by Melissa Bonnici
Violence is often imagined as a dichotomous experience, with the perpetrator on one end and the victim on the other. However, violence is more complex than that. Responses to violence on an individual and societal level can facilitate violence or create environments in which violence is acceptable or even encouraged. I know this is not surprising; this is the reason we have laws, police forces, and prisons. However, what we often overlook is the way we respond to disclosures of violence, particularly sexual violence.
Sexual violence is unique in that any crime under this umbrella term is a crime that often incites blame when a victim or survivor discloses it. When a survivor/victim tells a family member, friend, or another trusted person, they are often told the violence was their fault.
To a woman: “Why were you walking alone?” “You shouldn’t have been drinking!” “Well, what were you wearing?”
To a man: “Why didn’t you want it?” “Why couldn’t you fight them off?”
To a member of the LGBTQ community: “Well if you weren’t lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans/queer, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Or, a gender-neutral response: “I don’t believe you.”
This list is by no means exhaustive of the type of responses people get, but these responses do happen. Trust me, in my course of volunteer hotline work, I have talked to people who have experienced sexual violence, and I often hear that the chat with me was the first time they weren’t blamed for what happened.
Now a lot of people may recognize how horrible and traumatic these responses would be for a survivor/victim, but what they may not see is when we blame victims for what happened, we are actually helping perpetrators and facilitating an environment in which sexual violence receives impunity.
First, because blaming the victim/survivor is a great way to deter them from reporting. Reporting would mean putting them at risk of getting blamed or disbelieved again, and if their best friend, parent, sibling didn’t believe them, why would authorities?
Second, by blaming the victim/survivor, we are not making sexual violence unacceptable but rather those actions unacceptable (walking alone, drinking, wearing revealing clothing), or, in the case where no one believed them, even telling someone about a violent event. The perpetrator gets off the hook, both in that survivor/victim’s social circles but also on a legal level.
A lot of parents firmly believe that their child would never sexually assault someone. While I would still encourage them to talk to their children about consent, a lot of these parents will be right. However, I believe we need to consider that their child can still play a role in creating an environment in which sexual violence is unacceptable. We can start by teaching our children – and ourselves – what a supportive response to a disclosure is.