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  • Debbie Dougherty

Victim Blaming. Six Stupid Things People Say.

A caucasion woman's portrait with red paint splattered on it
Victim Blaming is Stupid. Picture by Fionna Clark

One of the most ridiculous, mean spirited things that we do as a society is blame victims for being victimized. Victim blaming is a well recognized social phenomenon that is particularly well documented for targets of sexual violence--both domestic violence and workplace violence. There is even a research scale you can use to measure adherence to rape myths. Given its prevalence across cultures, victim blaming must accomplish something, right? But what?

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Sometime back I discussed mystification, which is like gaslighting, but on a grand scale. Instead of a single individual making another individual doubt their reality, the culture as a whole works to make the target of predatory sexual behavior doubt their experience.

One of the keys to successful mystification is to pretend/act like the target of sexual violence is actually the perpetrator of that violence. To accomplish this, it is necessary to believe that the victim is to blame.

I reached out to my friends on Facebook to identify the stupid victim blaming things they have heard. They came up with a pretty long list. I have thematically categorized their statements and added a few of my own that I have discovered over my 20+ years of doing research on this topic. Below, in no particular order, are six stupid things people say to blame the victim.

Victims Lie

I have heard this stupid saying repeatedly. I even wrote a journal article about it. For whatever reason, we accuse targets of lying about their experience. Take for example this statement from a women's focus group:

I think what is bad though is that, I'm assuming this too, it, there are so many false accusations [of sexual harassment] that every single one has to be, there has to be proof beyond a doubt. And are you ever at that proof beyond a doubt? Because of the falseness of what people have done because of other people's mistakes

This woman articulates a commonly held belief that targets of sexual harassment lie. Sadly, the same study, participants also told me that it would be truly horrible if they were not believed:

I think that would just be a tremendous blow to anyone's self esteem or self worth. If you knew, you know, by God this happened, and someone didn't believe you. I don't know. What a horrible thing, what a horrible thing.

The statement that victim's lie is so common that the first time that I heard women being BELIEVED was during the heyday of the #MeToo movement. That is sad, isn’t it? Even though there is strong and compelling historical documentation of sexual harassment and sexual assault, we still accuse targets of lying. And yet, why would they lie? Seriously. Given the stigma and trauma that comes with reporting predatory sexual behavior, there is almost zero motivation for women to lie. Of course, a few women do make it up. I have seen this happen. But the vast majority of women who report being victims actually were targeted.

Consider this. I suspect that the number of women who falsely report rape or sexual harassment is similar to the number of people who falsely claim to have cancer. Yet, we are not suspicious of claims by every person who claims to have cancer. That would be weird. Just like it is weird to believe that most people lie about being targets of predatory sexual behavior.

The Victim Wanted It.

Here is a stupid thing said about targets of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Some of the variants include, You didn't say "no"; You did not mean it when you said no. You did not fight back. You did not fight back hard enough. Just because you regretted it later does not mean it was rape.

This stupid comment is most likely to be experienced by women of color whose sexual availability is built into the intersecting stereotypes of race and gender. As Rebecca Leung and Robert Williams convincingly argue: Overall, perceptions of victims and what role they play in a sexual assault or harassment incident are often weighed heavily by observers who use social and gender norms to form a public opinion about how to treat victims and those accused of sexual assault and harassment. The differential treatment of targets by race can be seen in the differential response to the R. Kelly and H. Weinstein Cases. Both predators are famous, yet Kelly's targets were ignored and slut shamed for years. The hypersexualization of Black women in our culture makes it easy for people to believe that Black women want to be targeted.

Victim's are Bad People.

If you were a better/stronger/smarter/etc person, this would not have happened. If you were moral, chaste, or good, you would not have been targeted. This stupid saying is a version of the unique woman syndrome. Specifically, it is saying to targets “you are weak, so of course you were targeted. I am strong, so I could not possibly be a target." You can insert variations weak/strong, such as moral/immoral, but the long and the short of it is that targets of sexual violence are told that they were targeted because they are bad people--and not because the perpetrator is a bad person. In fact. . .

