Coping in a Culture that Often Times Blames the Victim
It is astounding to me, as someone who has taught self-defense and boundary setting for over two decades, the myriad ways we find to blame victims of all kinds for the violence and abuse they survive: from tropes about revealing clothing justifying sexual assault, to calling people living below the poverty line “lazy,” to describing a youth of color as a “demon” after being shot and killed by police, to transphobia so deeply socially embedded that anyone who appears to be gender-nonconforming is blamed for their own assault. Victim blaming is mercilessly intersectional, suffused with class, race, ability, and gender bias.
Victim blaming shows up everywhere. It is in the air we breathe, the collective water we drink, in the fiber of our social constructs. Fear and victim blaming are both major byproducts of capitalism. They make for good consumers: who ever bought unnecessary products on credit when they felt safe, secure, happy, and satisfied with their life, their body, their relationships, and themselves? Making people feel unworthy (and then providing a solution) for any misery, dissatisfaction, or unhappiness is a cornerstone of market-driven expansion. It is victim blaming with ruthless persistence and precision.
Given the entrenched and pervasive nature of victim blaming, it is not surprising that it can be challenging to extinguish. But we must. Until we dig out the prejudicial and pernicious roots of victim blaming, it will continue to morph and transmute, a shape-shifting systemic spotlight highlighting and “othering” those who are blamed, even as they are abused and violated.
The truth is that we live in an unjust, violent world where racist and gendered atrocities occur with horrific regularity. It’s awful. It is human and quite understandable to want to believe things are fair and just. Victim blaming allows people to hold on to the mirage, if only momentarily, that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.
As a therapist, I witness victim blaming all the time. I see families, friends, partners, community members, social networks, and strangers blame survivors in indirect and sometimes startlingly direct ways. This can take the form of asking (sometimes demanding) proof of an assault, not believing survivors who cannot recall particular details, minimizing in ways that suggest culpability (well, you did/did not do this or that), claiming an objective, neutral, or “want to hear both sides” stance with no recognition of systemic or institutional power.
Surviving or bearing witness to violence and abuse can shatter realities, break bodies (literally and figuratively), destroy spirits, and obliterate any sense of self. In the face of fear, shame, despair, terror, and isolation, it can make sense to blame the victim. Victim blaming banishes dark, messy, gross, ugly feelings into the ether of “other” and into the stratosphere of “not me.”
How do we reckon with something so entrenched? Like any invasive and noxious weed, we deracinate all of it. We do this collectively because we need each other. Victim blaming works because it occurs in a culture that supports it. We are all responsible for dismantling victim blaming and daring to envision other possibilities for how to treat one another.
We are all accountable, in very different ways depending on our privilege and position in the world, for identifying and interrupting victim blaming. Part of accountability is exploring why bystanders, other survivors, family, friends, and community members blame victims, collude, do not intervene, and refuse to believe victims when they speak out. It is not only those who violate and harm, but all of us who make up the social contexts in which violence and abuse happen who must identify and interrupt victim blaming. We need vibrant and varied resistances to systemic violence. We must strive to create conditions in which systems are held accountable for violence, rather than blaming individuals surviving it.
It is also important to remember that often it is people we love and want to hold dear and close who transgress and harm us. We must hold them accountable in ways that do not criminalize, pathologize, or dehumanize them. Righteous anger and searing rage are part of healing. There needs to be room held by compassionate and loving communities for these feelings.
One thing we can do is listen to and follow the leadership of POC, Trans, and Gender Creative voices that are working to create imaginative and fierce visions for wildly different ways to name violence and engage with accountability. These visions allow for transformation, healing, and renewal while recognizing the complexity of the systems and conditions that conspire to make violence, abuse, and transgressions inevitable. It can feel disorienting and terrifying to accept the inevitability of violence and abuse. But we must. Not out of hopelessness, or despair, or a sense that there is nothing we can do to change things. But out of hope, out of possibility, out of love and daring. To radically accept this is to deeply and profoundly stop blaming victims. Radically accepting that current systems and conditions make violence and abuse inevitable allows us to be brave and courageous, dares us to start being curious about other ways to relate to one another, other types of systems, institutions, and workplaces. This radical acceptance encourages us to imagine different kinds of communities.
There is groundbreaking work being done by Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, The Dream Defenders, BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100), Healing Justice, Idle No More, and others. These activists are developing fierce visions of liberation. They understand the roots of injustice. Also, their work shines as audacious examples of uplift instead of blame. Please support their organizing and collaborations. We all benefit from them.