Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Damages of Victim Blaming

Within circles of professionals who work with issues of sexual assault, domestic violence, rape and physical assault, the term "victim blaming" is quite common. Victim blaming is when a victim of assault or violence is blamed for being the one responsible for bringing on the attack.

According to the World Health Organization, "Negative social reactions to rape (ex. victim blaming) are linked to higher instances of PTSD." Research has also shown that "Of all human experience of trauma, sexual trauma is second in severity only to those who have experiences active combat."*

Negative reactions are incredibly damaging to survivors and First Response Action Coalition member Meg Long goes into more detail about the issue of victim blaming.

Imagine you are walking across the street to get something from the corner store and a car hits you. Runs right into you and knocks you across both lanes. Dazed, shocked, and in pain, you stumble to a passing pedestrian and ask for help. The pedestrian looks at you and starts asking why you were walking across the street. "Didn’t you know the street is for cars? Your clothes are dark colors, how did you expect the drivers to see you with such dark clothes? It’s late to be walking to the store; do you always go to the store so late?"

How many pedestrians who are hit by cars receive this type of reaction from those they tell their story to? Not many. Why? Because as a society we generally do not blame people who have bad things happen to them. Except when someone is sexually assaulted. We ask if they had been drinking, what they were wearing, what part of town they were in, did they know the people they were with, were they out very late. Why do people ask these questions? In order to make sense of the situation. They want to know that it wouldn’t happen to them because they wouldn’t dress that way, or drink that much, or hang out with those types of people. The fact is sexual assault doesn’t make sense to the average person. It shouldn’t make sense to the average person because the average person would not force himself or herself on someone else.

"There have been many cases where the reaction a survivor receives after the assault is reported to be more traumatizing than the assault itself. Victims who report and receive disastrous response (disbelief, lack of protection or support) have more long term negative trauma than those who never tell." (Hindman 1990 & 1999)

After being physically assaulted the survivor then has to succumb to verbal assault by those who decide to continue hurting the victim instead of helping him or her heal. Only 4% of sexual assault reported by adult women resulted in the conviction of their offenders. (Tjaden & Thonnes, 2006) The illogical and inconsistent manner in which sexual assault survivors are blamed for the crime committed against them is discussed in the following article by Amanda Hess posted on No other crime is looked at in such a way. Sexual assault is the only crime where a victim needs to prove his or her innocence.

The first step in reversing this practice and supporting those who are sexually assaulted is to acknowledge that victim blaming is occurring. Victim impact is substantially reduced when victims are believed, protected and adequately supported. Disagree with those who are questioning the victim’s integrity and innocence. By supporting the victim and not tolerating any further assault on the survivor we can then begin to build positive and supportive communities. At any website that addresses the issue of sexual assault you will undoubtedly see the sentence: ‘It is never the victims fault.’ This sentence is common for two reasons: 1. It is never the victim’s fault. 2. Despite the fact that it is never the victim’s fault, we, as a society tend to blame the victim.

We need to move forward to the action/behavioral phase and start responding in a way that shows survivors of sexual assault that is never their fault.

Meg Long

Kenya 2003-2005

For those who know someone who has survived physical and sexual assault, it is important to meet them where they're at - listen, acknowledge and offer support. For survivors of physical and sexual assault, it is important to know that it is not your fault. Self-blame plagues many survivors and it is more damaging for recovery.

*Quote cited from Wilson, Smith & Johnson in Figley, 1985