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Ino: Oh god, Naruto's really hurting him in there!
Failing to see the difference between playfulness (or similar) and abuse can be annoying at best and disastrous at worst.
This can take two forms:
- Type A: Something not abusive is mistaken for abuse.
- Type B: Something actually abusive is mistaken for something that doesn't need worrying about.
In both cases, someone is likely to suffer because of the mistake.
When Played for Laughs, the mistake is almost always Type A, and quickly corrected. When Played for Drama, however, a real victim might be denied help (Type B), a innocent person might get his life ruined with unfair accusations of abuse (Type A), or the designated "victim" (again Type A) gets stalked or outright oppressed by unwanted "rescuers". These helpers might even go to great lengths trying to force her to "realize" that she's a victim of abuse. And no, not the actual abuse that they are subjecting her to.
See also Friendly War, Casual Kink, and Safe, Sane, and Consensual for non-abusive stuff that can be mistaken for abuse. Compare You Just Ruined the Shot, for cases where the "victim" was an actor in a movie rather then a participant in a sexual game. Contrast Romanticized Abuse (with the subtropes Bastard Boyfriend and Bastard Girlfriend) as well as Abuse Is Okay When Its Female On Male for situations that are clearly abusive but the audience isn't really intended to care.
Warning! Expect unmarked spoilers, since this trope is about situations being revealed to be different than what they looked like.
- Abiru of Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has her injuries mistaken for the result of domestic abuse. She actually gets them after tugging on the tails of animals she cares for at the zoo.
- Love Hina. The girls of the house will think that Keitaro, being extremely unlucky and clumsy, is trying to molest/abuse them, so type A. However, some of their punishments of him will slip the show into type B.
- Ranma ½. Ranma is constantly the victim of abuse from Akane, but in-universe it's okay because Abuse Is Okay When Its Female On Male.
- In one episode of Girls (a James Bond parody about a reluctant Marty Stu named Lester Girls), our hero rescues a man from getting tortured by a beautiful woman. However, the "victim" gets mad at him for ruining the scene. What first looked like the Bastard Girlfriend kind of Fan Service turned out to be simple consensual Casual Kink.
- Type A is a Stock plot in Donald Duck: Donald gets a new job of responsibility, and starts to see abuse and attempted crimes everywhere he looks. Chaos ensues.
- Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality: Harry is extremely upset when McGonagall automatically falls into the cliche that evil adoptive parents are, well, evil. Harry is Happily Adopted, and to both of their credit, they resolve the misunderstanding quickly and relatively reasonably.
- In The SM Judge, the ADA mistake the couple's BDSM sex-life for abuse. It's never made clear if he believed his own accusations, or if he merely used her bruises as an excuse to attack the judge.
- In Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, the college kids and the police take for granted that Dale is doing terrible things to Allison.
- In G.I. Jane, Jordan and her crew are out celebrating at a bar when she goes to use the restroom. As she washes her hands, another female customer pauses as she passes by and, spotting Jordan's badly bruised face, remarks "Ain't really none of my business, but I say 'leave the bastard'." before exiting, which causes Jordan to laugh. (The abuse really happened, but it was part of her special forces training.)
- God Bless America: In several scenes, the audience is led to believe that someone is about to accuse Frank of mistreating Roxy. Disturbingly, nobody ever get this wrong idea, not even when this little girl is covered in blood and alone in a car at night with an old man who shares no family resemblance with her. When someone finally gets the idea that the girl might be abused, it's a creep who asks because he wants to join in.
- Titanic: When Rose try to commit suicide, Jack talks her out of it. However... then she slips, falling to her death. He manage to save her, but as he does so she's screaming for help. After he managed to drag her up to safety, some crewmen arrive and assume that he has assaulted her.
- The third book of Slave World starts out with a female police officer getting raped by a corrupt male policeman. When caught, his violation is mistaken for consensual sex, so they both get in trouble for it. (She gets fired from the police force, and then hired by a government conspiracy trying to infiltrate an Alternate Timeline to steal their superior technology. But that's another story.)
- In I Capture the Castle, the Cassandra's father was sent to jail for 3 months for mock-threatening his wife with a cake knife, breaking his spirit and will to write anything past his first book.
