One of the major factors that impede the eradication of violence against women (VAW) in communities and cultures worldwide is victim blaming. Victim-blaming norms place the blame for domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault squarely on the victim while absolving the perpetrator from guilt or fault. This toxic and insidious attitude is rooted in the patriarchy and is set in place long before any attack is carried out. For example: adults admonishing girls and young women not to drink when they go out, school policies that police what girls wear so that they do not distract boys at school, the slut shaming of women who have premarital sex in conservative cultures, and girls being taught to avoid public spaces after dark.
This culture of saddling women and girls with the sole responsibility for their own safety not only restricts and hinders their daily lives, but also has devastating consequences for victims in cases of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Judges in rape trials across the world have asked victims why they couldn’t “keep their knees together” or if they had tried “closing [their] legs”. In domestic violence cases, judges and lawyers use victim-blaming terms such as “volatile relationship” and “jealous anger” to minimise the accountability of men who abuse their wives and partners. And in high-profile cases like Amber Heard’s divorce from Johnny Depp for his abusive behaviour and in the Chris Brown-Rihanna domestic violence case, many fans (including female fans) rush to defend their male idols while shaming the victims despite indisputable evidence of abuse. As Rihanna noted in an interview: “The victim gets punished over and over.”
The challenge with dismantling victim-blaming attitudes lies in the fact that it is so pervasive that most people do it automatically. From refusing to believe a domestic violence victim by saying ‘I wasn’t there so I don’t know’ to teaching girls to avoid alcohol when they socialise, putting the onus on women to avoid abuse is a knee-jerk reaction for many people.
In this 16 For 16 article, we present 16 actionable ideas as a starting point to inspire you to to stop victim blaming, whether it’s adjusting your own behaviour, holding a perpetrator responsible for his behaviour, changing your community’s attitude towards victim blaming, or helping a victim or survivor.
It’s time to stop violence against women. Together.
Written, researched, and compiled by Regina Yau.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #1: Begin by Believing
Silence surrounds domestic and sexual violence in society because victim blaming and shaming makes it a taboo topic for discussion. When victims try to speak out, they encounter disbelief and dismissal from family and friends. So when a friend or family member tells you that she is being abused by her husband or partner or that she has been raped, believe her. Even if the perpetrator is your friend or another family member, believe her. And let her know that you believe her.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #2: Repeat After Me: “It Is Not Your Fault.”
Assure the victim that it is not her fault and reinforce this by listening to what she says about her experience. When telling their story, it is normal for some victims to sometimes attribute part of the blame to themselves because they too have internalised victim-blaming norms. If this is the case, continue listening but also consistently reassure her that it is not her fault. If other people blame the victim, speak up to remind them and emphasise that it is not her fault.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #3: Hold The Perpetrator Accountable
People who are abusive or violent towards others often try to explain away or rationalise their actions by blaming their victim. If you hear a perpetrator saying this, do not believe him. If you are in a position to push back, do so by verbally repeating his actions to him and reminding him that he alone decided to abuse, assault, or rape his victim when there were other choices of action available. Do not let him make excuses like blaming the victim, alcohol, circumstances or drugs for his behaviour. If you can, get help from a rape crisis centre, domestic violence charity or women’s rights organisation in your area to build a case for filing a report with the relevant authorities while providing support and care for the victim.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #4: Challenge The Enablers
Thanks to the pervasiveness of victim-blaming, there will be other people who will believe the perpetrator, especially friends and family members who either cannot reconcile the individual they know with the violent criminal action he took against another person. Oftentimes, they will defend him by lashing out at the victim. When you encounter this, check that the victim is all right (if she is present) and then remind the victim-blamers that it was the perpetrator who made the choice to abuse or rape and counter every victim blaming excuse they make for him.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #5: Mind Your Language
One of the ways in which we perpetuate victim blaming is the way we talk about it. Typically, language surrounding domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault focuses our attention on the victim instead of the perpetrator. For example: it is common for many people to talk about the case as “Mary was raped” or “Mary is a rape victim”. This subtly cuts out the perpetrator from the discussion while putting the victim in the spotlight. So be mindful of the way you talk about VAW cases. Try using an active sentence such as “James raped Mary” to make sure the blame stays where it should stay – with the perpetrator.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #6: Ask The Right Questions
When there is news about domestic violence, rape, or sexual assault, the first question many people often ask is: “What was she wearing?”, “Was she drinking too much?” or “What did she do to provoke him?”. These questions generally go unchallenged because of victim-blaming culture and the belief that women are responsible for their own safety. Instead of going with the flow, ask the hard questions that get to the heart of the crime and puts the spotlight back on the perpetrator such as “Why did he rape her?” and “What is law enforcement/the judiciary doing to hold the perpetrator accountable?”.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #7: Turn It Into A Teachable Moment
There are a number of typical questions and assumptions that are expressed by people when they hear about a VAW case. These range from “Why was she out so late at night anyway?” to “She must have provoked him into being abusive. They both need to change”. Use these attempts to displace accountability onto the victim as an opportunity to school the people who say them about VAW and the importance of holding the perpetrator accountable for his actions. Not sure where to begin? Here’s a great starter resource which helps answer many typical accountability-interrupting questions.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #8: Hold The Media Accountable
