Positive thinking phrases you should never use about abuse

Positive thinking phrases you should never use about abuse

Dr Jessica Taylor

Content warning for discussion of abuse and rape

Whether you are reading this as someone who has been subjected to abuse, whether you know someone who has or you are a professional who supports people who have – you might notice some ‘positive thinking’ phrases in here that you use to reframe the abuse.

This blog explores some of those phrases and then discusses why we shouldn’t use them, and the problems they create for people who have been subjected to all forms of abuse.

The positive thinking phrases I will discuss in this blog are:

‘It made you stronger’

‘You had something positive from it’

‘It made you who you are today’

‘Everything happens for a reason’

‘You get back what you give’

‘Positivity attracts positive people’

‘We can’t change what happened, but we can change how we feel/respond to it’

Whilst some of these sound brilliant, they can harm us in ways we don’t realise. Especially if we begin to believe some of the connotations of these phrases and their underlying beliefs – which are often linked to victim blaming.

So let’s jump right in with the worst of them all.

‘It made you stronger

Most people who have been subjected to abuse have heard or read this one countless times. Maybe you had been telling someone what you have been through, and suddenly, some well meaning friend or therapist tells you that the abuser, or the rapist or your abusive parent ‘made you stronger’.

It’s always meant well.

But the thing is, being raped or abused or harmed or beaten up or gaslit every day didn’t make us stronger – it did the opposite. It really hurt us. It felt like it destroyed us. It broke us down into pieces.

For some of us, this phrase puts an awful lot of pressure on us to be some kick-ass strong survivor type person. To be able to brush it off and keep going. To pretend that none of it impacts us anymore, because it made us stronger. Right?

No, the abuser or rapist, the abuse and the rape did not make us stronger at all – but if we did feel stronger these days, we did that ourselves.

Don’t ever give credit to an abuser for making someone else stronger. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that being raped or abused MADE you or anyone else stronger. Instead, if you or someone else feels that they are getting stronger after living through trauma, that’s something they did for themselves.

Don’t attribute that to the offender, or the offence.

‘You got something positive from it’

This one is quite specific, and relates to the way that women and girls who have children with abusers are told that they should be thankful that they got something positive from the rape or abuse (their children).

I would go even further and say that I’ve heard some people say things like ‘well think about it, if you hadn’t been raped/trafficked/abused, you wouldn’t have your kids, would you?’

Or even

‘Well, you wouldn’t want to change what you’ve been through, because then you would never have had your kids!’

I just want to say this:

Women, you do not have to feel thankful that you had children with a rapist or an abuser. You can love your kids and still wish you were never subjected to trauma and abuse that changed your life.

You do not have to associate these things, or hold them as equivalents.

And to people who say this to others:

I know you mean well, but this really does induce a lot of guilt when women are trying to talk about the abuse and trauma they have been subjected to.

Yes, they might have ‘got two wonderful kids out of it’ (in your perspective), but she lived through hell. Her kids are not a consolation prize or a reward for putting up with being raped and abused.

Don’t use this one, it’s just never a good idea to go down this line of reasoning with a woman.

I would extend this, however, to any argument that someone makes that a woman, man, boy or girl ‘took something positive’ from being abused or harmed.

It’s just not okay to reframe their suffering and oppression as something positive, or a gift of some kind.

‘It made you who you are today’

So much shit is said with good intentions, and here is another common example.

Whether you’ve said this to someone who has been subjected to abuse, or whether you say it to yourself – the abuse did not make you who you are today.

This one redefines your entire life, your entire being – as a product of the abuse and the choices of the abuser.

Being raped or abused or oppressed did not make you who you are today.

You are not defined by the crimes of another.

‘Everything happens for a reason’

This one is related more to theories such as Belief in a Just World, in which people who say these kinds of things tend to believe that things happen for a reason (because you are a good person, because you are a bad person, because you deserve it etc).

However, being told that ‘everything happens for a reason’ strikes me as a mixture between not knowing what else to say, trying to say something meaningful and reframing the abuse or rape as predestined to happen for some sort of cosmic reason.

I mean, if you wanted to be picky, I could say, yes, the rape and abuse did happen for a reason, the reason is that the abuser is a nasty fucking lowlife who made an active choice to harm others instead of looking at themselves. That’s the reason.

But it has nothing to do with your life, or your journey. It didn’t happen to you to teach you a lesson, or to help you, or to make you grow as a person, or to make you stronger, or to mould or shape or define you.

I would actually argue that there is no evidence that ‘everything happens for a reason’, anyway. Especially not in the cosmic sense.

