"On Psychosocial Abuse in 2SLGBTQ Communities"
- by Sly Sarkisova
It is easy to loathe the pathologizing language and descriptions seen in popular psychology of "narcissistic abuse." The term is used to describe various manifestations of interpersonal violence, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, or what I would term more aptly: psychosocial abuse which occur unexamined in harm filled relationships. Such attestations often seek to malign the perpetrator with overly pathologizing language that does not seek to neutrally understand some of the psychodynamic elements which serve to create attack and abuse responses in certain individuals. Yet, there are some intrinsic dynamics specific to psychosocial abuse, which operate to create covert systems used by people who abuse that are invisible to those both within, and outside the situation. Such abuse patterns have largely gone undocumented and unexamined in queer and trans communities due in large part to their highly confounding, confusing, and intricately manipulative machinations that silently harm and transfer blame, unethically and unaccountably onto victims of emotional and social violence.
Queer and trans communities often experience high degrees of interpersonal conflict, violence, and fragmented relationships. I am coining the term "Psychosocial Abuse" to describe the specific form of violence often rampant in queer and trans (2SLGBTQ) communities, wherein an individual accuses someone they are in a personal or romantic relationship with, of causing egregious harms to the perpetrator themself, or to others, when those actions have not in evidence, occurred. Instead, a fictionalized narrative is projected onto an individual which is used to take down the person they are targeting, and are no longer in a relationship with. Psychosocial abuse often happens when a lover, friend, or partner, and sometimes even random individuals in our communities, feel wronged, slighted, ignored, rejected or are simply told "no" when interacting with other individuals.
There is a specific concept in psychology both popular and clinical, which looks at the particular ways in which some individuals utilize reverse-blaming victim narratives to conduct character assassinations, stalk, harass and sully the reputations upon those they are actively emotionally harming. In this article, I examine this phenomenon from a wider, yet queer/trans focussed lense that may help illustrate how covert forms of violence go unchecked and perpetuated in and beyond our communities, causing significant and irreparable damage to individuals and relationships.
In popular self-help driven psychology platforms, "flying monkeys" is a term drafted from the Wizard of Oz, referring to people who carry on a smear campaign, adult bullying, excommunication or a campaign of exclusion, who are not the abuser themselves, but who orchestrate abuse on the abuser's behalf by way of being manipulated and causing further harm. This form of co-abuse, is also called "abuse by proxy," or "secondary abuse." It denotes the taking of sides with an abuser who is deemed charming, sociable, who often displays social capital, and who is highly skilled in "flipping the narrative" of abuse onto those they have harmed or victimized to manipulate their audience and gain sympathy.
In other words, if a person has been relationally harmed or abused by an individual who cannot or will not take responsibility for their damaging behaviours and dynamics, oftentimes the person causing the harm or abuse will engage the surrounding parties in a smear campaign of lies that paint a narrative of the abuser as the victim, and the victim as the perpetrator. This manipulation of bystanders to gang up on the aggrieved individual who was actively harmed, is a power shifting tactic that creates its own new cycle of abuse by extending the abuse outwards from the relationship into the community. This victim blaming is not only invisibilized, it is often effective at turning the abused individual's own circle of friends and supports systematically against them, due to the egregious nature of the accusations of flipped abuse. Psychosocial abusers are highly skilled at deflecting from their own abusive behaviours and impacts, and scape-goating their abuse victims for their own responsibility, lack of self reflexivity, and accountability they refuse to take for their own actions.
In order to obfuscate or invisibilize the original abuse, abusers can manipulate those around the person they have victimized, covering up their own culpability, and causing further harm and isolation to the abused. This dynamic does not mean or assume that the abuse can never be a co-occurring phenomenon, nor that the victim of psychosocial abuse is a perfect subject. What it does mean, is that the abuser in such a dynamic is making false accusations that do not follow actions taken by the victim. No behaviours, articulations, statements, words or actions of the victim can be neatly traced to the perpetrator's false accusations, and in fact, the perpetrator is often evidenced in their own behaviours of those very accusations they are lobbing towards their victim.
