On safety: you can’t have emotional safety until you remove predators from your community

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by Cheyenne Grimes about the topic of safety in roleplaying games as part of a more extensive project she’s looking to put together about the topic. I was pleasantly surprised at how thorough and extensive the questions she sent were, so I asked for permission to publish her questions and my answers.

(Given that I was preparing to publish some pretty big stuff about abuse and abusers, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of my answers revolve around a common theme – namely that we can’t make meaningful improvements to cultures of safety at the table without taking action to remove predators and abusers from our community.)

The interview is as follows, with Cheyenne’s questions in bold and my answers in plain text.


What is your name, and what is your experience with safety in larp and RPGs? (Please feel welcome to mention any other relevant credentials here, this is how I will credit you.)

My name is Anna Kreider, and I am a blogger who focuses on issues of games, social justice, and rehabilitating broken communities. I also design games, both tabletop and LARP that focus on emotionally challenging content. Whether it’s The Watch – a game about women and non-binary people dismantling an allegory for patriarchy, Autonomy – game that teaches men to perform female socialization and then punishes them for it, or The Straights Are Not Okay – a game about marinating in heterosexist emotional repression, the games I write tend to invoke intense and uncomfortable feelings. But obviously, I always want to find ways to do that responsibly and without harming my players, so safety is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

What is your ideal safety system structure, and why? (Is it a single manager? A team? A list of rotating third party consultants? An automated help-desk software?)

So, to use the analogy of things that promote safety as a tool, I think we need to stop thinking about safety in terms of which safety tool is BEST and more think about what safety tools do you need to have in your toolbox? Because not having the correct safety tools is bad, but using the wrong safety tools can actually cause further harm to someone in a difficult situation. And no one safety tool is going to work for everyone at your table or in your game. To use an example that everyone in tabletop is familiar with, the X-Card has become pretty standard at most organized events. However, I also know people who find the X-Card triggering and who prefer other safety tools. So it’s important to think of things to improve player safety not in terms of one-size-fits-all solutions, but rather than a constellation of related approaches.

In the games that I run, I do have defaults I stick to. The X-Card is at the table in all of the tabletop games that I run, partly for safety and partly because it’s an easy way to shut down sexist or racist comments during con games without getting into an argument. The LARPs I run always have The Door Is Always Open, Cut, Brake/Largo, and sometimes (depending on the game) the OK Check-In.

More crucial than even having the right tools, however, is having a genuine culture of safety that goes beyond paying lip service to the concept of safety, because without a genuine safety culture, safety tools are not useful or effective. This means taking emotional safety seriously and not denigrating players who need safety tools to engage with challenging content, or lionizing people who play “intensely” (both things I’ve seen happen in LARP especially). However, it also means getting your damn house in order when accusations of harassment and abuse come forward. There has been a lot of furor in LARP circles over dudes who talk big game about safety being outed as harassers/predators, and this shit is so predictable that you could practically set your watch by it.

No one is seriously going to believe that you care about emotional safety in your games if you turn a blind eye to predators in your games. If you don’t care about the emotional safety of survivors outside of your game, then why would you care about emotional safety inside the game? That kind of organizational double-think is a huge barrier to people actually using safety tools when they need to instead of just suffering silently.

Lastly, all of this stuff has to be talked about, planned, and agreed upon before the event. I don’t participate in blockbuster LARPs, but I’ve heard stories where the approach to safety is very ad hoc or not addressed at all, and that kind of laissez faire attitude toward safety is pretty much guaranteeing that someone is going to be harmed at your event.

How do you communicate your safeguards to your players? (A policy packet, a workshop or lecture, a website, etc)

First, I make sure that the pitch for the game is up front about challenging themes or material, because you never want to surprise someone with challenging content after they’ve signed up for your game. Once players arrive, I review the game pitch again and specifically call out the themes that might cause difficulty. For example, “The Watch is a game about women and non-binary people destroying patriarchy. During this game, we’re going to center themes of toxic masculinity and patriarchal oppression, although we will never showcase sexual or gendered violence. Is that something everyone is okay with? Great.” And then I review the safety tools being used before I go any further with explaining the rules of the game – because I want to be clear that the safety rules are the MOST important rules, and not make them seem like an afterthought or addendum.

Also, I’m always careful about how I frame the need for safety tools. So rather than saying ‘this lets us remove problematic content’ – a framing I’m not particularly fond of, I’ll say “obviously we love and care about each other and want everyone to have a good experience, but we don’t know each other’s backgrounds and play preferences, so this is a tool to help us play bravely and engage with challenging content while still having compassion for each other. I promise that I’ll use this tool if I need to, and I hope that you’ll do the same, so we can all have a satisfying play experience”.

Do you provide outside safety resources to players? If so, what resources and how?

Because most of the games I run are one-shots at conventions, usually not? Although for the last several years, all of the games that I’ve written have included links to additional reading about safety tools and safety resources.

How often, if ever, would you consult professionals during the process of handling reports?

Sorry, I’m not quite sure what you mean here?

What are some of the most important things to keep in mind when writing safeguards?

While I design games, I haven’t done anything with designing safety tools themselves. I find it’s easier for me to use and adapt already existing tools than to develop my own, although I’ll often refine the script as to how those tools are introduced and framed.

What is your experience with whisper networks? Under what circumstances do you trust them, and why?

Whisper networks are simultaneously extremely flawed and extremely vital, and they’re not going away any time soon because they are a direct reaction to our inability to remove predators from our communities. As long as we continue to enable predators and punish victims, we are going to keep having whisper networks.

Obviously whisper networks aren’t perfect, because inevitably the warnings about missing stairs don’t reach everyone who needs to hear them – especially people new to the community, which is why predators often target people who haven’t been around long enough to know about their history of abuse. However, I myself am part of several active whisper networks, and on more than one occasion have reached out to share private warnings with someone I thought needed to know them. Sometimes this has happened because I have not felt safe to talk openly about bad experiences with an abuser/predator/bad actor with a lot of social currency or power. However, sometimes this has happened because I know things about an abuser/predator/bad actor that are not my story to share, and the person who told me those things in confidence is not willing to be public about their story.

As someone who has tanked on issues of social justice and has taken a stand in directly naming several abusers, I can tell you from painful personal experience that there is a very real cost to openly naming abusers, and it is not a cost that everyone can afford to pay. And the more marginalized someone in a community is, the higher the cost for speaking out becomes.

That said, whisper networks are not perfect and anonymous accusations can be weaponized for the sake of personal vendettas. That’s why I place more weight on something I hear through a whisper network when it comes with a name attached, and I’m able to speak to the person to verify that they stand by that allegation. An individual anonymous accusation is something I treat more as a data point – potentially useful, potentially not, but requiring more information before any meaningful conclusions can be reached.

How do you protect your safeguards and safety systems from misuse cases?

I mean, there’s the $64,000 question, right? Because one of the primary tools in the abuser’s toolkit is DARVO – Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s something I’ve personally experienced, when my harasser claimed that because I was open about the abuse he perpetuated against me, I was actually harassing him and was thus an evil abuser who needed to be ousted from the community. And put that way, the logic seems laughably transparent, doesn’t it?

And yet, despite that I was one of dozens of people he harassed this way, it took the better part of a decade (as well as four women coming forward to accuse him of rape and gendered violence at the same time) in order for people to finally remove him from their circles. Prior to that, when his bad behavior became an issue and the allegations of harassment were raised, people would point to his DARVO rhetoric as an argument that my accounts couldn’t be trusted. That because there was controversy, it was better to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So it’s great to theorize about how you protect your system from misuse by abusers, but given how bad we are at actually believing survivors and removing predators when they throw out these DARVO tactics, I think it’s a problem that we don’t have enough collective knowledge in how to solve yet.

