Katie sat across from me after disclosing a sexual assault by a classmate. The abuse was over, she had done everything right. She told a trusted adult what had happened, the adult made a report to the police, the police were investigating, and she was receiving supportive services for the healing process. However, she knew, just like so many others, that her path to recovery was going to be an uphill battle. She attended the same school as her offender and in our victim-blaming culture, she knew she would not be receiving the support she needed from her community. It was simple because she knew how she would react if it had happened to someone else. She explained, “If this didn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t be on my side. I would be on their side, I wouldn’t believe me.” Though she had just been through a horrible event and knew what happened was not her fault, she also knew that her community would be judging her and likely be blaming her. That all eyes would be on her and her offender would remain invisible, shielded by the narrative that this was her fault.
We live in a culture of victim-blaming. Most, including myself, don’t want to believe this. It is much easier to believe that if someone we know and cared for came forward and told us of a sexual assault we would believe them and we would take the actions needed to be on their side. Yet, blaming and shaming is so enmeshed in our perspective of sexual assault, it guides the way we process what happened and the questions we ask. Often we jump to thoughts of, how did the victim get into that situation, they should have known better, I wouldn’t have done that, or do they have an ulterior motive?
The challenge with dismantling victim-blaming attitudes lies in the fact that is so pervasive that most people do it automatically. The repeated narrative that the victim is at fault, is often the only narrative that is heard. So, the question becomes how do we switch our lens and challenge this deeply rooted and destructive view of sexual assaults?
We need to shift our focus from what the victim did or didn’t do and look at the offender and their actions. Start by asking yourself what would a decent person do in the same situation? Would they take advantage of someone? Would they assault them? We hold victims to the highest standard. If they don’t do everything right, they are to blame. However, when it comes to an offender, we often do not hold them to an average standard, their disrespectful, mean, and abusive behaviors somehow pass through our judgment and are often left invisible.
When all attention is on the victim it becomes even more difficult for people to come forward and disclose abuse. Like Katie, they are left feeling alone, isolated, and without the support they need to heal.
I challenge you, to start taking proactive steps to create a survivor supportive culture today. Below are steps that we can all take. Let’s build a community of support where everyone is held to a high standard, not just the victim.
8 Actions to Switch the Lens
- Refocus your attention from the victim to the offender. What did he/she do? What would a decent person do in the same situation?
- Challenge victim blaming statements when you hear them. Help others switch their lens from the victim’s actions to the offender’s actions.
- Let survivors know it’s not their fault. This is the most important message we can give to support resiliency in survivors. Let them know you are on their team.
Hold offenders accountable. No one should get one free rape or assault. If someone has broken the law they should be held accountable and they should be receiving treatment so it doesn’t happen again.
- Report abuse. Teenagers are children. When a sexual assault happens to a teenager adults have a duty to report to law enforcement to help keep them safe.
- Support survivors in getting treatment. Teenagers are resilient if they have the right tools to help them through a traumatic event. Don’t let this shape their life.
- Don’t let a teenager or their family decide what legal steps need to be taken. Not only does this put the weight of the world on a child, it doesn’t keep the community safe.
- Hold the media accountable. We see victim-blaming in the news all the time, use your voice to point out their victim-blaming biases.