Most things that happen to us or are done to us are random, and often could not be predicted or stopped. The world is a zillion possibilities all zooming around, colliding, missing, synchronising at once.

The reality is that you could drive to work today and bump into the car in front. Or you could get a text message from an old friend that changes your life. Or you could fall over and break your knee. Or you could stay home and see an advert on the TV that makes you consider stopping smoking. Or your partner could tell you they are no longer happy. Or your kid could get a cold. Or your tire could be flat when you go outside.

So many things happen in a day. And yet, we often tell ourselves that they mean something, that they all happen for a special, magical reason.

We are best to avoid this kind of thinking, especially when thinking about rape and abuse.

The only reason it happened was because the abuser chose to harm another human. The rest is just magical thinking that we use to give meaning to experiences we try to make sense of.

The issue with this one, is that it can lead us to believe that the rape or abuse was supposed to happen to us, for some sort of reason. It then undoubtedly leads to ‘why me?’ questions, which often turn into victim blaming and self blame.

‘You get back what you give’

I really hate this one. Especially when used in the context of abuse.

Simply put: no you don’t.

The entire dynamic of being abused is that you DON’T get back what you give. Often, victims of abuse and oppression are putting everything into a relationship or situation and are not even afforded basic human respect.

Abuse has nothing to do with what the victim ‘puts in’ or ‘gives’.

Abuse is always about the offender and what they are choosing to do to other humans.

My main issue with this one is that it assumes that you ‘get back’ what you ‘give’ – for example, if you don’t work hard in a relationship or situation then you will be treated like shit. It implies that you have been abused because you didn’t ‘give’ enough in the relationship or situation.

Nope. No. Ugh.

This is not appropriate at all when discussing abuse. It reminds me very much of the people who say that you only get treated how you allow others to treat you, which is also bollocks.

‘Positivity attracts positive people’

I’ve seen this one being used in domestic abuse, usually towards women, and it bothers me a lot.

This obsession with meaningless, empty Instagram quotes is impacting the quality of the advice we give to women subjected to abuse.

This one annoys me because it suggests that if you are a positive person who believes in positive thinking and positive action, you will only attract positive people into your life, and you will not be abused or harmed by them.

It’s essentially victim blaming.

It’s suggesting that the person attracted someone ‘negative’ into their life by not being positive enough. Almost as if, happy positive people will not be targeted by abusers or oppressors, because their positivity is some sort of force field that only attracts good people and repels bad ones.

It’s bollocks, basically.

And it puts a lot of pressure on people who have been subjected to abuse and harm to be more positive in order to ‘attract the right people’.

It’s a really nasty, insidious one.

Don’t say it to people who have been subjected to abuse, and even more importantly, don’t feel that you ‘attracted’ the wrong ‘type’ of people into your life by being a certain way.

It feeds self blame, but sounds like positive thinking. Same as many of the others, really.

‘We can’t change what happened, but we can change how we feel/respond to it’

The final one is this interesting rhetoric which probably has its roots in cognitive therapy traditions, this idea that you can simply change the way you think about your abuse or rape or childhood trauma.

The problem with this one when used in abuse and trauma is that we are essentially saying to victims of serious crime and oppression that they can just choose to think differently about what was done to them, and stop being sad, anxious, scared, angry, traumatised etc.

This isn’t realistic and it minimises the real impact of those crimes on the person. It also puts pressure on the person to respond ‘better’ than they are already doing.

It’s a message of, ‘Yes, this did happen to you, but you could be dealing with it better if you just thought positively’.

It’s not fair to expect this of anyone, and it comes across as shaming people who are trying to cope with trauma and the impact of abuse.

I remember once having this discussion with a senior clinical psychologist and we did eventually come to the conclusion that it borders on gaslighting by professionals to tell a traumatised person to think differently or respond differently to the abuse or trauma. I feel exactly the same way about this phrase used in positive thinking.

Final thought

Lots of phrases we use in positive thinking and in supporting people subjected to abuse and trauma sound good, mean well, but are having detrimental and harmful impacts on them, including inducing guilt, shame and blame.

Written by Dr Jessica Taylor

Psychologist

Director of VictimFocus

10 November 2020

My books and resources are at http://www.victimfocus-resources.com

More information at http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

Email: jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Tweet: @DrJessTaylor

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/JessForenPsych

3 reasons we need to talk about token resistance

Written by Dr Jessica Eaton

Director of VictimFocus

Senior Lecturer in Criminal Psychology

1 November 2019

What is token resistance?

