CONTENT WARNING: This episode has frequent mentions of victim blaming when it comes to sexual assaults. It also has a section containing implied childhood sexual abuse. We also talk about abusive relationships near the end, and why people may stay in them.
This episode discusses "victim blaming" and the problems it carries. It talks about how victim blaming is not just about sexual assault survivors, but about any and all types of trauma. It then talks about how victim blaming can impact abusive relationships and discusses some reasons an abused person may not leave.
Sean: Before we begin, I’d like to give a quick warning that this episode has frequent mentions of victim blaming when it comes to sexual assaults. It also has a section containing implied childhood sexual abuse. We also talk about abusive relationships near the end, and why people may stay in them.
April: Hello! Thanks for listening to “Trauma: Let’s Talk About It.” I’m April!
Sean: And I’m Sean. In our last episode, we talked a bit about what trauma was, and now we’re going to talk about one of the reasons that trauma can be so hard to talk about. This episode is going to be focused on Victim Blaming. I think that to start, we will talk about what victim blaming is. So, what exactly is victim blaming?
April: Victim blaming is when someone is a victim of violence or abuse, and someone else questions them about what they could have done to prevent what happened. Someone being victim-blamed generally is treated as if what happened to them was actually their fault.
For example, in a domestic violence situation, this might look like questioning why someone stayed or stays with the person abusing them. You may have also heard victim blaming when it comes to victims of sexual assault by bringing up that the victim was “flirting” with their assailant.
Sean: That doesn’t sound great. Why would the person who went through the trauma be the one being questioned like they were at fault?
April: It often comes from a place of fear. People are afraid of being assaulted, and want to believe assaults happen due to the actions of the victims. They want to believe if they just avoid making what they perceive as “mistakes” the victims made, they won’t possibly be assaulted themselves. For instance, they might believe if they never walk at night, they will never be attacked.
Sean: That doesn’t really make sense, though. I mean, lots of people get attacked in all kinds of different places, at all different times of day. Is that the only reason for victim blaming?
April: Not at all. Some other reasons for victim blaming might be a belief that a survivor “actually wanted it” and just regrets their actions afterward, or a belief that a survivor “led them on” and the attacker misunderstood, or was driven to a point where no one could blame them for being unable to control themselves.
Sean: That point about misunderstanding things makes me think about the way women are often put in a “no win” situation, like for example a woman may be shamed for belong alone with a man who assaults them, but then also shamed for not being willing to be alone with a man because they “aren’t giving him a chance.”
April: Very true. Like how often people are shamed for giving “soft nos” like telling someone they’re busy, but then also shamed if they say “no” outright because it’s seen as rude.
Sean: It definitely feels like there’s some “no win” situations out there, and even if people have reasons behind their victim-blaming, it’s still not okay.
April: It’s definitely not okay. A survivor is never at fault. It doesn’t matter what circumstances led to what happened to them. The fault is always on the perpetrator.
Sean: We had someone write in and ask “Is it okay to blame someone for being sexually abused because of the clothing they were wearing?”
April: I’m happy that’s being asked because it’s something that I think is important to use as an example, since one of the things we hear often is “look at what they’re wearing.” It doesn’t matter what a person is wearing. Even if a person was completely naked, they would still not be at fault if they were sexually assaulted.
Sean: That’s an interesting way to put it. It is really important the blame is put onto the offender and not the victim.
April: It is so important. Blaming the victim may make it harder for them to come forward if they choose. I’ll take a moment here to briefly say that reporting should always be up to a survivor, and a survivor is not wrong whether they choose to report or not. I won’t go into too much detail because there will be an episode dedicated to why a survivor shouldn’t be pressured to report, why it’s valid whether they report or don’t, and other information about it.
Sean: I really don’t like the idea of people doing things which make survivors have a harder time reporting what happened to them. But I know you’re right, and I’ve heard plenty of stories of people testifying against their attackers, who are questioned about whether they truly didn’t want something to happen.
There were a lot of reasons given, like that they didn’t punch and kick their attacker, or got drunk, or just were alone with someone who the survivor thought they could trust.
April: I won’t go into details, but when I reported my childhood abuser, the defense used victim blaming tactics despite the fact that most people would think a child is never at fault, even those who regularly victim blame.
The defense forced me to draw a layout of the house, and used it as “proof” that I could have shouted for help if I wanted to. When I got assaulted later in life, this sick feeling stuck with me. If I got ridiculed and blamed on the stand for stuff that happened as a child, what would it be like testifying about something that happened when I was an adult, and how badly would I be blamed?
Sean: That’s awful that you had to go through that. I know it’s the defense’s job to do whatever they can for their client, but that doesn’t make it any easier for you. I can really see how that would make you worry about being blamed for an attack on you when you were older.
