Eight reasons why victim-blaming needs to stop: Writers, activists, and survivors speak out
By— December 17, 2012
About once a day someone comes to this website by searching “Are rape victims to blame?” I hope when these visitors arrive they find some solace in the message they find here that rape victims are not culpable, ever, no, never. Unfortunately, they will also find information on how rape survivors are blamed mercilessly around the world for the violence perpetrated against them.
From Mexico to Sudan, women who survive brutal sexualized violence are forced out of their homes, divorced, and killed. Men chastise women who have been raped, such as in this instance in Burma: “Prostitute! If you want to sell sex, we will build you a small hut in the jungle,” one woman’s husband said after a soldier raped her. “You can sell sex there.” Her own children told her: “Whore, you are not our mother, don’t come see us anymore.”
In this country, we’ve seen our politicians and leaders make ignorant and insensitive statements such as what one judge said to a woman who’d been sexually assaulted in a bar in Arizona last summer: “If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you.”
“This.” “Happened to.” “If you wouldn’t have been there.” Dismissive, fault-finding, victim-blaming.
These words have an impact. We are watching women commit suicide in Syria and living with the toll of honor killings globally. According to a 2011 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 35 percent of women in an Australian survey who had experienced gender-based violence later tried to commit suicide.
Women are literally dying from blame.
With all this in mind, we held a Twitter chat last week on victim-blaming with the hashtag #RapeIsRape. I asked Gloria Steinem, this project’s founder, if she’d be willing to share some thoughts on the subject with our followers. She wrote what you’ll see below, and inspired me to seek out more thoughts from leading writers, activists, and survivors. Here are their words:
Invading and devaluing: The double impact of victim-blaming
Victim-blaming isn’t unique to females. Crimes against humanity have often been blamed on the victims. The theft of entire continents was rationalized by “scientific” craniology proving that their inhabitants were “savages.” Read Exterminate All the Brutes, a brilliant small book by Sven Lindqvist about the invention of racism to justify taking over land. In this country, enslaved Africans were seen as permanent children who couldn’t care for themselves. Even class and criminality have been said to be inherited, and poverty may still be blamed on the poor.
But blaming females has a double impact: invading female bodies sexually and then de-valuing them as spoiled and ruined—all because female bodies are the means of reproduction that are “owned” by one male so he can “own” children. Females may be the last worldwide case of victim-blaming. The “honor” of some men, families, and cultures is written on the body of a female.
Women’s rights are human rights, and must shift the blame from women who suffer sexualized violence to men who inflict it; from women who are raped to men who rape; from battered women to battering men; from sexually abused children to adults who sexually abuse.
Right now, the victim still may be punished more than the criminal, men may assault females to punish other men, and victimized females are often punished more than the males who victimized them.
Born ‘evil’: When men think women deserve abuse
My first experience of victim-blaming occurred when I was raped at the age of 7. While my perpetrator assaulted me, he blamed me for his actions and told me I had to be punished for my sins. He was my nanny at that time and a student at a conservative Christian seminary in Dallas. He essentially used the theology of original sin as the justification for his actions. Since I was born “evil,” he concluded that I deserved to be abused. This was also his rationale when he forced me into sex-trafficking.
I’ve spoken extensively with other women who were trafficked in the U.S. Some have shared that the johns they encountered used a similar kind of religious language.
Patriarchal religion has played a significant role in blaming victims of sexual assault. This is deeply interconnected with distorted views of gender and sexuality. When I worked with a rape crisis center in Idaho, one of our clients was a 17-year-old girl who was assaulted by an acquaintance on a date. She was devastated by this violation and confided in her pastor about the experience. Instead of trying to help her find recovery resources, he publicly shamed her in church for “losing her virginity.” He literally made her stand up in front of everyone and confess her “sexual sin.”
I have seen countless examples of victim-blaming in my work as an activist and media commentator. The justifications may change, but they are never acceptable. We must openly challenge this kind of poisonous and dehumanizing discourse in our communities and mass media. Survivors deserve respect as they engage in the healing process, not further victimization.
Collectively, we must learn how to become a compassionate witness. We cannot overcome injustice if we keep blaming the oppressed for their own oppression.
The many faces of victim-blaming
The accounts we receive on the Everyday Sexism Project website reveal how heartbreakingly prevalent victim-blaming is. A university student wrote that she receives regular faculty e-mails telling female students “not to go home alone in the darkness.” But “if you ask male students, they don’t even know about the problem…they come up with, ‘She wore a skirt, she asked for it.’”
