Was it my fault?
Some of the most common reactions that survivors experience following an assault are self-blame and guilt, that they “must” have done something to bring on this assault. Survivors often ruminate on thoughts such as, "Why did I get in the car with him?", "Why did I go to that party?", "Why did I get so drunk?" This is deeply erroneous and dangerous thinking. The bottom line is that we would not have been raped had our rapist chosen not to rape us. The fault lies solely with the perpetrator – no matter your dress, actions, level of intoxication or behavior before the assault. The buck stops with the perpetrator – always.
But Wait . . . .I made some bad decisions.
Yes, we make hundreds of choices each day. Some are clearly good and some are perhaps not the best. We are human. The difference between a bad choice and a crime is when someone intervenes and takes advantage of our decision. For example, everyone has probably done something such as left your car running while you hopped out to grab the mail, left your front door unlocked while you ran down the street to a neighbor’s house, or put your purse down by your chair in a busy café. We could all say “oh my gosh, what was I thinking, that was so stupid of me, I should’ve known better”, but we would not fail to see that if someone broke in to our house or stole our car or purse that this was a crime and that the criminal was the one truly at fault. We also most likely would not hesitate for a second to call the police or report the crime.
So why is it so different for sexual assault victims? There are many reasons that survivors turn to self-blame, including:
- Societal culture of victim blaming: Unfortunately heavily ingrained gender-based messages continue to exist and perpetuate the belief that the victim (usually a woman) is somehow to blame. We hear statements such as “What was she wearing?”, “Why did she go to his apartment?”, “Why did she drink so much?”, “She should’ve known better” as well as the excusing of male behavior with commonly repeated sentiments that “boys will be boys after all”.
- Myths and misunderstanding about rape: There are also deeply entrenched societal myths and stereotypes that rapes only happen by strangers and thus only under violent and dangerous circumstances (e.g. the man jumping out of the bushes). The reality is most assaults (over 85%) are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, and often trusts to some degree – a date, a neighbor, a friend, a co-worker, a roommate, a relationship partner, spouse, parent, sibling or other family member.
- Trauma Reaction/Illusion of Control: Another reason for self-blame is that it is a normal emotional and psychological reaction to trauma. True powerlessness is a terrifying feeling and our psyches work hard to try to establish a sense of normalcy and control. Assault is by its nature a humiliating and dehumanizing experience and believing you are to blame can give survivors a sense of control, however illusory, over the trauma. If you believe it happened because of something you are doing you can maintain a sense of control and hope for change.
- Societal Gender Stereotypes: Our society also has strong gender stereotypes that begin early on. Girls learn that they are supposed to be “good girls”, “sweet”, “compliant”, and boys are to be aggressive, domineering, “manly”, or a “stud”. These gender stereotypes can trigger power dynamics that perpetuate female and male behavior to fall in to a victim-perpetrator paradigm.
- Powerful Perpetrators: Many survivors knew and even trusted their perpetrators and are sometimes told directly and repeatedly that they are to blame, especially in long term abusive relationships.
The bottom line is the survivor is NEVER responsible for the crime of sexual assault. Never!
Men and women have the right to dress as they wish, to walk alone at night, to flirt, to be sexy, to dance provocatively, to drink, to make out . . . . . .and to say “no” or “stop” at any time. Drinking unsafely and walking alone at night likely do make a person more vulnerable, most survivors would agree with that. But no one has the right to rape us, ever, no matter what we say or do. Were there choices you could have made that would have protected you? Of course. We also can spend our entire lives never leaving the house. The fact is rape will not stop happening until rapists stop raping. No one has the right to perpetrate abuse against another. No one had the right to rape you!
Fortunately, the tide may slowly be changing. In the past sexual assault awareness campaignshave targeted potential victims by urging women to restrict their behavior. Research is telling us that targeting the behavior of victims is not only ineffective, but also contributes to and increases self-blame in survivors. Awareness campaigns have begun in the past decade to start shifting this focus away from victim-blaming and placing the responsibility and blame on the correct person - the perpetrator. Other campaigns are looking at utilizing Men as Allies in sexual assault prevention work and encouraging Bystander Interventions. You can see some of these campaigns below:
My Strength is Not for Hurting
This Is Not An Invitation to Rape Me
"Don't be that guy"
While changing attitudes about sexual assault and victim-blaming will take time, one immediate step we can all take is to learn all we can and start talking about sexual violence, harassment, and consent with those around us to help educate and reduce stigma.
Some things you can do to help