Monday, November 25, 2019

A Personal Lesson on Victim Blaming

“Why me, then?” I ask. “Why not Branley? She’s way hotter and was just as drunk as I was.”
... "It happened to be you, but it could’ve been anyone else." Mindy McGinnis, The Female of the Species

            It’s been over two years since I was sexually assaulted, and though I’ve recovered a lot through therapy and support, I still suffer from self-blame. Though I can say what happened was not my fault, I still get pervasive thoughts such as, “If I hadn’t been stupid, it wouldn’t have happened.” It’s not often, but it’s still a touchy subject for me.

            There’s a reason that the first line on the “Sexual Assault” page on the RAINN website says, “Sexual assault can take many different forms, but one thing remains the same: it’s never the victim’s fault.” Self-blame and victim blaming are among the most common responses to sexual assault and rape, but these responses are harmful.

            Going to group therapy was probably the best decision I made for myself, but it took me over a year to do it. There was too much shame I wasn’t ready to face and I thought that I could just push it away and ignore it, because it was too hard to face.

            One of the number reasons that victim blaming is so harmful is because victims are already blaming themselves. We already feel ashamed for something that was not our fault, so we don’t need anyone coming in to make us more ashamed. I blamed myself for many things. I blamed myself for what happened to me, for not reporting it, even for what it happening to another girl soon after me.

            When I first wrote the story of what happened to me, my worst fear in sharing the story was someone else telling me, “Well, what part did you play in it?” This fear has prevented me from sharing my story with those I care about, and plenty of others. However, I'm finally at a place where I can examine why anyone would so I'm to blame, even partly, for what happened to me.

Why People Victim Blame

            There seems to be a few reasons, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that it makes others feel safer. In an article about victim blaming on the Good Therapy website, victim blaming is defined as “a practice of questioning what a victim could have done differently in order to prevent a crime from happening, thus implying the fault of the crime lies with the victim rather than the perpetrator.”

            The article explains that victim blaming is often subtle and many don’t realize they are doing it. When we know that something bad happened to another person, such as sexual assault, if we can point to something the victim did to allow that to happen, then we feel safer believing, “I would never [fill in blank - act that way, get that drunk, be alone, etc], so that would never happen to me.” This kind of thinking falls into the just world hypothesis.

            Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violence journal explains the just world hypothesis: “It’s this idea that people deserve what happens to them. There’s just a really strong need to believe that we all deserve our outcomes and consequences.” She also says that this desire is probably stronger among Americans, “who are raised in a culture that promotes the American Dream and the idea that we all control our own destinies.”

            To prove that deep down we believe the world is fair and just, psychologist Melvin Lerner and his colleague Carolyn Simmons conducted an experiment to explain victim-blaming. They got a large sample of women to watch a video of a person being shocked, unknowing that it was an actor. They were told the person on the screen was involved in a learning experiment and would be shocked for every error they made.

            The women watching the video were divided into two separate groups. Both groups were initially upset by the victim’s suffering. One group was allowed to stop the punishment from happening and instead choose to award the victim with money for every question they got right. The other group was only allowed to sit and watch without doing anything.

            Afterward, both groups gave their opinions of the victims. The group that was allowed to restore justice by stopping the punishment saw the victim as a good person. The group that was not allowed to do anything thought the victim deserved to suffer. In the article, “Why Do People Blame the Victim?” David B. Feldman Ph.D. explains, “In other words, because they weren’t able to actually bring about justice, they protected their view that the world was a fair place by coming to believe that the victim must somehow not be a good person. If she deserved the shocks, they could tell themselves, then the world was still fair.”

             I think the just world hypothesis is a little funny, because on the surface, we know that the world is not good and just. We can look to the news, to the world, to mass shootings and natural disasters and know that bad things happen to good people. Yet, I commonly hear unreligious people say things like, "karma gets us all,” and religious people say things like, “God will judge you.”

            We have this deep desire to know that justice takes place, so it makes sense that if something bad happens to someone then they must’ve done something to deserve it. And for many instances this is true. People suffer the consequences of their actions all the time. We know this. So it makes sense to rationalize that if someone got assaulted then it’s because it was the consequence of what they were wearing, doing, saying, etc.

