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V is for Victim-blaming

By Aakansha Veenapani

Artwork by Shridhi Pandya

Last week, a cook at my aunt’s house groped the nanny who also lived there. While expressing horror at the event and disbelief at his brazenness – my aunt lamented: “well, you know, I have noticed that she’s been a bit too friendly with him lately…” I was taken back by surprise – “my aunt who is usually so even-keeled, objective, and progressive was victim-blaming?!” Victim-blaming: that ugly creature that often rears its head – either in day-to-day conversations or in the media – when it comes to stories of violence, especially sexual violence:

“Did she have to go watch a movie at 11 in the night with her friend?”

“Was there alcohol involved?”

“Why didn’t you come forward sooner?”

These are real reactions to very real incidents of assault – and such comments know no boundaries, from India’s commentators responding to Nirbhaya (the fearless Jyoti Singh) or Americans reacting to Emily Doe (the courageous Chanel Miller). I have always been disdainful and dismissive of people who spout such statements in the media. “Typical,” I think, “typical patriarchy blaming the woman, giving men all the power”

But when this milder, more subtle, more unconscious form of victim-blaming occurred, I had to stop and think. What exactly is victim-blaming and why does it happen? Is it just emanating from the patriarchal overtones I ascribed to it or is there a deeper, more psychological reason behind it?

What is victim-blaming?

While victim-blaming may not be a default instinct we all possess – it is, nonetheless, a common phenomenon. Even when it comes to non-sexual crimes. If you hear about someone’s home being burglarized – does it make you feel slightly better to learn that the door was accidentally left unlocked on that day? Or perhaps that the burglar was someone who the family had wronged or treated badly? Knowing that little fact allows you to believe that the world is, ultimately, safe and in our control – we can prevent bad things if only we do the right thing.

That, in its essence, is why victim-blaming occurs.

“I think the biggest factor that promotes victim-blaming is something called the just-world hypothesis,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and the founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violence journal.

The desire to see the world as just and fair is pre-wired into us: whether it be the concept of Karma in Hinduism (simply understood, it means: you get what you deserve) or Bàoyìng in Chinese folk religion (reduced to a kernel, it means: the universe is moral and bad people get moral retribution via bad things happening to them)

This, inherently, makes it harder for us to accept that victims of crimes, somehow, didn’t contribute to, or even, cause the crime that occurred. So much so, that we often internalize it. As someone who has also experienced sexual assault, I couldn’t shake one thought in the aftermath: “what if I had done something differently?”

Even well-intentioned people and institutions can reinforce this message. Think about how we treat gender violence in society: women are taught how to avoid being the victim of a crime via rules that range from avoiding certain clothes (here’s looking at all the colleges banning sleeveless tops) to behaviour modifications governing the way we live (never leave your drink uncovered at the bar, never take a cab alone at night, don’t be too friendly with strangers). The list is endless and, honestly, when should it stop? Where are the institutions teaching the perpetrators to stop committing the crime?

It is so easy to give in to this phenomenon of victim-blaming. And for good reason. Believing in a just and moral world allows us to live our lives, feeling safe and comfortable – not only about ourselves but for those we love. If we entertain the notion that the world is not fair, then anyone – despite their goodness and kindness – could have terrible things happen to them. And that is a scary world: one where those we love and know to be “good people” could fall victim to evil intentions and terrible circumstances.

How to mitigate victim-blaming in ourselves:

At its core, victim-blaming could stem “from a combination of failure to empathize with victims and a fear reaction triggered by the human drive for self-preservation,” as noted by The Atlantic.

Additionally, we suffer from hindsight bias, as described in the study Cognitive Biases in Blaming the Victim: it is easy to look at an event that has already occurred and believe that we could have avoided it versus understanding that at that moment, there is no real way to predict the outcome of an event.

So, the next time we feel the urge to victim-blame or see it occurring around us, it would help to keep in mind that there is a deep-seated instinct for self-preservation driving the feeling, in addition to other societal constructs.

Regardless of whether or not the world is actually fair and just: it is challenging to work through the notion that bad things happen to good people, and that good people can do bad things. These psychological contradictions are only reconciled through understanding, empathy, and tough conversations: about our biases, our fears, and our past experiences.

What to do if you are the receiving end of victim-blaming:

Of course, while it is easy to theoretically understand the psychology behind victim-blaming, it is never easy to be on the receiving end of it. If you do find yourself in that situation, here are a couple of helpful ways to deal with it:

1. Remind yourself that it is not your fault: Easier said than done when victim-blaming may come from your friends and family. But, remind yourself – whether it is writing down on a piece of paper, setting a reminder on your phone, or simply saying it out loud – it is not your fault.

2. Sit with the discomfort: The aftermath of such a situation is likely to be painful – from replaying the event to feeling traumatized. While it may be tempting to distract yourself from those feelings, it is more powerful to tackle them head-on. Identify what you are feeling: anger, pain, guilt, or any other feeling that may arise. Remind yourself that these are transient emotions. They do not define you. They are simply an experience, that will pass.

3. Surround yourself with those you love: Lean into the people who make you feel secure and happy. Try and spend as much time as you can with them and see yourself through their eyes. Anyone causing you to doubt yourself or belittle you is just sapping the mental and emotional energy you need to take care of yourself.

4. Find a good therapist: Who better to help you off-load some of this mental burden than a trained professional? Find someone who can listen to your story and empower you to make sense of it for yourself.

Empathy for oneself and others will help mitigate the impact of victim-blaming: whether you are adjusting your behaviour, holding someone accountable, helping a survivor, or helping yourself. While fear – the key driver of victim-blaming - is a powerful emotion, it is not unconquerable. Acknowledging that fear and pushing oneself and those around you to ask questions about those who commit acts of violence will help untangle the complexities behind victim-blaming. While such questioning may feel like a small act in our private world, the effect ripples out into society, at large. Perhaps, it is through these individual actions and conversations, that we can begin to challenge this culture of victim-blaming on a larger scale. The power to create a kinder, safer world lies within us.


About the author:

Aakanksha Veenapani is a Mumbai-based strategy consultant, writer, and forever in search of the next binge-worthy show. She is deeply passionate about normalizing the mental health conversation, accelerating women's empowerment, being outdoors as much as possible, and all things dessert.

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