April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and today is the first international day to End Victim Blaming. Victim blaming occurs when a victim of sexual assault is mistakenly accused of being at fault because of what they were wearing, how intoxicated they were, their sexual history, or their prior relationship or knowledge of their assailant. Victim blaming is at the core of rape culture and rape prevention pedagogy. Women and girls are taught to dress conservatively and drink responsibly in order to prevent being assaulted. One of many examples of this is to the left. The PA Liquor Board felt it would be effective to scare young women about drinking by linking it with being raped. That’s how normalized victim blaming is. This ad is suggesting that by drinking, you’re just waiting to be sexually assaulted and that the responsibility for your assault lays completely in your hands. Pretty enabling for rape culture and patriarchy, right?
The far less frequent lesson taught to us is that rapists shouldn’t rape and that a woman’s dress, sexual history, intoxication, and reputation have absolutely nothing to do with consent. This logical and responsible message was popularized on a broad scale only this past year with the emergence of the Slut Walk movement, but it still remains a feminist undercurrent for the most part.
When I was sexually assaulted two years ago, feminists that I trusted to not blame me for my own rape asked me what I was wearing, how much I’d had to drink and even suggested that it was “just an accident.” After watching my hands shake uncontrollably for a day and not being able to walk comfortably for a few days, I was also told that I needed to be more careful. My therapist even told me that it was merely a “regrettable sexual experience.” Excuse me?
Victim-blaming is so engrained in our response to sexual assault that even some of my progressive, feminist, and highly educated friends borrowed from its rhetoric. Hell, even a psychologist victim-blamed me. Fortunately, I did have friends that listened to me and trusted my words as the absolute truth. They encouraged me to seek help and report my assault, but the victim-blaming I was initially bombarded with–from peers and professionals–prevented me from initially really believing that what happened to me was sexual assault. So I didn’t report it and I’ve never talked to a counselor about it since that first time.
One of the things I love most about feminism is its ability to help us heal. I encourage victims of sexual assault to seek out the help and resources that they need to heal and work through their trauma–and to probably not take after my reluctance to talk to a counselor about it, but would also like to note the healing power of feminist activism around issues of sexual violence. For me, there is nothing more healing than directly helping victims of sexual assault in some capacity or more generally working toward a society free of victim-blaming and rape. This helps to chip away at the victim piece of the equation and begin to build the survivor piece.