Another young woman wrote: “I have friends who have been raped and not told anyone because they had passed out drunk and so felt it was there [sic] fault.” Yet another account reads: “I was raped at a party after being drugged… .When I had the courage to tell what happened I was blamed by everyone. I had to do a lot of tests, including HIV and no one supported me. My family and friends abandoned me saying it was all my fault because I acted like a whore.”
These stories go on and on: Strangers judge and blame; family members refuse to believe survivors; survivors blame themselves. This internalized finger-pointing is perhaps the hardest to hear about. In addition to everything else they must bear, victims are forced to carry the heavy burden of self-blame.
Often, they report that this prevents them from telling anybody about what has happened. Social misconceptions about rape and rapists also play a significant role.
One girl described being raped at 14. “Took me years to even label that a rape,” she said. “In my head, it was my fault. And everybody knows that rapists aren’t cute boys, they are shady men hiding in bushes, right?” Another woman reported being told by a nurse, as she had blood tests after being raped, to “be more careful next time.”
We’ve received hundreds of accounts. But almost none report justice, conviction, or even criticism of the perpetrator by the confidant the victim chose to tell.
Let’s talk about systems, not victims
Victim-blaming continues to be the rule, not the exception. For women, this is particularly true, living as we do with a cultural preference that so persistently portrays women as the cause of our own undoing. In cases of rape, even more so.
So, why? What purpose does this approach—to rape, murder, racism, poverty—serve?
One, it props up widespread denial of unpleasant realities. Two, it keeps the focus on individuals, instead of systems of oppression. Regardless of whether the issue is related to rape, racial inequities, or poverty, it is easier to blame the victim than to admit to systemic problems. In the United States in particular, this flies in the face of national mythologies rooted in success and exceptionalism. Three, we have millennia worth of histories, myths, and parables in which women are the cause of their own, and often, others’, woes. Those stories, written by the powerful about the powerless, form the basis for deeply entrenched cultural attitudes about blame, shame, sex, and power. Those stories inform the casual blame assigned to rape victims regularly.
This goes a long way toward explaining why although extensive studies show that between 6 percent and a maximum of 10 percent of rape claims may be false, college students think that up to 50 percent are.
Since the early 1970s, when objections to victim-blaming entered the public discourse, victims-rights advocates have been accused of having a victim mentality—one in which we’d rather ignore personal responsibility and the culpability of women in their own victimization. Others claim that it would be better to stop considering blame at all and to think instead of the roles that each person plays in the dynamics at hand. That might work as an academic exercise, but in terms of changing culture, I think it is virtually useless.
Shifting the focus from people to systems isn’t a mentality of victimization, it’s a critique of the deeply entrenched, destructive attitudes at the heart of violence and oppression, and the first steps toward dismantling them. That is a matter of personal responsibility.
‘Little compassion was shown for victims like me’
In my homeland, Rwanda, in 1994, my family and I were forced into hiding for three months, moving from place to place trying to evade capture and certain death by hordes of extremist Hutu militiamen and civilians intent on eliminating all members of my Tutsi tribe.
We encountered a myriad of traumatic experiences during that period, including—to name a few—witnessing my aunt being savagely killed as she tried to escape from killers, followed by the hunting down and killing of my dad later the same day, and, weeks later, painfully witnessing my three young brothers, ages 18 months to 9 years old, being forcibly taken from us at one of our hiding places and brought back to our burned-out home and chopped to death. Apart from these and other unbelievable events we faced daily during the genocide, I was personally targeted and subjected to rape and torture and infected with HIV at the tender age of 14.
I know firsthand the difficulties rape victims face in trying to deal with the deep psychological, emotional, and physical trauma. In my situation, I suffered in silence for months after being raped at the height of the genocide, while simultaneously having to deal with other more gravely catastrophic situations we faced at the time.
Even more hurtful, however, was the fact that at the end of the genocide little compassion was shown for victims like me. On occasion after returning to my hometown, I would hear people on the street making sarcastic, degrading comments about women who were raped. For example: “Those women’s lives are over—no one will be interested in them anymore!” Such remarks only served to further erode my already shattered dignity and confidence.
I believe that people in general need to become more sensitized to the deep-seated effects of rape on the psyche of its victims, especially when offenders or members of society compound the indignity those victims have faced by being insensitive to what they have been through.
