Whether we are talking about physical, sexual, or emotional violence: there will always be voices blaming the victims for whatever happened. Even in cases as clear-cut as in Eric Garner’s death, there remain many who blame the victim as being “complicit” in his own killing. Many of those like NYPD Union President, Patrick Lynch, are completely convinced that Eric Garner was responsible for being choked to death (although the use of excessive force was not directly his cause of death, it certainly contributed).
This happens more often than most of us expect, and as Ali Safran (who I knew years ago) explains in her article detailing her experience with sexual assault and her ordeal bringing it to trial:
…the prosecutor sat me in a room with a detective and my state-assigned victim advocate, where they interrogated me, telling me that I was wrong: wrong about what I remembered I was wearing, wrong about through which door my perpetrator had left my car. I must be lying. They begged me to recant my story, telling me, “We’re dropping this case. Just tell us you’re making it up.”
I left devastated: Instead of being treated as a victim, I was treated as a lying criminal, and my assailant went unpunished. No officer ever interrogated my assailant, the actual criminal, about what he’d done. Instead they chose to interrogate me.
Why should victims of sexual or physical assault be treated as if they are malicious liars? Why does it seem that authority figures are especially willing to reject the experience of those who have been harmed? Why did our article about the Michael Brown shooting generate so many comments claiming that Brown “deserved” it, or had led to his own death?
The reason is actually more simple than you might expect: it is a combination of cognitive dissonance and a fear of empathizing with powerlessness. Many people, especially those who gravitate towards positions of authority, are inclined to view themselves as “in control” of everything that happens to them: a comforting thought. For these people to accept that a victim was truly not in control, truly powerless in the situation, they would have to accept that something like this could happen to them. For many people, this thought is simply too scary and it becomes far easier to simply reject the experience of the victim/survivor or even to blame them.
For many people, even admitting they were a victim is a difficult thing.It requires them to admit that they were not in control of a potentially traumatizing situation, admitting that they need help, and admitting that they might not be totally in control of their lives. For many people, this is something shameful and scary. It is probably the major reason that many (probably the majority) of victims of abuse fail to report it. It certainly doesn’t help that, when they do decide to report it, they are treated with rejection and extreme skepticism.
According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, around 60% of rapes or sexual assaults are never reported. Out of 100 cases of rape, 40 are reported, 10 lead to an arrest, 8 are prosecuted, 4 are convicted, and only 3 will actually serve any time behind bars.
Abuse is far more common than most people expect, and common understanding of the issues is frequently highly divorced from the facts. With only approximately 2% of cases actually stemming out of a false or misrepresented accusation: the vast majority of abuse, of likely any sort, that we hear about is real. We also need to be present of the fact that most cases of sexual or physical abuse are not reported, and in those circumstances: few offenders are actually held responsible and punished. It may feel safer for some people to blame the victim, but that simply doesn’t correspond with reality. These people need our understanding and empathy, and not our cynical skepticism.