Yesterday I read this great post on a blog called Flight and Scarlet where she describes the effect rape had on her sex life. Go over and read it if you haven’t, it’s a brave post on a very important subject.
I left a comment and Flight and Scarlet responded saying that she’s worried that writing a post like this might cause her to be seen as a victim. I had to pause for a second, since the thought came to me: “but you are a victim.” And then I realized what she meant.
Merriam-Webster defines a victim as:
noun vic·tim \ˈvik-təm\
: a person who has been attacked, injured, robbed, or killed by someone else
: a person who is cheated or fooled by someone else
: someone or something that is harmed by an unpleasant event (such as an illness or accident)
Being a victim after a crime has been committed against you is a fact. You are by definition a victim of that crime. However, remaining in the victimized position is a choice. As long as you are the victim, you are allowing the criminal who wronged against you to have power over you. I think Flight and Scarlet meant that she didn’t want to be seen as someone whose identity becomes enmeshed with what once happened to her, and she is very smart to say that. Identifying as the victim is not a position of power, and it can have a devastating effect on your life. I should know.
I was bullied at school, and it wrecked my life for years. I know that bullying and rape are not the same. Only one is a crime in the eyes of law, the bullies are still children and the repercussions are often different etc. And yet, I thought there’s something similar between them.
The similarity arises from the fact that the victims have a tendency to blame themselves for what has happened. This is different from most other crimes, where the victim is generally thought to have been unlucky, or careless at most. If a pyromaniac burnt your house down, you wouldn’t wonder if it was because you kept matches in the house. If you’re mugged, you don’t usually blame yourself for walking out late with a wallet. These are just unfortunate things that happened to you because you happened to cross paths with a criminal.
I’m not saying crimes like being mugged can’t be traumatizing, they definitely can, but the trauma is often different. The traumatic thing is that the world isn’t as safe as you thought it was. All crime victims share the same feeling of helplessness: You couldn’t defend yourself against the criminal. But with sex abuse and bullying a big part of the trauma is wondering if there is something inherently wrong with you that caused this to happen. Sexual abuse and bullying can change your personality and instill beliefs in you that have nothing to do with the actual crime, particularly when they happen at a young age.
This is even worse in situations where you feel that you genuinely could have done something, like when a woman freezes and can’t fight back when she’s raped, or even if someone (like me) doesn’t defend herself when the bullies call her names.
Not being able to defend yourself is an admission of weakness, and weakness has always been seen as a deplorable condition, since it makes you vulnerable to attacks. But this is how warlords think. This is the world of criminals where the strong prevail and the weak are destroyed, and strength is only measured by physical prowess and a certain hardness of spirit. This is a world with no place for sensitivity, or poetry, or true love. This is not the world that I want to live in.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim to protect yourself. I think it’s smart to have good defenses both physically and mentally. But I also think that a truly civilized society is not like a medieval jousting field where life is cheap, but rather like the Greek agora, where people congregate to exchange ideas and goods. In a truly civilized society fortresses are made redundant.
We hear of cases in other cultures where raped women are shamed and driven out of their homes like being raped was their fault. This is obviously the most outrageous perversion of justice, and though our culture luckily doesn’t condone it, victims still tend to feel like there is somehow shame involved in what has happened to them.
This is particularly true in cases where the attacker is someone you know, which comprise the great majority of rapes. And that’s what makes shame and guilt emerge: The victim starts to wonder if she could’ve done something to prevent the events. Did she say something that made the perpetrator think she was interested? Was her “no” not emphatic enough? Did she drink too much? Was that skirt too short? Is there something about her that got her raped?
And maybe these feelings of guilt and shame are what make you stuck in the mental state of a victim. I know it happened to me when I was bullied. I thought it was something about me that caused it. I knew it was something about me: the fact that I wasn’t pretty, or outgoing enough, and didn’t have friends. I felt incredibly ashamed of those things and even though I knew it wasn’t true, in many ways I felt that I deserved what was coming for me. I knew I was weak, and I hated myself for it.
Even to this day I’ve often tried to hide my true self, pretend that that awkward, shy girl with the big glasses never even existed. But now I’d like to tell this girl, that while she was a victim of being bullied, she has absolutely no reason to feel ashamed. Being a victim only means that someone has committed a wrongful act towards you, which should be condemned both by you and others. The victim has absolutely zero need to feel shame for what has happened.
Merriam-Webster on shame:
: a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong
: ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment
: dishonor or disgrace
By definition, the perpetrator is the one who should feel shame since the perpetrator has done something wrong. In the case of a bully, he or she should be ashamed of being a person who needs to degrade others to create the impression of being stronger. Or, in the case of a rapist, of being someone who can’t even get laid without using force, or even worse, of being perverted enough to enjoy using force. And in both cases, of being someone who has wronged against another human being.
To some extent therapy provided to the victims serves to strengthen this position. There’s nothing wrong with therapy as such, personally I got a lot of help from being able to discuss my experiences in therapy, but the victims shouldn’t be the ones who are the prime target of therapy. The person who needs to change first and foremost is the perpetrator, not the victim. There is something seriously wrong with a person who rapes and/or bullies. He or she needs help.
To this day the culture of shaming the victim continues. We think to ourselves: “So why did she go home with him, she must’ve known what he’s after?” or “Of course poor little Joe is going to be bullied since he’s got that learning disorder and he’s fat” almost like the offenders practically have no choice in committing these wrongs. The offenders are very rarely shamed. Even when they’re caught, their cheeks aren’t burning with shame, only anger at being caught.
I don’t know if this is a cultural thing or an inherent part of how the human mind works. What I am sure of is that this kind of thinking can be, at least to some extent, countered by education. Some of the rapists may be psychopaths who are incapable of feeling shame, but most school-yard bullies still have hope.
Unfortunately almost anyone can become a victim, but the perpetrators generally share some traits. They are the ones who should be examined and shamed for their actions. Not necessarily driven out: maybe they can change, and become decent human beings. This is obviously true of the school yard bullies, many of whom go on to develop normal lives and regret their actions later. It may be true of some rapists, I don’t know. Be that as it may, I think we are one step closer to change when we come to realize that the shame should be on the offenders, not the victims.