to help them contact authorities, if that’s something they want to do. Keep in mind that with stalkers, any form of acknowledgement or interaction with the perpetrator will likely make the problem worse, which is why the victim might not want to go to the police.
In the end, the best thing you can do is to ask! Ask what the person needs from you.
A Note to Leaders, Organizers, Etc.
If you are in a position of authority in some sort of formal social context, be it professional, an NGO or similar, you have a responsibility not just toward the victim but toward other potential victims. It’s extremely common for harassers, especially sexual predators, to find victims in such contexts but save their inappropriate behaviour for personal messages or other “private” fora. Thus it’s easy to dismiss that as probems that have nothing to do with you.
I think that’s a cheap cop-out and enables wide-spread abuse of primarily women by men. Women should not have to rely on whispered warnings from each other to feel safe.
But, as mentioned, any one victim may not want you to do anything on their behalf. These issues are incredibly complex and need to be treated with care – but that’s not an excuse to put your head in the sand.