Victim Blaming 101. What Not to Say to a Victim of an Assault

judgementspointingfingercolor{Please note that this is an official trigger warning that some the themes, language, and vocabulary used in this revolve around sexual assault and sexual assault survivors.}
Language is a universal way of communicating to one another. Language is learned during the formative toddler years usually through listening to the familiar settings around us. Children are like sponges, if you say it, there is a chance they will repeat it. This is part of why it is so important to be deliberate and precise with the language we subject our youth to. Refraining from using slang, derogatory, racist, sexist, and inappropriate language teach a child that this is the decorum they should be communicating to the outside world. The funny thing about language and verbal communication is the idea of “intent versus impact.” A person can mean to express something and have it conveyed in a separate manner. The use of technology and the subjective nature of texting/emailing has further hurt the communication lines between parties.
Part of what I wish to express today is the impact I have felt regardless of intent post assault. I am a single, 31 year old women who was the victim of a very violent stranger sexual assault on October 21, 2015. To say my life turned upside down after this would be an understatement. Nothing in my world has been consistent, comfortable, or “easy” for me post assault. I have days where I do great and nights where I lose sleep reliving my nightmare. Every morning greets me with the scar I have under my left eye socket from the attack. I try to strive to call myself a survivor rather than a victim to challenge myself to rise to the occasion with strength. A paradigm I cannot seem to understand though, is the amount of verbal, non-verbal, and subliminal “victim blaming” I feel I have been subjected to. Further reading and research confirm to me that this is not an isolated (for just me) case.

 So I got on my computer to fully understand, “What is Victim blaming?”

“Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially responsible for the harm that befell them. The study of victimology seeks to mitigate the perception of victims as responsible. There is a greater tendency to blame victims of rape than victims of robbery in cases where victims and perpetrators know one another.” (Wikipedia.)
This was the very first definition that appeared in my google search. I have further belief that many crimes that demean females as a gender are key components to the theory of victim blaming. All genders are effected by rape, domestic violence, emotional battery and more. Yet women are the primary victims of these crimes. They are also rarely taken fully seriously. A vast number of police task forces lack the employment of not only females or minority law officials. In short, most female victims of these horrific crimes are already at a disadvantage when having to deal with white, heterosexual males. (Please note I am not advocating that white heterosexual males cannot complete their job without bias. This is my own experience.)
I have to reflect back and use my own examples and experience to further reiterate how I felt that I was the recipient of victim blaming. The spectrum across the board of how many people used language and assumptions baffle me. I will first dive into the conversations during my initial police interview I cooperated in. First of all, there is a reason for a follow up interview as I found out. Most victims of an attack, assault, or horrific crime are put on some type of sedation medicine. I was hysterical and given a prescription drug meant to tranquilize me. You could have told me Santa Claus was my brother and I may have believed you. In a police investigation, instant action is necessary to divert the potential of the crime reoccurring and to gather information fresh from the victim.  These hours were a blur to me. I heard statements such as, “we take this very seriously have put an alert out to the city (which made me cry),” to we need to know your relationship status and your full disclosure you didn’t know your attacker. Before I had even pieced together the past 48 hours of my life, I was already in a spotlight of withholding evidence. I remember straining my mind and doing my best to answer while maintaining some integrity. “What were you wearing? Did you have on a bra? Is this a normal location for you to be present?”
Rape is an ugly word and one of the few crimes where the victim is assumed to have held some guilt or responsibility in the matter. Its a cultural epidemic and became apparent to me from the start of this. So how does one avoid falling into this trap of victim blaming? I will share some advice I have based off of my own personal experience.

Experiences I had with Victim Blaming:

