Victims of sexual violence often wonder if they are to blame. Did they smile too much, were their dresses too tight, should they have said ‘no’ louder? Cecile Meier looks into why women blame themselves and how it makes it harder to fight predators.

Rachel’s story

After a work contact followed her outside a bar, yelled at her and pinned her by the throat against a brick wall, Rachel* wondered if it was all her fault.

She worried her “friendly nature” had come across as flirtation and given the man the wrong idea.

Yet, she had said “no” when he asked to kiss her at the work event.

As she was struggling to breathe, a friend ran over and pulled the man off Rachel. She collapsed.

Over the following days, the man tried to contact her via texts, Facebook messages and calls. Rachel ignored him until he sent a message accusing her of being a horrible person.

She also blames herself for replying then, saying “It’s fine, don’t worry about it”. When he kept contacting her, she told him she wanted nothing to do with him.

But he did not stop texting, eventually sending her a message to say he would come to Auckland to see her.

Afraid for her safety, Rachel told her boss about what had happened. He told her she should speak to the man who assaulted her as they would likely need to work with him in future.

Many of the women who sent their stories to Alison Mau as part of Stuff’s #metooNZ investigation blamed themselves after they were victims of sexual violence. An actor voices Rachel’s* story.

Many of the women who sent their stories to Alison Mau as part of Stuff’s #metooNZ investigation blamed themselves after they were victims of sexual violence. An actor voices Rachel’s* story.

Self-blame: A recurring theme

When victims of sexual harm report their abuser to their employer, they are often not believed or fobbed off. Reporting mechanisms in workplaces often involve the victim having to face her abuser in mediation. Often, these mechanisms protect the business’s interests but fail to support the victim. These inadequacies, which have been exposed in various industries last year as the Me Too movement exploded in New Zealand, contribute to victims questioning themselves.

It was the case for Rachel*, who says her boss’s reaction made her feel like she was in the wrong and had to fix the situation.

Self-blame was a recurring theme in the hundreds of emails received as part of the #metooNZ investigation. Women wondered if they had flirted too much or been “too friendly”. They blamed themselves for wearing too short a skirt, drinking too much or going out late at night. They blamed themselves for not coming forward to report sexual assault, harassment or rape, expressing concern their harasser was still out there. They blamed themselves for reporting the experience but not reporting it the right way, not being strong enough, not being persistent enough.

Sabrina* still blames herself for drinking too much and flirting too much with her boss one night. When he later forced himself onto her, she was “too scared to say no”. Two years on, she is still traumatised from the experience and feels ashamed for not reporting him.

He’s probably still out there grooming other young women before preying on them and I didn’t have enough guts to do anything about it except quit my job.

No matter what the women who wrote to us did or did not do, they felt it was somehow their fault a man chose to harm them.

Retaining control

Auckland University psychologist Dr Nicola Gavey, who wrote a book about rape culture, says some women blame themselves in a bid to maintain some sense of agency and control over a situation. Seeing themselves as a victim can be too painful.

It can be even more painful for women who see themselves as empowered. They’ve been told they can do what they want, including drinking and having casual sex on their own terms.

If you believe that you are free and equal and powerful and you get harassed or raped, it’s like a double-whammy. How on earth do you make sense of that?
Auckland University psychologist Dr Nicola Gavey

But often, women say they blame themselves because they know that people will think the harassment or assault was their fault. Canadian researchers call it “tight-rope talk”, she says.

“As a woman you are in this impossible position: However you tell your story, it’s likely to be problematic. But I think it is an interesting idea that sometimes what looks like self-blame is not self-blame. They know it wasn’t their fault - it’s a way to process and make sense of it.”

Victim blaming narratives

Waikato University law lecturer Paulette Benton-Greig says this is because of a long history of victim blaming.

“My mother’s generation was very strong: If you got raped it was your fault. You had made a man think he could have sex with you. You had failed to conform to the image of female modesty and that was enough of a reason to get raped.”

These beliefs were held not that long ago - Benton-Greig’s mother is still alive - and so are strong ideas about appropriate female behaviour.

The other cultural belief fuelling the victim blaming narrative is that men are hardwired to get sex whenever they can. The stereotype that men pursue and women resist sets up fertile ground for victim blaming and it is constantly reinforced through pop evolutionary psychology.

On top of that narrative, we have rape culture and rape myths. Studies have shown that many people think a rape victim is to blame if she was wearing revealing clothing, if she did not fight her rapist, if she was walking alone in the dark, if she was drunk.

In a recent case in Ireland, a 27-year-old man was acquitted of raping a 17-year-old girl after his barrister drew attention to the teen’s lacy G-string during closing statements.

“You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front,” senior counsel Elizabeth O’Connell said, according to a report by the Irish Examiner.

Clothes, fake tan and contraception had also been used recently to discredit women in rape trials in Ireland, according to news reports of the case.

Later, hundreds of people marched in the streets of Dublin to protest the case, shouting “clothes are not consent”, some waving G-strings in the air.

Benton-Greig says women internalise these stories.

The policing of women’s behaviour and dress is everywhere, especially in the workplace, she says. Women pick up what the appropriate skirt length is so as to be soft and feminine, but appropriate. We know how to do our hair, our make-up, how to move and walk. We wonder if those shoes are too flat or the heel too high and if it is OK to wear boots.

Better reporting systems

So what can we do to shift the victim blaming narrative?

Gavey says the moment someone discloses an experience of sexual violence or harassment, the reaction they get from people has a significant impact on them.

“A validating response can really soften the impact, and of course disbelieving or minimising can really exacerbate the harm.”

Often reporting systems are concerned about the rights of the accused, with first responders erring on the side of remaining impartial rather than supportive, which can be alienating for victims.

Benton-Greig agrees. While police have made progress generally around hearing rape reports, not much progress has been made in the trial process, where victim blaming is still entrenched, she says.

‘Real’ victims are supposed to be traumatised and immediately tell someone and the police about the incident. But the reality is different.

Often victims are not immediately traumatised. They are not sure what happened and wonder if they are overreacting. Some don’t want to deal with it and try and get on with life. Those who tell friends and family don’t always get supportive responses. They wonder: “If I do report this, will I become the difficult woman? What will it mean for my career?”

Waikato University faculty of law lecturer Paulette Benton-Greig.
The lack of security and certainty around the reporting process puts a huge weight on women. It is awful for people to go through and everyone knows that.
Waikato University law lecturer Paulette Benton-Greig

Employers need to think really hard about their responsibility to keep their employees safe, rather than prioritising risk management, she says.

The Me Too movement has the potential to shift the cultural backdrop to victim blaming. Since it started in 2017, many women have reframed past experiences, sometimes putting difficult words such as rape, assault or harassment on memories they had tried to forget. Hearing other women’s stories and seeing sexual harassment being taken seriously helped many to understand what happened to them and others was not their fault.

* Name changed

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Journalist: Cecile Meier
Video Producer/Director:
Jo Raj
Videographer: Phil Johnson
Kathryn George
Editor: John Hartevelt