Monday, December 28, 2009

On the metaphor of the closet

When I wrote a post which praised people for breaking silence around abuse, I expected some push back. The push-back was the reason I'd written the post - I knew it was coming and wanted to get some praise in first.

I haven't received much response to me personally.* The one negative response I did receive was critical that I 'outed' Ira Bailey. I can see that the point of my post, which wasn't to name him myself but celebrate those who did name him, was lost because the silence around abuse is so strong, that any break in that silence is shocking.

But I was taken by the word 'out' - by the metaphor of the closet for abusive men. I've seen it used before, when someone got angry at a survivor of abuse for 'outting' her abuser. To me it seems so horrificly inappropriate, that I can imagine where people who use it could possibly stand on issues of abuse. But then it occurred to me that it may be a word people use without thinking about it, and that unpacking the implications of this usage might be worth doing.

The closet is a powerful idea and the metaphor carries important ideas about people's sexuality, and society's attitudes towards your sexuality. In particular the idea that 'outing' someone's sexuality is wrong is based on an analysis of the way society treats people's sexuality.

The first aspect of this analysis is that society unjustly judges people's sexuality as shameful. People stay in the closet because they are ashamed of a part of themselves. Coming out of the closet is worth celebrating because its a rejection of society's shaming.

Abuse is not a part of a person, it is a way they have hurt other people. Any (very limited in this society) judgement and shame that abusers experience is a reaction to what people have done, not who they are.

The second aspect of this analysis is that the negative consequences of being open about your sexuality can be significant. People die, they lose their jobs, they get harrassed - all because of an aspect of who they are. The unjustified shame around some people's desires has serious consequences.

The negative consequences for being abusive are much less pervasive than the consequences for being open about your desires. While there are some notable exceptions (particularly violence against pedophiles), generally people's response to those they know are abusive will be muted. If people don't want to be around someone who has been abusive that is a boundary that they are perfectly entitled to draw, and it is the person who has been abusive who should face the consequences of that boundary.

The third aspect of the analysis Your sexuality is yours and yours only. Your desires are yours to keep secret or share, when and where you want to, or feel safe.

Abusive actions do not belong to the person who did them - they something that you do to someone else. No one is entitled to ownership of the way they have hurt other people.

These three aspects of the closet, shame, consequences, and ownership do all in our society apply to people who have been abused. But they do not apply to abusive men (or women).

I'm sorry if this post seems to basic and didatic, but it offends me so much when people misappropriate the language of the closet for abusers. The metaphor does not apply to them and they do not deserve it's protection. I imagine that some people who use this language are not thinking about what they are saying, and are making an honest mistake. But words do matter, so I've tried to articulate why this usage angers me so much.

* The push-back against the women who named Ira Bailey has been significant though. Climate Camp, and particular their safer spaces comittee, have a lot to be ashamed of.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. Tend to use "closet" to refer to secret commies though, because there are definite parallels, especially during the Cold War - marginalised people either developing codes and subcultures, or completely avoiding confrontation with hegemony.

    Thought I was the only person who thought that way until Bud came out, a play which used Jean Genet's Un Chant D'Amour to explore links between repressed homosexuality and communism in the McCarthy era US.

    Oppressors and exploiters do not hide in the closet, they own the closet. "Expose" is a better word than "out," in that instance.