We all want to feel safe. When we hear that something bad has happened to a good person, we tend to find ways to distance ourselves from the victim. We question the individual who was harmed: What was she wearing? Was he drinking? Why was she alone? Why did – or didn’t – he put up a fight?
Implicit in these questions is the notion that we would have made different choices – and that our choices would ultimately keep us safe. In her article for The Atlanticon the psychology of victim blaming, Kayleigh Roberts writes, “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.’”The desire to feel safe is primal. We want to believe we can control what happens to us.
But for survivors of sexual violence, feeling out-of-control is the unfortunate norm. Violated by perpetrators, these women and men experienced a loss of control over their bodies. And when they share their experiences, many of these victims find they lose control of their stories. They become objects of examination, their actions and choices dissected. They are characterized as too careless, too sexualized, too impulsive. In our desire to distance ourselves from the possibility of becoming victims ourselves, we strip away the strengths and nuances of victims’ personhood. They become a category, an Other, to which we cannot relate. For victims of sexual crimes, this is an isolating and scary place to be.
Perpetrators of sexual crimes, on the other hand, do not always suffer the same scrutiny as their victims. This is especially true when our image of the person does not correspond with our idea of a sexual predator. In a post for Psychology Today, Jason Whiting, Ph.D., notes “most people who perpetrate sexual violence… are otherwise ordinary folks, who can be charming, successful, and even kind and caring.” Case in point is Dr. Larry Nasser, former physician for the US Gymnastics Team, who was recently convicted on charges of child pornography and sexual assault of minors. Despite numerous accusations, his violations went unchecked for decades. Why? It seems that many who heard the victims’ reports had a hard time reconciling this accomplished, personable doctor with their idea of a sexual predator. It was easier for them to blame the victim.
Victim-blaming perpetuates the cycle of violence. Survivors who internalize blame tend to feel deep shame. They hold themselves accountable for their abuse and are less likely to report it. This is particularly true for people who come from marginalized populations. Human trafficking survivors, for example, may find that their class, race, gender identity, and/or citizenship status make them more likely to be perceived as deserving of their fate. In an opinion piece for Philly.com, John Ducoff writes, “The premise of those who would blame these trafficking survivors is that they must have chosen this life, so they are accountable for the consequences of that decision. Nothing could be further from the truth.” When we blame victims, we strengthen and echo perpetrators’ message to their victims: This is all your fault.
We can’t stop bad things from happening. But we can believe survivors of sexual violence. When we listen to survivors, we work toward breaking the cycle of violence that victimizes our children, our spouses, and our friends. We work toward creating a safer, more just world. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault and would like to pursue justice through the civil legal system, we encourage you to reach out to one of our experienced attorneys. We will not only help guide you through the legal process, but more importantly, we will help you to truly recognize that this was NOT your fault.
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