            Barbara Gilin, a professor of social work at Widener University, says that we tend to believe we have control over whether or not we’ll become a victim of a crime – that if we take precautions, we’ll be safe. This is why “some people have a harder time accepting that the victims of these crimes didn’t contribute to (and bear some responsibility for) their own victimization.” This thinking leads to people rationalizing that if they take the right precautions, they’ll never be a victim.

            In the “Psychology of Victim-Blaming” by Kaleigh Roberts, she says, “Holding victims responsible for their misfortune is partially a way to avoid admitting that something just as unthinkable could happen to you—even if you do everything “right.””

            It’s a hard thing to accept that not everyone deserves what happens to them. It’s much easier to believe that if something bad happened to someone, then they must’ve done something to deserve it. This would mean that if we never do anything to deserve something bad happening to us, it won’t. But that is not the way the world works.

Advocacy for Safety 

            Alongside victim blaming, there seems to be a lot of retaliation when people try to advocate for safety. This is often called victim-blaming.

            On the one side: We should always caution safety to prevent crimes from happening to us. We do not live in a safe world, something many people are aware of, so we must always practice safety.

            On the other side: Sexual Assault is never the victim’s fault no matter how safe or unsafe they are being. These types of crimes can happen to anyone. 80% of the time they happen with someone known and trusted.

            I’ve heard the argument that we protect our houses from getting robbed by putting in an alarm system and having guard dogs and guns. A house without these precautions is asking to get robbed. Here’s why this scenario is flawed.

            It is a good thing to practice safety. However, because of the nature of sexual assault crimes happening with people known and trusted, the scenario should really look like this: Your house is protected with alarm systems, two guard dogs, and guns. You invite someone into your home, someone who’s been to your home before. This person is perfectly normal. This person befriends your dogs. Then this person robs you.

            Is it now the homeowner’s fault for not protecting their home enough? Is it their fault for their lack of judgment and trusting the wrong person? Is it their fault for letting someone into their home?

            The correct answer is no.

            Here's another scenario. If someone walks into a dark alley known to be dangerous and then waves their wallet around, isn't it their fault that they got mugged?

            Firstly, every woman I know is scared of walking down alleys alone. But that's besides the point. In this scenario, the person walked into an alley that he knows is dangerous. Women don't know where there are sexual offenders, because they can end up being anyone. 

            Secondly, if that same person took their wallet out in the middle of a kid's playground, mall, Starbucks, etc, and started waving it around, what are the odds they will get mugged? I'm sure it can happen, but now the question is who we would suspect of mugging that person? Muggers? Does everyone at Starbucks suddenly become a potential thief? Do we really suspect anyone of mugging us, or is it only people in scary alley ways?

            So where do these sexual predators hide? Parties? Bars? Well, I can tell you a whole lot of them are on school campuses apparently. So should women stop going to colleges because it's unsafe? Should they stop going to parties, where 99% of the time they either know someone at the party or brought a friend. A party is not a dark scary alley way filled with known dangerous people.

            If I could put it one other way, I'll add this. While I was in therapy and I told my group that I was terrified of getting into a car with another guy, my facilitator pointed something out to me. She asked me how many times I had been in a car with a guy without anything bad ever happening to me. I said many. Then she asked, so why would I think something bad would happen this time? It's the same thing with drunk girls at parties. If they had been to parties a thousand times (again, probably always with friends and people they know at the party), and nothing has ever happened to them, then why would they think something would?

            Are women supposed to go their lives believing anyone could and would sexually harm them? Because that is not only terrifying and exhausting, but also completely closes them off from ever trusting men. The sad truth is, though, that many women already kind of think this way.

            Before I met my boyfriend and would go on dates with different guys, my roommate would always ask for the guy’s name, where we were going, and told me to keep my phone on me, because we are women. The world is unsafe for us. We know this.

            Here’s the thing. Every woman I know, including myself, knows all about safety. We know that it’s scary to walk alone at night. We know that when we go out, we bring a friend to watch us. We know that we are the physically weaker sex. We know that the statistics are against us. We know from a very young age that men are scary and we should always fear them. We know to be safe. We know we know we know.

            Here’s what the rest of the world doesn’t seem to get. Sexual assault is not about safety. Nor promiscuity. Nor naivety. Nor stupidity. Nor what she was wearing. Nor where she was at. Nor how intoxicated she was. Nor nothing that she did.

