Where the blame lies.

*Trigger warning – this post contains references to rape, please consider your well-being before reading.

After previewing Listen to Your Selfie, I watched it again with our children, always interested in their feedback on resources.  Near the end, the young girl hesitates as she’s being led up the stairs by Danny, a 19 year old who is pressuring her after providing alcohol for her and her friends.  Pausing the clip there, I asked my daughter a question.  Given my professional role, she has perhaps a more enhanced understanding of issues including child sexual exploitation than most children her age.

“So T****, if the girl goes up the stairs now, and he does something to her…..”

I didn’t get to the end of my query, she finished it for me.

An academic child, always eager to race the clock, she had the answer already on the tip of her tongue.

“It will be her fault.”

Thud.  In five syllables, she wrapped up victim-blame culture in a neat and tidy package.  Where had her pre-formed, unequivocal judgement come from?  Had my own child not even listened to a word I’ve said on this topic? Drawing breath for a lengthy monologue in a voice 2 octaves higher than my normal speaking voice, I leapt up onto my invisible soapbox.

In an instant, before I could speak, she retracted her comment;

Won’t be! It WON’T be her fault!” she exclaimed, keen to the get the answer right.  Only because she is a child who likes to always get the answer right.  Only because she read my body language – not difficult given I had nearly fallen off the chair at her first answer.  Not because she really believed it is never the victim’s fault if they are sexually assaulted.

Searching for learning in her initial response, because we have so much to learn from the Voice of the Child, I began thinking about when the term “victim-blaming” is used.  It is always after there has been an example of it; someone is harmed by another person, using language people create a falsehood the victim “brought it upon themselves” somehow, and then hopefully their victim-blaming attitude is highlighted and challenged.

Societal messages which fuel victim-blaming culture, simultaneously feed into pervasive self-blame for the victim/survivor.  Louise O’Neill’s powerful book “Asking for It” (Quercus, 2015) conveys this so intensely.  A quote from the main character after a sexual assault:

            “ It’s not your fault, the therapist tells me, but she is wrong.” – p. 191

Self-blame can be a huge barrier to disclosure.  In schools, emphasis is rightfully placed on trying to encourage children to speak if something happens to them, to “tell an adult.”  While input on “tell an adult” is helpful (and essential) for children, what about children in the class who have already been sexually abused and haven’t told anyone?  The children who blame themselves for it because society has taught them to?  If children absorb the victim-blaming messages around them, abundant in our society, then self-blame as a by-product of that is likely inevitable.  Despite “tell an adult” lessons, those children already carrying trauma and self-blame related to sexual abuse may still feel unable to speak.

While writing this, I popped to the gym & chatted with a friend who, like me, often goes running on our estate early in the morning, past our parks, sometimes before sunrise.  We spoke of the horrific case in the news this week – a woman who was raped having avoided walking home through a park at midnight.  My friend, who my daughters both like and admire, commented:

“How awful! …But what was she doing walking –“

I stopped her mid-flow to swiftly pre-empt the victim-blaming sentiment she was about to perpetuate.  On reflection, it illustrated how easily my 8 year old can be exposed to messages around her, which once absorbed, convince her to believe it will be her fault if someone ever does something to her. The ensuing self-blame could inhibit her voice one day.

There is no simple answer – indeed this paragraph has taken ages to write because the solution is so very elusive.  Might survivors of sexual assault who speak after years/decades of silence, have found their voices earlier if not for the self-blame they carried?  Realistically, what we can do is this:

  1. Listen out for these messages of victim-blaming entrenched in every day conversations.
  2. Grasp every opportunity to persistently challenge, counter and speak over the voices which create an illusion that a victim/survivor – child or adult – is ever themselves to blame when they suffer sexual harm/violence.
  3. Always remember, & remind others, the blame belongs entirely to the person who perpetrates the abuse/assault.

……..And really, the third one is absolutely the most important.