Currently, the world is a buzz over Dylan Farrow’s open letter where she describes her experience of sexual abuse. I am not going to go into her experience or why you should or should not consume material made by an artist who was accused or convicted of violence of any kind. That is not my job. However, part of my job is to educate people on the psychology of experiencing abuse or assault, perpetrating abuse or assault, and the culture in which sustains the cycle of abuse and assault. As a culture, we do not want to go there. But I’m going to (sort of) go there now.
Every time there is a big media story about sexual abuse or assault everyone gets wound up. However, these are not isolated events of violence. These are publicized events of violence. These atrocious acts occur every day to people we probably know. What’s worse, because we are used to huge media outbreaks of sex scandals, we're only aware of events that are publicized. This leads us to perceive this problem as being much smaller than it actually is.
In fact, the problem is huge. In the United States, 1,256,600 children are maltreated (physically abused, sexually abused or neglected) each year and approximately 125,000 of those children have been sexually abused (1). There are 2,400 children that die as a result of their maltreatment (1). Child maltreatment costs our country $124 billion each year (2). In contrast, we perceive childhood cancer to be a huge problem. Yet, only 13,400 children are diagnosed with cancer each year and 2,500 will die from their cancer (3). Childhood cancer costs our country $6 billion annually (3). Childhood cancer is terrible, and we should put effort toward the prevention and treatment of it. But shouldn’t we spend equal effort toward the prevention and treatment of child abuse based on these statistics? These numbers absolutely blew me away. The good news is, research shows prevention and treatment help, a whole lot (4,5). The bad news is, these statistics don’t even include people who have been sexually abused by a non-parent, or individuals who have never told anyone about their abuse. So these stats are conservative. However, we do know that at least 1 in 5 women have experienced rape (3), which is a daunting to say the least. We also know that women who have experienced sexual abuse or assault experience physical and mental health issues later in life and individuals who experience trauma also have adverse cognitive outcomes and even premature aging. You can learn all about these outcomes of trauma here. So, why are we not fighting as a society to put an end to these atrocities? Because we would then have to recognize that violence against women and children is very real and we can all do something to stop it, but we have unconsciously decided not to.
Instead, we want to believe the victim is making it up. It is extremely rare that a person will falsely accuse someone of a crime. However, those cases are more salient because they affirm our belief that these behaviors don’t really occur. If we do believe that some version of the 'incident' did happen, we blame the victim for the 'incident' occurring. “She was wearing a short skirt.” “She was almost an adult.” “He wanted it”. We blame victims, not because we’re a**holes, but because we don’t want the violence to be true. We blame victims because it is easier to change our opinion than it is to change our behavior. This is a little thing called cognitive dissonance. If the ‘incident’ didn’t really happen, we can go on as usual. If the ‘incident’ did happen, we need to change our behavior in some annoying way. For instance, perhaps we need to stop supporting a corporation, vote to have someone removed from their position, fight to change a policy, call Childlline at 1-800-932-0313 if you’re in PA, file a report with human resources, etc. So instead, we ask questions to allow us to change our attitude, such as, “Why would he be telling this story now?” “Was she drinking?” “Doesn’t he get in trouble at school?” “She was 17 though, right? Almost 18?” instead of “Why did he anally penetrate a young boy?” or “Why did he rape her when she was passed out?” Quite frankly, we don’t want to know the answers to the latter questions. Thus, our victim blaming culture makes it safe to perpetrate sexual abuse and assault because perpetrators know that the victim is rarely believed.
Any time there is a powerful individual who is accused of sexual abuse or assault and that person is a central part of an institution, there are going to be some sacrifices to take him down. If we decide to believe he is a perpetrator, we have to be prepared for our friends within the institution to ostracize us. Making it highly likely that we would have to stop going to our church who the perpetrator ministers for, supporting the team the perpetrator coaches for, going to the concert the perpetrator is performing at, etc. We don’t want to believe our leaders are capable of such heinous crimes because we trust and admire our creative, political, financial, spiritual, athletic, and familial leaders. These types of leaders are supposed to make us feel safe and confident in the world.
