by Chelsea Ellingsen
Chelsea Ellingsen discusses the victim blaming culture attached to rape and sexual assault victims
The term victim blaming is widely defined as ‘… a devaluing act that occurs when the victim(s) of a crime or an accident is held responsible — in whole or in part — for the crimes that have been committed against them.’
This unjust shift in blame is not only used by a rapist to justify their actions and minimise rape as an offence, but is also adopted by many victims, who will often blame themselves. In deep anguish following a sexual assault, a victim questions what they could have done differently. Was it my fault?
Victim blaming is an ever-present symptom of the sexual violence sickness and gradually manifests in the attitude that a victim can somehow be to blame for their own assault. It is a mindset that I, as a young American woman, have been indoctrinated with from an early age.
I remember being at church camp when I was 12 years old. I had just come from the lake and was wearing a chaste one piece swimsuit. My towel had fallen from my shoulders when I ran into one of the male camp counsellors from my church. I was severely reprimanded by him and told that I needed to cover up. He then took the opportunity to remind us girls that it was our job ‘not to make men stumble.’ Already our prepubescent sexuality was deemed as problematic, something that was our responsibility to repress, to avoid being raped.
Another manifestation of the victim blaming culture is alcohol and the role it plays in rape and sexual violence offences. The onus is, more often than not, placed on the victim to ensure they watch the amount they drink in order to prevent being raped. (see NHS anti-drinking poster, featured in the 2005 to 2007 ‘Know Your Limits’ campaign) The underlying message is that we as young women ‘have been warned’ therefore if we chose to drink excessively, assault is “our fault.” The NHS chose to target the victim rather than addressing the perpetrators. There are no posters branded with ‘being drunk doesn’t equate to consent’ or ‘1 in 3 sexual assaults occur when the perpetrator was intoxicated.’
If we look at drink driving, we find a curious change of perception. If a pedestrian is mowed down by a drunk driver, the victim is never expected to justify why they were walking late at night or why they didn’t move out of the way of the oncoming vehicle. Instead the response is empathetic, compassionate. No right-minded defence solicitor would try to shift the blame onto the pedestrian in question, opting to minimise the actions of their client instead. All judgement in this situation is rightly reserved for the driver, who actively made the decision to drive in an inebriated state and recklessly endanger everyone on the road.
A recent event that made me reflect on victim blaming in a wider context was the Charlie Hebdo shooting. From the satirical Ugandan newspaper The Kampala Sun to the New York Times to The Guardian–everywhere there was an appalled, shocked response. Voices were united in an outpouring of solidarity with the people of France and the sacredness of free speech. To suggest that the editors may have been ‘asking for it’ by publishing controversial cartoons is a ludicrous, even sacrilegious statement to make.
Yet rape prosecutions in America have been overturned in court due to what the survivor was wearing.
How does one begin to dismantle victim blaming? The realisation that no one has the right to your body, space, comfort zone without your enthusiastically given consent is a good place to start. Support artists; such as Ani Difranco, who uses the song Gratitude to bring awareness of these issues.
By acting as a support system to your community, local or online, we can encourage victims to speak out and stop rape from being one of the most under reported crimes in the world.
Telling a trusted friend is often the first step a survivor can take in recovery, so if a partner, sister, friend, colleague, acquaintance ever tells you about a time they were violated, believe them and support their bravery.
Your response can uplift and embolden them to realise they aren’t alone, or it can continue the cycle of shame and guilt and prevent them from getting the help they need.