The one word so many have used on Twitter to describe the six-episode podcast Sweet Bobby. Downloaded over one million times online and listened to by a global audience, we all sat with bated breath and animated expressions as Alexi Mostrous brilliantly investigated the decade long experience of British radio presenter Kirat Assi. Kirat was catfished and emotionally and psychologically abused by ‘Bobby’. ‘Bobby’ is a stolen identity of a real person and Kirat is in fact talking to someone she already knows in her personal life. Chilling stuff.
To avoid divulging any spoilers I focus on talking about the dangers of this kind of abuse.
So many people, myself included, had many questions as we listened. My first question was – who did Kirat really have to talk to about this relationship while she was in it? As South Asian women we are conditioned to look after the family honour in ways that our brothers and male counterparts are not. With this comes the immense pressure of keeping your dating life a complete secret, all the while being expected to pull out the perfect marriage worthy man by the age of twenty-five. No pressure then.
You are taught for the most of your life to ‘stay away from boys’ and then one day everybody just expects you to get married. Living with the threat of: if your ‘thaya (paternal uncle) finds out’, if your ‘mama (maternal uncle) see’s you with a boy’, and heaven forbid if your dad and misogynistic female relatives find out that you are in a relationship – then ‘that is it!’. Whatever ‘that is it!’ means.
Think back to the scene in Bend it Like Beckham when Jesminder is seen laughing at the bus stop with Juliet. A white girl with short hair. Jess arrives home to find the biggest drama waiting for her in her living room. “They saw you kissing a white boy at the bus stop.” “Stupid bitch! Why couldn’t you do it in secret like everyone else?!” “Me?! KISSING??! A boy?!!!” “You’re mad!”
The idea of being accused of the very thing you spend what feels like a lifetime trying not to get accused of doing. The fear. The shock. The shame. The disappointment. The guilt.
So why are we surprised, then, that girls and women are groomed, exploited, end up in unhealthy relationships, are emotionally and mentally coerced or even catfished online? When this is the prevailing culture of fear and guilt that we expose young women to when growing up, then why are we shocked by the abuse that they then encounter in their life when the coercive control starts early?
This is where my thoughts took me as I listened to the podcast. To our culture of silence around relationships and dating when it comes to young girls and women as South Asians and then to the wider issues: the way society in general is set up to enable abuse. Whether that takes place online, offline or as in Kirat’s case, both. The way institutions like the police and the legal sector that are designed to help us in fact end up failing us, especially black and Asian women. It once again raises questions of institutional racism, sexism and the lack of trust people have in the law and the police.
So when you ask online or discuss in your conversations: How could this have happened? Why did Kirat not arrange to meet up in person sooner? Did the voices over Skype not sound the same? Did Kirat not suspect anything before the big reveal? Why did this relationship carry on almost covertly over social media for so long? Be sure to also ask: Who did Kirat have in her life that she could talk openly to about this relationship without any judgement? What kind of circumstances are South Asian women raised in where dating life and relationships are forced into an abyss of quietness? What about the culture of silence and control around the relationships that they are in and how their partners become all too familiar with this, thus weaponising it against the victim? What about the shame and honour? How can the above contribute to the shocking revelations heard on the Sweet Bobby podcast?
There are definite questions around the ‘why?’ of it all but the bigger debate should focus on the way coercive control and psychological abuse affects someone’s mental health in serious ways. How toxic triangulation, a tactic used by abusive people, narcissists, sociopaths and the psychopaths of the world can really impair someone’s rational mind, and how social media is used to enable that. What we hear in that podcast series is a psychological warfare taking place. There are many characters being deployed in the toxic triangulation phase of the abuse and then there are the ways in which Kirat is on the receiving end of rigid psychological punches. There is a lot of trauma here.
When we talk about mental health awareness can we in good conscious continue to ignore the darker side to the conversation on mental health? This is also a part of the stigma and it exists within the mental health sector itself.
Mental health awareness is not just about the important conversations on depression, ill-mental health and the shame attached to that. It is a very lengthy and layered topic. This also includes, but in our discussions on mental health awareness is absent of, the darker side to mental health, specifically in reference to the cognitive, behavioural, and emotional state that constitutes dark personality styles. The dark triad. In essence, the psychologically safe versus the psychologically unsafe. And by this I mean recognising signs of abuse and manipulation and the real person behind that mask of vulnerability, status and or communal admiration.
What should healthy relationships look like? Who in your inner circle can you turn to for genuine and sincere advice? And have you really recognised the emotional and mental safety in the friends and family that you surround yourself with?
Dr. Ramani, psychologist professor and author talks publicly about narcissism and dark personality styles in her ongoing work as a clinical psychologist and notes that one in five people are narcissists. This is the culture of incivility that we are in direct contact with. That is not to mention sociopathic or psychopathic personality styles and the harm and abuse they inflict upon people, especially those vulnerable to it. And really, that could be anyone.
Think about that really selfish and cruel person that you eliminated from your life or that two-faced lying ex, or maybe your manipulative friend who you now have nothing to do with. Now think about the impact that person’s negative influence had on your life and wellbeing. Then reflect on the same but in relation to the heavily abusive and darker personality styles that we hear of, like in Sweet Bobby. What impact could that have on your mental health? Add to that the ongoing trauma and re-traumatisation that occurs with a culture of enabling and our lack of awareness of these dark personality styles.
We enable abuse as a society, in our homes, the workplace and other significant spaces of social interaction like social media because we have been conditioned to empathise or to take a diplomatic and neutralising approach to everyone, including the abuser. We are taught to keep our heads down to avoid conflict at home or at work and we are expected to move on from abuse in relationships, personal or professional once they have occurred. Much of the expectation to know better, to deal with it all or to not have gotten into the situation in the first place falls on the shoulders of the victim of abuse. This culture of victim shaming and blaming needs to shift and we need to ask ourselves how our environment is enabling this kind of abuse in the first place.
Talk to the young people in your homes. Normalise conversations around dating, consent and relationships. Get out of the bubble where we tell young brown girls to never talk to a boy and then to meet and marry the perfect man of the same race and caste before thirty. Let them know that they have a safe and genuine friend in you if they ever need someone to talk to. Abusers, proud patriarchs and extremely harmful people exist and are around us. They cause serious life-changing harm once they have had access to you.
You might know someone who needs advice or help because they are already in a relationship or situation that is going to leave them with years of trauma. The culture of silence is all an abuser needs to thrive. Do not be an enabler to this silence. Do not ignore the abuse faced by your daughter, nieces and close ones. This change begins at home. It starts with open and safe conversations.
For further Information please see:
The Cybersmile Foundation: https://www.cybersmile.org/what-we-do/advice-help/catfishing
Learn more about Dr. Ramani Durvasula
Report it to the police: www.report-it.org.uk.