Andrea Parhamovich, an activist with the National Democratic Institute, was killed in Iraq in January 2007 when her convoy traveled through one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods. She had been working with NDI for a few months, and she was about to get engaged to (now-deceased) war correspondent Michael Hastings.
Yes, Andrea was fully aware of the risks of working in Baghdad. Yes, she knew there was a high probability of getting killed while on her mission to promote democracy. However, in cases such as hers, we seldom hear the public blaming victims for the attacks that ended their lives. Perpetrators are immediately condemned and searched for, and all responsibility for the killings is attributed to them, not to the victim.
Why is such a compassionate dynamic so normal when talking about murder victims, but not about victims of sexual violence? Why are we so easily inclined to hold victims of rape and other sex crimes responsible for the attacks?
Perhaps just as detrimental as sexual violence itself, victim-blaming discourages those who have been targets of unwanted sexual contact from coming forward, reporting their experiences to the police and seeking help to overcome the long-lasting consequences of such despicable personal violence.
Victim-blaming is terribly easy to commit. All it takes is raising an issue regarding the victim’s clothing, location or previous sexual experiences. Victims often turn to their peers for support, and this questioning makes them wonder whether what they experienced was actually a sex crime. It is like being punched in the face, and then being punched again by the doctor who was supposed to help cure the wounds.
Sometimes, victims even blame themselves. Victims try to deny the gravity of the situation by assuming responsibility, for they believe their decisions contributed to their attack. If my “mistakes” led to my victimization, then I can avoid being victimized in the future by changing my habits, right?
No. Although most of us try to avoid certain places, situations or dress codes, our actions will have little to no impact on our probability to be victimized. The reason for this is simple: We are not the perpetrator, and we do not choose whether to commit rape or assault. The choice is made by someone other than us. Victim-blaming is equivalent to holding a person responsible for a decision someone else made.
In the U.S., 78 percent of sexual violence is committed by a family member, intimate partner, friend or acquaintance, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. This data supports the idea that our actions have no influence on the perpetrator’s decisions, for even if we locked ourselves up in secure places with people we trust and engaged in “safe” activities, the probability of becoming a victim would not decrease. In fact, it would sharply increase.
Victim-blaming serves as a protection to bystanders, for it tries to justify sexual crimes by creating a gap between victims and non-victims. By attributing rape or assault to a person’s individual characteristics or decisions, some people believe they can prevent being targets of sexual violence because they are not like “that person.” They don’t do drugs, go out at night, get drunk in public or talk openly about their sexuality. Thus, they are safe.
This argument is flawed for the same reasons as the one above — to commit sexual violence is someone else’s decision. People are also harming themselves by blaming those who have experienced sexual violence, as they create a sense of false immunity toward sex crimes that magically erases the perpetrator’s responsibility and shatters the structure of the victim’s support system. They hide behind a shield of air, which defends them against nothing and blinds them to the reality that each and every one of us is at risk of becoming a victim, independent of what we do as individuals.
Victims of sexual violence never “ask for it.” None of them asked to have their personal rights violated, their dignity destroyed and their mental state altered, perhaps permanently. No matter who commits them, rape and other sex crimes are never the target’s responsibility.
Victim-blaming is more than shifting the blame from the doer to the receiver. It is an act of betrayal toward ourselves and toward those who count on us for support. This practice only provides a partial and erroneous account of the causal facts of violence. It absolutely ignores a fundamental principle: nobody is entitled to another person’s body, and such abuse should never be legitimized by arguing that victims voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way.
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