Shifting the Focus
This is a featured article from TAASA’s Spring 2016 Newsletter, authored by Alesha Istvan, Prevention Director at the Texas Council on Family Violence, and Tim Love, Prevention Program Director at TAASA
Victim-blaming enables more violence
Movements to end all forms of interpersonal violence have long struggled to combat norms and attitudes that either blatantly or subtly, blame victims for experiencing violence. These attitudes are as pervasive in our communities as they are harmful to survivors of violence and our society as a whole.
Two examples of these harmful attitudes include:
- “If she didn’t provoke her partner all the time, they wouldn’t get so angry.”
- “Young respectable women need to think about what they wear and how they carry themselves so that they are not targets of harassment or assault.”
When conversations focus on the behavior of survivors rather than the perpetrators of violence and the norms and inequities that contribute to that violence, our efforts to end interpersonal violence remain at a standstill.
Here are some reasons these conversations are destructive:
- They focus attention on the wrong issue. By focusing the conversation on survivors of or potential targets for violence, communities lose sight of efforts that could create the positive changes in attitudes and social norms needed to end interpersonal violence.
- They insinuate that women are responsible for preventing their assault. The effect of this is that survivors are shamed and given the message that they are at fault if they fall victim to violence. This shaming contributes to a culture of silence around interpersonal violence. Who would want to come forward when their community believes they contributed to their victimhood? If we stop suggesting that people bring violence upon themselves and rather work to prevent people from committing violence, we can begin to remove the shame and shatter the culture of silence.
- They limit women’s freedom. Grounding the conversation on what women should do to avoid interpersonal violence sends the message that, “If you act and dress right, you won’t be targeted for violence.” This has the effect of restricting what women wear or say, or places they can go within their community. This message also provides a false sense of security that if you follow certain rules, you will be safe. If we are to end violence, we must instead promote the rights and freedoms of all members of our communities, hold people accountable for their acts of violence, and work to prevent perpetration of violence in the first place.
- They simultaneously excuse men’s violent behavior and strip them of their humanity. A focus on what survivors of and people potentially targeted for violence should have done or should do to limit their risk for being targeted lets perpetrators of violence, often men, off the hook. It presupposes that their violent behavior is somehow a natural response to someone else’s behavior. If we look at the examples of victim-blaming behavior given in the opening paragraph, this would mean that men can’t help but use physical violence in response to having their “authority” challenged in a relationship or can’t help but sexually assault someone if what they are wearing is “too provocative.” At its core, this attitude suggests that men are mindless creatures responding to the people around them with violence that they are helpless to control. Instead, we can encourage men to take responsibility for their actions and to question the messages they’ve received that tell them that violence is okay, and that domination is their birth-right. We can support men as they embrace, instead, their full humanity and the humanity of those around them so that they can become a part of the effort to end interpersonal violence.
- They imply that violence is here to stay. In the movement to end interpersonal violence, we understand that violence happens because there are attitudes, norms, and behaviors that contribute to it. While these attitudes, norms, and behaviors are deeply rooted, they are nevertheless changeable. Violence is preventable! Centering the conversation on how potential victims can prevent the violence perpetrated against them suggests that violence is here to stay, and all we can hope for is to avoid it on an individual basis. We must reject this cynical view if we are to make lasting change.
As a movement to end interpersonal violence, our approach to combat victim-blaming is to refocus the conversation from victim blaming to the true causes of interpersonal violence. We simultaneously address risk factors for violence such as unhealthy ideas about power and control, gender inequity, male entitlement, objectification of women, and harmful attitudes about sex and sexuality and promote protective factors such as connection, empathy, and gender equity. This is our work to create healthy, whole individuals, relationships, and communities.
TAASA is committed to promoting efforts to modify or eliminate the individual, relationship, community, and societal influences that result in perpetration, victimization, and bystander attitudes that allow sexual violence to occur. Learn more about primary prevention efforts at http://taasa.org/about/primary-prevention/.