More and more every day, we are encountering survivors in need of support, and with them we see communities struggling to know how to help. These are family member of survivors. Friends. Coworkers. Neighbors. These are the people with the power to either lift up a survivor of interpersonal violence and give them the belief and resources they so desperately need, or to contribute to that same person’s re-traumatization.
Coming forward itself is an overwhelming task for anyone who has been through sexual violence. Finding out that a loved one has suffered can come with its own challenges. So how do we make that process as safe as possible for everyone? How do we act as pillars of support, process our own feelings and shock healthily, and provide the emotional and social comfort that is so hard for a victim to find? The root to answering this question is to beat the blame game.
Even without intending it, victim blaming is something taught to all of us. It’s a natural line of defense in feeling safe from danger—”I could never be a victim of violence, because I wouldn’t walk alone at night, or wear that outfit, or put myself at risk….” Phrases like these are taught with the goal to help keep us safe. But the problem with this is that it puts the responsibility on the survivor to avoid getting assaulted, rather than on the perpetrator to not assault. For someone who has been a victim of sexual assault, this sends a horrible and repetitive message: “it’s your fault.”
It’s time to state—explicitly and as many times as it takes: no one deserves to be sexually assaulted. And no one asks to be.
When met with a loved one who has gone through any kind of violence, sexual or otherwise, there are a few key practices that can help support them and end these victim-blaming misconceptions:
1. “I believe you.”
An enormous part of the difficulty survivors face in the reporting process is the lack of credibility we as a society give them. Falsely accusing someone of a felony is no laughing matter, and studies have shown that the incident of this is no higher with sexual assault cases than any other reported crime. Yet victims of violence face astoundingly more scrutiny for crying wolf. This feeds into the idea that victims are not to be trusted, which is utter nonsense and exactly the environment that can foster undeserved blame.
2. “There are resources available to you.”
… And then help them find them! Feeling like you’re alone and that there’s no way to get help once a crime has been committed is exactly the kind of negativity that unjustifiably punishes survivors. Go with them to their doctor’s appointment. Help them research counseling options in your neighborhood. Find community support projects that would help them feel less responsible for cleaning up the mess alone, and support whatever pace they are comfortable with taking. If you’re stumped on how to begin this process, that’s okay!
3. “It’s not your fault.”
Say this outright, and then say it again. Assuming that a survivor has no reason to logically feel at fault is simply not enough. On top of all the misconceptions and biases that rape culture has lent us throughout the years, self-blame is an extremely common defense tactic for a brain struggling to make sense of trauma. It’s easier to assume that one is in control and made a “mistake” than reckon with the idea of control being taken away. And so survivors need to hear this. They need to hear that they’re not at fault. They need it unambiguously and openly, and as many times as it takes. It’s no longer enough to simply refrain from actively blaming a victim—in an environment that rebukes survivors for even coming forward, silence is like complacency. Even if they don’t say so, the chance of feeling in the wrong needs to be confronted, and we have to be the ones to do it.
We need to make supporting survivors one of the primary tools in our arsenal in fighting sexual assault, and wield that tool with pride. This includes more than just advocates and warriors of the social justice field. Ending victim blaming is something that all of us can do. Let’s make the kind of empathy and support that survivors need a widespread practice. Let’s normalize the practice of building one another up. The person you stand next to in a coffee shop may need a kind word of validation today. The individual on your train may be going through something you don’t understand. Your sister or brother or cousin or friend may not know how to ask you for support. Support them anyway. Beat the blame game.
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