How do you keep your safety systems from being infiltrated by abusive people? Do you have a plan for that?

Honestly, the culture of fear and silence around abusers is so widespread that I think it’s impossible to prevent abusers from infiltrating safety systems entirely. Until we have normalized people speaking openly about abuse and making abusers actually experience consequences for their abusive actions, it’s unrealistic to think that we can design systems that will exclude abusers from infiltrating them. Especially since establishing credibility as a safety expert makes a great cover against accusations of abuse. “Well so-and-so can’t possibly have done those things because they’ve done so much work to improve safety in our community!” Etc etc.

Instead, you need to plan for what happens when someone on your safety team is accused of abuse. How do you evaluate that claim while making sure that the person bringing forward that claim isn’t unfairly punished for doing so? How do you make sure that the person accused of abuse has no ability to marginalize or intimidate their accuser, while also leaving yourself open to the possibility that the accusation might be personally motivated? Also, how do you deal with a situation in which a relationship has spun out of control and both parties have abused each other? Because that situation is WAY more common than we like to think, especially when mental illness and trauma are involved.

Now, all of that said, I’m going to add that just because the accuser is of a marginalized identity doesn’t always mean they’re acting in good faith. Just as queer white people can still be racist, not everyone who brings forward accusations is acting in good faith. I’ve personally seen things like a marginalized person who accused a cisdude ex-partner of abuse as revenge for a relationship dissolving because they know they’ll be believed and their partner won’t. Or a marginalized person accusing an ex-partner of abuse as a cover for the fact that they were abusing their ex-partner. So there are definite edge cases to be aware of and be cautious of.

That said, the statistics of who speaks up about abuse, the veracity of their claims, and how many additional people stay silent are very clear. Most of the time, if someone comes forward with a claim of abuse, there is at least some merit to the claim. And very very often, if someone comes forward with a claim of abuse, there are other additional people who have had similarly abusive experiences but who don’t feel they can be public in naming that person until other people step forward first.

What are some red flags you look for that may indicate someone is abusive or manipulating a situation?

I mean, many, many, many words have been spilled about how to recognize abusers, so what I’ll say is this. Believe actions, not words. And pay attention to patterns over individual incidents. Abusers are very, very good at using the right words to make you believe in their good intentions. So you always have to consider the full context and history of someone’s actions.

As far as specific red flags? I mean. Most people know what inappropriate behavior looks like when they see it, and most people are able to discern when someone is uncomfortable. (This is not true for all people on the autism spectrum, but it’s true enough to be a useful generalization) Very often when someone is outed as an abuser, it comes out that there were lots of red flags about that person’s behavior, but they were either excused, rationalized, or dismissed by the community, because it would be inconvenient to deal with that person’s inappropriate behavior. (Very often, abusers invest heavily in building social capital exactly as a defense against people seriously examining their actions or behavior. While not all abusers are prominent and powerful, many are and this needs to be remembered.)

So believe actions, not words. Believe patterns over individual incidents. And if someone in your organization brings up the same red flags over a long period of time, then commit to having a genuine conversation with the people you have seen made uncomfortable by that person, and commit to having a conversation with the person tripping those red flags.

What resources do you use to inform your own decisions in these matters?

Because of my history of being abused by popular narcissists who get the community to sanction their abuse of me, frankly I don’t have anything to do with any kind of official decision-making when it comes to these sorts of community interactions. It’s too exhausting and triggering for me. I know it’s important work, but I’m frankly too jaded to engage with the process with the good faith that is required for meaningful and helpful outcomes.

What is your process for getting to the bottom of reports of bad behavior?

See above.

What is your ideal process for a participant reporting bad behavior? What information do you require, and how should they submit it?

In a past life, I actually developed a concise 2 page document that sets out how conversations about allegations of abuse should be handled to ensure that everyone remains safe. It’s a bit hard to summarize, but that document is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Guy32eOGJvreHoqRgnvOzCmzxyjHnE19L3rvxx2G9Xo/edit?usp=sharing

What would you change about the current safety culture if you could?

I will shout this from the rooftops until I die, apparently, but honestly I think the two biggest problems are:

  1. People who believe that the push for safety in games are whiny entitled snowflakes who are ruining everyone’s fun. Safety tools actually increase people’s ability to engage intensely with challenging content and promote everyone’s fun, not the reverse.
  2. The rank hypocrisy of people who want to address emotional safety in games while also turning a blind eye to powerful people who abuse people, or actively dismissing reports of abuse as personally motivated or unreliable. Until we address the issue of our communities actively sanctioning abuse and punishing people who speak out, we’re not going to make serious headway in addressing the problem of protecting players from harm during emotionally intense games.
Do you have any advice for people who want to make their community more safe?

Educate yourself about abuser tactics and psychology and become familiar with the abuser playbook. You can’t make communities materially more safe unless you learn how abusers think and act.

The Discourse™ has a problem and is going to get someone killed.

(Edit: the screenshot in this post has been edited to remove the identity of the poster. Please for the love of God, if you know who it is, please DO NOT send them harassing messages or otherwise tell them they’re awful.)

There is a problem with The Discourse™ in gaming.

In the last two weeks, two prominent predators were outed in the analog gaming industry. The first being my co-author of The Watch, someone who abused me emotionally and who I had seen pursue similar patterns with other women and AFAB people. The second being JR Honeycutt, a noteworthy and prolific board game designer who emotionally and sexually abused at least one woman, and probably (judging by the story being told) others.

Both accounts were heartfelt and very long, in the many thousands of words, covering a wide range of incidents and behaviors that aren’t usually talked about as predation.

Sure, it’s true that in both instances, the community was pretty much universally supportive of the victims. The abusers have been barred from many spaces, and many people expressed their belief in the accounts of abuse and their sorrow that it took place.

But was there wider conversation about the patterns of behavior described in these accounts of abuse, as there was in the entertainment industry in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein-fueled #metoo explosion? No.

Was there wider discussion of how community myths and toxic dynamics acted as shields for predators to operate with impunity, and how those myths and dynamics might be changed? No.

Was there any attempt at community introspection as to how we might learn and do better at preventing cis men with power and social capital from serially abusing women and AFAB people they are attracted to? No.

Instead, little more than a week after Victoria Mann posted her harrowing account of sexual and emotional abuse by one of her industry’s luminaries, people’s attention had already turned away from the ongoing problem of serial abuse by cishet men in gaming and back to one of it’s favorite pastimes – excoriating trans creators who make what the community decides is Problematic Art.

PH Lee: the latest progressive Trans Hate Meme

(Before I go any further, I’ll note that I’m not entirely sure how PH Lee self-identifies. For the purposes of talking about a larger pattern, I am referring to PH Lee as fitting a certain pattern that gets applied to trans creators. However, while Lee specifies gender neutral address in their bio, not every person who prefers gender neutral address identifies as trans. So. Apologies to Lee if I get anything wrong after I made legit tries to find this info.)

In a previous post, I wrote a(n admittedly pretty angry) summary of the furor over ContraPoints and how frustrated and angry I was that she was turned into a progressive hate meme for the crime of imperfectly describing a subjective experience of oppression. And I ranted about what a huge problem it is that cishet white dudes are allowed to straight up abuse people with no sanction or recourse, while trans people – and especially trans creators – get raked over hot coals for far more minor transgressions.

There was about a month where I couldn’t use Twitter because Trans Twitter was gleefully spiking the football on what a terrible human being ContraPoints was LITERALLY EVERY TIME I LOGGED IN. It was just too triggering and reminded me of the times where I myself had become an online progressive hate meme for the crime of badly expressing feelings of subjective oppression. (And while I don’t identify as trans, being non-binary makes me close enough that I fit the pattern.)

