Sewa's Stream of Consciousness
When I think of victim blaming, I immediately think rape culture. The two are inextricably linked. Victim blaming is an intellectually dishonest system that feeds into the horror that is rape culture. We see the implications of it in courts, in the press, and in public opinion. The focus becomes why the victim was at a particular place at a particular time and what clothes they had on, even down to the intricate details of what type of underwear was worn, as opposed to the actions of the perpetrators.
On the flip side, I see how our awareness of victim blaming, now more than ever, has helped shape the collective fight against sexual assault and our response to victims. The general message around sexual assault and consent is familiarised by slogans such as “no means no” and “its never the victims’ fault”. As a society we’ve made strides. Although I can’t comfortably say it’s the general consensus, I can say that education and awareness is being amplified now more than ever. It’s never the victims’ fault. I see more and more people not only subscribing but fully understanding it for all it means. It’s encouraging.
More broadly, victim blaming isn’t limited to sexual assault. It’s so deeply ingrained into our society that it often disguises itself, but it becomes apparent in our speech. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how this system of victim blaming seeps into everyday life and often goes unchecked. Domestic abuse, robberies, bullying. There is something in our speech that implicitly blames all sorts of victims by asking irrelevant questions and making presuppositions.
Growing up I would hear statements like “you’re too nice, that’s why people treat you that way” or “well that happened because you didn’t fight back” as a response to being mistreated. The verdict being that the responsibility was now on me to try change my mannerisms, my temperament, and my personality to avoid being bullied. I say try because it never worked. I couldn’t magically make myself any less timid and the effort that went into being someone I naturally wasn’t didn’t appeal to me. The idea that the onus was on me to somehow dictate how people treat me wasn’t something I agreed with but it certainly was always at the back of my mind. It didn’t take long for me to realise that that just isn’t the case. As well as it being flawed, it’s a dangerous mindset to have for yourself and for other people.
“How did you not know?” “Why didn’t you react quicker?” “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “Did you not see the signs?”. These are more than just a string of words; they’re statements that do something. They foster a system that categorises victims based on their deservedness. How deserving people are of sympathy and how deserving they are of the abuse, as if to say anything warrants abuse. They set up this idea of a perfect victim and for those who miss the mark their sympathy is capped, and victimhood is questioned. As if to say they have a hand in their misfortune, that by default, they are at least partly to blame. Growing up, I never heard anyone express anger towards the people who had hurt me, the anger was almost geared towards me for ‘letting’ it take place. The presumption is that if one had carried out a series ‘precautions’ nothing would have happened. The failure to do this then results in a little justification.
This of course is not what’s said but it is what is implied, and I’m worried about what that conveys to the perpetrators. As well as how it impacts victims as they function in society - the internalised guilt and self-hatred. I’m worried about what this means for people who can’t take certain ‘precautions’ because they can’t change certain things about themselves. Those naturally introverted or those who don’t fit societal norms. I’m worried about those of us who don’t fit preconceived gender norms. I’m worried about how we might be fostering an ableist mindset.
I’ve heard cases made by people where they claim phrases like these serve as a way of showing concern or even protecting people. Putting the onus of prevention on victims or potential victims is senseless and it takes attention off abusers. Statements like this don’t move the conversation forward but instead feed into this vicious cycle. Perhaps this is why people don’t speak up. Perhaps it clouds judgement and affects how people are able to recognise abuse and when they do, how they feel a sense of deserving. Before I’d ever imagine “speaking up” I’d asked myself how much of this is my fault? I was scared people would think I deserved it. They’ll think I’m weak or stupid, they won’t say it, but they’ll imply it.
There’s no denying that the intent of these statements isn’t always malicious or intended to push blame at victims. I know a lot of people would be horrified at the accusation, for mistaking their misdirected zeal for something so callous, but inevitably that is the impact - implicit language supporting the very systems that we’re against.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this column resources are available at:
The National 24 Hour Freephone Helpline at 1800 778888
UCDSU Welfare Officer firstname.lastname@example.org