Currently, the world is a buzz again over accusations from multiple women who were allegedly sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby. I am not going to go into whether or not you should or shouldn't believe that Bill Cosby is guilty of these crimes. 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, approximately 125,000 of those children have been sexually abused (1). 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. We also know that at least 1 in 5 women have experienced rape (2), which is a daunting to say the least. The good news is, research shows prevention and treatment of sexual violence and the PTSD that follows, helps a whole lot (3, 4). 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”. This is called victim blaming, where we question the alleged victim but not the alleged perpetrator. 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 that allow us to change our attitude, such as, “Why would he be telling this story now?” “Was she drinking?” “Doesn’t he get into 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 believes 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, and have to consistently be aware of my thoughts when I hear of a sex crime. 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) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012.
(3) 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.
(4) 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.
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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.