And now this shit is playing out all over again with the furor over PH Lee and Hot Guys Making Out. It started with someone saying that they had always found this game problematic and escalated over the weekend until people were making attacks on Lee’s character and calling for people to unfollow them and ban their games:

 

And folks. This right here is just the tip of the iceberg of what it’s like to be a Trans Hate Meme. Because The Discourse™ is fundamentally fucking broken. So listen up, because I have some fucking shit to say that you need to hear.

1. PH Lee is an abuse survivor

Something entirely missing from what I have observed (admittedly from a very cautious distance) is the fact that Lee has been open about being a survivor of abuse. One of the things they are being accused of is making a game that glorifies sexual abuse of children, which… in addition to being an unfairly reductive Internet Hot Take is just so completely unfair when you consider what Lee has shared about their experiences of abuse and how that interacts with emotional safety at the gaming table.

To this point, Lee has chosen not to share the specifics of their abuse, and we need to be respectful of that. But the notion that an abuse survivor who has spoken eloquently about how their trauma informs their needs for play, and how we need more than a one-size-fits-all approach to emotional safety at the table… the notion that we should view Lee as intending to create a game glorifying sexual abuse of children by people in positions of power over them is a clear and obvious straw man that removes all context of Lee’s own descriptions of their experience as an abuse survivor.

2. Online dogpiling is violence, and people can die from it

It is LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE for someone who has never experienced the kind of internet dog-piling that PH Lee is going through to imagine how intensely painful and life-destroying it is.

For me, I remember sobbing loudly in a public washroom between classes, snot running down my face, as I messaged friends and told them that everything that I’d ever dreamed about was over and they were clearly wrong to be my friend. I remember the actual, literal pain in my chest, like someone had stuck a hot knife in my sternum that throbbed when I breathed. The way my stomach felt like a brick and the idea of eating or drinking anything was absolutely intolerable.

I’m lucky, because I got the help and support I needed to survive. And to be fair, most people who experience this sort of online shaming do as well. But not everyone does.

Rachel Bryk didn’t.

But, wundergeek, you may be saying. Rachel Bryk was abused by GamerGate, not progressives. So surely it isn’t the same.

Except.

Look again at the methods being used.

  • Swamp the victim with messages attacking their character.
  • Mischaracterize their work in the most damaging way possible.
  • Seek to isolate the victim from the community.
  • Urge people to cut ties with the victim.
  • Celebrate every instance of the community distancing itself from the victim.
  • Refuse to let the “controversy” die. Bring it up again and again and again.
  • Make people who support the victim afraid to speak up for fear of becoming the next victim.

All methods that were used by #GamerGate against their chosen victims.

All methods that were used by Zak against his chosen victims.

All methods that are now being used against Lee.

This is the shit that gets people killed. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just goddamn science:

  • Youth who experience cyber bullying are 2.3 times more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide.
  • Trans people experience disproportionate levels of marginalization within the queer community and are twice as likely to commit suicide as non-trans queer people.
  • Depending on the study, around half of trans adults have previously attempted suicide.

People engaging this kind of dogpiling, regardless of motive are playing with a time bomb. It’s only a matter of time before these tactics lead to another trans suicide, and if we’re lucky we’ll all be scratching our heads wondering what happened with The Discourse™.

3. People don’t automatically assume good intent with trans people

One of the Super Fun things about living in a white supremacist patriarchal capitalist society is that no matter how much time and effort we put into deprogramming ourselves, we all have been programmed from birth with biases that privilege whiteness, maleness, and straightness. Those biases are largely unconscious, and inform more than we’d like to admit about how we react to settings of social conflict.

And when these biases go unexamined, they result in a sort of automatic mental gymnastics that kicks in to defend problematic people who are cis, het, white, and usually male – no matter how much evidence piles up that they are Actually Sorta Problematic and Worth Having A Conversation About.

Take Critical Role – the D&D actual play streaming group that raised $11 million on KickStarter and has been repeatedly criticized for… well. Lots of stuff. Queer representation and biphobia, racist stereotypes and blackface, and failure to include POC on their team – just to name the top three.

And yet, try and take that conversation to Twitter and you will get HOUNDED by cis white folks who will twist themselves into mental pretzels defending Critical Role as Not Problematic You Guys!

And from a certain angle, there’s something to be said for recognizing the humanity of someone you disagree with and not automatically dehumanizing them to benefit The Rhetoric.

The problem, however, is that trans people almost never benefit from this sort of mental gymnastics.

And honestly? That fucking sucks.

I don’t know how to end this post, because I’m hurt and angry

I have a lot of things I want to say about how we can do better when we want to have conversations about fraught topics while embracing nuance and remembering the humanity of everyone involved, but I can’t put words to them right now, because honestly I’m hurt and angry and scared and sad and tired.

How many people expressed support in the wake of my revelations, saying they believed me and were sorry for my experience, who then boosted the dogpiling of PH Lee? I don’t know, because I haven’t been able to bring myself to look, but after eleven fucking years in this community I can guarantee you it’s a statistically significant nonzero number.

How many times are we going to get distracted from having Real Conversations about important issues around cismen and serial abuse in our communities by turning trans people into hate memes?

How many trans and otherwise marginalized people are we frightening out of our communities with the level of visceral joy that is shown by those who participate in trans hate memes?

Most days I have faith in the amazing people in gaming and the truly transformative nature of the medium we work in, but honestly today I really don’t.

I was abused by my friend and co-author: my story of emotional abuse and trauma

My name is Anna Kreider, and I’m a writer, blogger, and tabletop game designer, most notably of The Watch – which I co-designed with Andrew Medeiros. And the story I would like to tell today is about emotional abuse, predators, and non-romantic abusers. It’s also the story of how I co-wrote a game about dismantling patriarchy while being emotionally abused by my co-creator.

Before we go any further, though, it’s important to preface this by declaring what I want to get out of this. After this many years, why am I writing this post only now? What am I hoping to achieve?

  • I want to finally open up about a secret that has been extremely difficult to carry so that I can have some measure of closure and healing.
  • I want to educate people about how emotional abuse works, and the tactics abusers use to make people dependent on them
  • What I emphatically do not want anyone to send him angry messages, or to talk shit about him on Twitter, or use this as ammunition to start fights with third parties. Seriously, don’t do that shit.

Because this story is long (abuse is complicated), I ask that you please read until the end before coming to any judgments.

Lastly, and this is important. If there is someone prominent in our community who has abused you or who is abusing you, know that I will believe you. But I ask that if you reach out, please don’t share the specifics of your stories of abuse. Second-hand trauma is real, and while I care about survivors and want them to be well, I have to maintain boundaries around what I can listen to for my own well-being.

Thank you in advance for your understanding.


How it all started

I first met Andrew Medeiros (hereafter referred to as Drew – which is what he goes by) at GenCon 2014; we played in a comedy LARP together and realized we actually both lived in the same city, not that far from one another. After that, we became fast friends in the way that you do when you play a really good game with someone at a convention and you’re lucky enough to be able to carry that energy forward into “real” life. We started spending a lot of time together: playing games, hanging out, and talking online while we were at work and as a result discovered that we had a lot of interests in common. Unsurprisingly, as one of our shared interests was game design, it just seemed to make sense that we would work together on game design projects.