The way the media reports about VAW is a major factor in upholding and perpetuating victim-blaming culture. A 2015 study into the international reporting of violence against women has found that media often sensationalises domestic violence against women and shifts the focus away from the perpetrator. If you see your local or national newspaper or news channel reporting on VAW cases in this way, call them out on it and challenge them to do better. Some of the ways you can do that include writing a public letter to the editor or starting an online petition asking them to rethink their approach.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #9: Hold The Judiciary Accountable
One of the most damaging influences of victim blaming is the judges presiding over VAW cases who hold victim-blaming attitudes themselves. Such attitudes frequently result in abusers and rapists walking free or being handed extremely lightweight sentences. Such verdicts re-traumatise victims and legitimise victim blaming. Take action against this in various ways by protesting unfair verdicts and victim-blaming behaviour by judges through petitions and open letters, and taking action to get the judge to be recalled or disciplined as the residents of Palo Alto and Stanford University students did in the Brock Turner case.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #10: Call Out Rape Jokes
One of the ways in which victim-blaming attitudes are normalised is through rape jokes. By making light of rape and sexual assault, these jokes trivialise the trauma that survivors face by making rape and rape survivors a laughing stock for public amusement. The most basic way you can challenge rape jokes is by calling it out immediately – state that it makes you uncomfortable, state why it makes you uncomfortable, and ask the person making the joke to consider the negative effects of the joke. For example: “I know a few rape survivors. This joke isn’t funny. How would you feel if you were raped and someone made fun of your trauma?”.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #11: Vote With Your Wallet
Pop culture reflects the beliefs, moods, and norms of wider society. So it is no surprise that VAW appears in books, comics, music, movies, comedy, TV series, fashion, social media and even advertisements. Rape in particular is often treated as a convenient plot device, even going as far as to portray the rapist in a sympathetic light. In a number of very popular movies and TV series, rape and sexual assault are normalised and even used for comedic effect. And a number of advertising agencies still produce ads that use images and footage of VAW for their clients. The best way to push back? Vote with your wallet – simply refuse to by the products sold by companies, artists, designers, and creators who contribute to the narrative of rape culture and victim blaming or get advertisers to pull their ad spend or sponsorship of the product. And get your friends to join you in this boycott.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #12: Get Educated About Violence Against Women (VAW)
Many people fall back on victim blaming because they buy into the myths surrounding VAW. These include false assumptions such as “If she doesn’t fight back, then it isn’t rape” or “If he was violent, why doesn’t she have bruises?”. This leads to the victim being treated with suspicion or not being taken seriously if she isn’t the “perfect victim” who fought back against her rapist or who is visibly abused by her partner. Begin proactively addressing any victim-blaming tendencies you may have by learning about VAW, how to recognise signs of abuse, and why rapists rape. Check out the websites of anti-VAW organisations like The Pixel Project to get information and resources to start you off.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #13: Get Educated About Consent
Recognising the importance of sexual consent in relationships and learning how to check for consent before sex is a crucial part of preventing rape and sexual assault. However, this topic is still not widely taught as part of sex education in schools worldwide. As such, many people (even adults) still do not understand what consent looks like. One of the consequences of this lack of awareness about what consent is and looks like is that many people falsely assume that a victim consents to violence when she fails to fight back or to tell the perpetrator to stop. To avoid making this assumption that directly feeds into victim blaming, take the initiative to learn about consent – what it looks like, how to tell when consent is absent, and how to recognise situations when consent is impossible.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #14: Start With The Kids
No child is born knowing how to victim-blame. They learn to victim-blame from the adults around them – sometimes by observing and absorbing victim-blaming behaviour as the norm, sometimes by directly being taught to do so (and enabled) by their parents, teachers, coaches and other adults. If you have kids or if you work with kids, take action to teach them about the importance of consent, gender equality, and respecting women and girls. Talk to your sons and the boys you teach or mentor about why VAW is wrong and how to speak up when their peers make light of VAW. Acknowledge that you are a role model for the children around you whether you like it or not and make sure to set a good example of not victim blaming when discussing high profile VAW cases in your community and in the media.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #15: Get Your Community Educated
A good start to eradicating victim-blaming attitudes from your community or neighbourhood is to start educating as many people as possible about VAW and the importance of supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable regardless of their standing in the community. This can be done in collaboration with your local rape crisis centre, domestic violence nonprofit, women’s organisation or police community outreach officers who can work with the community, local schools and local companies to organise and implement talks, townhall meetings and other group sessions to talk about this issue.
Suggestion for Smashing Victim Blaming #16: And Finally – Always Support Victims and Survivors
At the heart of victim blaming is the goal of taking away support for victims and survivors in order to protect the perpetrator. Break that cycle by stepping up to unequivocally support VAW victims and survivors. There are many ways you can do so, including speaking up to intervene when victims and survivors are being shamed or attacked by victim-blamers, helping survivors find the resources that they need to heal and rebuild their lives, and accompanying them to court if they choose to try to bring their attacker to justice. And listen to victims and survivors – always listen and believe victims and survivors.