- In Protector Of The Small, Keladry goes to the public baths one day to enjoy soaking in the warm water. Concerned women rush over to assure her that whoever he is, even if he's a noble, he'll be caught and tried and made to pay. Keladry is a squire, and her day-to-day injuries from combat training are apparently rather alarming out of context.
- The Lurlene McDaniel book Too Young to Die has heroine Melissa's teachers assume her mother is beating her when she notices the many bruises on her legs. It turns out she actually has leukemia.
- House has several of these. In one episode a patient gets attacked by a woman, who tries to murder him by strangulation. Or rather, that's what the audience and the doctors believe at first. It turns out that it was just erotic asphyxiation. Safe or not is debatable, but at least it was consensual. In another episode, a man rapes a woman, but everyone except the audience knows that it's just a game.
- In one episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit, a cop have a bad reputation as several other cops "know" that he used to beat his girlfriend. He even got arrested once. However, it turns out that he had nothing to do with her injuries. It wasn't even a consensual game, she was cutting herself because of a deep depression.
- Jam plays this for Black Comedy in a sketch wherein a wife is upset about her husband's apparent affair and he's making stereotypical excuses i.e. it was purely physical, the other woman didn't mean anything to him, it was an isolated incident. His wife is finally reassured of his fidelity after he reveals that he and the other woman weren't having an affair; he was just raping her.
- Used as something of an Establishing Character Moment in the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother. Marshall accidentally hits Lilly in the eye with a champagne cork while celebrating their engagement. When they get in a cab afterwards, with Marshall still apologizing profusely, the cab driver indignantly says "Wait, did you hit her?" Marshall and Lilly both stare at him blankly for a minute, then erupt into hysterical laughter at the very idea.
- An early episode of Flashpoint, has a cop beating his wife until her sister takes matters into her own and holds up the husband at gunpoint. While investigating the situation, SRU officers quickly discover that the cop's partners and friends on the force knew, or at least strongly suspected, that the cop was beating his wife, but looked the other way out of misguided respect, writing it off as something else.
- Type A in an episode of Frasier. When Martin reflects on raising his sons, he mentions that they were so bad at riding bikes they would be covered with bruises. He eventually gave up teaching them how to ride bikes, thinking that his sons' doctor was suspecting him of child abuse.
- In the episode "Driven" of NCIS, Team Gibbs brings in a suspect for questioning after watching security footage of him sexually assaulting the victim shortly before her death. As it turns out, they were dating, and the "assault" was an entirely consensual expression of Casual Kink.
- There was a cleaning ad that played with this trope. A woman is grocery shopping with her arm in a sling. She gives sympathetic shoppers a whole bunch of different stories about how it happened, leading the audience to mistake her injury for domestic abuse. At the end of the commercial, it's revealed she hurt her shoulder trying to scrub soap scum out of the bathtub. The product being sold solves her problem.
- Call of Cthulhu supplement Dreamlands. When the investigators go to the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Briggs, they find a man tied to a chair with a bathrobe thrown over him. If they rescue him they discover that he's playing bondage games with his wife.
- GURPS Goblins, adventure "The Horse Swapping". The ladies are playing Blind Man's Buff inside a house with some male customers while the PCs are outside waiting for them. While wearing the blindfold, one of the customers accidentally strikes one of the ladies. She lets out a scream that can be heard by the PCs, which may result in them rushing in to see what's wrong.
- This is essentially the premise behind Clarissa's public life. It doesn't really help that the only way she shows it is through risque pictures.
- Slave Maker: The noble & religious people who try to rescue mistreated slaves are horribly bad at misjudging if a slave is actually mistreated or not. This works both ways: They will let real abuse go unnoticed, and they will mistake healthy happy relationships for abuse. See also the Activist Fundamentalist Antics example.
- The very first episode of King of the Hill had a misguided social worker suspect Hank of beating Bobby. His "evidence" included a black eye on Bobby (actually caused by a Little League accident) and an overheard conversation where Bobby and Joseph imitated Hank's tendency to deliver blustering, exaggerated threats when angry.
- An episode of American Dad had Francine repeatedly having actual accidents that are often used as excuses by abuse victims, i.e. falling down stairs, getting hit by an opening door, etc. Given Stan's aggressively macho personality, everyone assumes the worst.