I helped Drew with photography for his card-based LARP The Forgotten, and said after that maybe we should design a game together. So in December of 2015, he messaged me saying that he had an idea for a Powered By The Apocalypse game about women soldiers in a fantasy setting fighting a nebulous threat called the Shadow, although he didn’t have a clear idea of what the Shadow was. It was my idea to define the Shadow in a way that would ultimately become the core of the game when I said OKAY BUT CAN THE SHADOW LITERALLY BE PATRIARCHY. I then yelled ideas at Drew over chat for two days until he bowed to the inevitable and agreed to design a game with me.

In the beginning of the development process, things were great, because he was still great. I was going through a lot of shit in my life both personally and professionally, and he was very supportive and a good friend. I found Drew really exciting and energizing to be around, and I thought that he felt the same way about me.

And it was never a romantic thing for me; I have a monogamous partner and at no point did my friendship with Drew threaten my partner or damage our relationship. I just found him to be someone I vibed really well with, both personally and creatively. And because I thought that Drew felt the same way about me, I thought that I had found a true and lasting friend – one who would be around for the long haul. I didn’t know then how wrong I was, or how damaged I would be when everything fell apart and I was left holding the pieces.

See, what I didn’t know at the time was that I was just the latest in a pattern of women and AFAB people that Drew emotionally manipulated because he was attracted to them; I wasn’t the first, and I definitely wasn’t the last. And he had a type, which I fit to a T: short-haired gender non-conforming feminist gamer AFAB people.

He knew it was inappropriate to manipulate women he was attracted to into being physically intimate with him, but he had no problem with manipulating women into being emotionally intimate with him in order to satisfy his desire for intimacy with women he was attracted to (intimacy that just “happened” to come with physical contact like hugs or hand-holding, of course). Only that emotional intimacy was never real, because I was never more than a prop for his ego, to gratify his need for validation by women and AFAB people he found attractive.

So he did the same thing to me that he did with all the other women: he cared about my feelings as long as he was attracted to me, and when he no longer felt that attraction, my feelings were no longer important. But instead of having the “decency” to ghost me like every other dude friend I’ve had who has fuck-zoned me (and there have been lots), he became emotionally abusive.

But what do I mean when I say he was emotionally abusive? Well, I’ve had to learn a lot about the mechanisms and processes of emotional abuse through the last few years, so let me walk you through it.

First: Love-bombing

When we first became friends, Drew was the one who consistently pushed for an inappropriate level of emotional intimacy. TO BE CLEAR: it wasn’t inappropriate because both of us are in committed monogamous relationships. The whole concept of emotional cheating is based in toxic norms of monogamy and heterosexism that say that men and women can’t ever really be friends without wanting to fuck each other. And. As a queer asexual nonbinary person, I have SOME FEELINGS ABOUT THAT.

STILL, the level of emotional intimacy he pushed for was inappropriate. His interest in my feelings was only ever a prop to gratify his pants-feelings about me. And at every point in our relationship, he was the one that pushed for more intimacy, and he was the one who defined what that intimacy would look like.

There’s a thing that abusers do called love-bombing, where they want to accelerate you through the normal stages of a developing relationship (either romantic or platonic – it applies regardless) in order to make you emotionally dependent on them. He used love-bombing to emotionally manipulate me into believing that he was the most important person in my life, and it worked because I was in a very vulnerable place in my life and badly needed the validation and acceptance I thought he was offering. (Love-bombing is an extremely common tactic of abusers that often isn’t well understood, so if you’re unfamiliar with it, I urge you to do some more reading.)

So we became very close, and I thought it was a two-way connection, but it wasn’t.

Second: Trauma bonding

When he was still attracted to me, he treated me extremely well. He gave me presents, flooded me with validation and emotional intimacy, and quickly became a central pillar in my life. But when that attraction faded, he cut himself off completely. He would become very distant and withdraw affection for little or no reason, usually very unpredictably. Which was extremely emotionally damaging, because he was the one who had fostered that emotional intimacy and dependence in the first place. We would go through these completely exhausting emotional boom/bust cycles every few months that left me completely unable to function in other areas of my life because of how draining it all was to deal with.

It may sound trivial as I describe it. I must be such a millennial snowflake if someone not being affectionate with me could be so traumatizing, right?

Wrong.

Withdrawing affection is a devastatingly effective tactic used by abusers, because we are hard-wired to seek acceptance and validation from the people that we love. Still face experiments with babies show that it is neurologically devastating when someone we are emotionally dependent on suddenly withdraws their attention and affection. And that cycle of abuse, the emotional boom/bust cycle I described, becomes a literal physical addiction that causes the victim of abuse to crave that sweet sweet rush of dopamine created when you finally cycle back into a reconciliation phase. It’s called trauma bonding, and it’s the reason why abuse victims have such a hard time even realizing that they are being abused, and why they have such a hard time leaving.

So what did that look like in practice?

Drew would push the relationship to its absolute breaking point and then apologize. He’d convince me that things were going to be better, and that he understood what I was going through and how he needed to change, but he never would. And I would take his words at face value and believe that he really cared about me and that he was going to do better because the rush of dopamine when he finally apologized and gave me even a scrap of the respect and validation he had made me dependent on obliterated my ability to step back and observe that the pattern kept repeating without anything ever changing.

But an apology without change is just manipulation, and that’s the only purpose his apologies served – manipulation. He knew when he had gone too far and would always convince me not to listen to my feelings. Because…

Third: It was always my fault

That’s one of the central moves in every abuser’s playbook: convince them it’s all their fault. And that’s what Drew did to me.

According to Drew, the problem with our friendship wasn’t him. It was never him. It was my anxiety, you see. My PTSD. My depression. Most of all, it was my feelings, because my feelings were always incorrect. And my mental illness was also always incorrect. He would say incredibly hurtful things like he found my mental illness “too exhausting to deal with” as a way to prevent me from talking about my very real feelings of trauma and hurt about the cycles of emotional abuse that he was putting me through.

He became completely fragile when confronted with even the gentlest assertions that he had done something wrong, because never being in the wrong was completely central to maintaining his control over me. So even the mildest requests for introspection and examining his own motives and actions? That just wasn’t okay, and he would DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender) to convince me that I was the one at fault.

He would give me the silent treatment to punish me for doing or saying things that he didn’t like, and especially for naming his bad behavior – a tactic that only became more frequent as time went on. I remember one time in putting together a games day for my birthday, he assumed that mutual woman friend wouldn’t know anything about a certain genre of games and suggested she wouldn’t be comfortable playing that genre of games. This friend actually knew quite a lot about this type of game, and rightly got upset with him for assuming she didn’t know anything about this type of game and thus needed to be protected from it.

At that point, I still couldn’t stand up for myself, but I could stand up for other people, and I tried to tell him what he did was wrong. Gently! With empathy and emotional hand-holding and metaphorical whispering in soothing dulcet tones about the unfortunate unintended effects of his action: that he had hurt someone because of sexist assumptions and that he should apologize. And as a result, he didn’t talk to me for about two weeks.

I ultimately broke down and apologized to Drew, even though I knew that he was in the wrong. Because by then we were nearly a year into the design and playtesting of The Watch, and I was too invested in our game to risk having it fall through over something as “small” as a “minor” disagreement. And because I had become dependent on his attention and interaction, even when I knew that interaction maybe (definitely) wasn’t healthy.

Having him refuse to talk to me was agonizing. It would make me feel actually physically ill. So even though I knew I was right, I was willing to contort myself into whatever emotional configuration was demanded of me in order to maintain the relationship.

Another time, he didn’t talk to me for almost a week because I had jokingly accused him of mansplaining, when that was exactly what he was doing. He wasn’t doing it seriously, it was a joke – one that I laughed at a lot! And I wanted to let him know that I was in on the joke, but even naming something he was doing as a joke wasn’t okay. Because naming a thing that he was doing that wasn’t okay was too much for him to deal with, and that was always the most important factor.

