I remember the first time that I was made aware of victim blaming. It was before I knew that there was a term for it, before I knew rape statistics & facts for the society that was I growing up in. Honestly, it was before I even had a mature understanding of what exactly “rape” meant for the survivor of such an act, beyond knowing that it was real bad. When I was around 10 years old, I was watching a daytime talk show with my grandma. A young female was talking about how she had been raped and suddenly my grandma vehemently stated that the girl had been asking for it — dressing the way she was. I can still remember gaping at her, the otherwise most kind and caring person that I had ever known, and realizing that what she had just said was completely fucked up.
What is victim blaming?
Victim blaming occurs any time that the responsibility for the crime of rape/sexual assault is pushed onto the survivor or “victim,” instead of the rapist being held completely at fault. Whenever you have heard someone bring into question a survivor’s attire, sexual history, alcohol/drug consumption, or even the physical time & location of the attack, you have witnessed victim blaming. The sad truth is that this harmful behavior is everywhere, being spouted by the young and the old, male and female.
A 2010 UK survey, Wake Up to Rape, found that 56% of responders thought that “there are some circumstances where a person should accept responsibility” for being raped. Disturbingly, females were more apt to blame the victim than males were: 71% of women vs. 57% of men thought the victim was to blame if they got into bed with their perpetrator. Younger responders were also more harsh, with 20% of 18-24 year olds (vs. only 7% of 35-50 year olds) placing blame on the victim if they simply had a conversation with their perpetrator and accepted a drink from them at a bar.
What prominent rape cases have taught us over the years is that anyone can be blamed for their own rape. In the 1989 Glen Ridge rape trial, where a girl with cognitive disabilities was sexually assaulted with a baseball bat and broom handle, the perpetrators’ defense attorney tried to convince the jury that the victim was a sexually aggressive lolita. In 2011, the press found it necessary to report that an 11 year old girl, who had been gang raped by 18 males, was known to dress “older than her age” and “hang out with teenage boys.” And in 2012, individuals in their hometown and across the internet showed support for the Steubenville football players, bemoaning the loss of their athletic careers after they sexually assaulted a girl who was so intoxicated that there were jokes about her being dead.
The effects of victim blaming stretch far and wide.
Victim blaming plays a major role in rape culture by insinuating that victims deserve what they get, and that perpetrators are put into positions where they “just can’t control themselves” — or shouldn’t be expected to. This has a harmful effect on everyone. Survivors of rape and sexual assault often internalize the blame. Men (although not the only gender to be rapists) are unfortunately reduced to a distrustful Neanderthal stereotype. And many individuals structure their lives around what feminist writer, Jessica Valenti, calls a “rape schedule.” (If you have ever considered buying rape protective clothing, taken a more populated or brightly lit route instead of the most direct, or avoided going somewhere alone for fear of being raped, you have lived by a “rape schedule.”)
By focusing on a victim’s “mistakes,” we ignore the importance of consent. Not teaching consent leads to beliefs like those expressed in a 1998 survey of Rhode Island students, where 62% of boys and 58% of girls in the 9th grade said that a person had the “right to sexual intercourse against their date’s consent if they have dated a long time.” It doesn’t matter if someone is completely naked, if they are a sex worker, if they have had several other sexual partners, if you have had sex with them in the past, or if they have changed their mind about having sex now. Sex without consent is rape — no matter what the victim did or didn’t do. Yet we still focus on teaching people how to avoid getting raped, not how to avoid raping.
Speak out against victim blaming!
Sometimes it seems that victim blaming occurs out of nothing more than meanness and one person/group’s sense of entitlement over another. However, victim blaming can also be seen as a misguided way that some people try to make sense of the world. It’s a classic example of the “Just-World Fallacy.” By insisting that the victim was doing something in order to deserve punishment, other people are able to separate themselves from that victim. This is how we get comments like, “I’m also a woman, but you don’t see me getting raped.” It’s a way for people to stay in denial that sexual assault could happen to anybody — including themselves.
According to RAINN, 1 in 6 American women and 1 in 33 American men will experience an attempted or completed rape. 73% of sexual assaults are committed by someone that the victim knows. Educate yourself! Recognize the ways that people commonly place blame on the victim, even when they are denying it. (Ex: “I’m not saying she/he deserved it, but…”) Some horrifying and depressing, but real, examples can be seen in the “Shit Everybody Says to Rape Victims” videos on Youtube (here and here). Familiarize yourself with the many analogies that people use to try and justify victim blaming, and learn how to refute them. A fantastic article to help with this has been prepared by the humanist organization, Nirmukta.
The next time that you hear someone engaging in victim blaming, speak up. If we don’t tolerate other violent crimes against our fellow humans, why would we make an excuse for sexual violence? Nobody deserves to be raped.