And that’s so wrong, because in a perfect world, the justice system should be there to help survivors… not make them afraid that reporting an assault will just get them more terrible treatment.
April: Victim blaming can also make offenders rationalize it in their own minds that what they are doing isn’t “that bad.” In some cases, it allows them to completely avoid being held accountable for their actions. Victim blaming can also increase feelings of shame, and guilt and it can have a negative effect on a survivor’s healing. The ridicule some survivors hear can also be traumatizing in itself.
Sean: Wow. I hadn’t thought about it that way. That’s really terrible, and incredibly unfair to people who have already been through trauma.
April: I want to also stop and talk for a moment about how when people think of victim blaming, they usually assume it’s always about sexual assault survivors, and in a lot of cases, that is true. However, people can be victim-blamed for all sorts of trauma including: emotional abuse, bullying, physical abuse and other various traumas. Being traumatized is never your fault.
Sean: We had another question come in from someone, and the question is “I feel like victim blaming-related trauma is not understood by therapists. I often feel therapists don't realise how important it is to validate the frustration and anger towards externalised causes of a negative experience - systemic injustice/unfairness/abusive behaviours BEFORE delving into your trauma-related behaviours such as anxiety, abandonment, anger as states which require individual responsibility and acknowledgement to change. What do you think?”
April: That’s a really good point. If you’re listening to us right now, thank you for sending this question in. It’s important to talk about how victim blaming can come from therapists and other medical professionals. You are absolutely right that it is important to validate someone’s feelings about experiences. Not validating those things can make someone feel they’re wrong or not valid. A therapist needs to realize that while someone’s actions might not be healthy or right, the person’s feelings themselves are not inherently bad and are always valid, and they deserve that validation.
Sean: I agree. I feel like if a therapist doesn’t validate a survivor’s feelings about the external causes of an experience, it might make them question whether those external things were causes, or if the blame should fall on the survivor. This seems like it could make it harder to heal from trauma.
April: Definitely. Survivors deserve to be able to talk about their trauma without fearing they will be blamed for it. On the other hand, survivors should never be pressured into talking about their trauma when they don’t want to, or sharing things about it which they don’t want to share. When survivors are pressured like that, it can be traumatizing and often just makes healing harder.
When a survivor is ready to talk about it, that’s when they need the space to talk without being judged - even if they did something others would deem “bad” or “foolish” leading up to their trauma. Even if their trauma could have been avoided, the truth is that most things could be avoided in hindsight but it’s so different when you’re actually in the moment.
Sean: That’s true. And even if there was something a survivor could have done differently, that doesn’t make it their fault. None of us has perfect judgement, but the only one who is responsible for an attack is the attacker. And if we shame survivors or make them feel it’s “unpleasant” or “awkward” for them to talk about what happened to them, this helps to enforce a world where people get away with things which they shouldn’t get away with.
April: And that is not the world I want to live in. That’s a world where survivors are told they should stay silent, because holding a perpetrator responsible risks “ruining their life.” And I’m sorry, but if someone traumatized me and made my life significantly worse, I shouldn’t be responsible for protecting them. They are the ones who harmed me, and if they didn’t want other people to hear about it and possibly make them face consequences, they should have controlled themselves and not done what they did.
Sean: I completely agree. Sometimes the culture which leads to victim blaming upholds the belief that the person who committed a terrible act just “made a mistake” or is “not a bad person.” But even if these things are true, it doesn’t make what they did okay. This is another reason for victim blaming - to make the person who did something more “innocent” because the victim “deserved it.”
April: Yes, there’s a real feeling of that underneath a lot of victim blaming. It fits in with what some people have called the “just world hypothesis.” This is the belief that if you’re good, good things will happen to you, and if bad things happen to you, it’s because you’ve been bad. Many people want to blame victims so that they can believe “oh, that only happened to them because they were bad. But I’m good, so I’ll never have to go through that.”
Sean: It reminds me of how people who are in abusive relationships are blamed because it’s assumed they could “just leave” when it’s not nearly that simple.
April: It is so much more complicated than people realize. There are many reasons a person may stay with someone abusing them, whether they’re being abused physically, sexually, emotionally or otherwise.
I won’t go into all of them, but one reason is that the person may not realize the relationship is abusive because they’ve been conditioned to see it as normal or deserved. This may be the result of previous trauma. In a lot of abusive relationships, the abuser is not abusive at first and gradually brings abusive behaviours into the relationship subtly, so they’re not easily noticed.
Sean: You’re right. Abusers often don’t show how bad they are until they feel like it will be difficult for the other person to leave, perhaps not until after they are married or the other person is financially dependent on them.