Fourth: social justice jargon as a form of gaslighting

Lastly, Drew was very good at weaponizing the language of social justice to make me question my perceptions and beliefs. He was very good at using feminist jargon about things like checking privilege and toxic masculinity and patriarchy, and he was very good at validating my lived experiences of sexism and misogyny… as long as they didn’t implicate him or personally inconvenience him.

The fact that he was able to use social justice jargon to name and describe the complexities of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and how they affect men made me question my feelings about how he was treating me. He couldn’t possibly be mistreating me, because how many times had I watched him lead conversations with other men about how toxic masculinity damages men while acknowledging himself as part of that problem? It didn’t make sense that someone with Drew’s understanding of social justice concepts could be abusing me, so I refused to acknowledge it.

The problem, of course, is that simply using and understanding social justice jargon doesn’t mean that one has internalized those concepts or taken them to heart. Drew used those terms to establish social justice cred, which he used as a shield against his own behavior, and which he used to get women he was attracted to to lower their defenses with him. I witnessed him on more than one occasion using that kind of performative wokeness to gain trust and become close to other targets, and it was only after I gained distance from the situation that I was able to see what he had been doing.

Writing The Watch: Like fiddling on the Titanic

We were more than two years into the cycle of abuse by the time I found myself finishing the text of The Watch, and things were getting to the point where they were becoming untenable. When we first started developing The Watch, we were still in the second honeymoon phase of our emotional boom/bust cycle and things, from my point of view, felt great. However, by the time I was writing the actual text of the game in late 2016 / early 2017, things had gotten real bad. There were a number of times when I distracted myself about how ill Drew’s emotional abuse was making me feel by knocking out a whole bunch of word count for the book, which is a special kind of fucked up when you consider what the game was actually about.

Sadly, things only got worse from there.

In September 2016, I finally realized that the situation was abusive and had to stop. Once again, just as I had many times before, I tried to have it out with him gently and with empathy. Once again he apologized, said he would change and do better. And once again, he immediately manufactured a crisis that made him the REAL victim, meaning that he, you know, needed space. (Remember DARVO?)

After that, I cried every day for six months because I knew our friendship was over. I hated him and the effect he had on me, even while I hated myself for being unable to stop caring about him and how he felt about me. But this time I didn’t apologize. I stuck to my guns. And that marked the beginning of the end.

Even then, even after I finally let myself know and accept the reality that I was being abused, I chose to remain silent. By the time things between us blew up in late September 2016, the book was already halfway done. We had a budget set, reward levels planned, vendors and artists sourced, and a Kickstarter launch date set. I was committed – both legally and personally – to seeing this thing through, and resolved to do whatever it took to get my game into the world, because I believed that it was important. Unfortunately, though, Drew turned out to be as shitty as a business partner as he was as a friend.

The deal we had made was that he was supposed to be the public face while I handled the back-end stuff, mostly because dudes are shitty to AFAB people online and because we knew we could make more money if we made him more prominent. As such, Drew did the lion’s share of playtesting and was supposed to handle things like backer updates, answering questions, and dealing with backer complaints. Meanwhile, I was supposed to handle things like dealing with the printers, arranging shipping, and paying vendors. And. Well. When it came to being the face of our campaign, Drew really enjoyed doing podcast interviews, but when it came to anything else… he just didn’t show up.

He didn’t follow up on the things he promised to do, and he would get cold and aloof with me when I tried to ask him to do something. I spent three months asking him to write a few paragraphs for the introduction of the book so that both co-creators were reflected, and I finally gave up because he kept promising to get me something and just wouldn’t do it. He finally got so prickly every time I asked him that I just got tired of chasing him. It wasn’t worth it to me to continue getting punished with the silent treatment for trying to get him to give me something that should have been part of the book.

Similarly, he never took initiative in doing backer updates – even when we had milestones that were important to share like ‘hey, we paid the printer an advance for going to press’. So instead of Drew doing backer updates, I ended up writing them and sending them to him for approval. Sometimes he would then change things behind my back and post them under my name, and I would get blamed when it caused confusion or unhappiness. And then he would do another interview and congratulate himself on what a “great working relationship” we had and how well we had done in distributing the workload 50/50, when the reality is that the work needed for publication once the game was finalized was done 85% by me. All while I clenched my teeth and yelled my frustration at the tiny handful of people who knew us both and knew what was going on.

And that’s the horrible irony of the whole situation. I wrote a game to fill my need for stories about women and nonbinary people destroying patriarchy, and I co-authored it with a man who used patriarchal programming to abuse me and make me question my own reality. He emotionally damaged me so badly that I spent two years convincing myself that the reason I was miserable was because I was broken and unlovable. And I spent another year after that undoing the damage that he had done to me.

The lasting damage of trauma, and figuring out the path forward

I already had complex PTSD before Drew, but I have a whole raft of new triggers now from his abuse – and some of them look like they’re going to stick around forever. The biggest being that I’m not able to trust cis men who are too nice to me when I meet them, which is sad because I meet a lot of really great men at conventions who play The Watch and have some pretty transformative experiences and then want to express their gratitude for opening their eyes to experiences of marginalization they’d never fully understood.

I smile and do my best to be gracious, but I can’t trust them – not after how I met Drew and everything he put me through. I mostly keep them at arms’ length because men who are “too” nice to me give me emotional flashbacks to how Drew love-bombed me to set up the abusive relationship and all of the feelings that came after that. And I just can’t go back there.

I am better now than I was. I am very lucky to have had access to trauma therapy and EMDR. I also worked very hard on getting free of him – getting him out of my life and getting to the point where I wasn’t dependent on him both emotionally and socially – though I’m not completely there yet. My local social circles are a lot smaller than they were when I was friends with Drew, and it’s been very hard and isolating to deal with the fallout of ending our friendship.

I’m sure that I’ll probably lose a couple more friends for writing this, but this silence I’ve carried for too long is already heavy enough and I won’t apologize for finally setting it down.

Staying silent for the better part of three years, even after I knew that he was an abuser, was difficult, and not something I did lightly. A big part of my silence was fear for the reception The Watch would get. I needed it to succeed. And as much as I can say, well – the really good bits, the bits that make it the game that it is, came from me. I mean, come on, the Shadow, the Resist the Shadow move, the mechanics that are integral to the themes of struggling with and transforming societies in resistance to white supremacist patriarchy… those come from me. But, 50% of the ideas and mechanics are still his, and I can’t meaningfully call it my game without acknowledging that it is his game as well.

And I still love my game. Because after Drew broke yet another promise (and he broke many) and left me to run 100% of the promotional sessions in advance of the Kickstarter launch in February 2017… since then, I’ve run at least thirty sessions of The Watch at various conventions, and I’ve gotten to see the look on mens’ faces when they really understand something they’ve been doing in their life, something that didn’t make sense until just then. Seeing that realization and hearing them thank me for opening their eyes has been incredibly healing, and is one of the few things that consistently gives me hope that maybe the gaming community can learn to do and be better.

Even more meaningful has been the conversations I’ve had with other trans and nonbinary people who have been so joyful about being able to play a game that explicitly reflects them and their experiences. I’ll never forget the trans masc person at Breakout Con who declared that the Eagle armor option “glorious and bulky” was their actual gender and the glee that accompanied that proclamation.

Being able to reflect people who are normally invisible was a big part of the reason why I wanted to make The Watch in the first place, and why I stuck with it despite everything that went wrong between Drew and I. Because I needed a game that told stories I wanted to tell featuring people who looked like me. And being able to witness queer joy at being seen has been transformative, and has validated the choices that I made to continue forward with the project.

So yes. I love my game.

