Threats, Intimidation and Gaslighting in Politics: The Art of Normalized Misogyny.

When politicians flippantly use domestic violence techniques they fail women, their Government, and their country. They should also forfeit the right to operate in the public sphere representing any part of the US Government. While that is not the case, as our “pussy grabbing” President evidences, it should be. Our job is to continue speaking up against it, relentlessly, so that this position becomes the norm. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid. We are the resistance. We will prevail.

About a week ago, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said in a radio interview that if the three GOP “female senators” opposing his party’s repeal of Obamacare persisted and if they also happened to be men he would gladly settle the issue “Aaron Burr style,” referring to the 1804 duel where Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. Rep. Farenthold later minimized his statements as “tongue in cheek.” If the comment seems inappropriate and the explanation false, but you can’t quite put your finger on why, it is because Rep. Farenthold (likely unwittingly) is using common domestic violence techniques. And the fact they are hard to articulate makes them inordinately hard to fight, whether on a personal level when victims are trying to understand their situation or within the legal system, when lawyers are trying to explain why the situation at hand was an abusive one.

Domestic violence is often explained using a “Power and Control Wheel.” (This is a picture of an actual wheel with each slice represents a method of control). The Wheel illustrates the pattern of coercive behavior that makes up “domestic violence.” This is because domestic violence is not a distinct event. It is a series of events and behaviors that fall into recognized categories. These categories are characterized by the domination and control of one person over another, usually an intimate partner, through physical, psychological, emotional, verbal, sexual, and/or economic abuse. This abuse is repetitive in nature and affects the victim’s ability to “test reality,” to rely on her own perception of reality to understand herself and others.

Domestic violence is particularly pernicious because significant parts of it operate in the shadows of innuendo and tacit implications. The choking, punching, striking and over threats are only one of many pieces of the cycle of abuse. It is quite literally the tip of the iceberg. The part everyone sees, the part that hurts on impact, but only a small part of the gigantic edifice of intimate partner violence. This edifice is built in large part on the tacit acceptance that some verbal intimidation is acceptable, that some level of veiled violence is acceptable and (most importantly) that complaining about any of these things is “over the top” or being “hypersensitive.” Rep. Farenthold, while he may not have thought much of his own words, nonchalantly fell into that well-accepted construct. Some degree of threatened violence against women for non-compliance is acceptable. When called on his behavior, Rep. Farenthold immediately retreated to the other well-accepted technique: minimize the offending behavior and de-legitimize any negative reaction thereto.

Not surprisingly, this too is part of the domestic violence wheel: minimization. The process is also referred to as “gaslighting.” It de-legitimizes any sense of violation, discomfort, or fear resulting from the bad behavior. But the bad behavior did happen. In private, what should come next is introspection and a genuine apology. Not more grandstanding. In public, it should be utterly unacceptable. The fact that it is not only means that we have more to fight. The first step in that process is to recognize that we have the right to fight back. I am going to repeat that: we have the right to fight back.

Statements like Rep. Farenthold’s, which legitimize thoughts of violence—whether directed at or just in connection with the behavior of—women must be decried. Repeatedly. Every time. Every place. This behavior is not acceptable and it is not “tongue in cheek.” It is repugnant and dangerous. It needs to be called out for what it is, each and every time. If his words bothered you, trust your gut. If it didn’t bother you, ask yourself why.


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