Building resilience, inclusion, and hope for mental health in Wisconsin communities

Challenging Victim-Blaming

In July, we learned about “public stigma” – the stigma that people express towards others. Click here to read that article. In this post, we will examine one type of public stigma that can have a devastating psychological impact on people who are recovering from abuse.

Victim-blaming is the tendency to view victims as responsible for the violent acts perpetuated against them. Victim-blaming implies the fault for events such as domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, and other acts of violence lies with the victim rather than the perpetrator. Common negative social reactions include anger, disbelief or skepticism, implicit or explicit blame, and even the refusal of assistance for victims seeking help. Victim blaming also takes many forms and can be quite subtle; for example when a woman who is pickpocketed is chided for her decision to carry a purse.  Any time someone questions what a victim could have done differently, he or she is participating in the culture of victim-blaming.

Simply talking about an abuse experience requires significant vulnerability and bravery! Victim-blaming severely hampers our ability to best support people who have entrusted us to their story. At its core, victim blaming reinforces what abusers have been saying, thus increasing the sense of shame and self-stigma that invariably comes from internalizing some of the emotional and mental injury perpetuated. Being blamed for traumatic experiences can lead to increases in mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The cultural tendency for victim blaming also decreases the likelihood that people will seek help and support due to fear of being further shamed or judged. It even prevents people from reporting crimes; This is true not only in cases of sexual assault but also in cases of domestic abuse or hate crimes.

The challenge to changing and dismantling victim-blaming attitudes lies in the fact that such responses are pervasive, often automatic, and emanate from people’s desire to feel safe themselves. Blaming victims allows us to feel that the world is just, that we have control over what happens to us, and that we can avoid traumatic experiences ourselves. While these attitudes grant us some sense of control over our lives, they also compromise our ability to empathize with others and perpetuate public stigma.

Survivors benefit from being around supportive people who understand the pitfalls of victim-blaming. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies we might use to offer unequivocal support and compassion to survivors who share their stories with us:

·      Acknowledge how incredibly difficult it is to share stories of trauma and abuse. Believe people who choose to share their stories with you. Realize that they are trusting you to treat them and their personal life experiences with respect;

·      The first step is awareness. Be aware of the mental trap of believing that the world is just. It is difficult to accept that sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Recognize the tendency to rationalize suffering, trauma, and misfortune in this way;

·      Survivors sharing their story with us may interpret “why” questions as a guised form of blame. Avoid accusatory questions. Pointing out how the victim could have acted or responded differently is not useful and can be invalidating. Offer compassion by listening to what they have to say without offering interpretations of the event;

·      Since many people attribute part of the blame to themselves, reassure survivors that “it is not your fault;”

·      Language surrounding acts of violence often focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator, which can have the effect of erasing the behavior of the perpetrator. When discussing acts of violence, use active voice to focus attention on the perpetrator (“X hit Mary”). Reframe questions to focus on the perpetrator’s actions (“What did X do next?”).

While these strategies allow us to communicate and offer support to individual survivors, these are also a number of ways we can attempt to challenge the culture of victim-blaming on a more systemic level:

·      Challenge victim-blaming statements when you hear them. People may not realize their attitude is one that makes it seem as if a victim is a fault. Kindly counter their statements and increase awareness in others by challenging statements that condone victim blaming;

·      Remember that the only one at fault for a crime is the perpetrator. When perpetrators or their enablers make excuses, hold them accountable and do not let them rationalize their actions by blaming the victim or minimizing their crime;

·      Jokes normalize victim-blaming by making light of trauma. Challenge jokes about traumatic events by calling it out immediately and explaining why it makes you uncomfortable;

·      Educate your community by collaborating with organizations (e.g., local women’s organizations, domestic violence organizations, rape crisis centers, and victim’s rights organizations) that can teach people the importance of supporting survivors.

For those reading this who may be in need of additional support for survivors of sexual abuse, domestic abuse, or hate crimes, please click here, here, or here to connect to resources.