I can say with 100% certainty that society has come a long way since the rape crisis movement started in how people view victim blaming. During trainings and workshops, many people support the idea that victims should never be blamed for an assault. However, within that same mindset there are subtle (and not so subtle) phrases and words that show we have a long way to go to truly reduce the amount of victim blaming that occurs on a daily basis.
Honestly examining your own language and contributions to a culture that normalizes victim blaming is an important and critical first step. Victim blaming happens for a reason – oftentimes it serves as a way to distance oneself from survivors of sexual violence. It’s a natural human instinct to want to feel safe and to admit that sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of risk reduction methods can be a scary thing to admit. Therefore society looks at victims and wants to identify key characteristics of why they were targeted. They want to shape this information into a ‘what not to do’ pamphlet as a way to keep themselves safe from sexual violence.
However the victim is never to blame for the assault and there is no pamphlet that can be used to guarantee safety from sexual violence. All the classics phrases apply: it doesn’t matter if they were drinking or doing drugs. It doesn’t matter what they were wearing, who they were with, where they were, or the time of day. It doesn’t matter what their sexual history is or if they consented to other activities immediately prior.
As advocates we say these sentences repeatedly and people agree with us and in the same breath contradict themselves. One example is when people state that they know it isn’t the victim’s fault but can’t women not dress as provocative overall? Or say that if only women could learn to be more assertive then they could more clearly communicate their boundaries and then they wouldn’t be taken advantage of. I don’t think they necessarily knows they’re doing but it’s important to raise this to consciousness in order to reduce victim blaming and also to create an environment where survivors feel more comfortable and safe to seek help, support, and resources.
As much as we need to monitor our own thoughts and language, we also need to be aware of how the news and media frequently use victim blaming techniques to sensationalize stories and cast the victim and their story into doubt. The language shows up all the time and reinforces many of the ideas that people are already harboring.
In the news Tuesday was an article about one of the men who is being charged with raping the 11-year-old girl in TX almost two years ago now. In his closing statement the defendant’s lawyer commented on how the girl never cried on the stand reinforcing the myth that victims need to act in a certain way to be considered legitimate. When the lead investigator of the case testified that an 11-year-old cannot legally consent the defendant’s lawyer asked why she hadn’t been charged with anything since she violated this law. Additionally he compared the girl to a spider and claimed that she had lured the men and boys into her den. These thoughts are abhorrent to me and the fact that they were said in a court of law is even worse. However, when stories were originally coming out news outlets and general public alike were commenting on her appearance and the reason she was in a specific section of town. People’s perceptions and words feed the media and the media in turn feeds the perceptions and words that people have.
I recently read a blog on xoJane about how a freelance writer took a stand against an article that was incredibly victim blaming against a girl of unknown age who charged a local baseball star with rape. The author of the original article cited how the girl “reported said ‘no’ and ‘stop” and that the “sexual assault exam revealed trauma consistent with force”. Right alongside those facts she stated that kids are supposed to mess up and that they often lie and cheat. She ends the article by talking about how there is “no good outcome” because either the player will be labeled as a sexual predator or the girl is lying and therefore the player will have suffered this horrible ordeal.
The impact and harm in these stories focuses on the people who perpetrated the violence. They don’t acknowledge the impact these experiences will have on the victims and communities involved. We are not going to reduce and end sexual violence by blaming the victims. We need to shift our collective mindset to the behaviors of people who are being sexually aggressive and focus on how to respond to and change these actions. We need to eliminate the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ when talking about the survivor’s state, behavior, and actions. We need to form a society that creates a safe and affirming environment for survivors.