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Home / Articles / Ending Domestic Violence / What Victim-Blaming Sounds Like

What Victim-Blaming Sounds Like

Five responses that we need to stop perpetuating

What Victim-Blaming Sounds Like

Now more than ever, we could argue that our default mode when hearing the news is to be skeptical. Thanks to the Internet, anyone with wi-fi has a platform to be published. So often, the race to break a story first trumps accuracy, and us readers are left to do the fact-checking on their own.

Which is why, when survivors make the brave decision to come forward with stories of surviving abuse they’re not always met with an overwhelming chorus of support.

That’s too crazy to be true.

He’d never do that—he doesn’t seem like the type. 

She just wants her 15 minutes of fame. 

Whether we Tweet it, type it or merely think it, these types of statements are a form of victim-blaming, also called victim-shaming. And they’re destructive. They retraumatize and degrade survivors. They convince other survivors to stay silent, which in turn allows their perpetrators to get away without consequence. 

They also give abusers more ammunition to use against new victims—See? No one believed her and no one will believe you.

If you think this isn’t you, examine some of these victim-blaming statements below and see if any have ever popped into your mind when you hear about domestic violence.

“But ... isn’t he her boyfriend?”

A friend discloses that she went out on a date with her boyfriend. They’d been seeing each other for a while now. Perhaps they’d even been intimate before. But this time, she says, was different. He was pushy, aggressive, mean. He forced her to do sexual acts she wasn’t comfortable with. He didn’t listen to her protests and wouldn’t stop. Afterward, he pretended like nothing happened. She says she wants to go to the police. She thinks she may have been raped.

“But, isn’t he your boyfriend?” Maybe you say or just think it. After all, this stuff happens, right? Maybe it’s even happened to you. After all, most of us are so desensitized to sexual aggressiveness in our society and pop culture that the thought of this being assault seems like a jump.  (That’s partly why the #MeToo movement took off with such fervor—for the first time, women collectively decided that sexual harassment and assault were no longer going to be the status quo.)

Facts: Sexual activity carried out with force and without the consent of the other person is rape. And an overwhelming majority of rapes that occur—8 out of 10 rapes to be exact—are committed by someone the victim knows. 

“But … isn’t he your husband?”

Replay the same scenario as above but replace “boyfriend” with “husband.” I mean, can your spouse be your rapist? Aren’t you sort of … obligated to have sex with the person you’re married to?

Facts: Um, no. Marital rape—rape by one’s spouse—is a crime in all 50 states, even though it took until 1993 to become so (North Carolina was the final state to say it wasn’t allowed anymore). On that note, reproductive coercion, or forcing one’s wife to become pregnant, is a form of domestic violence. 

“It’s not like he hit you.”

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A friend discloses she isn’t allowed to work because her husband wants her to stay home with the kids. He gives her an allowance instead, and makes her save her receipts from every purchase she makes. She says he barely gives her enough to buy food for herself and the kids. But he’s always going out with friends, spending wild amounts of money. She suspects he’s opening credit cards all the time. You don’t think this sounds ideal, but it certainly isn’t abuse. After all, she’s not in danger.

Facts: Financial abuse—when an abuser controls a survivor’s economic resources, rendering them completely dependent on the abuser, or when the abuser purposefully destroys a survivor’s credit, usually by opening credit cards in her name and running up the bills—is a type of nonphysical abuse that can wreak havoc in someone’s life. It often comes with psychological abuse tactics, like intimidation, threats and insults—another form of devastating abuse. Domestic violence does not have to leave a bruise or a black eye to be abuse, and most times, nonphysical abuse escalates to physical abuse eventually.

“Why didn’t you just fight back?”

People who haven’t experienced abuse might say something like, “If a partner ever slapped me, I’d slap them back twice as hard.” We think we’d fight back when being abused because, of course, we’d fight back if a stranger attacked us on the street. A survivor who doesn’t fight back can be scrutinized for this—why did they let it happen? 

Facts:There is a psychological component to intimate partner abuse that’s hard to understand unless you’re in it. If a stranger attacks you, of course your instinct is to fight back. If a person you love and trust hits you, the reaction can be quite different. Often, survivors report being in shock. They don’t want to believe what just happened. They can’t imagine hurting the person they love in return. Male survivors often face this stigma, like Gus Brock

On the flip side, partners who do try to defend themselves can be judged just as harshly, sometimes even criminalized or sent to jail

“Doesn’t he have PTSD though?”

Military spouses are two to three times more likely to be abused by a partner suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder than a spouse without it. And when they report this abuse, they often face victim-blaming, perceived as turning against a “war hero.” After all, it’s not his fault if he has PTSD.

Facts: It’s not his fault if he has PTSD, but there is no evidence that PTSD causes domestic violence out of the blue. While PTSD symptoms can exacerbate abusive tendencies that already existed in a person, advocates will agree that domestic violence is always a choice. Remember, if that person is only abusive toward their spouse and the abuse follows a repeated pattern, then they are choosing when and where to exert their power and control. 

Stop This

The bottom line is, you’re supporting victim-blaming if you’re ….

  • Trying to find reasons why the survivor’s story can’t be true because it makes you uncomfortable to believe this happened. 
  • Blaming the survivor for the abuse or assault because of something she did (or didn’t do) or said (or didn’t say).
  • Excusing the abuse because the abuser is well-liked, rich, famous, has influence or is a friend/family member of yours. 
  • Excusing the abuser/rapist because of alcohol or drug use, or mental health issues like childhood trauma or PTSD
  • Creating a false equivalency between an abuser’s choice to abuse and a survivor’s reasonable response (aka, “But she was yelling, too!”)

Want to do the right thing when someone discloses abuse? Start here with our video, “I Know Someone Who is Being Abused, What Should I Do?