I work for a rape crisis center. I also victim blame. I’ve been blaming victims since I was old enough to understand rape, sexual assault, and other forms of violence. I understand this might sound strange, but let me explain.
I’m not a bad person. I’m probably not that much different than other good people who believe in movements like #metoo and #mentoo. Violence is wrong. I learned that as a little girl when I was told by my mother it’s not okay to pinch my brother (to my dismay). I understand consent. My body is mine and yours is yours. My job and subsequent training at Verity, I thought, would serve as a reminder of things I was already well versed in. Because I’m a good person. Because I know this.
My first day of training was a wakeup call. I left with more questions than answers. Not about rape or sexual violence, but about myself and my own inherited beliefs and perceptions, the most prevalent being victim blaming. I’ve heard of victim blaming prior to my training. If someone had asked me before working for a rape crisis center if I had ever blamed a victim, I would have answered absolutely not. Of course victims shouldn’t be blamed. It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. It doesn’t matter that they were drinking. None of this makes rape the victim’s fault. I knew that.
Life, in general, is not black and white. There are grey areas. There were grey areas in my frame of mind where I can recall having had thoughts that I now understand to be, at their core, victim blaming. Fleeting thoughts, but victim blaming nonetheless. Always veiled with good intentions and sympathy, but, victim blaming nonetheless. “This is so sad, I wonder why their mother didn’t teach them not to walk home alone at night?” Most of my victim blaming thoughts gravitated towards situational criticisms. “They should know that ride sharing services aren’t really all that safe if you’re alone.” Never would I say these things out loud. But, my mind would run with it. And yes, I’m ashamed of it now.
To be fair, intense training at a rape crisis center can provoke many things in someone. There’s a reason why we focus so much on self-care and vicarious trauma at Verity. I look back on my training and remember coming home daily with conflicting emotions. Confusion: Am I a bad person that I’ve had victim blaming thoughts? Hope: I’m so excited to be a part of such an important movement! Despair: We live in a rape culture.
And there it was. We live in a rape culture.
I had never heard the term rape culture before. It’s such an oppressive term. It hangs heavy in your mouth. Rape culture is pervasive and it’s also what keeps victim blaming alive. Victim blaming needs rape culture to thrive. And as long as we, as a society, continue to blame victims (whether knowingly or not), we will always be propagating rape culture. This is a cultural problem with deep roots. When I acknowledged this, I was able to have grace with myself for my previous victim blaming thoughts. It is my responsibility to change myself, and to the extent that I can in my own small way, the culture. But I cannot change the fact that I was raised in a culture of rape. I cannot change that I was taught, as a woman, how to avoid being raped. I cannot unlisten to every single sexually explicit joke that met my ears with an underlying message of rape culture. I cannot unwatch gendered violence in movies and television. All those nights at clubs where I “dropped it like it was hot” to songs that told me and my friends that “we knew we wanted it” can’t be erased.
One thing I have learned for certain, once your eyes have been opened to rape culture and its detrimental effects on society, it’s as if a new light has been cast on everything. Commercials I used to watch passively now leave me feeling saddened. Themes of rape culture, which prior to my education at Verity I weaved through ignorantly, now emerge in little and big ways. Some obvious. Some not so obvious. But all shaping the way in which I view the overall culture and my previous victim blaming tendencies. The mainstream culture and social constructs can impress itself upon us all, but awareness, at least in my experience, along with education, can change the way we interact with the culture, therefore unleashing personal and societal growth.
Rape culture, we can all agree, is damaging. We need reformation and we need it yesterday. But victim blaming in and of itself is particularly insidious. I think of victim blaming as being a hinge on a door. Overall it’s only a piece of the detrimental culture we are so fervently trying to change, but without it, it’s hard to open the door. It’s a critical component in rape culture. The victim blaming attitude we have adopted is disparaging to survivors. It makes it difficult for survivors to report the abuse s/he has endured. As long as survivors inherently believe that society will blame them for the crimes done to them, they will not feel safe reporting, or, even more damaging, refrain from seeking services that will aide in their recovery. Make no mistake, survivors go into debt, lose their jobs, and file for bankruptcy due to the costs of being victimized. Mental health services are also available for those who seek them, but victim blaming trends discourage them from coming forward. Victim blaming attitudes reinforce the message of abusers: that this is the victim’s fault. The truth is that it’s not the victim’s fault, nor is it their responsibility, to fix the situation of their abuse. The abuser is the one who decides to abuse. Abusers perpetuate victim blaming because it’s a path to avoiding accountability for his or her actions.
Changing rape culture means ending victim blaming in its entirety and holding abusers in full accountability for their actions. Knowing this, what are some methods we can imply that will help win this battle? How can we as individuals possibly change an entire culture? The good news is this: We already have. With movements like #metoo, #mentoo, and #timesup, more perpetrators than ever are being held accountable. We still have a long way to go, though, so how can we end victim blaming? Here are some helpful ways you can help change the culture in your own way:
- Avoid using language that objectifies or degrades women
- Speak out if you hear someone else making an offensive joke or trivializing rape
- If a friend says they have been raped, take your friend seriously and be supportive
- Think critically about the media’s messages about women, men, relationships, and violence
- Be respectful of others’ physical space even in casual situations
- Let survivors know that it is not their fault
- Hold abusers accountable for their actions: do not let them make excuses like blaming the victim, alcohol, or drugs for their behavior
- Always communicate with sexual partners and do not assume consent
- Define your own manhood or womanhood. Do not let stereotypes shape your actions.
- Be an Active Bystander to the extent that it is safe to do so.
(Adapted from Marshall University and Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness)
I work for a rape crisis center. I have also participated in victim blaming. But thanks to Verity and important movements like #metoo, I no longer do. Now I’m the first person to call it out when I see it. I believe together we can make this shift, and in doing so, be a catalyst for abiding change. Together, we can.