By Lani K., CCSF
Not too long ago the world watched professional football player Ray Rice deck his then girlfriend in an elevator. Remember how we (ME!) said “why did she stay with him after that?” We (ME!) were actually engaging in victim blaming. Most of the time, we have no idea what is actually happening in the abusive relationship; we really don’t know the reasons a woman chooses to stay. We are simply judging.
Any time someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime, he or she is participating, to some degree, in the culture of victim blaming. Something as simple as hearing about a crime and thinking you would have been more careful had you been in the victim’s shoes is a mild form of victim blaming. Rationalizing that the victim could have escaped the situation or avoided it in the first place is really an admission that we don’t know the whole story.
Sometimes people blame victims so that they can continue to feel safe themselves. 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.”
Victim blaming is doubly harmful in that it allows the abuser to perpetuate relationship abuse or sexual assault while avoiding accountability for their actions. Victim blaming allows one to distance oneself from an unpleasant occurrence; this gives the false sense that this could not happen to them. By labeling or accusing the victim/survivor, others can see the victim/survivor as different from themselves.
We must remember: Staying where there has been abuse does not constitute consent or permission for the abuse. We confuse submission with consent. We confuse tolerance with consent. Staying where there has been abuse does not indicate weakness of character on the survivor’s part.
The effects of abuse, low self-esteem, confusion, bitterness, lessened sensitivity to danger (and many more effects) are erroneously attributed to the survivor as personal characteristics that lead her to “choose” the abusive situation. Victim blaming attitudes marginalize the victim/survivor and make it harder to come forward and report the abuse. If the survivor knows that you or society blames the survivor for the abuse, she/he will not feel safe or comfortable coming forward and talking to you.
Victim blaming attitudes also reinforce what the abuser has been saying all along, that it is the victim’s fault this is happening. Victim blaming places survivors in greater danger. Victim blaming assumes the victim is equally to blame for the abuse. (In reality, abuse is a conscious choice made by the abuser).
When friends and family remain neutral about the abuse and say that both people need to change, they are taking away responsibility from the perpetrator, thereby colluding with/supporting the abusive partner and making it less likely that the survivor will seek support.
Victims may blame themselves, not understanding the dynamics involved. In their blame and shame, the victim will not seek help or make changes as they mistakenly think it is their own fault. The victim certainly does not need anymore misguided, misinformed, unhelpful words heaped on them. (Remember, abuse is about power and control and nothing the victim did or did not do brought about the abuse. Nor will anything the victim does or does not do within the relationship change the abuser.)
What can we do about it? Challenge the victim blaming statements when you hear them. Do not agree with the abuser’s excuses for the abuse. Hold abusers accountable for their actions; do not let them make excuses like blaming the victim, alcohol, or drugs for their behavior.
Let survivors know that it is not their fault. Acknowledge the abuse to the survivor and provide them with resources and support. Be aware of victim blaming in the media; do not adopt the media perspective.
The question should not be “why doesn’t she leave?” The question should be “what can we do to help?” Then we need to support the victim and call the abuser to task.
Resources: Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, http://stoprelationshipabuse.org/educated/avoiding-victim-blaming and The Psychology of Victim-Blaming, Huffington Post: 11/06/16.
©2019 Christian Coalition for Safe Families