As a Sexual Assault Prevention Educator for the past 3 years, I’ve gone from brainwashed Rape Culture buyer, to educated fighter, in a relatively short time. This explosion of personal growth sometimes frustrates the hell out of me when I see my friends and loved ones haven’t traveled with me. Nowhere is this more apparent than when I relate a terrible rape story from the news, and one of my beloved inner circle opens their mouth to say something completely idiotic. Yes that’s right, I’m friends with victim-blamers.
We’ve all heard the comments from relatives and friends:
“Why was she walking there after dark?”
“What did he expect, drinking like that?”
Or my personal favorite, “Where were their parents?”
“But wait,” you say, “I’ve said that before and I’m a good person!” Perhaps that is true. But I would like to propose something: Perhaps your fear is making you sound like a bad person.
Perhaps your fear is cutting you off from empathy.
Perhaps your fear is making you illogical.
Your fear may even be re-traumatizing the victim and helping the perpetrator get away with it.
I’ve shared this theory with many classes, and asked my students if it makes sense. So far they’ve agreed that victim-blaming behavior in our society could very well be based on fear. The fear theory goes a little like this:
1. You hear a story of rape or sexual assault, and you subconsciously freak out.
This is terrible—why would someone do this to a fellow human person? Wait, if humans are capable of perpetrating this evil, doesn’t this mean it could happen to me too? Or my daughter? Or my son? No, I can’t handle that thought.
2. You realize that you have very little power over evil, but maybe you have other power…
Did the perpetrator have a gun? Did they pretend to be a “Nice Guy”? Was she bigger than the victim? Crap, maybe this wasn’t preventable. Maybe the victim had no escape. Maybe YOU would have no escape. You can’t control people’s evil actions, so maybe the only way to avoid an attack is by being really careful beforehand…?
(Sidebar—that won’t work either. But your brain is desperate for a solution.)
3. The only thing left to control is a victim’s decisions before the attack.
By now your subconscious has done the math, and you/your loved ones come up losing in this potential terrifying scenario. The only way you can avoid the thought is if you can make up differences between yourself and this current victim. Do you dress the same? Drink the same? Trust others the same amount? Once you’ve selected the key biggest difference, your fear can latch on to that. If you never drink, and the victim drank—even a little—that means you can comfortably create a narrative of blame that involves something you would never do.
Or worse, you may pretend you would somehow know not to drink, if in this same situation. Forgetting that you often do drink in such situations. Because the situation seems normal and innocent at the time! It’s just a regular night out.
4. If you just don’t do that 1 thing—or even multiple things—this terrible thing won’t happen to you.
Your subconscious has now established a protective lie: If you don’t drink, you’ll never have to worry about rape. (Or substitute “Wear short skirts” or “Sleep with multiple partners”—whatever the difference was between yourself and the victim; real or perceived.) No need to feel powerless about something that happens to millions of people every year! You know the secret to safety. And you can tell your loved ones what it is, so they will also be safe!
5. Wait, that’s an easy solution! Why didn’t the victim do that?
Now’s the time for the idiocy. Your subconscious kicks it over to your conscious—this all happened in a split-second—and you UTTER THE VICTIM-BLAMING STATEMENT.
Why did she do that?
He should have known that was a dangerous situation.
Who wears that anyway?
Their mom needs to keep a better eye on them.
Translation: I won’t “get raped” because I’ll make better choices. I’ll be safe. I don’t have to face this terrible reality.
The terrible reality is: there is very little we can do, if someone REALLY wants to commit evil acts against us.
It’s a hard truth to swallow. Some will never accept it. Powerlessness is just too painful to acknowledge. And being powerless to stop it against your kids, siblings, spouse? That may even be a worse thought.
This is why in my field, we don’t like to use the term “get raped.” Someone “rapes” another. It is totally and completely the rapist’s fault. Ask yourself, would you ever rape someone? Does it ever cross your mind as a possibility? Do you see someone passed out on your couch, and think: now’s my chance! No? Then why do we let rapists get away with that behavior?
When we blame the victim, that’s exactly what we are doing. We normalize their behavior by saying the victim should have anticipated it. Even if our fear is the motivator, it’s still extremely unfair of us. Someone was just living their life, and another person attacked them. This victim is now angry, confused, hurt, humiliated, depressed, and not at all sure how they feel about their new title as “victim.” Why can’t they go back to getting mad at traffic and needing only a donut to make their day happy?
Many victims are re-traumatized by police, friends, relatives, and society at large, by victim-blaming statements. Knowing if fear is a motivator for your use of such language, may help you to change your statements to supportive. Try to train your mouth to think of these first:
I believe you.
I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s not your fault.
What do you need from me?
I’m not trained in any of this, but I will do my best to listen.