‘Token resistance’ is the act of pretending to resist sexual advances when really, you want to say yes.

The term ‘token resistance’ has been used to describe the way women and girls supposedly ‘play hard to get’, ‘act coy’, or ‘play it cool’ when men or boys show them attention or proposition them.

Make no mistake, there is societal pressure on women and girls to do these things to appear chaste, innocent or hard to obtain. They are often advised to ‘play hard to get’ when men or boys they like ask them on a date, ask for their number or come on to them.

Key studies in psychology from the 1990s onwards have shown that both men and women are likely to consider a woman’s rejection of sexual advances to be ‘token resistance’. Studies have found that when women reject sexual advances with anything other than crying, shouting and fighting back – it can be seen as token resistance from a woman who ‘wants it really’.

This blog will outline three key reasons why we need to talk about token resistance and the impact this concept is having on the prevalence and perception of male violence against women and girls.

1. It is fucking everywhere

Token resistance really is everywhere. It features in soaps, music videos, films, stories, fairytales and music lyrics.

When I give speeches, I often joke that every single romantic comedy you have ever watched is based on the concept of token resistance.

(Warning: I’m about to ruin romcoms for you for the rest of your days)

However, whilst people always laugh along when I talk about the tragic storylines of pathetic men who find a single, outgoing woman and then harass her for 90 minutes until she ‘realises’ she wants to marry or fuck him – this really is no laughing matter.

Consider how many romantic comedies you have watched which begin with a single woman who is working in a new job, just moved to a new apartment, just broke up with a shitty ex. Starts okay, right?

But the storyline changes quickly with the introduction of a man who would like to date/marry/fuck the woman.

Annnnnnd literally the rest of the film plot is the story of a man who:

  • Turns up at the woman’s workplace
  • Calls her repeatedly
  • Leaves her hundreds of voicemails
  • Follows her to a park
  • Turns up at an airport to stop her from going on a once-in-a-lifetime journey
  • Writes letters to the woman
  • Sends her flowers
  • Engages in huge public romantic gestures until the woman gives in
  • Flies to the woman’s parents’ holiday home in France to ‘surprise her’
  • Learns a skill or joins a class/club to follow the woman
  • Stalks her location and turns up there
  • Contacts all of her friends and family to tell them how much he loves/wants her
  • Stops her wedding to a man she loves
  • Manipulates or lies to the woman
  • Pretends to be someone he is not to trick the woman

The list is fucking endless. Those of you who watch a lot of so-called ‘chick-flicks’ will be able to write a list as long as your arm.

I’m sorry to break it to you: but those behaviours are not romantic at all, they are harassment.

The real kicker is that once the ‘token resistance’ of the woman has been overcome (read: her ‘no’ is ignored and then she is ground down until she literally can’t take anymore) – the plot of the film usually shows the woman ‘realising’ that she does want the man and then finally saying ‘yes’.

Yes to the sex, yes to the marriage, yes to moving in with him, yes to being in a relationship with him or yes to abandoning her career and family to move across the world with him for some reason. YAY.

Token resistance features heavily in films. But it also features in music videos and music lyrics.

I mean, how can we forget the rapey lyrics of Robin Thicke when he said:

Tried to domesticate you/ But you’re an animal/ Baby, it’s in your nature/ Just let me liberate you/ I know you want it/ I know you want it/ I know you want it/ But you’re a good girl

Music video upon music video of men wooing, following, stalking and harassing women in which the woman is seen to be enjoying the attention.

Even fairytales contain copious amounts of token resistance in which traditional female characters reject or ignore the advances of male characters who then woo them or win them over until they marry at the end. Most first generation Disney films are about the conquest of a woman.

Token resistance is embedded into so much media and into so many accepted narratives about sex, love and dating that it is likely to be having an immense impact on society.

Arguably, it is.

2. It is teaching men and boys that no means yes, or maybe, or try again later

Humans learn much of their knowledge about love, sex, dating, romance and respect from other humans. Whether that’s their role models, parents and friends or from music, film, soaps and media depictions of relationships.

Token resistance is not just a concept taught to women and girls who are taught to be scared of being seen as ‘easy’. This concept is taught simultaneously to men and boys who wonder how to capture the attention of that woman or girl they fancy.

Whilst a girl may watch a scene of token resistance and think, ‘So that’s how I’m supposed to act when a boy asks me out!’

A boy may watch the same scene and think ‘So that’s what I’m supposed to do when a girl says she isn’t interested!’

Instead of teaching boys and men that no really does mean no, the constant depictions of token resistance teach boys and men that women and girls don’t really mean no.

