Why Some People Hurt Other People

When we hear of someone hurting someone else (rape, child neglect or physical abuse) we often wonder why people do these bad things. There are other bad things too, like the Pulse nightclub shooting but these three kinds of inter-personal tragedies are ones that often make many of us feel especially helpless or vulnerable. So we try to figure out why things happen as a way to make sense of the pain. And sometimes it just feels good to do something, doesn't it? People do "bad" things to someone else for two reasons: privilege and/or early childhood adversity.

Take the recent example of Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who repeatedly raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and tried to run away even after two students caught and confronted him. A crime that he would have likely got away with.  It's hard to imagine Brock Turner making a choice to rape an unconscious woman if he had been taught about the importance of consent from an early age. I've been teaching my 4 year old for well over a year now about asking permission and to stop touching someone, if they say "stop". Turner's father on the other hand said, after his son's sentencing of six months in county jail, that he was paying a "steep price" for "20 minutes of action". Consent clearly hasn't been a part of the Turner family values. 

And here's where privilege enters in. Male athletes, especially white male athletes, are lionized in our society. They are treated as golden, beyond reproach for anything that they might do or contribute to, including rape. That's privilege which Turner and his family continue to use to their advantage, even after a crime has been committed. But would Brock Turner be in prison, not county jail, for longer than six months if he were African-American? Absolutely. And that's what white privilege is: being able to act without fear of repercussion because your whiteness ensures you will be treated more than fairly by society.

There are other kinds of privilege too: the privilege of people who have more money, resources, control, power or education than others. That's often where the "regular" abuser comes in. The abuser who beats his partner. The stepfather who molests his wife's daughters. The aunt who dresses her own kids in clean clothes but allows her nieces nothing clean or sized appropriately. The abuser has resources that the survivor or victim does not. He (more often than now, the abuser is a "he", as opposed to be "she" or "they") uses that privilege to control and hurt her. That can look very different for survivors. Privilege can show up as calling the police on her after he beats her; requiring her to submit to a psych eval as part of custody since she's the one who left or even sabotaging her birth control. Even after the relationship is over, the abuser often uses their privilege to control the survivor, sometimes just to wear her down, exhaust her emotionally and financially and/or make her question her own judgment or decision-making ability. All of this "bad" things happen because he has privilege she does not. 


Joanna Connors in her book, I Will Find You, (reviewed here) talks about her surprise to learn of her rapist's violent family life. As small children, we not only learn what is modeled around us (hitting someone to get what they want) but our brains and bodies can change as a result of early trauma like abuse or neglect. Children who grow up in abusive families learn early on that their needs don't matter; that power is what is important and that it's better to beat on than to be beaten. Even medical professionals fail to make the connection from past abuse to current health and wellness issues which can translate to adults not getting the healing, support and resources they need. That can especially go under the radar when families are more privileged. And of course for those who aren't, there are inadequate resources to help families be better parents. So the cycle continues. The affects of adverse childhood experiences (which include sexual and physical abuse) never really go away. Early adversity is something that can shape a child into an abuser or survivor later on. 

It's not only you who wonders why people do bad things to each other. Survivors wonder this too: why did their abuser force sex on her when she told him that she didn't want it, then later tell her that he loved her? Why does he continue to humiliate her by posting intimate pictures of her, even after the relationship is over? Why does the abuser spend time, energy, even money making her life hell? It's always, always because they can (privilege) and/or because they have learned that power and control gets them what they want, a message learned pretty early on in their life.

This is the bad news. The news you likely can't do much about. (Except, if you are a parent. Then, do your best to raise happy, kind children by modeling healthy relationships.)

Here's the good news: you can be an ally to anyone. It doesn't cost you anything. You don't need any training. Reach out to someone who is upset, feels lonely or discouraged because things aren't going well for her. Speak up when someone says something that feels hurtful or offensive. Adjust your social media expectations from "educating" to "disconnecting" from those who aren't your tribe. Unsubscribe, unfriend, unfollow. Tell the people you love that you love them. Use your strength to advocate for others who aren't as strong. Tweet your pain, sign a petition or take one action step. Then move on. A world full of anger doesn't leave you much room for love. People will do bad things. You can do better things.