But it’s been very painful having to share the byline with someone who harmed me, and who I know has harmed other people. And the only reason it’s even possible for me to say this is that he doesn’t really do tabletop roleplaying games anymore. If he still did, I probably wouldn’t be writing this.

Drew is exactly the person that I’ve been laying breadcrumbs to for the past 3+ years, with my writing about emotional predators and my frustration with our inability to deal with predators in our communities. Because this is the story that I needed to tell.

I know that telling this story will probably mean that The Watch’s sales will suffer, which is a big part of the reason I’ve waited this long to say anything. And I understand that impulse, not wanting to give an abuser money. I do. But I ask that people don’t boycott The Watch, because I still do love and believe in my game. I believe that it’s absolutely vital and transformative. I wish I could get more people to play it, and I don’t want it to languish because he’s terrible, and that fear is a big part of what kept me silent for so long.

So. That’s my story.

It’s sprawling and messy, just like me. And it’s not the whole story, because there are parts of the story that aren’t mine to tell. But if you’ve gotten this far, thank you for reading. And if you’ve read this far and any of this feels painful or familiar, or describes something you’re experiencing right now, then I want you to know these two things:

  1. Abusers don’t have to be romantic partners or family members to harm us. Platonic relationships can be every bit as as powerful, and every bit as damaging.
  2. You are not weak for continuing to need attention from your abuser, even if you know you are being mistreated. Abuse is a literal physical addiction, and you are not broken for responding the way your abuser wants you to. That said, there are people who want to help you be well, and who will help you get away if you ask for help.

To that point, I would be remiss if I did not thank the people in my life who helped me get away. Supporting someone recovering from abuse is not easy, and I know that I was pretty (very) frustrating to deal with, and pretty (very) disrespectful of boundaries around venting extremely intense feelings. The peak of Drew’s abuse overlapped with the emergence of my anxiety and PTSD, and that definitely made things harder and more complicated. So to the people who supported me, who validated me when he made me feel worthless, who told me not to talk to him when I was jonesing for his attention, and who generally put up with me being a broken record, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your love made it possible to get free and begin the messy work of healing.

On invisible predators, emotional predators, and social excuses for predators

[This post was originally three connected posts made on Google+ about things that people need to know, and often don’t, about predators and how they operate in communities. It’s been lightly edited for formatting.]

First: Predators are good at being invisible

What most men (and people in general, but especially men) don’t understand about the predators in our community is the fact that they are largely invisible, because most serial predators are actually incredibly socially adept and are very systematic about choosing their targets. The myth of the “socially awkward” predator who “doesn’t mean” to victimize people couldn’t be farther from the truth, in almost all cases; someone who is socially
awkward can hurt people unintentionally, but when that happens in 95% of cases, they apologize and attempt to make amends – because most people who are socially awkward are self-aware enough to know that they fuck up and are prepared to deal with that.

REAL predators are an entirely different animal. REAL predators are charming, savvy, and manipulative. Predators will charm the heck out of people in positions of power (usually but not always men), and make sure to invest heavily in key relationships with community stakeholders who hold a great deal of status. They also have a systematic approach to selecting people to victimize that layers in plausible deniability at every approach, thanks to the myth of the socially awkward predator.

They will select someone (usually a woman or not-cis person) who seems vulnerable and test a small boundary. If that meets with no complaint, they will systematically escalate, each time making sure that this boundary-testing is a process that is observed by no one who would think to question it. By the time it gets to sexual assault, often the predator has found a way to violate so many boundaries that the victim gets tied up in “I didn’t say no to all these other boundaries, so I can’t say no to this one” – which is a sinister way of making the victim feel complicit in their abuse and ensuring their silence.

The side effect of this is that because the predator is smart and savvy, because they invest in relationships with key community members, because there are lots of people from the marginalized group they target who the predator has never gone after, the community will be prepared to defend
the predator to the ends of the earth, thanks to the cover provided by the myth of the socially awkward predator and because of the Geek Social Fallacies. “He didn’t mean it” or “He’s a good guy” or “I’m a woman and he’s never behaved inappropriately with me”… Etc etc.

I know all of this because it’s exactly what happened to me. It started small, putting his arm around me without asking, then saying “this is okay right”. So many small things that spiraled into things I was desperately not okay with, except I didn’t know how to say no since I hadn’t said no to anything
previous.

The man who attacked me was a predator. Smart, sophisticated, and devastatingly charming. He’s also progressive and woke, someone no one would suspect. Which is why I’ve never named him, because I know I wouldn’t be believed. Or that his behavior would be excused.

In my particular case, I’m lucky. The man who attacked me stopped going to cons and got lots of therapy. I had enough contact with him to feel secure that he won’t hurt anyone else the way he hurt me. But that’s just one instance.

What men need to know is that the most effective and dangerous predators are also the people YOU WOULD NEVER SUSPECT.

Second: Sad Boys who make us Save them

At Metatopia a few years ago, I was lucky enough to play Jenn Martin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girls Anonymous, a serious LARP about a support group for MPDGs who want to learn to stop shrinking their dreams and sacrificing their desires and aspirations in order to support their Sad Boy. In the game, any of this behavior is referred to as “Saving the Boy”, and the structure of the game supports the MPDGs in learning to accept that they are real, whole people and that the role of MPDG that has been imposed on them is dehumanizing and unjust.

This game was hugely emotionally resonant for me, because it gave language to the fact that I have been made a MPDG by Sad Boys before, and that it was a denial of my humanity. It also helped me reclaim some of my humanity from the fact that I was wrestling with a particular Sad Boy in my life
when I played the game. And that it is hard and difficult and agonizing learning to assert boundaries around your basic humanity when you know that your Sad Boy won’t tolerate this. Just because you know a relationship has become deeply toxic doesn’t mean you can just turn off those feelings. And when female socialization means that the only scripts you’ve internalized are scripts that force you to accept your lot as your Sad Boy’s MPDG? Removing that toxic influence from your life means fighting your own brain as well.

And friends? Sad Boys are so, so common. Our community is rife with Sad Boys – which is part of the reason why the response to Manic Pixie Dream Girls Anonymous and games like it is so, so fucking strong and why it practically went viral at Metatopia.

Third: Some Sad Boys are skilled emotional predators

SOME Sad Boys are just that. Sad Boys who don’t know how to do their own goddamn emotional labor and need women/femmes to to be their therapists, since that’s how society has trained them. And that fucking sucks, and the fact that they don’t MEAN to be harmful doesn’t change the fact that they are. But these Sad Boys are the equivalent of the socially awkward folks who accidentally hurt people from my previous post. They are shitty people, but they’re not SYSTEMATICALLY shitty.

There is, however, a smaller number of Sad Boys who are the emotional equivalent of the sexual predators discussed in part one, who use charisma, performative wokeness, and emotionally abusive tactics to get women/femmes to be their Manic Pixie Dream Girls. And these Sad Abusive Boys aren’t just looking for emotional labor and validation; often the Sad Abusive Boys are looking for emotional intimacy with a woman/femme who gives them bonerfeels. They don’t actually act on these bonerfeels, either because they aren’t in a position to act or because they had a small modicum of self-awareness that manipulating women into touching their dick would be wrong, but either way the result is the same. They foster intimacy with a woman/femme to gratify their boner without actually caring about their victim as a person.

And when a woman/femme they have made their MPDG finally asserts boundaries and stands up for herself, the Sad Abusive Boy drops her like a hot rock and moves onto the next MPDG, because they know there’s mostly nothing that the MPDG can say that will seem damning to an outside audience.

