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VOICES

Dr Caroline West It is vital we stop victim blaming when it comes to sexual assault

The consent outreach coordinator says we owe it to victims of sexual assault to address and change our attitudes to these crimes.

LAST UPDATE | 22 Sep 2021

RECENT HORRIFIC CASES of sexual violence have brought the topic of victim blaming back into the spotlight. In some commentaries, the level of intoxication of a victim has been discussed.

These statements are a common feature of rape culture where the focus is on blaming the victim rather than laying the blame solely on the perpetrator – which is exactly where 100% of the blame lies.

Sexual violence has nothing to do with the substances consumed by a victim, and everything to do with a perpetrator who decided to inflict violence on their target.

It is up to all of us to challenge victim blaming and not continue to cause harm to victims. We must recognise how cruel these statements can be, and how lacking in empathy or understanding they are. 

In addition to the impact of sexual violence itself, victim blaming can cause enormous damage to victims, impacting their physical and mental wellness. Mental health impacts can include PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, or self-harm. Physical health impacts include difficulty sleeping, higher rates of the stress hormone cortisol, or using substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

Victim blaming can also stop or hinder them from accessing support services, and victims can face further re-traumatisation as they listen to family, friends, colleagues and the media making victim blaming comments. Rape and sexual violence are not just a once-off trauma – secondary trauma comes from victim blaming too.

Compartmentalising the crime

Victim blaming functions as a way to distance ourselves from the victim. Part of the reason people engage in victim blaming is the ‘just world’ theory. This is a belief that the world is just and fair, and that bad things only happen to ‘bad’ people. If bad things only happen to bad people or people who make the ‘wrong’ choices, we can pretend that we, as ‘good’ people, are safe.

This belief protects people from the realisation that sexual violence can happen to them. If we acknowledge that the world is not fair, then we have to accept that sexual violence can happen to us, our children, or our loved ones. This can be overwhelming to accept- that no matter what we do, who we are, or how we behave, someone may choose to violate us.

Hindsight bias also leads people to make statements about a victim’s dress, behaviour, state of mind or intoxication. This occurs when people say things like ‘they shouldn’t have walked down that street’.

This is a futile attempt to protect ourselves from the knowledge that we can do everything ‘right’ and still someone will choose to violate us. It can be easy to look at a situation that has happened and think of all the alternative ways things could have happened – but at the end of the day, we should be safe to walk down the street whenever we want, wearing what we want.

Hindsight bias often excludes the fact that most sexual violence is committed by people who know their victims, whether they are in a relationship with them, or are family, friends, or colleagues.

Digital sexual violence also needs to be included in these conversations, as research from Zvi and Bitton (2020) found a gender gap in relation to image based sexual abuse (IBSA). Gender differences showed that men significantly blamed the victim more than women and women were more afraid of being a victim of IBSA than men were.

Consent culture

What is the opposite to rape culture and victim blaming? Consent culture. This is a term coined by sex educators Kitty Stryker and Cliff Pervocracy to describe a culture where consent is normalised, victim blaming is not tolerated, and appropriate consequences are applied to the perpetrators.

Consent culture includes looking at barriers to justice, from initial reporting to sentencing. The impact of sexual violence can be immense regardless of what the act looks like, and this must be considered when looking at appropriate sentences and attempts at rehabilitation.

While the perpetrators will be released in a few years, the impact of their actions on the victim will stay with them for life. Therefore, extensive and accessible support services are vital for victims.

Whether victims come forward immediately or years later, all victims should be able to access non-judgmental, inclusive services for as long as they need to.

Consent culture also involves the provision of accessible and inclusive consent education. While we may never live in a society with zero sexual violence, we may eliminate a lot of it, along with victim blaming, by educating people on the many forms of sexual violence and what consent looks like in real life situations.

The more open we are about consent and sexual violence, the more we work to empower people to learn about these topics, learn where they can get help if needed, and eliminate victim blaming.

Recently, Active* Consent published a schools report detailing how almost a thousand pupils from transition year to 6th year understand consent. Some of the barriers that they identified as stopping young people from asking for consent were: a lack of knowledge and skills, feeling uncomfortable, fear, and social norms.

On the other hand, what they stated would help and support communication about consent felt were: education, confidence, trust and making conversations the ‘norm’.

Many of the young people in this study stated that they weren’t comfortable with being intimate with someone they just met but thought that their peers were. This was especially true for girls, as only 7% were comfortable with touching under clothes, but 42% thought that their peers were ok with this.

This ‘social norm’ gap creates internalised peer pressures to engage in intimacies that they are not comfortable with. Finding out that other people are on the same level as you can help with being comfortable talking about consent.

If you are a teacher, you can request a consent workshop for transition year to 6th year
students in your school by emailing activeconsent@nuigalway.ie. Parents can also avail of awareness seminars to understand the content in these classes.

Education is key

Ireland has embraced consent education in the last few years. While we still have a long way to go to truly live in a culture of consent, the National Consent Framework has become a major focus for third level institutions. Consent officers have been
appointed in many institutions, and Active* Consent has trained facilitators to deliver consent workshops in over 24 different colleges and universities.

In addition to workshops, the Active* Consent programme has an eLearning module, social media infographics, and will shortly release a filmed drama, a podcast, and a digital hub. This multi-faceted approach aims to reach people in different ways and at different times throughout an academic year.

We can all play our part in building a better Ireland for survivors by educating ourselves,
challenging victim blaming statements, and being open to talk about consent and sexual
violence. Empathy with victims has the power to change their lives and contributes to the
essential establishment of consent culture.

Dr Caroline West is the outreach coordinator for Active* Consent, based in NUIG, Galway. Find out more at nuigalway.ie/activeconsent.

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