The comfort of victim-blaming

When people find a need to blame, even if only slightly and indirectly, the victims of sexual trauma, it can be for a variety of reasons. One motive in particular stood out to me recently: we engage in victim-blaming because doing so provides us with comfort.

There are two different areas in which we comfort ourselves by insisting on finding some fault with the victim’s behavior or attitude:

1. Finding fault with the victim gives us an excuse for withholding our compassion. Weeping with those who weep is uncomfortable. So is bearing one another’s burdens. Compassion does not sit well with us and, if we are Americans, we are impatient with grief, whether our own or others’. So, even if we cannot blame the victim for what we perceive to be problematic conduct before or during her sexual assault, we can surely withdraw our sympathies if she doesn’t handle her victimhood according to our standards, or if she doesn’t “snap out of it” quickly enough. Pointing out her failings and sins enables us to hold her at arm’s length, thus carefully shielding ourselves from having our hearts broken by truly loving her.

2. Finding fault with the victim helps us maintain our illusions and wishful thinking that sexual trauma will never visit us or our loved ones. Sometimes people will even admit this is behind their “Monday morning quarterbacking” of someone else’s rape, when they announce almost triumphantly, “That’s why that would never happen to me or my daughter! We don’t dress immodestly / talk to strangers / threaten that easily / get intimidated by armed men / let anyone overpower us / have male friends / go on dates / trust any man besides our husbands / go anywhere alone / smile in public / laugh at a man’s jokes / sleep without a gun beside us / marry child molesters / have rapists as fathers / attend a church like that / know any pedophiles / allow women and girls to have jobs / etc.”

Even survivors can do this. I know this all too well because I did it to myself for years, until pain and desperation drove me into therapy. There, despite my best attempts to convince my therapist that I was an “accomplice in my own rape”, despite my pointing out every sinful act and every foolish thing I had done leading up to my rape and afterward, he steadfastly refused to buy into my self-blame. It seems that the only difference between the night of my rape and other nights in which I may have been equally — or far more — sinful and foolish is that, on that fateful night there were two rapists nearby with evil plans.

It was a struggle to accept my therapist’s “theory” because I preferred to think that a frumpy wardrobe, a bunch of legalistic rules, an untrusting attitude, and my martial arts skills and/or arsenal of weapons would guarantee my safety, now that I was no longer that “stupid” young, reckless, trusting, taken-for-a-sucker, woman who “put herself in that position”. Therefore, I tried to tell myself, it could never happen to me again. For years before entering therapy, I had so desperately needed to cling to my “never again” comfort that, when I read other women’s accounts of rape, I found myself accusing silently, “Obviously married a creep…what a fool, trusting her pastor like that…why didn’t she fight harder?…where was her cell phone?…she should have run away from home…only idiots go to frat parties…why did she rent that crummy apartment?…she should have gotten a different job…” My self-directed anger, and the shame I heaped on myself, spilled over onto how I viewed other survivors. Thankfully, I avoided them like the plague during this time, or who knows what harm my toxic attitude may have caused.

The problem is that any comfort built on lies only serves to perpetuates more lies, and cannot protect us. Whatever false sense of safety or control it gives us is a sham, a vapor. The truth is that no woman is so powerful that  — simply by her attire, behavior, and location — she can turn good, decent men into rapists. Nor is any woman so wise, so all-knowing, and so powerful that she can discern the hearts and motives of men, avoid all the bad guys, and fight off the ones she can’t avoid.

Even worse than offering false comfort, these lies harm survivors by interfering with their healing. Blame is toxic. So is shame. It holds us prisoner. It is so corrosive that it eats away at our very soul.

I know this all too well.

At the risk of oversimplifying a long, painful, arduous process, my healing journey can be summed up as the task of replacing lies with truth. As a Christian, I already knew of the gospel and had availed myself of its truth, but I discovered a greater depth of personal meaning, a wonderfully healing theological reality, in the Cross. To me, this is the most precious and significant part of any true gospel for victims: Jesus bore our shame. Whether the shame was put there by our own sin or slimed onto us by the sins of others against us, whether the shame was deservedly ours or not, whether we could sort out the difference or not, Jesus bore our shame on the Cross. He took it all away. It was no longer mine to carry. Wow. That is news so good, so marvelous, so life-transforming, that my puny words are woefully inadequate.

The gospel saved my life. Literally.

There were other healing truths as well: No rape victim ever “asked for it”, or it would have been consensual sex and not rape. No one deserves to be raped, no matter who claims otherwise. It wasn’t my fault. God despised what these men did to me even more than I did. He cared. He loved me — real love, not some fake “tough love” substitute. Christ didn’t just take my shame on Himself, but He carried my grief. He understood, truly understood, and He identified with my suffering. I could go on and on…truth after freeing truth.

It was not until I stopped believing the lies of blame and condemnation that I was able to embrace the truths that brought healing and freedom — and real comfort, rather than its deceptive and damaging counterfeit.