And again, Sad Abusive Boys are always THE LAST DUDES YOU WOULD EXPECT, because just like the serial sexual predators they invest heavily in relationships with key community stakeholders. They are performatively woke and make all of the right noises at the right times. There are women/femmes who have only ever had positive interactions with them and are prepared to defend their wokeness too! So the women who are targeted by Sad Abusive Boys are even LESS able to speak up about their Sad Abusive Boys than the women who are targeted by serial sexual
predators.

And make no mistake, Sad Abusive Boys ARE abusive, and they are JUST as systematic in selecting the women/femmes that they turn into their MPDGs. Except in this case, they aren’t looking to violate physical boundaries. Rather, they are looking for women with an excess of empathy who
take on nurturing or caring roles. They befriend the woman with performative wokeness and expressions of admiration for things that are actually qualities they see mirrored in themselves. And they foster emotional intimacy in ways that make the MPDG they are targeting feel special and
wanted.

Once they have that intimacy, the Sad Abusive Boy uses and dehumanizes the MPDG to do their emotional labor and to gratify their bonerfeels. The Sad Abusive Boy uses gaslighting, guilt, passive aggression, victim blaming, and sometimes threats of self harm to get targets to go along with this. And this relationship always ends one of two ways:

First, the MPDG finally asserts boundaries and demands respect, which causes the Sad Boy to end the relationship if she sticks with them. However, it’s more likely that he will feign contrition and gaslight the MPDG into not sticking with her demands and accepting further emotional abuse. Which
is why the scenario that occurs far more often is:

eventually, Sad Abusive Boy’s bonerfeels go away. When this happens, Sad Abusive Boy cuts the now-ex MPDG out of his life and goes in search of a new woman/femme to make his MPDG. And when this happens, it is incredibly, HUGELY traumatic – because the Sad Abusive Boy has been fostering a deeply emotionally abusive relationship and emotional dependency.

I know all of this because it has happened to me at least three times, and I’ve had to do a lot of fucking therapy about it. And I’ve seen this story play out with other women too.

Fourth: We can’t speak out, because you can’t even believe us about the obvious predators

The thing that Sad Abusive Boys and serial sexual predators have in common is that they are given permission and plausible deniability by the myth of the socially awkward predator and by the Geek Social Fallacies. And because these serial emotional and sexual abusers are so charming, performatively woke, and socially adept, the odds that they themselves will have high status within the community are high. So the consequences of speaking out against predators who inflict lasting damage are often too high to be borne, because victims know that they will never be believed or
supported in any real way.

And how do we know this? We know this because dudes can’t even get it right when women speak out AND HAVE PROOF. Jessica Price had SCREENSHOTS of her interactions with Frank Mentzer, and was accused of faking the accusations for attention – despite the fact that she’s no longer even working in the games industry.

And we know this because women who have tried to speak up in the wake of #metoo about serial emotional abusers have been similarly stonewalled, disbelieved, and blamed for their own abuse. When other female developers have tried to speak out against serial emotional abusers like John
Morke, some of them (like Jacqueline Bryk) have been lucky enough to be believed. But others haven’t.

So this is why women and femmes don’t speak out about emotionally abuse Sad Boys. Because dudes, you can’t even get it right when you’re playing on the lowest difficulty setting. If you can’t get the response right when you are presented with OBVIOUS MONSTER HERE ARE SCREENSHOTS AND OTHER PROOF, women sure as shit aren’t going to trust you to get it right on a higher difficulty like “your best friend groped me” or “your business partner is a serial emotional abuser”.

 

Abusers and Apologies: A Rant in Lists

Today I have some shit that I need to say about abusers and apologies. I wrote out these lists intending them to be an outline for a post or series of posts, but expanding on these points would soften the language into language that makes it easy for people to ignore the point that I am driving towards, and I do not want my language to be comfortable or easy to live with.

So today you get a bunch of lists. Know as you read each item that each contains an entire diatribe. A rant with points both salient and emotional. With examples of suffering, tales of harm, and calls to action.

Today I am not doing the work of filling in the detail. Today you will have to do that work for yourself.

 

On Forgiveness:

Abusers who refuse to acknowledge that they have harmed people are not entitled to forgiveness.

Abusers who acknowledge they have harmed people but refuse to apologize are not entitled to forgiveness.

Abusers who apologize sincerely and have since learned to be better and stop abusing are STILL NOT entitled to forgiveness.

Feeling entitled to an abuse survivor’s feelings is itself abuse. Abusers are not entitled to forgiveness. Period.

 

On Apologies:

Not all apologies are created equal. The common wisdom is that we should forgive and forget, and that if someone apologizes, we should naturally forgive them. But that thinking only empowers abusers to use the common decency of those around them as a shield for their abuse.

Common abuser tactics involving apologies include:

  • Apologizing for the wrong thing
  • Apologizing for a small harm as a cover for the larger harm they have committed
  • Apologizing for one instance of harm while ignoring the larger pattern of identical harm they have committed
  • Apologizing for harm committed against a person of privilege while ignoring a pattern of harm committed against more marginalized people
  • Apologizing only after prevailing community sentiment has shifted against their harmful behavior
  • Apologizing for someone’s feelings or lived reality
  • Apologizing in a way that minimizes their agency in harming someone (IE “I was drunk”)
  • Making an apology blaming their behavior on mental illness or past trauma
  • Making an apology that adheres perfectly to the form of a good apology and then failing to take any action or make any change that would prevent a repetition of the harm they caused, trusting that only their words and adherence to proper form will be remembered
  • Making an apology that is overly emotional, self-flagellating, and full of shame, as a shield against further criticism for the harm they are apologizing. (IE “They already feel bad enough, shouldn’t we drop it?”)
  • Making an apology that centers their feelings and not the feelings of the person or people that they harmed
  • Making an apology that uses social justice jargon in order to establish credibility as someone willing to be “accountable”
  • Making an apology that promises unspecified future remedies without ever enacting said remedies
  • Making an apology that promises specific future action without ever taking that action
  • Making an apology that is accompanied by emotional or physical withdrawal

We need to stop assuming that all apologies are genuine, because apologies are one of the most crucial weapons in an abuser’s arsenal.

 

On Restorative Justice:

Restorative justice is not a panacea that can heal all wounds.

Restorative justice will not entitle an abuser to universal forgiveness.

Restorative justice will not prevent you from having to actually remove abusers from your communities.

Restorative justice will not rehabilitate abusers who do not want to be rehabilitated.

Abusers will invoke the desire for restorative justice as a cover against their abusive actions.

Abusers will get third parties the victim cares about to offer to facilitate discussions with the people they harmed as a way to wound their victims and make them feel further isolated from their community.

Restorative justice facilitated by people who stand to materially gain from the process is not justice.

Restorative justice that pressures victims to participate is not justice.

Approaching the same victim repeatedly with offers to facilitate restorative justice after they have declined is a form of abuse, which is not justice.

 

On Marginalized Abusers:

Marginalized people can be abusers.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with more privilege.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with more marginalizations.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with different marginalizations.

Cishet white dudes can be abused by marginalized people.

Being marginalized does not render you incapable of abuse.

Being marginalized does not mean you automatically know how not to abuse people.

Being marginalized does not mean you automatically don’t abuse people.

 

On Defense

For those who lack the power – either socially, structurally, or organizationally – to take direct action to stop their abuser, the only defense against an abuser is not to engage with them.

 

On Relationships With Abusers:

Abusers invest heavily in relationships with key members of the community, people with either power, social capital, or other forms of influence, as a shield against inevitable complaints of abuse.

Just because an abuser has only ever treated you with kindness does not mean they are not an abuser.

