What is the Shark Cage Metaphor?
The Shark Cage Metaphor is the brainchild of Ursula Benstead, a psychologist practicing in Melbourne, Australia. We often find ways to blame victims for their own abuse, without taking into account the behavior of abusers. The Shark Cage metaphor puts the responsibility for abuse squarely where it belongs while providing survivors and potential victims with tools to build their “shark cages”. She tells a story to illustrate the idea that goes as follows:
the shark enters the bar
Of course, in Ms. Benstead’s example, it’s a pub, because she’s in Australia. The “shark” is an abuser looking for a victim. We’re going to use a man in this example, but it could be a woman or non-binary person as well. What the shark is looking for is an object to project their own wants and needs on. They are not looking for a partner or even an equal playmate, but solely a thing that will satisfy a need they have.
the shark begins hunting
This particular shark has a lot of practice or has been hanging out on Red Pill or incel sites or listening to Jordan Peterson. He has a formula he uses to test shark cages. He walks up to one potential object after another (we’re going to assume in this example they’re women, but men are also victims, and domestic violence is not limited to heterosexual relationships). His routine goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing Ms. Benstead here)
He walks up to a woman he finds attractive and orders her a margarita. Next, he puts his arm around her, casually patting her butt. He tells her she has a nice pair of tits, and then offers to take her out to a steak house for dinner, and then back to his place to “Netflix and chill”.
The Shark does this over and over again, every time he goes out. He does this because every “no” he gets is information: “This woman won’t give in to my demands and let me dominate the evening (or relationship). He doesn’t want to waste time with those women. Their shark cages are too strong.
The shark cage tests:
Shark is putting out six separate tests in this little routine of his. Let’s look at them
- He orders a drink for a woman without knowing if she wants to drink
- He orders a specific drink for her not knowing whether she wants that particular drink
- Next, he touches her casually without permission
- And turns the touch into sexual touch without permission
- Then he makes a sexual comment about her body
- And finally, he plans the rest of the evening without any input from her.
Potential victim # 1: Colleen
Colleen has a great shark cage. When Shark tries his routine on her she simply removes his arm from around her, pushes away the drink, and tells him she’s not interested. He might say something rude or even threatening, but she has successfully prevented him from pulling her out of her cage and devouring her. She goes on with her evening, with the friends she was with and has a great evening, barely giving the Shark another thought.
potential victim #2: ChantAl
Chantel doesn’t have a very good shark cage. The alarms are totally busted, and the bars are broken and rusted, and barely patched. When Shark starts her routine, her alarm tries to warn her and she feels a bit uncomfortable, but she tells herself that he was nice enough to buy her a drink and it would be rude to turn him down. She goes with him for steak and “Netflix and chill”, and has sex with him mostly because she feels like she owes him.
… and it gets worse for chantAl
Now, Sharks are often sharks to their friends and co-workers as well, and so they often have few friends and are “in between jobs”. So Shark has been kicked out of his apartment, maybe a week after his date with Chantal, and he shows up at her doorstep with a car full of belongings and nowhere to go. Chantal is lonely, and he needs her. She has been taught that other peoples’ needs are more important than her wants, so even though she’s reluctant, she lets him stay for “just a night or two”. Which turns into months. Pretty soon he starts refusing to wear a condom, and she gets pregnant. Shark, resenting the pregnancy, starts asserting his control over her physically. And another domestic violence situation has started.
what do sharks look like?
- Above all else, they want power in the relationship and control over you.
- Your parents, friends, family, and other important people in your life are a threat to them.
- Anything that competes with you paying attention to them is not okay with them. This includes hobbies, pets, and children.
- They can be outrageously romantic, and then suddenly furious. You never know what to expect.
- They will often claim that they “can’t live without you”, up to and including threatening suicide if you leave them.
- You must cater to them, but they can do what they want when they want to.
- When you say no to them, they take it as a challenge and start testing your boundaries.
No one is born with a shark cage. A shark cage is a set of ideas and skills that create good boundaries and self-esteem. People with good shark cages will weigh any potential new relationship against how happy they already are. Some of the things that contribute to having a good shark cage include:
- Being raised to believe you’re valuable and important.
- Having adults in your life who model healthy, mutual relationships.
- Being taught from an early age that your body belongs to you and no one can touch it without your permission.
- Believing that you are fundamentally equal to other human beings.
- Knowing how to say “no” effectively.
- Knowing how to tell the difference between interest in you as a person and as an object.
- Trusting your “spidey-sense” when it tells you to turn someone down.
What gets in the way of building a shark cage?
People with shark cages that need work will weigh any potential new relationship against the terrifying prospect of being alone. Some of the things that contribute to having a shark cage that’s a fixer-upper are:
- Believing that you are fundamentally not good enough in some very important way. (Not pretty enough, or smart enough, or sophisticated enough, etc. )
- Being raised with unhealthy relationships, especially domestic violence, as your primary model.
- Being abused as a child, especially sexually abused.
- Having your wants and needs continually disrespected as a child
- Believing that you owe anyone who is “nice” to you a portion of your time and attention above a simple “thank you”.
- Thinking that saying “no” is rude.
- Being so starved for touch and/or love that you are willing to accept being treated as an object in exchange for touch and occasional affection.
How do I build a shark cage?
Ideally, our parents or other adults in our lives taught us what we needed to know as children. However, most of us don’t live in an ideal world. For those of us who need to build our shark cages as adults, the following tips can help.
- Working with a therapist or other professional to work through the trauma that is in your way.
- Spending time and effort examining your belief that you’re “not good enough” and changing it.
- Observing people in healthy relationships to see how they interact.
- Practicing recognizing, respecting and fulfilling your own wants and needs as best you can.
- Getting in the habit of saying “no” to small things, and work your way up.
- Saying “thank you” as full repayment for compliments and attention, especially if you didn’t ask for it.
- Dealing with touch starvation through use of an emotional support animal, family, and/or supportive friends.
- Getting into the habit of “listening” to your body and your “spidey-sense”.
what do I do if the shark has already caught me?
The first thing is to stay as safe as you can. Make plans (more than one) to escape. Gather as many of your important documents as you can, and start stashing away any bits of money you can get your hands on. Call your local domestic violence hotline when you are ready to go if you need a shelter. If you have children or pets that are being threatened, your plan needs to include their safety as well. Call family, friends, neighbors, even co-workers if the relationship is close enough, for help. No one can tell you which is safer, staying or leaving, and many of your fears of what will happen are justified. So:
- Make plans for safety.
- Get as many supports as possible in place.
- Make your move.
the other fish in the sea
“But what about all the good ones?” Here’s how the “good ones” are different from sharks:
- The good ones will respect your boundaries from the first day you meet them.
- They will show interest in you, not your physical traits.
- They will share bits of themselves with you.
- The good ones are comfortable with vulnerability (yours and theirs).
- They will negotiate with you over what you do with them and how much time you spend with them.
- They will support your relationships with friends and families.
- Your hobbies and work and skill set will not be threats to them
In short, the good ones want a relationship of partners, where each of you respects the other’s boundaries.
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