The other defining feature of this dynamic is that victims often take steps to seriously listen to, and reflect upon the false accusations given, as the traits and behaviours they are being accused of are designed to take down or decimate the subject's self esteem particularly by utilizing characteristics of their experience, personality or character the victim is often highly reflective on, cautious about, and proactively accountable for. In fact, the victim spends great swathes of time ruminating on the accusations for fear that they have harmed, which causes damage to their ability to function normally in their daily routine. In essence, the empathy of the victim is used to manipulate the victim to disrupt and destroy their functioning and life precisely because of their keen sense of accountability in relation to potential harm. We know when this abuse cycle is happening because the victim is willing to meet with the abuser/accuser to resolve via mediation with a third party, to hear grievances against them, yet this offering for a hearing and accountability is denied in favour of further emotional harm, stalking, online and in person harassment, and character assassination in community.
The inherent function of such behaviour on the part of the perpetrator, would seemingly be to vigorously defend against a fragile sense of self that cannot withstand blame, negative emotions, distress, or self reflection in any critical way. Deflection and subterfuge serve to cover up the perpetrators' shortcomings, and effectively and immediately transfer those shortcomings onto the person they would most wish to be like, but can never feel able to emulate in terms of the positive qualities they aspire to internalize. Often, individuals who abuse in such a manner have a diffuse sense of self that is founded in core beliefs of shame, insecurity and inadequacy shaped by their own early experiences of psychosocial or relational violence and trauma from a parental figure or caregiver.
The resultant impact of this coercive abuse cycle, flying monkeys and community secondary abuse spillover, means that not only did the person actively harmed suffer the original abuse, but they have been additionally subjected to social exclusion by being painted as the abuser, or alternatively a 'hysterical' party. A character assassination is conducted, painting the victim as the culpable party deserving sanction, and thus creating gross isolation via social shunning and effectively removing all or most potential support for the person who has been victimized. Such character assassination is particularly effective, when an individual is committed to empathy, social justice and accountability. The inherent commitment and sensitivity to self-reflexivity around violence and harm is undermined, putting the victim's record of trustworthiness and good qualities falsely in dispute. Such shadow casting upon the positive behaviours or positive efforts the victim actively produces in their own community can be systematically erased in one fell swoop without vetting. It is a very successful form of scapegoating the victimized party for the abuse caused by a perpetrator, that can easily and effectively destroy the life's work and credibility of the victimized party. There is no recourse, nor restoration once such damage has occurred.
The thing is, the narcissistic behaviour in question is actually very common if not for the depth and persistence of a cycle of this psychosocial abuse, but in the shallow and reflexive ways in which narcissistic harm occurs in daily life. In my opinion, it is the baseline of human functioning not the exception. When we talk about narcissism - either covert or overt, of course there are degrees of behaviour displayed by any given individual in terms of gaslighting (often positively in tone), denying someone's reality of harm, or their experiences more generally, making someone feel small, discarded, dehumanized. Basically, we all can have the tendency to dismiss another's experience of hardship or harm, or just their feelings in favour of avoiding our own discomfort, and we lack no shortage of examples in society historically, or presently that point to this widespread phenomenon. However, taking someone to task for their responsibility in creating harm is made worse and nearly impossible by those who co-abuse alongside the perpetrator in this manner, albeit oftentimes unwittingly.
What can a person do when they may be implicated as a co-abuser or "flying monkey"? Stop. Consider the story being spun. Do not automatically discard the other party who is being accused of relational harm, when you do not know the dynamics. Offer to have a conversation with the aggrieved individual who is potentially being smeared, as they are often the silenced party. Offer to listen to both sides and become part of a transformative justice circle. If we are to dismantle systems of injustice and their ripple effects interpersonally, we must engage at the very least in a social justice process in our own communities. This does not mean inevitably making it harder for individuals who have experienced abuse to name their abusers or perpetrators - because the twisted result of this all could be more dismissal of abuse accusations, rather than rightfully calling out scapegoating and narcissistic or psychosocial abuse. It does behoove all parties to consider a process that can determine the difference between the two scenarios (legitimate accusations vs. false manipulations) and to discover the power differentials at play in either, in order to understand how and where abuse has occurred, who is responsible, and how to intervene to support the person(s) harmed to find justice and healing, and to also hold the responsible party to account for and rectify their harmful behaviours.
