The intention behind this title isn’t to induce guilt or blame, but to help create accountability for society’s blaming of victims of assault; and every one of us is society. Individualistic societies – such as the one we live in – believe that people are in control of their lives and destinies, and this framework is what allows victim-blaming to flourish.
What Are We Doing Wrong?
Strange as it may sound, assigning blame to the victim gives people a sense of safety because they believe they won’t be victimized if they act a certain way. If someone gets mugged when walking at night, the automatic thought is that they shouldn’t have been walking at night. When a girl gets raped at a party, people automatically wonder how she was dressed or whether she was intoxicated. The center of focus is on the victim and what they could have done differently, both behaviorally and cognitively.
When learning of or witnessing acts of intimate partner violence, whether real or fictionalized, the question many ask is, “Why don’t they leave?” As an outside observer, it’s so easy to make judgements and so hard to imagine the host of intricate reasons that survivors have for not leaving, which include the wishes to live and protect their loved ones. We know that the most dangerous time for those experiencing domestic violence is when they attempt to leave (Domestic Violence and Sexual and Abuse, 2022). There are so many wrongs with this question. For one, it implies that the survivor did something to bring on this violence or didn’t do something to stop it. It translates to, “If this person had self-esteem…boundaries…self-respect…they would not let this happen to them” (Fast & Kinewesquao, 2019).
How Are We Affecting Survivors’ Mental Health?
Victim blaming is the damaging attitude that implies that the survivor of intimate partner violence was in some way responsible for the abuse. Society is bombarding people with negative stereotypes about abuse survivors, including representations in the media, which the survivor then internalizes and believes to be true. Sadly, the disclosure of intimate partner violence can be met with doubt and a blaming response from the survivor’s loved ones, their medical professionals, and the legal system. What ends up happening is survivors internalize the stigma reflected to them by society, which adds to the shame, guilt, confusion, and self-blame that they already feel. Kennedy and Prock (2018) divide self-blame into behavioral, or the feeling that one did not control the situation, and characterological, which makes one’s character responsible for the assault. Behavioral and/or characterological self-blame aggravate guilt and shame, which can cause depression, anxiety, and a worsening of trauma symptoms.
What Can We Do to Support Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence?
We can validate their experiences, cognitions, feelings, and behaviors. This means saying things like, “I believe you,” “You did not contribute to this, your partner made a choice to abuse you,” or “Nobody has a right to hurt you physically, emotionally, or financially.” Survivors of domestic violence can become so accustomed to feeling invalidated by the court system, healthcare providers, friends, and family and that reaction contributes to their self-blame and has a lasting impact on their mental health – even changing the structure and function of their brains. However, when we apply principles of compassion and empathy and validate survivor’s experiences, we can help them heal.
The following resource contains comprehensive information related to domestic violence: warning signs, types of domestic violence, and useful coping strategies/tools. While this information is intended to be helpful, please be aware that its content may be triggering: https://helpingsurvivors.org/domestic-violence-and-sexual-abuse/
This blog was written by Vivianna McKenney – a predoctoral Psychological Associate with California Women’s Therapy. Viviana is currently accepting new clients.
Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse. (2022, December 31). Helping Survivors of Sexual Assault and Abuse. https://helpingsurvivors.org/domestic-violence-and-sexual-abuse/
Kennedy, A. C., & Prock, K. A. (2018). “I still feel like I am not normal”: A review of the role of stigma and stigmatization among female survivors of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(5), 512-527
Fast, E., & Kinewesquao, C. R. (2019). Victim-blaming and the crisis of representation in the violence prevention field. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, 10(1), 3-25