In token resistance, no means:

  • Maybe
  • Yes
  • Later
  • Try again
  • Try harder
  • Say something else
  • Keep talking to me
  • I like you but I’m playing hard to get
  • I want it really

Feminists often discuss how we will ever change the rape culture which exists in our world. How do we reduce or eliminate sexual violence against women and girls? How do we get abusive men and boys to understand that no means no?

The reality is, with relentless messages that no means yes and that they should simply keep trying and do something else to ‘win’ that woman or girl – we will never tackle rape culture. Men and boys are being socialised to believe that no means ‘yes but I don’t want to appear easy’.

3. It is contributing to the victim blaming of women and girls

Token resistance is embedded into our society. This means that millions of men and women have been taught or indirectly socialised that women and girls saying ‘no’ sometimes means ‘yes’.

We have been exploring the psychology of victim blaming and rape supportive attitudes for several decades now. Part of this research has been to explore how much the general public believe in rape myths such as:

‘Women say no to sex even when they want it’

‘When women say no to sexual advances, they are just playing hard to get’

‘Rape happens when a woman doesn’t say ‘no’ clearly enough’

These common myths directly relate to token resistance – and this feeds into the increasing levels of victim blaming of women and girls subjected to sexual violence.

For example, in the recent USA literature there is much discussion about a concept known as ‘sexual assault refusal assertiveness’.

Wait for it. Yep. It’s as bad as you think.

Researchers have been arguing that the reason women and girls are raped and abused is because they have ‘low sexual assault refusal assertiveness’ and therefore require training and education which helps them to ‘refuse’ an assault better.

In my own research, I found the opposite. My interviews with women who had been raped demonstrated that they had said ‘no’ to men several times in many different ways. None of their refusals protected them from the offender. Some women told me they had told the offender ‘no’ several times, then pushed their hands away, then moved away from them and then tried to convince the offender not to hurt them and it still hadn’t worked. This was true for women in stranger rapes and in domestic violence.

Clearly, their ‘sexual assault refusal assertiveness’ skills were fine. The problem here was the offender. The offender did not care that they said no. Suggesting that women and girls who are raped or abused had ‘low sexual assault refusal skills’ is most definitely a form of victim blaming which comes from the concept of token resistance.

Another example of the way token resistance feeds into victim blaming of women and girls is in the courtroom.

I often say that in the courtroom, whilst there are technical rules on what is and is not allowed to be used against the victim or against the offender – the majority of the rules protect the latter. For instance, you cannot use the ‘bad character history’ of the offender even if he has raped 5 women before, because it can ‘bias the jury’. In order to use this against him in a trial, you must have significant reason and prior permission.

However, the same process does not occur for victims, in which literally anything to attack their character or their history is admissible. What she was wearing, how many people she’s slept with, what kind of knickers she was wearing, whether she watches porn, whether she was abused in childhood and even whether she’s ever told her GP that she has mental health needs – these factors can all be used against the victim without prior applications or protection from the court.

It is therefore no surprise that one of the best defences in rape and sexual assault trials is to admit the sexual act occurred, but to argue that she ‘wanted it’ or ‘lead him on’ or ‘asked for it’.

Many years ago, it would have been a valid defence to argue that the offence never occurred and the woman is making it up. However, with the development of evidence collection and investigation techniques, this defence is no longer wise. Instead, it makes sense to admit or partially admit the sexual contact, but the claim that the woman consented or didn’t say ‘no’.

Concepts of token resistance rear their head in the courtroom on a regular basis. Women are accused of wanting the sex, asking for it, leading the man on, not saying no clearly enough, giving mixed signals, flirting with the man or even saying no when she really meant ‘yes’.

What can we do to combat token resistance?

As such a heavily employed belief in our society, it will be hard to combat. However, I do think there are some simple and practical things we can do to create change as soon as possible:

1. Talk about it openly and with as many people as possible. Most people don’t even know this exists, but once you point it out to them, they can see it everywhere.

2. Stop teaching oversimplified lessons on consent. Yes, I know it’s nice to believe that all we have to do is teach kids that ‘no means no’ and they will never grow into rapists and abusers. But consent is so much more complicated and contextual than what we are teaching. Why aren’t we teaching children about token resistance and how harmful this is?

3. We could start to challenge media representations of women who ‘want it really’ and instead show depictions of men and boys who do take ‘no’ for an answer and move the fuck on with their lives

4. Talk to girls and women about the social pressure to say ‘no’ when they are interested in men and boys – due to the shame attached to having sexual desires and sexual interests. In reality, no always means no. Men and boys should take no for a no. But it might be worth talking to women and girls about the way society teaches them that they are supposed to be ‘up for sex’ but also coy, protective and hard to get.

