Why We Still Blame Victims of Rape
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Clearly, this is a fringe group. But street-corner proselytizers aren’t alone in believing myths about rape. A lot of people scrutinize everything about a rape victim: how she dressed, how she acted, how much she drank, her previous sexual partners, where she was and why she was there. And it isn’t only the actions of a victim that are questioned; some of the most common rape myths are actually about rapists. As Jen Wilson of RAINN says, “One of them, again, is that you'll be attacked by a stranger, and that the likelihood of that is greater than [being attacked by] someone you know.”
There are many reasons people blame victims and believe rape myths. A 2010 analysis of rape myth beliefs published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence confirmed what a lot of people probably suspected: men who are sexually aggressive and hostile toward women are more likely to believe rape myths. Researchers Eliana Suarez and
Another study done by researchers in Israel found that people blame rape victims in order to maintain a sense of control over their own lives. As they write,
In general, the results show that subjects attribute blame to the rape victim. Attribution of blame helps to reinforce the casual observer’s belief that the world is a safe, protected place, and that occurrences such as rape can be controlled...Blame reﬂects the way in which people organize data regarding events and behaviors that have actual or potential adverse consequences. It is possible that, given the perception that women are vulnerable, exposed, and more aware of their vulnerability, they are expected to act with extra caution to avoid rape, and are therefore judged more harshly when actually victimized.
These results can explain victim blaming more as a self-defense mechanism than a callous act of judgment or misogyny. When you believe that victims are to blame for their assaults, you can ensure you won't make the same mistakes. The need to feel in control also explains why men seem to be more likely to blame other men for their rapes, and women other women.
Sadder still is that many victims are the last to let themselves off the hook. As Miss Nevada, Christina Keegan told me, "Everyone sees themselves as the person to blame. I had blamed myself for what happened to me. I asked myself, why did I do that? Why did I wear that? Why did I go there?”
That a person like Keegan feels comfortable speaking publicly about her rape, and that she has an understanding platform from which to do so, shows how our attitudes about the crime have evolved. But old beliefs die hard. I wonder how Keegan's rape story would have been viewed had she been a dancer working late, a drunk party girl at a club, or the longtime wife of the perpetrator, instead of a wholesome, all-American beauty pageant contestant? It's pretty clear that although we've come a long way--with increased legal protections for rape victims, and an expanding understanding of the crime--I know the answer to that question is that we've also got a long way to go.
Ellen Friedrichs is a sex educator based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes.