Have you ever had a close friend, family member, or coworker disclose to you that they were sexually assaulted or an abusive relationship? If so, how did you react? What did you say? Have you ever said any of the following phrases?
“I can’t believe you still love him!”
“What did you say before he hit you?”
“You shouldn’t have dressed like that!”
“You should have called the police!”
“Why don’t you just leave?”
“It could have been worse!”
“If you hadn’t been drunk, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
“It’s in the past. Get over it!”
“I told you not to marry him! You should have known it was coming!”
“I am sick and tired of hearing how he beat you. You’re not going to do anything anyway.”
“Maybe you brought it on yourself with your attitude.”
“What’s the point of helping, you just keep going back to him?”
More than likely, you felt bad for that person and desperately and wanted to help, but if you have ever made any of the above or similar statements, you engaged in victim devaluing, blaming, discrediting, and/or minimizing. Even those with the best of intentions often inadvertently negate the feelings and experiences of the abused.
What is wrong with the above responses? For starters, it does not respect the victim’s right to feel how they feel. Feelings are not right or wrong, good or bad. Even when we don’t agree with this person’s perceptions, it is important to accept that this is how they view the situation.
Secondly, by blaming the victim we are taking the responsibility off the shoulders of the abuser. Nobody deserves to be abused – not people who make mistakes, not people who are mentally ill, not people who have addictions, not people who are less intelligent. If mental illness justifies abuse, does that mean your grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease deserves to be abused?
We are all probably aware that our words have power. However, research demonstrates that when it comes to a victim of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), the power of our words may be magnified and have serious repercussions, particularly if one is in a position of power. Power positions can include parents, law enforcement, mental health professionals, judges, case managers, doctors, teachers, and advocates. Even the words of strangers can be very powerful when spoken to victims.
A 2015 study by Murray, Crowe, and Brinkley found that those who experience IPV often feel stigmatized by others through the use of blame, discrediting, shame, and exclusion. Other studies have explained stigmatization as “societal labeling of difference that is rooted in devaluation and linked to stereotyping, status loss, and discrimination in a power context” (Goffman, 1963; Link and Phelan, 2001). When society stigmatizes victims of IPV it is related to perceptions of victims as passive, emotionally dependent, having low self-esteem, inherently flawed and weak, and provoking of their own victimization (Overstreet & Quinn, 2013; Harrison & Esqueda, 1999; Eckstein, 2015).
Another study which looked at stigmatizing social reactions and how it impacted coping strategies and mental health found that when victims who disclosed IPV were met with negative social reactions (minimization, devaluation, blame), they tended to choose an avoidance coping style (avoided being with people in general, daydreamed about better times), as opposed to the healthier coping styles of problem solving or social support. Additionally, these same researchers found that IPV victims who used avoidance coping styles tended to experience more depressive symptoms (Overstreet, Willie, &Sullivan, 2016).
The next time you speak to or about a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, please keep in mind the power of your words. Remember that words do have consequences and can worsen a survivor’s negative symptoms or self-image. When you place blame on a victim, you are removing blame from the actual perpetrator and contributing to a culture that excuses abusive behaviors. As a result, the abuse will continue and society will suffer, in addition to the suffering of victims and their children.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Please join us in our efforts to end victim blaming and visit our “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit. This art installation, using mannequins in outfits that resemble what some of our clients were actually wearing when they were sexually assaulted, seeks to help us examine our own victim blaming tendencies. Each mannequin includes a short summary of the victim’s experience in his or her own words. And powerful words they are!
Peggy Wright, Director of Sexual Assault and Counseling Programs
For more information on our “What Were You Wearing” exhibit, click here.