           It's not wrong to advocate for safety. But it is wrong when you use lack of safety precautions as an excuse for what happened to a victim.

           What it comes down to is that there are men who take advantage of women. And men who take advantage of men. And even women who take advantage of men and women. End of story.

My Self-Blame

            As for my situation, despite the fact that I on some level know that what happened was not my fault, one of the hardest things for me to talk about to this day is all the things I believe I did to allow this to happen to me. If I hadn’t done x, y, z, then this horrible thing wouldn’t have happened to me.

            This is how my story breaks down:

            He was my co-worker who I knew for a couple weeks before I hung out with him. Everyone at work loved him. He was a flirt, but had never done or said anything too suggestive. He was fun.

            He picked me up from apartment, which is gated. I came down to his car, so he never knew which apartment I lived in. We went to the beach during summer. A public crowded place. Though there had been no flirting in the car, once we arrived at the beach, he wouldn’t stop trying to kiss me until I finally caved. I did not want to kiss him, but here was my rational – he wouldn’t stop endlessly trying and it’s exhausting to keep saying no. If I truly refused him enough to anger him, what if he left me there? He drove us, and the drive was nearly an hour to get there.

            On the car ride back, he continued to try to pass more boundaries for over an hour that we were in traffic. Again I eventually caved, though I didn’t want to. Again the rational was that it was still exhausting to repeatedly say no, and he was driving. He could stop the car at any point and kick me out.

            When we got back to my place, it was broad daylight during rush hour. I led him to a place he could park across the street from my apartment. Yes, it was to make-out with him, but nothing more. My safety precautions: daylight, close to my apartment, lots of cars passing by. I felt safe. I could get out of the car at any time and walk across the street to go home.

            Here’s why I blame myself. Despite the numerous times I had said and indicated no from the beach to the car ride back, I was stupid enough to believe he would listen to the big NO if he tried to push for sex. I was stupid for leading him to a spot to park so that we could make-out after all the red flags that had already happened. I was stupid. And because I believe I was stupid, I believe that what unfolded in the car was my fault.

            I still tell myself, if I had been smarter, if I had paid attention to the numerous red flags, if I had more self-worth and dignity, if I if I if I.

            Here’s the truth, a truth I’m still struggling to accept. I truly didn’t believe a co-worker would harm me. Not with his reputation and job on the line. And also because he had been so nice and charismatic to everyone. Why would this person hurt me? Why would I ever believe I was in an unsafe situation?

            The truth is that the only person at fault is him. He was the one who didn’t listen to my no’s. He’s the one who continued to push and push and push and push and push. He’s the one who didn’t notice my clear discomfort and eventual distress. He’s the one that hurt me.

A Grammar Lesson on Victim-blaming

            So, how do we prevent victim-blaming? There are a couple cures I found super useful. The first, which should be the most obvious, is empathy. David Aderman, Sharon Brehm, and Lawrence Katz, repeated the experiment of watching someone getting shocked, but changed one aspect. Instead of simply asking the participants to watch the victim suffer, they asked them how they would feel if they were in the same situation. This inspiration for empathy eliminated the tendency to blame the victim. 

            The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness has some tips to “Avoid Victim Blaming.” They say, “One of the biggest sources of victim blaming is the way we talk about it. Language surrounding abuse and sexual assault immediately puts our attention on the victim instead of the perpetrator.”

            Time for a short grammar lesson. The person/thing committing the action in a sentence is the subject. The person/thing receiving the action is the object. For my purposes, we’ll use my situation and I will name my perpetrator Kyle.


            “Kyle didn’t listen to no.” Kyle is the subject. Kyle didn’t listen.

            “I was sexually assaulted by Kyle.” I am the subject. I was sexually assaulted.

            “Kyle sexually assaulted me.” Kyle is the subject. Kyle did the sexual assaulting.

            So kind of get it? Okay, here’s why this is important. When the victim is the subject, we think the subject is the one with the power and control in the situation.

            For example:

            “I was sexually assaulted by Kyle.” Immediately, it’s easier to come up with things I could have done differently to avoid being sexually assaulted. It’s easier to blame me for what happened to me. Why did I let this happen to me?
            But when the assaulter is the subject, then the focus of control and power shifts.