Perpetrators are good people

This one is beyond stupid. There is a tendency to claim that the perpetrator is really a good and important person so it is unlikely that he actually committed the sexual offense. Take for example Larry Nassar, the gymnastics' team doctor who targeted hundreds of girls and women athletes before he was stopped. The following is from my book, Sexual Harassment in Organizational Culture:

It is important to begin by clearly stating that Nassar was not a good doctor. By this I mean that he did not heal the injuries that these athletes experienced. In fact, according to Pesta, one significant reason why Nassar was allowed to work in gymnastics is because he allowed the athletes under his care to continue training, even when experiencing debilitating injuries. According to Pesta, “many women and girls had reported Larry Nassar over the decades—to coaches, counselors, even the police—but they were dismissed or disbelieved. If anyone had listened and believed, this predator could have been stopped much sooner. Hundreds of girls could have been spared.” (p. 15). So, why weren’t these athletes believed? There are a number of reasons. One key reason is that he was discursively crafted as a heroic figure with singularly important doctoring skills, despite his obvious inadequacies as a physician.

Despite his ineptitude, Nassar established a reputation as a world class sports doctor. Many of the athletes came to know him as “a god” like figure because of his reputation. Trainers, coaches, and family members referred to him as a world renown doctor. Because of his reputation, reports of his abuse were treated as a misunderstanding and women athletes were treated as mentally unstable. For example, one woman who reported the behavior was told that she simply could not tell the difference between sexual assault and a legitimate medical treatment. Another athlete, a softball player at Michigan State, asked her trainer about Nassar’s behavior and was told that “Nassar was a world-renown doctor and it was ‘legitimate medical treatment’.

See how mystification happens here? The target wasn't really being targeted. Instead, the good doctor was doing good doctor work. The targets could not possibly understand. Poor little dears. (Please note sarcasm).

Victims Deserved it. Victims asked for it (or, what did you think would happen?).

Here is a victim blaming conversation I have heard a lot. “What did she expect would happen if she wore __ outfit?” or how about this one. “If you look like a slut, people will treat you like a slut.” Or, what did you think would happen if you got drunk?” There are, in fact, lots of variations of the “you asked for it” victim blaming thing. Of course, this is stupid. The slut walk phenomenon was created in response to this rape logic.

Maybe you think this victim deserved it/slut shaming phenomenon primarily happens to women who are raped. It is also used as an excuse to target women in the workplace. I have seen this type of slut shaming done to women colleagues wearing black dresses, cardigan sweaters, professional dresses, and suits. In other words, any woman at anytime can be considered a slut to justify being targeted.

Again, the victim deserved it myth is more refined and intense for women of color because of the stereotypes of these women as sexual monsters who are both desirable and need to be controlled.

Victims are Mentally Unstable

Finally, in order to make mystification work, victims are told that they are mentally unstable. They lie, they are sluts, they wanted it, and they are out to get these very nice predators. The one theme that runs through all of these stupid things people say is that women are too emotional to recognize when they are targeted. They are too mentally unstable to be able to tell the difference between love and violence. They are too childlike to know when pain is love.

Action Steps

Some years ago, I stopped using the words victim/survivor in my work. Why? Because victim is weirdly stigmatized. Maybe this is the stupidest thing of all. When a person is called a "victim" they tend to be reduced to all these stupid things that people say. Being a survivor is better, but I don't want to assume that a person who was targeted with sexual violence views themselves as a survivor. That label depends very much on how they are treated after the event. Instead, I use the word "target." This word places the responsibility for the action on the predator and lessons the stigma associated with being a victim. I noticed that a number of other scholars have shifted their language as well. That is good.

It is time for us to take targets of sexual violence seriously. Let's leave the myths behind and recognize that,

YES, sexual violence happens

YES, many people are targets

YES, targets know when something bad has happened.

NO, It does not matter if the perpetrator is an excellent worker, or is a "good guy."

Debbie S. Dougherty is a professor, author, consultant, farmer.

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