As a therapist who works with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, Karen Pollock takes issue with the idea that being an abuse victim gives you license to abuse others.
In the cyber equivalent of The Queerness staff meetings, there are few topics of universal agreement. One thing which we have been united on, however, is that Milo Hanrahan (aka Yiannopoulos) needs no signal boosting from us. In a media landscape of hot takes and pursuit of the outrageous, we have been content to remain silent. It therefore feels slightly odd to now add to the attention he receives. I feel compelled to do so, however, because there is more at stake than the media career of a neo-nazi John Inman impersonator.
I am a therapist; I work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Every Monday, I help facilitate a Twitter chat for survivors. Both inside and outside the therapy room, I witness the immense bravery of people who are trying to rebuild lives which have been shattered by abuse. If it is possible to be wearily angry then that describes my mood as I write. I am weary because survivors of childhood sexual abuse are rarely heard, and even more rarely genuinely listened to. I am angry because survivors are being used as human shields by those who, until yesterday, would have described them as “snowflakes” and laughed at their trauma.
I suppose we must, even as I am loathe to, discuss what Milo has done for those fortunate enough to not know who he is. There should be links, and analysis, although not the kind which might be most useful, that which takes place in the therapeutic space. I am tempted to say “go Google”; it will be good for you, but perhaps that is no longer the case? In this brave new world of alternative facts, perhaps the old standby of an eye-rolling link to “let me Google that for you” no longer works?
So, facts, those slippery creatures which are in such short supply as opinion rules the land. Milo, after various failed business attempts, became editor of Breitbart news, an online conspiracy site which encouraged hate and fantasy. As always, when you need high emotions to get clicks, it delved further away from facts as time passed. After all, who needs facts when even the most powerful men invent terrorist incidents for emotional effect?
I am angry because survivors are being used as human shields by those who, until yesterday, would have described them as “snowflakes” and laughed at their trauma.
Since the election of Donald Trump, Milo has been in the US, thrashing around for a career based on outrage and hate. Like Nigel Farage and Piers Morgan, he seems to have hoped that crumbs from the table of the truly powerful might sustain him. Of course, as a gay man, Milo had to exist in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance to believe an election victory brought about by the support of evangelical Christians has a place for him, but I must beware of slipping into analysis.
It has seemed that those in power have been willing to tolerate an ‘open homosexual’. Part ‘beard’ no doubt. A way to say “look, how can we be anti LGBTQ+ when our pet gay man is on the stage?” Milo has made this easier by using his speaking tour and public appearances to attack trans people. In the hierarchy of LGBTQ+ hate in America, trans people are the great Satan. The preachers in the pulpits know too many of their congregations have met a gay person for those attacks to work as well as they used to. Trans people however, they are still other, still easily othered, the 21st-Century equivalent of reds under the beds.
After all, who needs facts when even the most powerful men invent terrorist incidents for emotional effect?
All was going well for the new nazi poster-child until old podcast footage was released this week of Milo joking about, and normalising sex between children and adults.
A word about black/gallows humour. It exists and it is a coping mechanism. Lots of people use it, from fire fighters to heart surgeons. What most people know is that they do not use it outwith their groups. Not because of shame but because people with good boundaries (or to be honest any boundaries) understand appropriate use of spaces. Two paramedics sharing dark humour to bond privately is very different from someone making a context-less joke publicly. The exception to this, in fact the exception which proves the rule, is stand up comedy. In this setting, the humour comes from the public display of private moments. The audience in its shocked laughter acknowledges that something which blurs accepted boundaries has occurred.
Milo is many things but he is not a stand up comedian.
Beyond the joke which showed little understanding of boundaries, there are two far more important issues. Firstly, Milo using the language of PIE and NAMBLA gives support to those who defend child abuse. His suggestion that young gay/queer/bi men boys benefit from sexual abuse is hardly new. It is an idea based on two things: abusers’ desire to defend their actions, gendered notions about masculinity equaling a perpetual desire for sex and acceptance of structural homophobia. To get technical for a moment, this is all complete bollocks.
In the hierarchy of LGBTQ+ hate in America, trans people are the great Satan.