            “Kyle sexually assaulted me.” Now, we are blaming Kyle. Kyle, why did you sexually assault someone?

            This language is very important, because it significantly changes the way we think about the situation. We have to avoid using language where the victim is the subject, where the perpetrator is removed from the sentence, and where the victim’s identity becomes part of the crime that happened to her.

            Examples to avoid:

            Victim is the subject: “I got into the back seat with Kyle. I was sexually assaulted by Kyle in the backseat.” I am the subject, so the blame shifts to me. It’s easy to say, then why did I get in the backseat?

            Perpetrator removed from sentence: “I was sexually assaulted.” There is no mention of Kyle, thus Kyle either did nothing wrong, or at the very least is protected from all blame. All blame falls to me.

            Crime becomes part of victim's identity: “I feel damaged, because now I am a sexual assault victim.” This is part of my identity. This is who I am. Also, harmful, because Kyle is still not part of this. Also, not only does my identity become internalized, it doesn't leave me with a chance to change it in my eyes or others.

Lesson to be Learned

            When sexual assault happens, why don’t we put the blame where it deserves to be? On the perpetrator. There is a reason a victim is called a victim and a perpetrator is called a perpetrator.

            Avoid asking questions such as, “Why did you… Why didn’t you… Why weren’t you…” Basically any question that assumes the victim should’ve done something different. These questions are not helpful and further shame the victim.

            Instead, try asking, “How do you feel? Are you alright? Do you want to talk about?” Empathetic questions that show care and concern for the victim.

            Remember that though everyone should practice safety, it is not a lack of safety precautions that put the victim in the situation they ended up in. The only reason something happened to them is because someone else hurt them. It may make the world seem like a scarier place, but the truth is that there are people who hurt other people and anyone can be a target. Whether it’s the most street savvy person or most sheltered one, it can happen to anyone. And it is never the victim’s fault.

            Lastly, I’d like to leave you with this final thought. I hear a lot that we can’t stop people from sexual assaulting so the only thing within our power is to help potential victims to become safer. I find fault with this idea, because we can and have taken steps to change this.

            Though the reasons for why men sexually assault is diverse, which I won’t get into here, I believe these are a few of the reasons: men feel entitled to women’s bodies and to sex; men are taught to only seek their own sexual gratification through porn and toxic masculinity; there are not enough conversations around pleasure and consent with young people; awareness on the depth and gravity of sexual assault wasn’t known until the #MeToo movement, but awareness still needs to grow.

            When the “Don’t Be That Guy” ad campaign was released in Vancouver in 2011, sexual assault crimes dropped by 10%. The ad shifted attention from the victim to the offender. The poster, which was put up in bars around the city, shows a young woman in red tights and short black dress who is passed out on a couch with wine bottles around her. The poster says, “Just because she isn't saying no doesn't mean she is saying yes. Sex without consent = sexual assault. Don't Be That Guy.”

            In Alexis Jones’ campaign “Protect Her,” she talks to male athletes in locker rooms about respecting women. She meets them in their domain and speaks their language to better engage them. She gives a presentation with a statistic of how many women are sexually assaulted, to which the men mostly glaze their eyes back. But then she shows them pictures of all the women in their lives (which she gathers from social media prior) and relates the statistic to their mothers, sisters, and girlfriends. This is what gets their attention and brings many to tears.

            The RAINN "Sexual Assault" page ends with, "Survivors of both stranger rape and acquaintance rape often blame themselves for behaving in a way that encouraged the perpetrator. It’s important to remember that the victim is a never to blame for the actions of a perpetrator." It's the first and last thing mentioned on the page. I wonder why.

            Sexual assault is a problem that isn’t going away any time soon, but we can all make the effort to help with our language and conversations. Don’t be that person who adds more shame to victims who don’t deserve it. Let’s focus our accusations where they belong.

Sexual Assault
Victim Blaming
The Psychology of Victim-Blaming
Why Do People Blame the Victim?
Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics
How to Avoid Victim Blaming
Avoid Victim Blaming
Don't Be That Guy ad Campaign
Redifining Manhood - one locker room talk at a time
Protect Her

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