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Rose McGowen

Toxic Culture: The Significance and Damage of Victim Blaming


By Karetta Hubbard, Lynne Revo-Cohen, Gwen Crider, and Dr. Chris Kilmartin

Dr. Kilmartin wrote and provided the powerful thoughts in this week’s article.  

One of the questions asked by outside observers of sexual harassment or assault victims is, “Why did the person take such a long time to come forward to talk about the incident?”

An excellent question.  A prevailing thought is that, “If this happened to me, I would have spoken up right away and taken care of the SOB.”

Not so fast, at least until you have walked in someone else’s shoes. Labeled “Victim Blaming,” this belief is holding the target of maltreatment or violence partially or wholly responsible for their own victimization.

Victim blaming is a psychological security operation.  “If I can find one thing that the victim did, and attribute the maltreatment to it, and I avoid that behavior, nobody will victimize me.”  

For sexual harassment or assault, Victim Blaming is rampant and an unconscious strategy for dis-identifying with the victim.  Common versions of victim blaming include the attributions that a woman was mistreated/assaulted because:

  • She is immoral.
  • She has poor judgment.
  • She accompanied the offender to the site of the attack.
  • She consensually kissed the offender and/or flirted with him.
  • She drank too much (people attribute more blame to a victim the more they are told that she drank; people attribute less blame to the offender the more they are told he drank).
  • She dressed provocatively.
  • It’s easier for her to “cry rape” than to look like a slut.
  • She liked it at the time but regretted it the next day.
  • She didn’t struggle or say no (up to 40% or more of assault victims show a “tonic immobility” or “freeze” response, which is an involuntary brain response rendering them physically unable to resist or speak).

Rose McGowen, the first woman, and well-known actress to bring rape charges against the now infamous Harvey Weinstein, described exactly this response.  She writes in her recently published memoir, Brave, “I did what so many who experience trauma do, I disassociated and left my body. Detached from my body, I hover up under the ceiling, watching myself sitting on the edge of the tub, against a wall, held in place by the Monster whose face is between my legs, trapped by a beast. In this tiny room with this huge man, my mind is blank. Wake up Rose; get out of here.”

Victim blaming is fueled by the Belief in a Just World: the belief that people get what they deserve.  It is a denial that sometimes bad things happen to good people.  Again, this belief maintains a false sense of security.  If I think of myself as a good person, nobody will victimize me.

Examples of Belief in a Just World (alternative explanations in parentheses):

  • A person is poor because they are lazy (as opposed to disadvantaged).
  • A person is rich because they are smart and worked hard (as opposed to being privileged and inheriting wealth).
  • A person needs extensive dental work because they haven’t taken good care of their teeth (as opposed to having a biological predisposition for dental problems).

When we encounter evidence that the world is not a just place, we either act to restore justice or maintain our belief in a just world and thereby blame the victim.

When people describe assaults in passive voice and/or language that focuses mainly on the target of maltreatment, victim blaming is more likely.  For example, in the sentence “she was attacked,” the person who attacked her does not even appear in the sentence.

Victims often become adept at blaming themselves for the same reason.  If I do not do that behavior again, I will be safe.  Many times victims become experts at blaming themselves and do not need help from others.

Many times, victims are seeking support from friends, family members, professionals, but if they are punished for their experience(s), the trauma and ultimately the ability to recover quickly, if at all may not occur.

We welcome your thoughts and comments. Each contributes to the conversation which is the key to understanding and culture change. Please send them to WATExplorer@gmail.com and we will publish them. Thanks!