How being conscientious bystanders can help us erode our victim-blaming culture one step at a time
By Lynn Chia
In late September last year, a judge presiding over a widely reported rape trial took the unusual step of criticising netizens for comments they made about a rape victim which have caused her distress.
Judicial Commissioner Aedit Abdullah mentioned his awareness of “disrespectful” online comments about a then 22-year-old intern who was raped after partying at nightspot Zouk on July 24, 2014.
When the case was first reported in March, disparaging online comments were made about the woman for, among other things, drinking with a man at the club.
While he did not specify the nature of comments referenced in his statement, he said that these comments should be “strongly discouraged” in this and other cases. He stated that it was “disrespectful” of the court process and the victims, and would discourage other victims from coming forward.
Victim blaming culture in Singapore
Victim-blaming comes in many forms and is often more subtle than we realise or recognise. This is not a new trend; similar issues such as rape culture, healthy masculinity and bystander intervention have been widely discussed but not emphasised or followed up in cultural dialogues.
Victim blaming applies to cases of rape and sexual assault, but also to other crimes. For example, where a pick-pocketing victim is chided for his decision to carry his phone in his back pocket. Whenever someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime, he or she is participating, to some degree, in the culture of victim-blaming.
There are no right or wrong answers, or a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter solution to victim-blaming culture. However, by understanding more about the roots and psychology behind victim-blaming, perhaps we will be able to improve and deepen our knowledge and understanding of this culture to effectively subvert these detrimental norms.
The roots of victim blaming
While victim-blaming isn’t entirely universal, since some individuals owe it to their upbringing or socio-economic background for their disinclination to victim-blame in some ways, it is a natural psychological reaction to crime.
Not everyone who engages in victim-blaming explicitly accuses someone of failing to prevent what happened to them. In its more understated forms, people may not always realize they’re doing it.
Psychologists have posited that victim-blaming could have been rooted in the just-world hypothesis. This is the belief that generally, the social environment is fair, such that people get what they deserve.
The concept was developed in part to help explain psychologists’ observations that to preserve a belief that the world is a just place, people will sometimes devalue a victim.
A just world is defined as a world in which people do get what they deserve. The just-world hypothesis is important because it suggests that people may treat certain victims badly, oddly enough, out of a desire to sustain their belief in justice.
The Just-World Hypothesis also suggests that people may go to great lengths to maintain a sense that the world is just, giving evidence in the process that the human motivation for justice is very strong; and when people want to believe that the world is just, and that terrible things won’t happen to them, empathy can suffer.
Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violence journal, explains that this desire to see the world as just and fair may be even stronger among Americans, who are raised in a culture that promotes the American Dream and the idea that we all control our own destinies. This is an interesting observation to note, as the mindset of being in control of our destinies is aligned to an Asian societal context as well, alongside strict modesty culture and conservative sexual attitudes.
Blaming victims for their misfortune is also partially a way to avoid admitting that something just as unthinkable could happen to you—even if you do everything “right.”
This persistent worldview of life being generally fair and that people deserve what they get because we are in control of their destinies, perhaps inculcated since childhood, results in an internal conflict when dealing or responding to crime. To avoid cognitive dissonance with an inherent worldview, it can be easier to blame the victims and to say that they ‘deserved’ the crime because they could’ve taken the necessary precautionary measures.
After having gone through counselling for my past sexual assault and harassment experiences, I realised that even those harbouring good intentions can sometimes contribute to victim blaming – such as therapists who work in prevention programs where women are given recommendations about how to be careful and avoid becoming the victim of a crime.
However, I’m not saying that telling someone to be careful or ensuring that precautionary measures are always victim blaming.
There is a difference between, on one hand, telling someone that he or she should not get intoxicated until they black-out at a party as a general safety measure, and on the other, asking if someone was intoxicated at the point of sexual assault.
Precautionary measures are helpful and necessary in the world we live in. The world, as we know it, is far from perfect. Crime, danger, murder, rape, robbery do exist and that’s why we need to take such measures. However, these shouldn’t be the justification to blame a victim on a crime against them.
In a Singaporean society, where the lines between embracing Western modernity and Asian conservatism are blurred, direct causes of victim-blaming can be difficult to pinpoint. In a study conducted by Harvard University published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, it was noted that people are more likely to be sympathetic to victims that they know well, and reading about crimes reported in the media can sometimes increase a tendency for victim-blaming.
“Just because, in hindsight, you can go back and say, ‘Well, you know, that person was clearly the person you should have avoided,’ that’s not the same as being able to say that any reasonable person should have been able to foresee that at the time,” Hamby stated.
At its core, victim blaming seems to stem from a combination of failure to empathize with victims and a fear reaction triggered by the human drive for self-preservation. This instinctive fear reaction can be difficult for people to recognise or control. Retraining may be possible, but it surely isn’t easy. In the bulletin , researcher Gilin emphasized the importance of empathy training and openness to seeing from another perspective other than our own, which helps people avoid falling into the trap of speculating about what a victim could have done differently to avoid the crime.
Accepting an unjust world
In building a deterrent culture against crime, it isn’t and most definitely shouldn’t be on the onus of the victim to ‘dress modestly’ or take measures to ‘avoid’ crime. Going beyond the precautionary measures to be made on the part of individuals, law enforcement and policies, it is of utmost importance that the society builds a culture that deters sexual harassment and assault – both crimes are completely unacceptable.
Crime is inevitable in an imperfect society. That is just how the world works. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t take precautionary measures or follow-up deterrent actions to help protect each other and improve the situation. Inevitability is no excuse for letting situations be.
We can and should be active, conscientious bystanders. We have that choice to intervene, however small or insignificant we may feel or believe our actions/speech to be. Making a choice – whether silent, or victim-blaming, or empowering – can change narratives.
Our actions, and inaction can and will affect someone else.
Regardless of our beliefs or what we want and choose to believe, the world is not a just place.
It takes hard work to accept that bad things sometimes happen, and that seemingly normal people sometimes do bad things, and also that bad things happen to good people.
Let us not let our cognitive biases and resistance against conflicting worldviews of pain, suffering and struggle perpetuate a culture that encourage crime and invalidate those who’ve been hurt. It shouldn’t have to reach the point of rape for us to empathize and be compassionate. Let’s reach out to those who’ve been hurt and help them in ways we know how, because hurt people will hurt other people.
The writer is one of the co-founders of The Standby Collective, a campaign aimed at fostering a collective community of bystanders to intervene effectively against sexual harassment.
If you need to talk to someone or speak to a trained volunteer and receive support through the phone, contact the Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) at AWARE. You can also make an appointment to speak to a social worker, counsellor, lawyer or ask for a befriender to accompany you to the police station, courts or hospital.
The Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) at AWARE provides free services to those who have experienced sexual assault, helping them deal with their experiences and make decisions about their next steps.
Sexual assault (including rape) can be highly traumatic. It can take a long time to recover after such a crime. If you have been a victim of sexual assault, please know that it is not your fault.
Recovering can take time and courage, but no one has to go through this experience alone. We work to create a supportive environment, and to provide a safe place to seek help.
All calls to and cases at the SACC are kept strictly confidential.
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