The Cognitive Dissonance of Internalized Victim-Blaming

This is a guest post that the author asked to be posted anonymously to allow for privacy while still sharing an important experience.

**Trigger warning for extensive discussion of sexual assault and victim-blaming**

I’m an ardent anti-sexual violence activist. I’ve read the feminist literature and participated in consciousness-raising activities. I’ve attended awareness rallies  and signed petitions. I advocate on behalf of survivors and I adamantly oppose victim-blaming myths, language, and practices. My position on the issue is pretty well summed up by the quintessential Take Back the Night chant, “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, ‘yes’ means yes and ‘no’ means no.”

But I have a confession.

I know a rape survivor. And I sometimes blame her for what happened. I feel like a horrible feminist, activist, and human being for even thinking it. But sometimes I blame her.

I think about how she had been going out to bars so much lately and how she’d had so many close calls already. Why didn’t she just stay home that night instead of acting like a stereotypical party girl?

I can’t believe she pre-gamed so hard and so fast just to save a little money and calm her social anxiety before going out. She always overdoes it and never learns her lesson.

I wonder why she went to that club where the bouncers were infamous for predatory behavior toward women. She should have known they wouldn’t help her if she needed it.

I ask myself repeatedly why she smiled and chatted politely with that obnoxious self-proclaimed “military stud.” I know he was pretty forceful and she didn’t want to be rude, but she really should have just told him to leave her alone from the start. Maybe then he wouldn’t have dragged her body like a rag doll onto the dance floor.

I really wish she would have watched her drinks better. If she had then maybe she would have been able to keep her eyes open and she would’ve been able to get her tongue to form words. I know her arms felt like jelly, I know he was literally holding her upright to keep her from slumping onto the floor, I know she tried everything she could to push him off of her, but couldn’t she have just, I don’t know, tried harder?

I feel nauseated when I think about how he hugged her afterward while using the pretense of friendly affection to get his hands all over her one last time. The image plays over in my head and I want to scream, “Do something! Make him stop!” Yes, I know, jelly arms. But come on! Who needs upper body strength and basic motor function when you have resolve? And she did have resolve, right?

I cringe when I think about how she still sometimes worries that photos will someday show up online, publicly documenting her violation while framing her as some sort of carefree and tipsy exhibitionist. But who is she kidding if she thinks she lives in a world where women can make mistakes and not fear public shaming?

I feel angry when I remember how for months after that night, instead of going sober altogether she kept up with the habits that had gotten her into that situation in the first place because she figured, well, what did it matter now. And how could she have the nerve to be upset just a few weeks later when she very narrowly avoided an even worse incident but by the benevolent intervention of a few strangers? She should have known that literal unconsciousness would be interpreted by some as fair game.

And I can’t forgive her for just turning and walking away when she saw him again a couple months later, outside that same club, chatting up some other young woman. I know it’s not her fault and his actions that night and any other are his responsibility alone. But I still can’t forgive her.

It makes me sick inside to think it, but every time I try to shut it out it just creeps up again. I know all about how rape culture minimizes violence and shifts blame from sexual predators onto victims. I know it’s bullshit.  And yet I still hear that tiny voice in the back of my mind.  If only she had…If only she hadn’t…If only, if only, if only. If only she’d just not gotten herself raped.

I told you it was a horrible confession. Do you think I’m a sufficiently terrible person yet? A failure as a feminist and an even worse advocate for survivors? What about when I tell you that the rape survivor I’m talking about, the one I just can’t stop blaming, the one I just can’t seem to forgive — is me?

I am the survivor.

She is me and I just can’t manage to stop blaming her for what happened. Me. I can’t stop blaming myself.

And that is the truly toxic nature of rape culture. As a feminist activist, I vehemently and wholeheartedly deconstruct and combat victim-blaming myths and language, all while still struggling with its hold over me. There’s an almost painful cognitive dissonance to it, really. That’s why I’m so outraged when I see rape culture being constantly perpetuated in the media, the justice system, or in my own life. Regardless of the intent, I know all too well how much damage is done by blame-shifting rape apologia. Because there’s no condescending admonishment that survivors haven’t already heard in their own minds over and over again as they try to push through the guilt, shame, and trauma and find their way toward self-forgiveness.

This internal struggle is part of what motivates me to advocate for survivors of sexual assault. To support and empower them to overcome their own internalized victim-blaming. To help them see past their “if onlys” and realize that the only “if only” that matters is “if only the perpetrator hadn’t decided to assault them.”

I fully reject victim-blaming and I say honestly to other survivors that no matter what they were doing or what they were wearing or how much they were drinking that what happened to them was not their fault and they did not deserve it. Absolutely, one-hundred percent, bottom line. And I hope that one day I can say that same thing to myself and believe it just as much as I believe it when I say it about survivors of sexual violence.

 

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