Columns

It's 2018 — Why Are We Still Blaming the Victim?

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with his family and the blame-the-victim-in-chief.
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with his family and the blame-the-victim-in-chief. Wikimedia Commons
In the '60s, the psychologist Melvin Lerner introduced us to the idea of the just-world phenomenon. It’s the idea that when faced with feelings of helplessness, especially about a scary situation, our instinct is to blame the victim for being in the situation. Blaming the victim gives us a (false) sense of safety.

The just-world phenomenon is exacerbated for women who are sexually assaulted. In other words, if you are a woman and you are sexually assaulted, we will blame you even more intensely — regardless of what you tell us, regardless of the evidence.

One in four women will be sexually assaulted. That number increases for women of color and queer women.

But we continue to blame women, often publicly, for being assaulted: She wasn’t dressed properly. She probably didn’t make good decisions. She was drinking.

We hear thousands of sexual assault stories coming out of the #MeToo movement. It makes us uncomfortable, afraid. We might remember an instance when we sexually coerced someone. But just in time, the just-world phenomenon kicks in: She had it coming. She slept around. She would have slept with someone else anyway.
America, we should be better than this by now. Sexual assault is one of the only crimes where we continually doubt the accuser, humiliate her, and question her truth and agency.

Take, for instance, the case of Christine Blasey Ford. President Trump’s reaction: “Why didn’t someone call the FBI 36 years ago?" She had it coming.
That thinking is wrong. We know it's wrong. In today’s day and age, as a feminist woman, I ask us to stop our accusatory thoughts aligning with the just-world phenomenon.

Instead of asking why Christine Blasey Ford didn’t tell authorities she was assaulted, we should be asking ourselves why Brett Kavanaugh didn’t tell his parents or an authority that he assaulted someone. Are our expectations so low that we don’t even think to ask this question?

We believe male sexual assault victims speaking out against the Catholic Church, even 30 years later. Why? Because the strong backlash against rape survivors has more to do with a person’s identity — their gender, race, and sexual orientation — than with the details of the actual event. We need to believe women. And women of color. And queer women.
We need to take them seriously. We need to do away with our common practice of questioning every move she made, to do away with our tendency to blame the victim.

Why? Because this strategy is failing us. Instead of helping us feel safe, it is hindering our progression as a just and equitable nation — a nation where women who have been sexually assaulted can come forward and know they’ll be believed regardless of circumstance, a society where men who perpetrate sexual assault will come forward to disclose and admit their actions.

America, we can do this. I believe in you.

Vicki Burns, the writer of this piece, is a faculty member at the Center for Women's and Gender Studies at Florida International University. The opinion is hers and not that of FIU. Reach her on Twitter at @drvickiburns.
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