Whether it’s in day to day conversation or in the media, a common response to disclosures or mentions of sexual assault is a phenomenon called victim blaming. The term might be unfamiliar, but what it looks like in practice is all too familiar. It’s questioning people who experience violence — especially sexual violence — about their actions, and what they could have done to prevent it, or worse, invite it. It’s pointing out supposed weaknesses or differences in a person that could have made them a target. In general, it’s the common tendency for people to look for the cause of violence as something the person who experienced harm did or didn’t do to prevent it.
Some examples of what victim blaming can sound like:
- “What did you expect going out dressed like that?”
- “Why didn’t they fight back?”
- “You shouldn’t have gone home with them.”
- “Why did they get so drunk?”
Victim blaming can be defined as someone saying, implying, or treating a person who has experienced harmful or abusive behaviour (eg: a survivor of sexual violence) like it was a result of something they did or said, instead of placing the responsibility where it belongs: on the person who harmed them.
These responses often stem from a belief that there are specific things people can do to avoid being harmed, a comforting belief that increases the bias holder’s feeling of safety. Another common belief that feeds this is the idea that we live in a just world, and people get what they deserve, whether good or bad.
What is important to understand is that sexual violence is never, ever the fault of the person who experiences it: sexual violence happens because someone chooses to use harmful behaviours, not because someone is wearing a certain item of clothing, said a certain thing, or was in a certain place.
It’s important to remember that people always have the right to do what makes them feel safest, but at the end of the day, they should never be expected to limit their own actions, freedom of expression or movement in anticipation of someone else’s potential for abusive behaviour. We need to recognize that people are never required to say no “strongly enough”, to fight back against an assault, or to follow the many and sometimes conflicting commonly circulated safety tips, in order to avoid the potential for being harmed by another person. No one has the right to perpetrate sexual violence, under any circumstances.
Victim blaming not only discourages survivors from coming forward for fear they’ll be blamed, it also actively shifts focus away from holding the person doing harm accountable.
Engaging in victim blaming, in addition to not being a helpful response, can also be very damaging. A negative response, whether not being believed or being blamed, is a common fear many survivors of sexual violence have, which is one of many reasons why 97% of sexual assaults are never reported to law enforcement in Canada. We also know that sexual assault is unfortunately very common, with 1 in 3 girls and at least 1 in 6 boys experiencing sexual abuse/assault by the age of 18 in Canada. People who have experienced sexual violence often report feelings of fear, stigma and self-blame regarding their experiences, and the pervasiveness of victim blaming can be a barrier to survivors receiving the support and help they deserve.
We all deserve to live in a world free of sexual violence. By pushing back against victim blaming, we can make our conversations and our communities safer for everyone.
You can find videos with more information about victim blaming below. To learn more about ways to support survivors of sexual violence, please visit the Get Help and Learn sections of our website to learn more about how to respond to disclosures.