Content notes – rape, sexual assault and victim blaming
Recently, in response to another tweet by Donald Trump, which attacked a victim of sexual assault, brave survivors have taken to social media platforms to share their stories. Often people assume that victim blaming is confined to the actions of the the victim prior to an assault. Movements such as Slut Walks and Reclaim the Night have highlighted that clothes, alcohol, being outside, do not cause rape in an attempt to tackle this victim blaming. This meme sums it up perfectly.
There is another side of victim blaming however, and one which not only the US president is guilty of. I call it the “why didn’t you….” interrogation. Many people, including those who on the surface believe and support survivors will undermine them with “why didn’t you…” questions. Often this is due to the difficulties people have actually engaging with what rape and sexual assault means. It is easier to imagine that a victim is barely impacted, because then one does not have to consider the impact it might have on you. At other times it is due to ignorance of privilege and power (such as assuming a sex worker will feel safe going to the police or a child can report a parent).
There are many narratives based on the idea of what a victim should do. I talk here about the impact of trauma on the brain, and here about the idea it is easy for a victim of intimate partner violence to leave. People can hide their own fears of being a victim behind unrealistic ideas of what they would do. How much easier to believe you would fight back than accept the reality of being frozen with terror, unable to prevent someone harming you.
Fighting back, the only response considered acceptable by those who would victim blame (regardless of the harm it might cause, hence the phrase “a fate worth than death” to describe rape) is an impossible gold standard most survivors fail to meet. Immediate reporting depends on many factors, including your social status (race, gender, sexual orientation, migrant status etc) ability to report, and not only understanding that what happened to you was wrong, but that anyone else will agree.
These last two points are particularly important when understanding childhood sexual abuse. Children in our society are not heard, told to obey, their consent negated constantly. When we add in the tactics of grooming and gaslighting commonly used by any abusers, telling a child they want/enjoy/caused the abuse, the idea they will ever disclose is the one which runs contrary to logic and compassionate understanding.
Every survivor of rape and sexual assault has to find their own path. Quite often when they arrive in therapy it will be the first time they have told anyone of the burden they are carrying. In a moment of extreme courage they share a dark comer, risking shame, judgement and blame. There has to be unconditional acceptance in that moment, combined with an understanding not only of trauma responses but the cultural narratives which silence survivors and victims. When powerful people endorse victim blaming narratives they contribute to the pressure on survivors not to report. Ironically demands victims act a certain way, report immediately, will only lead to fewer people being able to move from the darkness of shame and stigma into the light of support and healing