TRIGGER WARNING: Rape, sexual assault, harassment, victim-blaming, depression, PTSD, anxiety.
Sexual Assault. Rape. Sexual Harassment. So many individuals all over this world go through these traumatic and horrible experiences, and even though many survivors try to stay strong through it all and bravely come forward to talk about their experiences, society continues with its judgemental values and outlook. Since time immemorial, a lot of us have been warned to avoid talking to strangers, to take preventive measures, to know the ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’, and women, especially, are recipients of further statements that propose restricting their movement, limiting their interactions, changing the way they dress and many more unwarranted suggestions.
But what might sting survivors even more, is the ever-present lack of support that can come from society, friends and even their own family, when they attempt to seek justice and be open about their trauma. This lack of support can especially be manifested through ‘victim-blaming’, which can shatter anyone’s mental strength. Amongst the many issues and turmoil a survivor has to go through, victim-blaming continues over the years, regardless of one’s culture. This phenomenon is one in which victims are assigned the blame and onus for the traumatic incidents that they have faced, especially in the case of rape and sexual assault, and more so for women.
How does victim-blaming affect the survivors?
The perpetuation of victim-blaming can discourage and make other victims feel unsafe or scared to step forward, and seek any form of justice or much-needed support. Moreover, it can also cause some victims to start blaming themselves. This might occur if they start internalizing the messages and comments they hear all around them, and at some point, start blaming themselves for the perpetrator’s actions, even though they may be aware that the fault is not theirs.
Not only that, according to many research and articles, blaming the victim can amount to causing secondary trauma. For someone who is on the road to recovery, or a healing journey, the psychological effects themselves can be tough to combat, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety. But victim-blaming can halt their progress by causing them further emotional and mental pain, which can amplify these challenges further.
Why, possibly knowing all of this, would people continue to blame the victims?
Self-preservation tactics and psychological writings could be given the credit for this. Of course, the archaic societal mindset, ingrained sexism and prejudiced perspectives can be at fault too, but cognitive biases are just as prevalent in humans.
1) When we look into the possible facets behind victim-blaming, a commonly accepted notion of the ‘belief in a just-world’ hypothesis. This hypothesis basically refers to how humans have the innate tendency to believe that the world is fair and just. By extension, it refers to how we think that people get what they deserve, whether good or bad. Similar to the concept of ‘what goes around, comes around’, the consequences depend on the person and their actions themselves, particularly for bad incidents. Of course, this is rarely accurate and should not be the case at all, but it is a ubiquitous form of self-preservation. It helps us to perceive that we are living in a predictable and stable world, where none of these negative experiences would happen to us, especially if our behaviour is good and if we avoid it.
1) The biases behind victim-blaming do not stop here though. Hindsight bias, in general, refers to how we are often prone to thinking that some events and outcomes were predictable from the get-go, more so after we actually hear the outcomes. The same bias also applies to victim-blaming as well, as in, society starts criticising the victim stating that they should have known the possible consequences and the scenario and should have been able to predict it just like others can. This faulty cognitive bias can amplify the internalization in the victims and cause them to feel more and more guilty, even though they need not.
2) Gendered prejudice cannot be sidelined either. It must be noted that women are more likely to be blamed for their abuse, especially by men. The upbringing of a person based on their gender mainly contributes to this equation. In some cultures and societies, toxic masculinity is encouraged and widely accepted as it is considered an important characteristic and personality trait for men— wherein being masculine is equated to domination, abuse, and subjugation of others, particularly directed at women, as a show of power and leadership. Therefore, women are then blamed for actions that men have committed, whose actions are accepted and even widely made excuses for.
Considering all these possible reasonings and the impact that sexual assault, rape and victim-blaming can cause: how does one communicate with a sexual assault/rape survivor?
- Believe in them!
Do not doubt or question someone when they open up about their experiences, instead, try and be a good listener and reassure them that you believe them and will be there for them.
- Be aware!
Knowing why you may feel like blaming the victim so that you can avoid doing so in the first place.
- Be empathetic!
Do not degrade or trivialize someone else’ experience, show compassion and understanding that whatever has happened has impacted them.
- Be respectful of the survivors!
Always be respectful of their feelings and communicate to them that it is not their fault. And if you notice someone else blaming them then do not let that slide, step up and support the survivor.
- Offer consistent help and support!
Make sure to not be judgemental or wonder why their progress of recovery might be taking some time. Provide a listening ear, and offer them avenues to accept help either through therapy, legal aid or other forms such as hotlines.
- Avoid stigmatizing, stereotypical or degrading language!
Unaware of ourselves, and due to the influence of society or media, we might use offensive language, even if we don’t intend to. So, being more self-aware and introspective in such cases can go a long way.
Taking steps, even some basic steps, can always be helpful not only to others but to ourselves as well. Even though it is a tough journey, seeking help when needed, reaching out to people, and educating ourselves and those around us, are always good ways to make sure that the world continues to be filled with compassion and positive growth 🙂
If you or anyone you know has gone through sexual assault, rape, traumatic incidents, or is facing any mental health struggles, please do check out the following links to find the relevant form of help:
http://www.ncw.nic.in/helplines, Women helpline – 181, Distress number – 112 (for India).
https://checkpointorg.com/global/ (list of global websites and numbers).
Written by- Neeraja