5. Talk to men and boys about sexual harassment and the way that movies, stories, soaps and music encourage them to harass and stalk women and girls even when they have said no. Get them to think critically about the amount of media and social norms expect them to keep pursuing women and girls who don’t want them, and how to deal with rejection respectfully.

Written by Dr Jessica Eaton

Director of VictimFocus

Senior Lecturer in Criminal Psychology

Tweet: @Jessicae13eaton

Fbook: http://www.facebook.com/jessicaforenpsych

Email: jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Web: http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

Shop: http://www.victimfocus-resources.com

Why being sexually exploited is nothing like playing on a motorway 

Why being sexually exploited is not the same as playing on a motorway.
By Jessica Eaton

You know it’s bad when you have to stand up in front of 40 experienced professionals and explain why being sexually exploited is absolutely nothing like playing on a motorway. 

I have this thing where my face reveals exactly what I’m thinking, even in professional environments. Those of you who know me will know how true that is. Gets me in lots of trouble and interesting conversations. 

So imagine my face when I am away working in London, explaining to a group of experienced professionals that children are never to blame for sexual exploitation; and a woman puts her hand up and says:
“I’m sorry but I totally disagree with you and I think what you are saying is irresponsible. You’re stood there trying to tell us that children are not to blame for being sexually exploited and you are saying that their behaviours do not lead to them being raped and abused but you are wrong. You are ignoring behaviours that children show that would make them more likely to be abused.”

I asked her to clarify what she meant and reiterated my position that no child is ever to blame for being sexually abused no matter what ‘behaviours’ they showed. 

“Sexual exploitation is like kids playing on a motorway. The kids running in and out of traffic on a motorway are much more likely to be ran over by a car than kids playing at home in the garden. If the kids playing on the motorway were hit by a car, you cannot argue that they are not to blame. Loads of kids that are sexually exploited do things that mean that we cannot argue that they are not to blame. If those kids weren’t on the motorway, they would be ran over. If the kids who are being sexually exploited didn’t do the things they do, they wouldn’t be exploited. It’s wrong to say that they are never to blame. They have to take responsibility for their actions. They need to be taught about their risk taking behaviours so they are not sexually exploited.”

I am not going to lie to you, my face must have been a picture. However, I have worked in sexual violence long enough to have heard this argument many, many times. I’ve heard it tied up with ribbons in fancy language about risk taking behaviours and neuropsychological development – but I have never heard it explained with such a confident analogy. 

My responsibility at this point, as a lecturer – as an expert – is to use this challenge as an opportunity to improve the understanding of the professional who used the motorways analogy – but also the ensure her and the other 39 professionals staring at me, waiting for an answer; do not blame children for sexual abuse.

“Hmmm interesting analogy.” I started.

“Whilst I agree with you that children playing on a motorway would be likely to get ran over, and would be much more likely to be ran over than children playing at home, I don’t agree with your analogy to CSE. Actually, I don’t see any logical comparison between your analogy and CSE at all.”

‘Pick your words carefully, Jessica. Use your airtime to teach and persuade’ I think.

“I would argue that the motorway is a constant, physical but non-motivated danger to humans. When children are playing on a dangerous road, drivers are not purposely, meticulously, carefully trying to run them over from miles away. The car is not motivated to hit them to achieve some sort of pleasure or satisfaction. The child is aware of the dangers of the motorway and understands the speed and velocity of a car travelling at 70mph. The child doesn’t want to be hit by the car and the child has not been groomed and manipulated by the driver to think that they want to be ran over and should enjoy being ran over. The child has not been bribed or blackmailed to be ran over using things they need or want. Do you agree that all of this is true?”

She nodded.

“Would you also agree that no matter how much you taught your children about the dangers of roads, the green cross code and how to stay safe; you still could not blame them if a dangerous driver who wanted to harm children swerved towards them, mounted the curb and ran them over?”

She nodded.

“Child sex offenders are not the physical, constant, non-motivated dangers like the motorway that you can tell kids not to play on. They are the dangerous driver who swerves, mounts the curb and runs over the child, who cannot predict it will happen and cannot protect themselves from the impact.” 

She nodded and the other delegates all began to comment, agree and discuss.

And that’s why being sexually exploited is not the same as playing on a motorway. 

Jessica Eaton

Www.victimfocus.org.uk 

Jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

@Jessicae13Eaton