This is why hierarchical institutions are breeding grounds for sexual abuse and sexual assault, because we don’t want to believe-the senator, the coach, the minister, the principal, the boss, or the professor-abused, assaulted, or raped someone. Not because we don’t want to believe the victim, but because we want to believe the person we have been admiring and altering our behavior for, organizing our faith around, or going to work for each day is capable of the worst acts imaginable. If the ‘alleged victim’ is making it up, we can go on as usual. Even once someone has become aware of a crime, and believed that it happened, telling someone or reporting it is yet another barrier that is even more difficult within an institution, mostly because of the bystander effect, when an individual doesn’t act in an emergency situation because the individual assumes someone else will. The larger the institution/group/crowd, the more likely this is to occur.
Please keep in mind that the problem is not Football, Hollywood, Church, or other hierarchical institutions. The problem is cognitive dissonance and the bystander effect keep us from acting in the best interest of the less powerful and keeps us acting in the interest of the institution as a whole and in turn, the institution’s central players.
Sexual abuse and assault occurs every day in this country and around the world. We need to focus on preventing the cycle and process of sexual abuse and assault that occurs in hundreds of institutions. We need to empower those who are brave enough to come forward and call out their abuser. We need to eliminate the fear that is experienced when someone is faced with a decision to protect the reputation of someone they know or to seek justice for a crime.
Please, do not get caught up in the media and the hype. The majority of sexual abuse and sexual assault is perpetrated by those closest to the victim. The majority of perpetrators hold a powerful position within their community. It is not the town weirdo or stranger lurking in dark alleys that perpetrates sexual violence. The majority of victims take years before they are confident to share their abuse with someone they trust.
A culture that supports the accused instead of the abused, perpetuates the cycle of violence.
The purpose of this post is to let you know why we all victim blame. Even after years of education and training in this area, I still do it all the time. As social, hierarchically-oriented people, our brains go there first, naturally. Which is exactly why we need to be aware of this and try to recognize when we go there and choose to think differently. We have to have a culture that supports the abused and not the accused.
If you yourself have been a victim of abuse or assault, or have known someone who has been a victim of abuse or assault, or have witnessed abuse or assault: Please seek help, you can find resources here. Relieve yourself of secrets and shame, and accept support and love from those around you. It was NOT your fault.
1. The National Incidence Study of Child Abuse & Neglect, 2010.
2. Fang, X., Brown, D., Florence, C. S., Mercy, J. (2012). The economic burden of child maltreatment in the united states and implications for prevention. Journal of Abuse and Neglect, 36, 156-165.
3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012.
4. MacLeod, J., & Nelson, G. (2000). Programs for the promotion of family wellness and the prevention of child maltreatment: A meta-analytic review. Child abuse & neglect, 24, 1127-1149.
5. Prinz, R. J., Sanders, M. R., Shapiro, C. J., Whitaker, D. J., & Lutzker, J. R. (2009). Population-based prevention of child maltreatment: The US Triple P system population trial. Prevention Science, 10, 1-12.
Photo Source: Dollar Photo Club
2/6/2014 05:14:49 am
This is great and so true. Even after years to training, a history of intergenerational trauma in my own family and working with victims I still victim blame to some degree on a regular basis. It is so hard to accept that we are engaging in cognitive dissonance and that we are not immune to the bystander effect, but you are totally right. This is really great. Thanks for putting so much time and care into such an important subject.
2/8/2014 02:04:48 am
Thanks Amelia! I have noticed over the years that really caring, educated, and thoughtful people victim blame, especial in high-profile cases. So it got me thinking about our need to protect and defend those who we look up to. And our need to construct a reality that is safe, even if that reality isn't real at all.
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About this Blog:
I'm here to help us discuss sexuality, gender, and media by integrating information from academic and mainstream sources. I hope this resource produces more sexually competent people who raise sexually competent kids.