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How many times have you read a news story about a woman accusing someone of abuse only to scroll down to read the comments? Most likely, nestled among a few well-meaning comments of support, you found a bevy of judgment and shaming directed at the survivor. And, they're coming from both men and women.
“This happened years ago and she’s just talking about it now? Sounds like someone needs attention.”
“If it was so bad, why didn’t she leave? I would walk out the door the second a man hit me.”
“She didn’t even report it to the police. She’s probably just making this up.”
“She only wants money.”
Why do some people jump to blame the victim? At its core, says Elise Lopez, a researcher in sexual and domestic violence prevention and response at the University of Arizona, victim-blaming is about self-preservation.
Compare these reactions to how some people respond to seeing a photo of an overweight person, says Lopez. “People think, ‘If I were overweight, I’d go to the gym everyday and I would lose that weight.’ They don’t think about how hard that would be,” she says.
The same mindset often comes into play when people read about domestic violence. “A lot of people have a gut reaction to violence. It’s emotionally charged. They think if somebody is being abused, they probably did something to incite it.” In essence, if people can find a reason why abuse is the victim’s fault, then abuse is something that can not only be controlled but prevented. And, in turn, it won’t happen to them.
Victim-Blaming Makes Survivors Afraid
It took Donna Kaz 12 years after leaving her abuser to identify as a survivor. It took her 35 years to come out publically about it. Her memoir, UN/MASKED, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour, was published in 2016.
Disclosure is a process, she says, and one that took her a long time because of fear.
“I was afraid of being shamed and judged,” she says. “There’s still this stigma … a reluctance to believe women’s stories. And I think that hasn’t changed. We need to believe women when they tell their story.”
Kaz’s abuser was the actor William Hurt. Their relationship occurred in the ‘70s, back before domestic violence was really on the radar as a widespread epidemic. Kaz never told anyone she was being abused and she never called the police. She blamed herself.
“You do a sort of self-blaming because there’s so much guilt involved when you’re with an abuser. You blame yourself for staying, you’re embarrassed and it’s shameful. Therefore you don’t talk about it. I think that’s why a lot of women don’t express themselves. They’re sort of trying to figure it out themselves.”
Kaz says that when she did decide to make her story public, she hoped it might help change things.
“You’re led to believe every single person who has come out as being abused by someone, famous or not, is lying,” says Kaz. “I noticed in some interviews [for her book] people don’t even want to talk about the abuse. I hope by telling my story it changes this.”
What Victim-Blaming Looks Like
Following are a selection of real comments underneath several news stories concerning accusations of abuse.
The Washington Post reported that a photo of Aroldis Chapman of the NY Yankees was featured in the team’s 2017 calendar as October’s player, which also happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Chapman was suspended for 30 days from the MLB in 2016 after he was accused of strangling his girlfriend. Commenters quickly dismissed the story.
“Wife beating? Meh. As long as he beats Boston, too, it's just collateral damage.”
“…all this stuff about Chapman has been way overblown. Media just love having an easy villain to stomp on, even if his case doesn't in fact fit their narrative.”
“He just signed a contract upwards of $100 million and he abused a woman. I really wish people would stop making such a big deal about it.”
When USA Today reported that former Spice Girl Mel B had accused her estranged husband of years of domestic abuse, one woman commented, “Why is it that everyone saw this coming but her? Then she pops out two kids for him? Let's see what idiot she hooks up with next.”
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In a Huffington Post article on the same story, another woman commented, “Not to disclaim her accusations, but where is the paper trail to back up these allegations? There wasn't any mention of police reports being filed.”
Responses You Can Use When Victim-Blaming Occurs
Whether the words come from a friend or family member you trust, or a complete stranger who feels the need to share his or her opinion on your situation, experiencing victim-blaming as a victim can be shocking and demoralizing.
Kaz says she had nightmares about telling her story of abuse.
“I had to go through a lot of legal counsel and present my story as truthful as I could from my point of view.” In the end, Hurt never responded to her book and overall, Kaz says she feels empowered by coming out, making her who she is today, which she says is a feminist activist.
But other victims are still hiding, afraid of the consequences if they speak up. In turn, Lopez says society has “an ethical and moral responsibility to correct myths about violence.”
Below are some suggested responses for three common victim-blaming statements:
1. Why didn’t she just leave if she was really being abused?
“Well, it’s actually kind of hard for victims to leave,” Lopez says. “It can be hard for a victim to leave if they do not have financial resources, if the abuser is the primary breadwinner. Many abusers will also threaten to harm children or pets if the victim leaves. Victims often need time and support from family and friends to develop a safety plan for leaving.”
She suggests adding in a personal anecdote to demonstrate this. For example, you could say something like, “I had a friend who was being abused, but her abuser was leaving their children alone. Yet, her partner said he would hurt her children if she tried to leave. Just the thought of putting them in harm’s way paralyzed her from trying to escape.”
Says Lopez, “I think using a scenario like that can be a way to enlighten someone without causing the situation to escalate. It’s likely that they haven’t thought it through.” Adding to that, instead of telling a victim to “just leave,” a more helpful response would be to figure out what resources need to be in place for her to do so safely.
2. Why didn’t she report it to the police?
Many survivors don’t report abuse to the police because they’re afraid of retributions from the abuser. They may also be ashamed, embarrassed or reluctant to let others know what’s going on. Also, many times, abuse is not physical—it’s psychological, emotional, verbal or financial, and these types of abuses are not often seen in the eyes of the law as “illegal.” Survivors may also blame themselves for the abuse—if she fought back, she may fear she is partially to blame (she isn’t, agree experts), or that she could be charged as well.
Finally, if the survivor is dependent on the abuser financially, she may be afraid that by calling the police, he could be sent to jail or lose his job, an especially fearful situation if there is no second income.
3. She’s obviously looking for attention/fame/money/retribution.
Survivors and advocates alike whole-heartedly agree that it is not easy coming forward to report abuse or assault and few women would want to bring that type of attention on herself without a good reason. As demonstrated by the above examples of victim-blaming, survivors often fear no one will believe them when or if they report abuse. Furthermore, studies show that false allegations of spouse abuse are far less prevalent than the problem of survivors who don’t report the abuse at all.
Additionally, abusers often craft a situation ahead of time to paint the survivor as troubled and the abuser as the competent hero trying to help her, according to domestic violence expert Stephanie Angelo. It’s all part of the power and control that abusers try to exert over victims, even after she reports abuse.
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