“Victim blaming” is an umbrella term that denotes any actions or words that suggest or state that a victim of a crime – in this case sexual assault – is to blame for what happened to them.
The term is widely rejected by survivors due to the use of the term “victim” instead of “survivor”.
“Victim blaming” is always misguided. A victim of a damaging crime, like sexual assault, is never to blame for what happened to them. By telling a survivor that what happened to them is a result of their actions, their clothing or their appearance (all examples of “victim blaming”), you take away responsibility from the perpetrator.
In 2005, Amnesty International found that a third of people thought that survivors of sexual violence were to blame if they had been “flirting” with somebody beforehand – statistics like this show how prevalent “victim blaming” is and how urgent it is that we stop it.
If a shop were burgled, there would be no question that the thief was to blame for what happened, not the shopkeeper. The same goes for sexual assault cases. Unfortunately, people don’t always look at them in the same way as other crimes, such as theft.
Why do people blame survivors for sexual assault?
Rape and sexual assault is not solely about sex - it is also a crime relating to power, violence and control.
Circles UK, a rehabilitation organisation for sex offenders, found that the majority of perpetrators committed offences due to deep-rooted anger issues, such as perpetrators who have experienced domestic violence as a child, or those with difficulties establishing relationships. It was stated that “their offending is about power, more than sexual gratification”. The crime is thus wholly due to a problem with the perpetrator, and their mindset or attitudes towards other individuals. It is not the fault of the survivor.
Sadly, because people view rape as a sexual act, they can often be misled to think it is purely about sex, and thus think that the survivor’s actions, such as wearing a revealing outfit or having consented to sex on another occasion with the perpetrator is them “asking for it”. This is, of course, false. Rape by definition is non-consensual and thus has not been “asked for” by any action.
There is no evidential correlation that proves any link between clothing choice and rape prevalence. Therefore, a culture that tells its children not to wear certain clothes isn’t solving the problem, but placing the responsibility on the wrong group. A culture that teaches its children not to abuse others? Now that is a way to reduce abuse.
How is “Victim Blaming” damaging?
“Victim blaming” can be incredibly damaging for the survivor because it adds responsibility and guilt to the already extensive list of very difficult emotions and feelings that one experiences after assault. “Victim blaming” can also make a survivor feel alone, as if they have nobody to reach out to and from whom to seek help for fear of being judged or criticized.
This can be detrimental to a survivor’s mental and physical health. Many survivors suffer from eating disorders, anxiety or depression, PTSD, a compulsion to self-harm and even become suicidal as a result of the feelings of shame, fear and guilt that sexual assault can bring on. It can also hinder survivors from reporting the crime, which can be damaging if their perpetrator can therefore still contact them and see them.
"Victim blaming" is damaging because it reaffirms existing power structures. It tells women they are to blame for the assault and thus absolves the rapist of their own responsibility. This is damaging to everyone - to all women and to our collective societal psyche.
Here are some myths surrounding rape and assault, which lead to “victim blaming”, and how to bust them:
“Survivors are always blamed by other people”
Not always true – a very common issue amongst survivors is to blame themselves. This feeling of guilt is actually a survival instinct: it is a way of making you feel like you could have done something differently and thus had control, when really what happened to you was out of your control. It is important to recognize this, and know that you are never to blame for somebody else’s abusive actions. It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator was your boyfriend, spouse, friend etc. Don’t let anybody tell you that you “got yourself into that situation” because there is no such thing as “choosing” rape, when it specifically denotes a lack of consent.
“If she is wearing a short skirt and just her bra she is asking to be raped”
No, no, and just no. There is no evidential correlation between any types of clothing and rape cases. Zilch. Even if there were, why would this make it any more of a survivor’s fault? Everybody has the right to dress as they choose without being assaulted. The attitudes that lead to rape in a perpetrator will exist regardless of what the survivor is wearing, and these are the attitudes and actions we need to blame. No clothing “asks” for rape, because rape by nature is non-consensual. Rape is an act of power, control and violence, and thus dressing “sexily” is not what causes these actions in a perpetrator.
“If they were drinking too much, it’s their fault for being irresponsible”
False. Obviously we must all be careful about alcohol and its effects for various reasons regarding our safety. But alcohol is no invitation for rape, and it is no substitute for consent. If someone is not in a fit state of mind due to intoxication from alcohol or drugs, your priority should be to look after them and make sure that they are okay – not to exploit them and take advantage of them. Somebody unconscious or asleep is similarly unable to consent to sex, although this should go without saying.
“She shouldn’t have taken that picture in the first place if she didn’t want it shared!”
False. The distribution of an indecent image without the consent of the subject of the photograph is an illegal act and can face a fine and up to two years in prison. Possessing, taking, or sharing indecent images of a child under the age of 18 is also a serious sexual offence by law.
“Most rapes happen on nights out when people are irresponsible and walk home alone”
False. The majority of assaults happen in the home, and 90% of perpetrators are people known to the survivor. If rape still happens when people are sober, wearing trousers, in the home or when somebody is with a group of people – how can it be a product of alcohol, skirts, walking alone or being out late? It simply is not.
And finally – how should you respond when somebody confides in you about being assaulted?
DO NOT ask them what they were wearing, ask for details of the assault, judge them or blame them.
DO ask them if you can help in any way, listen to them, and make sure they are now safe and out of danger.
DO NOT ask them if they were too drunk to know what happened, or why they didn’t stop it or fight back.
DO ask if they are hurt or in need of medical assistance, or a sexual health clinic, and offer to accompany them there if necessary.
DO NOT ask why or how they “got themselves into that situation”.
DO make sure that they know you believe them, and can help them report the case if they wish to do so, but respect their decisions if they don’t choose what you think they should do.
DO NOT question what happened to them, or tell them they’re overreacting.
DO try to be as supportive as possible, and try to remain calm as you do so to not cause further anxiety for them.
DO NOT make “if only” scenarios, such as “if only you’d got a taxi home”.
DO make sure they know you are there for them and can help them receive professional help if necessary, and reassure them that what happened was not their fault.
DO bear in mind that they might naturally be physically and emotionally struggling. Always ask before initiating physical contact (even a hug) as this could be triggering for them.
For support and information about “victim blaming” please see the #NotGuilty Website. #NotGuilty has solidarity posts from survivors, a safe space to speak out about what happened and recognize that you are not alone as well as a list of helplines and support groups to sign up to.
Materials provided by Ione Wells of #NotGuilty (05/09/15)