One may not have the option of holding someone accountable to a process of investigating harm and accountability as people who cause abuse often flee the scene and will not participate in a justice process. In endeavouring to understand the difference between straightforward abuse (person A harms person B -> person B reports/is believed -> person A is rightfully held accountable), and covert abuse as two separate experiences differentiated by skewed and distorted power dynamics in the latter; we must all review our culpability in supporting co-abuse, covert narcissism and its damaging effects. I will say too, this process of holding covert abusers accountable, is rarely about sexual abuse allegations.
Sexual abuse allegations happen in their own category of phenomena and must be viewed within a larger societal structure of cis-hetero-patriarchal misogyny, and capitalist white supremacy. Almost all allegations of sexual abuse come with an automatic dismissal of the allegations brought by a party in a sexist system that favours hoarding and maintaining the power structure of misogynistic male abusers. I would not suggest engaging in any response that undermines, or subjects sexual abuse reportees to a process that holds space for the possibility they have not been sexually abused. The reason I mention sexual abuse cycles, is that our 2SLGBTQ communities often base harm remediation on the power dynamics involved in "believeing the victim" of sexual violence. If queer and trans communities rely on sexual abuse cycles and callout patterns to intervene with covert psychosocial abuse, we are relying on skewed and distorted power dynamics that effectively revictimize the victim. We cannot hold psychological abusers accountable, by a response that emulates rightfully believing sexual assault victims.
In attempting to understand the difference in dynamics of sexual abuse reports versus psychosocial/narcissistic abuse, examine the following:
In the first scenario investigating the power dynamics of sexual abuse and denial of allegations, a claim of abuse has been made by the person who experienced the assault and a cycle of denial and victim blaming results which secondarily victimizes the accuser. Oftentimes, the perpetrator will be situated and embedded within societal or institutional power structures that leverage disparities vis a vis gender, race, class, and ability between themselves, and their accusers. The power structure will be used to excuse and create sympathy for the accused/perpetrator rather than accounting for the vulnerability and harm endured by the person who experienced the sexual abuse. This serves to create and sustain an enduring patriarchal, sexist, misogynist, classist, ableist, racist/colonialist power system and hierarchy. Sexual abuse victims are discarded and no justice is achieved, which serves to minimize future possibilties for other people who have experienced similar abuse to come forward and name their abusers.
Somewhat differently, the second illustration of psychosocial covert and secondary abuse involves an initial abusive event or pattern of behaviour such as stalking, verbal abuse, emotional violence, demeaning/devaluing/discarding, harassment, repeated boundary violations, character assassination, maligning aggression and rage that caused harm to an individual. Instead of the victimized party initiating a claim of abuse, the perpetrator beats the victim to the punch and initiates a story casting themselves as the victim of the actions they themselves have perpetrated. In this instance, the accuser is the perpetrator, not the victim. This 'flipping the script' obfuscates the initial abuse and the abuser's own culpability, and draws secondary parties into an unwitting defense of the abuser, while simultaneously casting out the victimized. Witnesses to the abuser's re-telling of events unquestioningly side with the manipulated version of the story, and do not imagine that evidence points otherwise. Friends of the abuser, community members, or anyone who hears the false story can immediately believe the abuser’s false allegations, fail to consider that they are being implicated in obfuscating the abuse dynamic, and perpetuate a secondary cycle of abuse where they become complicit in silencing and preventing the victim from coming forward and naming their abuse experience.
In this form of secondary abuse, the victim is subjected to broader character assassination, reputation smearing, loss of support and community, all often transpiring implicitly, unquestioned and never stated, but silently experienced in the aftermath of isolation and social rejection. The covert nature of the secondary abuse cycle ensures the victim never sees the opportunity for justice. This scenario can happen irrespective of existing power structures, and in queer and trans communities can occur within any social location and, any with any gendered party. The resultant loss of community without any engaged process can further serve to marginalize already isolated individuals, especially trans and gender non conforming. Many times, gender dynamics are reversed making the abuse that much more covert and devastating.
If we are to truly address endemic patterns of lateral violence within our communities, we must be very clear on this, a distinctive pattern of social violence that co-occurs with psychological relational violence, as a separate reporting cycle with serious secondary abuse consequences for the victim, and devastating fragmentation and loss within our communities.
Copyright Sly Sarkisova 2020
Permission to share & re-publish with attribution.