April: And in a lot of cases, the person being abused has had their self-esteem whittled away, which makes it hard to think about starting fresh. They may genuinely believe no one would want them or help them. Abusers often isolate their victims, cutting them off from family and friends. In cases where the abuse is all emotional, people may not even realize they’re being abused, because people often downplay their abuse because it’s not “physical.” I want you to know that emotional abuse is just as valid and can be just as traumatizing as any other type of abuse.
Sean: That’s true. People often think of abuse as only physical abuse, but it can be just as traumatizing whether it’s emotional abuse, financial abuse, or any other type of abuse or even a combination of multiple types.
April: You’re 100% right and in all types of abuse, the person being abused may minimize what happened. In a lot of cases, an abuser will make a person question what happened, rewriting history to make themselves look innocent. They may do something nice, and apologize, promising it’ll never happen again. They may also apologize in a way that implies the abused was at fault for the abuse.
For example, the abuser may say “I’m so sorry, but you know how angry I get when you do that…” More victim blaming, with a purpose to make the abused person question whether they deserved it. This may make the abused person minimize the behaviour, and say to themselves or others, “I should have known not to do that thing which set them off.” A lot of the time, this is part of the abuser’s manipulation, to make the abused person take some of the blame on themself. But the abuser always has the choice to control themselves and avoid abusing someone.
Sean: All of this and we haven’t even talked about how in a lot of cases, it may be too dangerous for someone to leave. Many abused people don't have strong support from those around them or the legal system. There may also be limited community support for them. They often go back to their abuser because they feel like they cannot make it on their own.
It has been shown that the average abused person tries to leave seven times before they break up for good. They also may end up getting harmed or killed by their abuser. It has been shown that the most dangerous time for an abuse victim is after they attempt to leave their abuser.
April: Those are some really good points. It can also be really complicated because they’ve shared a life together for so long. There may be financial ties or other ties that make it hard to get away from the relationship. Not to mention, there may be a fear of how others react, which brings us back to the problem of victim blaming again…
Sean: Victim blaming is such a prevalent issue, for both men and women. Men may be shamed if they are assaulted, even told that “Assault can’t happen to men” or “only weak men get assaulted.”
April: That’s true, and something I’ve unfortunately heard way too much… Not to mention that men being abused in relationships is not usually taken seriously.
Sean: In most cases of domestic violence, the people being abused are women. However, it is not talked about enough how men may also be victims of relationship violence. Men deal with many of the same stigmas that prevent them from reporting or getting support, but they also usually deal with people saying that men cannot be abused in relationships at all, whether it’s a relationship with another man, a woman, or a person of another gender.
Men may be told they are weak for not “standing up to their woman,” while also finding they are the ones who get arrested if they do try to fight back or just physically stop a physically abusive partner.
April: This makes me think of how some abusive behaviours from women to men are actively encouraged. Like how it’s shown as a “funny” thing to see a woman hitting a man, or it’s normalized to encourage a woman to stalk a man’s every move without him being aware of it.
Sean: It’s important to note that a lot of abusive behaviour in general is “normalized” and it isn’t just about men being abused by women. There is abusive behaviour that’s normalized in relationships with women being abused by men, or in gay relationships or honestly, relationships between people of any gender. There is also abusive behaviour that’s normalized as a whole.
April: One example is jealousy and it can apply to people of any gender. Most people want to feel the person they are in a relationship with values them and wants to show they are a better partner than others could be, but jealousy can easily lead to abusive behaviour, even if it’s not intentional.
This may include constantly stepping over their partner’s boundaries when they want to have alone time, or cutting them off from their friends because they aren’t trusted to be around their friends or it’s seen as a betrayal to “choose friends”, or blowing up at them and accusing them of things because it took them five minutes longer than usual to get home. Many people being abused find they are constantly accused of cheating, and spend a lot of time trying to convince their partner they don’t cheat - whether there is reason to believe they would, or not.
Sean: No matter what someone’s gender is, they should never be victim blamed. And they and their experiences are completely valid.
April: You are so right. Victim blaming has so many issues, and honestly doesn’t help anyone but abusers and attackers. And this leads to them not being held accountable, which contains its own set of problems. In all honesty, we’ve said quite a bit more than I intended, but I think it was all really important and I’m happy we covered as much as we did today.
Sean: I am too. It’s a topic that needs to be talked about more than it is, because the issues that arise with victim-blaming are so prevalent and contribute to a culture where victims are blamed for their own trauma, while attackers get away without consequences. I think this is a good spot to tie up the episode.
April: I think you’re right. Thank you for listening to us on “Trauma: Let’s Talk About It.” Please remember that being traumatized is never your fault, and your trauma is valid.
Sean: You can find more information about trauma and the social media that we are on through our website, www. “for (that’s f o r) traumasurvivors.com.” The link is in the podcast description. Thanks for listening. Until next time.