Have you ever blamed yourself for some horrible thing that happened to you? When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45, I immediately started to wonder what I had done to cause my body to betray me like that. Maybe I’d eaten the wrong foods or not taken good enough care of my health – I know it wasn’t exactly logical, but I needed to find a cause and “me, myself, and I” turned out to be a convenient target. Thank God that my pastor, now of blessed memory, responded forcefully. “Don’t even go there,” he said, shutting me down before I’d gotten more than a few words out of my mouth. “You are not to blame.” He told me that bad things happen sometimes for no good reason and I should focus on my healing and not waste energy blaming myself. That was that for me. I trusted him so much that I stopped blaming myself right then and there.
A Culture of Victim Blaming
What does this have to do with victims of rape on college campuses? Rape is a really, really bad thing and rape victims desperately want to understand why this awful thing happened to them. The news coming out of college campuses seems full of accusations and rumors of college women being victimized by their classmates. Just as I did after my cancer diagnosis, victims can make the same mistake I did and blame themselves. It doesn’t help that too often the response they get from the culture around them blames them too. The term “rape culture” is being used because it conveys that the problem of rape is compounded after the assault when victim suffering is denied and perpetrators excused. What rape victims need – especially young, vulnerable college-age women – is a response as forceful and believable to them as my pastor’s was for me. To their credit, college campuses are wrestling with finding the right combination of policies and responses to convey loud and clear, “You are not to blame.”
Counseling services and the formation of student support groups on campus have gone a long way toward removing the stigma of blame from victims. And many campuses have for years honored the risk of post-traumatic responses by including so-called “trigger warnings” on syllabuses. These warnings alert students to reading assignments, movies, or discussions that might trigger a post-traumatic response. Students can choose to opt out of those classes and/or assignments, which goes a long way toward honoring their stories and demonstrating concern for their wounds. Survivor groups have also reacted strongly when other types of triggers are not acknowledged appropriately by the university. For example, a debate on the Brown University campus about the term “rape culture” included one panelist who was likely to criticize the term, which ignited protests from a student group seeking to make the campus a safe place for rape victims. The university agreed to create a safe place on campus for victims to recover from the trauma of having their viewpoints “invalidated.”
Rape as Scapegoating
Having their viewpoints “invalidated” is exactly what the perpetrator of the assault did to them, which is why victims react so strongly to anything that remotely reenacts the trauma. Trigger events follow the same structure used by the rapist, a structure best understood as a form of scapegoating. Like all scapegoating events, rapists and their victims find themselves in a role reversal in which innocence and guilt are inverted. You see, like all scapegoaters rapists believe they are good, morally upright people. Their faith in their goodness is so complete that even the tears and protests of their victims cannot shake it. Being insensitive to the suffering they are causing, they commit the most horrible atrocities without ever doubting their own goodness. And like all scapegoats, rape victims experience the brutality and cruelty of an assailant who is deaf to their protests. Because the perpetrator’s faith in his own innocence is so complete, the victim faces the very real risk of playing the role assigned to her: If the perpetrator is innocent, then the victim must be the guilty one.
So allow me to offer three bits of advice to help end victim blaming that I hope victims, their families and friends, and perhaps university administrators will find helpful.
Believe in Your Innocence
Coming to believe in your own innocence may be the hardest thing you do. As I explained, there’s a good reason for how you feel, so please don’t blame yourself for blaming yourself. As I hope you can see, blaming the victim is part of the scapegoating mechanism that you have been drawn into against your will. You didn’t want this to happen, you didn’t cause it, and you are not to blame.
Don’t Try to Cure Your Oppressor
Victim demands for apologies or restitution from abusers or from anyone triggering a post-traumatic response can seem reasonable, even just. But if you get too caught up in demanding apologies or seeking change in others, your identity may become tied into being over against others. In my case, many well-meaning friends of mine invited me to join them in breast cancer awareness walks and to join “survivor” support groups. But I resisted because I wanted breast cancer to be something that had happened to me, not something that defined me. It may be that being against rape culture and victim blaming helps you recover your faith in your own innocence, but please be aware of the risk of your identity becoming too dependent on being over against perpetrators. And even worse, that your own healing becomes a function of curing your oppressors. You cannot control how others respond to you, but you can refuse to allow their response to dictate who you are.
Don’t Become a Scapegoater
This is the advice that is rarely offered to rape victims because it can sound like victim blaming. But I humbly offer it here because it is essential to the completion of the healing process. Innocent victims need to be very aware that though they are indeed the innocent person in the event of their rape that does not earn them a free pass in all other circumstances. Victims are still human beings and all human beings are prone to scapegoating – it’s just a reality we all need to be conscious of. How does that play out for rape victims? Well, if you have an unshakeable faith in the goodness and truth of your experience, then it can lead you to discount or deny the validity of other perspectives and experiences. Especially when it comes to your reactions to “triggers,” it’s good to step back and ask yourself if you are being fair and kind to the people or ideas that you want to avoid or silence. Shutting down a perspective you find invalidating brings you dangerously close to mirroring the behavior of your abuser and nobody wants that, especially you. You will need to find the right balance for you between your need for a compassionate hearing for your story and being able to listen compassionately to others.
If you found this advice helpful, I hope you will share it with others who might benefit from it. I would especially like to hear from you if you have any other helpful suggestions for victims of abuse or those in positions of authority in universities trying to make their campuses safer places for all their students. What policies or programs do you think universities should consider implementing?