How to avoid victim-blaming
Victim-blaming is any comment or behavior that communicates to a survivor of sexual assault that they are responsible for the occurrence in some way. According to Dr. Pamela Denison, Clinical Psychologist for Centerstone’s Trauma Services, “You don’t have to explicitly tell the person it was their fault to participate in victim-blaming – even something as simple as expressing doubt about what happened can have the same effect.”
When you blame a survivor for their own traumatic experience, you contribute to their pain. 8 out of 10 cases of sexual assault are committed by someone the survivor knows. Because of this, survivors experience a complex range of emotions about the situation, including self-guilt for what happened even though it is not their fault. They are often overwhelmed with shame and guilt before even talking to anyone about it, and ridicule only increases these feelings.
Participating in victim-blaming also contributes to the issue at large. “When you communicate in-person or online that a survivor could have done something differently to avoid the situation, you communicate that sexual assault is a minor issue that does not need to be taken too seriously,” says Dr. Denison. Societally, doubting survivors has led to less strict punishments for perpetrators, allowing for these sorts of heinous actions to continue.
So what can you do to help?
What not to do
Because this is such a serious issue, it is necessary to fight your own tendencies to victim blame. Some of this comes down to body language – try to point your entire body toward someone to show that you are giving your full attention, and avoid showing uneasiness in response to what they are saying. Be fully present for the conversation, and don’t leave before they are ready to finish.
Another major challenge is monitoring our words. There are several common phrases you should avoid that communicate blame for the victim, including:
- “Didn’t you know better?”
- “Well, what were you wearing?”
- “You know them, so why didn’t you just say, ‘stop’?”
- “Why didn’t you run away?”
- “So, you didn’t even try to get help?”
- “Were you under the influence?”
- And the worst: “Why can’t you let go?”
What to do
The most important thing you can do for a survivor of sexual assault is show that you are there for them through your words and actions. Walk with them through the pain and make it clear that you won’t withdraw your support from them.
Instead of saying any of the phrases listed above, use phrases like these:
- “I’m so sorry that this has happened to you.”
- “I believe you.”
- “I know this is hard to talk about. I’m listening.”
- “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.”
- “I’m willing to be here with you through it all.”
- “Everything you feel about this situation is valid.”
Speaking in ways that affirm a survivor’s feelings, and communicating that you believe and support them, goes a long way into their recovery from the traumatic event.