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Our society along with its social norms and constructs play a large role in shaping the way we experience the world. They can both enable and disable conversation about the many social issues that pervade our world. Many fail to realize the extent to which these norms affect the individual. This is particularly significant in a sexual assault survivor’s reality.
It seems that sexual assault has only just recently surfaced in our everyday conversations but has it not been an issue since the beginning of time? The blatant disregard and disrespect for consent is something that has left so many with scarring trauma. There are multiple ways in which the taboo surrounding sexual assault has manifested. This includes but is not limited to, victim-blaming, societal stigmatization, and self-stigmatization. What many do not realize, is that such occurrences have a direct effect on the survivor’s recovery journey. This article will discuss the aforementioned ways our society has ironically exacerbated the detrimental effects sexual assault and harassment have on survivors when in fact, it should be doing everything it can to help. There will be mention of sexual assault, the survivor’s road to recovery and the obstacles they face, as well as vulgar language, read with your own discretion and feel free to stop your read if you feel uncomfortable.
Photo by Keira Burton
Oftentimes, the first thing a survivor hears when they so much as mention their assault is questions. Not just one, but question after question after question. “Why didn’t you leave?” “Why didn’t you tell him to stop?” “Why didn’t you tell someone?” “Why were you even alone with him in the first place?” We need to turn our questioning away from the victim, and toward the perpetrator. In all of society’s mis-focused concerns, the real issue fails to be addressed and thus, the perpetrator is not held accountable. This reaction is deeply harmful because not only does it force the survivor to relive their assault, but it creates feelings of guilt that may fester within, causing them to invalidate their own experience. This is what has resulted in the normalization of conscious and unconscious victim-blaming.
According to the Canadian Resource Center for Victims of Crime, victim-blaming is “a devaluing act that occurs when the victim(s) of a crime or an accident is held responsible — in whole or in part — for the crimes that have been committed against them.” This can be done through social media, societal structures, policies, laws, and most frequently, through everyday conversations. The way in which this damaging habit has seeped into our quotidian life has only given survivors a harder time. Yet, why does it happen? Why do people feel the need to push the blame when survivors are already so burdened.
The root cause of this issue is embedded in the misrepresentation of survivors in the media or traditional beliefs. They are often portrayed as individuals who provoke and accept the violence of sexual assault. Many think of survivors as passive and rebellious, deserving of what they are subjected to. These preconceived notions result in an umbrella of judgment that further marginalizes the survivor, suppressing their likelihood of coming forward, and speaking out. At its core, victim-blaming serves as a way to distance the possibility of sexual assault from one’s self. Holding the survivor accountable for their own assault makes people feel as though this would never happen to them because they do not “act in a way that would provoke aggressors”. It is all in an effort to protect oneself. Yet, this only reveals how deeply fearful society is of this rampant issue that only seems to grow.
Our minds are filled with so many questions, but are we asking the right ones? We should be thinking about how we can work towards relieving what Today Singapore calls the “second wave of trauma” and how we can strip aggressors of power instead of contributing to it. In actual fact, this can be done in the simplest of ways. One such method includes eliminating language that objectifies or degrades women from our vocabulary. This includes, but is not limited to, words like “slut” or “cunt”. The latter is by definition, an alternative term for the vagina that gained its negative connotation in Shakespeare’s era. Why is a term for a female body part being used as an insult to women? Is this not a clear sign of the degradation many women are subjected to? There is no doubt that sexual assault is a traumatic incident that is not tied to any gender. Other ways that we can create a safer space is by speaking out if you hear anyone around you joking about or trivializing sexual assault or harassment, like rape, or holding aggressors responsible for their actions.
Of course, there are many things that we can do to eliminate this habit of victim-blaming in our society. Let’s taken the initiative to find out more and teach each other about what we can do to reach this goal.
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Stigmatization shapes a survivor’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It plays a significant role in halting a survivor’s recovery journey. The overwhelming stigma is a determining factor in whether a survivor decides to speak out. In our local context, 1 in 3 survivors in AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre ends up filing police reports. Stigma is present everywhere, at home, in school, and has even infiltrated our justice system. This results in pre-existing judgment causing people to doubt the validity of the survivor’s experience and even view them negatively because of it. Hence, stigma creates an unforgiving and hostile society towards sexual assault, directly impacting survivors.
However, societal stigma does not stop there. It further materializes and translates into self-stigmatization. Self-stigmatization is one of the biggest challenges of mental health. It causes an overwhelming sense of self-doubt and blame. Anyone can be affected by it and it often results in the invalidation of one’s own experience.
Avoiding this debilitating mindset starts at its root cause, the taboo society has created. This draws particularly from myths surrounding sexual assault that include beliefs like how “survivors provoke the aggressor that assaults them”, or “the survivor was naive and put themselves in that position”, to name a few. Such myths result in a survivor being met with a lot of doubt from whomever they disclose their assault to, if they even decide to do so at all.
Stigmatization and victim-blaming work hand in hand and the latter is a direct by-product of the former. The first step towards eliminating the two is awareness. Having the consciousness that such things exist and that they are silencing so many survivors all over the world would help us understand how important and urgent it is for us to move away from this attitude. Following awareness, next comes education. Taking the initiative to inform ourselves and our friends about the social structures and norms that work against survivors and vulnerable groups will create a more open and caring society. This will thus create the space for survivors to deal with resultant trauma in a more comfortable setting.
In closing, if you were to take one thing away from this article, it would be to remember that education, coupled with awareness equips us with the knowledge and skills to identify stigmatization and prejudice against survivors in our society so that we can speak out and take action against it. So, let’s start the conversation and learn more about sexual assault and the stigma surrounding it together.
If you are a survivor and are seeking help, get in touch with a professional:
Provides free services to survivors of all genders who have experienced Sexual Assault.
Monday to Friday | 10 am – 10 pm
+65 6779 0282
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+65 9139 701
Conversation with Alyzabeth Tang based on her first-hand experience.
“Victim Blaming” by the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime