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The #MeToo movement on social media has thousands if not millions of women and men sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and abuse. It is a powerful statement on how wide-spread the problem is, and perhaps it is the first step towards healing and a transformational change in behavior in our society. I applaud the courage of those who are coming forward and sharing their stories.
Behind those stories, however, there remain elements of shame and self-blame: “Maybe I didn't try hard enough to stop it.” “This happened because I deserved it.” “Am I the one who is the problem?”
Let me be clear: there is never a circumstance where a sexual assault is the victim’s fault, be they male or female.
Why then is there a tendency to “blame the victim” when it comes to sexual assault? Why do we question whose fault it was when someone says they were assaulted? Why do we not try to understand, really understand, why things like this happen?
Even the victims themselves may embrace the idea that it is their fault. I guarantee that many of the women coming forward feel a sense of shame about what happened to them, without their consent. I see it every day in treating people who have experienced trauma or abuse in their lives.
And, unfortunately, it is a perfectly common reaction.
Self-blame is a way for people who have been sexually abused or harassed to be able to get up every morning and go back into a potentially dangerous circumstance, mask their pain and do what needs to be done. Strangely, it’s a way of getting control over a situation, emotionally, when you cannot control it physically.
“If it’s my fault, I can control it” the victims seem to say to themselves, “and if I can control it, I can make sure it won’t happen again.” If you take that emotional control out of the picture, it can be terrifying. For a victim to admit to themselves that it wasn’t their fault is also an admission that what happened to them may happen again and that none of us has complete control over what happens to us in life. Many victims find that idea overwhelming.
As a society, we also tend to want to blame the victim because it reduces our own anxieties about our sisters, wives, mothers, daughters, and other loved ones. If we believe that a sexual assault is the victim’s fault because she wore a short dress, or because she was drinking, that alleviates our own anxiety about the potential for it happening to people we know and love.
Self-blame can be a defense mechanism that enables people to put themselves back into circumstances they can’t control and can’t avoid. It’s an adaptive and perhaps even an instinctive behavior when you can’t get away from an abusive situation, but it’s no longer adaptive when you’re no longer in an abusive situation.
Shame and self-blame interferes with healing from the effects of traumatic events. I see it every day in my practice, helping those in active addictions to alcohol or drugs confront the underlying trauma that helps drive their addiction. Shame is one of the most devastating of emotions, and unfortunately it is self-inflicted, much of the time, with a lot of help from negative messages that are reinforced by other people and from society in general. Shame is an emotional cancer.
Brené Brown has written that vulnerability and shame are linked. Avoiding emotional vulnerability creates shame, and when we avoid vulnerability, we avoid being our authentic selves by failing to acknowledge that we are not always strong, or perfect. People who have been victims of sexual assault will often try to explain it as their fault, avoiding the sense that they were truly powerless to stop the assault; this denial of their vulnerability introduces shame. Facing that vulnerability is one of the important steps in healing, and it causes the shame to drop away.
There’s no place for shame when you are speaking your truth.
As a society, we will never truly heal until we realize that we must move beyond our instinctive need to “blame the victim” and address the true nature of the trauma that sexual harassment and assault inflicts on all of us. Our first reaction, to blame the victim, is clearly no longer the right action. Accept that urge to affix blame as a passing thought – an instinctive impulse for emotional self-control in the face of our own vulnerability – and move on to a more mature response that confronts and stops the abuser.