All children have a sexual nature, which matures and develops as they mature and develop. It is society, which in failing to teach children that sex and sexuality are normal, healthy and part of being a rounded individual which fails them. This failure leaves them open to abuse. Abusers take advantage of the failings of our society to prey on those who are confused, or ashamed of how they feel. There are many ways someone can be vulnerable; in a homophobic society, being gay can feel wrong or shameful. Abusers hone in on this vulnerability, knowing that very often, the aching desire to be accepted is a raw wound in a child’s psyche. It has to be said that this is also the case for trans, queer and bi kids. They are often targeted because the societal messages telling them they are not good enough makes them easy prey. Those who prey on vulnerable LGBTQ+ teens have no stake in actually changing society, in challenging homophobia or the taboos around sexual pleasure which exist, because they directly benefit from them. In a world where we allowed children to be children, to explore for themselves their sexual identities, there would be no vulnerability to exploit.
When Milo repeats the old chestnut about older men who predate on queer boys being mentors, he is giving power to all the abusers who have justified their actions with similar words. Work, even for a short time, with survivors of abuse, and you know how much damage those words cause. Victims are taught to internalise the blame for what adults have done to them, since the adults refuse to take responsibility for their actions. This process of internalisation is immensely harmful, as a child carries the burdens which an adult places upon them.
Firstly, Milo using the language of PIE and NAMBLA gives support to those who defend child abuse. His suggestion that young gay/queer/bi men boys benefit from sexual abuse is hardly new.
There does perhaps need to be a wider discussion within the cis gay male community about twinks, and the normalisation of abuse as a rite of passage. There is an excellent piece here by a gay man about how his own internal defence mechanisms caused him to minimise his own experiences. It’s a hard conversation, not least because of the historical and unjust accusation of paedophilia which has been levelled at gay men. How we navigate the complexity of some men exploiting queer boys, with a refusal to accept the vile assertions of homophones is incredibly complex. It also needs to be a conversation led by gay men.
I spoke of anger earlier, and it is perhaps a protective anger. In the past day, as well as the “it was just a joke” defence, both Milo and his supporters have used the “well, I was abused” defence. It seems we need to use simple words to explain something which should not need explaining;
Being a survivor of abuse does not excuse abusing others.
All adults have choices. Many survivors wrestle daily with the impact of their abuse but, at heart, they know they are people with agency, and the ability to choose. This matters so much to them because that ability to choose was what was denied to them by their abusers. There are few black and white issues on this planet, but one of the few is that once we reach adulthood we are responsible for any harm we intentionally do to others.
Now, this is not to say that abuse does not have many negative impacts or that survivors may make poor choices. For example, survivors may struggle with being aroused by things they wish they were not. Others may struggle with boundaries and agency. If we take the issue of sexual arousal, we can, I think, understand how this all boils down to choice. It is not uncommon for a survivor to feel physical sexual arousal at accounts of child abuse. To fully explore why would take up a lot of space in what is not an academic blog, so I shall use an analogy I have used in counselling of “faulty brain wiring”. Such arousal is usually a huge source of shame to a survivor, and needs to be worked with carefully and empathetically. However, whilst the arousal is in many ways an automatic response, conditioned by the childhood abuse, acting on it is a choice.
Sometimes, abuse is framed within the self-harm category. This is an incredibly thorny issue to try to unpick. It may be that someone abuses a child in a way which will cause damage to themselves. It may be that Milo sees his words and actions as analogous to this. I was abused, and so I behave in a way which harms me, so I must be excused. The problem with this is it turns other humans into objects, and, just as an abuser does, fails to see them as feeling creatures. If we harm others with our actions, but excuse it with the idea we are really trying to harm ourself, then we are placing our needs above the needs of all others. It is a failure of empathy, and a self justification rooted in the thought processes of abuse.
Thus, perhaps I have explained to myself the weariness. If we had decent, consent based and LGBTQ+ inclusive sex and relationship education; If we valued empathy as much as making money; if we listened to children, rather than speaking for and over them; then perhaps this piece would not need to be written, would never need to be written again. Sadly, I imagine Milo’s replacement is already being groomed, with a fistful of outrage and cheap soundbites waiting to take centre stage.
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