“Well I’m sure if you hadn’t had any wine, you would not have put yourself in that situation.” This from a strong female family member that I never would’ve expected to hear this from. Wait a minute, you are supposed to be on my side here! The situation was that yes I was not 100% sober at the time. I also was not in an unfamiliar, unsafe, or unstable environment. I was not wearing a sign saying please attack me, rape me, and knock me unconscious. Even if I was, the situation was an aggressor took shameful action for whatever his reasoning. I cannot begin to tell you how hurtful a small comment like this was and how closed off I felt towards that person afterwards. If a strong female family member saw a portion of this being my fault, then who wouldn’t. Please think about language like this before making any comment to an assault survivor. These words stick and are detrimentally impactful.
“I know you don’t want to talk about it, but please be honest and tell if you knew this person. I think you are covering for who it was.” Ouch. From the get go there was an underlying assumption that I was lying to cover up for an ex-boyfriend or relationship. The fact was I was covering up these names out of commonality of respect of not wanting these people questioned. I can understand in hindsight that stranger attacks are much rarer and all avenues of did I know this person had to be explored. The fall out of this was beyond devastating to me. I wound up having to apologize to ex boyfriends and terminate a situation. In order to comply with the investigation, I reluctantly gave out the information to contact the parties inquired about. The comment above was from a friend who has suspicions I was covering for someone. So now I was the victim and a liar. This was consistent in many conversations after this. A better way of talking about this is saying you are there if a detail comes back into your mind or you wish to open the floodgates. Please do not assume that I went through this process, hospital, and embarrassing details to cover for a man I knew. Intent of finding the perpetrator versus impact to me personally….again.
“I wanted to reach out to you, but didn’t know what to say. You must feel terrible.” Okay, something is better than nothing. I will give this person that. Sometimes just being there is better than nothing at all. I will advise being VERY careful in the language used to express your own discomfort with the situation to the victim. They very possibly might internalize further guilt during this situation prompting them to push you away or regress into a shame fueled frenzy. I cannot speak highly enough about self care and nurturing a person who has experienced what I have. A very dear friend came over and slept on my couch the evening this first happened so I wasn’t alone. She brought a care package of random goods (pretty much one of the few things I choked down that week.) She didn’t make me feel isolated or worse than I already did. She was without judgment and just there. Having a neutral presence is key to being a support system for someone in this instance. Make no assumption about feelings or healing. Everyone has their own course and I know I certainly didn’t want to be compared to anyone.
“No one is looking at that scar on your face and judging you the way you assume they are. You should be going out in public and not hiding.” The cruelty of my attack was a large hook shaped bloody, mess or a scar on my face. I will never forget going to the grocery store alone for the first time after this (in broad daylight.) I was on a mission to get some nurturing and wholesome food for myself. I attempted to conceal my face and put on a baseball hat. The second I walked into the Meijer, it felt like the world was spinning around me. I felt like everyone near the entrance of that store was staring at my face and they knew why it looked the way it did. I practically ran back to my car; injured legs and all. It was the most surreal moment of my life and a moment that I will never forget. Healing physically is one thing; time takes care of that. Wearing a badge from my attack took a huge chunk of my confidence, self esteem, and self worth. I felt ugly. Period. Instead of making me feel worse about the state of my face, offer comfort.  If someone would’ve said “hey, I would love to treat you to a manicure, lunch, etc,” it would’ve meant the world to me. Flowers, thinking about you cards, and yes even chocolate and wine would’ve been great. Its important not to impose how you think the victim should feel post attack and to understand those feelings are their own. The moment I spent hiding in my car feeling isolated from the world was part of my experience. I remember feeling doubly punished that this had happened and now I was afraid of the outside world. Gentle urgings and kind gestures are great. Again, be very deliberate about what you say.
“You shouldn’t be exposing what happened to you on any type of social media.” I have said it before and will say it again, my page, my accounts, my thoughts, AND my accountability. Part of not hiding behind this was to show myself that I was not going to let this person take things from me. I also wanted to see a silver lining of what potential good can come from this. I have actually found a network of individuals through blog accounts and on social media that are supporting me and have also been victims of sexual assault. I see the absolute good in this and am grateful for the connections I’ve made. Many of these individuals are standing up for causes and beliefs similar to my own. We read each other’s work, talk about our own experiences and connect. In short, we do not feel that we are alone. I do not feel that I am alone. The day my assault happened I took a picture and put it on social media that stated, “this is what sexual violence looks like and it should last no more.” I did this not for attention, but to take back a part of myself and say this was not okay. I had support from others I hadn’t heard from in years. I had anger towards those who saw me as acting childish. The bottom line is my being open and talking about what happened to me made people feel uncomfortable. It was about their feelings and moving on not mine. Instead of scolding me, why not open up a conversation. Something along the lines of “you seem to be very passionate about working through this publically, how are you doing/feeling/how can I support you.” Never tell someone what they chose to share with their world about their truth and hurt is wrong. My pain, feelings, and association with this are my own. I own this and will continue to advocate for the sexual assault awareness. I will not play possum (victim) and sweep this under the rug. That is not my path to healing. (Please note I do also understand everyone chooses their own path and support anyone’s path they find comforting.)
“Well you are the one that almost got yourself killed.” I literally laughed at the family member that said this to me. I laughed and shouted are you kidding me? This was as blatant as it gets and couldn’t believe my own ears. I think its very difficult to have a family member go through an attack or assault. You feel hopeless, angry, infuriated, angry again, and completely helpless. Channel that energy in a different way and never point the finger at the victim. The main issue is someone chose to harm this person. The location where I was attacked is a “safe” location where I had often gone running during early mornings. It shouldn’t matter. What should matter is that we should not be part of a culture where rape and sexual assault are acceptable and the victim’s fault. If this were true, we would all lock ourselves up and never go out. I did do anything but fight for my life at that moment. I’m aware of how close to a potentially fatal situation I was in. You wouldn’t blame a person who was not a fault for a horrific car accident would you? The same premise exists here.
My point for using these examples and touching on the subject are how important our words, actions, and attitudes are towards sexual assault victims. I have not included everything that has been said both to me and behind my back. I do not believe that anyone had malicious intent behind things they said and were hurting themselves. I saw what I looked like after the attack. It would be hard for me to see a loved one in that state of physical and emotional pain. I will revert back to the topic of language and how we censor our words around young children. Carry these thoughts over to your loved ones. Say something in your head and decide if there is any connotation of judgment towards that victim. If you think a toddler is fragile, image the psyche of a sexual assault victim. They want, crave and need your support. Intent and impact….it really does matter.