I have seen it in the media. I have heard it. I have seen survivors believe it. And sadly, I have been guilty of it...
Victim blaming is a devaluing act where the victim of a crime, an accident, or any type of abusive maltreatment is held as wholly or partially responsible for the wrongful conduct committed against them.
It seems like this would be something that we as a society would be more aware of, somehow more evolved as to avoid this misrepresentation, but, unfortunately, victim blaming is alive and well. It is ever-present in casual conversations, the media, and even from survivors who have been made to believe the lie.
What victim blaming looks like
The following are examples of what blaming statements look like. While the list can be almost infinite, these provide a sense of how easy it is for blaming to be perpetuated. Let's explore the following blaming statements a little closer to discover the underlying truth in these lies.
"They both have issues. They both are at fault."
We all have problems. However, when it comes to domestic violence, there is almost always a primary aggressor. Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior, and that behavior originates from somewhere. In turn, the victim also establishes a pattern of coping with the abuse, whether healthy or unhealthy (think substance use, self-defense, etc.). The Center for Relational Abuse Awareness notes the danger in presuming mutual abuse as it trivializes the abuse and results in the abuser not being held accountable for their actions. In addition, it disempowers the victim and they are less likely to seek support. Abuse is a choice. Failing to recognize and identify it accurately serves no one.
"She must have provoked him into being abusive. They both need to change."
When we peel back the layers of this statement, we find an issue similar to the previous statement: the assumption has been made that the victim is equally at fault for the abusive behavior. Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior used to gain power and control over the victim. Again, abusive behavior is a choice made by the abuser and is never the victim's fault.
"Why didn't they just leave if they were being abused?"
I have learned during my time at DVCCC that leaving a domestic violence situation is not as simple as it may appear. Leaving might mean becoming homeless, giving up access to financial resources, and leaving children or pets behind. Abusers may use threats of harm, manipulation, and other tactics to deter a victim from leaving. In fact, in many cases, leaving is more dangerous than staying. More than 70% of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has gotten out.
"They can't tell their story the same way twice. It probably isn't true."
Trauma can be complex and is an individual experience. The Family Justice Center Alliance notes that "once a person has been traumatized, it may become extremely challenging to truly express the full impact the incident has had on their life. They become fearful of reliving the experience." The trauma response has an impact on an individual's ability to recount details of abuse, resulting in varying details being present at different times.
"She knew how he was but still married him. What did she expect?
Leslie Morgan Steiner speaks in her TED Talk about marrying her abuser. She loved him and thought love would be enough to stop the abuse. This, sadly, was not the case. Abuse tends to grow incrementally. I have spoken to many survivors who shared that they didn't recognize the person they had become. They didn't realize the situation they were in until they were trapped by it. Abusers are masters of manipulation who gradually take power away until the victim has no way out.
How do we support survivors?
Reflecting on the blaming statements and realizing the prevalence of their belief affirms that there is still much work to be done when it comes to victim blaming. While DVCCC promotes a supportive and non-judgemental environment to empower survivors to heal, YOU can also make a difference.
Make sure victims feel heard.
Validate their experience.
Remember that trauma impacts all of us differently.
Let survivors know that what happened to them is not their fault.
do not let perpetrators blame their victim, alcohol, or drugs for their behavior.
Do not expect the victim to act the way you think a victim should act.
Help connect them to appropriate resources.
Recognize that part of the brain's response to trauma is to block out certain memories.
Confront victim blaming when you hear it.
To remedy domestic violence in our community, it is essential that we understand the role victim blaming plays in the perpetuation of abuse. Recognizing the root of victim blaming will empower us to change the conversation. Rather than blaming the victim, we should begin to ask:
"Why did they act so violently?"
"Why does this person batter?"
"What can we do to stop this behavior?"
"What can we do to provide immediate and enduring safety from abuse?"
Blaming victims only perpetuates the power and control the abuser wields, disempowering the victim. Changing the conversation is essential to addressing domestic violence in our community. It begins with me. It continues with you.
Melissa Baxter is the COO at the Domestic Violence Center of Chester County. She has more than 20 years of non-profit experience with an emphasis in behavioral health, residential services, and quality management. She has her BS in Health & Human Development and MS in Non-Profit Management. She serves as an internal leader for the organization including oversight of the counseling, housing, shelter, hotline, children’s programs, and development operations. Melissa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.