Emma strolls home from the library, preoccupied, as is normal of a college sophomore, with thoughts about quizzes and friends and a boyfriend. Before she has the time to react, a stranger—the music from her headphones had drowned out his approach—grabs her, takes her to his apartment, and submits her to non-consensual sexual acts. Emma checks into the hospital early the next day, badly injured and still in a state of psychological shock.
Mary just finished a rough week of exams, and she has been drinking with a group of friends for several hours to let off steam. They dress up. They throw on heels and head out. Mary continues drinking, loses control, begins vomiting, and passes out. Mary wakes up early the next morning in an unfamiliar room, and she finds that an acquaintance from one of her student groups has taken advantage of her while she was unconscious.
I recently participated in a workshop on sexual violence presented to a group of all women. We responded anonymously to questions about who, exactly, was to blame in a “Mary”-type situation, arguably more of a gray area than an Emma scenario in terms of the accuser-accused dynamic and the involvement (or lack thereof) of other individuals in the outcome of the assault. I listened to the workshop with much unease and an ever-firming conviction: When one individual forcibly penetrates or otherwise sexually assaults an unwilling other, the violator is responsible, and there are absolutely no circumstantial qualifiers that can justifiably shift the blame to the victim of the attack. While many participants seemed to share my feeling that Mary was, without question, devoid of blame, a competing opinion that Mary could have done certain things differently and that her attacker may not have been entirely responsible for his actions also gained prominence in the discussion.
Victim-blaming occurs constantly in our society, often without our conscious awareness. In a landmark 1984 study, for instance, researchers demonstrated the ease with which humans form judgments about sexual violence based on their knowledge of the outcome of the event (a cognitive bias known as the hindsight effect). In the study, two groups of participants read passages describing a sequence of events, all unique except for the ending: Half of the participants read an account that ended with the rape of the protagonist, and the other half (the control group) read a “neutral” account, or one in which the rape ultimately did not occur.
Although the woman’s personality traits and actions were completely identical in the two versions, the participants who read the “rape” version held the woman more responsible for the outcome of the situation than those who read the “neutral” account. “Unfortunately for victims,” the authors remarked, “their actions are made with foresight knowledge alone, yet are judged in hindsight.”
In conceptualizing the Mary scenario described above, we might easily fall into this same cognitive bias. And while it may happen more frequently with detached hypotheticals, reality confirms the human tendency to unknowingly blame the victim. Emma is not a hypothetical, although her name has been changed. She is a strikingly pretty and charming student who spoke with me, with humbling candidness, about the reactions of others to her markedly unambiguous rape that occurred during her time in college.
Emma told me that she felt the impact of victim-blaming in a personal conversation she once had with a friend’s mother about the incident. She remarked that the mother offhandedly ended the conversation, “Well, now you know better than to walk alone at night.”
Emma reflected, “Then I felt the need to defend myself, like, ‘Well, it wasn’t that late! The street is normally so busy!’ Etc., etc. It’s just crazy because she loves me and didn’t mean to hurt me with those words, but victim-blaming is so ingrained that a lot of times we don’t even realize we’re doing it, even to the people that we love.”
Following a sexual assault, Emma pointed out, college administrators often send emails focused on steps students can take to “protect” themselves from rape—not wearing earphones, for example, or not walking alone at night. Implicit in these messages is the fact that doing certain things or dressing a certain way predisposes you to sexual assault—that you’re “asking for it.” We should take care to reconsider how we frame these messages such that the suggestion for improvement is directed at the violator and not the violated. Returning to the Mary scenario above, one can reflect in hindsight that alcohol and sexual violence are undeniably linked, or that a provocative outfit would make a predator more desirous of his prey. But being drunk or dressing a certain way does not make a woman any more deserving of rape.
Blaming the victim of a sexual assault, and thereby depriving her—or him—of perceived resources from the community, may prevent her from fully recovering from the traumatic event. Emma said, “I feel as I am in constant struggle to properly and articulately voice the tangle of angry emotions I have about this subject, especially when one of my friends makes an off-handed comment about rape.”
The hindsight we once touted as 20/20 is in need of repair, and we would do best to correct it lest we make egregiously blind judgments of those who most need our support.
Caitlin Brown is a Columbia College senior majoring in psychology and comparative literature and society. Pick My Brain runs alternate Tuesdays.