Rape is preventable, but victim-blaming makes it seem inevitable. Victim blaming is the attitude and tendency to view the victim of abuse as responsible for the assault. “That a woman would be blamed at all for being sexually assaulted is in itself disturbing, as surely the blame lies solely with the attacker. That a woman’s clothing at the time would factor into this decision of blame is, I think, even more astonishing,” says psychologist Nathan Heflick. Victim blaming implies that the survivor is at fault, and this reinforces the perpetrator’s narrative. It obstructs our ability to support people who have endured this trauma.
The culture of blaming the victim manifests itself in language in different ways. Examples of common statements include the following:
She asked for it. She wanted it. Look at what she was wearing!
Erika Shershun, Marriage & Family Therapist, MA, MFT, states that “In this challenging political climate many sexual harassment, assault, and abuse survivors are finding themselves triggered on a weekly if not daily basis.” No one asks for rape. No one wants it. No one deserves it. Rapists rape people, not outfits, and campaigns such as “What Were You Wearing?” have proven how rape occurs regardless of what a woman is wearing. Showing cleavage is not consent. Drinking or being alone is not consent. Wearing a mini skirt or make-up is not consent. Regardless of the situation, consent is critical.
He didn’t mean to do it.
Rape is not the presence of no; it’s the absence of yes. Consent is clear here. Blurring the lines exacerbates the problem. It bears a silencing effect on the survivors, many of whom will choose not to report the attack because they believe it was “not serious enough.”
She lied. How is she so sure?
Many survivors cannot remember all the details of their rape because they were either drunk or drugged, and this affects their memory. However, traumatic experiences scramble your memories. They claim to have vivid, sensory memories, such as images, sounds and smells. Some survivors even remember these decades after the incident. These are the most distressing moments, and they get “locked-in” and remain “very salient.”
Unfortunately, when survivors are asked to recall other peripheral information, such as the exact time of the assault or who was present—facts that police and prosecutors look for to establish the facts of a crime—they are unable to do so. Survivors who report the incident, as few as they are, may even struggle or contradict themselves, consequently undermining their testimony.
Shame On Who?
“This sense of shame often causes victims to blame themselves for the sexual misconduct of their perpetrator,” says Beverly Engel L.M.F.T. Victim blaming affects not only the individual or the community but also the society, as survivors continue to bear the burden of proof, cases remain unresolved, and perpetrators run free.
Most importantly, victim-blaming perpetuates social acceptance of holding the survivor accountable, instead of the person who should bear the burden of the blame—the perpetrator.
To better support survivors who choose to share their stories with us, we must do the following:
- Believe them. We should take survivors at their word and trust that they are telling the Acknowledge how incredibly difficult it is for survivors to share stories of trauma and abuse. These stories deserve our respect.
- Reassure them that they did nothing wrong. It was not their fault. Do not let survivors blame themselves. Perpetrators are to blame, always.
- Avoid accusations. We could be invalidating their experience—maybe even their sense of self—if we point out how the survivor could have acted or responded differently.
- Challenge victim-blaming statements when you hear them. These are never a joke. People might not realize that their attitude makes the victim seem at fault. Kindly counter what they say, and raise awareness in others. Jokes can also normalize victim-blaming by making light of trauma. Call these out immediately.
Victim blaming exacerbates rape. We can all help survivors. Let’s support them the way they need to be supported.