If you have not seen someone being abusive, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone has poured hours into thankless or tedious work on behalf of others, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone fulfills an important role to the community that would be difficult to replace, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone has supported you through something terrible with love, empathy, and compassion, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

Loving and caring about someone does not mean they can’t be an abuser. Your love does not make them not abusive.

On cutting ties with predators and grieving someone who was never real

Twitter has been a pretty fraught place the last few days for anyone who pays attention to the world of indie videogame development, as the #metoo wave finally catches up with that industry. Women are finally speaking the names of industry legends (men) who abused them and it is a good and hard and sad conversation to watch. It is also a very fraught conversation, and one that requires a lot of support – but not always in obvious ways:

  • It’s obvious to say that the victims who are speaking their truths will need support to heal. Of course they will.
  • It’s also obvious to say that people who are reframing experiences that they didn’t realize weren’t okay at the time will also need support. Realizing that something that you had taken as benign or even funny was actually abusive is a hard and scary thing to process.

But what is maybe not so obvious is that the friends and close associates of predators being outed – those who don’t side with the predator by defending him or trying to muddy the waters – these people also need support, but will often find that support difficult to ask for. The friends who walk away are experiencing grief for a person who never actually existed – a person who was worthy of the love invested in that relationship. But so often for the friends who walk away, that grief comes with shame:

Shame for not knowing. Shame for feeling complicit, or maybe even inadvertently being complicit.

Lots of folks will write smart and good things about the people in groups 1 and 2. For myself as a nonbinary person, I tend to take the part of the overlooked and invisible. So today, I’m going to write something for folks in the third group (who may also be in the first and second group with regards to other people – this shit gets real messy). The people whose response to learning that someone they cared for was a predator was to walk away (and not pull this kind of shit). Listen up.

First: You did not ask for this

Image with two lists: This is NOT my responsibility: other people's words, other people's mistakes, other people's believes, the consequences of other people's actions, other people's opinions, other people's ideas, this IS my responsiblity: my words, behavior, actions, efforts, ideas, and actions

Grieving the loss of a friend who turned out to be a predator is a real mindfuck. You start going through the details of your relationship, looking for the signs that you should have seen, clues you should have picked up, chances to prevent harm that you ignored. You think about the times you promoted that friend or their work, or times when you introduced that friend to other people, and (if you’re not a monster) you get caught up castigating yourself for enabling that friend’s abuse or shielding them from criticism.

So here is the most important thing: you did not ask to be made complicit in their abuse.

Predators take advantage of the desire of good and normal people to believe the best of people and twist that to their advantage. The fact that you feel shame and anxiety about your part in their abuse is validation of the fact that you are a good person. It is not your responsibility as a good person to disclaim to everyone in your life that you do not want to be used as a shield against accusations of abuse. It is their responsibility not to fucking abuse people.

It is not your fault when someone you trust abuses people behind your back. Okay? Okay.

Second: You can still use this as a learning experience to avoid being used as a shield in the future

Predators operate from a common playbook, and while it’s important not to beat yourself up for the abuse someone else committed and hid from you, it’s still important to recognize that you can learn from this experience. And what does that look like? Well.

Everyone’s experience is sadly different. But I can tell you a story of my own experiences, and what I learned:

A boy named Steve

In 2014, I met a guy who changed my life. We’ll call him Steve (though that’s obviously not his name). Steve introduced me to a lot of people, and to a hobby which would become (and remain) a great passion of mine. He was dynamic and exciting and intelligent, and we became fast friends. He was one of the most important people in my life, and none of it was fucking real.

As it turns out, Steve was a serial emotional predator. He knew it was wrong to manipulate women he liked into touching his junk, so instead he would manipulate them into becoming emotionally dependent on him through love bombing, gaslighting, and avoidant emotional abuse. (Trauma bonding is a hell of a drug, y’all.) And then when he inevitably lost interest, he’d move on to the next woman who gave him pantsfeelings and do it all over again.

Steve had a type – loudmouth gender non-conforming feminist gamer women. And he knew all the right things to say – all the jargon, all the ways to perform wokeness without actually caring about women as anything other than props to gratify his desire for emotional dependence and validation. I wasn’t the first woman-appearing-person he’d targeted, and I definitely wouldn’t be the last.

At one point during our exhausting emotional boom/bust cycle, he took me out to lunch and held my hand as he apologized for all the ways he’d been mistreating me. And he told me the story of how he’d manipulated a woman into doing something he regretted later, but it was consensual at the time, only now she said it wasn’t and he knew that “believe women” meant that he couldn’t argue with her and, and, and…

Friends. I would love to tell you that I read him the riot act and cut ties. I didn’t. I was so caught up in the emotional abuse, the rush of his apology (which wasn’t real), and the belief that this time things would get better and that he really was the good, decent guy that I thought he was… I held his hand, looked into his eyes, and told him he was a good person, and what happened was sad and unfortunate but he was not a predator. And he proceeded to emotionally abuse me for another two years.

The woman from that story and I are friends now. I was profoundly relieved when she didn’t hold a grudge for me siding with Steve for two years, and we’ve talked about the ways that Steve manipulated both of us. But what I learned from Steve is this:

  • If someone tells you they are an abuser, believe them: I made the decision to believe Steve and validate his belief that he was not a predator because I had never experienced that kind of abuse before. But I know better now. Abusers will tell you about their abusive pasts, and then give you all sorts of reasons to believe that they are no longer abusers. They do this to spin the narrative in their favor and to make you more reluctant to cut ties with them by making you complicit, by making you a knowing party to their abusive behavior.
  • Don’t make excuses for someone else’s abuse: I’ve written before that not all abusers are monsters. Some people who abuse others really do learn to stop, to do and be better. But that change can’t happen as long as their behavior is excused. Real, honest reform begins with accountability and ownership of the harmful actions. And even if you sincerely believe that someone you care about is trying to turn away from their abusive past, you are doing them no favors by making excuses for them.I doubt that Steve would have changed if I hadn’t made excuses for him. But if I hadn’t made excuses and he remained committed to his abusive patterns of behavior, his reaction would have told me what I needed to know to get him the hell out of my life a whole lot sooner.
  • A display of emotional pain is not the same as actual contrition: Just because a predator cries and tells you they are sorry doesn’t mean they are sincere in their desire to change. Predators use their emotional pain as a weapon to prevent you from holding them accountable. They want you to think that they have changed because they feel bad, and really haven’t they been punished enough? But an apology without change is manipulation.Steve held my hand and cried about how sorry he was because he wanted me to cut him slack and to not leave. He used my empathy against me, to convince me to ignore my better instincts and remain in a situation that was bad for me – because I made his pain more important than my own needs. Which brings us to:
  • Believe patterns, not individual actions: Just because an abuser is nice one time or they do the right thing one time or they support you one time does not mean that they are not abusers. Steve did a lot to support me through some pretty awful shit. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was a fucking predator. Ultimately, being able to recognize the pattern of abuse helped me know that I had to get him out of my life. But that would have been so much easier if I had known to look for it in the first place.

Spiderman looking through a telescope with the caption: see that guy, fuck that guy

Lastly: Be gentle with yourself. It is okay to grieve.

Steve has been out of my life for two and a half years now, and even knowing that he’s a goddamn predator, I still sometimes grieve our friendship. Predators are often very charismatic, and he was energizing and fun to be around. My life is very much better without him in it, but that doesn’t keep me from missing the time we spent together. And it doesn’t keep me from wishing I could have that person – the person who was my friend who actually cared about me as a person – back, even if that person was never real.

If there is someone in your life who you have recently learned is a predator, it is okay to grieve the version of them that you loved – even if that version was never real. Love isn’t a switch we can turn off just because we learned something horrible, and having these feelings means that you are human. And that’s okay.