- For bonus points, in those scenes Stan is wearing a sleeveless shirt. AKA a "wifebeater".
- An early episode of The Simpsons ("Home Sweet Home-Dum-Diddly-Doodily") features Bart and Lisa getting placed into foster care when Lisa has no shoes (because bullies took them to play Keep-Away) and Bart has a case of head lice, and a social worker is called to investigate. They find the house a mess (because Marge went with Homer to a day spa instead of her usual housework), Maggie drinking out of the dog's water bowl (because she could), Grampa asleep on the couch, and the toilet paper hung in the "improper" overhand position. Marge and Homer didn't actually neglect the kids, but to the social workers, they looked like unfit parents, and had to take parenting classes in order to get their kids back from their foster parents, the Flanders family.
- Jeffery Dahmer (who killed and ate several people) had one of his victims returned to him by a pair of cops, who thought it was a simple gay domestic quarrel when they found a naked 14 year old boy running away from Dahmer.
- The "Something actually abusive is mistaken for something that doesn't need worrying about" factor is often the reason why reports of Female on Male abuse are treated in an off-hand way in comparison to Male on Female abuse. A man hauls off and slaps a woman in public, everyone is concerned for her safety because he's obviously a monstrous abuser. A woman hauls off and slaps a man in public, no one reacts in the same way because she probably had a good reason for doing so. Some witnesses will even assume he deserved being slapped.
- Bullying is often treated as Type B, with a variety of excuses being used ("boys will be boys", "it's just part of growing up", etc).
- Female participants in full-contact martial arts (eg. Society for Creative Anachronism heavy combat) are often advised to tell their doctors about what they're doing as soon as they step in the door, to prevent a Type A incident.
- There have been occasions in the UK when BDSM participants have been charged with domestic violence on the grounds that the laws on the subject don't actually say it's okay if it's consensual.
- Sometimes, people really do just walk into doors, and there are several medical conditions and medication that cause extremely easy bruising.
- Unfortunately, Type B is extremely common in Real Life, especially when the victim is a minor (or a young adult who still lives with their parent(s)) and the perpetrator is their older sibling or parent. If the victim tries to tell someone about the verbal and/or physical abuse they are receiving, it happens more often than you think that they person they try to talk to will say something along the lines of, "Oh (s)he didn't really mean that" and otherwise pass it off as not really a problem.
- There was a case up in Canada that four Muslim women were found dead in a car. The girls had been trying to get help before hand and no one DID anything about it!
- Often the problem is that people don't want to get into a Type A situation, which can be just as bad. There are cases of children being taken away from their family and put in foster care based on hearsay. It is often difficult to tell whether abuse is going on, and the consequences can be devastating if you are wrong in your assessment. When it comes to sexual activities between children, we also have the problem that the whole system is designed for protecting kids from adults. When everyone involved is underage, It doesn't work well for distinguishing between abuse and playful benign experimentation.
- A fair number of diseases (leukemia and hemophilia, to name just two) cause easy bruising as one of their symptoms. Being the parent of a child with one of them can be rather problematic.
- Sometimes sports injuries can be mistaken for child abuse. Played for Laughs in one high school newspaper; an avid sports player wrote an article entitled "It's Not Abuse, it's Rugby" all about how he would often be stopped and questioned over bruises he'd gotten as the result of rugby.
- Bruiseplay is an actual Fetish. Dan Savage once got a letter from a woman complaining that her boyfriend couldn't bring himself to black her eye for her. Dan advised her that "the old cliche 'I walked into a door' really does work", and so she could open all the doors in her house and run from room to room with her eyes closed.
- Author David Sedaris tells a story in one of his books about his sister Amy, when she was invited to be part of a magazine's photoshoot on "Women in Comedy." While the other women got glammed and made-up, Amy's only instruction to the make-up artist was "I want to look like someone beat the shit out of me." So she had her photo taken in a couture dress with fake blood, bruises and a black eye. The real kicker came when she decided to go shopping afterwards without removing her make-up, and when a concerned citizen asked her if she was OK, she replied "I'm better than OK! I've finally found a man who loves me!"