Respect a woman's body—and her right to it
I have grappled for years with the question of why people blame rape survivors. The honest-to-god answer is that wherever I've looked, I’ve found that victim-blamers place an arbitrary value on women’s chastity.
Chastity…it almost sounds like a positive word. But it isn’t. It means that women are held to a higher, no, different standard than men. While how highly it’s regarded varies from culture to culture, generally in this country for victim-blamers, not having sex outside a committed relationship—usually marriage—or one-night-stands means a woman is chaste, thus, good.
This means that even in the United States of America, which was founded on the principle of personal liberty, a woman is repeatedly reminded through slut-shaming that she must preserve this nonsensical value by restricting her freedom and only having sex with her husband or boyfriend.
It gets worse, though.
This “women’s chastity” thing has been idealized to the point where, to many victim-blamers, it’s the single most important value there is to a woman—sometimes the only value. Therefore, the preservation of it is perhaps the most important responsibility that’s bestowed upon a woman. And she will be blamed if she fails—even if she is powerless to stop a “sexual” encounter from happening because someone’s holding a gun to her head.
I hope you know it’s painful to write this, but it’s what I believe the truth is. If Americans want to eliminate victim-blaming in the U.S., they have to change their attitudes and abolish this degrading value system by putting an end to treating women’s bodies differently than those of men.
Not only does it result in horrible things like preemptive victim-blaming—“You should just lock yourself up at home or get raped!”—but also other equally horrible things like slut-shaming. Ultimately, however, it’s just a killer of personal liberty.
Silencing the witness
It’s important to remember that the phenomenon of victim-blaming is not just prevalent in rape. It’s the method by which people in power protect and maintain support for their coercive and criminal activities, a method that turns people against their own best interests and against themselves.
Victim-blaming occurs predominantly in issues of class. Regardless of your gender, race, age, sexuality, if you are poor you are seen as responsible for your poverty. No system put you there; according to the dominant culture, your hunger, your homelessness are your own problems.
There is also this common notion that rape is the only crime where the responsibility falls on the victim to avoid and prevent their brutalization by the hands of another. But this is also false. Crimes such as the systematic, institutionally sanctioned theft of fair wages, health care, food, shelter, and education are perpetrated and go unpunished because of this “victim responsibility” model. It’s up to you not to starve, to budget to the last penny, to manage your wage cuts so that corporate shareholders can afford their second homes.
The real function of victim-blaming is not simply to take focus away from the perpetrators, but to make sure that those who could help the victim don’t. Make sure they believe whatever has transpired is simply inevitable. Women have always been raped and will always be raped unless they do something themselves to stop it. The poor will always be poor unless they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Victim-blaming creates irresponsible cowards.
It creates a world where there are no perpetrators, where those who have been harmed live in shame and those who witness remain silent. It is an essential part of the cult of antisocial masculinity.
And it’s time to take a good long look at that cult. It’s time to bring it down.
More than 20 years have passed since I was raped while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa. The memory of the rape itself has faded. But the memory of the response I received from Peace Corps staff members when I reported my rape and sought justice has not.
“I am so sick of you girls going over there, drinking, dancing, and flirting. And then if a guy comes on to you, you say you have been raped.”
“It is your word against his. He said you wanted to have sex, and we believe him.”
Young and naive, I believed if I “did the right thing” I would be supported. Instead, I was blamed, and very effectively silenced. Two decades would pass before I would “come out” publically about my rape, despite working in the field of trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder. I broke my silence to help pass legislation to reform the Peace Corps policies around sexual assault. I learned quickly from my work on the Hill that victim-blaming is pervasive across the political spectrum.
GOP Rep. Todd Akin’s August statements about “legitimate rape” were widely and justly reviled. But I’ve heard similar sentiments from the left: After telling a liberal Democratic staffer that there had been 1,000 sexual assaults in the Peace Corps over the past 10 years, he replied: “How many of those were real rapes?”
To my surprise, one of our strongest allies was right-wing congressman Ted Poe, who said publicly during House hearings: “As a former judge, let me just say this. Sexual assault is never, never, the fault of the victim.”
What if our public leaders all spoke like this? What if they honored the 12 million and counting rape survivors a year in America? And what if all 12 million of us stood up and said, “I was raped”? We could actually bring victim-blaming to an end.