Haven’t We Learned from SVU that Victim Blaming & Shaming Isn’t Okay?

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In the recent and growing flood of accusations against sexual predators, there is one question I hear again and again: “Why didn’t [the victim] report it sooner?”

This is never okay to ask aloud. It shouldn’t even be a thought. For any readers of mine who have never watched a single episode of Law & Order: SVU or who have never known a victim or been a victim, I’m going to lay it out plain and then show why this question should never be asked.

It assumes the victim is in a place of power.

Sexual harassment and abuse is about power, not physical desire. Usually, predators choose victims who don’t hold power over them. Children and minors, employees, students, protégés, etc.

When someone doesn’t have the power to stop another’s abuse of them, it’s usually a sign that they don’t feel like they have the power to report it. This is why when one person does make a report, there are often subsequent reports made public. With numbers comes power–suddenly the victim is no longer alone. This is one reason why the #metoo campaign was voiced by so many.

If an employer sexually harasses or abuses an employee, for example, the employee may feel as though reporting the misconduct/crime will mean losing that job. Then, not only has that victim taken a huge emotional risk, but she or he has also taken an immense financial one, too.

It assumes the victim is not emotionally affected by the incident(s).

When I was sixteen years old, my grandfather passed away. I did not cry for over a year, and then one day, while getting a routine dental cleaning, I just broke down. I felt bad for my dentist afterward, because not only did he think I’d somehow been grievously injured, but he also found himself in the position of having to empathize with a patient about grief. He’d been my dentist for over a decade though, and he altered his appointment schedule to sit and talk with me about when he lost his father.

My point is that emotional trauma, whatever its nature, often has lasting impacts. Sometimes it doesn’t hit right away; other times it’s ever-present.

For victims of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault, they must work through that emotional trauma. Sometimes it’s just not possible to report an incident right after it happens.

It assumes the victim feels they will be believed.

This is a big assumption because most of the time, situations of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault come down to one person’s word against another’s. When one of those people is in a position of power, say a boss for example, the victim may believe that the abuser’s power will lend credibility, and therefore her or his own story won’t be believed.

In many cases, this is true. Even if it’s not true though, the victim may worry that it is.

Imagine being sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted and having little to no physical evidence. Imagine deciding to report it and then imagine no one believes you’re telling the truth. Whatever emotional healing may have already taken place could be at risk, as well as other elements of a victim’s life.

It assumes the victim has done something wrong.

Saying that someone should have reported an event sooner is placing some blame at their feet. Maybe not for the event itself, but for its aftermath, and that’s not okay. It’s never a victim’s fault that she or he is attacked.

If someone speeds through a red light and T-bones your car when you have the right to cross an intersection, you’re not at-fault. We need to stop shaming and blaming victims. We need to stop putting the onus on them to keep themselves safe from sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. We need to provide a safe space for them to come forward when someone has victimized them.

Can it go too far?

The source of victim blaming and shaming isn’t often malicious. Often times, it’s fear of a modern witch hunt that causes this mentality to take hold. After all, since it’s one person’s word against a potential predator, who do you trust?

The answer is simple, I think. Far simpler than it may seem, especially for those of us not involved in investigations into claims of such abuse. Here’s what we need to do:

  1. Treat the victim with empathy. Make her or him feel safe to speak about what happened.

That’s really all we need to do, until something is proven in a court of law. Yes, the court of public opinion matters but we need to guard ourselves that it not go too far. I’m not saying I don’t believe victims. I think in 99.99% of cases they’re telling the truth. But there’s always the possibility for a shred of uncertainty.

In our country, people are legally innocent until proven guilty. We have due process for a reason. I’m not saying it’s always fair or right. I’m not saying that you can’t go ahead and believe someone is a sexual predator.

What I am saying is that unless you sit on the jury for that case, it’s not your job to decide. The system isn’t perfect and it never will be, but we have to work within it to improve it, and that starts with empathy for anyone who feels victimized.

Final Thoughts

I am a feminist, which means I believe in equality for all regardless of gender association or disassociation. I’ve also studied history and literature. Humans have a tendency to go into witch-hunt-mode and I think it’s important to prevent reaching that point while still supporting those who are suffering. Let’s focus on trying to make our system work better so that we can enforce laws that make those who are guilty a) easier to identify and prosecute and b) pay their debts to society.

I’ll leave you with this thought, which I learned from reading Witchcraze by Anne Barstow. Prior to the attachment of the idea of worshipping Satan, witchcraft was not a crime punishable by death. If someone accused a witch who was then found innocent, the accuser would have to pay a fine. The people of the medieval era understood that a crazed witch hunt would devastate the population.

So let’s not get crazy about this. It’s great that people feel safe enough to come forward. And I’m not suggestion they shouldn’t be believed. I’m just saying that judgment should wait until evidence is in.

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