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The Problem with Victim-Blaming

rapeWhile growing up in a rape culture, women are constantly told to follow the “rules” to ensure their safety. This list dictates what women should wear (nothing too short), what they consume (no drinks you didn’t prepare yourself), and even how they commute (never alone, never at night, and never in a “bad part of town”). Not only do these rules perpetuate a series of rape myths, they also result in victim-blaming.

Victim-blaming is a pervasive part of the trauma many survivors experience. Too often when survivors disclose, they are met with a checklist of questions, all centered on their actions instead of the perpetrator’s. Rather than focusing on the inappropriate and illegal conduct of the perpetrator, many will blame the victim for not adhering to the prescribed list of rules. The notion that any “disobedience” of the guidelines could result in or justify sexual assault is not only incorrect but it also discourages survivors from coming forward about their experience.

Victim-blaming occurs for many reasons. Some of it is rooted in notions around masculinity (“boys will be boys”), some of it in a general disregard for women’s bodies, and some of it comes from fear. Sometimes, people resort to victim-blaming to as an attempt to maintain an illusion of their own safety from sexual assault. In this case, it is easier to police the list of rules and insist that following them will prevent assault than to acknowledge the scary truth that rape can happen regardless of what the survivor does or does not do. But rape happens because of rapists—not the length of a hemline, or the amount of alcohol consumed. When people victim-blame, they distance themselves from the victim and keep alive the myth that the responsibility to prevent rape lies on the assaulted, not the perpetrator.

Not only does the culture of victim-blaming keep women in a state of hypervigilance while statistically not reducing risk of assault, it also imposes a culture of shame and silence for survivors. Knowing that disclosure will lead to an inquisition about their behavior, and potentially a guilty verdict of sorts, survivors have much to lose by coming forward. Many survivors have found disclosing to unsupportive, victim-blaming friends and family to be as traumatizing as their assault, or even more so.

While the survivor experiences victim-blaming, or internalizes it and keeps quiet, the perpetrator is allowed to walk away freely with no consequences. “Risk-reduction” strategies don’t truly reduce violence overall. If a perpetrator can’t gain access to someone because she followed the “rules” – walking with friends, dressing modestly, abstaining from alcohol – they will simply seek out another target. This will not help us achieve our goal of stopping violence. But if we shift our efforts from risk-reduction to primary prevention, we place the responsibility back on potential rapists. By teaching boys at a young age about respecting bodies and consent (rather than teaching girls to walk with their keys clenched in their hands), we aim to stop perpetrators from ever perpetrating. We aim for a paradigm shift.

On April 3, people all over the world recognized International Day Against Victim-Blaming. People are encouraged to speak out against victim-blaming and to debunk myths that place blame on the survivors and victims of sexual violence. People are violated and assaulted every day no matter what they are wearing, what they have been drinking, who they have been spending time with, or how many flirty “hints” they gave someone. When a person comes forward and discloses an assault, the first reaction should not be to question that individual — survivors should be believed, not questioned.  We, as a community, must support survivors, not scrutinize them.  For more information about how to provide support to survivors in your life, come to our How to Help a Loved One seminar later this month, or view info on how to help a friend on our website.

The Center provides support for friends and family of survivors. If your loved one has experience sexual violence, don’t hesitate to call our help line at 1-866-WE LISTEN.

Alex Stewart is our Administrative Services Coordinator. In addition to managing our office and providing integral staff support, she seeks to dismantle rape myths that pervade our society. 

Carolyn Ebeling is our Social Media Intern. A junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, she works on a variety of outreach projects for education and advocacy.

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